Pastor’s Devotion #109

“Three Simple Words”

“Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Be not afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.” Luke 2:30

Recently, Google has encouraged the use of three simple words to help employees avoid burnout. What might those words be? “No Meetings Week”. With those working from home, suffering through endless zoom and virtual meetings, the message, “No Meetings Week” is a welcomed moment to celebrate.

With the news of a pandemic’s third wave, a pulling back from any forward steps toward normalcy, and a preparation for what could seem like a hollow holiday season, perhaps we are need of three other simple words from Scripture.

I stumbled upon these words, once again, as I pulled papers out of my Bible, trying to preserve them from Sunday morning’s sprinkle. A weathered piece of paper fell out, waiting to be re-discovered. The three words were the title of a devotion that I wrote exactly 23 years ago, for the December newsletter. It was a devotion that I wrote after my daughter’s birth. This year, 2020, my daughter celebrated her “Golden” birthday. I didn’t know what a golden birthday was until Jeriah explained it. It’s the birthday  when your age crosses with your birth date. Jeriah was born on October 23rd, and this year she turned 23 – a la – a Golden Birthday! (My golden birthday occurred when I was six, the year I got shingles, not a year worth remembering in my opinion.)

23 years have passed since I penned the following perspective. Since then, there have been highs and lows, tears and laughter, adventures and sorrows. These three words still stand, ready to lift up, re-assure, and restore our focus. Messengers were sent by God, with the intent to restore and reorient thoughts to God with these words. We are to know that He is present through thick and thin, challenge and defeat, surprise and triumph. You’ve heard the words before. Perhaps working to survive endless adjustments and uncertainties, you need to be reminded again: “Be Not Afraid!” Pause here – Take a moment and reflect upon the places where fear has crept into your heart and mind. It is critical that we recognize those things that create fear within us – so that we can direct them to the Lord. God is greater than all that we fear. More than that – God is with us! GOD IS WITH YOU! He will always be with you! One word, “Emmanuel”, which we speak often at Christmas, holds the meaning in, with and under the word: “God With Us” – Yes, in these trying times – God is with us. Three words in One, like the Trinity – eternally true. No matter your experience this holiday season. No matter your experience next year and beyond, Almighty God wants us reassured, “Be Not Afraid”.

Written November, 1997

 “Be Not Afraid”

I felt a wave of fear wash over me as I watched the fetal monitor do a dance hour after hour. The contractions wouldn’t stop. Our tiny baby seemed determined to rush into the world eight weeks early. We were told survival was fairly certain, but then again, who really knows. What about complications and unforeseen circumstances? Fear hovered close by.

A few days later, with contractions under control, we made our way home. Now, new worries surfaced. When labor begins, would we have time enough to get to the hospital? Would the delivery be as sudden and as painful as Isaiah’s birth? October 22nd arrived. I received a page at 9:35 p.m. “Honey”, my wife said, “You better get home.” I raced home. We arrived at the hospital safely at 11:00 p.m. Yet again, more anxiety. Was the baby transverse? Dawn’s water broke at 1:30 a.m. The midwife declared the good news, “The head is down!”. The epidural was administered. The rest is history. A perfect delivery. A perfect baby girl. Jeriah Aryn Bankson was brought into this world on October 23rd at 9:36 a.m.

Looking back, I sometimes wonder, “What was I so worried about?” Then again, it’s interesting what happens as I look forward. Not that I am consumed with fear but what does the future hold? Could it be SIDS, sexual abuse, learning disabilities? Who will she date? When should she date? Will she be safe away at college? Who will she marry? Will her kids be born healthy? Does it ever end? If one is not careful, the answer is, no, it never stops. There will ALWAYS potentially be seemingly something worthy of worry.

But during this Christmas Season, there is a simple statement we need to hear and hold on to. This saying is not just for December but for each of our undetermined days. It is the message of angels! “Be Not Afraid!” This familiar phrase forever connects us to shepherds and angels on Christmas night. Shepherds keep watch over their flocks by night. Suddenly they are enthroned by a heavenly host declaring the glorious news that a Savior is born. We hear the message but we need to tune our ear to the preface. Three words which are easily overlooked but set the stage for the celebration. How can the celebration commence if fear fills the air? It is impossible. Fear has no place in God’s plan of action. As one scours the Scriptures, it is interesting to note that these three little words are littered throughout the herald’s message. The first words spoken to Zachariah and Mary by a holy messenger brings the assuring word, “Be Not Afraid.” In fact, from Genesis to Revelation, these three words are used with regularity. God speaks directly to Abraham, Isaac, Moses and others using the same words. And men of faith also speak these words of encouragement; Joseph to his brothers, Joshua to the people of Israel, Elijah to a widow, David to his son, Solomon, and many more. Finally, in Revelation, when John comes face to face with Almighty God, the first words spoken to him are, “Be Not Afraid – I am the First and the Last.”

What does this all mean? The message is clear! God’s desire is to remove ALL fear (anxiety) from every aspect of our life. God wants us to be filled with the gifts of his Spirit – joy, peace, patience, love, self- control. Fear has NO existence in the presence of God (except the “fear” which calls us to revere him and stand in awe)   

As Christmas approaches and we await the coming of the Messiah, let us take hold of and claim these three little words spoken by the Holy Ones. Regardless of our circumstances, past, present, and future,   we need not fear, God has made a way for us – we will overcome!

Let us celebrate the joy that is for all people – In the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord!

Love in Christ, Pastor Mark

 

 



Pastor Mark’s Devotions, May 31

“Let Us Listen to One Another”

“My dear brothers and sisters: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” James 1:19

 

I have never personally, faced racial injustice. Police officers have always been friend not foe. I’m not sure that I can do any justice to what has erupted over the last few days. The death of George Floyd has opened the flood gates to emotions and violence not only across our states but across our globe. In the midst of a pandemic which has created a growing sense of powerlessness, George Floyd’s tragic loss of life has exploded tensions that were already steaming and brewing under the surface. Curfews and national guardsmen and women being called out in 24 cities and 12 states, respectively; that is new territory. Unfortunately, the crowds who came out to march peacefully and protest appropriately, have been marred by those whose main goal has been to create chaos, damage and destruction. I believe that most of the country can see through this planned rioting, but it still takes energy away from needed conversation and significant action.

The only time I can recall recognizing I was in a social minority, was when I attended Howard University in Washington D.C. I was involved in a theological consortium in Washington D.C. for a semester. I was the manager of a house full of white, Midwestern theological students. We attended a variety of theological schools. When I walked into a preaching class at Howard University and took my seat, I realized this was going to be a new experience. In a classroom of about 40 guys, two of us were the token white guys. We both came from liturgical backgrounds. We were used to remaining quiet during class and throughout sermons. We, white ones, were about to get a baptism in an African American classroom and approach to preaching. Initially, I was obviously uncomfortable. But quickly, the men embraced us and we embraced a new way of approaching homiletics. My experience was rich, engaging, and thoughtful. By the end of the semester, I greatly appreciated these men who expanded my theological and cultural education.

My experience at Howard University was in a pretty protected environment. I was with seminary students for Pete’s sake. During that same semester, I put myself in a variety of other settings, but I cannot say that I ever really felt unsafe. I helped at a homeless shelter, attended classes with great student diversity, and served some communities causes. I even took to the streets on my own to try to taste homelessness.

Daily, I saw homeless men and women sleeping on steaming grates along the main streets. It looked pretty rough. I wondered what that experience might actually be like. So, one night, I decided to stay out on the streets. I took no money, no identification, only a thin blanket. Very quickly, I felt the sting of the cold winter night. As I huddled in a museum doorway, I experienced for a brief moment what it was to be invisible. Two young couples ran to the entrance and rattled the doors but the place was closed. I was wrapped in the blanket but they simply looked right over me. They never saw me! I was invisible! I couldn’t believe that they couldn’t see me! I walked to a park bench, where a brown bag lay. Inside, was a half-eaten sandwich. It had been hours since I had eaten. I can still remember vividly that I was not about to eat that sandwich. But I also knew, deep down inside, that if this was day 2, I would have gladly dived into that partially eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwich. At 2:00 a.m., I found shelter under a pile of leaves in a park by a train station. I could hear couples laughing, trying to find their cars because the bars had just closed. They were all drunk and were discussing who would drive home. Needless to say, neither one should have been behind the wheel. Once again, I was invisible. No one saw me lying at their feet. But I can tell you that the cold was not invisible. The frozen ground eventually snaked its way through the pile of leaves no matter the thickness of the bed. After trying to find warmth for what seemed like hours, I felt a poke in the middle of my back. I rolled over. It was a police officer. He had a stick but he gently pressed into me. He said, “Hey buddy, I just wanted to make sure you were o.k.” I was not invisible to this police officer. He was kind, gentle, and caring. After his probe, I decided to get up and try to walk off the cold. I wandered the streets of D.C. for another few hours. Finally, I walked a few more blocks, and made it back to my home. The experiment was over. I survived. I was cold. I climbed the stairs and climbed under the covers. The sun came up and I slept through the day. As I rested under the warm covers, my thoughts continued to wander. I wondered, “What if I had to go out the following night and try to survive?” The reality settled in very quickly. Without food and shelter, one is going to find any means necessary to numb the pain. Fight, scratch or claw, survival would take on new meaning.

That one night out in D.C. – gave me a fractional taste of what hundreds and thousands of people face every day. But it was only an experiment. I knew from the get go that this wasn’t real. The reality is, I have lived a very sheltered life. Yes, I have had to face my own challenges. But I have never truly had to face hunger. I have never had to face physical, sexual or emotional abuse. I have never lived a day without shelter,and I have been given every opportunity to succeed. I have never felt judged due to my race. I have never faced fear from the police force that wasn’t self-inflicted.

The people who are going to walk in protest tonight; their story is not my story. There are races and cultures that have had to live with inequities and inequalities that I have never had to deal with.

In this moment of growing tensions, frustration and desperation, I am called back to the words of    James 1: 19. He reminds us, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this; Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” Prayerfully, as a nation, we can take a deep breath. Let us listen and listen and listen some more – to our brothers and sisters who have lived and experienced life different than our own. May we show patience, empathy and compassion. Let those, whose stories are different than ours, not remain invisible. Let us take heart, have courage, and try to listen and learn more fully about the painful stories of those hurting.

Let us not confuse those who long to be heard and valued with those who simply want to cause chaos.

Let the police force reign in the riots. And when we have listened long enough to truly care about the cries of aching hearts, then let the conversations begin and respectful action follow. God has placed us here, at this moment, to carry one another’s burdens. Carrying those burdens include people with backgrounds that are both, similar and different than our own.  May we be God’s servants seeking greater understanding. And may Jesus carry us forward. God help us!

Only by His Grace.

May God Bless Us All!

Pastor Mark