Monday, November 25, 2019

One-Week Break from Blogging

I'm taking a week off from my blog as I celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with my family. While we might possibly exceed in festive cheer the family portrayed above, we likely cannot match them in dining attire or synchronized prayer-gestures. 
Posts will resume on Monday, Dec. 2.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Saturday Synaxis

Within Thy churches, Lord, I long to find my place,
Thy power and glory to behold, and feel Thy quickening grace.
Since Thou hast been my help, to Thee my spirit flies,
And on Thy watchful providence my cheerful hope relies.
The shadow of Thy wings my soul in safety keeps;
I follow where my Father leads, and He supports my steps.

- Isaac Watts

Friday, November 22, 2019

Hymn of the Week: Your Strength is Perfect

We're studying Paul's travels in the book of Acts during our Sunday sermons, and this week's passage had me reflecting on the difficulties and trials of the great apostle's journey. So I decided to write a hymn that gives voice to some of Paul's reflections on those things: I've drawn the lyrics below from his statements in 2 Corinthians 1:6-9, 4:7-9, 4:17, and 12:7-10. I wanted a tune that struck a thoughtful tone of hope-in-lament, so I've borrowed the music from the classic hymn "Abide with Me."

Your Strength is Perfect

When in distress, when sufferings abound,
When my endurance falters to the ground,
When this life's comforts all abandon me,
Your strength is perfect for me when I'm weak.

I am hard-pressed, perplexed, and stumbling down,
Yet in all this, I know where hope is found:
You guard my way, You won't abandon me;
Your strength is perfect for me when I'm weak.

Vainly would I lean on my strength of will:
I am too weak, this jar of clay too frail;
Yet through its earthen cracks Your grace I see--
Your strength is perfect for me when I'm weak.

Lord, I would have You take my thorn away,
Release me from the torment of its pain;
Yet You give grace sufficient for my need:
Your strength is perfect for me when I'm weak.

Now, for Christ's sake, I glory to be weak,
For these my light and momentary griefs
Are all outweighed by Your eternal peace;
Your strength is perfect for me when I'm weak.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Being Thankful for All Things

(Note: this piece was originally written as a devotional column for my town's local newspaper)

          At our house, we have a “thanks jar” that we put on the dining room table at this time of year. Every now and then, after a meal or in the course of a day, we’ll write something we’re thankful for and slip it into the jar. The idea is that, when Thanksgiving comes, we’ll be able to open the jar and read through the many blessings that make up the fabric of our days. Of course, with three children in the house, you’re never quite sure what interesting little thanksgivings will pop up on those slips of paper. One of my sons wrote down that he’s thankful that his siblings have taught him how to climb the walls of our house all the way up to the ceiling. (Strangely, though, neither I nor my wife have included that particular development in our list of thanksgivings.) And my daughter, at five years old, who has probably never spent a full day without electricity in her life, and has only the vaguest idea of what it even is, nevertheless wrote down in giant, blockish letters that she is thankful for electricity.
          That’s one of the wonderful things about childlike gratitude, though. We adults too often become jaded by life, or familiar enough with the appropriate answers so that we can rattle off the standard list of things we ought to be thankful for—family, friends, food, etc.—without it making much of an impact on us. But kids have a marvelous capacity for wide-eyed wonder, for seeing this incredible world as the gift that it is. They are able to be grateful for the smallest things and the biggest things, all at the same time: for the toy in their hand or the meal set before them (as one son wrote down on his slip, for “glorious food!”), as well as being thankful for the entire universe. It’s not uncommon to find thanksgivings in our jar that relay gratitude for things like our sun, our galaxy, or all the people in the entire world. Indeed, this year there’s a note in there that doesn’t have any words at all on it, just a little drawing of the planet Earth. And always alongside their big-picture awe and wonder is their endless ability to be amazed at the smallest, most everyday things. On their birthdays, we ask our kids what the best part of the past year has been for them, and have often gotten answers like “cheese,” “bugs,” or “this cake!”
          It seems to me that this sort of awestruck delight, directed at everything God has given us, is exactly the sort of attitude we should emulate. The universe truly is big with wonder, and we fail to see it only because we have grown too dull in our senses, too caught up with the endless circuit of busyness to stop and drink it all in. We need, at least once in a while, to slow down and remember the truth behind the words of that old Shaker hymn, “Tis a gift to wake and breathe the morning air.” Jesus tells us in Matthew 18:3, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” So as we move toward Thanksgiving this year, I would encourage you to take a few moments to stop and consider the overwhelming goodness of God, displayed around us on every side. The Bible declares that he is the giver of all good gifts, and that he loves to give good things to his children. So come to him in humble gratitude, and let him pour wonder, awe, and delight back into your soul.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Photo of the Week

Thou Sovereign Lord of earth and skies,
Supremely good, supremely wise!
Grant us Thy light to learn Thy will,
And strength our duties to fulfill.

- from verses 1 & 3 of #601 in the Augustine Hymn Book, 19th century

Monday, November 18, 2019

Quote of the Week

"Do you want to sing glory to God? Be yourselves what you sing."

- Augustine of Hippo, early church father

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Saturday Synaxis

O God, animate us to cheerfulness. May we have a joyful sense of our blessings, and maintain a perpetual contentedness under Thy allotments. Preserve us from despondency, from yielding to dejection. Teach us that no disappointment or calamity is intolerable and that nothing can hurt us if, with true loyalty of affection, we keep Thy commandments and take refuge in Thee, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

- adapted from W. Channing, 19th cent.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Hymn of the Week: Praise, Honor, and Thanksgiving

While this new hymn fits the seasonal Thanksgiving theme, it's really written more as a general hymn of praise. The accompanying tune is Ira Sankey's music for "Faith is the Victory."

Praise, Honor, and Thanksgiving

Our God is great, above all things,
He reigns o'er earth and sky,
Creation's good and sovereign King:
His name we glorify.
With power over everything,
And mercy's boundless store,
His love we cannot cease to sing,
Nor fail to adore!

     Glory to God our King,
     Ruler of everything,
     Praise, honor, and thanksgiving
     Be His forevermore!

The mighty acts God did for us
Are more than can be told;
We praise Him for His works of love,
Accomplished from of old.
In grace He sent His Son to us
To heal and restore;
And Jesus has delivered us:
Our Master and our Lord!


We stand redeemed by Jesus' blood,
Poured out on Calvary,
And by the new life He has wrought
By sealing death's defeat.
All honor we ascribe to Him,
Our Savior, Friend, and Lord:
Our God, to whom all praise we give,
Our Quest and our Reward!


Let everything with breath sing out
Their thanks and praise to God;
Let mountains bow, let oceans shout,
Let forests shake in awe
Before the One who reigns as King
O'er all things, high and low,
And let His church thanksgivings bring
Before His glorious throne!


Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Good News of God's Forgiveness

(Note: this piece was originally written and published as a devotional column in my town's local newspaper)

I recently had a conversation with someone who was vexed with a common question: “Can God forgive what I’ve done?” We’re all familiar with the feelings of guilt, confusion, and regret that often accompany a question like that. Even if we’re not really aware of what it is that God asks of our behavior, we can readily understand what it feels like to fall short of society’s expectations of us, or our family’s expectations, or—perhaps most commonly of all—our own expectations of ourselves. And if we are falling short of our own goals for how we ought to behave, then how must our behavior compare to God’s standards?

The Bible is very clear about these questions: its answers are bluntly honest, but, at the same time, wildly and surprisingly joyful. On the one hand, our sense of guilt tends to be accurate. While there is a sense in which guilt can be an unhealthy emotion, it is sometimes also a very honest emotion. We feel guilty because we have something to feel guilty about. There’s a problem with our behavior. We know it, and God certainly knows it. The Bible declares that “All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). We fall below the standards that God has set for human behavior; standards that are in place not to limit us or keep us from having fun, but rather to ensure that we can grow in faith, love, goodness, and, ultimately, joy. And the sad fact is that we all fall short of that. I, and all Christians, and everybody else in the world, are all in the same boat in that regard: I have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and I desperately need his grace as much as anyone else. But even though we’re all together in that, it still leaves us with the hard truth that we have indeed fallen short, and nothing we can do on our own can set it right.

Thankfully, our failures and shortcomings are not the end of the story. If that were all there was to it, then the message of God would be “bad news” of a particularly cruel sort. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ is good news! (In fact, that’s what the word “gospel” literally means). The Bible teaches that God, out of an infinite abundance of love for us, made a way to do what we could not do on our own. He sent his own Son Jesus Christ to take all of our failings upon himself. By dying on the cross, he accepted the cost of our sins—being cut off from God, the source of all life—so that we could go free. In him we have forgiveness of all of our sins, even the ones that we imagine God might never be able to forgive. The truth is, he can and will forgive all your sins—all, without exception—if you come in faith to Jesus and accept his offer of salvation. There’s nothing you have to do to earn this gift; it is freely given, simply because God loves you more than you can possibly imagine. If you set your trust in God’s gift of grace through Jesus’ death and resurrection, you will be forgiven. And if that’s not enough, it gets even better: not only do you get a clean slate; you also get to experience the love of God as you enter relationship with him, your Creator and Lord; and he will empower you with grace to learn how to live beyond your sins. But the bottom line is this: Can God forgive me for what I’ve done? Oh, yes, he can, and will, and wants to. Simply come to him. As an old hymn-writer once put it in describing the measure of God’s forgiveness:

Your goodness and your truth to me, to every soul, abound: 
A vast, unfathomable sea, where all our sins are drowned. 
Its streams the whole creation reach, so plenteous is the store; 
Enough for all, enough for each, enough forevermore!

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Photo of the Week

Lord, even as Thou all-present art,
O may we still with heedful heart
Thy presence know and find!

- from "A Hymn" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Monday, November 11, 2019

Quote of the Week

Why, therefore, should we do ourselves this wrong,
Or others, that we are not always strong,
That we are ever overborne with care,
That we should ever weak or heartless be,
Anxious or troubled, when with us is prayer,
And joy and strength and courage are with Thee!

- Richard Trench, from his poem "Prayer"

Saturday, November 09, 2019

Saturday Synaxis

My Jesus, from all eternity you were pleased to give yourself to us in love. And you planted within us a deep spiritual desire that can only be satisfied by yourself. Indeed, we can only be satisfied by settling our hearts, imperfect as they are, on you. We are made to love you. And my Jesus, how good it is to love you! Let me be like your disciples on Mount Tabor, seeing nothing else but you. I love you, Lord, and the only grace I ask is to love you eternally.

- from the prayers of Jean-Baptiste Marie Vianney, 19th century

Friday, November 08, 2019

Hymn of the Week: We Lift Our Thanks and Praise

My new hymn for this week, as we enter into the Thanksgiving season here in the US, is a song of thanks for all the blessings that are ours in Christ. The tune comes from a 19th-century hymn called "The Great Physician." 

We Lift Our Thanks and Praise

We lift our thanks and praise today
Unto the name of Jesus,
For grace that will not cease to save
And for the love that frees us.

     With every breath we breathe this day,
     With every step along the way,
     May each word that we will say
     Render praise to Jesus!

We lift our thanks and praise today
Unto the name of Jesus,
Who teaches us to walk in faith
And heals our diseases.


We lift our thanks and praise today
Unto the name of Jesus,
For all the good things God has made
To bless and charm and please us.


We lift our thanks and praise today
Unto the name of Jesus,
For in his providential ways
Our Lord supplies and feeds us.


We lift our thanks and praise today
Unto the name of Jesus,
For whether on the hill or vale,
Our Shepherd will be near us.


Thursday, November 07, 2019

Stealing Muffins

(Note: this piece was originally written and published as a devotional column in my town's local newspaper)

When one of my sons was in preschool, they had a day in which a local police officer came in to talk with the class about his job and answer any questions the youngsters might have. (I wasn’t in the class with them, but was later told this story by the teacher.) My son already knew from books what policemen were and what kind of work they did. He listened attentively to the officer as he spoke, but didn’t ask any questions until after the other children had dispersed. Then, before the officer headed out the door, my son sidled up to him and made a confession. “Sometimes,” he said, “my brother and I sneak into the kitchen and steal muffins!” I’m not sure what motivated him to confess this, nor what he expected the officer to do about it—in any case, there were no arrests made over the stolen muffins, so the story has a happy ending.

It strikes me that my little son’s freely-offered confession was probably driven by a need that all of us carry inside: the need to be heard and known, even in our flaws and imperfections. Sometimes our failings, mistakes, and sins place an awful burden our hearts. We feel like we can’t show these things to anyone else, because we’ll get a response of disappointment, shock, or even hatred. We worry that no one will like us if they really knew the shadows that linger in our hearts. But there’s something you should know: we were never meant to carry that burden alone. The grief and guilt of sinfulness is simply not something you can hold onto and expect it to keep out of sight; it will end up poisoning the well of your emotional and spiritual life every day of your journey.
In our church, we’re currently going through a study in the biblical book of Acts in our morning services. There’s one story that pops up frequently: the telling and re-telling of the conversion of the Apostle Paul, from a hate-filled terrorist intent on destroying the church to a devoted follower of Christ. In one of the re-tellings, Jesus says something intriguing to Paul: he says, “It’s hard for you to kick against the goads.” (That’s an old Greek idiom that refers to the difficulty of struggling against divine power.) As I was studying this story, it struck me that Jesus was expressing pity, even sympathy with Paul, even in the midst of his darkest sins. “It’s hard for you.” One can almost imagine him saying next the words he used in the Gospel: “So come to me, you who are weary and heavy-burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Sometimes we think that going to church and following God’s ways are hard, burdensome, and difficult. Maybe that’s what keeps many away from church. Already struggling with the grief and pain of sin-wracked living, perhaps they fear a further burden of guilt from going to church. But that’s not what the life of following Jesus is about, not at all! Instead of shaming us for our guilt, Jesus looks at it and says, “It’s hard for you to live the way you’ve been living, isn’t it? Come to me, and I will give you rest.” And of course, Jesus is absolutely right—it is hard to live in sin. It imposes on us tremendous amounts of pain, brokenness, guilt, and—if we have no one to share those spiritual wounds with—loneliness, too. But you don’t have to be lonely anymore. Come and answer the call of Christ, who looks with sympathy on your burdens. He will take your guilt and replace it with the freedom of his forgiveness and the joy of the unhindered pursuit of a good, soul-satisfying life. Whether you’ve been stealing muffins from the kitchen or wrestling with some other kind of misdeed, come and find the grace of Jesus Christ, freely offered in his Word and in his church. There is no sin that’s too big for the infinite grace of God.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Photo of the Week

Give thanks to God; He reigns above,
Kind are His thoughts, His name is love.
His mercy ages past have known,
And ages long to come shall own.
O let the saints with joy record
The truth and goodness of the Lord!
How great His works! How kind his ways!
Let every tongue declare His praise.

- from Isaac Watts' hymnographic rendering of Psalm 107

Monday, November 04, 2019

Quote of the Week

"The Holy Spirit of God can tune and play our souls like an instrument. The result is an increased harmony of divine praise, thanksgiving, and adoration, which arises from a symphony of instruments and voices. To condemn this variety in God's people, or to be upset with those who play a different instrument, is a clear sign that we are spiritually underdeveloped."

- William Law, 18th-century author of A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Saturday Synaxis

We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes... (Rom. 8:26)

Lord, what particulars we pray for,
We know not, we dare not,
We humbly tender a blank into the hands of Almighty God;
Write therein, Lord,
What Thou wilt,
Where Thou wilt,
By whom Thou wilt.

- Thomas Fuller

Friday, November 01, 2019

Hymn of the Week: O Lord Our God

This week I've written a piece that focuses on glorifying God by extolling his attributes (holiness, glory, power, etc.). It's set to the tune of the 19th century hymn "Footsteps of Jesus." 

O Lord Our God

Lord, you reign in your holy splendor;
Praise to your name!
You are good in unending measure,
Ever the same.

     We come before you in wonder, love, and awe;
     You are holy and we adore you, O Lord our God!

Lord, you shine in the light of glory,
Lovely and true;
In your Temple we all cry "Holy,"
Worshiping you.

     We come before you in wonder, love, and awe;
     You are glorious and we adore you, O Lord our God!

Lord, your power is vast and endless,
Sovereign and just;
In your love you are swift to save us:
In you we trust.

     We come before you in wonder, love, and awe;
     You are mighty and we adore you, O Lord our God!

Lord, your greatness calls forth our praises:
Worthy are you;
For your grace always will amaze us:
Glory to you!

     We come before you in wonder, love, and awe;
     You are worthy and we adore you, O Lord our God!