Turning a Cold Shoulder

One of the most frustrating things about parenting is when a child won’t listen. I was talking with two moms last week who are in the throes of raising teenagers, and each shared a story about their kid not listening. It is hard to know if it is due to inattention, selective hearing, rebelliousness, stubbornness, distraction, or a combination of all those things. If you have raised a teenager, you know the struggle!

I know a mother of a four-year-old who contends with the same issue. She has developed a unique strategy that seems to work. She gently takes her son’s chin in her hand and gets down to his eye level. Then she says, “Ryan, look me in my eye.” Works every time. Unfortunately, that won’t work with your teenager when she is walking away from you, and it definitely won’t work when they are taller than you, but it does point to the necessity of ensuring that you have the child’s full attention.

I bet there are many times in my life when God wishes he could stoop down in front of me, hold my chin gently in his mighty hand and say, “Betsy! Look me in my eye.”

Our passage from Zechariah is a cautionary tale about what happens when we don’t look God in the eye and pay attention to what he is saying. His law, his instructions, and his will for our lives are clearly spelled out multiple times in Scripture. But too often we are walking away and not listening.

Zechariah 7 (Common English Bible)

 8 The Lord’s word came to Zechariah:
The Lord of heavenly forces proclaims:

Make just and faithful decisions; show kindness and compassion to each other! 10 Don’t oppress the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor; don’t plan evil against each other! 11 But they refused to pay attention. They turned a cold shoulder and stopped listening.

Neglecting to show mercy the way God shows mercy to us has negative consequences. As we talk about God being our refuge and our deliverer, we sometimes forget that we can anger God if we don’t offer those same things to other people who are hurting. When we steel our hearts against his Word and do things our way, there indeed is “hell to pay.”

1They steeled their hearts against hearing the Instruction and the words that the Lord of heavenly forces sent by his spirit through the earlier prophets. As a result, the Lord of heavenly forces became enraged.

13 So just as he called and they didn’t listen, when they called, I didn’t listen, says the Lord of heavenly forces. 14 I scattered them throughout the nations whom they didn’t know. The land was devastated behind them, with no one leaving or returning. They turned a delightful land into a wasteland.

Modern readers, take heed. God distanced himself from Israel when they gave him the cold shoulder. Left to their own apostasy, the beautiful Promised Land they had been given turned into a wasteland whose borders are still in dispute today.

This warning from an Old Testament prophet is a wake-up call. What is God calling you to do today that you are resisting? Pay attention. Look him in his eye. Ignoring God comes with a great price, so listen, trust, and obey.

Pay Attention by Wende Pritchard

For Your Own Good

A very smart four-year-old I know recently told me that there are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on the beach. (Okay, full disclosure … it was my grandson.) Skeptics are welcome to go here. Naturally I believed him since he has known the word “paleontologist” since he was three and can identify about twenty different dinosaurs, including his favorite, the Mosasaurus. Have you ever heard of a Mosasaurus? Me neither.

So, when you read things in the Old Testament that talk about the number of stars in the sky, you know you are talking about a really big number. A really, really big number.

This passage ends with a reference to stars, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. The writer begins with the startling question, “What does the Lord your God ask of you?” Have you ever thought about that? Do you even want to know? Maybe it’s too much …

Deuteronomy 10 (Common English Bible)

12 Now in light of all that, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you? Only this: to revere the Lord your God by walking in all his ways, by loving him, by serving the Lord your God with all your heart and being, 13 and by keeping the Lord’s commandments and his regulations that I’m commanding you right now. It’s for your own good!

Well, so far, so good. Revere God: check. Walk in all his ways: check. Love and serve him: check. Keep his commandments and regulation: daily effort, but we do the best we can. Check.

14 Clearly, the Lord owns the sky, the highest heavens, the earth, and everything in it. 15 But the Lord adored your ancestors, loving them and choosing the descendants that followed them—you!—from all other people. That’s how things still stand now. 16 So circumcise your hearts and stop being so stubborn, 17 because the Lord your God is the God of all gods and Lord of all lords, the great, mighty, and awesome God who doesn’t play favorites and doesn’t take bribes. 

“Circumcise your heart” is a hard teaching. The writer is suggesting we “cut away” anything extraneous thing that might prevent us from revering, loving, serving, and keeping the commandments. What would that mean in your life? Less screen time? Less arguing? Less bashing your ex on social media? Less spending money on frivolous things while people go hungry? Less self-indulgence?

And now for the challenging part.

18 He enacts justice for orphans and widows, and he loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing. 19 That means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt. 

I realize that immigration is a scalding hot political issue. It is complex and there are no easy solutions. But what exactly do you think verses 18 and 19 are saying to us? How can we care for the widows, orphans, and immigrants in our community?

20 Revere the Lord your God, serve him, cling to him, swear by his name alone! 21 He is your praise, and he is your God—the one who performed these great and awesome acts that you witnessed with your very own eyes. 22 Your ancestors went down to Egypt with a total of seventy people, but now look! The Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in the nighttime sky!

God requires a lot from his people, but he gives even more. What does that mean to you today?

Tonight, look up at the stars and ask God to show you places where you might revere him more, love him deeper, serve him better, and follow his commandments with greater integrity. Remember what it says in verse 13; it’s for your own good! We have been made more numerous as the stars in the sky. We are his people! May we witness to the world what that means.

Grains of Sand by Michelle Robertson

Practice, Practice

Do know the old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall?

Question: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Answer: “Practice, practice, practice.” The poor guy was looking for directions and he got a lecture.

But this is good advice for those who want to master an artistic, athletic, or academic performance of any kind. Good math requires practice. Good piano playing requires practice. Good ballet requires practice. My inability to do any of those three things is a result of my not wanting to practice!

Have you ever considered that praising God also requires practice? David was surely in the habit of praising God continually. It was a lifestyle for him and when he found himself in a place where his life and his sanity were in jeopardy, his praise practice helped him out:

Psalm 71 (Common English Bible)

I’ve taken refuge in you, Lord.
 Don’t let me ever be put to shame!
Deliver me and rescue me by your righteousness!
   Bend your ear toward me and save me!
Be my rock of refuge
   where I can always escape.
You commanded that my life be saved
  because you are my rock and my fortress.

The lovely phrase, “Bend your ear toward me” is a beautiful portrayal of our relationship with God. God indeed inclines his ear toward us every time we cry out to him. Like a mother bird feeding her squawking babies, God is ready to supply the need when we ask. He is the rock of refuge where we can always escape.

My God, rescue me from the power of the wicked;
    rescue me from the grip of the wrongdoer and the oppressor
 because you are my hope, Lord.
    You, Lord, are the one I’ve trusted since childhood.

Here we see why it is important to bring our children to church. David writes that he has trusted God since childhood and has depended on him from birth. How will our children have this type of relationship with God if we don’t make the effort to get them to Sunday school and worship every week?

I’ve depended on you from birth—
    you cut the cord when I came from my mother’s womb.
    My praise is always about you.
I’ve become an example to many people
    because you are my strong refuge.

Now comes the “practice, practice, practice” part:
My mouth is filled with your praise,
    glorifying you all day long.
Don’t cast me off in old age.
    Don’t abandon me when my strength is used up!

Is your mouth filled with God’s praise, or do you spend time gossiping, cutting others down, or complaining?

10 Yes, my enemies have been talking about me;
    those who stalk me plot together:
11 “God has abandoned him!
    Pursue him!
    Grab him because no one will deliver him!”
12 Don’t be far from me, God!
    My God, hurry to help me!
13 Let my accusers be put to shame,
    completely finished off!
    Let those who seek my downfall
    be dressed in insults and disgrace!

David reminds us that we can also build a relationship with God by “repeating God’s righteous acts and saving deeds all day long.”

14 But me? I will hope. Always.
    I will add to all your praise.
15 My mouth will repeat your righteous acts
    and your saving deeds all day long.
    I don’t even know how many of those there are!
16 I will dwell on your mighty acts, my Lord.
    Lord, I will help others remember nothing but your righteous deeds

What will come out of your mouth today? Try practicing praise for a change. My guess is that your day will be filled with blessings if you do.

Practice Praise by Michelle Robertson

Down and Out

Have you ever felt completely down and out? Were you in a place where nothing you did went right, everyone had turned against you, and everywhere you turned, someone was after you, trying to do you harm? Life can sometimes catch up to us and grab us by the ankles so hard we can’t move or breathe.

Several years ago, I found myself in such a place. A person who was struggling with mental illness turned her focus on me in ways that were disturbing and threatening. Then I came out of my office one day to find my tire had been slashed, preventing me from leaving on a trip until it got fixed. A month later, my mother suddenly passed away. With no sibling available, I was left to settle her estate and take care of all of her arrangements while trying to process my deep grief. It seemed that everywhere I turned for a few months, it was nothing but doom and gloom.

King David found himself in such a state many times in his life. His down-and-out moments often came as a result of his own actions, but he also was threatened by a mentally ill king who tried to take David’s life. David learned through all of that, as I did, that there is only one place to go: God is our rescuer in troubling times, regardless of the cause of our stress:

Psalm 41 (Common English Bible)

Those who pay close attention to the poor are truly happy!
    The Lord rescues them during troubling times.
The Lord protects them and keeps them alive;
    they are widely regarded throughout the land as happy people.
    You won’t hand them over to the will of their enemies.
The Lord will strengthen them when they are lying in bed, sick.
    You will completely transform the place where they lie ill.

But me? I said, “Lord, have mercy on me!
    Heal me because I have sinned against you.”
My enemies speak maliciously about me:
    “When will he die and his name disappear?”
Whenever they come to visit, they say nothing of value.
    Their hearts collect evil gossip;
    once they leave, they tell it to everybody.
All of those who hate me talk about me, whispering to each other,
    plotting evil against me:
“Some horrible thing has been poured into him;
    the next time he lies down, he won’t get up.”

One of life’s greatest stressors is the betrayal of someone you love. Few things cut as deep as a spouse, sibling, or friend turning against you. This happened to David, too.

Even my good friend,
    the one I trusted,
    who shared my food,
    has kicked me with his heel—a betrayer!
10 But you, Lord, please have mercy on me and lift me up
    so I can pay them back!

David’s plea for revenge for revenge’s sake will go unheeded by God. God reminds us that vengeance is his. But we can certainly tap into David’s emotions here. Who among us hasn’t wished to see our enemy get what’s coming to them?

11 Then I’ll know you are pleased with me
    because my enemy won’t be shouting in triumph over me.
12 You support me in my integrity;
    you put me in your presence forever.

Are you feeling down and out today? Take heart. God is with you even in the worst of your situation. You are never alone.

13 Bless the Lord, the God of Israel,
    from forever to forever!
        Amen and Amen!

Light in the Darkness by Karen Warlitner

Back Scratching

Getting to the airport from where I live is no easy thing. I was spoiled by living 20 minutes away from one of the world’s largest airports for the 20 years we lived near Atlanta. Now an airport run takes up to two hours one way and involves a fair bit of traffic, state interchanges, bridges, poorly lit country roads, and a lot of aggravation.

I recently arranged for a friend to ride home with my pilot husband to spare her husband a four-hour round trip to get her. I know the inconvenience that would have been for him and was happy to help. These are friends who are gracious and hospitable. I know for sure they would do the same thing for me. In a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” relationship, it is easy to give and receive, knowing that the good will that is extended will come back in some form when you need the favor.

God calls us into reciprocal relationships in order to strengthen our ties in our community. We need to know we can count on folks when we get into a jam. I never considered that we have a reciprocal relationship with God, however. God is so far above us; I can’t imagine how we can ever “repay the favor” in any meaningful way. God has provided everything we need in life, including his only son, who guarantees our eternal life. How can we possibly respond?

But today’s psalm offers an idea. This is a psalm of David, who begins by outlining the many, many things he has received from the Lord:

Psalm 40 (Common English Bible)

I put all my hope in the Lord.
    He leaned down to me;
    he listened to my cry for help.
He lifted me out of the pit of death,
    out of the mud and filth,
    and set my feet on solid rock.
        He steadied my legs.
He put a new song in my mouth,
    a song of praise for our God.
Many people will learn of this and be amazed;
    they will trust the Lord.
Those who put their trust in the Lord,
    who pay no attention to the proud
    or to those who follow lies,
    are truly happy!

David gets it. He knows that God has listened to him in times of great trouble, and credits God for pulling him out of “the pit of death” and restoring his life. God has blessed David with the ability to sing new praise songs for what God has done. He continues listing all of God’s goodness to him:

You, Lord my God!
    You’ve done so many things—
    your wonderful deeds and your plans for us—
        no one can compare with you!
    If I were to proclaim and talk about all of them,
        they would be too numerous to count!
You don’t relish sacrifices or offerings;
    you don’t require entirely burned offerings or compensation offerings—
    but you have given me ears!
So I said, “Here I come!
    I’m inscribed in the written scroll.

Now comes an idea of how to repay God for his goodness. First, we are encouraged to seek God’s will and learn as much about God as we can:

    I want to do your will, my God.
    Your Instruction is deep within me.”

David continues this thought with a specific way that all of us can repay God for his kindness: we can testify. We can share the good news with everyone we meet. We can go all out in witnessing to our faith.

It begs the question: when was the last time you shared your faith with someone? Have you been inviting people church? Have you borne witness to an answered prayer to your neighbor? Have you offered to pray with a hurting friend? Do you say grace in a restaurant?

I’ve told the good news of your righteousness
    in the great assembly.
    I didn’t hold anything back—
        as you well know, Lord!
10 I didn’t keep your righteousness only to myself.
    I declared your faithfulness and your salvation.
I didn’t hide your loyal love and trustworthiness
    from the great assembly.

Read that last part again, and let it inspire you.

Having demonstrated how he has reciprocated God’s attention, David now boldly shifts to the “scratch my back” part of the psalm:

1So now you, Lord—
    don’t hold back any of your compassion from me.
Let your loyal love and faithfulness always protect me,
12     because countless evils surround me.
My wrongdoings have caught up with me—
    I can’t see a thing!
There’s more of them than hairs on my head—
    my courage leaves me.
13 Favor me, Lord, and deliver me!
    Lord, come quickly and help me!
14 Let those who seek my life, who want me dead,
    be disgraced and put to shame.
Let those who want to do me harm
    be thoroughly frustrated and humiliated.
15 Let those who say to me, “Yes! Oh, yes!”
    be destroyed by their shame.

I love how David doesn’t hold anything back. Even in his demanding tone, he is letting God know that the reason he asks for favor and deliverance is because he believes in God with all his heart. He knows God will answer him! Do you ask for what you need with such confidence?

16 But let all who seek you
    celebrate and rejoice in you.
Let those who love your salvation always say,
    “The Lord is great!”
17 But me? I’m weak and needy.
    Let my Lord think of me.
You are my help and my rescuer.
    My God, don’t wait any longer!

I want to encourage you to do a few things today. First, ask boldly for what you need. God will surely lean down with all his might to hear your prayer. And second, find someone in your circle today who needs to hear about God. Give a word of testimony, offer a casserole and a prayer, post a Christian meme on your Facebook page … let people know where you stand in your relationship with God. Find some way to let everyone know that “The Lord is Great!”

Because he is great, indeed.

Wave Watching by Michelle Robertson

Out Loud

I will never forget the first time my prospective husband met my parents. He and I met at the beginning of my freshman year of college. Courtship was going very well, so I decided to bring him home to meet my family. That’s when he got the full picture of what he was getting into. We stepped inside the door and I yelled at the top of my lungs, “I’M HOOOOMME!!” I noticed him flinching, but I thought nothing of it. Then my mother responded full volume from upstairs: “I’LL BE DOWN IN A MINUTE!” and my dad hollered up from the basement, “BE RIGHT THERE!” I think the poor boy’s ears were bleeding. He looked at me and said, “Oh, good Lord. I’m dating the LOUD family.” Yup.

Being loud and articulate was how I was raised. There are times when we have to be loud in order to accomplish something that “quiet” can’t do. The writer of Psalm 77 agrees:

Psalm 77 (Common English Bible)

I cry out loud to God—
    out loud to God so that he can hear me!
During the day when I’m in trouble I look for my Lord.
    At night my hands are still outstretched and don’t grow numb;
        my whole being refuses to be comforted.
I remember God and I moan.
    I complain, and my spirit grows tired. Selah

We raise our voices because we want to the heard. But as I read this, I wonder: do we ever really need to be loud with God?

It is obvious that the psalmist is in some kind of deep distress. He extends his arms in prayer and supplication night after night. The cause of his anguish is not known, but it is bad enough to have kept him awake at night and eventually rendered him speechless:

You’ve kept my eyelids from closing.
    I’m so upset I can’t even speak.
 I think about days long past;
    I remember years that seem an eternity in the past.
I meditate with my heart at night;
    I complain, and my spirit keeps searching:

In his rumination, he began to question everything he knew and understood about God. This is not uncommon when the answers to our prayers are not coming as fast as we would like. Have you ever felt that way? Do you ever wonder “when will this torment end?”

“Will my Lord reject me forever?
    Will he never be pleased again?
Has his faithful love come to a complete end?
    Is his promise over for future generations?
Has God forgotten how to be gracious?
    Has he angrily stopped up his compassion?” Selah
10 It’s my misfortune, I thought,
    that the strong hand of the Most High is different now.

Fortunately for us, the psalmist finds a way out.

He remembered.

11 But I will remember the Lord’s deeds;
    yes, I will remember your wondrous acts from times long past.
12 I will meditate on all your works;
    I will ponder your deeds.
13 God, your way is holiness!
    Who is as great a god as you, God?
14 You are the God who works wonders;
    you have demonstrated your strength among all peoples.
15 With your mighty arm you redeemed your people;
    redeemed the children of Jacob and Joseph. 

And with the memories of all the great things God had done for Israel, he recalled God’s strength and his mighty arm. He recalled the great miracle of the parting of the Red Sea and how God delivered Moses, Aaron, and the entire nation:

16 The waters saw you, God—
    the waters saw you and reeled!
        Even the deep depths shook!
17 The clouds poured water,
    the skies cracked thunder;
        your arrows were flying all around!
18 The crash of your thunder was in the swirling storm;
    lightning lit up the whole world;
        the earth shook and quaked.
19 Your way went straight through the sea;
    your pathways went right through the mighty waters.
        But your footprints left no trace!
20 You led your people like sheep
    under the care of Moses and Aaron

So, here’s what I think. When you are in deep trouble, get loud. Go ahead and yell. Beat your fists on your chest. Weep and wail away until it’s out of your system.

If you still feel as though God has abandoned you, stop yelling and remember God’s goodness. Make a list of God’s miracles. Will any of this change God? Nope. But when you remember God’s unlimited power and strength by making an inventory of what God has done, you will be changed.

And that makes all the difference.

Night into Day by Michelle Robertson

No Shame in this Game

My local theater is showing a movie called “Call Sign Romeo.” It was completely filmed on the Outer Banks, taking advantage of our picturesque vistas and vibrant sunsets. It tells the story of a young high school wrestler who lives in a state of perpetual motion as he navigates the treacherous waters of school sports, big dreams, young romance, and his own sense of importance as he learns the value of “we over me.” His desire to one day become a Navy fighter pilot like his deceased father undergirds his ambition, which is often derailed by his arrogance and ego. This coming-of-age story is wonderfully told by a local doctor-turned-screenwriter, with a lot of local kids and adult actors filling the screen with great enthusiasm and sincerity.

Our hero learns the hard way that life is a team sport. He realizes that he will keep faltering and failing as long as he puts his faith only in himself while excluding the others around him. When he matures enough to put his team first and becomes a true leader, his own goals are met.

There is no shame in that game.

God calls all of us into this team sport called life together. We find ourselves on the wrestling mat over and over again, hoping to do better than we did in the last match.

We wrestle with temptation.

We wrestle with addiction.

We wrestle with entitlement and self-righteousness.

We wrestle with the need to be right.

We wrestle with depression, grief, and inertia.

What are you wrestling with today?

In the book of Romans, Paul talks about what happens when the constant wrestling with daily problems overwhelms us. Do we give in? Or do we endure?

Romans 5 (Common English Bible)

5 Therefore, since we have been made righteous through his faithfulness, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have access by faith into this grace in which we stand through him, and we boast in the hope of God’s glory. 

When we boast in our own accomplishments, we reap the results that ego-driven behavior usually produces. That kind of emptiness is not what Christ intends for us. But when we boast in the hope of God’s glory, we acknowledge his power and might over our circumstances and claim that in all things, he works for our good. Even our problems.

But not only that! We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

What problem is plaguing you today? Are you in trouble? Have you surrounded yourself with effective teammates? You can rest in the knowledge that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and all of these things lead you to HOPE. All you have to do is to yield to God. God has a future planned for you and it is a future with HOPE! (Jeremiah 29:11).

So, if you feel as though life is slamming you down and you’re trapped in a “Whizzer” (look it up!), hang on. God is on the mat with you and your faith in him will help you to prevail.

Hope in Glory by Michelle Robertson

When You’re Scared

When was the last time you were afraid of something? Fear can affect us both mentally and physically. You can feel lightheaded, you probably feel your heart racing, maybe you experience a panic attack, or realize that your stomach is suddenly upset … the body manifests a multitude of reactions to fear.

Our 100 lb. dog had surgery last week that made her very wobbly when she came out of anesthesia. We had difficulty getting her in the van and up the stairs, resulting in her losing control of her back legs and possibly pulling a muscle or a tendon. For the next few days, she was afraid of steps. We realized this halfway up an exterior staircase at my father-in-law’s cottage, where her fear caused her to slip through the opening between steps . Fortunately she is large enough that she didn’t fall through, but she froze and refused to go any higher. It was a scary moment for the four of us as we tried to get her up the rest of the staircase. My heart was racing for the next 30 minutes. Being afraid is very strongly connected with feeling out of control, and nobody likes being out of control.

Today we read about the famous and successful Old Testament prophet, Elijah. We harken back to a time when right after a major victory, Elijah suddenly felt afraid and out of control:

I Kings 19:1-8 (Common English Bible)

19 Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, how he had killed all Baal’s prophets with the sword. Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah with this message: “May the gods do whatever they want to me if by this time tomorrow I haven’t made your life like the life of one of them.”

Elijah was terrified. He got up and ran for his life. He arrived at Beer-sheba in Judah and left his assistant there. He himself went farther on into the desert a day’s journey. He finally sat down under a solitary broom bush. He longed for his own death: “It’s more than enough, Lord! Take my life because I’m no better than my ancestors.” He lay down and slept under the solitary broom bush.

The contrast between the events in the previous passage, where Elijah single-handedly defeated the prophets of Baal, and this image of him cowering under a broom bush longing for death is stunning. It is a good reminder to us that even the strongest and most calm warrior can succumb to fear. The struggle is real.

Then suddenly a messenger tapped him and said to him, “Get up! Eat something!” Elijah opened his eyes and saw flatbread baked on glowing coals and a jar of water right by his head. He ate and drank, and then went back to sleep. The Lord’s messenger returned a second time and tapped him. “Get up!” the messenger said. “Eat something, because you have a difficult road ahead of you.” Elijah got up, ate and drank, and went refreshed by that food for forty days and nights until he arrived at Horeb, God’s mountain.

I love the interaction between the angel and Elijah. This angel wasn’t playin’. “Get up! Get up!” We think that someone having an “angelic voice” is a pleasant thing, but that is not what Elijah experienced. No, this angel sounded like a bullhorn in the pre-dawn hours that jolts you awake with its urgency.

“Get up!”

Is God calling you to get up and get moving? Is he trying to awaken you to an urgent situation that requires you to do something? Is the alarm clock going off and alerting you to change your behavior, your attitude, or your thoughts before it’s too late?

Wake up and eat the flatbread! You see, when God tells us to get up and get going, he always provides sustenance for the task and the journey.

So that thing that you have been avoiding, that idea that frightens the heck out of you, or that calling that has you wishing for the broom tree comes with the guarantee of God’s presence and provision.

You don’t have to be afraid.

Wake Up Call by Michelle Robertson

Pentecost Lament

This Pentecost hit me like a linebacker running full speed. I know it is just a combination of world and personal events, but reading once again about the unifying power of the Holy Spirit as it came upon the disciples gathered together in Jerusalem left me with more despair than I expected.

Pentecost is usually a time of great celebration, as we say “Happy Birthday” to the church. It is usually a time of remembering how the miracle of the flame and wind endowed everyone with the ability to speak and hear each other’s language, which resulted in a common understanding and a common purpose. It is usually a time for us to reflect on the empowering of ordinary people to proclaim the Good News in ways that others could hear, regardless of nationality or race.

It is usually a time of hope.

Let’s go back and remember how it went:

Acts 2 (Common English Bible)

 When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

We don’t speak each other’s language anymore. In our country, we watch in horror as school children are murdered under their desks so that an 18-year-old can exercise his “right” to an assault weapon. We watch as politicians make decisions (or refuse to act) based on winning their next campaign rather than what is right for those who elected them. Even in my denomination, we mourn the inevitable separation that is now in motion because we can’t agree anymore. Where is the unity to which we are called? These are dark times everywhere you turn.

Listen to how great a miracle this was:

There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” 12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” 

And then came the inevitable pre-internet trolls:

13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”

Then Peter set them straight:

14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! 15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning!

(This obviously was centuries before the invention of the early morning tailgate for a noon college football game.)

16 Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
    Your young will see visions.
    Your elders will dream dreams.
18     Even upon my servants, men and women,
        I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
        and they will prophesy.
19 I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.
20 The sun will be changed into darkness,
    and the moon will be changed into blood,
        before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.
21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

And this is where we find our word of hope in the midst of our lament. Peter begins with Joel’s quote about “the last days.” Neither Joel nor Peter were living in the last days. Are we?

God promises that he will pour his Spirit out again and prophesy, visions, and dreams will spring forth. The heavens will produce wonders too terrifying to imagine but then the spectacular day of the Lord’s coming will finally happen.

And the best news of all: everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Hallelujah!

So there is hope after all! Jesus will come to redeem his people and the stupidity of this world will cease when he takes his throne.

Lord, hasten that day.

The Lord Reigns by Shirley Simpkins

The Long and Winding Road

The three-mile road that leads to my home in Colington Harbour is under construction. It is a winding and dangerous two-lane road, and we are finally going to have it widened. Apparently, some of the more extreme curves will be taken out, making it safer for travel. I keep telling myself that this is good news as I sit in stopped traffic as we maneuver around large teams of construction workers. The good news is it will only take two years!

Lord, have mercy.

I was thinking about this as I sat there the other day and I remembered a time not too long ago when the road was almost guaranteed to be empty. When we all went under stay-at-home orders at the beginning of the pandemic, it would not be unusual for me to get all the way from my house to the church in Kitty Hawk on Sunday morning (to preach via Facebook live to a cell phone on a tripod in an empty sanctuary) without passing a single car. Now THAT was weird. The desolation of the road made me feel a desolation in my soul. 

One of my favorite post-apocalyptic movies is “Omega Man.” It is the story of a vaccine scientist named Dr. Robert Neville, who is the last human survivor of a germ-war pandemic that has wiped out humanity. There are other survivors, no longer human, who have turned into violent anti-technology and anti-science mutant-predators. They hunt Neville at night using primitive weapons. Neville eventually finds a small group of two adults and a few children who somehow have a natural immunity. But in the beginning of the movie, he has lived in his generator-powered apartment for three years without seeing a single human being.

The opening scenes are absolutely haunting. Filmed in 1971, the director took shots of Los Angeles’ empty business district from a helicopter early on a Sunday morning, inserted still shots where people had been erased from the film, and cut to empty back-lot scenes to create a shocking vision of a post-apocalyptic city. 

The phrase “desolate road” caught my attention in today’s reading. I have come to realize after decades of bible study that it is often in these overlooked details that the story takes on life. Take a look:

Acts 8 (The Message)

26-28 Later God’s angel spoke to Philip: “At noon today I want you to walk over to that desolate road that goes from Jerusalem down to Gaza.” He got up and went. He met an Ethiopian eunuch coming down the road. The eunuch had been on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and was returning to Ethiopia, where he was minister in charge of all the finances of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. He was riding in a chariot and reading the prophet Isaiah.

Thus the scene is set. A member of the queen’s court, a busy man indeed, has been to the buzzing city of Jerusalem on a pilgrimage. He has been looking for something. He was wealthy enough to be riding in a chariot. He is a man versed in the Hebrew writings, and is reading Isaiah. This wealthy, educated, privileged man is traveling back from the Temple to his palace along a desolate road, and THAT is where he finds what he had been looking for.

29-30 The Spirit told Philip, “Climb into the chariot.” Running up alongside, Philip heard the eunuch reading Isaiah and asked, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”

31-33 He answered, “How can I without some help?” and invited Philip into the chariot with him. 

I love the weird friendliness of this exchange. Was it normal to invite some random guy running beside your chariot to jump in and chat? Or do you suppose the Holy Spirit had something to do with it? Surely Philip had been led there by the Holy Spirit, but we get the sense that the eunuch was also being led in this exchange.

The passage he was reading was this:

As a sheep led to slaughter,
    and quiet as a lamb being sheared,
He was silent, saying nothing.
    He was mocked and put down, never got a fair trial.
But who now can count his kin
    since he’s been taken from the earth?

34-35 The eunuch said, “Tell me, who is the prophet talking about: himself or some other?” Philip grabbed his chance. Using this passage as his text, he preached Jesus to him.

And so on this desolate road, we see a beautiful example of something Methodists call “prevenient grace.” Prevenient grace is the grace that goes before us, wooing us to God before we are aware of our need for him, or have any idea how to find him. Prevenient grace led Philip to the desolate road. Prevenient grace opened the eunuch’s mind and heart to receive him there. And as soon as the moment was right, Philip preached Jesus to him.

Such beauty can be born from desolation! And oh, how we needed to hear that this morning as we look down the empty roads of life. Are you traveling a desolate road? You aren’t alone.

Jesus is already on this road, having come before you. You can take heart that no matter what illness, tragedy, death, or terrible situation you are facing, you travel with the angels who have been sent to guide you. By God’s grace, you will get through it. Thanks be to God.

Desolate Glacier