Psalm 66:8-20 – Celebrate

Red Wing Blackbird

Let the whole world bless our God
and loudly sing his praises.

Our lives are in his hands,
and he keeps our feet from stumbling.
You have tested us, O God;
you have purified us like silver.
You captured us in your net
and laid the burden of slavery on our backs.
Then you put a leader over us.
We went through fire and flood,
but you brought us to a place of great abundance.

Now I come to your Temple with burnt offerings
to fulfill the vows I made to you—
yes, the sacred vows that I made
when I was in deep trouble.
That is why I am sacrificing burnt offerings to you—
the best of my rams as a pleasing aroma,
and a sacrifice of bulls and male goats.

Come and listen, all you who fear God,
and I will tell you what he did for me.
For I cried out to him for help,
praising him as I spoke.
If I had not confessed the sin in my heart,
the Lord would not have listened.
But God did listen!
He paid attention to my prayer.
Praise God, who did not ignore my prayer
or withdraw his unfailing love from me. (NLT)

Those of us who utilize the Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings are familiar with having a psalm each day. In addition, the same psalm is repeated three consecutive days, following the pattern of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday readings preparing for Sunday – and Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday readings reflecting on Sunday. The Psalter has a prominent place in the readings because it is viewed as the Church’s Prayer Book.

Within the book of Psalms, we have the full range of human experience and emotion. Much like athletes in weight training putting in their reps (repetitions) so the Christian is to use the weighty Psalms with repeated use for spiritual growth and development. Prayer and praise along with lamentation and celebration are necessary equipment for the strengthening of faith and a healthy Christian life.

Today’s psalm is a song of thanksgiving for the community of worshipers approaching the temple and offering their sacrifices to God. Together as the people of God they proclaim what God has done for them. Through hardship and difficulty, they have realized abundance and joy. Personal witness and testimony are given to the congregation for answered prayer so that all may rejoice together in God’s steadfast and unfailing love.

Expressing celebration is important. Without it, our spirits are famished and find it difficult to be patient and persevere. With celebration, our spiritual muscles flex with joy and are in shape for the trials and tribulations which lie ahead. Corporate affirmation and personal appreciation are meant to work together in a grand profession of faith in God’s good guidance and help.

“Come and listen and I will tell you what God did for me,” benefits both the individual and the group. If all we ever hear and experience is hardship, our faith muscle will be overused and give out. We need stories to celebrate. We have got to hear testimonies of God’s enduring love.

So, what has God done for you? What celebrations do we have today? Are you willing to share your story? Both the smallest and biggest of celebrations are appropriate, along with everything in between.

While writing this at my desk, a majestic male red-wing blackbird perched himself on the bush in front of the window. Being only a few feet from him, I could see his feathers in detail and his glorious preening for the benefit of the females. On a grander scale, I participated today in celebrating the discharge of a COVID-19 patient from the hospital. With the long hallway lined on both sides with hospital staff, the patient left to a thunderous applause of front-line workers needing to express good news as much as the patient needed to receive it. “Let the whole world bless our God and loudly sing his praises.”

May the Lord grant you the answers you seek. May you express those answers with thanksgiving and celebration to others.

Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ has overcome death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: grant that, as by your grace going before us you put into our minds good desires, so by your continual help we may bring them to good effect; through Jesus Christ our risen Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Psalm 100 – Knowing God

scenic photo of castle during dawn
Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Pexels.com

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
     Worship the Lord with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the Lord is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations. (NIV)

The original use of this psalm was for the ancient Israelites approaching the temple to worship God.  Before worshipers ever came into the presence of the Lord, they were preparing themselves to encounter God through giving him thanks, using this very psalm.

When David and other Hebrew writers penned their poetic songs, they would center what they most wanted to draw attention to in the middle, so that what came before it and after it pointed to that central message. The center of Psalm 100 is verse 3: Know that the LORD is God.

There are three imperatives (commands) that come before this phrase; and, three imperatives that come after it.  All six imperatives are meant to help us know God better. “Shout” for joy to the LORD. “Worship” the LORD with gladness. “Come” before him with joyful songs are the three that lead us up to knowing the LORD.  “Enter” his gates with thanksgiving; “give thanks” to him; and, “praise” his name all come after the central command to “know that the LORD is God.” We belong to God. As God’s people we celebrate this tremendous knowledge with actions meant to impress God’s gracious inclusiveness firmly into us.

There perhaps is no better biblical way to experience God than through these six words: shout; worship; come; enter; give thanks; and praise. Declaring loudly of God’s character and works; kneeling and prostrating before God; approaching God’s throne with boldness; immersing oneself into the presence of God; voicing aloud gratitude to God; and, praising God’s holy name are all heartfelt actions of the faithful. These pious activities are to happen here on earth as they are always done in heaven. It’s what folks with a settled sense of belonging do.

To “know” God is to experience him through close relationship. It means we have a place and a purpose. It is a knowing and belonging which exists deep down in our gut. We get to know God by how he has worked in people’s lives, as well as our own. So, gatherings of believers (whether physical or virtual) are an opportunity to engage in the six imperatives of today’s psalm. Faithful worshipers deeply desire to focus on who God is and what he has done, remembering and rehearsing his qualities and deeds. Through this activity, we help one another know the Lord.  And knowing God is what real life is all about.  He is worthy of all the praise, adoration, and worship we can give to him.  So, let us praise God with heartfelt thanksgiving.

One of my favorite verses in the Bible has to do with knowing God. The Apostle Paul said, “I want to know (to experience with his entire being and not just with his mind) Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” (Philippians 3:10, NIV)

Everything in our lives, whether good or bad, is designed to help us know God better.  Shared experiences with each other encourage us to keep living for Jesus.  So, let us express gratitude today for all the gracious ways God has revealed himself and reached out to save such ones as us.

Almighty God, who works on my behalf, give me grace to put away the rootless existence of one who has no place; and, help me to experience and know your radical acceptance and inclusion into the dance of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Click Psalm 100 (Enter In) for a time of praise and thanksgiving to God.

Colossians 3:12-17 – A New Set of Clothes

White Shirts

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.  Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (NIV)

Easter is to live forever in our hearts.  The great message of the Resurrection is: We now have opportunity to experience new life, free from sin, death, and hell.  Oh, it isn’t that we never need to deal with evil; we very much do.  The difference is that we now have a new awareness of our spirituality.  And with awareness comes choices.  If we aren’t aware of our feelings, our spirit, and/or old nature, well, then, it’s as if we operate on auto-pilot – losing altitude in an immanent descent into tragedy.  When we are aware of our inner selves, then we mindfully ascend through the clouds to join Christ.

We can make choices about what to wear.  With awareness, we look in the mirror and see that the grave clothes need to come off.  The old raggedy garments of pride and hubris, greed and immorality, selfish lust, jealous envy, spiritual gluttony, unholy anger, and complacency get taken off and tossed in the garbage.  We then go to God’s expansive walk-in closet and choose the bright raiment of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and grab the beautiful coat of love which covers it all with such dignity and honor.

It would be super weird to try and put the new clothes over the old raggedy grave clothes.  That’s not only gross, it’s downright wrongheaded.  Practical Christianity always involves two actions: taking-off and putting-on.  Human willpower and/or ingenuity tries to live a virtuous life while ignoring the vices.  This will not do for the Christian.  The endearing qualities we so desire to possess cannot be obtained without first dealing with the crud of sin which clings to us like so many stinky dirty clothes.  To put this in theological terms: the cross and resurrection go together.  Sin must be put to death before a victorious life is put on.

Once we have acknowledged sin, let Christ take it all off, and put on the new clothes.  Then we’re ready to hit the town in style.  We walk out the door with a tremendous sense of peace, knowing God in Christ has cleaned us up.  We stroll into the world with lips whistling and a song in our hearts – singing with gratitude for what the risen Christ has accomplished on our behalf.  After all, we just put on very expensive clothes and it didn’t cost us a dime.  In fact, we’re so darned thankful that we don’t just talk to others, we sing our words to them – even though we can’t carry a tune.  It doesn’t matter.  Our coat of love compels us.  Easter is bursting forth from the tomb.

Almighty and everlasting God, you willed that our Savior should take upon him our clothing of death upon the cross so that all humanity would have the privilege of wearing humility, gratitude, and love.  Mercifully grant that we may both follow the example of Christ’s life, and, also be made aware of our participation in his glorious resurrection, in the power of your Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Click Easter Song which was written by Annie Herring in 1974 and made famous by Keith Green a few years later.  The California Baptist University choir and orchestra perform this version.  May your Easter blessings multiply.

Psalm 118 – “A Spiritual Pilgrimage”

Welcome, friends!  On this Palm Sunday, let us give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.  Click on the video below to join in the joyful procession….

The following links are for your use and enjoyment:

If you are having any difficulty with the video on this site, you can click TimEhrhardtYouTube to view and listen.

To learn more about the Labyrinth, click How to Walk a Labyrinth for a short guided tour.

Click Give Thanks and allow Filipino singer Janella Salvador to lead you in song.

May we walk and feel the ground of the coming week, that is Holy Week, for it is on this sacred soil that we live and run, work and play, praise and lament.

A Spiritual Pilgrimage

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It seems strange sitting here in my home with no anticipation of being around children waving palm leaves.  It feels awkward facing the beginning of Holy Week with the prospect of no physical gatherings of Christian believers.  Perhaps with the exception of this year, every year on Palm Sunday thousands of Christians, from all over the world, gather in the small town of Bethphage, located just two miles outside of Jerusalem – to walk to Jerusalem like Jesus did in his triumphal entry on a donkey.  Many of those pilgrims carry palm and olive branches.  All the people sing hymns as they walk up the Mount of Olives, down into the Kidron Valley, and then up Mount Moriah into the Old City of Jerusalem. It is a worship experience filled with gratitude. “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 118:1)

Every year there are others along the pilgrim path appearing out of place for such a joyous journey.  Spread out along the way are Israeli military soldiers wearing full combat gear, carrying automatic weapons over their shoulders and gazing on the spectacle of worshiping Christians before them. Other Israeli Jews look on with a mix of indifference or concern.  Maybe we can imagine that Jesus encountered a similar experience with people laying palm branches along his path; Roman soldiers all around; and, Jews looking on with curiosity.  It might have been easy for Jesus to avoid Jerusalem and not face the cross that he knew was coming at the end of the week.  It might be easy for us to avoid adversity and suffering. Yet, Jesus continued his journey into Jerusalem because of joy and gratitude. Psalm 118 ends like it begins: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his love endures forever.”

Joy and gratitude can be our strength in times of adversity.  Yet, it will only come as we join the spiritual pilgrimage.

Psalm 118 is a liturgy for worshipers coming to Jerusalem and the temple from all parts of Israel in order to celebrate Passover.  Like the Christian pilgrims on Palm Sunday, the ancient Jewish worshipers ascended Jerusalem with great anticipation.  They sing of God’s love and remember the deliverance from Egypt and slavery into the freedom of the Promised Land.

The word for “love” throughout Psalm 118 is my favorite word in the Old Testament.  It is a rich word which is difficult to translate in English because the term is so dense with meaning.  The Hebrew word is chesed and the New International Version translates it in various ways:  grace, covenant loyalty, mercy, compassion, kindness, and consistently translated in Psalm 118 as “love.”  It is the kind of love that is graciously given despite whether a person deserves it or not.  It is a steadfast love that holds on and does not let go.

God is a God who consistently gives grace when we fall short; shows unflagging commitment where we are fickle; gives unbounded mercy when we are broken; provides constant compassion when we have been hurt; provides kindness even when we are unkind; and, dispenses enduring love which, for the Christian, finds its ultimate expression in the person of Jesus Christ, our Savior, who embodied “chesed for us so that we might experience life to the full.  Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.

We may be under directives to stay at home, yet, we have the gracious opportunity to walk on a spiritual pilgrimage every day to the very heart of God and meet love face to face. How might you and I do that?

Labyrinth

One way is through walking a Labyrinth.  This is an ancient practice of the Church meant for spiritual centering, contemplation, and prayer. Entering the serpentine path of a labyrinth, one walks slowly while quieting the mind and focusing on a spiritual question or prayer.  A labyrinth is not a maze. It has only one winding path to the center and back out.  The wisdom of the Labyrinth is that it reflects life, that is, our lives are not about the destination – life is about the long circuitous journey.  The Christian life is consistently described in the New Testament as a road or a way.  We walk with Jesus.

Although many Labyrinths are typically found within churches, church grounds, or in park spaces (and many or most of these are currently closed) we can utilize “finger” Labyrinths.  Rather than physically walking, you can slowly trace the path with your finger.  You might also get creative and make your own homemade Labyrinth in a space of your home or yard.  Click The Labyrinth Society to get free printable Labyrinths, as well as take a virtual Labyrinth walk.

ChartresLabyrinth

The Labyrinth is not meant to be a race to the center; it only “works” if we move at a pace which enables us to meditatively pray, paying attention to what God is doing within us.  Generally, there are four stages to the walk:

  • Releasing on the way toward the center – letting go of all that weighs us down in the Christian life.  “Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.” (Hebrews 12:1-2, CEB)
  • Receiving in the center – accepting the love God has for you.  Jesus said, “Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.” (John 16:24, NRSV)
  • Returning through following the path back out – integrating what you have received for the life of the world.  “I will give them a heart to know me, God. They will be my people and I will be their God, for they will have returned to me with all their hearts.” (Jeremiah 24:7, The Message)
  • Responding to the love of God through gratitude – thus finding joy, even in the most troubling of circumstances.  “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 118:1, NRSV)

The penitent heart will resonate deeply with the psalms as worship liturgy.  This is because liturgical practices impress the spirit and bring spiritual freedom.  We will only find this odd if we have nothing to repent of.  Turning from sinful liturgies of life and turning to a new liturgy of following Jesus is like walking through a gate into a new reality and rejoicing with all the other redeemed pilgrims who are walking the road to Jerusalem to be with Jesus.  Our Lord himself said,

“I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.  He will come in and go out and find pasture.  The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:9-10, NIV).

In this time of virtual presence and electronic communication, I take comfort in the reality that we do not need to text or email God and hope he answers – we have the joyous opportunity of walking the pilgrim way and crawling into the lap of God.

Just like everything else, what you put into something is going to affect what you get out of it. If we go into the Labyrinth half-hearted, we will leave half-hearted. If we go into prayer or worship thinking only of the obligation, we will only fulfill the obligation. Yet, if we come ready to meet God, if we come ready to receive his grace, if we come expectantly – Who knows what God can do?

So, let us enter prayer, reading of Scripture, virtual fellowship, and the worship of God each day with the heart of a pilgrim. Let us enter with a song on our lips and joy in our hearts. Let us enter knowing that worship is the place where we connect with the love of God through the Son of God. Let us enter expecting to come out of worship changed, carrying in our hearts the anticipation of great things to happen.

The Power of Gratitude

 
 
Thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live (1 Thessalonians 5:18, The Message).
 
            Gratitude has the power to change our lives and our churches.  That is, if we let it.  If we want to live happy contented lives, then we will obey the Scripture’s exhortation to give thanks in any kind of circumstance in any kind of context.  It can be a challenge to give thanks during hard times.  But that might be the most important time to do it.  The biblical character David had the where-with-all to acknowledge his desperate condition, yet chose to praise God in the middle of it.  In Psalm 57 he said, “I am in the midst of lions; I lie among ravenous beasts – men whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords… They spread a net for my feet – I am bowed down in distress… But my heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast; I will sing and make music… I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations; I will sing of you among the peoples.”
 
            If you are in between a rock and a hard place, for what can you express praise and thanksgiving to God?  Our spiritual ancestors, the pilgrims, came to this country.  The original colonial pilgrims of America numbered over a hundred when they came, and, after the first winter, less than fifty of them remained.  It does not get much bleaker than that.  Yet, instead of retreating into bitterness, resentment, and envy, they decided to set aside a particular day to give thanks for what they had, and not be constantly upset about what they did nothave.
 
            We are to give thanks in all kinds of circumstances, whether good or bad, whether big or small.  In her book, The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom tells about an incident that taught her the principle of giving thanks in all things. It was during World War II. Corrie and her sister, Betsy, had been harboring Jewish people in their home, so they were arrested and imprisoned at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.  The barracks was extremely crowded and infested with fleas. One morning they read in their tattered Bible from 1 Thessalonians the reminder to give thanks in all things.  Betsy said, “Corrie, we’ve got to give thanks for this barracks and even for these fleas.”  Corrie replied, “No way am I going to thank God for fleas.” But Betsy was persistent and persuasive, and they did thank God even for the fleas.  During the months that followed, they found that their barracks was left relatively free, and they could do Bible study, talk openly, and even pray in the barracks. It was their only place of refuge. Several months later they learned that the reason the guards never entered their barracks was because of those blasted fleas.
 
            Sometimes we do not understand what God is doing.  Sometimes we just don’t perceive that the Lord is up to anything.  You may feel as if you are sitting still right now, yet, planet Earth is spinning around its axis at a speed of 1,000 miles per hour.  We are also hurtling through space at an average velocity of 67,108 miles per hour. So even on a day when you feel like you did not get much done, do not forget that you traveled 1,599,793 miles through space! To top things off, the Milky Way is spinning like a galactic pinwheel at the dizzying rate of 483,000 mph.
 
That is amazing. But we don’t feel it, so it’s off our radars.  When was the last time you thanked God for keeping us in orbit? I’m guessing you have never prayed, “Lord, I wasn’t sure we’d make the full rotation today, but you did it again!” We just don’t pray that way.  But we are to learn to thank God in every circumstance, both big and small.  If we can trust God to keep our feet on the ground with a big thing like gravity, then we can trust him in any and every situation we experience.
 

 

            Gratitude has healing power.  It is easy to complain about church.  Any common fool will go on and belly-ache about how bad things are and play arm-chair Deity about how to fix all the ills of the church and the world.  But it takes a wise person to find gratitude and choose to give thanks for all the good things God has done and is doing, being careful to give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will in Christ Jesus.

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

            Show me a spiritual sourpuss, and I’ll show you a person who lives without daily gratitude toward God and others.  But show me a gracious person who liberally gives thanks, and I will show you a person profoundly in touch with God’s steadfast love.
 
            The psalmist chose to give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!  I wonder how much different each day would be if we began it with the psalmist’s great call to worship:  “This is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” 
 
            There is a misguided notion that only certain people have the attitude of gratitude; some folks are just naturally ornery, and some are just born happy.  But the truth is that gratitude and giving thanks is a practice that must be carefully cultivated.  As it grows and develops, gratitude bears the fruit of joy.  Yes, thankfulness is a daily decision of faith that we need to make in order to have the kind of attitude that pleases God and blesses others.
            Loving God, this is the day you have made; I rejoice in it, and am glad that your steadfast love covers all things.  Help me to connect every good thing with your gracious hand upon me so that I will not look and act like I was baptized in pickle juice.  To the glory of Jesus Christ, I pray.  Amen.