Monday, December 21, 2015

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns

It’s only been six months since the shooting at Mother Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in downtown Charleston where nine people were killed. In some ways, it seems like we’ve lived through a lion’s share of long, difficult days since then. Paris bombings, San Bernardino shootings, and a thousand-year flood right here in our own neighborhood all contributed to some very long days lately. I’ve spent more time than usual reading or watching news reports in order to stay informed about terrorism. I also had to do a good bit of rescheduling, waiting for the water to recede. Long days, indeed.

In other ways, it’s as if the days are flying by because of progress we’ve made in some of our attempts at unity. I am still alive and well and on the other side of all of those tragedies, and I am not alone. I cannot take credit for that, though. If I had been in a different place or time, I very easily could have been one of the casualties. In that respect, every day is a gift and the days are fleeting. 

I remember thinking at the time of the Charleston shooting that if nothing else good came out of that situation, at least the name of the church included a meaningful reminder to all of us, especially in difficult times. Emmanuel. It’s a Hebrew word that means “God with us.”
Now, it’s Christmas. Some of our favorite Christmas carols include the word Emmanuel in the lyrics. It makes sense because when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we are celebrating that He left heaven and came to earth to be with us. Emmanuel. 

Centuries before it actually happened, Isaiah said that a virgin would give birth to a child and would call him Emmanuel. Generations later the apostle Matthew wrote about the birth of Jesus and quoted Isaiah saying, “They shall call His name Emmanuel.” Isaiah and Matthew were lifetimes apart but were inspired by God to tell the same story. 
Sometime after Isaiah died and before Matthew was born, God stopped talking to people on earth. No revelations. No dreams. No inspirations. No promptings. He was silent for 400 years. 

In my own life, I often find that God makes all kinds of attempts to get my attention. He orchestrates people in my path, songs on the radio, articles in my email, sunshine after a rainy day, and all sorts of things to help me recognize Him. He is here with us so it shouldn’t be difficult, but sometimes I’m a little blind. Or obstinate, rebellious, or deliberately ignorant. He never gives up though. He keeps trying to get through to me. That’s why I can hardly imagine what it must have been like during all those years of silence with no word from Him. 

When I think about all that silence, it makes me grateful that I live at a time in history when I can hold His word in my hand and carry it in my heart. Even if terrorism and devastating natural disasters are close to home, I have Him and His word with me. Truly, Emmanuel. 
God’s voice was silent on earth, but I’m thinking maybe the decibel level in heaven might have picked up during those years. The residents of heaven must have felt the anticipation that God was about to do something life changing. The volume probably went up on their singing and praising. When the time finally came, the silence on earth was broken when God sent His son, Jesus, to earth as a man. To us. For us. With us. Emmanuel. 

What was heaven like when Jesus left? I don’t know for sure, but maybe the silence that blanketed the earth for the previous 400 years found its way there for a time. Heaven without Jesus? None of us really knows what heaven is like, but heaven without Jesus is not something I have any words for at all. 

That’s exactly what makes His coming to earth so extraordinary. He left heaven and came to earth because of us. The good news is that Jesus’ time as a man on earth was only temporary. He had to get back to heaven, but one prerequisite for a human to get to heaven is to die. So He died. Then, he conquered death and after three days was alive again. As humans, the other requirement to get to heaven is believe that Jesus did all of that for us. He did it to make a way for us to be able to go to heaven too. 

Being on this side of the history of Jesus’ birth and return to heaven means that Christmas is a time to remember His first arrival on earth. More importantly, we should be anticipating and celebrating His next arrival on earth. Just as I imagine the volume level of praise increasing in heaven leading up to Jesus’ first advent, maybe we should be doing the same thing here and now as we wait for Him to come back. The next time He comes He won’t be leaving heaven behind. He will bring it with Him. Emmanuel! 

Go ahead. Sing it loud, “Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns; Let men their songs employ; while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy!” 

 This was originally posted Sunday, December 20, 2015 on the Press and Standard website: www.colletontoday.com

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Don't focus on that empty glass

My niece got married last month. We were excited about the wedding since she got engaged six months prior. I have a sister who lives in Florida, one in Georgia, and I’m here in South Carolina, so I was thrilled to have an opportunity for our extended family to be together for such a happy occasion. I wish I could replay a video of the wedding for you and mute the sound so that you could soak in all the beauty of that picture perfect day.

The sights were everything you would expect from a traditional Southern wedding. Early in the day the bride and bridesmaids were dressed in monogrammed tunics for hair-styling and make-up application. I’m not sure why we Southern girls love a monogram, but we do. Baskets of hydrangeas were hung on the end of pews in the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church, which is located on a main street that runs through the center of her small hometown. The florist put the finishing touches on an entire garden of greenery at the altar. It was a vision of dreams come true for the sweet Georgia peach that is my niece.


The ceremony began and mothers were ushered in. Groomsmen filed in, all grinning. The bridesmaids proceded down the aisle one by one, all wearing lace dresses in the same plum color. The bride and her father took their time walking down the aisle. The minister said some things, the bride and groom kissed, then the wedding party exited in pairs down the center aisle. It was a happy, beautiful scene.


If I replayed the video, only this time with the volume up, it would not be what you would expect. It would still be visually gorgeous by all traditional Southern standards and expectations, but the soundtrack would be different. You wouldn’t hear a pipe organ play Wagner’s Lohengrin “Bridal Chorus.” Instead you would hear John Legend and Chris Tomlin songs on guitar. I don’t think I heard the minister say, “We are gathered here today in the sight of God…” I also don’t think I heard the bride or groom use the words “to be your wedded…”


The words of ceremony the minister chose where fresh. The vows the couple spoke to each other still expressed sentiments of love and commitment, but their words were different than ones I’m accustomed to hearing at weddings. I really had to pay attention to the words spoken and sung. Listening intently for content helped me feel like I was participating even though I wasn’t in the wedding party.


The following week, I settled back into my routine and began to prepare for my Bible study group when I realized that the scripture we were scheduled to cover was Chapter 2 of the gospel of John. It’s the story of Jesus at a wedding celebration. How appropriate, I thought, as I was still in a bit of a wedding mindset from the previous weekend.


As the story goes, Jesus, his mother Mary, and his disciples were guests at a wedding in Cana. The host family ran out of wine. Mary simply states to Jesus that, “They have no wine.” She didn’t make any demands or ask him to do anything, she merely told him the problem. Then she pointed the servants to Jesus and told them, “Do whatever he tells you.” So, they filled jars with water, then Jesus turned it into fine wine. It was a miracle.


There were probably several other things higher on the wedding planner’s priority list than estimating wine consumption. One of the first priorities would have been the invitation list. Jesus was on it. He showed up. He always does when He’s invited.


Jesus could have made wine from water without the servants’ help, but he didn’t. He extended an invitation for their participation. Whatever they had been doing to serve the guests, they stopped doing it and paid attention to Jesus and his instructions. The results were miraculous.


Jesus’ presence can reprioritize a check list, a job description, and even the best laid plans. The new list might include: Don’t focus so much on the empty glass of wine, or even a full glass. Instead, pay attention to the source. Do whatever He says. You might find yourself participating in a miracle.


This was originally posted Sunday,November 29 2015 on the Press and Standard website: www.colletontoday.com

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Washing us clean


Once the topic of deer hunting comes up, it doesn’t take long for people to ask, “You’re not from around here, are you?” It is obvious that I have absolutely nothing to contribute to that conversation. I do, however, listen to the stories and look at pictures shared by proud hunters.

There is one kind of photograph that always makes me a little squeamish. It’s the evidence of a ritual surrounding the first time a young hunter kills a deer. The blood from the animal is smeared on the face of the hunter. For a non-hunter like me, it seems a little gruesome. I’m just grateful they wash it off before they go out in public. I’m not sure what I would do if someone walked into my office with dried blood on their face from a previous hunting excursion.

No, I’m not from around here. I’m from the big city of Jacksonville, Florida. When Scott and I were young newlyweds, we lived in an apartment there on the St. Johns River. We dealt with big city traffic, bright lights, hustle, bustle, and crime. One weekend we both had separate events to attend. I returned to our apartment in the early evening. Scott called and said he would be late. Our favorite BBQ restaurant would have been closed by the time he got back into town, so I agreed to head on over there and get a take-out order, then we could eat as soon as he got home.

I returned to our apartment complex and parked my car. I gathered up my purse, keys, and bags of BBQ. As soon as I stepped out of my car and shut the door, someone grabbed me from behind. I struggled and fought my way from the driver’s side door to the front bumper. I felt a forceful thump on my head that knocked me down, but not out. Falling to the ground freed me from my attacker’s grasp so I jumped up and ran towards the gate of the nearby privacy fence. I looked over my shoulder and saw that he was not following me, but he was aiming a gun at me and screaming that he was going to kill me. I realized then that the gun was what he had used to whack me on the head.

Thankfully, I made it through the gate and in to our apartment alone, with my keys and purse. Unfortunately, the BBQ was left scattered on the sidewalk. Once inside, I called 911 and soon police and EMS arrived. I answered questions from the police officer while the EMS technician addressed my head wound. Scott was still traveling so the officer asked if I had any other family nearby. I called my parents. I didn’t tell them what happened, I just told them I needed them to come. The officer encouraged me to change my clothes before my mother arrived, pointing out that my white sweatshirt was covered in blood. Apparently even small head wounds bleed profusely. He explained that the first thing my mother needed to see when she came through the door was some evidence that I was physically okay, not her child covered in blood. I changed my clothes. I washed the blood off my face.

We are that way about blood, aren’t we? Regardless of how we get it on us, whether it’s ours or not, washing it off becomes a priority before we do anything else, for our own sake as well as others. Humans have been that way for a long time. In the Bible, Leviticus 16 details instructions for the priest regarding sacrifices for the Day of Atonement. Those instructions include specifics about the priest bathing and changing clothes after he sacrifices an animal and sprinkles its blood on the altar, or the mercy seat.  What I find interesting is that there are no instructions to clean the mercy seat. Every time a priest sprinkled the sacrificial blood, the drops fell on dried blood from all the previous sacrifices. The spilt blood remained, but the priest walked away clean.

Jesus’ life brought new meaning to those rituals of sacrifice. In the end, it was His blood that was actually spilt as the ultimate sacrifice. Jesus overcame death and rose from the grave so that we could have what is only His to give. Hebrews 9 explains that you can’t receive an inheritance unless the owner dies. Verse 22 says “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Forgiveness is what was left for us when His blood was spilt. Just like the blood of bulls and goats sprinkled on the mercy seat by the Old Testament priests, the blood of Jesus never goes away. That takes us out of the crosshairs and makes us the ones that get to walk away clean. Now that’s good news worth of sharing.
 
This was originally post Sunday, October 18, 2015 on the Press and Standard website:
 

Monday, October 5, 2015

Speaking His word out loud

Typically, I’m the person who is always ready to leave the party simply because it’s past my bed time. I would always go to bed early if there weren’t so many things that needed to be done before the sun rises again.  I am also, however, a light sleeper. If the noise, light, and temperature conditions are not just right, I struggle. Those are the nights that I lie in bed and think. My analytical tendencies take over and I start to plan conversations in my head. That’s when I come up with what I wish I had said in real conversations previously held with real people. I formulate what I might say if the subject comes up again. Of course, these conversations are one-sided so it is always only my side of the story. The more I think, the more worked up I become. The more mentally stimulated I am, the more sleep will be nothing but a pipe dream.

These only-in-my-head conversations increase as my stress level increases. Instead of containing them to just lying in bed at night, they also get up with me. Morning comes, with or without sleep, and I make my way to the shower. The noise of the water flow and the running fan, while everyone else is still asleep, add to my sense of solitude and security behind the shower curtain. It feels like a safe environment for these questionable one-sided conversations, so I actually talk them out, speaking softly but still out loud. That is when I have the best rehearsals for conversations that will probably never actually take place.

Recently we experienced a couple of difficult weeks at our house. Simultaneously, we all suffered with a nasty cold, I was preparing for a big annual event at work, there were several concurrent deadlines on our calendars at church and at work, my husband had to be out of town which always alters my schedule, we had issues with our washer and dryer so I had to go to the laundromat instead of multitasking at home. Those were just some of the external things beyond our normal daily routines. All of these things along with my emotional state over them gave me significant fodder for my insomnia and the subsequent analytical one-sided conversations.

I have a special friend, Ginger Walker, who for years has given me unwavering support and tender  encouragement regardless of any circumstance. Those difficult weeks we recently experienced were no exception. She encouraged me to meet with her so that we could pray together and talk about what God is doing through it all. She also encouraged me to work more on some scripture memorization. We chose a few Bible verses, gave ourselves a week to work on it, then recited them to each other the next time we met together. One of the scriptures that Ginger and I have been working on is Psalm 119: 11, which says, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.”

It’s fascinating to me how Bible verses we commit to memory somehow become timely and relevant to what is currently going on in my life. I wouldn’t know that if we had not made the effort to learn the verses. Without God’s words, I would still be trying to respond to people and circumstances with the only other thing that occupies my mind, which would be my own over analyzed and well-rehearsed words.

God said “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).

What I’ve discovered in trying to memorize scripture is that speaking God’s word out loud is indeed returning it to Him. I also don’t have to wait to see what it will do. The emptiness that is immediately filled is inside of me. I have His word in my heart. Now that’s an accomplishment!


There are over 31,000 verses in the Bible so I still have some work to do in replacing my words with His. I am inclined to believe, however, that every word of God’s that is stored in my heart is one less of my own that I have to rehearse. One of the benefits of that will finally be a good night’s sleep. I know that because His words say so, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

This was originally posted Sunday, October 4, 2015 on The Press and Standard website: www.colletontoday.com

Monday, August 17, 2015

Enemies can be defeated with praise

Last month I attended the funeral of a World War II United States Navy veteran. The military honors presented at the close of the memorial service included folding an American flag with eagle-eye focus and extreme precision. Once it was neatly tucked into a triangle shape with only the blue field and white stars showing, his two young adult grandsons, both in their own full military dress uniforms, handed it off to their mother, the deceased’s daughter.

Then we heard the sound of a bugler playing “Taps.” I thought it was a recording at first, but then someone next to me nudged me and pointed. There was a young woman in a white Navy uniform in the balcony of the church blowing into the brass instrument. She hit the last note with controlled accuracy and then, as if actually hearing a drum cadence even in the silence, she turned and, holding her bugle upright, marched in strict rhythm out of the balcony and down the stairs.

Here it is a month later and I’m still thinking about that bugler. Uniforms and American flags are definitely things that make me want to stand up and salute, but not necessarily bugles. It’s made me wonder how we ever came to have buglers in military service in the first place. I remember pictures in my school history books of fife and drum corps from the Colonial days. I think it’s safe to say that they probably received their musical training in Europe. I also assume because of that, the musicians and military association is older than the United States. It didn’t start with us. We have to look even further back in history to find its origin.
 
Musicians and armies go all the way back to the Old Testament. While our military bands today are mostly ceremonial and celebratory, I think originally their purpose must have been to sound signals and alarms, something like a warfare wake-up call.
 
Here’s a historical example: “Whenever you hear the sound of the trumpet, join us there. Our God will fight for us!” That was Nehemiah dealing with threats from army opposition as he lead in rebuilding the wall at Jerusalem (Nehemiah 4:20).
 
And another one: “When the three hundred trumpets sounded, the Lord caused men throughout the camp to turn on each other with their swords. The army fled…” That was Gideon defeating the Midianite army (Judges 7:22).
 
Still one more: “After consulting the people, Jehoshaphat appointed men to sing to the Lord and praise him for the splendor of his holiness as they went out at the head of the army, saying: ‘Give thanks to the Lord, for His love endures forever.’ As they began to sing and praise, the Lord set ambushes against the men…who were invading Judah, and they were defeated.” That was Jehoshaphat facing battle against the Moabites and the Ammonites (2 Chronicles 20:21-22).
 
Here, the musicians were up first. They were on the front lines, so to speak. They were commanded to play and sing before any blades were thrown. Once they did, they didn’t even get around to fighting. It was the music that did their enemies in. The musicians win. I can only imagine what all that singing and trumpet playing must have sounded like.
 
I don’t think any of us can escape facing the enemy or the battle. I do think, however, that there is evidence in scripture that shows the enemy can be defeated. All it takes is praise. Turn up the volume, start singing God’s praises. You might inspire others to sing along.
 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Freedom to Serve One Another


I pulled in the driveway at home just after five o’clock. In my car was a box of recyclables I had collected at work so I walked over to the large collection bin beside the house and dropped them in. I walked back across the yard to the mailbox where I pulled out an advertisement, the bank statement, and a vehicle recall notice. I made a mental note that the latter two things needed to be added to my to-do list.

I walked back by my car and reached in for my purse before I made it up to our front door. Once I was inside the house, I dropped my purse on the ironing board and walked straight to the closet where I picked up the laundry basket and lugged it to the washing machine. I turned the knob to start the water flowing, added the detergent and the dark colored clothes.

My washing machine is old and a little temperamental, but faithful. It requires a little extra pampering to get the tub filled with cold water, which means sometimes I have to manually fill pitchers up in the kitchen sink and then walk back over to the washer and pour them in to get it going. This was one of those days.

Once it started agitating, I went back to the kitchen, pulled a pot out of the cabinet, filled it with water and put it on the stove to boil. Noodles were on the menu for dinner. I rummaged in the cabinet for a dish for the broccoli and a bowl for the sauce. From the kitchen I could see outside to the back yard where a peace lily’s thirteen blooms were all wilted and hanging over from the heat. I already had a pitcher out from filling up the washing machine so I filled it up again and added some plant food. I went outside and poured the entire gallon on the lily. It didn’t take long for it to perk up.

That made me think that perhaps the plants in the front yard might need a little attention too. I filled the pitcher up with water again and added more plant food. I emptied it into two ferns on the front porch. The flowerbed there was looking a little sad too, so I got the hose and starting spraying the Mexican heather and the spider grass.

I stood there staring at the water spray from the hose nozzle. The graceful trickling sound of the water stream mesmerized me for a moment and I thought to myself, after working all day then coming home to all this, I just wanted to be free. Free from cooking, laundry, recycling, plant care, bank statements, and vehicle maintenance. I wanted to sit down and do nothing. Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I want anyone else in my household to take up those chores either. I didn’t want any one of us to have to worry about those things any more. I wanted freedom from all the responsibility for all of us.

Do you know what would happen if I exercised my own freedom and emancipated myself from the office, the washing machine, or the kitchen? The people at work would have to spend weeks trying to figure out my computer filing system. My husband would have to read the instructions on the noodle box. He would also likely have a drawer full of pink underwear because he would not be able to figure out my temperamental washer. In other words, they would lose some of their freedoms.

The recent newsmakers like same-sex marriage, the Confederate flag, Planned Parenthood and abortion have had us all thinking and talking about freedom lately. It’s caused us to consider the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and how we believe it grants us the freedom of press, speech, assembly, religion, due process and bearing arms.

I think the Bill of Rights and the Constitution make a lot of sense. I think it makes even more sense when you look at it in light of scripture, which I believe the framers of those documents did. Paul wrote in Galatians 5, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.”

If I choose and demand liberty for my own sake only without accepting any responsibility for the outcome and how it affects everyone else around me, then we all lose true freedom. True liberty comes with real responsibility. That’s what serving one another is. That’s what freedom is.

Now, please excuse me. The dryer buzzed so I need to take the liberty to go fold some clothes.

The was originally posted July 26, 2015 on The Press and Standard website: www.colletontoday.com 

Monday, June 29, 2015

The past week was inexplicable

This past week has been inexplicable. It was one of those weeks that contained the best and the worst. Much of it is indescribable, yet we will be talking about it for weeks as we try to make sense of it, both good and bad.

Saturday, my husband and I attended The Response event at the Charleston Coliseum. It was an event designed specifically to pray for America. It was coordinated and facilitated by Doug Stringer and there were many different kinds of people involved. Included in that diverse group of people were several elected officials from local, state, and national levels. Not one of them spoke a word about any kind of political agenda. They all prayed, out loud, for our communities, our state, and our nation to return to God. We spent six hours there and left feeling glad we had done so. We knew we had experienced the presence of God. It’s hard to describe how that happened or put it into words, we just knew it was good.

We hadn’t planned it, but on Tuesday we were presented with an opportunity to take a meal to a group of hungry workers. The Carpenters for Christ from the Autauga Baptist Association in Prattville, Alabama were in Colleton County to construct the Bennetts Point Interdenominational Chapel. When we arrived at the site they were finishing up the roof underlayments. Just three or four days prior, there was only a concrete foundation. The residents of Bennetts Point have been praying about and working to make this a reality long before the Carpenters actually showed up. We delivered the food and waited around the construction site for the whistle to blow signaling dinnertime. As we waited, I talked to a few of the residents about how the project came about. It’s an amazing story involving a community of folks, a commitment to God, and a vision to be and do more than they currently are. Every story I heard included details about conversations or actions of the group. No one talked about themselves or took any individual credit. They all spoke of how God had been the instigator. Again, it was an experience that is hard to put into words, we just knew it was good.

While that chapel was being built, an attempt was made to tear down another church not too far away. Wednesday, the Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston was pierced with gunfire that took the lives of nine individuals who were there for the purpose of uniting in prayer. It was a difficult day in the South Carolina Lowcountry. At first, it felt like God was a little further away.

Thursday, we cancelled what was on our calendars and headed back down to Bennetts Point for a worship service led by the Carpenters in the chapel they had been constructing. My husband and I both felt like we needed to again be reminded of the good that happens when people follow God. We needed to sense the closeness of His presence again.

We arrived to find that the stilted structure was now dried in. They brought in folding chairs for the worship service. We sat near the front, crowded in with anticipation. There was no insulation or sheetrock yet, just bare rafters and beams. Every direction I looked, I saw wood. Nothing but wood. I thought about Jesus being a carpenter and imagined Him leveling a beam and hammering nails into a two-by-four in this wooden frame.

 During the service, we were served communion. My thoughts then went to Jesus sharing communion with His disciples. He did that just before He died. His death was wrought by wood and nails.

 Jesus was a carpenter, but He didn’t use his carpentry skills to build a church. It was His self-sacrifice and never-ending love for us that enabled His church to grow. Jesus nailed to a wooden cross is where evil dies and good wins. It’s what had to happen in order for us to be able to experience the presence of God today, in prayer events, chapel construction projects, and anything else we face. Jesus’ death is the reason we can experience God with us.

 “They shall call His name Emmanuel, which means, God with us” (Matthew 1:23). God is with us, even in churches where massacres happen. Emanuel AME Church, your name bears that hope and peace. Emanuel. God is with us. 

This was originally posted Sunday, June 28, 2015 on The Press and Standard website: www.colletontoday.com