Tuesday, March 31, 2020

What are you thinking?

Philippians 4:8-9
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me--put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

                Every day now we are confronted with the latest Covid-19 statistics. So many new cases reported, so many deaths. Each day we wonder what new restrictions will be imposed on us. We wonder if we will find milk, bread, and toilet paper in the grocery store. Each day it wears on us just a little more. It dominates our thinking.

                What we choose to think about shapes both our attitude and our peace of mind. When we focus on the negative, it drags us down. But when we focus on the positive, it lifts us up. This is not Pollyanna thinking, where we ignore reality and create a non-existent, rose-colored world. It is taking a closer look at the world we do live in and recognizing that God’s grace still abounds.

                The world in which Paul lived was much harder than ours. Many, if not most, of the people who made up the church came from the working classes. They might be a slave or a common laborer. Their daily life was not under their control. In addition, to take a stand as a follower of Jesus could result in open persecution. There was much that could drag a person down.

                Paul encouraged the believers in Philippi to take their situation to God. Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7)

                They had much to be anxious about, but Paul told them to not let that dominate their lives. Instead, they were to focus on their new life in Christ and find their peace in Him, as they laid their anxiety in front of the throne of God. Paul promised them that if they would do this, they could transcend their current situation. The next verses became the key to accomplishing what Paul was asking them to do. They needed to change what they were thinking about.

                Instead of focusing in the negative, they were to look for all the positives that they had. These were to dominate their thinking. The word for think about in Greek can be translated ruminate. Just as a cow continues to chew its cud over and over again, a believer is to chew on the blessings of God over and over again.

                We are all getting a little stir crazy with our forced social distancing. The news the other night asked people what they miss the most, and the majority of people focused on being with friends and enjoying the freedom of movement that they are denied. But we are not as deprived as we think we are.

                This morning as I walked into my office, the air was alive with the songs of spring. The birds are actively singing their delight. Although the air was still crisp, I was able to wear a lighter jacket and do without my stocking cap. The snow piles are beginning to disappear and the grass is beginning to emerge. The temperature should rise into the upper 40’s or maybe even 50 by this afternoon. With the warmer weather I have been able to get out for a run, which I haven’t done for months.

                Just in the last couple of days, I have noticed more people out walking (at a safe distance from others) or riding their bikes. In my mother-in-law’s neighborhood, at 4 o’clock each afternoon, everyone comes out to the end of their driveway and shouts greetings to one another. Families who have not been able to spend extended time with one another are rediscovering each other. People who have been too busy to take a walk are talking a walk.

                Even though we cannot meet corporately for worship on Sunday, we are discovering ways to stay connected. We are calling each other more than we have. We are sending encouraging notes to one another. We are worshiping together via video even as we are separated in our homes. Life has not stopped; it has just changed.

                There is no doubt that there is a negative side to this whole ordeal. In addition to the inconvenience, there is an economic strain for many, as well as a genuine health risk. We want to take these things seriously. But we don’t have to dwell on them. There is much to be thankful for. There is good reason to rejoice in the Lord. He has not abandoned us. He is still near.

                So, what is dominating your mind today? Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Is God Punishing Us?

Matthew 24:6-8
You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.

                I have been asked on several occasions if I think the current Covid-19 pandemic is God’s judgment on humanity. It is a question that echoes throughout history. Every time the world faces a major crisis like this, people begin to wonder if this is the end. Let’s put things in context. This is not the first time the world has faced such a crisis.

                Between 1347 and 1351 Europe was devastated by an outbreak of the plague. An estimated 75-200 million people died as a result of that pandemic. Many people in that day felt that the world was ending. Many people turned to the church during that time, seeking comfort and reassurance.

                The world was devastated again in the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1920. During that outbreak between 50-100 million people worldwide died. It was the deadliest pandemic since the plague. Within the first 25 weeks, 25 million people died. On the heels of WWI, that pandemic caused many to wonder if the world was coming to an end. Unfortunately, many people turned away from the church and put their faith in science instead as the savior of the world.

                Today we face the Covid-19 pandemic. To date there have been 394,828 confirmed cases, with 17,226 deaths worldwide. Again, people are asking the question, is this the end of the world? Is God judging us?

                We need to put what is happening into biblical perspective. At the most basic level, this pandemic is a result of living in a sinful, fallen world. All sickness and disease are a result of sin; not necessarily a specific sin, but sin in general. When Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden, the process of death entered the world. With death came sickness and disease. Therefore, all of humanity is subject to sickness, disease, and death.

                When God created this world, He created it with a cause and effect reality. He made this clear when He instructed the people of Israel about the way life is. As Moses related God’s Law to the people, he summarized the situation with this statement:

    See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse-- the blessing if you obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you today; the curse if you disobey the commands of the Lord your God and turn from the way that I command you today by following other gods, which you have not known. Deuteronomy 11:26-28

                What God wanted the people to know was that if they obeyed His laws there would be a positive outcome and if they disregarded God’s laws there would be a negative outcome. It is similar to the warning that we give to children regarding the fireplace. If you keep your distance from the fire, you will benefit from its warmth. If you stick your hand in the fire, you will get burned. This is the world that we live in today. Because in the main humanity has disregarded God’s laws, we have to deal with the negative consequences. Disease and sickness are one of those consequences.

                Is this current pandemic God’s punishment for the world? Maybe yes, maybe no. What I can say is that this current crisis is a wake-up call for all of us. It is a sign of the times, and the time is running short. Christ could return at any time, and we need to be ready. Throughout the scriptures God’s message to us is the same. Don’t worry about the times or the circumstances that you are in. Instead, be alert and be prepared. We should live every day as if Christ will return today.

    "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.
    "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. (Matthew 24:36-42)

                If the Lord does not return now, we will weather this current crisis. That is the lesson of history. The greater question is, how will this current crisis shape the way that we think about life and about God. This current crisis causes all of us to face the fragility of humanity. It causes all of us to face our own mortality. It is an inevitability that we cannot avoid. The great assurance we have is that if we place our faith and trust in Jesus, we don’t have to fear death.

John 11:25-26
Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"

Tuesday, March 3, 2020


In my office there is a house plant. It sits on the edge of my desk near the window. I did not put it there; it was there when I came to the church. At first, I did not pay much attention to it. Then one day I noticed that it was beginning to droop. It was then that I noticed an old Diet Coke bottle next to it with a note taped to the side. It said, feed me. I went and got some water and watered the plant. Soon it perked up. At that point I realized that if that plant was going to survive, I would have to take the responsibility to feed it regularly.

                God placed within each one of us a soul. We did not create it, God did. Our soul is like the plant in my office. We get busy with life and we forget about the care of our soul. Then one day we notice that something isn’t right. We start to feel a little wilted on the inside. It is at that point that we become aware that we have not been feeding our soul. If our soul is going the thrive, we need to take the responsibility to feed it.

                Unfortunately, many people are trying to feed their soul with spiritual junk food. Over the past several decades there has been a rise in both an awareness of and a desire for spirituality. People have begun realizing that there is more to life than money, sex, and entertainment. They have begun looking for a sense of purpose and meaning. To find these they have turned to a generic spirituality. This new trend insists that every person creates their own sense of spirituality. It might come from a traditional religion or from some other unorthodox source. It really doesn’t matter. Spirituality is very personal and very individual. Each person has the right to define their own meaning and purpose in life.

                This new spirituality is like a diet of junk food. It tastes good, it gives us a temporary high, but it ultimately leaves us unsatisfied. Our soul continues to wither even as we try harder to satisfy our hunger.

                Paul talks about this unhealthy diet in Romans 1:18-25.
    The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
    For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
    Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator--who is forever praised. Amen.

                The answer to our spiritual hunger is found in only one place, Jesus Christ. As Jesus boldly proclaimed in John 14, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus is the bread of life, the fountain of living water. All other sources of spiritual nourishment will leave us hungry and thirsty. Only Jesus can satisfy our spiritual need.

                So how do we feed our hungry soul? It begins by placing our faith not in our own efforts, but in what Jesus has already accomplished for us on the cross. Jesus has given us an open invitation to come to Him in faith and to find the nourishment we are longing for. Matthew 11:28-30
    "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

                Just like we need to eat regularly to maintain our physical bodies, we also need to regularly feed our soul. It is really not complicated, but it does require effort on our part. We can not be passive in our faith and expect our soul to thrive. There are four prime things we need to do to keep our soul fed and strong. There are other things we can do to nourish our soul, but these are foundational.

                We feed our soul by feasting on God’s word. The Bible is spiritual food for our souls. In the pages of the Bible, God has revealed who He is, who we are, and how we can live in harmony with God. The more that we feed on God’s word, the stronger we will become. When writing to his son in the faith, Paul reminded Timothy of the value of feeding on God’s Word. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

                We feed our soul by allowing God to shape our life through prayer. Too often we view prayer as a spiritual wish list. We ask God for stuff and He provides it. Although there is a place for asking in prayer, the main focus of prayer is aligning our heart and mind with the heart and mind of God. It is learning to seek what God desires. It is allowing God to speak directly into our life. In prayer we intentionally turn over the control of our life to God.

                We feed our soul by entering into genuine worship. Worship is seeing the value of something and celebrating it. One of my favorite places in the world is the North Shore of Lake Superior in northern Minnesota. When I stand on the shore and look out over that vast expanse of water and hear the waves lapping up on the rocks I am revived and rejuvenated. That is what worship is intended to do for our souls. It is not a boring obligation, but an amazing opportunity to gaze into the glory of God and celebrate who He is.

                We feed our soul by engaging in active service. In a physical sense, we can eat all of the correct foods, but if we do not exercise, we can still end up in an unhealthy state. So it is spiritually as well. We can feed on all of the correct things spiritually, yet if we do not exercise our faith in our everyday lives, we will still be spiritually unhealthy. When Jesus was asked what the most important thing we can do is, He responded that the greatest thing we can do is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your mind, and all your strength and all your soul, and to love your neighbor as yourself. When Jesus said this, He was not referring to having some kind of warm fuzzy feeling for others. He was talking about loving god and others in practical ways. John tells us in 1 John 3:16-18 that it is not enough just to talk about these things, we need to do them.
    This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.

                I watered the plant in my office this morning. It was beginning to droop again. The old Diet Coke bottle reminds me that I need to feed the plant regularly. It also reminds me that I need to feed my soul. Is your soul feeling a little wilted? Maybe it is time to check your diet.