Welcome to the JCPC Daily Reflections Blog. Reflections are daily devotionals authored by JCPC pastors, staff and members and provide insight, guidance and comfort to help you make it through each day. If you’d like to receive Reflections each day via email, provide your email address.
Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."
I recently came across an old black and white picture from a newspaper and a story from the newspaper that printed it. For years, he had grown the best corn in the county. When asked about his process for growing such great corn, the reporter learned he shared his best seed corn for free with his neighbors. The reporter was shocked. Why on earth would he give away his seed corn to his competition. The farmer chuckled. It's not that surprising to a farmer. Every farmer knows that their land is adjacent to their neighbors. The plants cross-pollinate by wind, insects, and birds. If his corn were to cross-pollinate with substandard corn, his own corn would suffer. Helping his neighbors benefitted his corn too.
So it is with us as people, and our own neighbors. We can choose to see our community as competitors or as neighbors. If we see them as neighbors, our wellbeing is bound up with theirs. When they thrive, we thrive. When we give of our best to be shared without price or reciprocity, we become blessed with a shared bountiful harvest. The Samaritan knew that being a neighbor was not about proximity but about his actions, doing the right thing for the good of a whole, rather than for himself.
God calls us to this same kind of mercy. Jesus is telling us in this parable that to be oriented to seek to help others is good for others, good for us, and good for a whole community. These are not cause and effect dominos to be traced, tracked, predicted, or strategized about for our own self-interest. These are interconnected and organic. When we prepare meals for people who are sick or out of work or experiencing loss, we don't do it so they will cook meals for us in hard times, though we may indeed benefit in that way too. We do it because God calls us to do it. We may never see the benefit of how they pay it forward or benefit our whole community. The farmer wasn't at every table fed by his good corn, but he was part of something greater. When we give charitably, serve selflessly, vote responsibly, and speak up for justice, we are being a neighbor to the least of these. Our calling is to live in generous ways with our giving and living as to do good we never see for neighbors we may never meet, as if they are gathered at our table, grinning ear to ear.
Prayer for Today
Lord, make me generous to all so tables are surrounded by people who benefit from my daily mercy. Amen.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
- Philippians 2:3-4, NIV
This past week, we lost Hank Aaron -- one of the greatest baseball players of all time. As a kid, I grew up watching Aaron at the old Atlanta Stadium. My father actually took me to the first baseball game ever played in that stadium -- an exhibition game between the Braves and the Detroit Tigers the year before they came to Atlanta. Growing up, I only knew Aaron as the Braves' right fielder who hit a lot of home runs. But as he approached Babe Ruth's record, I began to realize how special he was.
It was in the years after he had broken the record that I became aware of the challenges he faced, simply because he was a black athlete breaking the record of someone who was white. Aaron even received death threats along the way! Later, he would tell his story to help others understand some of the problems with issues of race we still face today.
This past week, with all of the news coverage surrounding his death, I read one story about how the Atlanta Hawks' coach had invited Aaron to come speak to his basketball team a few years ago. Some of the players shared how inspiring it was to talk with Aaron. In the article, Hawks great Dominique Wilkins was also interviewed. He shared these words about the influence Aaron had on him when he was a young and up-and-coming star:
"One of the things I remember him saying is, 'You have to set an example for people to come after you.' How do you do that? You do it the right way," Wilkins said of Aaron's message to him. "You do it by having humility and doing it the right way, and the right thing sometimes is hard. . . . The give-back aspect that I learned has come from the Aaron family." . . . Wilkins said. "Everyone knows what he did as an athlete, but I want people to know as a person how loving and how sweet of a guy he was." (italics mine)
The words that jumped out at me were "humility" and "loving." This Sunday, I will be talking about we can use our freedom to choose to be both humble and loving.
Prayer for Today
Loving God, we thank you that you sent Jesus, not only to save us, but to show us what it means to choose -- using our freedom to be both humble and loving as an example to others. We pray this in the strong name of Jesus the Christ. Amen.
I give you all the credit, God - you got me out of that mess, you didn't let my foes gloat. God, my God, I yelled for help and you put me together. God, you pulled me out of the grave, gave me another chance at life when I was down-and-out. All you saints! Sing your hearts out to God! Thank him to his face! He gets angry once in a while, but across a lifetime there is only love. The nights of crying your eyes out give way to days of laughter. -Psalm 30:1-5
I reflected on the words of this Psalm this morning. What struck me was the message of hope in times of difficulty. Each one of us have been faced with experiences that brought shock, frustration, grief or loss in our lives. Sometimes life's challenges seem overwhelming. I read one person's story today and she reminded me that during the hard part, it's difficult to move into a place of hope. Sometimes we try to rush, or maybe rush someone else we care about, to get to the good part rather than move slowly. She reminded me that moving toward gratitude and hope takes being specific. She said, "True gratitude is not a discipline you can impose on yourself. It is a joyful and heartfelt response to grace - and it is often through the most minute openings that grace reaches us."
As Christians, those that are called to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world, we have hope that things can get better. The hope we have in Christ is alive and moving through our being, but sometimes we may need to take deliberate steps of being specific with our gratitude to slowly move back into the space where we are joyful and grateful.
So with this knowledge, "Sing your hearts out to God! Thank him to his face!" one small, simple expression of gratitude at a time. We experience a love far greater than one challenging set of circumstances. Go out and share this hope we have in Christ with the whole world.
Prayer for Today
God, guide me today. Help me to find ways that I can show Christ-like love to those I encounter today, and by that love to tell the world that hope is alive. In Christ's Name, Amen.
This week's text is the story of Jonah. If you haven't read the book of Jonah in awhile, I encourage you to read it... it's a very fast read--just four very short chapters... It begins with God calling Jonah to preach to the city of Nineveh, and immediately, Jonah is trying to run away from God! Most of us know this story and remember that Jonah ends up in the belly of a whale.
I have been hearing this story ever since I was a young child, and I had questions then, and still do now. First of all, can you even imagine what it must be like to be swallowed by a whale? Or realize you're still alive once you're in there? I imagine it's not a pleasant place, much less somewhere anyone would like to spend three days.
Have you ever tried to run from God and ended up in a similar situation? Maybe not inside an actual whale, but a dark, unpleasant place in your life, where you weren't sure if or how you were going to get out? I think it's fitting that the Jonah text shows up in the lectionary one week after Psalm 139, which we heard last week.
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the
sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, "Surely the darkness will
hide me and the light become night around me," even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine
like the day, for darkness is as light to you.
-Psalm 139:7-12 NIV
Wherever we try to run from God, and for whatever reason we do, God is already there with the intention of restoring the relationship. At the end of the book of Jonah, we find the prophet sulking underneath a plant, angry at God for showing mercy to Nineveh, yet God further extends mercy to Jonah. This Sunday's anthem beautifully describes this mercy:
There's a wideness in God's mercy like the wideness of the sea;
There's a kindness in His justice, which is more than liberty.
There is welcome for the sinner and more graces for the good;
There is mercy with the Savior; there is healing in His blood.
There is no place where earth's sorrows are more felt than up in heav'n;
There is no place where earth's failings have such kindly judgment giv'n.
There is plentiful redemption in the blood that has been shed;
There is joy for all the members in the sorrows of the Head.
For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind;
And the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful, we should take Him at His word,
And our life would be thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord.
I hope you will join us in worship this Sunday online or in the parking lot to hear more!
Prayer for Today
Great God, help us turn toward you, knowing that you are merciful. Help us to extend your mercy to everyone we encounter today. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.
[The Lord] makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
I woke up to a very rainy chilly day today. On days like this, I remember that Peanuts cartoon. It is indeed a good system. What if the rain only fell on the unjust. If you were having a rough day or week, or as most of us... year, or perhaps struggling with a relationship, an addiction, a job, or personal challenge, you're reminded of your shortcomings every time it rains. Or even worse, what if you really were mostly doing okay
and you walked around on rainy days without a care and totally dry. How would you treat the people you met who were drenched? What if it was someone you didn't like? What if we were drenched and someone we didn't like was bone dry?
What a blessing it is that we don't know who is righteous or not in the eyes of God. What a blessing simply to know every single person we meet is a beloved child of God and may be struggling more than we know. And that everyone who meets us must assume the same. We get the opportunity to be known by our best efforts, rather than assumptions, and we are called to do the same.
In a world where everyone feels anonymous enough to be vulgar and cruel too often and only put their positive image out for others to see on social media, as believers, we are called to reject that system, to be real and vulnerable with one another, and to provide the love and safety for others to do the same, without worrying who will get wet on a day like today. Rain is a great equalizer. We all need an umbrella. And we all need a little grace.
Prayer for Today
Lord, make me slow to judge, quick to offer grace, and thankful for when grace is offered to me. Amen.
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people - for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. -1 Timothy 2:1-2, NIV
On this Inauguration Day, I want to remind us as Christians that scripture tells us to pray for all of those in authority, as the passage above from Paul says. We pray so that, as the Bible reminds us, "we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness in holiness." That is what we want our leaders to do -- to help create a world in which all of us can live peaceful and quiet lives -- reflecting God's love and grace.
So, how do we pray for those who lead us -- especially for an incoming President? Some of our Psalms appear to be written as prayers for the King of Israel. Now we have a very different system of government in our nation. We do not have kings or queens, but leaders elected by the people. However, if we're looking for scripture to guide us in how to pray and what to pray for when it comes to our leaders, the Psalms can help guide us.
So, for our prayer today I have included most of Psalm 72. My Bible says that it was written for King Solomon by David, who would later be king himself. I want to invite you to use this prayer today to pray for our incoming President, as well as for any other incoming elected leaders. You will see I have put the word "President" in brackets next to the word "King" as well as bracketing the word "royal" to help adjust the passage to our context.
May this be a day of peace in our nation!
Prayer for Today
Endow the king [President] with your justice, O God,
Usually my reflections start with thoughts and scripture, this morning I'd like to start with a prayer.
O Lord, calm me into a quietness that heals and listens, and molds my longings and my passions, my wounds, and wonderings into a more holy and human shape. Amen.
(Todd Loder, Guerrillas of Grace, 1984)
I have learned that in some medical settings, nurses assess a person's spiritual health as well as their medical health and research has shown that these two parts of our being are very intertwined. When our spirit is in distress as a result of a medical crisis, it effects how healing takes place.
We live in a time where many physical ailments are answered with medical treatment. Modern medicine continues to amaze me in the way that it is progressing. However, I have also seen what real care of the spirit looks like in the midst of those physical ailments. It makes a big difference. My Dad's 4 year experience with colon cancer is one of those examples for me. He was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. The care he received from his church and the time spent caring for his spirit was directly connected to the 4 extra years we had with him. My dad had the most positive outlook on life of anyone I have known even in the midst of a difficult battle with cancer.
He understood what it meant to go to God and experience this calmness of the spirit that can bring healing. The words in this prayer are the types of things my Dad would pray for.
As you enter into your week, I would invite you to pray this prayer. Remember taking care of our spirits is just as important as taking care of our bodies physically with exercise and healthy eating.
Prayer for Today
O Lord, calm me into a quietness that heals and listens, and molds my longings and my passions, my wounds, and wonderings into a more holy and human shape. Amen.
Today marks the celebration of the life, death, and struggle of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I've had a lot of reflections, thoughts, and questions in recent days, especially because of turbulent 2020. My takeaway has been this.
One of my youth when I served in Salisbury was a dedicated athlete (now a college athlete on scholarship). He worked out rigorously to be in top shape, always asking one question and answering it the same way to push himself to be his best. How many more? How many more pushups, how many more reps, how many more squats, lifts, miles, minutes, laps, pounds? How many more? Always one more!
I was essentially taught as a kid that civil rights was a movement of the past, before me, done, accomplished. We'd reached Martin's mountaintop and the work was now over, or in the refining process, a personal level for a handful. But as believers, we well know what an addict knows. We are none of us perfect ex-sinners. We are all of us recovering sinners in need of saving. And so our our world and nation is imperfect, and always in need of our participation and work, walking humbly with our Lord. How many more miles to the mountaintop? Always one more!
So this MLK Day, my challenge to all of us is to go that mile. Let's get educated together. You know his I Have a Dream speech but you've never heard it? Now is the day. You've heard that? The man was a preacher. One of our best. Listen to a couple more or read his prison letters. Meet the man more fully. I'm providing a few links below. Ready for more? A heavier workout? Try the leading books on transforming yourself and our nation. Click the links, and if you're eager for more, email me (email@example.com). I'm eager to hear what you learn and share what I've learned so we can grow together. And finally, make and spend time with friends you make who are different than you, especially in race, ethnicity, and faith. We deeply need that to move forward.
Lord, set my sight on your mountaintop and make my feet sure of my footing and swift to the summit. Keep my eyes open for fellow travelers who I may teach or learn from and join in our common journey. Amen.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.
African American spirituals are a uniquely American form of music, born out of the hardships of slavery and the hope of Christianity. Often times, their religious symbolism represent not only a hope for salvation but also a hope for freedom. It has also been speculated that some of these songs contain coded messages to help escaping slaves find freedom via the Underground Railroad.
Another form of music that we associate with African American Christians is gospel music, and "Precious Lord, Take My Hand", a gospel hymn, is our sending hymn for this week. As it turns out, this was supposedly Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s favorite song, and it was sung at his untimely funeral.
"Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light.
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home."
It is fitting for a funeral, and it's a sentiment I'm sure many of us can relate to. Life is hard, and when we've reached the end of our earthly lives, we want to reach out for the hand of our precious Lord. This is something we can all understand.
But there's a lot we can't understand. The struggle isn't yet over for so many of our fellow Americans who suffer under the weight of racism. As a white American, it is hard, if not impossible, for me to understand just how deeply the dark tendrils of racism wrap themselves around the lives of its victims. I think part of working to solve the racism in our country is to first admit that maybe we don't understand. We can be quick to judge and act as if racism is a problem self-perpetuated by those who claim to be oppressed. But that stems from our desire to resolve that which we cannot understand. The great divides in our country will never be resolved if we continue to try to rationalize our lack of understanding in our own terms. The well-known verse from Proverbs above is relevant to every conversation. How can you become a channel of God's peace by striving to understand rather than being understood?
Prayer for Today
God of silent tears, hear the cries of the oppressed. Give us an open heart to listen without judgement when we do not understand. Bring all of your children together under your banner to face the rising sun of a new day and march onward until we can overcome racism and oppression. Amen.
I went to a special magnet school when I started middle school, and we got some special events and opportunities. One of them was a visit by guest speaker Rosa Parks. As a kid, I did not fully appreciate her visit. Despite attending a school in which I was the minority student, receiving a real world education in perspective, I was being taught what most kids were taught, and adults too... the Civil Rights movement was a struggle that happened decades ago and was entirely accomplished. No one explained to me that like so many other conflicts and wars, it never really ended and there was more to fight for. No one explained to me that the reason my school was in an improvised neighborhood of almost entirely African American people might be because the struggle for equality and opportunity continues today.
I love the quote above that adorns the quote wall of our youth space, sharing a wall with the Micah scripture above. It's a favorite of the kids. They chose it. The true story of what she said is less funny, but more powerful. She said, "You must do what you must do. And I must do what I must." She insisted on following her call to do as she must. She would live to see a world where she was an honored guest at my school to talk about how far we'd come. She would not live long enough to see how far we have not, and how far we've obviously left to go to reach the mountain top.
As we approach Martin Luther King Day this Monday, I hope we can reflect not just on a man who did great work in the past, but a man who would still have worked tirelessly for decades after his early death and whose dream is not yet realized. He is and must not be a martyr to an old cause or accomplished task, but an example of what we must yet be. His fight for equality goes on, his fight for justice, his hope for us to be brothers and sisters, to not just tolerate, but love one another, not just to not abide racism, but to fight it, to be anti-racist. We can do our part, as Presbyterians who value education and justice, by reading, exploring, studying, and befriending. Let us march on, and not grow weary or complacent. Let us do more than mark the day. Let us honor it with work we have yet to do.
Prayer for Today
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, eager to learn, to grow, to stand, to work. Amen.
A few years ago, when I was pastoring the Shallowford Presbyterian Church, our presbytery held some workshops to help us explore issues of racism. They needed churches to host these events, so we volunteered our church because we were centrally located and had the space. About 100 people showed up, evenly split between black and white. After a brief introduction, our convener asked us to gather around our tables with an equal number of black and white Presbyterians at each one. So, we all rearranged ourselves to do that.
I was wondering how we would enter into what I had experienced as very difficult -- to talk about matters of race. Our convener asked us to do one thing: each person at the table would talk about his or her experience of race and racism. That was it. So, we started going around the table, with each person telling their story while everyone listened. No one questioned, argued, or did anything more than to simply listen.
I have to admit it was one of the most powerful experiences I have ever been a part of when it comes to matters of race and racism. The most significant part of that time together was hearing the stories of my fellow Presbyterians who were black, as they talked about what it was like for them throughout their lives when it came to matters of race. My experience was growing up white in the suburbs of Atlanta, with occasional forays downtown each week to attend our church. Honestly, I had no idea what it was like to grow up black in Atlanta -- which is where many of those at the table grew up.
As I shared on Monday in Reflections, our staff wanted to focus our Reflections this week on matters of race in honor of the upcoming birthday celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. next week. We not only wanted to share our insights and struggles, but to offer some concrete suggestions for what our members might do, or to offer some resources that might make a difference in us and our world.
So, what I would like to invite you to do is to find time to reach out to someone who comes from a different ethnic background from you and to have a conversation in which you simply ask them respectfully, if they would share with you what it was like for them to grow up in their context, and how they experienced race and racism. And then simply listen. You may want to offer to share your experience, if appropriate. I believe it could make a difference in your life, in their life, and in our world!
Prayer for Today
Gracious God, you made each one of us in your image. Help us to remember that -- we are all made in the image of God, so that we might treat one another appropriately. Help us to listen to one another, to learn from one another, and to love one another. We pray this in the strong name of Jesus the Christ. Amen.
For some of you where we are today is far from where you hoped we would be. These words were shared with me last week and helped ground me as I consider my next step moving into this year.
We mustn't stop hoping... We mustn't stop trying... We mustn't stop believing... That things will get better. And most likely it won't be suddenly, like the dawn of a new morning. It will be gradually, like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. The shift from darkness to daylight painstakingly slow, and perhaps barely noticeable, as we make small, brave efforts to keep showing up. And one glorious day, we'll realize that sinking feeling in the pit of our stomach has lifted. Let's hope. We mustn't stop hoping. We haven't come this far to give up now." (Rachel Macy Stafford)
Throughout my life, I have learned about the life of Dr. King, his impact on our communities and the influence his teachings and actions have in our lives of faith today. From studying the origins of the Civil Rights movement in teachings of Mahatma Ghandi and Frantz Fanon in college to recent years traveling to the Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and the Atlanta History Center, each of these experiences continues to leave a mark on me and bring deeper meaning to our calling as Christians in this world.
We continue to see the challenges of race relations and injustice in our country and local communities Take a moment to recall phrases, situations, or people that have taught you and shared these stories with you about Dr. King and his impact.
In this new year, I have some passages that I am holding close.
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that." Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
2 Corinthians 4:6, "For God who said, 'Let there be light in the darkness' has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God is seen in the face of Jesus Christ."
"You are light. You are the light. Never let anyone- any persons or any force - dampen, dim or diminish your light." - Representative John Lewis
It's our calling as Christians to share this light with all and continue to see how we can reconcile with one another. It's our calling to be the bridge builders working together to bring unity among our communities. We are called to listen as well as share. Who can you start a conversation with this week?
O God, make us willing to do your will, come what may. Increase the number of persons of good will and moral sensitivity. Give us renewed confidence in nonviolence and the way of love as taught by Christ. Amen. (from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)
In our staff meeting today, we were talking about the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration next Monday, January 18. This Sunday, the worship service will contain a message called "The God Who Knows Us" that I have prepared in which I plan to talk about how Dr. King modeled for us how to love our enemies. We also plan to include music in our worship service that comes out of the African American church. Our prayers will also express our concern for the challenges we face regarding racism. As the church of Jesus Christ, we have a rich tradition that comes from many cultures -- both in our nation and throughout the world.
Recently, I've been reading a book I would recommend to all of us called Reading While Black -- African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. The author of the book, Esau McCaulley, grew up in an evangelical home in Alabama. Presently, he is a priest in the Anglican church and an Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. His book is on Christianity Today's list of the best books of 2020.
Among the many things I have gleaned from his book is an expanded understanding of how Christianity's roots go back beyond Europe to include northern Africa from the earliest days. Important church thinkers such as Saint Augustine and Tertullian came from North Africa. Even Jesus spent time in Egypt as a child, when his parents had to flee from King Herod who was intent on killing all the baby boys under the age of two in Jesus' hometown.
Our staff was brainstorming ways to encourage our church family to find ways to do something next Monday that would honor Dr. King's legacy. So, our Reflections this week will not only include our thoughts on the struggles we face in our nation with issues of race and racism -- we also hope to offer some suggestions and resources that our congregation can use as guides, so that each of us can do something that will make a difference in our world. I hope you will discover what God is leading you to do to make a difference as we seek to love our neighbor.
Prayer for Today
Gracious God, we live in a broken world with fractured relationships -- particularly with those who are different from us. When it comes to issues of race, we struggle. Lord, show us how we can make a difference and give us the courage to do so. We pray that in the strong name of Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Here at JCPC, we sing this hymn "Here I Am, Lord" every year right around this time of year, usually when we're ordaining and installing new ruling elders. This Sunday we will be doing this at our drive-in worship service! I hope you will join us in the parking lot!!
In September of 2019, we surveyed our congregation to find out what their favorite hymns were. "Here I Am, Lord" was #1, the most requested hymn, out of more than 800 hymns in our hymnal, and many more that weren't in our hymnal at all!! When I researched the story behind this hymn, I found out that Dan Schutte, the author and composer, never assumed the tune would become so well-known.
Mr. Schutte was a Jesuit in his early thirties learning theology in Berkeley, California when one of his friends requested him to compose a song for an ordaining Mass of deacons. As he thought about the concept of being called for the ordaining Mass, he looked to the stories of the prophets, like Jeremiah, who asked God to bestow him with the best words to use. When asked about the inspiration for the chorus, he explained, "In all those stories, all of those people God was calling to be prophets have expressed in one way or another their humanness or their self-doubt." This Biblical sense of doubt along with counsel from the other St. Louis Jesuits was the reason Mr. Schutte altered the lyrics from a confident "Here I am, Lord; here I stand, Lord" to the self-doubting final version: "Here I am, Lord; is it I, Lord?"
All of us, as Christians, are called to work together, to worship together, to care for each other. Our final hymn on Sunday reminds us we are "Called as Partners in Christ's Service." What is God calling you to do right now? Consider the final verse...
So God grant us for tomorrow ways to order human life
That surround each person's sorrow with a calm that conquers strife.
Make us partners in our living, our compassion to increase,
Messengers of faith, thus giving hope and confidence and peace.
Prayer for Today
Holy God, open our ears to hear your voice, and to discern your call. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.
On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Matthew 2:11 & 12
The youth in our church know well from our annual Christmas Bible studies and lessons that however many Magi there were, they entered a house, probably two years after the birth, and maybe in Egypt, rather than Christmas night with the shepherds. Theirs was a journey of searching and following, and one we are reminded did not end with finding Jesus, but continued after. The same is true of the first disciples. Jesus is not a guru they visited for a single revelation. Rather, Jesus sought and found them, called them, and developed a relationship with them to send them out to keep telling the story. And so it is for us.
We are not people who have met Jesus only. We are people following him, like the first disciples, like the Magi. If we are to be disciples (Greek for followers) and wise men and women, ours must be a faith that follows. Jesus is not a destination, but a guide on our journey, a friend and traveling companion. The first Christians were called, "followers of the Way," Christ's new way. Christ is more than the moment of birth, or of his suffering or death, his ministry and miracles, and even his resurrection. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us in all his life and in all of ours. And so Jesus is more than the baby we find in the manger.
As we approach the time of Epiphany, when we celebrate the arrival of the Magi, it's a reminder that Christ is more than a moment or a destination. We follow Christ. Christ calls us to a new way. Christ goes with us on the journey. So when we move beyond Christmas to a new year, still battling a worldwide virus and in all our uncertainties that make us feel so small and helpless amidst turmoil and violence and division, we trust God to lead us as we stand to be peacemakers, to be neighbors, to love our enemies, and to work as patient healers as we listen and love in compassion. The work looms large, but Emmanuel is with us. God is with us on the journey.
Prayer for Today
Lord, make me bold and humble, brave and compassionate, eager and patient, and ready to follow your call with you by my side. Amen.
Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always. Remember the wonders he has done . . .
-1 Chronicles 16:11-12a, NIV
As I mentioned in my last sermon, I take time to look back each year try to remember the things that have happened. I begin with the high points, remember the low points, and then all points in between. I'm not sure if you remember this, but we began 2020 with the 25th anniversary celebration of Johns Creek Presbyterian Church. It was a wonderful weekend remembering God's faithfulness to this faith community and the fellowship we have shared together.
But soon we were plunged into pandemic pandemonium. What most of us thought might be a few weeks of inconvenience turned into something much more. The church campus was closed. We scrambled to create a weekly Online worship service, which then expanded to a Drive-Through giving opportunity, and soon to a weekly Drive-in worship service. Ministry Team meetings, Bible studies, Small Groups, Youth and College gatherings, support groups, Staff meetings, and Session meetings -- all took place on Zoom video conferencing. We wrestled with when to open our Preschool and when it was safe to come back for indoor worship services. We looked for ways to help others through special offerings and new mission opportunities.
Mostly, we were all just making it up as we went along since this was not something any of us had faced before. We often found the plans we made one day were no longer relevant the very next day because of some new change that happened. But through the grace of God, the faithfulness of the JCPC family working together, and our leaders seeking to use their best wisdom and discernment to decide what to do next -- as a church we have made it through 2020! There have been losses along the way of friends and church members. We grieve and mourn their loss and we continue to pray for their families and friends. There have been other losses: health, economic, relationships, a sense of mental well-being, and other things it will take time to recognize.
I am praying that 2021 will be better than 2020. And yet I don't want to overlook how God's grace was at work even in the most difficult times. For that, we need to also be grateful!
Prayer for Today
Thank you, God, for sustaining us through a challenging year. Comfort those who mourn. Strengthen those who need courage. Help us to continue to work together as we love one another, and even the whole world, as Christ loved us. Amen.
"Stop waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel and start lighting up the tunnel."-Unknown
This quote was shared with me from an unknown author recently and I have saved it. In a year where we all faced unexpected challenges and blessings, I needed these words to guide me as I entered into this new year.
They brought deeper meaning as they reminded me of Jesus' message to us in Matthew 5:14-16,
"Here's another way to put it: You're here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We're going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don't think I'm going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I'm putting you on a light stand. Now that I've put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand-shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you'll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven."
As we navigate these first days of the new year I would invite you to bring out the God-colors and light things up... the tunnels, the valleys, the uncharted waters... where can you be generous with your life today?
I have begun re-reading a devotional from Annie F. Downs, 100 Days to Brave, and I opened to these words last night.
"God made you once. You were worth the work that first time. God threw away that mold because one of you is enough for him. You're enough. You are the sacred painting, the original. God made us this way on purpose. It's no mistake that we are formed the way we are. But why? Why did God make humans in the first place? Look at Isaiah 43:7, 'Everyone who is called by my name whom I created for my glory whom I formed and made.' God created us for his glory. The word create in the original Hebrew is bara. When this particular word was used God is the only subject, God does all the work only God can create in this particular way so when God made you God did something that only God can do and did that for God's glory. If we are each as unique as the Bible says we are then our calls to courage are equally unique. The painting of your life is a masterpiece that will never be replicated, and there's a brave brush to use in this painting that will change everything for God's glory and for your good."
I don't always feel confident in my artistic abilities or gifts, but I continue to learn to be brave in opening myself up to God doing beautiful work in the world in and through you and me. Let's light up 2021!
Prayer for Today
Creator God, thank you for the ways you continue to create in this beautiful world. Open us to be the light wherever it's needed this week. In Christ's Name, Amen.
As I waited in the breakfast buffet line at a Christian conference center, a group of women entered the dining hall. I smiled, saying hello to a woman who stepped into the line behind me. Returning my greeting, she said, "I know you." We scooped scrambled eggs onto our plates and tried to figure out where we'd met. But I was pretty sure she'd mistaken me for someone else.
When we returned for lunch, the woman approached me. "Do you drive a white car?"
I shrugged. "I used to. A few years ago."
She laughed. "We stopped at the same traffic light by the elementary school almost every morning," she said. "You'd always be lifting your hands, singing joyfully. I thought you were worshiping God. That made me want to join in, even on tough days."
Praising God, we prayed together, hugged, and enjoyed lunch.
My new friend affirmed that people notice how Jesus' followers behave, even when we think no one is watching. As we embrace a lifestyle of joyful worship, we can come before our Creator anytime and anywhere. Acknowledging His enduring love and faithfulness, we can enjoy intimate communion with Him and thank Him for His ongoing care (Psalm 100). Whether we're singing praises in our cars, praying in public, or spreading God's love through kind acts, we can inspire others to "praise his name" (v. 4). Worshiping God is more than a Sunday morning event.
Prayer for Today
Almighty God, please help me live to worship You with contagious joy and gratitude. Amen.