Pastor’s Devotion #113

“Sacred”

“I am the LORD, who makes you holy” Leviticus 20:8

 

You are holy! You are holy because God has made you holy! When was the last time that thought crossed your mind? It is a sacred thought. We are holy because of the blood of Jesus Christ, bled and shed for you, for me, for all humankind. We have been created to be drawn into the holy and sacred spaces of God’s created life. Why do these sacred moments seem so fleeting and unfamiliar? Has science and human reason infringed upon it with numbers and calculations, so much so that we look to equations and codes to figure it out? But we haven’t figured it out. The race, the unrest, the riots – it’s reckless really – but it’s real! But isn’t sacred also real? The powerful and penetrating reality of a living God that delivers shalom – peace – complete wholeness and unity. Can one truly calculate the meaning of being brought before a burning bush? Like Moses, eyebrows singed, fingertips burned, knees shaking, the Word of God spoken into the soul of a man – what’s the equation for this encounter? Sacred! It’s Sacred! We have a need to recapture this holiness and be captured by the Holy of Holies.

When was the last time you recognized being brought into a sacred moment? You definitely did not discover it sitting in front of the television set, or computer screen. You found it, standing in front of a burning bush, as Moses did, standing on holy ground. It was a time set apart from space and routine. Sacred captures the soul. Sacred is experienced in the presence of, and in communion with the living God.

When was the last time you found yourself walking along the water’s edge? It’s just before dawn. The darkness still reigns, yet as you look to the east, your eyes capture the tiniest flicker of light illuminating the outline of the mountain peaks. A pink hue is detected, when all of a sudden, the brilliant white light bursts forth and breaks through, fully announcing that a new day has dawned. You are wrapped in a thick, warm jacket. You can feel the sting of the frigid air on your cheeks. You walk with the one you love. A cup of coffee warms your hands. The silence, the quiet, warms your soul. Not a word is spoken – but it is speaking – loud and clear – you know it. This moment is Sacred!

How long has it been since you felt the sacred rest upon your soul? This ongoing pandemic can be seen as an imposing threat to this peace. For many of us, perhaps most of us, it feels like foreign soil. We typically live in the mundane, rapid fire of repetitious activities day after day. A ticking timebomb that leads to disappointment. Now, with the pandemic restrictions, we wrestle within ourselves, unable to avoid that something internal is missing. Our isolation exposes our inability to distract ourselves and wonder what’s within. But is it possible that this pandemic can usher in new possibilities to encounter holy? What are you looking for? What are you listening to? What is the condition of your heart? Broken, tired and weary? If so, you are in perfect position to surrender and be brought to the bush, burning in its sacredness. Whether it is the wilderness, the wandering wood, or along the water’s edge, a sacred communion with God is waiting.

Come with me, let’s go further.

What is sacred? Breath, life, relationships, marriage, moments of all varieties and types – they are all sacred- they can be.  How do we “redeem” them? How do we “buy them back” after we have sold and squandered them and treated them like trivial cheap trinkets won at a small town carnival?

What do we hold sacred? What do YOU hold sacred? Better yet, what does GOD hold sacred? It takes time to consider the deep things of God. There are no short cuts. Is that why God established the Sabbath day and declared it – Sacred? One day in seven to be holy. Did God make it holy that we might take time to consider the precious gifts given? One cannot consider anything sacred racing and rushing through space and time.

Consider “communion”. HOLY Communion. Sacred Communion. We celebrate it regularly in our worship service. Perhaps too regularly? – is that possible? Holding sacred the body and blood of our Savior’s sacrifice for our salvation? But all of us, AND I LEAD THE CHARGE, to rush through the moment. Taking a “dutiful” pause before throwing down the wine, like we were just poured an ounce of whiskey in a shot glass.

Consider a different picture. Consider a sacred picture. A family is gathered around large tables. Members have traveled near and far to celebrate a child’s achievement – a graduation – given with honors. The gathering is set at a favorite restaurant, overlooking the harbor. White sails are seen in the distance. White table cloths cover the tables. Candles are lit, flowers are in their vases, and the celebration is about to begin. Anticipation, joy and love are beginning to spread around the table. It is a time to acknowledge perseverance, progress, and highlight the pleasure of the accomplishment. The waiter introduces himself and explains the movements of the evening. It will be a whole night affair. He leaves the table and a pause, selah, a breath is taken before it all begins. Quiet conversation ensues. For a few moments, hearts are allowed to breath. The waiter returns with a bottle of red wine. A special wine has been chosen and held specifically for this special occasion. The waiter removes the cork, he lets the bottle breathe. He pours a tiny amount into the bottom of the glass. The head of the table lifts the glass. He inspects the color. He lifts the glass to his nose and smells the rich aroma. He moves the glass to his lips, let the wine rest upon his tongue. He savors the rich texture, flavors and depth of the fruit of the vine. It is perfect. He smiles at his loved ones. All eyes are centered upon him. He nods his head in approval and beckons the waiter to share with all who are seated. It is a sacred moment – sacramental. And it is just beginning but they will remember this moment forever.

Jesus highly anticipated this sacramental moment with his disciples. He “eagerly” desired to share this momentous meal with them. He had hoped that they would forever remember this evening; remember this fellowship; remember this broken bread and cup of wine, remember his body and remember his accomplishment. He took time to have everything perfectly prepared. The candles, the herbs, the unleavened bread, the wine, the placements. A sacred moment. A sacred meal. Yet in the midst of lifting the wine, before his body was lifted to the cross, it seemed like all the meaning of the meal would be lost. His frustrated followers were lost. They were lost in arguments. Each one arguing which of them was the greatest. More arguments erupted. The “sacred’ was seemingly squandered in disagreements, defensiveness and misunderstandings.

But isn’t this the way of the world? How many times have we squandered and misunderstood the sacred right under our nose? When have we forgotten to rest and breathe in the sanctity of the day, the relationship right next to us, and the Word that is near – in our mouth and in our heart? Without truly thinking or understanding, the aroma is lost. Our life is filled with scattered activity without a hint of holy or moments of breathless delight. We rush through worship, but our rushing blinds us to so much more.

When was the last time you smelled the aroma of a new born babe? Can you recall the miraculous moment when your tender lips first kissed the soft cheeks of your infant child? You breathed in the miracle of life with all its beauty, depth and complexity in such a vulnerable state. Never was it more clear that only the Author of life could perform such glory. Or were you already lost in the preparations, plans and pressures that await at home? It is so easy to do. We all do it, in our own way. The sacred becomes lost among the laundry list of daily duties.  

Or perhaps its lusting after or lunging toward some temporal target.

Can you remember your wedding night? A sacred night. Vows and promises, hearts and minds filled with hope, united in a sacred moment, ordained by God and breathed by the Spirit. Two lives becoming one. A mystery. The bush burns between the two. Eyes meet, hands held, lips touch. Tender yet explosive in hope for what is to come. Or was it already washed away nights before in the back of a truck, or on a first date, or in front of a computer screen. More and more, the world paints a trivial picture of the union between man and woman. Some circles discuss disbanding this ancient tradition with its meaningless chirping. Perhaps it is because the observations of love have grown cold. Partners eating at the same table, but no words are spoken, no glances are made, no connections being shared. Something sacred is being lost.

Marriages can be written off, almost like a rite of passage. But it’s painful and spills destructive forces in all sorts of directions. I personally know that pain. I have felt those destructive forces and the sting that follows. How did the sacred slip away? The haunting questions still linger. Yet, with God’s amazing grace, possibilities still remain. The sacred can be recaptured. Forgiveness and humility are the gateways to this rediscovery. Thank God, I have felt this too. Two willing hearts able to return to a new sacred space.

And the covenant between man and wife, then compared to the covenant between Christ and his church. Another burning bush revelation. This is holy ground. The head of the church, the head of the body, at the head of the table, in sacramental communion with his people. He is calling them forth to carry forth his mission and message. The world compares belonging to the bride of Christ to that of a community group selling raffle tickets and cotton candy? No longer necessary. No longer a priority. What happened to the days, when the first actions of the first settlers, built a church for the community because they knew they needed something sacred?

What about the sacredness of life itself? Has this pandemic put a stake in the heart of the soul? For many, the answer is, yes. The loss of loved ones linger like a heavy fog that remains and is determined to destroy. Moments are now past memories. Life seems to be lost in loneliness and grief.

Others have lost the connection to their soul altogether. Lost souls, in a moment of insanity. This too, seems to be taking place in epic proportions. Suffering souls, taking permanent, panicked actions to stop the pain. News, just today, report of a woman in New York City, leaping from a 12-story building, taking her 5 year-old daughter along with her. This is not an isolated case. Doomed decisions that lead, in this case, to one stopping to take depression medications that leads to listening to lies about life and a meaningless future, that leads to an inescapable dark hole and the destruction of two more souls.

What happened to sacred? Life, so precious. Life, so fragile. Life, a gift given, so miraculous, so meaningful yet thrown away and tragically squandered. Heart wrenching. Pain, stifling. A million miles away from smelling the aroma of new birth. Light years away from lips of a parent pressed on their child’s cheek, cradling and caressing a modern, mind boggling miracle.

You DO understand that you are a modern, mind boggling miracle? Your heart pumps, your ears hear, your eyes see without any necessary thought. But what will it feel? What will they hear? What will they see? That’s where sacred becomes vulnerable. God has created you to be holy, to be sacred, because God is sacred. You have been made to walk, listen and see in holy communion with the One Holy God.

Today, let us take note of our breath. Let us hear the sounds of holy, even in silence. Let us taste and see a new day. Let it rest upon our tongues, and be pressed upon our lips.

For the One, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ is standing at the head of the table. He is smiling over you. Can you see the sails in the distance? The table is set. It is for you! The candles are lit. He is lifting his glass to you. You are his honored guest. You are precious in his sight. He has tasted and given his approval. He has accomplished all that is necessary. Take a drink. Trust Him. Enjoy! Savor this moment. This is just the beginning. But you will remember it forever. For this moment is sacred!

God Bless You All!

Pastor Mark

 

 

 



Pastor’s Devotion #112

“EW”

“In view of God’s mercy, offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God –

This is your spiritual act of worship.” Romans 12:1

 

So, the new year, 2021, is upon us. Where have you found your thoughts drifting? This might sound kind of strange, but have you found your “Word” yet? Yes, a “Word” for the year. I had a conversation with my daughter, Jeriah, yesterday. She reminded me of our family conversations during Christmas breaks over the past few years about discerning a “Word” for the upcoming year that would bring greater focus, meaning and intentionality. Recent research and studies have shown that a guiding word can provide empowering thoughts and focus as we move forward. So, Jeriah asked if I had a word yet. To be honest, it hadn’t crossed my mind. I was driving in my truck as we talked and my mind was suddenly racing down a path, seeing if a word might pop up. At first, my mind was a blank canvas. Then suddenly, surprisingly, I realized that yes, I did have a word to guide me into this new year. I actually talked about it in a sermon a few weeks back. So, I thought for this first devotion of the year, I might recast my word, and perhaps it might be a word to be adopted by our church. Whether you personally adopt this word, or not – perhaps there is another word that God might use to Call you out and Call you into a growing, deepening relationship with Him.

My word for the year is “Worship”. Not only worship but using the anacronym “EW” – “EVERYTHING WORSHIP”. When we hear the term, worship, I think most of us think of a Sunday morning gathering at church. Other thoughts might include personal worship early in the morning, or in our car singing to the radio. Usually, worship revolves around some kind of music and singing. Many non-denominational churches use language such as this; “You should attend our services – we have great worship and teaching.” In language, worship has been relegated to 30 minutes of singing with a praise band, followed by 30 minutes of teaching by a pastor. In our Lutheran tradition, we are pointed to consider worship as a bit more complex experience, (yet some might argue more pedantic) to include a confession of sins, confession of our faith through the historic creeds, scripture readings, a sermon, Holy Communion, prayers, and much more – you get the picture. Yet, that picture of worship is still vulnerable to narrowly centering itself at a church, on Sunday, and participated in, typically once a week.

I have come to the conclusion that I/we need to continue to expand this picture of worship. What if we viewed worship as something we celebrated every day? How about every hour? What about every moment? As I drove further down this path of pondering, I came to the conclusion that “Everything” ought to be an act of worship. Everything we do, everything we say, everything we are, ought to be an act of worship unto God. “Everything Worship” is not to be confused with “Worship Everything”. That’s our problem. We worship and give our hearts away to a lot of troubling things and in areas that cause great sorrow. The greatest commandment we have been give is to “Love” (Worship) the Lord our God, with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength. Our hearts are not to be surrendered nor attached or controlled by anything “in this world”, but we know the truth all too well. As Christians, we are to hold lightly the things of this world, in order that we might lift everything in enduring worship to God.

So also, we are not to confuse EW with EIW – “Everything Is Worship”. Not everything is worship. We can even sit in the third row of the sanctuary, let alone in a cold car in December and not worship. Worship involves the condition of the heart. Worship engages the focus and intent of the mind. These qualities of worship are highlighted in Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman in John chapter 4. In his dialog with the outcast woman, he acknowledges that a time is coming when all true worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and Truth. (John 4:23) Jesus shifts the focus from arguing about the true place of worship being a particular physical location at the Temple in Jerusalem, or as the Samaritans believed at their temple on Mount Gerizim. Rather, he points to a spiritual location, in the heart of every  individual who surrenders and acknowledges God, with heart and mind, in Spirit and Truth, as true worshippers.

If someone asked you the question, “Why did God create you?”, what would you say? Most of us would panic in the moment, as I did when Jeriah asked me her question. Our minds would search or shut down, and we would probably be left muttering, “Um, Um, Um, I’m not exactly sure.” Our human natural instincts would probably drive us to focus upon ourself. We might stumble into words and phrases such as: “To reach my full potential”; “To serve others”, “To be Kind and loving”.

But the truth is, God has created us to be “worshippers”. Our primary task is to worship the God who created the heavens and the earth. We have been physically born on this earth, to be spiritually born by the Holy Spirit, and then to be born anew eternally in God’s Heavenly Kingdom – in order that we might WORSHIP HIM!!

Paul states in Ephesians 1:12, “We, who were first to hope in Christ might ‘BE’ to the praise of his glory.” Paul says that our very “being”, our very existence and essence is to live to bring God praise. That folks, means worship. And it points to the truth that “everything” in our being – is to be directed toward bringing God praise – our act of worship.

Listen to how Paul describes worship in his letter to the Romans. I have discerned that Romans 12:1, is my Bible verse for the year. This is the way I’m thinking about it: there are 12 months in the year. 1 is the first place to begin the new year: first day, first month: Romans 12:1.

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.”  

Let’s parse this Bible verse. Our spiritual act of worship begins “in view of God’s mercy”. We will never desire to worship Him until wisdom and revelation both move us to recognize and receive God’s mercy through Jesus Christ. When we truly come to realize that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly” – that means you and me – God’s gift of mercy will change us.  We worship God because of His amazing, astounding, undeserved grace expressed to us through the life, death and resurrection of his dear Son, Jesus Christ. If not for the understanding of this Truth – the best we can offer is to turn to him in “duty” – something that we have been told is a good idea or trained and told to do so- but duty is a far cry, and light years away from desire – where true worship resides.

Paul tells us that true spiritual worship involves living bodies and living sacrifices. The Jewish nation had focused its worship upon dead carcasses laid upon an altar of stone. Jewish worship involved priests sacrificing animals and the shedding of their blood for the sins of the nation, among other material sacrifices. The people of Israel would bring their unblemished animals to the professionals and watch them “worship” God. Even with Moses, Joshua, David and Solomon, there was too much watching. Spiritual worship focuses upon living bodies of believers lifting up sacrifices of praise to Him who have been forgiven by the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ. The author of Hebrews states, “Through Jesus, therefore, let us “continually” offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess his name.” (Hebrew 13:15). Take note of the word, “continually”, it is a kissing cousin to the word, “everything”.

Then Paul directs our attention to the words, “Holy” and “Pleasing”. Spiritual worship is to be holy and pleasing to God. The term, holy means to be “set apart”. Our lives are to be “set apart” from the world. There is to be a stark and recognizable difference between how a believer in Christ carries him/herself in relation to the rest of the world. The church is to be set upon a hill, giving forth light, not for light sake, but to shine light upon the Truth of Jesus Christ. The Christian is called forth and challenged to be “in the world” while not being “of the world”. We are to continually keep our eyes upon Jesus Christ, the author and perfector and model of our faith. The mercy of God, that initiates our spiritual worship, in Jesus, is to be seen, heard and expressed through the life of a believer to those held captive in a world caught up in judgment and condemnation. Paul continues to describe this “holiness” in Romans 12:2. Paul writes, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. This spiritual worship is to take us beyond the natural, self-focused attitudes, actions and perspectives constantly revolving around us in the world. Currently, we can clearly see these worldly attitudes and actions in play in the politics in our Congress. Christians are to transcend the judgments, moods and perspectives that promote control, division, greed and egotism.

Finally, can our worship be “pleasing” to God? Hebrews 11:6 succinctly states, “And without faith, it is impossible to please God.” Therefore, trust in God is the posture of spiritual worship which pleases God. Once again, we are vulnerable to our natural instincts and human responses. We quickly look to rely upon our own strength, intellect and insight – yet Proverbs 3:5-6 drives home a different response; “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and he will make straight your paths.” 

For the past 12 years, our church has held up E3, as words to drive the direction of our ministry: Encounter God, Encourage Believers, and Extend God’s Kingdom. For the next 12 months, I’m going to add “EW” to my list. “Everything Worship!” You are welcome to join me if you feel led. Jeriah told me today that she has climbed on the worship train with me. She said that this word helps to elevate and point her to God, rather than herself. Whether the word strikes a chord with you or not, may God guide us to a deeper, broader, higher, longer and richer understanding of worship. May every day, in every way, washing the dishes, walking the dog, pulling the weeds, talking to the neighbor, paying the bills, driving the car, buying groceries and yes, talking to God – let it be “Everything Worship” and praise to God our Father, Jesus Christ, His Son, and Holy Spirit, our comforter.

Looking forward to worshipping with you throughout this whole Happy New Year!

God Bless You All!

Pastor Mark

 



Pastor Mark’s Devotions #111

“Rhythms and Routines”

“You also must be ready all the time, for the Son of Man will come when least expected.”

Matthew 24:44

I could not have planned for this–I just had to be ready. 

  • A question about death and heaven, that led to writing a devotion.
  • A plea about a lost loved one, missing from a mountain mudslide that led to prayer.
  • A call about a car emergency that led to a financial crunch.
  • A notification about cancelled reservations and travel plans that led to a disappointing conversation.
  • A report about a medical concern that led to a follow up. (everything is fine.)

I could not have planned for any of these–I just had to be ready.

Jesus directs us to be ready at all times. He tells us this because we do not know when He will return, nor does He. His words can also give us direction on a day to day basis, because, truly, we have no idea what tomorrow will bring. So how do we stay ready? How are you staying ready? We are all suffering from Covid fatigue and just want all of this to be over. But even with a number of vaccines ready to be mass distributed, we are still in this for the long haul. Do you still have some fuel in the tank or are you running on fumes? Countless people are just done with this whole ordeal – and to Dr. Fauci, Governor Inslee, or any other person in position of power, the answer is – “To hell with it, I’m going to see my family on Christmas!” This is truly what we all want to say and do – but yet we also want this all to be over – truly over and problem solved. So, most of us take a step back and take another look at our options.

Whatever your decisions, Christmas is going to be different this year. We will be more vulnerable than ever to the variety of emotions and feelings that can swing us in one direction or another. That being said, how do we prepare ourselves and get ready – and also be ready for the post-holiday blues and aftermath of an unrelenting pandemic?

I would like to suggest a few things to consider as we are in the midst of Advent and trying to get ready for Christmas.

If I asked you about your routines and rhythms, what would you say? Are you aware of any routines and rhythms in your daily life that help to bring a stable course or renewal for your heart? Perhaps, your routine, first thing in the morning, is to go to the bathroom, brush your teeth, wash your face, take your vitamins and look for that first cup of coffee. Does the day just happen, or can you recognize or put yourself in a place to feel a certain rhythm to your day? Many people make a check list – a “to do” list and their routine is to check off as many items on the list as possible. That can be helpful. I have become more of a list maker myself – but when you have 20 items on your list and you only accomplish 2, that can be rather disappointing.

Some people target one simple objective to focus on in the morning – to kind of jump start their day. This can be a helpful step in putting your heart in a good place, and energizing yourself for more. Choosing one doable task can protect your heart from getting overwhelmed with a long list of chores and discourage you from even beginning. This one small step can begin a move from routine to rhythm.

 Another small step in finding a helpful rhythm to your day is to consider starting something new. Some couples have discovered a new joy in being together as they have ventured out in a new way – by walking together, hiking together, cooking together – and being involved in an activity that allows for deeper conversation. As couples have stepped beyond their normal routines, they have found greater peace, energy and ebb and flow as they walk, talk and cook. Time has a chance to breathe and loved ones or friends can feel a new found freedom with each other.  

Also, consider your devotion time with the Lord. Does your relationship with God tend to be structured and formal and routed out? Routine can be a good thing. If you are going to read through the Bible in one year – it will require a commitment to a regular routine of daily Bible reading. But in the end, your reading scripture could possibly become another check mark on your “to do” list. In the routine you might have missed the deeper opportunity to spend time in rhythm with God, allowing Jesus to lead and the Holy Spirit to speak.

My regular routine, upon waking up, includes feeding Tigger, brushing my teeth, drinking a glass of water along with my glucosamine pills, reheat my day-old coffee, start a fresh pot, start a fire in the fireplace, turn on Pandora Christian worship music, settle down on the couch and then allow the next hour or more to free-flow with the Lord. Each day is different, but it all centers around drawing near to God – giving time and space to breathe, listen, hear, speak, sing, pray, write and worship him. This rhythm is what has helped my heart stay full to preach, write, respond to unexpected circumstances and not run dry. Rhythms are different for each person. But the more time becomes a crunch – rhythms are crushed in the process. You will know when you have found some helpful rhythms when your heart remains full and your response to the unexpected surprises you.  

If you want to fight off the fatigue from this pandemic – ask the Lord to help you find a helpful rhythm. It might include watching “The Nativity” Christmas film and then go on a walk – or zoom with your friends to talk about it. So too, the series, “The Chosen”. The second season is being completed this week. This series treats Jesus and his disciples as real human beings, while maintaining a faithfulness to Scripture. This could be a new rhythm that allows the Holy Spirit to breathe over you. What about reading a book out loud together with your partner, child or grandchild? Perhaps painting, planting or woodworking if it has been something you have thought of pursuing sometime down the road. You are down the road far enough – it’s time to give it a try.

Perhaps taking your old photos and putting together a picture book of family history or adventure – that gives you a chance to re-live and re-connect with people who are important to you – and make multiple copies for everyone to have one.

Consider this picture of rhythm.

Our music director, Erik Ronning, loves to surfboard. I’m sure he has routines getting his gear, loading up his vehicle, driving down to his favorite beach, finding his spot, putting on his wet suit. Then he splashes in the surf, paddles with his board over the oncoming waves. He finally reaches his spot. He sits on his board and waits. He watches. He’s prepared to catch a wave. Water laps over the board. He feels the cold water on his toes. The swells lift him up and settle him down. He is in his element. The wind blows, the sun shines, the seagulls squawk – Rhythm. He’s not in control of what wave comes next – but he’s ready – he’s waiting – his heart is full and he’s excited to be in the moment. When the moment finally arrives, he catches the wave, twists and turns and feels the energy and rides the wave until it exhausts itself. As the wave wears out, in the blink of an eye, Erik makes the turn, feels the rush, and is ready to paddle out and wait for another wave.

Can you feel it? Have you felt it? Rhythm, it is a wonderful thing. It allows us to breathe again. It allows us to begin again. It allows us to look at the long journey of a pandemic again and be ready for whatever comes again – and live again.

Go, grab your surfboard, go to the water, wait, ride and feel the wave – whatever it is, whatever it takes – you will breathe again – and you will find the rhythm of your soul again.

God Bless You All.

Pastor Mark



Pastor’s Devotion #110

“Do You Go to Heaven Immediately Upon Death”

 

We all wonder what happens when we die. Eternity is shrouded in mystery. The Apostles’ John and Paul were both given an actual glimpse of God’s eternal Kingdom, but most of us are left wrestling with many questions.  I received a great question, in an email this morning. It originated this week in a small group discussion. The question was raised, “Do you go to heaven immediately upon death?” Eventually, this question crosses the mind of every believer. The non-believer might get stuck with the simple question of whether there is the existence of an after-life at all. But for the Christian, heaven is our ultimate, eternal home. We are only sojourners on this earth. Our time on earth is temporary and passes away as quickly as the blink of an eye. King David records his awareness of this truth, in Psalm 39. He writes, “Show me, O LORD, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life. You have made my days a mere handbreath; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man’s life is but a breath.” (Psalm 39:4-5)

King David points to the brevity of life on earth. But David’s son, Solomon, known as the wisest of all Israel’s kings, points to life beyond the grave. Solomon wrestles within himself regarding the meaninglessness of life on earth yet he still declares in the book of Ecclesiastes that God has made everything beautiful in its time. He also states, “God has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

The book of Job, believed, by many, to be the first book written in the Bible, quickly acknowledges a life existence beyond the grave. In the midst of his suffering and turmoil, Job states, “I know my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh, I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes – I, and not another. How my heart years within me.”  (Job 19:25-27) Job mentions both “skin” and “flesh” as he declares this eternal reality. The “skin”, he refers to, represents that element of the body which is temporary, fragile, and will die. The “flesh” seems to point to that which will continue to live and is the first expression in scripture of bodily (spiritual?) resurrection.  

So, indeed, what happens when we die? Do we go into a sleep state and await the Second Coming? Or do we immediately enter the Kingdom that has been prepared for us?

Let us first look at the words of Jesus. When Jesus returned to Bethany and discovered that Lazarus, his dear friend, had already been dead for 4 days, he has a conversation with Lazarus’ sister, Martha. In that conversation, Jesus states, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die, and whoever lives and believes in me WILL NEVER DIE.” (John 11: 25-26) Jesus makes a radical, audacious claim that anyone who lives and believes in him, they will not die. Jesus brings comfort, security, and assurance that as believers, there is no death. As believers, life here, shifts to life there with God.

This reality is confirmed in a conversation Jesus has with a criminal as he suffers on the cross. One of the criminals crucified with Jesus, turns to him and pleads, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus responds, “I tell you the truth, TODAY you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43) There is no hesitation in Jesus’ reaction to the criminal. To this dying man, who is clearly suffering the consequences of his actions, Jesus extends the gift of grace and brings assurance that all will be well. Demonstrating heart-felt humility, Jesus declares the immediacy of being home with God.

The Bible also gives examples of Old Testament characters that are either immediately taken up to heaven, or come back to earth from heaven. Early in the book of Genesis, we are told that Enoch “walked with God”. Then the Bible states, “Then he (Enoch) was no more, because God took him away.” (Genesis 5:24)

Elijah is another Old Testament character that God “took away”. Elijah was a prophet, who confronted King Ahab and Jezebel with the Word of God. When his ministry was over and the baton was being passed to his apprentice, Elisha, the Bible reports that Elijah was taken up into heaven. 2 Kings 2:11 states, “As they (Elijah and Elisha) were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.”

So also, as Jesus was preparing to go to Jerusalem and suffer and die, he took his three close friends with him up a high mountain. There he was transfigured and his Father spoke encouraging words to his Son. In addition, God the Father sent, Moses and Elijah to speak to Jesus. These two pillars of the faith, descend from heaven to support, encourage and strength Jesus for the mission ahead. The Bible states, “As Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:29-31)

The Apostle Paul also speaks about the resurrection and eternity. Paul and the early believers understood that Jesus’ return, His Second Coming, was imminent. They believed that Jesus would return at any moment. Because of this, many early believers shed their normal daily activities and work. They believed that work was no longer necessary. But as time went on, and Jesus did not return, Paul had to address the Christian community and exhort them to continue their daily responsibilities while waiting. He finally addressed certain churches and members of the community saying that if anyone would not work, they also would not eat.  So also, during this waiting time, believers began to die. The question was raised, “What will happened to those believers who have already passed away (the Bible also uses the term – “fell asleep”).

1 Thessalonians is believed to be the first book written in the New Testament. Paul is writing to the church in Thessalonica and addressing many issues among the believers. One of those issues involves Jesus’ return and believers who have “fallen asleep”. Paul states, “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men; who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own words, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

The people were discouraged that Jesus had not yet returned and that believers were dying. Paul expressed a pattern for what would take place when Jesus came back. The dead would rise first and then those who are still alive.

You also might be familiar with the phrase, “Away from the body. At home with the Lord.” This statement also comes from the Apostle Paul as he addresses the Corinthian church. He states, “Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body, we are away from the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:6) Many Christians and denominations have used this scripture to support the belief that if one is “away from the body” then they are “with the Lord”. The key is the sense of immediacy, and that there is no delay in going to heaven once a person dies.

Coupled with that are all the countless examples of people experiencing Near Death Experiences (NDE). It is estimated that there are millions of people who have experienced an NDE during their lifetime. Dr. Mary Neal, is one example, describing herself as a “casual Christian”, drowned during a kayak trip in Chile. She has written two books about her experience, being taken to heaven, and then being sent back to earth. She confesses to having met Jesus and seeing some of the incredible glories of heaven. Countless confessions from recovering patients echo the same themes having experienced in heaven: Jesus, angels, family members, music, lights, love, peace and a clear, true sense of being home – and the removal of fear – are all consistent messages given from messengers returning from God’s glory. 

So, what do we make of all of this? Jesus has still not returned and billions of people have died since his resurrection. One of the challenges we are faced with is living in a chronological time continuum. God operates outside of time and space. He entered our world in the person of Jesus for 33 years, but he operates simultaneously, eternally in the past, present and future realities of our world. Therefore, our thoughts are not God’s thoughts and our ways are not God’s ways. (Isaiah 55:8) When we attempt to press our limited knowledge and understanding upon the plan and function of God’s omniscience – our conclusions will always be insufficient.

So then, let us return to where we began. Let us return to the words of Jesus himself. In the midst of death and mourning, Jesus brings words of comfort, hope, and love to his dear friends. More than that he makes a declarative statement of truth upon which we all, as believers, can stand and remain. Jesus declares, “WHOEVER LIVES AND BELIEVES IN ME – WILL NEVER DIE.”

————————————————————————————————————————————–

After saying this, Jesus then turns to Martha and asks the penetrating question, “Do you believe this?”

May we respond with the same child-like triumphant faith as Martha! She responded, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

So, to answer your question: “Do you go to heaven immediately upon death?” Yes, indeed, you will never die. You go directly home to eternal glory and into the arms of your loving Savior! Safe and Secure! No more fears, no more doubts, no more need for questions – only Truth – that Jesus has certainly prepared the way for each of us to go home – whenever our TODAY comes.

God Bless You All, Pastor Mark  



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 Devotion #106

 

“Oh, The Wonder of it All!”

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Psalm 139:13

 

I don’t know about you but sometimes, I find myself needing to step back and gain some perspective. It doesn’t necessarily solve all my problems, but many times it broadens my horizons. I found that happening last Saturday morning. Earlier in the week, I had read an article declaring that scientists have determined the size of our universe. Students of the cosmos have determined our universe to be 93 billion light years in diameter. So, that Saturday morning, I decided to sit and ponder and try to comprehend that number. The number, 93, can perhaps be easily remembered because the distance from the sun to earth is roughly 93 million miles. But 93 billion light years is a completely different animal. Light travels at 186,000 miles per second. Therefore, light travels from the sun to earth in 500 seconds, or 8.33 minutes. Pluto rotates around the sun at roughly 3.7 trillion miles.. Researchers say that light from the sun takes about 4-6 hours to reach Pluto. One light year is calculated to be approximately 6 trillion miles. If my calculations are correct, light traveling the equivalent of one light year would equal light traveling from the sun to earth over 65,000 times. Our mind has trouble comprehending the enormity of 1 light year. Now consider that our universe is over 93 BILLION LIGHT YEARS across. 93 billion multiplied by 6 trillion will get you close to the measurement in miles. Trust me, your calculator does not have enough digits. And our minds do not have enough cognitive ability to comprehend such a number. And yet here we are. And the universe is still expanding! What do these incomprehensible numbers even mean? It means that we are even smaller than one pale blue dot caught in a ribbon of light thinner than the thickness of a piece of hair.

And yet Scripture says that God knows every hair on our head. Consider the wonder of this – Almighty God who fills every space in the universe – He knows every hair on your head.

Let’s look another direction. Do you know how many cells make up a human body? Google gave me the number – 37.2 TRILLION. Yes, we have five fingers and five toes. We have two ears, two eyes, and two feet. Oh, and, by the way, our body just happens to be made up of over 37 trillion cells. ARE YOU KIDDING ME!!! Don’t try to count them, you’ll never get there. Some have used the example of stacking dollar bills to grasp the enormity of such numbers. The height of 1 million stacked $1 dollar bills measures about 358 feet. The height of 1 billion stacked $1 dollar bills measures roughly 68 miles. The height of 1 TRILLION stacked $1 dollar bills measures roughly 68,000 miles. That’s over a quarter of the way to the moon in dollar bills. As a side note, our national debt is over $27 TRILLION dollars, growing by $1 million dollars every 20 seconds (over 7.5 trips to the moon in dollar bills) and none of our politicians seem to be too worried about it. 27 trillion is a really, really big number – really, it’s too big for us to imagine. And now imagine that you have 37 trillion cells interconnected making up your one single human body. Let’s go one step further. The DNA with each of your cells, if uncoiled would measure approximately 5 feet. Therefore, if all your DNA was uncoiled and placed end to end, the resulting strand would measure roughly 67 BILLION MILES long. That’s about 150,000 round trips to the moon and back. How can it be that there is so much unseen, under our dual nostrils and singular noses?

And yet David declares, “My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body.” Psalm 139:15

Most of the time, I get caught up and worried about the things I see right under my nose. But sometimes we need to consider that which we cannot see, imagine, nor wrap our heads around – that it is so incredible, amazing and incomprehensible – the only answer to all the numbers is God. And there is only One!

He is the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. He is present in the 93 billion light years of the cosmos, and He is present in the 37 trillion cells that make up our human bodies, and He is present with you right here, right now, with whatever is right under your nose. Oh, the wonder of it all!

God Bless You All!

Pastor Mark



Pastor Mark’s Devotion #105

“Jesus – A Window and A Mirror”

“Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.” I Corinthians 13:12

For the past several weeks, I have been working on replacing the windows at my home. Ed Snowden has been guiding me through the replacement procedure. It was time for the 46-year old glass with their broken seals and oxidized aluminum frames to go. With the new glass in place, as I got ready for bed, my eyes did a double take. I could not believe how clean, crisp and clear everything looked outside. It was almost startling! It reminded me of the moment when I first tried on my new pair of glasses. I had no idea how much my vision had deteriorated. The world and its colors had turned so dull, and it was so subtle that I hadn’t even noticed it – until I looked through those new lenses.

My bathroom also received a new window. But this window was with frosted glass. Now, no one can peek in as I brush my teeth but it also means that my vision is impaired. Inside the bathroom is a medicine cabinet faced with a mirror. One day, after a shower, I dropped my towel on the floor. As I lifted my head, the door of the cabinet was open and the corner of the mirror gouged a deep gash in the top of my head. It bled like crazy.

Windows and mirrors. Recently, I read a short pastoral piece encouraging me to consider looking at Jesus as a window and a mirror. As I had just been working on my windows, I was “drawn” in. The Scripture writers “frame” Jesus in many different ways. He is the Lamb of God, the Lion of Judah, and the Prince of Peace. Jesus, himself, wants us to “picture” him as The Good Shepherd, the Light of the World, and the Bread of Life. He calls himself the Vine, the Gate, the Way, the Truth and the Resurrection.

When we look “through” Jesus as a window, we are empowered to see the outside world with greater clarity, crispness and precision. When we look “into” Jesus as a mirror, we are capable of seeing ourselves with greater honesty, openness and truth.

The Apostle Paul stated, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.” Whenever I read this passage, I think of the rest stop areas along I-5. Due to vandalism, the state puts up a piece of galvanized sheet metal as a substitute for a mirror above each of the sinks. Needless to say, it’s a pretty poor reflection. Paul says that what we have right now is a pretty dim and dull view of reality. But there will come a time when all things will become clear – it will be startling! We shall see our Savior face to face – and at that time, life will never have looked so clean, crisp nor clear. With Christ as our window, we will see the Kingdom of God and the joy of the Lord, as clear as crystal. With Christ as our mirror, we will see ourselves clothed in Him. Our identity will be covered in Christ. Shame, guilt, and sin will be no more. Holiness, godliness, and Christlikeness will be our reflection.

The Apostle, John, was given an open window to see into The Kingdom – and he was startled! This is what he saw; “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband…The wall (of the city) was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass.” (Rev. 21:1-2,18)

When you look outside, does the view look dim and dull?  Look to Jesus, he is your window of hope and your mirror to healing.                                             God Bless You All!                               Pastor Mark 



Pastor’s Devotions, #104

“You Will Never Die!”

Jesus said, “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” John 11:26

 

For the last nine months, on a daily basis, we have watched the media tally up the growing number of people dying due to Covid19. There are questions about the counting and whether the number should be larger or smaller – but in the end, the conversation centers upon death.

As human beings, we all share a similar fate. At some future date, we will breath our last and our life on this earth will be finished. As your pastor, I deal with death on a regular basis. And I would say that it’s pretty safe to say, I THINK about death AND life, every single day. Recently, Bill Williams and Doris Hatlen passed away.  Bill and Doris were wonderful, faithful, loving people that I had the privilege of knowing. Annabelle Birkestol passed away a few weeks ago and I will miss seeing her frail yet strong, faithful presence in the front row of the sanctuary every Sunday as we worshipped together.

Don’t get stuck thinking about death, keep reading!

Growing up in the church, with my dad, as a pastor, incidents of the sick and dying were a regular part of our life. Then, when my mom passed away in 1987, at the age 56, due to breast/liver cancer – death became much more personal. When my dad died in 2016, realizing that he was no longer there to lean on, there came a moment when the pall of death hung like a shroud over my shoulders. I can remember a moment when the magnitude of living this one momentary life hit me squarely between my eyes. The reality is that life on earth is but a breath. There is no going back, no do over’s, no second tries or repeats. When our life is over, it is over, really over – FOREVER. That seeming reality hit me like a sledge hammer and came on like a wave that swept me under, pulling me to a place of emptiness.

Don’t get stuck thinking about death, keep reading!

I wandered and wondered and wrestled in my mind over this experience for quite a while. Upon reflection, perhaps it was a type of Jacob wrestling or Jesus’ workout in the wilderness.

But by the grace of God, I did not get stuck thinking about death. I was given a gift! Keep reading!

I was given the opportunity, in my soul, to experience, what I would describe as “humanity without hope”. Looking at life through purely human eyes, there is a definite start and finish, and a clearly placed period at the end of our days. No more words – no more sentences – no more adjectives or adverbs – only blank white space.

Keep reading!

But Jesus came and sent the Holy Spirit to us, that we would see life and death and our future not through human eyes but with spiritual eyes! Life on this earth has a certain timetable, but life with God is eternal. This eternal life can only be seen and experienced spiritually. Jesus said, “The Spirit gives life, the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.” (John 6:63) Paul expresses it this way, “The body that is sown perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” (1 Corinthians 15:42-44)

Can you see it? Do you believe it? This is the question Jesus posed to Martha upon his arrival at the mourning of her brother, Lazarus who had died.

Jesus said to Martha, “I AM the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Did you hear Jesus’ claim? He made quit an audacious and humanly speaking, unbelievable statement! He said that whoever lives and believes in him, WILL NEVER DIE! Recently, there has been so much talk about death, I think it is easy to lose the reality of life! Looking with human eyes, yes, the reality is that we all die. Yet, looking with spiritual eyes, the reality is, WE WILL NEVER DIE! When we close our eyes and breathe our last on this earth, in the next moment, our next reality will be opening our eyes to Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of Heaven that he has prepared for us, standing before us.

According to Jesus, Bill, Doris and Annabelle, as followers who lived and believed in him, never died – they continued to LIVE! Certainly, I watched each of my parents take their final breath here on earth, but it was the beginning of a new life in the Kingdom of God. Jesus guaranteed this inheritance through the presence of his Holy Spirit. Each one left their physical bodies behind and put on their spiritual bodies. In the blink of an eye, they went home, their true home, and all of earth’s experiences faded with importance. They stood before the throne of grace. All their pressing questions needed not to be asked because they were in the presence of eternal Truth. It’s not that their questions would not have value nor their identity on earth any significance, but their true identity has now been defined, clothed and created in Jesus Christ in a new way. Many things, we come to find out, even in this life, do not carry the weight or concern that they once did. (And we hear this confident, convincing confession of this truth from every single individual who has experienced a glimpse of Heaven and returned to tell their regal account.)

Since that time of personally experiencing, what I would call, the fear of human hopelessness, the Spirit of God has filled that void. God has poured more of his Spirit within me. New life and its certainty has emerged more fully. One marker of this outpouring has been the ability to write a continual stream of devotions for weeks on end during this pandemic. Yes, there will be plenty of dry days ahead, and I am sure more times that the Spirit will lead me down another path into the wilderness, but Life has revealed itself. Death has lost its sting!

Are you still reading? One final thought.

We are promised that we will NEVER die. So also, life in the Spirit and eternity exists TODAY! It emerges more and more as we meditate upon the life we have to live in Him here, than the death our flesh will face out there. Life here and life there – this is Jesus’ promise to us.

The promise is genuine, but the words, at times, can seem a bit hollow. Recently, I read a devotion written by Ravi Zacharias that might be helpful. He wrote about a visit to the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia, with his wife and son. He commented how his wife would take her time to study and reflect upon each painting. Ravi, took more of a flyby approaching, glancing at each painting and quickly moving on to the next. Some years later, he reported reading about theologian and author, Henri Nouwen. Nouwen was so captured by a simple poster of Rembrandt’s painting, “The Return of the Prodigal Son”, that he traveled to the same museum in Saint Petersburg just so that he could be in front of the actual painting himself. He sat in front of Rembrandt’s painting for four hours – and it changed his life. After Nouwen’s encounter, he knew that he wanted to work with mentally handicapped children and joined a community in Toronto, dedicated to this ministry. Ravi commented on the difference between his glancing encounter with the work of art compared to Nouwen’s immersion of the piece. Then Zacharias followed with a quote from one of his favorite author’s A. W. Tozier. Tozier writes, “I have often wished that there were some way to bring modern Christians into a deeper spiritual life painlessly by short easy lessons; but such wishes are vain. No shortcuts exist…May not the inadequacy of much of our spiritual experience be traced back to our habit of skipping through the corridors of the kingdom like little children through the marketplace, chattering about everything but pausing to learn the true value of nothing?”

Ravi admitted to skipping through the museum, chattering much about nothing and missing the moment. It is easy to skip about and chatter, learning the true value of nothing. But let’s not miss the picture Jesus painted clearly before us.

He prayed and promised, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3)

Consider the picture and the time you reflect upon life and death. Ask the Holy Spirit for spiritual sight. Let His Life be your light! I encourage you to imprint this scripture upon your heart and mind – John 11:26 – Jesus said, “Whoever lives and believes in me will NEVER die!”

Yes, it’s true. You will never die.

Now, no more readingIt’s Time to LIVE!

God Bless You All,

Pastor Mark

 

 



Pastor Mark’s Devotions #103

“Flyby”

“When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luke 21:28

This past Thursday, Asteroid 2020 SW flew by planet earth at a distance of approximately 17, 556 miles. According to the Virtual Telescope Project, when an asteroid does a flyby from a distance less than 20,000 miles, it is considered an “extreme close encounter”. This asteroid was first discovered on September 18th by the Mt. Lemmon Observatory in Arizona, but it has been doing regular planet earth flybys since 1975. The size of this asteroid is estimated to be about 14 to 32 feet in diameter. According to NASA, potentially hazardous “NEO’s” (Near Earth Objects) are defined as space objects that come within 0.05 astronomical units (4.6 million miles) and are more than 460 feet in diameter. It is estimated that there are more than 18,000 NEO’s doing systematic flybys. Considering a wake-up call is given for any object 4 million miles away – and we just had a flyby 0.00381652 of that distance – it gives me pause to ponder and reflect. What do you think? It is better to be oblivious of the event or to be made aware?

As I continued reading about this NEO, I found out that there happened to be another asteroid that flew by our planet in August. It was the size of a pick-up truck and it flew by 0.00043478 of that red flagged distance from earth. For you earthlings, that translates to 2,000 miles. Yes, we had a Dodge Ram 4×4 asteroid that flew by our planet, separated by roughly the distance between Seattle to Detroit, Michigan. In space terms, it missed us by less than the hair on my chinny, chin, chin. The most interesting thing about this news, is that the F-150 Crew Cab 4×4 long bed rock was not picked up until it actually passed by us. Huh? Yes, NASA happened to look in their rearview mirror and saw a rock moving faster than a speeding bullet away from us. I guess they missed that one! It makes me wonder a bit about how many other rocks we might be missing. Granted, they are searching a pretty massive starry sky. And honestly, I’m not going to lose any sleep over it, but it makes for a good wire on which to hang a devotion.

Consider this; what if an 18-wheel Kenworth triple trailer truck with additional sleeping quarters came in on a collision course with earth? That could be a bit troubling. Give or take a few mega tons of explosive power, a Tyrannosaurus Rex could probably tell us something about that – but with his pea sized brain, he probably could not have appreciated the magnitude of the moment or the breadth of its consequences. Now, let’s just keep this conversation under our breath and down to a whisper, as we are still grinding out the miles of this malevolent year, 2020. 

But a month ago, each of us rose from our beds, made coffee, checked our emails, stopped at the gas station – keeping distance – and made our way down some familiar road – with masks on – all the while, unbeknownst to us, a missile from outer space, missed us by an astronomical unit barely the thickness of a string of hair, and everyone – literally everyone, on earth was absolutely clueless!

2,000 YEARS ago (a unit of TIME that is barely measurable in astronomical terms- perhaps comparable to the blink of an eye) Jesus was intent on making his followers aware of another collision. He was basically the only one on the planet in the know. He said that something was on its way that would strike our planet, and cause such a cataclysmic event, it will re-order everything as we know it. The timing is uncertain, but its inevitability is without question. He wanted everyone clued in. The news probably sounded like Greek to all who heard the message, but interestingly enough, its meaning can be found rooted in Greek language. The Greek word is, “palingenesis”. No, this does not refer to Sarah Palin reading the first book of the Bible. But the word, “genesis” does point the way. The word points to a new “beginning”. The word means “regeneration”, “renewal”, “restoration” and “renovation”. This categorical reorienting of space and time will explode upon the scene for all to see, and no one will miss. This event will not be a benign flyby, nor a near miss, marked by deep breaths and ringing of hands. All people will be made aware, all nations will be pulled together, and all hearts will be called forward. Jesus will return in power and glory. Not all will be ready but all will see him clearly.

Listen to Jesus as he describes this cataclysmic moment recorded in Luke chapter 21:

               “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time, they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke21:25-28)

Rather than worry, Jesus has revealed this coming event in order that all people would be ready! How does one get ready for a cataclysmic event that will change space and time? As a jailer cried out to Paul and Silas, in a Philippian prison during a seismic event that left ground shaking and hearts quaking  – he cried out, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul responded, “Believe in the Lord, Jesus Christ, and you will be saved – you and your household.” (Acts 16:31)

Paul pointed to the Rock that would save the world, not destroy it. He pointed to the One, outside our universe who entered our broken world, in order that our reality would experience a “re – genesis”. He pointed to the One who will make all things new – heart and soul – time and space – You and Me!

This is too Good of News to let flyby. Lift up your heads. Your redemption is drawing near!

Yours in Christ,

Pastor Mark



Pastor Mark’s Devotion 102 -Sept. 22

“Compassion”

“Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately, they received their sight and followed him.” Matthew 20:34

As Jesus made his way from Jericho to Jerusalem and was about to make his triumphal entry amidst cheering crowds and waving palm branches, he was met by two blind men. They shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us.” The crowd rebuked them but Jesus called them to him. He asked them, “What do you want me to do for you?” “Lord”, they answered, “We want to receive our sight.” The Bible says that Jesus had “compassion” on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him.

Jesus showed compassion on all kinds of people. Considering all that is going on in our world, compassion might be a subject worth considering today. Would others consider us to be compassionate? Would our Stanwood community consider our congregation a compassionate church? What does it even truly mean to be “compassionate”?

The Biblical authors certainly saw Jesus as one who was compassionate. Four times in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is specifically referenced having shown compassion. Matthew states that as Jesus moved through all the towns and villages, he taught, preached and healed the sick. In summary, Matthew 9:36 says, “When he (Jesus) saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” In Matthew 14:14, prior to Jesus feeding the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish, it is recorded, “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.”  Again, in Matthew 15:32, prior to his feeding another crowd of 4,000, Jesus said, “I have compassion for these people, they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat.” Finally, in Matthew 20:34, when Jesus is confronted by the two blind men on the road outside of Jericho, Jesus had compassion on them, and gave them back their eyesight.

The Apostle Paul used the term, “compassion” in describing the character of God in the opening verses of 2 Corinthians. Paul states, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion, and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves received from God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)

In Romans chapter 9, St. Paul reminds his readers of God’s nature, that He first spoke to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” (Romans 9:15)

Then in the book of Colossians, Paul encourages believers, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion – as well as kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” (Colossians 3:12)

Last week, I read a secular article regarding “Emotional Intelligence”. In the article, it stated one way of determining the strength of one’s emotional intelligence was the ability to differentiate between the terms; empathy, sympathy, and pity. The article stated that these terms are thrown around so liberally, that it might seem like an exercise in semantics. But understanding their different nuances can make a world of difference when dealing with the people around us.

 

I thought it might be interesting to consider this idea from a biblical perspective.

When the Bible states that Jesus had “compassion” with those around him, another word that could be used would be “empathy”. Empathy, by definition, is the “ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” The key to empathy is that it requires an “active engagement” with another person. It involves an action that places attention and focus upon another individual. Empathy seeks to “walk in the shoes of another”, but doesn’t assume that it already does so. Empathy includes opening one’s ears and heart, and truly listening to the conditions of another. Jesus actively engaged, listened, and put on the shoes of those he came in contact with. This is why he connected so deeply with so many.

Sympathy is defined more as an automatic or involuntary response. The focus is not so much upon the other individual but the association one has with the other’s conditions. You may sympathize with those who lost homes in the Creek Fire because you yourself have suffered a similar fate. But your sympathy is generated more from your own experience and less from an active engagement with those who have suffered the loss.

Pity is defined as the feeling of sorrow and compassion caused by the suffering and misfortunes of others. Pity tends to look at another person as a victim. Pity is not an emotion that has one walking alongside another or wearing another’s shoes. Pity places a person above the other and does not connect persons through a shared experience.

As it is helpful to differentiate between the terms, empathy, sympathy and pity, it is also helpful to understand the similarity between the biblical terms, mercy and compassion.

God declares himself to be both merciful and compassionate. He will have mercy upon whom he has mercy, and compassion upon whom he has compassion. The common link between these two terms is “active engagement”. The word, Mercy, “hesed” in the Old Testament and “eleos” in the New Testament means literally, “To Relieve” or “To Bring Relief”. Mercy is to bring tangible, physical relief from physical, mental, emotional or spiritual pain or suffering. So, in Jesus’ parable of the “Unmerciful Servant” – when the King calls out the hard heartedness of his servant and states, “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” (Matthew 18:33) He is referring to the fact that he could have “relieved” his fellow servant of a physical, monetary debt.

Therefore, Mercy involves an “active engagement” in relieving the suffering of another person through a type of “act of kindness”. So also, compassion involves an “active engagement” in identifying and experiencing the suffering of another person in a tangible, emotional way.

The Greek root word for “compassion” points to a person’s bowels or intestines. One’s stomach gets twisted in knots because they identify with another’s pain. We can see this in Jesus when he arrives in Bethany after Lazarus, his dear friend has died. He meets Mary and feels her loss. John 11:33 records this moment. “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was ‘deeply moved’ in spirit and ‘troubled.’ In the vernacular, we might say, “His guts were twisted inside out”. So much so, that Jesus wept and shed tears with them.

Consider today that we have a God who declares himself to be merciful and compassionate. In these trying times, we have a God who is “actively engaged” in our lives. His desire is to “bring relief” from all that troubles us. He walks alongside us. He not only knows our shoe size, he is on his knees, lacing them up for us, looking into our eyes, with a broad smile on his face. He is ready to listen with an open heart, and wants to connect in a tangible way.

Today, may this Father of compassion comfort you. And when the opportunity arises, may we comfort those with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.

God Bless You All!

Pastor Mark