Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Give Thanks

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; God's love endures forever (Psalm 106:1)

Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thess. 5:18)

Autumn. I love this time of the year. I love the changing colors (though mostly I have to go somewhere else to see the fall colors since the pine trees that are so ubiquitous to our area are pretty much always green). I love the crisp, cool, dry air. I love how the blue of the sky seems to intensify with the cooler temperatures. I love that the gatherings of friends and families that begin in November and make their way into December.
I love Thanksgiving.
In many ways, the Thanksgiving holiday is a forgotten holiday – at least commercially. The retailers jump from Halloween directly to Christmas. But that's okay, because it means that Thanksgiving is a bit of a quieter holiday. I like the quiet, because it gives us an opportunity to focus on the reason for the holiday: to give thanks to God.
Giving thanks to God is one of the most basic expressions of faith. And yet, how many of us practice it with enough regularity? How many of us start each day by thanking God for the day as a gift and an opportunity – a gift, in that it is a new day in which we have been given life; and an opportunity in that each day presents a chance for us to use the day to serve God and love God?
I recently made a search of the term “give thanks” on a Bible search engine. Of the twenty-seven times that phrase appears as an exhortation or personal commitment (e.g., “Give thanks to the Lord” or “I will give thanks to God”), the reason for giving thanks that was cited more than any other reason is this: “for his (God's) love endures forever.” Eleven of the twenty-seven times the writer exhorts us to give thanks, it is simply because of God's eternal, steadfast, unconditional love.
When you think of it, why do we need any other reason to give thanks to God? Isn't God's love enough?
You see, God's love is the source of every blessing you and I receive – blessings which, on a daily basis are far too numerous for us to count. God's love is reason for comfort in the midst of trial and tribulation. God's love is the reason for hope in the midst of despair. God's love is cause for joy and happiness. God's love is our inspiration to love – to love God, and to love our neighbor, and to love one another. God's love is the basis for our hope of eternal life.
Give thanks to the Lord for his love endures forever.
Life is so much better when gratitude informs our perspective. Start each day with gratitude. Fill each day with gratitude. End each day with gratitude.
Your life will be better for it. I promise.
Give thanks to the Lord, for his love endures forever.

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this God's will for you in Christ Jesus.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Light, Bread, and How We Are Fed


“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

- Jesus, John 8:12 and John 6:35

Warning: Mixed metaphors ahead.

So, this past summer, we had frogs at our house. Not the kind that make a lot of noise, but tree frogs. Lots of them. Almost in biblical-plague-like numbers. Ah, but I exaggerate. Still, we had lots of frogs.

They kept appearing at night on our front porch. I would see them through our glass door. They perched on our mailbox. They clung to the bricks. They rested on our porch light. It was both cool and creepy at the same time.



This went on every night, for weeks. Only with the cooler weather have the frogs finally gone away.

One night I stayed out on the front porch for a few minutes to watch the frogs. They were as still as statues, mostly looking at the porch light. Small moths, gnats, and other night bugs were also flying around, attracted by the light. Suddenly, one of the frogs stretched its neck, opened its mouth, and gulped down a hapless moth that had just wandered into the no-fly zone. It happened in the blink of an eye.

It turns out that the light had become the feeding spot for the frogs. The frogs came to the light to be fed.

It got me to thinking: Jesus is the light of the world. Jesus is the bread of life. When we come to Jesus, we are fed for eternal life.

I told you that I was mixing my metaphors. Don't say I didn't warn you.

But really, where do you turn to nourish your soul? We are bombarded by all sorts of things that pollute and corrupt the unwitting soul every time we turn on the TV or surf the web. What do you do to provide healthy nourishment for your soul?

I think we should take a lesson from the frogs. Go to the light – to Jesus, the Light of the world. If we spend enough time in his light, we will be fed.



P.S. Don't take this metaphor too far. Because it doesn't work if you are a moth or an insect – they got eaten at the light. Focus on the frogs.


Monday, October 2, 2017

A Prayer



The thought of my affliction and my [bitterness]
    is wormwood and gall!
My soul continually thinks of it
    and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind,
    and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him."
- Lamentations 3:19-24, NRSV




A Prayer

Shock.
Terror.
Sickened.
Numb.
Grieving.
Confused.
Heartbroken.
Angry.

What words are there, O God, to describe how we feel?

How can we possibly wrap our minds around the slaughter in Las Vegas?
     One man and his guns.
     Over 50 dead, hundreds wounded or injured.
     A city reeling in the aftermath.
     A nation in shock, mourning, grief.

Is there no limit to the evil that people are capable of perpetrating on one another?
Can we not put a cap on the human capacity for evil?

Our hearts ache.
Our hearts groan.

But before we ask you to tend to the tumult in our hearts, O Lord, we direct your compassion and your mercy upon those whose lives have most acutely felt the wrath of this evil act:
     The families of the dead
     The injured and the wounded
     The first responders and medical professionals who must
     still perform their duties in the face of unspeakable horror
     The city of Las Vegas
     The pastors, rabbis, clerics, counselors, and caregivers
          who will be providing comfort and care
          in the days, weeks, months ahead.

In the midst of the evil and chaos, we pause to give thanks for
     the law enforcement officials who acted with speed and
          precision
     the civilians who administered care to the wounded
     the emergency personnel whose actions saved lives.

And now, O Lord, also tend to our hearts.
Grant us peace, we pray.
     Not simply absence of hostility,
     but peace in our hearts;
     peace that comes from the assurance of
          your love which is from everlasting to everlasting
          your righteousness that always prevails
          your providence by which you work all things toward
               your purpose of redemption.
Grant us peace.

Let this truth fill our hearts:
     that nothing in all of creation
     will ever be able to separate us from your love
     in Christ Jesus our Lord.
          Nothing.
          Not ever.

As a world grapples with a response to this senseless slaughter of innocent human beings, help us to show the way of Christ:
     trusting in you and your faithfulness
     manifesting your grace
     working for reconciliation and justice.

After the shock wears off
and the blame game begins
(because we know it will)
make us the voice of Christ who said,
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted...”
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled...”
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God...”
“Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you...”
“Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword...”
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing...”
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul,
and with all your mind,
and with all your strength.
And you shall love your neighbor as yourself."
Make us the voice of Christ.

Saving God,
     All creation groans for the redemption that awaits us.
     We are groaning today, for the need for redemption
     is as great as ever.

In our groaning, we wait for you.
We look for you.
Come, Lord Jesus.
Heal us.
Comfort us.
Strengthen us.

Amen.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

#AllinforWilkins!

“Love one another as I have loved you.” - JesusJohn 15:12


Full disclosure: This is a parental pride post. Please indulge me.

So, our son Stuart got married the other day, to his fiance Kate.

I'm going to write that sentence again, so you can see the delight and excitement that has filled Carol and me:

So, our son Stuart got married the other day, to his fiance Kate!!! (Insert about a million smiley-faced emojis 😊😊😊 here!)

I didn't officiate the wedding; it was my distinct privilege to be the father of the groom, and I didn't want to give up that privilege. Besides, if I had officiated, it would've taken all I had to resist doing this (turn up the volume): 



So Stuart and Kate got married, and I got to be the father of the groom.

After a week of nail-biting to see what Hurricane Irma was going to do (the wedding was in Charleston, SC – one of the preliminary paths forecasted for Irma) and then to assess the flood damage that Irma's remnants did to our wedding and reception venues (thank goodness, all was dry and clean by the end of the week), we had a wonderful celebration for Stuart and Kate.

I think every parent wants to see their parenting bear fruit in their children. Certainly Carol and I, as well as Kathy and Stan (Kate's parents) were beaming with pride as we witnessed the love that Stuart and Kate professed for one another, as well as their maturity as they affirmed their commitment to each other.

As is often the case in weddings nowadays, there was a fun theme running through the weekend celebrations. Stuart and Kate are both graduates of Clemson University, and they are avowed fans of all things Clemson. In fact, they waited as long as they could before setting the date, because they didn't want to have to compete with a Clemson home game.

As a tribute to their Clemson roots, they created a social media hashtag for the weekend: #allinforwilkins. “All in” is the rallying cry for the football team that was instituted by head coach Dabo Swinney. They even had a friend design a koozie with a New Mexico / South Carolina emblem (they live in NM, but are from SC), and the hashtag, #allinforwilkins.



All in. It is a simple two-word phrase, but it denotes 100% commitment. Coach Swinney expects it of every person associated with the football program, and he asks the students and alumni and fans to be “all in” for the team. All in. It's an attitude that has played a major role in the spirit and success of the national championship football program.

But alas, I stray. Back to the wedding. Where was I?

Oh yeah: All in. #allinforwilkins. Truly, everyone who attended the wedding and festivities were all in for Stuart and Kate. And of course Stuart and Kate are all in for each other.

“All in,” it turns out, is a perfect theme for a marriage. Because in marriage husband and wife declare their unconditional love for one another, and they promise their undying commitment to one another and to their family. All in.

Jesus told his disciples, “Love one another as I have loved you.” In fact, he said that to his disciples twice on the last night he was with his disciples. The second time Jesus said it (John 15:12), he follows the command with this observation: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.” Sounds like an all-in kind of love that Jesus commands of us, doesn't it?

Marriage is an all-in proposition. Husband and wife giving themselves for the sake of the other, and for their family. All in...

...The other day, a church member was reflecting on being married for 52 years. She said, “Marriage doesn't take two; it takes three.” What she meant was, for marriage to be as abundantly blessed as God intends it to be, it takes husband, and wife, and Jesus. Marriage takes three.

I agree. So just as husband and wife need to be all in for each other, so should their life together be lived all in for Jesus. Marriage is not just for the benefit of the husband, wife, and family; it is also for the glory of God.

All in. I'd say it's a winning formula – for Clemson football, for life, for marriage, for faith. All in is win-win.

Photo credit: David Wilkins



#allinforwilkins!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Living the Far Better Way



“But now I want to lay out a far better way for you.”1 Corinthians 12:31 (The Message)

On August 12 I attended a memorial service for a man who had been a mentor and a friend for me, and for my two sons – for my whole family, really. Malcolm Williams was the founder and director of Camp Country Lad in Monterey, Tennessee. Since 1962, Malcolm had dedicated his life to molding the character of boys and young men through his summer camp. 


His memorial service was held at the outdoor church of the camp – a collection of hand-hewn log benches arranged in a semi-circle facing a beautiful lake; a lone cross stands at the front of this amazing “sanctuary.” Over 300 CCL alumni and friends of Malcolm and his family attended the service, most of whom traveled several hundred miles just for the occasion.



The day was full of tears and laughter. At 82 years of age, Malcolm had lived a wonderful life, and he had a powerful impact on thousands of boys and young men through the years. Throughout the day – including at the service, around the lunch table, along the hiking trails, and around the campfire that night – people were telling stories about the personal influence Malcolm had on our lives.

I am grateful beyond words for the wisdom, love, and friendship that Malcolm shared with me and my two sons through our more than 35 summers at camp (cumulatively).



But this blog entry isn't simply about an exceptional man and role model. I came away from the weekend in Tennessee with a powerful spiritual insight reinforced in my heart.

My experiences at CCL, and my recollection of Malcolm Williams, brought to mind for me the fact that the New Testament contains a vast collection of lists – lists that lay out for us how we should live and what life should look like for followers of Jesus Christ.

Jesus shared such a list in his famous “Beatitudes” of Matthew 5:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God...(Matthew 5:3-9)

You find similar lists in Paul's writings, such as in Galatians 5, where Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)

Or in one of Paul's most-quoted passages, where he describes what love looks like:

Love never gives up. 
Love cares more for others than for self. 
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. 
Love doesn’t strut, 
Doesn’t have a swelled head, 
Doesn’t force itself on others, 
Isn’t always “me first,” 
Doesn’t fly off the handle, 
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, 
Doesn’t revel when others grovel, 
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, 
Puts up with anything, 
Trusts God always, 
Always looks for the best, 
Never looks back, 
But keeps going to the end. 
Love never dies... 
1 Corinthians 13:4-8 (The Message)

There are other lists with similar exemplary character traits for which we should strive in our lives. The point of all these lists, I believe, is to paint a picture of what it looks like to grow and live into Christlikeness. We are, after all, a new creation in Christ; it only makes sense that life in Christ looks different than life without Christ. To conform our lives to the traits enumerated in these lists is, in a very real way, to show the world what Jesus Christ is like.

Even more than the words we say about Jesus, the way we live as his followers helps people understand and experience Jesus and his infinite, eternal love for us.

While I hope we all strive for these Christlike traits for our lives, every once in a while you come across a person who manifests Christlikeness with grace and humility. Malcolm Williams was one of those people. He embodied the character of the person described by the beatitudes; he exhibited the fruit of the Spirit in its completeness; and by the way he related to others he fulfilled the definition of love.

Malcolm would be the first person to tell me to stop describing him like this. Because he was humble to the core. And it was never about him. It was about Jesus, who loved Malcolm with an everlasting love, and whom Malcolm loved with his whole being.

And ultimately that's what it's all about. It's about letting the love of Jesus Christ fill our hearts and inform our lives. It's about living in such a way that when people see us, they get a glimpse into the One who has saved us and who has made us who we are: Jesus Christ.

So here's what all of us should do. We should look at those lists, and ask, “Does that describe me?” When Paul tells us that love is patient, kind, not envious or boastful, etc., is Paul describing me?

Because if those traits describe us, then it means that Jesus is shining through.

Think of the people who are the Malcolm Williamses of your life – people who have been your spiritual mentors, or people whose lives make you want to be a better person. Take your cue from them, to live your whole life making Jesus known.

I want to share a poem that was on the back of the bulletin for Malcolm's memorial service. It speaks to the importance of living the exemplary life, because others are watching. It makes me ask myself, when people see my life, am I comfortable with them following in my steps?

I hope so. 

For Christ's sake, I hope so.

A careful man I want to be;
A little fellow follows me.
I do not dare to go astray
For fear he'll go the self-same way.

I cannot once escape his eyes,
Whatever he sees me do, he tries.
Like me he says he's going to be;
this little Lad who follows me.

He thinks that I'm so very fine,
Believes in every word of mine.
The base in me he must not see;
this little Lad who follows me.

I must remember as I go
Through summer's sun and winter snow,
I'm building for the years to be;
The little Lad who follows me.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Abundant Living




“I can do all things through him [Christ] who strengthens me.” 
Philippians 4:13

I love to take pictures of flowers. Fields of wildflowers, gardens of carefully cultivated flowers, big and bold flowers, simple and plain flowers – wherever I find them, I love to take pictures of flowers.

Most of the time I find flowers where one would expect them to be: in the garden, or in a pot, or in a field, or in the forest. But every once in a while I come across flowers in the most peculiar places. I’ve found flowers growing in the cracks in sidewalks; I’ve found flowers growing in the rain gutters along our roof; I’ve found flowers growing where there is very little oxygen, high up in the alpine tundra.

When Carol and I traveled to Scotland, I saw flowers growing in the rock walls on the side of the roads. People had not planted the flowers; the seeds had just blown (or maybe they were “deposited” by the birds) into the cracks and crevasses of the centuries-old walls. Somehow, though, the flowers grew – flourished, even.

Similarly, when we were hiking in Colorado, I looked off to my left and noticed a bed of flowers growing right on top of a boulder. There were only a few inches of forest compost to serve as soil, but it was enough for the flowers to grow – to flourish, even.



I mention these peculiar places where I have discovered flowers because I know that many times we might find ourselves in less-than-ideal situations or circumstances in our lives. Circumstances that wouldn’t ordinarily be suitable for flourishing. Situations you don’t normally think of when you hear the term, “abundant life.”

And yet.

And yet, abundant life is precisely what we discover with Jesus. Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10. I’ll let you in on a secret: the “they” in that verse refers to you and me!)

I don’t want to pretend to promise that everything is rosy (excuse the pun) with Jesus. We still will experience some of those challenging times in our lives. We will experience difficulties and trials. But when we experience the trials and difficulties with the assurance of Christ’s love and kindness and presence, then I am convinced that the quality of life is different for us. Even in the midst of struggles and challenges, we can thrive, not simply survive.

I have seen different people confronted by the same traumatic experience; and at times I have seen totally different outcomes. Some may come out on the other side embittered by their struggles, ready to give up. Others may come out filled with hope and peace, and even made stronger as a result. Those who come out stronger and more hope-filled invariably owe their strength and hope and peace to their relationship with the Lord. As they have struggled and grieved and cried out, they have found One who comes to them and nourishes them with his love, his grace, his peace.

I am aware that what I am claiming here may be an over-simplification. That is one of the downfalls of trying to address profound truths in brief blog entries. I am fully aware that the struggles many people face are more dire than I will ever know. And I am aware that conditions like depression or anxiety can’t simply be alleviated by saying, “You just need Jesus, and it will all be better.”

I know that it’s not that simple.

But I also know that, no matter the situation in which we find ourselves, we can experience abundant life. Because, Jesus. Because Jesus offers us strength, and courage. Because Jesus introduces hope, and gives us his peace. Because Jesus shines light into our darkness, to dispel and overcome the darkness.

The apostle Paul wasn’t speaking empty, pithy words when he said, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” In fact, he was writing those words from a prison cell into which he had been unjustly sent. He had seen success in his ministry, but he had also experienced rejection and persecution, even bodily harm. But the trials and the difficulties he faced were different when he viewed them from the perspective of Christ’s presence and grace.

He knew that abundance wasn’t so much a matter of circumstance, as it was a matter of Who was with him in the midst of the circumstances. That’s why he said, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:12-13)


If flowers can grow – flourish, even – between a rock and a hard place, don’t you think it’s possible for you and me to do the same? 


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Definitive Word



Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! (Psalm 150:6)

Those are the final words of the book of Psalms in the Bible: “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!”

I know that, because I have just completed the task of writing the psalms by hand, as my morning quiet time spiritual discipline. (Before you think that sounds impressive or that I must be super disciplined, you need to know that I started this a couple of years ago, then got sidetracked with another spiritual discipline, and finally started it again this year.) I have enjoyed this exercise, because it makes me digest Scripture a few verses at a time. Every morning, some phrase or image comes to light in a way that it might not have otherwise come to light if I was just reading.

The Psalms are wonderful windows into which we can glimpse what authentic and real relationships with God look like. It’s not as neat and tidy as one may expect. The Psalms capture the wide range of human thoughts and emotions. In the Psalms you will find expressions of joy and gladness juxtaposed with expressions of frustration, or fear, or even anger. The honesty of the psalmist is both refreshing and startling.

When you start at the beginning of the psalter, you find a beautiful declaration of blessedness for those who delight in living according to the law of God:
“Blessed are they
     who do not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
     or sit in the seat of mockers.
But their delight is in the Law of the Lord,
     and on God’s law they meditate day and night. They are like a tree planted by streams of water,
     which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither.
     Whatever they do prospers.” (Psalm 1:1-3)


And from that point on, we are taken on a roller-coaster journey of faith that moves us to cling steadfastly to God in joy and hope, while simultaneously allowing us to wrestle with God in regard to the troubles and afflictions we face in life. In the Psalms we will vacillate between desperation and hope, between gladness and sadness, between rejoicing and grief, between comfort and restlessness, between lament and praise.

Truly, one of the more beautiful aspects of the Psalms is how genuinely human they are. Because you and I can relate, can’t we?

We can relate to the awe and wonder that fills us when we consider God’s handiwork in creation.

We can relate to the profound sadness that we experience at the sudden and tragic and inexplicable loss of a loved one.

We can relate to the joy and gladness overflow our hearts when we are assured of God’s steadfast and unconditional love.

We can relate to the guilt of unconfessed sin, but also to the liberating relief of forgiveness.

We can relate to the frustration that overwhelms us when unjust and evil people seem to prevail; and we can relate to the peace that calms our hearts when we know that God’s justice and righteousness will prevail.

The Psalms are beautiful, because the speak to virtually every emotion and feeling of our hearts. Through it all, we are assured that God is with us, and that God is for us.

When you come to the end of a story, you usually have some sense of closure (though people also find ways to leave us hanging so we will buy the sequel later on). Often it is a “happily ever after” sentiment. Or maybe it is a logical conclusion to the plot.

The Psalms, I believe, end with the definitive word for us: Praise.

Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!

As I penned that final phrase in my journal, I was struck by how appropriate it is, that the final, definitive word of the psalter is a word of praise. It certainly makes sense, when you think about it. Because when we realize that through the peaks and valleys of our lives – through the valley of the shadow of death and beside still waters – God is there, with us and for us. And when we realize that God is with us in his goodness and mercy and grace, then the only logical response is praise.

Praise the Lord. Because ultimately, it is God’s goodness and mercy that carries us through every day.

Every. Day.

So, praise the Lord!

Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!

Praise the Lord!