An idea came to mind as I listened to the sermon last week. What if we wrote notes of faith, love, hope, and encouragement to our neighbors like Paul did with the Thessalonians?
Though social media posts, emails, texts and other electronic connections exist, there is something different about receiving a handwritten letter. What is it about handwritten letters that warms our hearts and makes a lasting impact. When I receive a handwritten letter, these thoughts come to mind:
As a young girl I remember my grandparents sharing about how they met. My grandfather was stationed on a Navy Destroyer in the Pacific Ocean during WWII. His bunk mate was receiving letters of encouragement from a young woman from his hometown of Anderson, Indiana. My grandfather asked his bunk mate if he could ask her to start writing him as well. Lonely and in the middle of the ocean facing unknowns every day, the idea of hearing something from back home sounded pretty good. The rest is history: they began exchanging letters and fell in love.
Sending and receiving written letters is not as common today. We don’t often hear stories like my grandparents’ anymore. My children occasionally receive cards in the mail. I rarely write handwritten letters myself and it’s a rare practice for most people I know but this uncharted territory is a good reminder of the importance of heartfelt communication.
How will our children, grandchildren, and history books recall this unique season? Will they remember the political debates, the economic uncertainty, or the stockpiling of toilet paper and cleaning supplies? What if they found letters saved from friends and family that were filled with words of Gospel hope and encouragement? That would transform their understanding of how God was working during this period.
Let’s be the church and share words of Gospel hope with each other. To begin you just need to get out a pen and paper and start writing. You can write to medical professionals you know who are working in hospitals, or to those who are alone and isolated, or to a child that you regularly taught in your KidzMin class. Maybe someone comes to mind who does not yet have a relationship with God. A letter to them could be a great way to point them towards hope in Jesus.
If you or your children would like to send a handwritten letter but don’t know who to write to, please contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org; (757) 768-8434). I have been compiling a list of people to write letters to and would love your help. If you have someone I could add to the list, please also let me know.
I hope we can all gather together again soon. I greatly miss our church family and especially all the KidzMin children, parents and volunteers. As we wait for restrictions to be lifted, consider who God is putting on your heart to reach out to and share his love with that person through some words of encouragement. As God instructs us in Psalm 96:3, "Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.”
Hope is a pretty terrific thing to have, especially now. Hope, when it gets a running start, can do a flying leap over a quarantine, a hospital stay or a job loss, and help us land on our feet, emotionally, in some imagined future. Hope is a ventilator that keeps our faith breathing when life knocks the wind out of us.
Hope is terrific. But it is also tricky. Common hope, the garden variety kind, is pretty specific. Hope thinks in pictures. Hope is sure we will get that job. Jane will pass that biopsy with flying colors. Joe will come back home and all will be well. Common hope is about expectations, and pretty specific ones.
I often fuel my faith with this common hope. What is hope, after all, but faith focusing on the future. And the more specific that focus, the stronger the faith, right?
Maybe not. Common hope fueled by specific expectations can let us down. When Jesus lost his friend Lazarus, Jesus was blamed for violating expectations. The common and understandable hope of Mary and Martha was that Jesus would show up while Lazarus was sick and save him. His disciples expected Jesus to be a better friend to Lazarus, one that would show up on time and not three days late.
Jesus redefines hope in the story of Lazarus. When he asks Martha whether she believes in the resurrection, she shares her very precise and theologically correct hope that bodies will rise on the last day, and only on the last day. Jesus doesn’t reject her statement but he does move the hope conversation from expectations to expectancy. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” - (John 11:25-26) Jesus is telling Martha that hope doesn’t need to wait until the end of time. When Jesus is present, anything can happen, at any time.
Biblical hope happens when our future focus moves from a list of imagined outcomes and detects a sovereign savior on the move. Common hope sees a grocery list of good things. Biblical hope sees one like the ancient of days present, active and making things new.
Lois and I re-watched one of our favorite rom-coms the other night, ”While you were Sleeping.” It tells the story of a single woman (played by Sandra Bullock) with lots of expectations like marriage and travel whose life is turned upside down by a crazy accident and an even crazier misunderstanding of her role in that accident. Everything culminates in an unexpected but gloriously satisfying outcome after all the old dreams seem to break in pieces. One of the last lines of the movie goes something like this: “Sometimes life doesn’t turn out like we expected. Sometimes it turns out better.”
God allows times of testing, times of crisis to move us from expectations to expectancy. He wants our hope to change its focus from the checklist on the fridge to the king in the room.
So what should we expect when we are expecting? Joe may or may not come home. Jane’s biopsy may or may not be good news. I may lose that job. Biblical hope, however, sees the future as more than a shiny wish-list. It sees a compassionate messiah.
In Lauren Daigle’s song “Trust in You” she sings about the movement from expectations to expectancy:
“ When You don’t move the mountains
I’m needing You to move
When You don’t part the waters
I wish I could walk through
When You don’t give the answers
As I cry out to You
I will trust, I will trust, I will trust in You”
There is nothing wrong with parted waters, moved mountains and timely answers. What should really light up my hope, however, is the presence of the one capable of all of the above but who may have something better up his sleeve.
Well, here we are, stuck inside with the people we live with, or maybe that means being stuck inside alone, unsure of when this time might end. We call this Quarantine, but I think God calls it an invitation. In the midst of busy news articles, and sometimes overwhelming reports, God has somehow quieted my heart. This has not been an instant change, but a continual process of surrender to the one I recently discovered as a God of many mysteries.
I just finished a book during this quarantine, which those of you who know me, know that’s a big accomplishment. I tend to read five books all at the same time, and never finish any of them. Maybe I should also add I have had this book for more than a couple years! But, I digress.
Sara Hagerty, in her book Unseen, writes about our hidden moments with God, and the effect they take on our souls. In one of her last chapters, she writes about how we tend to seek God in the ways that we already know him. If we understand he is a God of grace, we will come to him when we need reminding of that grace. If we know he is a God of love, we will seek him out to help us to love those around us. These are all beautiful attributes of our Father, but what about those parts of God that we don’t yet know or understand? If I don’t understand God as healer, will I go to him as healer or will I seek something inside myself for healing? If I don’t understand God as sovereign, will I go to him when I need to let go of control or will I try to grab a hold of everything I think I can control?
If you are like me, a lot of your hidden moments with God are spent seeking him in the attributes that you know of him. But, what about the attributes that have yet to take a hold of your heart? As Sara Hagerty writes in her book, “we seek the familiar in our Father, and we string all those attributes together and call them God. And when we pray from this place of familiarity, instead of being alert for how the truth of how He really is will likely upend our human understanding, we end up watching for confirmation of what we already know.” (Pg. 204)
When I seek God only in the ways that I already know him to be, how much of him am I missing out on? In Ephesians 3:17-19 Paul prays for a greater fullness in our experience of God. “[ I pray ] that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Being rooted and grounded in love means we don’t have to force ourselves to see God in new ways, but we can trust that he will reveal himself to us in his own time, and our only job is to be present.
We are not the only ones who have missed out on experiencing the fullness of God. Sarah Hagerty writes “The faith leaders in Jesus’ day were so familiar with and attached to their version of religion and their expectation of the Messiah that they put nails through the hands of the best thing that ever happened to them. Even Jesus’ closest companions were trapped in their ways of thinking and seeing things. He repeatedly gave them insights about the kingdom and what was to come, but they couldn’t see beyond the temporal—the visible and the familiar.” (Pg. 202)
Don’t read this and let your mind go to creating a new spiritual checklist, but instead see the hope and the beauty of our all-encompassing Father. He wants to reveal himself to us in new ways, and to be seen as greater in our lives.
My prayer for us during this time of uncertainty as we figure out a “new norm” is that the mysteries of God would be revealed to our hearts. May the Father meet with us and reveal characteristics of himself that we don’t yet understand. The first way we can discover more of who the Father is, is to ask!
We have all been learning a lot this last month. Many of us have been learning how to shop in new ways. We are learning how to keep ourselves safe and protected when we venture out into public. Some are learning the joys and pains that come with educating their kids at home. Many people are learning new talents, like baking bread or carpentry (as I type this, I can hear the saw of my best friend next door building a playhouse for his son). But above all we are being given an opportunity to learn about God during this unique season of our lives.
Recently, I was talking to an old college roommate/friend on the phone. Like most of our conversations, this one was centered around what we had been reading in the Bible. He has been reading Genesis and some things were not sitting well with him. One story in particular that was bothering him was the story of Abraham sending his servant to find a wife for his son, Isaac. Specifically, my friend did not appreciate the way Rebekah was treated like an “animal” (his words) in Genesis 24:47. He went on to explain how demeaning it was for the servant to put a ring in her nose. “That’s what we do to oxen to control which direction they pull the plow.” (Again, his words.) While I didn’t interpret the text the way my friend did, I couldn’t articulate why this “nose ring” wasn’t a bad thing. And then it hit me like a lighting bolt! INNER-BIBLICAL EXEGESIS! I had just learned in a seminary class that later Old Testament authors would sometimes reference previous Old Testament authors and we can use their writings to help us interpret difficult passages of scripture. So I began to explore other places in the Old Testament that may have made references to “nose rings.”
In Ezekiel 16, God is speaking of His love for His people. His people are described as His bride in this passage. In verses 11 and 12 we read the following, “And I adorned you with ornaments and put bracelets on your wrists and a chain on your neck. And I put a ring on your nose and earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head” (emphasis mine). And there it was, Ezekiel uses the symbol of a ring in the nose to describe how much God loves his bride. That is the love that Abraham’s servant is telling Rebekah that Isaac will have for her!
My hope is that you see two things. First, that God loves you. God loves you the way a husband loves his bride. He showers you with gifts. It may not always feel like a honeymoon but you have a Savior who has lavishly poured himself out for you. Lastly, I pray you see that God is giving you an opportunity to grow your knowledge of who He is during this season. We are all learning many new things. How about putting God on the top of that list? Then pray that He would give you opportunities to share with others what you have learned. We certainly need more truth being shared in this season!
While the Coronavirus makes its way across our world, impacting nearly every country on the globe, another plague is following in its wake: anxiety levels are rising fast as people realize that their sovereignty over their future is an illusion. In America, where the pervading ethos is one of determining our own destiny and controlling our circumstances through hard work and right living a virus like this shakes us to our very foundations. It strikes everyone from the wealthiest and most well-known (think Tom Hanks) to those whom society has cast aside (think the elderly in a Washington state elder-care facility).
Christians are not immune to anxiety and worry. If we live in this world, we know we will have trouble – and worry at the threat of trouble is a human response but one our Lord has given us ways of dealing with.
I’ve had my own moments of anxiety and struggle over the last couple of weeks. On the lower end of the anxiety spectrum, I’ve had to deal with feelings of protectiveness towards my toilet paper. What is it about toilet paper that this has become one of the most coveted commodities in American society at this moment of national crisis? A quick google search for the psychology of toilet paper hoarding gave me this answer. "[A] human pitfall that makes the virus dangerous is selfishness…We do what is selfishly good for us and not what’s good for other people" (Jeremy Hobson and Lynsey Jeffery from NPR's Here & Now). In short, no one wants to be without toilet paper! When a friend of mine with a cadre of kids let me know she was out of toilet paper, my first response was not to bring her some of my own. I had to wrestle with myself to get there. “What if I and my family can’t find anymore? What if we actually are reduced to using magnolia leaves.” Ultimately, however, I preached the Gospel to myself, reminding myself that in order to find my life, I must lose it… and yes, that applies to toilet paper shortages too. I brought her a six pack of toilet paper and drew comfort from the mounds of magnolia leaves in my backyard as well as from the conquest – at least in this instance – of my own selfish instincts.
More significant has been my anxiety over my 22-year-old son who works as an intern in Goma, Congo in the heart of Africa, a place not known for its adherence to the rule of law or its measured response to crises. As we considered bringing him home to “safety”, the borders began to close and it quickly became apparent that instead of finding himself at home, he might find himself in an airport thousands of miles away. Best for him to stay put. But the what-ifs started to wreak havoc on my heart and peace. “What if food shortages take hold?” “What if unrest and violence ensue from the food shortages?” “What if he gets the virus without good medical help nearby?” “What if he DIES?” That’s when I hit the floor, listing each one of my fears to God, begging Him to hear the prayers of a mother and casting every care on Him. (1 Peter 5:7) And then a funny thing happened. The Lord lifted my burden. Nothing had changed in my or my son’s circumstances, but the Sovereign Lord, who calls me His own, who loves the son He gave me even more than I ever could, spoke peace to my heart. Now to be sure, we are in touch with our son every day just to hear how things are going. I pray for him constantly and have asked others to do so as well. But anxiety is no longer ruling my heart.
As each of us struggles with our fears and anxieties in the midst of a new and untested reality, may we – may I – remember that we have a God to whom we can pour out our every concern, who is waiting to listen, and longing to lift our burdens and guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus with a peace that surpasses understanding. (Phil 4:7)
I hate not getting to swim. Those muscles were used to being worked. It felt good to leave the pool out of breath and spent. Mabel and I walk daily but it’s just not the same. I need a regimen that gets the heart going a bit more.
Our current isolation requires some new spiritual muscle regimens, doesn’t it?
That’s what Sunday’s sermon was about: Both new regimens (of service) and the reason for them (the vision of Jesus serving us). Our shorter format wisely calls for shorter sermons. But it is frustrating to leave out some things we want to say. So here goes.
One reason we want to keep Jesus’ commandment (like serving others) is that, when we do, we experience more of Him. He put it this way in John 15:10:
If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.
He isn’t saying that His love is conditional upon our perfect obedience. We’d be doomed if that were the case! What He’s saying is that, if we want to consciously experience His love, to abide constantly in His love, to have His joy in us which will be the most full joy we can experience – if that’s what we want, then we will want to obey Him, including service to others.
This cuts two ways.
Negatively, we’ll find ourselves not wanting to obey through serving. Don’t be surprised or get depressed over that. Abiding in His love means we go to Him and ask for a fresh desire to obey when we least want to obey. And He graciously grants it through His Spirit. Joy is restored!
Positively, we’ll find ourselves experiencing joys in new ways, like new muscles being used. I heard joy in the voices of two friends last week as they responded to opportunities to serve. Let me close with their joy. Names are changed to protect identities
Mike’s a salaried guy who is able to work from home. Nothing is changing financially for Mike. So he sends an email suggestion: How about encouraging PCCrs whose financial picture isn’t being changed to consider giving all or some of the Covid-19 government check to the Chapel’s Helping Hand Fund so we can help those who have lost hours or jobs. Who thinks like this? Only people who are finding such joy in obeying Christ that, when extra money comes available, their first thought is What’s Jesus want me to do with it? How does He want me to serve someone with it? Mike is experiencing the joy for which we were created.
Bob is a very fit Air Force guy (15 of whom now think I’m talking about them!) with unplanned time on his hands. Last Saturday he had just been praying, asking the Lord to show him how he could use his extra time to serve somebody. I had just gotten off the phone with a friend who was loading logs from just-felled huge trees in his back yard. I (think/hope?) I offered to help. Either way, he told me he didn’t want to be responsible for my back going out. OK, I didn’t argue. But when we hung up I thought of Bob and gave him a call, letting him know of a need to serve. You won’t believe what I was just praying about! was Bob’s reply. Bob’s a guy who is abiding in Christ’s love and it had him primed for service.
May such joy be yours as you serve your family and others this week.