Monday, April 3, 2017

FRUIT – Psalm 92 (Colossians 1:3-14)

A sermon preached on April 2, 2017 at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Galveston.  To listen, go to the sermon page here.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been feeling my age lately.  I know I’m not terribly old, but I’ve been finding that my memory's not as sharp as it used to be.  Also, my memory's not as sharp as it used to be.[1]

On the other hand, I’m quite young compared to some of the people who are out running the Half Ironman over at Moody Gardens this morning.  They divide the competitors into age categories. Did you know there’s an age category for 80 and older?[2]  And there are people competing in that category![3]  The Ironman started today at 7am with a 1.2-mile swim in Offats Bayou, followed by a 56-mile bike ride past the San Luis Pass at the east end of the island to Surfside Beach and back to Moody Gardens, and then finished off with a 13.1-mile run.[4]  By now some of them have already had more activity than some of us will have in a month or more! 

One of the competitors in today’s race is Lew Hollander.  He’s 85.  When he was 82, he made the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest triathlon competitor.  Lew says, "I’m not unusual. The only thing I have going for me is persistence. I just do what Lew can do and I’m not too concerned about what other folks do better or worse…"[5]

With that in mind, Psalm 92’s statement in verse 14 about bearing fruit in old age doesn’t seem too hard to imagine.  Lew Hollander says the key is persistence, and I think our psalm writer would agree.  Psalm 92 gives us some instruction about how to apply that persistence, and what sort of fruit we can expect.  We see in this psalm that our praise bears fruit – it keeps us close to God, helps us see his work, and makes us joyful witnesses.

Psalm 92, in most Bible versions, is divided into three parts.  The first part is praise.

“It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to God’s name….” (v1)

It is good to praise God.  It takes our eyes off ourselves and our problems, and gets us looking at God’s goodness instead.  It changes our perspective and our attitude.  God designed us to worship him.  That’s why the Westminster Catechism says that our chief purpose in life is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.  That’s worship.  Psalm 92 talks specifically about singing, but we also worship in our prayers, in our reading the Bible and learning about God, in our working and serving, and in telling others about God.  We worship whenever we are using the gifts and talents that God has given us, and thanking him.

The psalmist is praising both in the morning and at night, thanking God for his constant love and faithfulness.  Maybe you do this already.  If not, why not give it a try?
  • ·        In the morning, thank God for a new day and for bringing you through the night. 
  • ·        At bedtime, thank God for bringing you through the day.

I was reminded this week of the importance of saying things out loud.  Psalm 92 says not only that it’s good to praise God, but also that it’s good to proclaim those praises, to say them out loud.  There are two benefits to saying them out loud:
  • 1.     So that others can hear them and join in the praise
  • 2.     So that we can hear ourselves saying them

When we say things out loud they become more tangible because we become more physically involved by saying the words and by hearing ourselves saying them.  Then our brains take in these words and process them differently, and the words stick with us better.
It is indeed good to praise God, morning and night!

The second part of Psalm 92 talks about God’s works.  (O Lord, what great works you do! V5) As we worship God, especially through saying thanks, we see God’s works more clearly.  In this psalm, as in many other psalms, God’s works are seen to include conquering evil.  We know that this is what Jesus accomplished with his death on the cross and resurrection.  We also know that through our faith in Jesus, the Holy Spirit helps us to conquer the evil that is within us.

The third part tells of our response, and this is my favorite part of this psalm. (“But the godly will flourish like palm trees and grow strong like the cedars of Lebanon.” V12)  One reason is that we are talking about trees again.  Back in Psalm 1, the psalm that sets the theme for the entire book of psalms, we saw the tree that stays near its water source, the river.  Some of you reminded me the day we talked about this psalm that there is also the tree of life in the Garden of Eden in the beginning of the Bible in Genesis, and the tree is there again at the end of the Bible in Revelation. 

Psalm 92 is encouraging us to remember that healthy, thriving trees stay close to the water of life, stay close to God, just like Jesus says in John 15 – remain in me.  A branch cannot bear fruit unless it stays connected to the vine, and we cannot thrive unless we stay connected to Jesus.  In fact, he adds, “apart from me you can do nothing” (v5).  Apart from Jesus, we can only do what we have in our own strength to do, but connected to Jesus, working under Jesus’ power, the power of the Holy Spirit, we can do far more than we can ask or imagine (Eph. 3:20).

This is why the psalmist can say in verse 14, “in old age they still bear fruit.”  Old trees that stay close to the water are still fresh and flourishing, still green and vibrant, even though they are old.  Staying close to the water is what is being demonstrated in the beginning of the psalm – continuing to praise God and give thanks to him.  Continuing to reach out to God for strength and life.

What happens to trees that don’t?  Have you ever had a tree specialist tell you a tree needs to be cut down when that tree looked perfectly fine to you?  And then you cut that tree down and discover that although the tree looked perfectly fine on the outside, you find that the inside was all rotten.  Sometimes you even find that the tree is completely hollow inside.  In areas that have had severe drought, this is what happens.  When we lived in South Carolina, there was a drought for about five years and we had to cut down a bunch of trees that had gotten rotten from the lack of water. Trees that get rotten have to be removed because they won’t be strong enough in a storm to stay up, and in a storm you can’t control where the tree will fall.

We’re kind of like trees.  When we’re not staying connected to that living water that feeds our souls, we can get unhealthy, too.  We might look fine on the outside, but when the storms of life come, we aren’t prepared to withstand the storm.  But if we stay connected, keep letting God feed our souls, we can thrive into old age and keep on being fruitful.

The actor George Burns made the most of life in his old age.  He was 80 when he won an academy award for The Sunshine Boys in 1975.  At that time, he was the oldest person to ever win an Oscar.  Still working a dozen years later, he got to play a younger character.  In the movie 18 Again (1988), he played an 81-year old, but he was actually 92.  He said: “You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.”[6]  Burns lived to be 100!  Probably still smoking those cigars right up to the end.

One reason we remain fruitful into old age is that it’s not our abilities that matter as much as the strength of God in us.  In Galatians 5:22, Paul says that the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control.  These are the fruit of the Spirit, not the fruit of our efforts. We can't produce those on our own. The fruit comes only as we submit our lives to God and let the Spirit control us.[7]

Psalm 92 ends by telling us in verse 15 what in simpler terms our fruit will be:

They will declare, “The Lord is just! He is my rock! There is no evil in him!”

We become witnesses.  We say and show that God is righteous and faithful and good – in our words and our actions.

There’s an example of this in the movie War Room (2015).  It’s a movie about a family with problems, and an older woman, Miss Clara shows the young woman, the wife and mother in that family, how to become a prayer warrior.  The more the young woman prays, the more the problems that seem impossible and insurmountable get resolved.  Miss Clara is a fruitful old tree who passes on her faith to the next generation.

If you search the Bible for the word fruit, you’ll find it in Genesis when God tells Adam not to eat the fruit, but you’ll also find it in God’s call to Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:22,28).  There were a lot less people back then.  To get from there to here, a lot of babies needed to be born.  God repeats this call to Noah after the flood (Gen 9:1).  They needed to repopulate the earth after everybody got wiped out, so they really needed to be fruitful and multiply. 

God says it again to Abraham, this time in the form of a promise – you will be fruitful and multiply – I will make you a great nation (Gen 17:6).  The book of Genesis ends with the family of Israel having moved to Egypt and settled in to survive the drought that had come over the land, and being fruitful and multiplying.  The book of Exodus picks up where Genesis left off, telling us that the nation of Israel HAD been fruitful and multiplying – doing it quite well, actually (Ex 1:7).  God had blessed them, as promised….which leads to a whole new set of problems, but it works out because God had a whole new set of solutions.

In the New Testament, that great mandate to be fruitful and multiply becomes the great commission, go and make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19).  In the book of Revelation, the end of the story where we find that tree (Rev 22:2), we also find that there are people there from all the nations praising God (Rev 7:9).  The result of fruitful obedience to the great commission is that heaven is full of people singing joyful praise to God, just like what’s happening in Psalm 92.  Our joyful praise is our witness.  Joyful praise is infectious.  

Jesus says in John 12, “When I am lifted up I will draw all people to myself.”  He’s talking literally about being lifted up on a cross, but he’s also talking about what happens when we lift him up in praise.

Our joyful praise, whether we sing it or say it, helps us to be refreshed and renewed, helps us to thrive, and helps to draw others to the object of our praise, Jesus Christ.  We can do that at any age, but the more we’ve been through, the more we have seen, the greater our witness becomes when we are still praising God.

And so my prayer for us all is the same as Paul prayed for the Colossians in the:
May you…” lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. 11 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully 12 giving thanks to the Father” 

Monday, February 27, 2017

Guidance and Glory

My star word for this year is guidance.  This word has made me pay more attention to opportunities for receiving guidance.  Maybe that’s why there seem to be a plethora of people lately saying things to me that are the same as what I say in sermons and Bible studies and meetings.  At a workshop last week, the leader told us about her theological ‘three-legged stool” – 1) In all things give thanks, 2) God uses everything for good, and 3) God makes everything new.  Those three "legs" are in many of my sermons and yet I so needed to hear them said back to me that day.

I get to hear my own words said back to me on Facebook as well, in the “memories” feature.  I’m often amazed at the wisdom I’ve posted in the past and forgotten.  Today a song I posted seven years ago was among the memories.

Every Time I Breath / Big Daddy Weave

I remember the day I first heard that song on the radio.  I marveled at the passion for God in this song and wished I had that same depth of passion.  As I hear it today, it stirs up that depth of passion that I have along the way come to find in my own heart, and I’m thankful as I realize that my prayer was answered.  But I can also see that there has been pain involved in getting here, pain that has been instrumental in opening up my heart.

Hearing this song reminds me about another prayer that’s even older, from long before I knew I would become a pastor, when I had only begun to know God in a more personal way, and I told God I would do whatever he needed me to do, as long as I could keep following and pleasing him.  That was also when I first began to want to help others to know God more personally.

There are so many things we pray for people – for health and healing and safety, for success and stability – but how often do we pray for people to have God moments?  How often are we asking God to help someone have deep, personal, life changing, heartfelt encounters with him?  Or even more than encounters – ongoing, thriving life lived in the strength and nearness of his glorious presence?

This past week many pastors preached about the story of Peter, James and John on the mountain with Jesus, watching Jesus become transformed so that they vividly saw his divinity.[1]  So often the message is that we can’t stay there, we have to go down the mountain.  But can’t we just stay there a moment longer and enjoy it first?  And doesn’t God go with us down the mountain?  Isn’t everything we do after that better if we let it soak in first and then let God go with us?

It is my prayer that everyone would know the deep joy of God’s presence so that, like Peter, they want to stay there, and in a way that the Big Daddy Weave song would resonate with them, too, and overflow into all the parts of their lives.

But I wonder if this works the same for everyone.  Gary Thomas, in his book Sacred Pathways[2], tells how we all find God in different ways.  A song will not speak to everyone.  The same words will not resonate with everyone.  I get that.  Really, my prayer is not that the song would resonate, but that everyone would find the path that works for them so that they would know the joy that is described in that song, that they would be able to say, “God, I am so in love with you.”  Helping people find this is my goal as a pastor, my hope for my children, my prayer for my friends and for the world.

As you read this, know that means you, too.  I hope that you would know God’s love deeply enough to be deeply in love with him, because he’s deeply in love with you.  Jesus came to help us see that.  It’s a challenging, life changing, sometimes painfully strong love.  May you find time daily to bask in the glory shining from God’s face and enjoy his goodness and renewal and give thanks.

[2] Gary Thomas, Sacred Pathways (Zondervan, 2010)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Why I Like Love Stories

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
 --Ephesians 5:1-2

What kind of books do you like to read?  I read a wide variety of genres, and a lot of non-fiction because I'm a pastor and it's sort of a job requirement, but when I just need to relax and recharge, I like love stories, and here's why:

1.  Love stories remind me to feel.  When I'm running around doing business, my head supersedes my heart.  I'm all work and no play.  I start to forget what it feels like to love, to have passion, to care deeply.  Love stories remind me to let my heart be a part of my thoughts and my actions.

2.  Love stories remind me to live passionately, and that passionate living is not easy but it's worth the trouble.  The main character in a love story I read recently expresses her frustration with only having a part-time relationship:
"I want it all, not just an hour a night of feeling like I'm the queen of the whole world.  I want the arguing.  I want the slow kisses after breakfast and the struggle to see if we can afford to buy something we really want.  I want to look at what I've done with my life with pride when I get to the end."*
She wants to live with passion.  Her words remind me what it feels like to give life my all, and especially to give God my all.  Love stories remind me that I don't want to live only halfway committed or halfway engaged, even though so often that's so much easier and leaves me much less vulnerable.

3. Love stories remind me that relationships are tricky but worth the trouble.  The plot of every romance novel involves some kind of complication.  The only way to solve the issue is to walk through it.  Things may not always work out as quickly or as nicely in real life as they do in stories, but sometimes they do.  If we don't try, they don't work out at all.

4. Love stories remind me what's important.  When life turns upside down and it's hard to know what's right or what's real, love stories remind me that the Beatles were wise when they sang, "All you need is love..."**  God is love (1 John 4:8) and Jesus told us that love is what matters most in the greatest commandment:  "Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbors as yourselves."  Remembering to put love at the top of my priorities reminds me to keep God at the top, too.  Remembering love reminds me how important my family is, and the importance of relationships with people.

5. Love stories remind me of the greatest love story of all - God loved us so much that he gave his only son to die for us so that we might have a relationship with him now and forever!  The Bible is one great big love story about God's love for humanity. Whether or not we are feeling the love at this very moment, God's love for us is constant and faithful.  Jesus sacrifice on the cross for us is a vivid display of the depth of God's love.

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. --Ephesians 3:17-19

May you know the blessings of God's amazing love today and every day!

* By Carolyn Brown
** My favorite version of the Beatles' song is the one in the movie Love Actually (2003)

Monday, February 6, 2017

Psalms & Star Words

The Lord says, “I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you." --Psalm 32:8

On January 1 we began reading through the psalms – one psalm per day.  On January 8 we received star words to ponder and consider how God might be guiding us in relation to our words.  Initially I did not consider how these two might be connected – psalms and star words – but it has been my experience so far that the psalms have continued to inform my pondering about my star word.  Has that also been the case for you?

It should not surprise us that this is happening.  After all, the psalms are prayers, and prayers are an important part of our pondering.  We are seeking God about our star words and the Holy Spirit is using the words of the Bible, the psalms, to communicate with us, which is exactly how the Bible tells us the Holy Spirit works.

“But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.  He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.” (John 16:13-14)

My star word is “guidance,” and pondering this word has already caused me to be more intentional about seeking God’s guidance.  I am also noticing how often in the psalms we are assured that God will give us guidance.  Whatever your word is, I am certain that God has guidance for you, too.  I pray that we will all have listening and willing hearts, so that we might hear and do whatever God is telling us.

The abundance of God’s guidance is one way that I am seeing God’s goodness through my star word.  How are you seeing God’s goodness displayed in your word?

Let’s continue to encourage one another in seeking God and finding his goodness by sharing our stories.  You may send them by email, or post them on Facebook , or tweet with the hashtag #wpcstarwords, or comment below.

If you would like to receive the psalm daily reading plan and/or a star word, comment below.

May God continue to bless us as we seek him with all our hearts and give him thanks.

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Melissa

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Life Jenga

I've been pondering lately all the ways we play Jenga.  Of course, there's the real way with the wooden blocks.  I like the older versions in which the blocks are primary colors, but there's also something to be said for the giant-sized versions that could actually cause bodily harm if you don't get out of the way when they fall.  Jenga is a game that mimics life, especially if in life we do things that aren't entirely wise or have the potential for undesirable consequences.  It's basically tempting fate, rolling the dice, taking a risk.

At my house, we play trash Jenga.  I'll bet many of you do, too.  This is when you keep putting stuff on top of the wastebasket, even though it's full.  The game is lost when finally the pile is so big that something slips off and hits the floor.  The rule at our house is that whoever put that last piece of trash on the pile has lost the game and must then take out the trash.

I also sometimes play migraine Jenga.  There are some things I avoid like the plague because I know they will definitely bring on a migraine - any kind of alcohol, onions, yeasty bread, canned food.  There are a bunch of foods that only sometimes trigger a migraine, especially if I'm careful not to have more than one of them at a time.  Having more than one might be ok, but add a third and I'm really playing Jenga, and four is about like taking blocks out of the very bottom of the stack even when it's super likely that everything will fall.  Some of these foods are things I really like to eat, or are hard to avoid when I'm not the one cooking, and so I'll knowingly play Jenga.  The game is lost when the migraine arrives.

In a variety of ways, we play life Jenga, continuing to do things we know we shouldn't, hoping the tower won't fall quite yet.  We keep on spending, loading up our schedules, eating poorly, going without sleep, skipping exercise, pushing our limits, putting off the inevitable.  Eventually it will catch up with us, but for now we can keep on playing.

Proverbs 19:3 says, "A person’s own folly leads to their ruin, yet their heart rages against the Lord."

We have no one to blame but ourselves.  We know the consequences, and yet we keep on.  Is it a game to us, like Jenga?  Or a bad habit we just can't break?

Paul says in Romans 7:15 "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do."  We know we need to do better, but so often we don't.  We keep on playing Jenga.  

So what are we to do?  Paul gives us an answer:  "I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different." (Romans 7:24-25 Message Version)

Even this, our relationship with God, is a way we play Jenga...putting off reading the Bible or praying or going to church.  The 3rd century emperor Constantine was impressed by Christianity enough to make it the state religion, but he didn't make it a part of his own life until he was near death.  Spiritual Jenga.

God is so good.  I'm thankful for God's grace shown to us through Jesus Christ, and I'm thankful for the Holy Spirit reminding me that I need to stop (if only I'll listen). I'm thankful for medication that stops the migraine.  And I'm really thankful for extra stretchy reinforced trash bags.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Psalm 29

Psalm 29 is one of my favorites. Maybe it's because I'm fascinated by the physics of sound and its power.  Maybe it's because I'm reminded that God speaks in such a great variety of ways.  

I've written about God and sound before here.

I'm preaching on Psalm 29 today (listen here) at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Galveston, but as is so often the case, I'm unable in the shortness of a sermon to fully explore all there is to explore in this idea of God's voice and God's power.

Looking at Facebook and Twitter and the news today, there are so many loud voices.  There is so much fear and concern and uncertainty.  It's a scary time for so many and none of us really know how this all turns out.  I want to yell into the chaos and get everyone to be quiet for a moment a let God's peace still the fears.  I want to sing everyone a lullaby that has been my mantra in tough times:

I won't be afraid of the future
Or carry the weight of the past
I'll be still and know that you are God
You're love will always last 1

If music isn't for you, then maybe remembering this prayer will help:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, 
the courage to change the things I can, 
and the wisdom to know the difference. 
--Reinhold Niebuhr 2

Psalm 29 ends with a reminder, an assurance:

Share your experience in the comments:

How does God speak the loudest to you? 

How is God speaking to you today?

1 I couldn't find a recording but here's a chart of the whole song

2 Find the rest of this prayer here:

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Weltschmerz and the Golden Rule

Originally published on January 21, 2012

It’s been said that Generation Y is the apathetic generation.  I don’t know if that’s really true, but maybe we, like they, are suffering from:
 weltschmerzAudio Pronunciation\VELT-shmairts\   noun, often capitalized
 1 : mental depression or apathy caused by comparison of the actual state of the world with an ideal state[1]

This morning my husband announced that if someone were to ask him what party he is registered to vote under that he’d have to answer, “I’m in the disillusioned party.”  I imagine he’s not alone in that.  Like many this time of year, we are using the mute button on the television much more than usual to avoid listening to all the campaign ads.  I suppose the polls show that all the mudslinging works, but considering how much we’re all complaining about it, you’d think they’d try something else.  On the other hand, maybe in our current post-Christian state, we actually think mudslinging is ok?

Ron Paul, in response to Gingrich in one of the South Carolina debates, suggested that we should do unto others as we would have them do to us.[2]  Of course he’s right in that, and maybe our weltschmerz comes from wishing that were how we we’re all behaving.  It’s what we’re preaching from our pulpits, or at least what we should be preaching.  But Ron Paul got booed for suggesting that this golden rule could be applied to foreign policy.  Sure, being nice isn’t always fun, but isn’t it still the right thing to do? 

I’m not suggesting we should all be running around hugging everyone and everything, even bare naked penguins, although yesterday was National Penguin Awareness Day[3] …but maybe it’s time to be the country that’s known for being Christian because we’re so good at helping each other out and being respectful of each other.  Isn’t that what our mothers taught us?  Our campaigns would sure be different, and maybe the rest of the world wouldn’t be so anti-American after awhile.

Sorry, I got off in a little bit of weltschmerz.