Our Daily Bread

Sermon based on Exodus 16:1-35 preached on October 15th, 2017

Sermon audio

Is God enough?

When a friend betrays us, is God enough?

When you or I have a health scare, and we suddenly figure out that our bodies are much more vulnerable, and our lives more finite than we ever realized before, is God enough? When we’re struggling professionally, or we’re not sure we’ve put away enough for retirement, is God enough?

When we don’t recognize our own value, is God enough? When the circumstances of our lives change dramatically—maybe through flood or wildfire—our homes washed away or burned to the ground, is God enough?

We ask these sorts of questions in one way or another all the time. They are not unlike what the ancient Israelites were asking aloud about their present circumstance. Here they are in the wilderness. Their leader, Moses, the one whom God had called to draw His people out of slavery in Egypt, has wrestled them out from under the crushing, oppressive grasp of Pharaoh. They are now free people.

For 400 years, the Israelites woke up each morning and went to bed each night when Pharaoh told them so. They slaved under the desert sun, making bricks and building pyramids because he told them so. They lived according to every word uttered from Pharaoh’s lips. That’s all they knew. So we cannot blame them for not knowing that there is a high cost to their newfound freedom. Here in the wilderness, on the other side of the Red Sea—the one God split in two so that they could be rescued—here, in this barren wilderness, they had a hard time imagining how God was enough.

“If only we turn back now, we could eat all the food we want…If only we had died…”

If only.

The word Manna comes from a question: Mannhu?, What is it? No one had ever seen this substance before.

The appearance and taste of this manna was unlike anything they knew of or had experienced. They thought they had seen it all, but here, God surprises them. This is God’s new food for them. And God promises to provide it every day. Every morning, except on Sundays, they will wake up to manna. God will give His people their daily bread. This is unexpected and unknown provision. It seems to materialize out of the clear blue sky. God provides in ways that we cannot expect, foresee, or can ever anticipate.

In the midst of the Israelites’ need and all of their questioning, God provides. But He doesn’t do so in any way they could have expected. The Israelites were not provided for by being sent back to Egypt—the only way out of scarcity they could imagine. God gave them more, right where they were. Daily bread to carry them through each one of their future days. God still does this for his people.

We must get used to this. God gives us exactly what we need for the moment—for this season of our lives. For the wandering Israelites, it was Manna, completely unanticipated and unexpected. An abundance they had no notion of until God gave it to them. And it was enough. More than enough.

That makes me wonder: Is there an abundance among us that we have no notion of?

Here’s what we must know about this story: God gives on God’s terms and not on our terms. If the Israelites got their way, if God would have relented to their desires, if God delivered them in the way they desired to be delivered, then God would have either sent them back into Egyptian slavery or He would have lifted them up out of the wilderness altogether and set them down gently into the Land He had for them. No painful waiting involved. Instant deliverance! Instant gratification!

But God didn’t do that. God’s people didn’t get that. When we rely upon God, we get what God gives us and we develop and adjust our expectations around it.

But we don’t like that. It wouldn’t be long until the Israelites would begin complaining about how gross manna tasted—how having it every day was a drag. They wanted a bigger menu. And they remembered what the buffet was like back in Egypt, and they actually entertained the thought of voluntarily giving themselves back into slavery to the Egyptians. Evidently, slavery is a small price to pay for a full belly. That sounds crazy, but that’s where their minds were. Back there in the past. They were willing to sacrifice their present freedom and the promised abundance of their tomorrows for a chance to return to the bondage of their past, because at least it was safe there, at least in Egypt they knew what to expect. They were willing to trade the promised plenty and the wide open spaces of their tomorrows because they could not let go of the nostalgia that chained them to their past. Because at least then, they knew what to expect.

There’s lots of talk in churches these days about what’s missing. About what once was. The yesteryears were great, we say. They were filled with plenty! We look back and we see abundance, and we want to go back. Back to the way things were. At least then, we knew what to expect.

Just like the Israelites, it seems like some of us would easily trade our futures for our past if we could. We cannot see God ahead of us because so often, we’re too busy looking back over our shoulders at the places and experiences of our yesteryears. Our nostalgia can keep us from recognizing the enoughness that is right in front of us and is promised for our tomorrows. Is there an abundance among us and for our tomorrows that we have no notion of? And if there is, mannhu? What is it?

Last Sunday, we kicked off our Stewardship season. Our theme this year is Growing Our Faith Through Generosity. In order to be freed for generosity, we must remind ourselves of a few things—a few biblical truths, the very substance of our faith. We can only be freed to live generously when we know that our daily dependence does not come from our own frantic and anxious efforts to gather enough.

Let’s learn that lesson from the Israelites: The ones who gathered too much manna—who attempted to hoard it—saw it spoil. They were given Daily Bread, and they tried to keep a part of it for the next day. When they woke up the next morning, the leftover part was spoiled and it began to smell. So, the people had to learn to trust, not in their own anxious efforts to gather more but in God’s promise that each new day, enough would be provided.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Stewardship is the practice of trusting in God’s daily provision—in God’s enoughness. This is faith: To rely not upon our own ability to keep what we have stowed away for tomorrow but to trust in God’s promise of daily provision and in that, find our abundance.

In order to grow in our faith, we must be generous. And in order to be generous, we must put our trust in someone other than ourselves—something other than our own ability—to provide. This is the one way forward. In order to give generously, we must be freed from our mistaken notions of tomorrow’s scarcity. We must trust that God will give us manna for tomorrow, and it will be enough for us.

So let me ask you, What do you rely upon? And what are you expecting? When you peer into your tomorrows and this church’s tomorrows, what do you see?

Is God’s daily provision a part of your vision? Are you okay walking into the future God has for us not knowing exactly where it will lead, but confident that the way forward will bring us to a place filled with milk and honey? Do you believe that? Can you believe that?

I know that when you look around, all you can see is a lack of what you had back there, back then. But would you believe it if I told you that what’s up ahead is even better? Can I challenge you to raise your expectations? God will see us through.

Let us live with the courage, confidence, and the conviction that there is enough for today and that there will be enough for tomorrow. There is abundance ahead.

There is abundance ahead.

Can you believe it?

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

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The Thresholds of Faith

A sermon based on Deuteronomy 11:18-21 and Ephesians 6:1-9 preached on August 27th, 2017

Sermon audio

As we’ve slowly made our way through Ephesians—passage by passage, instruction by instruction—we’ve seen how serious Paul is about getting the life of God—the large, eternal, infinite life of God—inside of us. The letter to the Ephesians is Paul’s attempt to get us to notice all the ways that God is inviting us through Christ to participate in resurrection living.

Throughout our summer’s exploration of Ephesians, we’ve heard one message said a dozen different ways: practice Jesus. In everything you do, in every place you find yourself—practice Jesus. His is the only life large enough for us. Everywhere else is cramped space. We have been invited into the resurrection life of Christ, and it’s a wide-open space. Only in Christ is there enough room for us to grow into the people God has created us and wishes for us to be.

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These are big ideas from a big God. We can easily be overwhelmed by it all.

The first few chapters of Ephesians contains multitudes. They’re here to wow us. To get us interested in becoming a part of something big and beyond us. Paul speaks in Ephesians chapter 1 of a divine mystery—something given to us by God that not one of us will ever be able to comprehend or conjure up for ourselves, on our own. But in order to get in on this divine mystery, in order to begin this vast resurrection life that Christ invites us into, we must give up our own ways of going about life in general, we need to sacrifice life on our terms. The Christian way is first and foremost life on God’s terms. Our ways need changing. The particulars of our lives, especially our relationships, take on new form. Jesus-form, servant-form, cross-form. That’s why halfway through Ephesians, Paul shifts his perspective from telescopic to microscopic, as if to say,

Now that you know about the infinite holiness of this God, this is how the mundane particulars of your minutes and hours and days, and every one of your relationships will be different.

Think eternally; act locally. Start practicing resurrection right where you are! Once we got to Chapter 3, we take the big vision we glance at through our telescopes, and we let it inform and shape what we see when we look into our microscopes.

In every next chapter of Ephesians, Paul has us focusing on ever smaller layers of our lives. First, Paul makes sure we know that we Gentiles have been incorporated into the covenant of God. We are part of the ancient promise given to Abraham and Sarah. The circle of salvation grows to include all of us. Then, Paul takes us to church—talks about the body of Christ, tells us how to live out the eternal promises of our infinite God as we gather together inside of these four walls.

Then, turning the dials on the microscope even closer, he gives us instructions for how to behave and treat one another—what our lives will look like as we practice Christ together. Then, when he’s done addressing life in church community, he focuses in even closer. Now, Paul wants us to pay attention to what happens at home. How spouses are to regard one another. No longer with an attitude of dismissiveness as if we own each other, but with reverence. No longer is it okay for women to be talked down to. Now we are to look at one another in equal measure, and search for Christ inside of each other.

I love this! I love this because this movement from eternal to specific confronts us every time. We have an increasing tendency to think of God in ethereal, new-agey ways. Those who call themselves spiritual but not religious love to talk about how spending time with other human beings inside of religious community is unnecessary when they can just get up every morning and see God in the sunrise, or in the birds soaring through the sky, in the crisp cool air, or the quiet sound of wind rustling through the leaves. They say these things as if no one else witnesses God in these ways—like they’re in on something new. But Paul will have none of that. The farther we go in his letter to the Ephesians, the more Paul insists that God is found in and by those who gather together in sacred community with others on a regular basis. God becomes flesh and blood this way—something more than some transcendent idea, Someone real and present, calling us to say no to all the ways our culture is disconnecting from what’s real and personal. All of scripture, and Jesus Himself, points to a God who insists on being found in flesh and blood relationships with our fellow human beings.

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Place these words inside your hearts. Get them deep inside you.

Those are the first words from our passage in Deuteronomy for this morning. Deuteronomy is all about the particulars. It’s Moses’ last sermon before he passes away, and after he’s gone, he needs the Israelite people to remember how God has changed their life. And just like Paul does in Ephesians, Moses drills down to the specifics in Deuteronomy. And the most specific layer of our lives—the closest our microscopes can focus down upon, is what happens at home.

Inscribe these words…on the doorposts of your houses. Teach them to your children. Do all of this on the soil that God has promised to give you. Get all this deep inside of you.

God is not happy being left outside of anything. It’s not enough to find Him in sunrises and sunsets or in crisp, cool mountain breezes, in the sound of crashing waves, or the soaring of seagulls. God wants into our houses! Our kitchens and bedrooms. Our living and dining rooms. This is ground zero for our faith: what happens at home. It turns out that the biggest thresholds of our faith are the ones we step through every morning and evening as we leave and return home. Home is where it all begins, where faith is formed and then matures.

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When my parents first told my brother and I they had decided to sell the house we grew up in, I found myself surprised that I wasn’t at all sad. There was no grief there. The only thing I questioned was why I wasn’t grieving it. I talked to my brother about this, and I found out that he wasn’t grieving either. This made me feel better.

As the days went on after this news from my parents, as the house went on the market, memories of life in that house began to surface. The front yard of this home was the one my brother and I and all the neighborhood kids tore up playing baseball. Ghost man on first and third. And what about the pile of unused bricks—the ones that sat in the same place in the backyard for 30 years? The ones we used to build forts with or hide behind whenever we played outside. And then there was the panel of unfinished drywall in the garage with pencil etchings all up and down it, where my parents measured our height every few months with the dates scrawled next to each marker. What would happen to that?

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Our lives are lived, and we are formed, in-house. Nowhere else is it more important to live out our faith than in the space behind our front door. Everything begins at home, and everything about who we are and how we are, mirrors home. I am who I am, and you are who you are, because of what home is like.

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As your Pastor, I can lose my voice and my breath teaching Christ to you. I could take crowds of kids to places like Montreat and Bluestone. I could run around all week long, and still I wouldn’t have as much an impact over your child’s or grandchild’s faith, your family’s faith, as you do. Study after study proves this: the single most important social influence on the religious and spiritual lives of children and adolescents is their parents. This sanctuary is not the space within which faith is formed. It is merely the place in which it is celebrated. As it turns out, our faith is born, instilled, grown, and brought to maturity in the same space we are born, grow, and brought to maturity—in our kitchens and dining rooms, in our living rooms and bedrooms. The primary responsibility of fostering Christ in our children resides with you, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents.

Parents, you are painting a portrait of God for your children. What does that picture look like? What happens at home?

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Fathers and mothers, take your children by the hand and lead them in the way of the Master.

The thresholds around the front doors, side doors, back doors of your homes—they’re also the thresholds of faith. This shouldn’t be surprising. Jesus did most of His earthly ministry around tables—the ones inside of other people’s homes—sharing food and drink with friends and enemies, outcasts and the well-connected.

We believe in a God who was born into a family. In a stable that was adjacent to a house. That is to say, we have an incarnational faith. A home-faith. A flesh and blood faith. A God-in-house faith. In the opening words of the Gospel according to John, in Jesus Christ, God has pitched a tent and moved into our neighborhood. God is born and still resides with us! In house. Teach your children well.

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The invitation and challenge we’re given as we enter the last chapter of Ephesians is to live a specific faith in a specific space. Speak no more flighty, five syllable words! No more floaty theological conjectures will do! God is not some concept or notion. God is a person who longs to take up residence among us.

So, what happens at home? I urge you to keep asking yourself that question.

As it turns out, faith is shaped inside of the havens of our homes. As it turns out, it’s the soil in which we have been planted that we grow—grow strong and mature in body, in mind, in heart…in Christ.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Easter Unfolding

A sermon based on Psalm 116 and Luke 24:13-35 preached on April 30th, 2017

Sermon audio

The ability to see is granted gently.

Throughout scripture, God’s very presence is described as light. The kind of light that overwhelms us, the kind our eyes are not built to withstand or make any sense of.

When God comes to His people, it’s always with a blinding truth that none of us are able to handle. Think of Moses at the burning bush. On fire but not consumed. Think of Sinai, the mountain that only Moses could ascend. He climbed into God’s radiating company. After those mountaintop conversations with God, Moses had to cover his face with a veil, or else the afterglow of God was enough to blind the Israelites.

I imagine every time he stood atop Sinai, Moses shook all over from a reverent fear—an overwhelmed and overwhelming sense of the Holy that not one of us are built to witness. Not many of us could withstand such a sight.

God knows this about us. God was careful with Moses, and God is gentle with us, too. God grants us the ability to see, but He grants it to us gently. Our eyes adjust slowly to new rays of light. That’s why Easter comes not all at once, but over all these days and weeks after Jesus’ resurrection. God unfolds the Truth of Easter slowly. One sign at a time, and only when our eyes and ears, hearts and minds are ready to see it.

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No one has ever found Emmaus. Thousands, perhaps millions, of maps have been unfolded, unearthed, and unrolled from their ancient containers, combed over with magnifying glasses in case its name has faded away, but Emmaus has never been discovered. Perhaps it was never a place—or at least no place in particular.

And Cleopas. Who’s Cleopas? We don’t know really. He wasn’t one of the Twelve, but he was a disciple of Jesus all the same. He and his unnamed traveling companion—they were walking away. Away from Jerusalem. And toward who knows where or what. Maybe they didn’t even know. All they knew was that something they had given their lives to had come to an end. It all had unraveled in the course of the last three days. Along the way to Emmaus, they recounted their time with Jesus to each other. All the places He had taken them.

Wouldn’t we like to know all they were saying to each other. They must have recounted His words. His teachings. They must have laughed at themselves for never understanding any of His parables. What was Jesus trying to say, anyway?!

They must have had conversations along the Road about all the healings they witnessed. The way Jesus talked about God as if He knew God’s own heart—or had God’s own mind. What’s not to be astonished by? How could they ever forget?

They must have recounted that last week with Jesus over and over again while they walked away. The conflict in the Temple. That last meal together. The words Jesus had spoken around that table—this is my body broken;  this is my blood poured. Those sleepy moments in the Garden of Gethsemane when their Master went off on His own to pray. The two of them must have poured over every detail of what happened next. The arrest. The chaos of it. It all happened so fast. The next time they saw Jesus, He was hanging on a cross. Then the burial. How many tears were shed along that road as these last few days unfolded again and again in their memories? How do you walk away from all that?

They were going back to their old lives. They were walking away from the last three years of following Jesus. All of it having unraveled into nothing right in front of them.

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It’s in the thick of their grief, the fog of all this loss, that Jesus comes along. Appearing to them as a fellow companion along their journey away. Anonymous. Just a stranger keeping them company. He walks with them slowly. Nobody’s in a rush here. There’s nowhere specific to go now—nothing left to do anymore, or so they thought. This is slow time along a lost and dusty road. Jesus had so much to share with them. So much to prove to them, but Jesus is patient with them. God grants us the ability to see, but He grants it to us gently. Our eyes adjust slowly to new rays of light. Jesus knows this about us.

It’s along a road like this, with stories shared like these, that the truth of Easter should strike us not as an event that occurred, but a path on which we stand. A journey we take. A direction we walk. Easter, as well as the resurrection that comes with it, they are not one-time events frozen in place along a timeline. They are a constant unfolding of truth that takes place right in front of us. Easter resurrection is a way for us to encounter Jesus no matter when or where we are.

Emmaus maybe be a lost destination so far as maps are concerned, but we know where it is, because we’ve been there before. Emmaus is all the in-between places in our lives. It’s the ground we stand on when we don’t know exactly where we stand or what we stand for. There are many Emmauses. It’s in the middle of these Emmaus moments that Jesus arrives.

What are you discussing as you walk along?

He says.

Jesus companions with us in these places, but He doesn’t reveal himself—not at first, not in any obvious way—because He knows that our faith cannot yet handle a revelation. We aren’t yet ready for that. Faith cannot be forced upon us. It cannot be coerced. Faith—that is, having eyes to see and ears to hear Jesus—does not come all at once. It must be gradually unfolded in front of us. We are brought to sight slowly. As poet Denise Levertov puts it, every step we take is a sort of arrival. God is patient with His people.

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There are moments in our lives when we feel like we’re headed in no specific direction at all. When we lose sight of our purpose and our path. So, we walk away. Away from life as we knew it before. In our grief and hurt, we think that every step forward—away from a life that once was—will distance us from our past.

Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves. That first question He asks the two along the road is Jesus’ way of reminding them of who they are and whose they are. In effect, Jesus comes along and says,

Let me re-tell you your story. It’s God’s story, too.

Jesus won’t let them walk away. God’s story is the biblical story, and we have been a part of it from the very beginning. Jesus won’t let them walk away because first and foremost, this is a story of a God who relentlessly pursues us. Who will not let us go. Who will not let us forget our story. And that’s when Jesus takes over. He tells the two everything that God has been doing. He starts with Moses—all that God has done for His people as God guided them away from slavery in Egypt and into the freedom and abundance of the Promised Land.

Jesus didn’t stop there. He told them about all the prophets who came along after that to guide God’s people in the right direction. Throughout history, those who lose their hope in God—who forget their salvation story—they walk away. But over and over again, God pursued them, retaught them their own story, and set them back on right paths again.

Along the road to Emmaus, as Jesus unfolds God’s story for the two disciples, their hearts are kindled inside of them. Brought to flame. And with each one of Jesus’ words, the two disciples begin piecing back together what they thought was forever broken. Maybe the Jesus story does have a future. Who are we to say that God’s story has an ending? Maybe there’s more.

Easter slowly unfolds in front of these two disciples along the Emmaus road. They start gaining eyes to see some vague notion of a future for themselves. Their hearts are brought to flame as the Holy Spirit speaking into them. But they needed more nudging. We all do. Our eyes are never opened fully. The Easter news of resurrection is too big for us to see all at once. There’s always more that needs revealing. It was only when they stopped and gathered around table, as Jesus broke bread with the two, that something in them was shaken awake.

How many times had they gathered around table with Jesus and shared bread with him? How many times had Jesus hosted a meal with them, inviting the hungry and the lost to be nourished, to recover who they are while sitting around table? This happens over and over again. Countless times. It was around table that their eyes were opened. When bread is shared, all heaven breaks loose.

They recognize Jesus right then. In table fellowship. This should remind us of Communion, of course, but I don’t think that’s the only thing that Luke intends here. After all, it was the two disciples who invited Jesus to stay and eat with them. Jesus was their guest. With hearts burning inside of them, they couldn’t yet let go of this mysterious traveler. They wanted more time with Him. Having been invited to their table, though, Jesus quickly becomes their Heavenly Host, taking bread and breaking it in front of them. It was then, in that moment when Jesus took bread and broke it, that their burning hearts were broken open and they could see!

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Friends, Easter is still unfolding right in front of us. There is no end to God’s story. Salvation is still working itself out right in front us, with every step we take along the Way. Emmaus is nowhere in particular. Emmaus is everywhere. Emmaus always happens. Easter is always unfolding in front of us. In all of our journeys, do we have eyes to see Jesus with us?

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

A Christian’s Way

A sermon based on Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Matthew 7:13-20 preached March 26th, 2017

Sermon audio

I learned a new word yesterday: Funambulist.

A man named Jean-Francios Gravelet, born in 1825, was perhaps the greatest of them: he was a tight-rope walker. His most spectacular feat was walking a three-inch thick tightrope across a 1,000-foot chasm over Niagara Falls.

Newspapers from all across the country followed him to the Falls that day—most of them speculating how bad his inevitable plunge into the raging water would be. It was a vertical drop of 165 feet. Right before he began his 1,000-foot dare-devil walk, he offered to carry a volunteer over on his back. Surprisingly, no one took him up on it.

He made it across. The walk took him a little over 17 minutes. He stopped to rest at one point. He also decided it would be fun to stand on one leg for a bit, which drew cheers from the gathered crowd. It was almost as if he was playing around out there. Loving every minute of it. Like what he was doing wasn’t a matter of life and death, but more like child’s play. As he was planning his walk, he said once that he considered it an easy task. By all accounts, he made it look easy, too.

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As we make our way through Matthew chapter 7, the final chapter of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, let’s not forget where we started.

That first step we took, those first words we heard from Jesus. The Beatitudes, that series of blesseds, spell out a decisively new way of walking. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount is a fleshing out of the bones that are the Beatitudes. Since we’re weeks and weeks along now, with only the closing words left to go, it would be very easy for us to divorce these words about wide and narrow gates, false prophets, and good and bad fruit from good and bad trees, from the very first words of the Sermon, the ones about meekness, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and how we should be glad when the rest of the world persecutes and insults us for not living in the world’s ways.

We started our sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount on a fifth Sunday. We were gathered in the Chapel that morning, and we went from one Beatitude to the next. And when we got to that last one: Blessed are you who are insulted and persecuted, I said that this last beatitude doesn’t really apply to us because we don’t suffer persecution for our faith. But, I think I might want to change my mind. Or at least respond to it in a more nuanced way.

It’s easy being Christian in America. The word not only doesn’t get any of us in trouble. It actually makes our way easier. We trust a Christian. All a politician needs to do is call them self a Christian, and all the sudden we stop asking hard questions about what they believe and how and why it matters to them. Being a Christian is easy. But following Jesus—that another matter entirely.

We live in a time when being a Christian and following Jesus are two different things. Anybody can call themselves whatever they want, but like Jesus declares in another translation of this passage, even wolves can dress themselves up in sheep costumes. You can dress yourself up as a healthy tree, but it’s the quality of the fruit you bear that will give you away. Calling ourselves Christians—that’s easy. Following Jesus is hard.

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Some people talk about a flash moment in their lives when all the sudden they were saved. A moment when time split into two—before Christ and after Christ. There’s nothing particularly wrong with a conversion like this. I have a story that goes a bit like that. Maybe you do, too. But if these words from Jesus have anything to do with it, a moment is not what matters. There may or may not be a moment in your life when you became Christian, but these words from the latter part of the Sermon on the Mount put much more emphasis on what happens after that. How we follow is much more important to Jesus than anything we call ourselves.

Following Jesus isn’t a one-time choice. It isn’t an event. It’s a movement along a path. It’s a step forward, and then another, and then a million more after that. And each step is a choice—a choice about how we will walk through this world, this life, this hour, this minute. It’s a call to look at the right things while we take this journey. A choice about what we will carry in our hearts, in our minds, in our mouths along the way. The words we use, we direction we move. And at the heart of this journey, this constant following after Jesus, step by step, is holy discernment. This is what separates followers of Jesus from those who merely call themselves Christians and leave it at that.

Being Christian takes a decal for the back of your car. Following Jesus takes discernment. The way of discipleship—the Jesus Way—is narrow. It’s a 1,000 foot walk across a tightrope. Every step a measured one, a prayer-filled one. According to Jesus, the Way isn’t safe. It’ll be treacherous, and hard, and confounding. You might lose your balance and fall down and have to get back up again, but maybe falling is exactly how you know you’re on it—because walking this Way is not easy.

If Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, as He calls Himself in another part of scripture, and if the Way is narrow, then it cannot be up to us to walk it. If we choose to give ourselves to the Way—a way of speaking and thinking, imagining and praying—we cannot follow Jesus any which way we like. There are many ways to walk these days. Lots of paths to give ourselves to. Is the route we take, the way we talk, the way we treat each other—the way we do everything—is it congruent with the Way of Jesus?

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Deuteronomy is one of the greatest books of the bible. All thirty chapters of it is Moses, Israel’s leader, preaching his last sermon to his people.

Moses brought them out from the way of slavery in Egypt and then through the desert, and now to the Promised Land. Their way had been difficult. At many moments, the Israelites—thirsty, hungry, and tired—wanted to give up, go back to Egypt, willingly give themselves back to the way of slavery. If it hadn’t been for Moses, they might have done so. Deuteronomy is Moses’s last moments with his people. His time has come to an end. He will ascend a mountain, look out at the vista of the Land God has promised, and die. But before that, Moses reiterates the Way. He says to the Israelites,

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. Choose.

Choose not once, but over and over again. If your hearts turn away, if you leave the narrow Way, destruction is certain. So, pick your way carefully.

The wide way, according to Moses, is a way filled with death and curses, but it’s more enticing, and it’s certainly easier to walk. But don’t do it. You might not get lost, but you’ll certainly lose yourselves in it. Instead, hold fast to God. Love the Lord your God. Listen to His voice. Hold on for dear life to the narrow way. Prayerfully discern each and every step forward.

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Friends, we can find salvation anywhere. It’s offered to us a million times a day in a million different ways. One thousand new religions bloom every day. But all of them are a part of the wide way—the way leading to destruction. If we give ourselves to those ways, those voices, we will quickly get lost, but the dangerous thing is we’ll never know we’re lost. We might even think we’re found. That we’ve figured out salvation. But really, we’ll be far from it.

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So, how do we know where we are? Which way is the right way—the narrow way—and how do we find it? For that, we should turn to 1 John chapter 4.

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming, and even now is already in the world.

The author of 1 John goes on to say that most people speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them, and they listen to the world. This is the wide way.

Test each and every spirit, discern everything you hear, everything you say, everything others say and do—compare it to the Way of Jesus. Hold it up to the Way of Jesus, and if it doesn’t fit, if it isn’t cross-shaped, reject it. Run far away from it. Do not give yourselves to it. Not only will it be a waste of your time; it will also lie to you, unravel you, bully you into conforming to its ways. And its ways may be far different than the Way of Jesus.

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The way of Jesus has certain qualities to it. We need to know those qualities in order to discern our way—to test the spirits.

The litmus test to it all is the Cross. The cross is the way of Jesus We are to walk the way of the cross. This is the Way of death that leads to real life. Death to self leads to life in Christ. It’s completely counter-cultural and lop-sided, but the Way of Jesus is the way of servanthood and humility, that will lead us to true freedom. Freedom in Christ.

Try convincing your next-door neighbor of that one!

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The truth is we will constantly mistake the wide way for the narrow way—life on our terms is much easier than life on God’s terms.

But for every one of our missteps on this high wire act of walking the Way, may God’s grace be there like a net below us to catch us, make the landing a soft one, and set us back on the Jesus Way.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Orders to the Morning

A sermon based on Psalm 104:1-15 and Job 38:1-13, 16-21, and 24-33 preached on May 29th, 2016

Sermon audio

Job wants answers. And he wants them now.

At the very center of the book of Job stands a man who pleads for explanations for all his troubles, and answers for all his questions. Job’s family, his wealth, really his entire being, has been taken away from him. His land and livestock, his wife and kids have suddenly and unfairly been snatched away from him.

Job had assumed, and continues to assume throughout most of the book, that as long people are good, God will be good to them. Why then has any of this happened? Job’s entire life has been ripped away from him. All he worked so hard to achieve, all that he was proud of seemed to disappear all at once, and Job stands a broken and lonely man standing in a heap of dust and ashes and with a mound full of questions. And as the story moves along, Job seems increasingly hell-bent on confronting God. Job demands a response from God. Surely there must be a reason for this slew of terrible things that has happened to him, and surely God must be held accountable for them!

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The Book of Job is the oldest book of the bible. It’s the most ancient thing we have, and it tackles the most ancient, persistent, and irritating question human beings have inside of them: Why do bad things happen to good people?

Throughout the first 37 chapters, Job contends with God. He shouts at the emptiness and silence of the heavens above, and he demands that God respond! Job uses legal language in his complaints to God throughout the story, and like a trial lawyer, he wants to take God to court, to sue God for all of this. And Job is not going to shut up until he receives a satisfying verdict that convicts God of His wrongdoing.

God better give me a good reason for all this,

Job says in one way or another throughout this story.

And then there are Job’s friends who think they know why he has suffered such misfortune. Surely Job must have sinned against God. There must be a good reason why Job had been met with such heartbreaking tragedy. Clearly, God took his wife and children, and land, and all the rest away as some sort of punishment for past sins. That wasn’t the case at all, and Job stands firm throughout the story that he has done nothing at all to deserve such treatment from God. There is something in our minds that has us think this way, isn’t there?

A man who has never smoked a day in his life is diagnosed with lung cancer and says aloud to all who will listen that he must have done something wrong in his past to deserve this.

A mother who sits helpless next to her son as the blood in his little body is somehow poisoning him. All the mother can do is blame herself for what is happening. She starts thinking about all the “what-if-I-just-had’s” and all the “what-did-I-do-wrongs.”

And all who look upon those who suffer have the same kind of thoughts Job’s friends had:

What could he have done to ever cause him to get this sick?

Even if they just ask the question in the silent reaches of their minds. We human beings have minds that crave answers to the unanswerable, explanations for the inexplicable. We want to understand why, and we first reach for low-hanging fruit in our explorations: there must be something or someone to blame for this! The word for that sort of thinking is karma, and there’s nothing in our biblical faith that supports it. That there might not be a cause for suffering seems like the most haunting discovery of all!

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Job cannot escape his need to have good answers to all of his questions. He refuses to settle for God’s silence. But what happens at the end of the Book of Job is not what he or anyone else could have ever anticipated or prepared for. God finally speaks up 38 chapters in.

Those of us who are rational and analytic, who like our answers clear-cut and our explanations as plain as day, will be completely frustrated by God’s response to Job. We have a longing to know what is often unknowable. We love to be certain. Certainty is treated as some sort of virtue, and its corollary, doubt, has long been seen as a weakness–something to get rid of, to grow out of. Sometimes doubt is cast as a sign of an immature or a lapsed faith.

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Job levies every one of his charges against God like a prosecuting lawyer. He wants to throw the book at God! But God refuses to stand trial. Instead of answering Job’s lawyerly questions, God waxes poetic. For 4 entire chapters, God engages Job, but He refuses to do so on Job’s terms. Job doesn’t get to ask any more questions. Whenever God speaks, God will do so on His own terms.

God’s words stretch on, and take Job, and all the rest of us, on a journey. God doesn’t speak in these last few chapters of the book of Job to teach Job a lesson or shove anything down his throat. But with these words, God wants Job to realize how small he is, and how big God is. God dazzles Job with things far beyond his or any of our imaginings. God takes Job on a lightning tour of the inner workings and wonders of the entire cosmos. God speaks to Job and challenges Job’s nice and tidy worldview with visions and mysteries of the expansive and majestic cosmos—the one that works in all of its awe-inspiring ways because God makes it happen, God oversees and orchestrates it all. And with each and every new example we hear of how God is sovereign over every little detail of our constantly moving and ever-majestic world, we can imagine Job shrinking back down to human size, and suddenly Job’s beef with God doesn’t seem so big anymore.

It’s as if God says to Job,

I have the whole universe in my hand and under my control…Now, you said you had a question for me?

And in that moment, every self-righteous argument that Job had prepared as his defense melted down like wax into nothing but a puddle, and all he can do is stand there speechless, beholding God’s glorious presence with his jaw dropped open, and after a long silence, all Job can muster is a stuttering confession:

I surely have spoken of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. …My ears have heard of You, but now my eyes have seen You, therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.

Job now knows his place. God lets Job know that there is only one God, and Job isn’t it. Job realizes how puny and inadequate and simplistic his understanding of the world is. This is the God who gives orders to the morning, who spins the whirling planets, and who set it all into place, who continues to create and uphold all of it. And nothing at all can ever prepare us for an encounter with such a holy and sovereign God.

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Throughout the Old Testament, God is that Presence who everyone must turn their eyes away from. That’s because we are all unprepared to witness the radiance and glory and power of our living God! Encountering God is not for the fainthearted!

Even God’s name, first told to Moses in the third chapter of Exodus, refuses category. God’s name is Yahweh, which is even hardly translatable into English. The closest we can come to it is, I Am Who I Am. God is being itself.

Every measurement, conception, idea we have about God will always be proven woefully inadequate. God refuses to be known as a noun. God is the most elusive verb there is!

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And what of this universe that God has created? It too refuses to be understood. It too refuses to be tied down by any of our own tiny notions of it or plans for it. We certainly have never been able to control it! God’s creation is just as complex as God is, and that means chaos will always a part of it.

Job is confronted by the chaos of the world and the immensity of God, and realizes that God doesn’t owe him a thing! Having control of these things is only a delusion we have. God is the only One in control.

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Over the years, I have practiced the art of letting go. I’ve grown to accept the phrase “let go and let God.” For so long I hated that phrase. I’m still not all that comfortable with it, but I think there’s more truth to it than I’d like to admit.

There’s something to the fact that many of Jesus’ teachings are about loosening our grasp on things, and letting go of the anxieties we have about tomorrow, and living instead for today. This means living with less answers and with more questions. It means less grasping and more gratitude. It means less why? and more wonder.

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Job’s questions never get answered. Not a one of them. Job never got the best of God. There is no way to force God’s hand and eek some sort of divine answer or explanation out of God. That cannot and will not do.

We can search scripture high and low and we won’t find such a thing. The bible doesn’t provide us with those answers. Scripture is astonishingly void of neat little tidy resolutions to all of our gnawing and troublesome questions and concerns. So, we continue to speak them to the skies with faith that they are heard by a God who understands us, who walks with us through our days, and comforts us through our inexplicable sorrows.

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They say that the longer we live and the more we see, the less we know. I think that’s true. It certainly is the truth is Job’s case. God takes all the neat little categories that we like to arrange our lives with, and says to us,

They’re all too small and inadequate.

But that God speaks into our lives at all—not with expected words that we want to hear, but with surprising words that we need to hear—is a great comfort in and of itself.

This God who gives orders to the morning also reaches out and speaks to us.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

At Home In the World

A sermon based on Psalm 147:12-20 and John 1:1-18 preached on
January 3rd, 2016

Sermon audio

I was 22 and in my last semester of college when I did an internship at a small Presbyterian church with my mentor and friend Matt Matthews. The idea was to give me a taste and some experience into what ministry in a small church looked and felt like, and every day, I did something different. One of my main responsibilities, though, was to lead worship with Matt on Sunday mornings. The two of us would meet up 10 minutes before the start of the service with the Choir, and have a prayer beforehand.

It was the 2nd or 3rd Sunday I was there, as the two of us were walking from his office to meet up with the Choir that Matt said to me, “I’m not feeling so good today, so you might be the one preaching my sermon for me. We’ll see how it goes.” He said that like it was no big deal—like I would reply with a quick, “Oh, okay, that’s fine!”

In fact, that’s how I might have responded, but on the inside there was sheer panic. How could he just drop this on me all the sudden and 10 minutes before the service, no less?! This is a clear set-up for failure! I stand no chance!

As it turned out, Matt preached his sermon just fine that morning. He had taken a dose of DayQuil just before worship, and it kicked in right about the time he started preaching. But he did something that morning that I’ve never seen him do before or since. At one point in the sermon, to emphasize his point, he pounded on the pulpit with his fist. Hard and loud. It woke everyone up! I was sitting in back of him that morning, in the chancel area, and once he threw his fist down onto the pulpit, I jumped out of my skin!

Later that week, Matt told me he didn’t know whether it was the cough syrup or the Holy Spirit that made him bang his fist on that pulpit. A friend of his suggested that it was maybe both. Maybe both, but we’ll never know.

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How do we know when God is speaking?

Does the voice of God speaking to us feel any different than the effects of a dose of Dayquil, or say—indigestion, gas, or the hardening of arteries? How can we tell?

We have a bible full of stories where God seems to speak with words—audible words—and humans just like us (there’s tons of them!) they hear God’s voice, they have conversations with Him just like you and I can have conversations with each other. Why doesn’t that happen anymore? Did it ever happen in the first place?What if the writers of the bible simply had better imaginations than we do?

When we read that Moses heard the voice of God speaking from inside a burning bush, how literally are we supposed to take that? If there were iPhones at the time, and that whole scene could have been filmed, what would we see and hear when we played it back? And that’s just one instance out of hundreds in the bible. Has God lost His voice? Has He become more introverted after all these years? Has God tried and tried, over and over again, to speak to us and because we never really listened, He’s given up trying? Or is it that we’re not listening for the right things? What kind of voice are we listening for?

Maybe it’s that God speaks out of the mystery of life itself. Perhaps the voice we need to listen for is a slower and more profound one—something speaking to us not with words strung together into sentences, but something more than that, some deeper utterance—some nudge in one direction or another—some trembling in our bones or underneath our feet. And it’s all we can do to try to make sense of that utterance. We know we hear something, but we need to hear it again, or else we might chalk it up to too much cough syrup.

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And this is what separates the Church from any other gathering of people. We listen together. We live with one another, not just because we like each other, but because we’re here to help each other listen—to try our best to make sense of all the different and mysterious ways that God is speaking into our lives. If that wasn’t our calling as a Church—the very center of our existence, the very heart of our purpose, then we might as well call ourselves something other than Church. The Lion’s Club, perhaps. Or the Shriners. Our men could sign up for a spot in the parade, wear those funny hats with the tassels on them, and drive in figure 8’s in tiny go-carts. We’re here because we’re called for something more. We’re called to listen deeper—to listen with one another. We’re here to remind each other that God is still speaking, and has a word for each and every one of us.

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God is famous for calling something to life over and over again—something that didn’t and couldn’t exist before God spoke it into being.

John’s gospel starts with this poem—this amazing and mysterious word—and in it, he declares that Jesus’ coming wasn’t happenstance. That his birth among us wasn’t just a consequence, or good timing. John declares from the very start that Jesus has existed in and with God from the very beginning of time, and at the fullness of time, God spoke again and something new appeared. Think of the very first words of the bible. John uses them here as his very first words:

In the beginning…

God speaks and things happen. And this new divine utterance is just one more thing God is creating, it is God himself coming to us, to live among us, as one of us.

The Word became flesh and made his home among us.

Another translation of this verse says that God moved into the neighborhood, because the original meaning of the word here is that in the person of Jesus, God pitched a tent right next to ours. With Jesus, God made himself at home in the world—setting up camp with us. Jesus is the Word. The deepest utterance of God. The very center of God’s voice. His heartbeat. The purpose of the Word made flesh is to bring God out, to give God a voice we all can hear and wrap our minds and hearts around.

Before Jesus, we looked up toward the sky—into its vast emptiness and we wondered what was out there and if it had anything for us. But now there’s no reason to look up to find our meaning and purpose. Now we look to Jesus, because God has made himself at home in the world.

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Jesus’s voice—that’s the voice we should listen for. He himself is the very utterance of God. And He’s still speaking. Jesus is God’s most powerful word ever spoken—so powerful that it’s still echoing across the sky. Sometimes it comes as soft as a whisper. Other times, as loud as a clanging cymbal. Sometimes as small as a mustard seed. Other times, as big as Christmas.

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We don’t always hear God well. It’s far easier to pay attention to the small things that take up our days. We don’t have to look too far after God’s first words that spoke creation and humanity into being to find that it was the very first of us who decided to pay attention to other voices—their own as well as the smaller ones much closer to them.

We know that story. It’s not just Adam and Eve’s story. It’s ours, too. We’re great at listening to the lesser voices, the most immediate and closer ones. It’s much harder to listen for the Voice that spoke it all into being in the first place—the One who still speaks us into being. The invitation, then, is to listen deeper—to take time out before the tumble of our lives and all of its distractions begin hurtling towards us from every direction. C.S. Lewis said it best in his book Mere Christianity:

It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other Voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and fretting; coming in out of the wind.

That’s the invitation in these first words from the gospel of John. To listen for a new utterance in and among us. Let us start the New Year listening for that voice.

Our God is closer to us than we have ever imagined!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

God’s All. Our All.

A sermon based on Exodus 4:10-12 and Psalm 103 preached August 16th, 2015

Sermon audio

There are just some ideas out there that are so big—so magnificent—that they demand a new word to describe them. It’s a good thing, then, that the English language is fluid. It’s constantly changing. We make up words all the time!

One of my favorite TV shows from the 90’s was Mad About You with Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt. It’s some of the funniest comedy writing there ever was. Every once in a while, the Paul Reiser character would make up a word that fit so well and makes so much sense that you would have to wonder why nobody ever used it before. My favorite example of this was when he was he was trying to pay a compliment to a train steward. When everyone else was only complaining to this poor guy about how terrible the trip had been, Paul Reiser’s character speaks up:

You’re doing a great job! I’m not sure what these people are angry about. I’m not disgruntled at all. In fact I’m gruntled—I’m extremely gruntled. Keep up the good work!

Paul Reiser was once asked in an interview,

What’s your favorite word?

And he replied,

This is my favorite thing that needs a word: You know when you floss and a little something always lands on the mirror? That. That needs a word.

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Comedians like Paul Reiser tend to pay attention to those small things we overlook and have no words for, but sometimes we don’t have words for things because they’re too big for words. Sometimes there’s an ideas so big, so allusive, so filled with awe, that no word we could ever make up, no matter how big it is or how great it sounds, could ever do it justice. And when we bump up against the outer edges of our language like that—when we find there is nothing we have that offers justice to such a wondrous thought—that’s when we resort to poetry. And that’s where the Psalms come in. The Psalms are filled with visions that—even though they’re brought to us with words—are so much bigger than anything we could ever say. That’s because praise is bigger than language.The praise we offer to God—the praise God is always worthy of—can never be uttered with human lips but can only overflow from our hearts. Sometimes, though, we must try to put words to our expansive praises, and Psalm 103 wants to do that twice. It has two new words to teach us: Hesed and Nephesh. Hebrew scholars have tried to translate the Hebrew word Hesed at their own peril. In our reading for the day, it’s translated as “faithful love.” It’s a word reserved throughout the bible to describe God’s great love for us. Some other translations take a stab at it with the phrase “loving kindness,” but it also has a sense of loyalty to it—it means that God is always loving and merciful and kind and loyal. And because the word hesed means so much all at once, some people simply leave it untranslated, because no other words can do it justice.

The second word in Psalm 103 we need to wrestle with is Nephesh. It also is too big for any of our words, but I think our reading puts it well. Nephesh means “our whole being”—everything we’re made of.

Let my whole being bless the Lord! Let everything I’m made of bless God’s holy name!

That’s how Psalm 103 starts, and in a way it’s what the entire 22 verses are about. This psalm is an attempt to put words around God’s all-encompassing love and what our appropriate response to such a big love should be, bringing our whole being—absolutely everything we are, our entire selves—to God in praise! And this is where I start making up words: This psalm is about allness. And because God has given God’s allness to us, we are to bring our allness to God.

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Helen Keller was born with the ability to see and hear, but at 19 months-old she contracted what may have been meningitis or scarlet fever and it left her both deaf and blind. With the sudden loss of her sight and her hearing, she relied upon her 6 year-old friend, Martha Washington, who somehow understood the signs Helen made and translated them for her family.

Helen had a hard time learning sign language. She didn’t understand that every object had a word uniquely identified with it, but her big breakthrough came the day her teacher ran her hand under cool water then made the sign for water in her hand.

After that Helen demanded the names everything around her. Her thirst for knowledge became insatiable. Helen Keller grew to be a teacher; an author; and an activist. She once wrote,

My heart cries out with longing to see these things. If I can get so much from mere touch, how much more must be revealed by sight.Yet, those who have eyes apparently see little. The panorama of color and action which fills the world is taken for granted. It is human, perhaps, to appreciate little that which we have and to long for that which we have not, but it is a great pity that, in the world of light, the gift of sight is used only as a mere convenience rather than as a means of adding fullness to life.

Helen Keller also became a highly sought after speaker. She learned how to speak by touching people’s lips as they talked and placing her hands on peoples’ throats so she could feel the vibrations speech made.

You could say that although blind and deaf (and for some part of her life, mute), Helen Keller made her way through the world seeing and hearing more clearly than any one of us. Her blind eyes saw more than sight can give us to see, and her deaf ears heard more than our hearing can give us to listen. Helen Keller’s witness makes me wonder what we miss looking for because we see too much—what we do not listen for because we hear too much.

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Moses had a thick tongue and a slow mouth. Moses was sure he wasn’t the one God needed for a spokesperson. He was the exact wrong choice for that job. God heard all of the excuses Moses threw out there, and God had a comeback for each and everyone. God replied to all of Moses’ objections by saying,

Who gives people the ability to speak? Who’s responsible for making them unable to speak or hard of hearing, sighted or blind? Isn’t it I who do that?

God told Moses He would help him speak. God promised to Moses all the gifts he thought he lacked, and God promised to be all that Moses needed.

Now go,

God told Moses,

I’ll help you speak, and I’ll teach you what you should say.

And as our psalm says,

God made His ways known to Moses.

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This psalm is about God’s all-inclusive and far-reaching greatness. It’s even 22 lines long, a line for each of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet, so even in its form, this poem is complete—it’s an A to Z song of praise to how complete God’s love of us is—how comprehensive God’s power is, how all-encompassing God’s promises are! I think that’s deserving of a new word like Allness.

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But this psalm isn’t just a song of praise, it also demands something of us. We can’t read a song like this and just say,

Well isn’t that a nice thought.

The Psalms don’t want us watching from the sideline, they want us to jump in with our whole being and live them out over and over again in our own lives. Psalm 103 doesn’t simply praise God for giving us His all, it demands from us that we give our all to God. This psalm asks us to take our whole being and every bit of our lives and offer it as a form of praise to God. To bless God with every choice we make and every bit of who we are. With the words of this song, we are challenged to love others with the same allness that God loves us with. God’s all. Our all. The way we love is simply an echo of the same love that God has always shown us. It’s simply an outgrowth of the joy we have when we spend our lives praising God. We make Psalm 103 come alive again when we throw all of who we are into unrestrained praise.

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It’s almost time to cover up our pools and pack up our summer for another day. Fall is ahead of us. My favorite time of year!

In the coming months, the leaves will change colors and make the world a brighter place, and our views a little sweeter. The changing colors of Autumn, the bright oranges and yellows and browns, are like Fall’s fireworks, popping out of every branch on every tree—giving us something magnificent to be in awe and wonder about… that’s if we slow down enough to see them—to really see them. Sometimes, that’s a big if. But we with eyes to see such things must take the time to do so. Helen Keller could see more than we see—hear more than we hear because she took slow time to notice the small wonders around her, and she let it all astonish her!

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Psalm 103 begins and ends with praise. The psalmist declared aloud for all around her to here:

Let my whole being bless the Lord!

God has given His allness for us. Let’s give our allness to God. In grateful response to the good news of this psalm, let’s walk slower.

Let’s take a page out of Helen Keller’s playbook and see more, listen everywhere we go, and take slow time to be astonished by the small wonders around us, and may we utter new words of praise to our God!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen!