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Dakota Howard

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-4

Someone has said, “God never wastes our sorrows.”

Just outside our town, on a winding Highway 30, Dakota Howard tragically died when the road collapsed. He was only twenty-two. Many others across America have recently died because of flooding rains. But this Dakota is from our community. Around here, the grief is real and deep.

I didn’t know Dakota personally, but I attended his funeral. I marveled at the community support, and I can’t forget the bewildered faces of hundreds of stunned mourners—many silent and others fumbling for words. The funeral was at his church and several pastors gave good testimonies of Dakota’s faith in Christ. Yet there are still questions.

Elizabeth Groves suggests: “We worship a big God…We are in his hands, and nothing happens to us by chance. That’s good news. But in grief, if that is all we remember about God, it might actually make the pain worse…” 2 Corinthians 1(above) can point us in a helpful direction. They are not easy words, but they can move our emotions forward with God’s perspective and comfort.

First, the subject in our grief is God, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort.” To “bless God in all our afflictions” is to offer honor and recognition—to give a good word (“benediction”) about and to our Creator-Savior-comforting God. The Psalms help us pray this way.

In 2 Corinthians 1, the Spirit of God chooses God’s mercy and care/comfort. We wonder: How is there mercy and care by God in tragedy and grief? In part, God has been there—here—and understands. Isaiah 63:9, my favorite verse of last year, says about God, “In all their affliction he was afflicted.” And, Jesus is Immanuel—God with us. Also consider: the Psalmist reminds us “God is good and does good.” Finally, though tragedies are mysterious, our grief as followers of Christ is not without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). We know, for instance, the Holy Spirit has been sent as “another comforter” (literally, He has come alongside us). We have God! It may not come quickly, but the way of hope and comfort begins with a right focus on God.

Second, God never wastes our sorrows. There is purposeful new direction in tragedy and God’s comfort, “So that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” Now, family and friends of Dakota can minister to others who need comfort from God—because, like God and with God, they have been there.

Grief compels us to God and others in need, and therein comes comfort.

Rhea Herald-News, January 4, 2016

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Five Visible Planets

Praise the Name of the Lord…

Praise him, sun and moon,

   praise him, all you shining stars!

Praise him, you highest heavens,

   and you waters above the heavens!

                                      Psalm 148:1, 3-4

Morning Moon is a waning crescent moon this morning, smiling hello before dawn. Always welcome (even in today’s twenty-something cold), its companions Venus and Saturn pointed to the horizon and paved the way for today’s blinding sunrise. It strikes me how brilliant these reflectors are and the joy they bring as night gives way to dawn’s early light.

I am so attracted to the animated creation language of the Psalms. I know, they are poetical exuberance over the reflection of God’s glory in “nature”/creation. But Oh, how we live for every glimpse!

Did you know January-February brings a unique opportunity to see all five of the visible planets simultaneously for the first time in ten years? Surely, the angels in heaven are clearing their calendars and making strong coffee every morning to not miss a flicker.

Keep Psalm 148 handy and check out EarthSky.com and…plan your praises.

Scrooge The Distracted Traveler

“His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ ” Matthew 25:23

Living each day with a view to our future’s fullest joy is spiritually healthy and wise. Ebenezer Scrooge tasted it before it was too late and his discovery can be ours, too.

Three “spirits” visited Ebenezer Scrooge in the classic Christmas tale, “A Christmas Carol.” In one version I watched this season with Cheryl (the Queen of classic Christmas movie watchers), the spirit/ghost of his past brought regret as Scrooge looked back to see the decisions that ambushed joy. The spirit/ghost of his present life revealed the emptiness of distracted daily living without simple delights and important relationships. Scrooge, you remember, replaced joy with the unfulfilling tedious pursuit of wealth and security. This is already too convicting, isn’t it?

The grim reaper, spirit/ghost of the future was frightening; showing him what eternity would be like without a change of heart. When Scrooge came to his senses about the future he was moved to heartily confess and commit to reversing course—to “repent” as the movie told—and take on the way of a radical, new, present joy. Scrooge learned the value of a future look—and his view changed everything. Randy Alcorn said, “I keep pondering how heaven will overflow with happiness because God himself overflows with happiness. It is not a fairy tale that we will live happily ever after. Our Creator and Redeemer’s happiness guarantees a happy ending to the story that will never end.”

Revelation 21 has captured my heart lately. Join me there and imagine our future home. It is: wonderfully new (v.1, 5), unimaginably beautiful (v.2, 9-24), overwhelmed by the actual presence of Father and Son (v.3, 6), and personally enriched by our inheritance as God’s heirs (v.7). Randy Alcorn, again, has said, “I have found myself daily frontloading into the present the promises of eternal joy, and letting that color my view of daily events. It’s been a truly Christ-centered and happy-making experience.” There is no grim reaper now or later for those God has prepared a home!

I actually viewed two performances of “A Christmas Carol” in December. The other one was a community theater musical production in Perry, Georgia. It included my son-in-law, two oldest grandchildren, and a cousin. Fabulous! It strikes me that many of the actors and the audience had no idea of the implications of the storyline(s) for eternity or earth-life right now. It is, frankly, more clear and stirring to me now than ever before. Jonathan Edwards observed we can be like a distracted traveler, staying in a hotel on the way to a destination but never moving on to the place we are headed.

Should you have losses and crosses as 2016 begins, I invite you, with me, to look ahead and become a reborn Scrooge—and “enter into the joy of your Master”—now.

Another Merry Christmas

Christmas Mercy

“The tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1:78-79

I have some questions for Gabriel about the first Christmas season in Luke 1. For instance, what was the look on Mary’s face when God sent him to recruit her? I wonder: Was he startled when God took away Zechariah’s voice when fear replaced his faith? Gabriel witnessed so many supernatural things that first Christmas.

Written over the season was “miracle.” Consider: In God’s timing, He aligned the solar system to provide the Christmas star; Kings worshipped a baby; travelers brought gifts to a feeding trough they didn’t know existed; Elizabeth, barren and beyond child-bearing years, became pregnant and became directly involved in God’s Christmas plan; and poor Zechariah, a whole lot like us, miraculously lost his voice when he didn’t believe angel Gabriel—and then had his voice revived by God when he saw baby Jesus. Father, don’t let these miracles be commonplace.

Of course, the ultimate miracle of Christmas was salvation’s offer: God became a man to offer Himself as the perfect sacrifice for our every sin. Those who trust only Jesus Christ His Son to rescue them are thus removed from God’s wrath, and transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. Have I heard this so many times it seems ordinary and the power of the gospel is not changing me this Christmas (Romans 1:16; 2:4)?

One other unnatural thing happened that particularly strikes me this Christmas: The socially awkward situation then of a miraculously pregnant teenager and her fiancé is incredibly used by God to bring salvation’s greatest gift. Note how Elizabeth took great interest in Mary; some even believe Joseph was adopted by Dr. Luke. God takes in some needy people, doesn’t He? He makes them not just guests. He adopts them—us—as His family. Adoption has again invaded our family.

Last week, I wrote about our firstborn daughter who was born on Christmas day. This season, our family has another fresh Christmas miracle story to tell. Her name is Haley Jane. As you read this, my oldest daughter and her family are in Florida taking custody of her for the purpose of adoption. She bears the same name of our third-in-line grandchild and—hold your breath—is also six years old and in first grade. Family gatherings are about to be very confusing…

For Haley, her perceived greatest need is for a permanent family. Having lost so much and so many she longs for a home instead of, so to speak, another manger. In the “tender mercy of God” He is adopting her into our family. How breathless we are to praise God for His sweet, life-shaping, affectionate salvation displayed when adopted us into His family, too.

This Christmas, I am astounded by the adopting, tender mercy of God.

Rhea Herald-News, December 23, 2015

P.S. The legal work is completed and Haley is in Georgia tonight with her new family. Aren’t you so glad we are part of the family of God!

 

Stars and Hair

New Day, December 8, 2015

“He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names” Psalm 147:4

This morning’s astronomical center stage before the sunrise was a crisp, smiling, crescent moon brilliant co-star, Venus, both accompanied by a cast of luminaries quietly standing nearby. It was as though I could take a giant step and be on stage with them.

And yet they are so far away. Psalm 8 came to mind, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (3-4).

The holy distance and closeness of God stops us in our tracks. Theologians call this His transcendence and immanence. All at once He is immeasurable, inscrutable, and uncontainable, and still He cares about the number of hairs on our heads.

We long for and rejoice in and live for both.

Rain Again

New Day, December 1, 2015

“He made a decree for the rain” Job 28:26

Henry David Thoreau said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

This is the third day of rain. Like awkward middle schoolers, we are tempted to respond to constant gray and rain as if we’re holding our square dance partner’s hand for the first time in front of a room full of giggling others. Go ahead and blush as you remember those fateful days.

Rain gets a lot of bad press. But what if our starting point on a rainy day—or yet another wet day—was this: God has not made a mistake. From all the menu items He could have ordered for this new day He directed nourishing, contemplative, cleansing rain to be our main meal.

In context, Job’s word, “he made a decree for the rain,” illustrates wisdom. “Where shall wisdom be found?” he asks. He answers his own question: “God understands the way to it, and he knows its place.”

Rain, then, gives us wisdom to live. It can mock despair and wonderfully remind us of our Creator-God who is at work to display His glory and for our good.

Father, help me to not just look and complain but to see You.

Christmasy?

“But Jesus answered them, ‘You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.’” Matthew 22:29

This column is dedicated to Nancy, my thoughtful relative who sent me a copy of the following letter to an editor. A lot about it bothered her and troubles me, too. How about you, Reader?

Editor:

I am thinking about converting from agnosticism to Christianity, but I have a question: Am I to    understand that as a Christian I can deny basic humanitarian assistance to penniless, homeless refugees from the Middle East, the part of the world that Jesus called home, as long as I demonstrate proper outrage because Starbucks’ seasonal coffee cup isn’t Christmasy enough?

   Jim K., West Reading

Ouch. The letter is a window into how we are perceived by non-Christians.  It stings and makes us mad all at once. Our inconsistencies are showing and it is unpleasant—like underwear peeking out when we bend to pick up a penny. Yuk. I am remembering the famous carton by Poco: We have met the enemy and he is us.

Is Jim K. really interested in devoting his life to Christ or if he just wants to pick on Christians? He expects something of Christians no one on earth can possibly fulfill—perfection without any inconsistencies or hint of hypocrisy. Has he found an excuse to not turn from himself as self-appointed savior and then to follow Jesus? The Bible calls that repentance.  Is he authentic but uninformed or distracted by a social and political issue (refugees) and the silly behavior of Christians over coffee cups? Is there another possibility?

Jim K. errs because he doesn’t know or refuses to accept the good news—the “gospel”—which alone is “the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16). This is Christmas: God’s good news, when received, forgives our sin and invades our life with its exclusive power to transform us. Christ becomes primary, investment in others occupies the important second place, and we deny ourselves and take up a cross-reflecting life. Jim K. observes how we often change the order.

An angel helped a troubled Joseph understand the whole point of Christmas and Christ: “But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21)

Two people especially need prayer this Christmas. Will you pray for Jim K., that he will turn from himself to Jesus Christ to forgive his sins? And then, pray for the rest of us, that we will avoid being “Christmasy” in such a way that the good news of Christ is unreal, unattractive, forgotten, or, worst of all…rejected.

An Autumn Wonder

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“The Mighty One, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.”

Psalm 50:1

How great are cool and clear autumn sunsets in East Tennessee!

Turkey Wisdom

“Come into his presence with thanksgiving” Psalm 95:2

Our affection for Thanksgiving is real. Lovingly called “Turkey Day,” we call each other “turkey” and make fun of one of the strangest animal faces God created. Imagine a close-up of an ugly turkey face and extra-long neck, and chuckle at the caption: “No matter what happens this month, at least you aren’t a turkey.”

Getting our perspective right is important especially if you are you are going through some troubled times and hope is in short supply. Picture a cartoon with a sad Mr. Turkey. He is asked, “What are you thankful for?” Answer: “Vegetarians.” No matter what anyone says you aren’t a turkey without a future if you are a follower of Jesus Christ.

Join me in some “Turkey Wisdom”—a small list of hugely important thanksgiving biblical theology.

First, there is the obvious but ever-important need for thanksgiving to God. Thanksgiving is a response to God for His goodness to us. The Psalmists talk a lot about God’s works on our behalf. For instance, “It is good to give thanks to the LORD…For you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work” (Psalm 92:4). Trace thanks and thanksgiving through the Psalms and hear God’s story of deliverances, rescues, gifts, joys, and provisions just like yours. “Praise,” someone said, “is the occupation of the soul with God’s blessings.” Chew on that long and slow before the start of family, fun, and football on Thanksgiving. You’ll have a wonderful time of worship.

Second, and even deeper, thanksgiving recalls the nature-character-essence of God Himself. “Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving…For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods” (Psalm 95:2-3).  An entire life of study could not exhaust the depth of who God is (Psalm 139:17-18). Yet to do so is our privilege, joy, and call. When your mind is most clear, I recommend Psalm 111. Circle the many descriptions of God.

Third, a lifestyle of thanksgiving is protection from idolatry. Yikes! I know you didn’t expect that so catch Paul in 1 Corinthians 10. Using Israel’s Old Testament history as a negative example for us, he says: “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did…Do not be idolaters as some of them were…We must not put Christ to the test…nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer…Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” In the middle is grumbling, and grumbling is a spiritual big deal. It isn’t our human nature to do so; it is our sin nature in rebellion, worshipping the idol of self. Thanksgiving guards our hearts. The Father said, “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me” Psalm 50:23).

Christmas is pushing its way in prematurely, so this Thanksgiving won’t you open the door to thanksgiving with a full heart before you fill your empty stomach?

The Rhea Herald-News, Thanksgiving 2015

A Place For Us

“I go to prepare a place for you.” Jesus Christ

First, the bad news. We are nervous. Our world seems less safe and many of us again feel a sadness that is rare. Our soul is unsettled and mourning and wondering and maybe, if we’re honest, is fearful. Are you secretly asking: Could the shattered peace of last Friday evening in Paris happen here, too?

With reality smacking us with cold water, the horrific, heartless killings in Paris painfully remind us of Scriptures we can’t ignore: Ruthless spiritual warfare exists; Satan seeks to devour us and is real. These are like a fire out of control and so strong we cannot ignore them again. The Apostle Paul was right, “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self…proud, arrogant, abusive…unholy, heartless, unappeasable…” (2 Timothy 3:1-3, ESV).

Yet there is good news for followers of Christ. We need some good news, don’t we?

First, we know how the story ends. God has written the last chapters for evil and evil’s prince, Satan. Ultimately, revenge is God’s to administer and He won’t be timid when it is time (This is not to forget a human role in resisting and responding to evil).

Saturday morning after Friday’s carnage I sat with my Bible and began to read the book of Revelation. I settled for a while on chapter 18. It is the final chapter outlining the terrible time of judgments by God toward His enemies. I scribbled a few beginning observations to help me think about it, pray through it, and to follow through in application: heaven has spoken and still rules, horror awaits those who reject God’s authority, and holiness matters. Therein is hope.

Second, Jesus Christ has gone ahead to set up a safe dwelling for us with Him. In His own words He said: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:1-3).

Third, back to Revelation 18. It comes just before the good news portion of Revelation, with the “Marriage Supper of the Lamb,” the return of Christ, the thousand year reign of peace and Christ, and our final home in the new earth. We have a safe future!

Finally, Revelation 18:14 summarizes God’s heart and begs our application: “The fruit for which your soul longed has gone from you, and all your delicacies and your splendors are lost to you, never to be found again!” God longs for a relationship with us that is exclusive and, in perfect love and jealousy, accepts no rivals.

Friends, what does your soul long for?

Rhea Herald-News, November 18, 2015


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