Monday, December 27, 2010

"Re-Creation" - My Article in the Southside Messenger

Spirit & Truth # 208
By Rev. Greg Smith

In 2005 I wrote an article for this newspaper, entitled “New Year Traditions.”  I quoted Jeremiah 29:11, which says, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”  

New Year’s Day is a day of hope for the future.  It’s a day of re-creation.  People re-create themselves by making resolutions to do something different in the new year than they did in the previous year.  They vow to quit smoking or drinking, or to lose weight or to spend more time with friends and family.  We often break these resolutions quickly, because we don’t allow ourselves to become totally transformed.

The Apostle Paul writes, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”[i]   He also says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”[ii]  We can change our external behaviors all we want, but if there’s not a corresponding internal change, it will never last.  We’ll say, “Yep, just like last year, my New Year’s resolutions only lasted a few days.”  We’ve got to allow God to change us on the inside.

YOu can only be truly made new if you’re new in Christ.  When a person receives Jesus as their Savior and Lord, they find themselves transformed into something better than they once were.  The mind begins to be renewed.  The Christian’s thoughts and plans become aligned with God’s thoughts and plans.  If you want total transformation rather than just another New Year’s resolution, then ask Jesus to come into your heart and mind.  Ask Him to forgive your past sins and re-create you according to His perfect will.

As I look toward 2011, I’m determined not to re-create myself, but to allow God to re-create me.  I plan to engage in a little recreation.  Holy recreation isn’t just horsing around—it’s taking time away from the world’s demands in order to re-connect with the God who created you.  Re-creation allows God to recharge your spiritual batteries so you can operate in His power when you come to life’s challenges.  Don’t take life so seriously that you neglect the re-creation that you so desperately need.  Go fishing.  Take a family vacation.  Have personal prayer retreat in the great outdoors.  Let Jesus re-create you in 2011, for He says, “Behold, I make all things new.”[iii]

[i] Romans 12:2
[ii] 2 Corinthians 5:17
[iii] Revelation 21:5

Monday, December 20, 2010

"Reindeer Games" - My Article in the Southside Messenger

Spirit & Truth # 207
“Reindeer Games”
By Rev. Greg Smith

Are you still trying to get your last-minute Christmas shopping finished?  Are you as much of a procrastinator as I am?  Some of us put off Christmas shopping because we hate shopping, or because the people on our list are hard to buy for.  I don't mind the shopping so much as I mind the lines. It's actually fun to find things to give people you love. But standing in line is the pits. So why not play some reindeer games while you wait?  Here's how to make shopping lines fun, if you're in a group. The more people in your group, the better.

Divide your group into as many lines as possible. See if you can get into similar positions (with the same number of people in front of you). Then it's a race to see whose cashier is fastest, and who gets to the cashier first. If you're buying a bunch of stuff, then each person can buy an item or two. But suppose the whole group is only buying one item. That makes it even more fun! In that case, when the "winner" who gets to the register first is greeted by the cashier, they wave their hands and call the entire group to leave their lines and gather at that register. Even if the "winner" didn't have the item to be purchased, they have it now, and can make the purchase. Want to make it even more interesting? Why not make it so the winner gets a nickel (or a quarter or a dollar or a stick of gum) from each of the losers? (I'm not advocating gambling--just a little incentive.)

Or--another way to play--instead of recalling the group to return to the winner, let everybody stay in line until they get their cashier. The person who actually has the item or items for purchase does the purchasing, but the others wait as if they have a transaction to make. When the cashier greets them, they say, "I didn't want to buy anything--I just wanted to wish you a merry Christmas." Now won't that make the cashier's day?

You don't have to let Christmas shopping stress you out. Have fun with it. Use your shopping experience to brighten up someone else's day. You've gotta spend time line anyway--why not have fun with it?  Psalm 32:11 (NIV) says, “Rejoice in the LORD and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart!”  This Christmas, don’t just make merry with your family and friends at home—take the fun of Christmas into the most stressful place for last-minute shoppers—the shopping mall.

Monday, December 13, 2010

"Christmas Presence" - My Article in the Southside Messenger

Spirit & Truth # 206
“Christmas Presence”
By Rev. Greg Smith

On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:11 NIV).”

            What Christmas presents do you plan to give this year?  Probably your kids or grandkids have already given you long lists, and you’ve checked them twice—not just to see who’s been naughty and nice, but to see how much you can afford. 

            The American Research Group, Inc. reports that the amount of money American shoppers plan to spend on Christmas gifts has gone up by 58% since last year, from an average of $417 to $658.  This shows greater confidence in the recovery of our economy over last year.  Compare that to average Christmas spending of $1,004 in 2004, and you can see that our economy still has a long way to go.[i]  Maybe your Christmas spending isn’t as much as you’d like it to be, because times have been difficult for you lately.  More than once I’ve heard someone’s grandma say “Now, don’t expect as big a Christmas this year, because money is tight.”

            Which brings me to a pet peeve of mine—hearing people say, “I’m going to buy the kids their Christmas,” instead of “I’m going to buy the kids their Christmas presents.”  You can’t buy Christmas!  You can buy Christmas presents, but let’s get this right.  Getting it wrong indicates that all our priorities are out of whack.

            Christmas gift-giving has a long tradition that actually goes back to pre-Christian times, when the Romans would celebrate the winter solstice festival of Kalends with festivity and gift-giving.  When the Winter Solstice became the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth, gift-giving recalled the presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh given to baby Jesus by the Magi.  During the fourth century, Bishop Nicholas of Myra dropped bags of gold down the chimney of a poor man whose three daughters were about to be sold into slavery.  The gold landed in the girls’ stockings that had been hung by the fire to dry, and the Christmas gift exchange was born!  Until the industrial revolution, gift-giving was mostly fruits, nuts, and homemade items, but all that changed with modern innovation and advertising.  

            This year, instead of getting bitten by the commercialism humbug, why not intentionally simplify your Christmas?  Gift-giving is fine—I’m not saying you should let your family go without.  But place your priority on the right thing—on Christmas Presence, instead of Christmas presents.  Let the presence of Christ overwhelm your celebration.  Instead of giving gifts and then sending the kids off to play with their toys all day (and ignoring you), be present with your family this Christmas.  Too many extended-family get-togethers involve three or four generations, with the grandparents and the parents spending their time visiting, while the parentally-ignored children go off to play together.  That way, grandparents never get to know their grandkids!  Instead, let everyone spend the day, and the season, together.  Let the presence of God fill you with joy.  Enjoy Jesus’ Christmas Presence, and remember that He is the greatest gift of the season!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

"Total Transformation" - Today's sermon

Ordinarily I don't post my sermons (exactly) on this site, but since there was a rumor of snow in the forecast, and since I wasn't preaching with PowerPoint today, I decided to write out my sermon longhand, just in case we cancelled church due to weather.  Fortunately, we had church and it wasn't an issue--but my dear readers benefit from my longhand this week.

Now, if only I can figure a way to shorten this long sermon down to a Spirit and Truth article...

December 12, 2010 – Advent 3
Title:  “Total Transformation”
Isaiah 35:1-10 (New Revised Standard Version)
1The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. 3Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”
5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the HolyWay; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

            All of us are familiar with the Salvation Army collection kettles.  You can’t go to the shopping mall or Wal-Mart or anywhere else during this Christmas season without seeing the bell-ringers’ smiling faces and hearing them wish you a Merry Christmas.  Perhaps you slip a dollar or two into the kettle, and wish the bell-ringer a Merry Christmas in return.  Maybe you even say a prayer for those cold volunteers who have such a thankless job.  But do you know the history of the Salvation Army?  They are far more than a collection agency at Christmas time, and a thrift store downtown near UVA hospital. 

            “The Salvation Army began in 1865 when William Booth, a London minister, gave up the comfort of his pulpit and decided to take his message into the streets where it could reach the poor, the homeless, the hungry and the destitute. 

“His original aim was to send converts to established churches of the day, but soon he realized that the poor did not feel comfortable or welcome in the pews of most of the churches and chapels of Victorian England.  Regular churchgoers were appalled when these shabbily dressed, unwashed people came to join them in worship. 

“Booth decided to found a church especially for them—the East London Christian Mission.  The mission grew slowly, but Booth’s faith in God remained undiminished.

“In May of 1878, Booth summoned his son, Bramwell, and his good friend George Railton to read a proof of the Christian Mission’s annual report.  At the top it read:  THE CHRISTIAN MISSION IS A VOLUNTEER ARMY.  Bramwell strongly objected to this wording.  He was not a volunteer: he was compelled to do God’s work.  So, in a flash of inspiration, Booth crossed out “Volunteer” and wrote “Salvation.”  The Salvation Army was born. 

“By the 1900s, the Army had spread around the world.  The Salvation Army soon had officers and soldiers in 36 countries, including the United States of America.  This well-organized yet flexible structure inspired a great many much-needed services:  women’s social work, the first food depot, the first day nursery and the first Salvation Army missionary hospital.  During World War II the Salvation Army operated 3,000 service units for the armed forces, which led to the formation of the USO. 

“Today, the Salvation Army is stronger and more powerful than ever.  Now, in over 106 nations around the world, the Salvation Army continues to work where the need is greatest, guided by faith in God and love for all people.”

William Booth saw this kind of need in the poor and destitute of his day, and his message was one of salvation and restoration.  Isaiah’s ministry was much the same.  His people longed for a better day, when the Messiah would come and rescue them from their terrible situation.  God gave Isaiah a vision of that Messiah, and the total transformation his coming would produce.  In His first coming, Jesus would die to save the people from their sins, and in his second coming the Lord would totally transform the entire world. 

The message that Isaiah proclaimed for the people of his day was one of rebuilding of life and culture after the devastation brought on them by the Exile.  The message that Isaiah speaks into our lives today is one of total transformation –not just of life and culture in the civic sense, but the conversion of body, soul, and spirit of every living person who receives Jesus as Savior and Lord.  The life of the saved person is never the same after they’ve been totally transformed.  In this Advent season, as we look to the coming of Christmas, we also eagerly anticipate the arrival of Jesus in each of our hearts, making our hearts into His eternal home.

In Isaiah 35:1-2, the prophet predicts a day of rejuvenation and rejoicing.  “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.” Isaiah 35:6b-7 says, “For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.” 

God’s people today are desperate for this kind of rejuvenation.  The imagery Isaiah uses is that of refreshing water flowing into a desert.  Psalm 63:1 says, “O God, you are my God! I long for you!  My soul thirsts for you, my flesh yearns for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water.”  Perhaps you’ve felt that way, dry and used up on the inside.  God desires to put his Living Water back into you, and give you His rejuvenation.

He also wants to give you His reassurance.  In verses 3-4, Isaiah says, “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.’”

I have seen people with weak hands and feeble knees go through physical therapy, perhaps after a surgery or some injury.  Their hearts are fearful as they’re beginning their training, because they’re uncertain about the pain of their therapy, and because they’re unsure about whether the therapy will work or not, whether they will ever regain that which was lost.  Our Lord says, “Here is your God.”  He says, “I am here.  I want to reassure you that I will save you.”  Vengeance and recompense remind us that God is angry with the sin that got us into our mess, but His love reassures us that He will be there to get us through it.

In verses 5-6a, Isaiah predicts the healing powers of the Messiah.  “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”  Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus restoring health to the broken, even life to the dead.  As the song says, “The blind will see.  The deaf will hear.  The dead will live again.  The lame will leap.  The dumb will speak The praises of The Lamb..”  (“Mary Did You Know, by Clay Aiken)  Acts 10:38 says, “God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil.”

Jesus can do the same for you.  He is still a God of healing today.  We don’t worship a Lord who USED TO heal.  We follow a Master who still heals today—body, soul, and spirit.  Are you in need of physical restoration?  Trust Him for your healing.  Like the woman who reached out and touched the hem of Jesus’ garment (Mt 9:20), reach out and touch the only one who can truly restore you.  Doctors can work on your body, but only Jesus can heal.

In verses 8-9, Isaiah talks about the Redeemer’s Road.  “A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.”  “No unclean” means no sinful people will travel there, because the Messiah totally transforms us, making us holy.  “No lion” or “ravenous beast” refers to the Devil, who seeks to kill, steal, and destroy.  He won’t be there.  The Redeemer’s Road is a place of safety and joy.

Jesus talks a lot about the Redeemer’s Road—the way of salvation.  In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the Way,” or “I am the Road.”  In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus says, “Enter through the narrow gate, because the gate is wide and the way is spacious that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. But the gate is narrow and the way is difficult that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”  It’s not always an easy path to travel, but Jesus invites you to walk on his Redeemer’s Road.  It’s the only way to salvation and blessing from the Lord.

For those who follow the Redeemer’s Road, God promises that the ransomed will return, rejoicing!  Verse 10  says, “The ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.   This is the kind of life that God wants you to have—not one where you feel defeated all the time, but one where the joy of the Lord is your strength!  Just as Isaiah prophesied the return of God’s exiled people to the Promised Land, so God’s prodigal children can return to Him, rejoicing in His goodness and grace.  Won’t you return, rejoicing in the ransom He has paid for you by the shedding of His precious blood?

Isaiah prophesied to the people of his day that one day the Messiah would come and set everything right.  When the Savior comes, Isaiah said, there would be total transformation.  They would rejoice in their rejuvenation.  They would experience the Lord’s reassurance and restoration.  They would walk on the Redeemer’s Road, and they would return, rejoicing in the ransom He had paid for them.
When God transforms us, we are totally transformed.  One unknown author writes:  “Once there was a brier growing in a ditch and there came along a gardener with his spade. As he dug around it and lifted it up the brier said to itself, "What is he doing? Doesn't he know I am a worthless brier?" But the gardener took it into his garden and planted it amid his flowers, while the brier said, "What a mistake he has made planting me among these beautiful roses." Then the gardener came once more and made a slit in the brier with his sharp knife. He grafted it with a rose and when summer came lovely roses were blooming on that old brier. Then the gardener said, "Your beauty is not due to what came out but to what I put in." 

            My prayer for you today is that you would know God’s total transformation.  I pray that God will take you and make you the thing of beauty that He wants you to be.  I pray that He will take you from your ruin to the radiance of His restoration. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Five-Finger Prayer

It's unusual that someone sends me an internet forward that I actually read.  I have too many legitimate emails to read, to spend a lot of time going through forwards.  You know the kind I mean--the kind of inspirational messages that can be sappy and can sometimes guilt you about how many people you need to forward this to...or how you'll have bad luck if you break the chain.

Well, this is an email forward that I received and actually opened and read.  I was surprised--it was so good that I decided to share it with you in its entirety.  Since I've blogged so much about prayer, I figured this would fit in well on Love The Word.  So I don't claim any of this as my own.  Its author is anonymous.

Five Finger Prayer 

This is so neat. I have never heard this before. This is beautiful - and it is surely worth making the 5 finger prayer a part of our lives.

Your thumb is nearest you. So begin your prayers by praying for those closest to you. They are the easiest to remember. To pray for our loved ones is, as C. S. Lewis once said, a 'sweet duty.'

2. The
next finger is the pointing finger. Pray for those who teach, instruct and heal. This includes teachers, doctors, and ministers. They need support and wisdom in pointing others in the right direction. Keep them in your prayers.

3. The
next finger is the tallest finger. It reminds us of our leaders. Pray for the president, leaders in business and industry, and administrators. These people shape our nation and guide public opinion. They need God's guidance.

4. The
fourth finger is our ring finger. Surprising to many is the fact that this is our weakest finger, as any piano teacher will testify. It should remind us to pray for those who are weak, in trouble or in pain. They need your prayers day and night. You cannot pray too much for them.

5. And lastly comes our
little finger - the smallest finger of all which is where we should place ourselves in relation to God and others. As the Bible says, 'The least shall be the greatest among you.' Your pinkie should remind you to pray for yourself. By the time you have prayed for the other four groups, your own needs will be put into proper perspective and you will be able to pray for yourself more effectively.

If you decide to send this to a friend, you might brighten someone's day! 

Don't tell God how big your storm is, tell the storm how big your God is!!!!!

Monday, December 6, 2010

"That Stubborn Stump" - My Article in the Southside Messenger

Spirit & Truth # 205
“That Stubborn Stump”
By Rev. Greg Smith

Out of the stump of David’s family will grow a shoot—
      yes, a new Branch bearing fruit from the old root.
 And the Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
      the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
   the Spirit of counsel and might,
      the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
 (Isaiah 11:1-2 NLT)

            Not long ago, a friend was telling me about his commitment to keep a promise, even though keeping his commitment might be inconvenient and even costly.  Psalm 15:4 says that a person of integrity, worthy of dwelling in God’s presence, keeps his oath even when it hurts.”  Today, though, it seems that promises have lost their meaning.  We fulfill our promises only when it’s expedient to do so.  Our word has lost its meaning.
            You can rest assured that even though people break their promises, God is always faithful to His word.  God made promises to Noah and his family (Gen 9:1-17), to Abraham and Sarah (Gen 12, 15, 17), to Moses & Israel (Ex 20; Dt 11), and to King David.  In 2 Sam 7:11-16, God told David that his royal line would endure for all eternity.  That must have made David feel pretty confident!  Yet because of the unfaithfulness of David’s descendants, the kingdom was divided by civil war and finally conquered by outside enemies.  The temple was destroyed and the throne thrown down.  It must have seemed like God was breaking His promise.
Has anyone ever broken a promise to you?  Perhaps you’ve been a victim of broken promises so often that you have a hard time trusting people anymore.  Businesses break their promises.  Politicians break their promises.  Spouses beak their promises.  Friends break their promises.  In the wake of so many broken promises, it can be hard to know who to trust.
Hebrews 6:18 (NIV) says, “It is impossible for God to lie.”  Joshua 23:14 (NIV) says, “You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the LORD your God gave you has failed. Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed.”  You can count on God keeping His word.
Isaiah prophesied that even though David’s line had been seemingly broken, though David’s family was like a cut-off stump, a tender shoot would rise from that stump and bring life once more.  The Messiah would be a descendant of David, and He would sit on David’s throne forever.  Both Matthew and Luke show us not one but two different ways (both patrilineal and matrilineal genealogies are given) that Jesus the Messiah is a descendant of David.  He was proclaimed King at the Triumphal Entry, and now sits on the throne at the right hand of God.  The Lord keeps His promises.
Where are the stumps in your life?  Where are the places where you’ve been cut down, where it seems like God’s promises to you have been broken?  Where have you suffered hurt?  As God restored the line of David, so He can bring a tender shoot from the stumps in your life.  You can trust God to keep His promises, because our God is “Faithful and True (Rev 19:11).”

Monday, November 29, 2010

"Plowshares and Pruning Hooks" - My Article in the Southside Messenger

Spirit & Truth # 204
“Plowshares and Pruning Hooks”
By Rev. Greg Smith

In 1959, the Russian sculptor Evgeniy Vuchetich crafted a muscular man with a hammer in his right hand, and a sword in his left.  The industrious laborer is hard at work beating his sword into a plowshare.  The Soviet Union gave this beautiful statue to the United Nations as a gesture of peace.  However, when I notice that the hammer in the sculpture is the same kind that we find in the Russian flag, I wonder whether the intended peace was a mutual coexistence or one in which the Soviet hammer beat the world into a submission much like the Pax Romana.  How ironic that in its desire to portray peace, this atheist government chose to utilize an image from the Bible, in its statue entitled “Let Us Beat Swords Into Plowshares.”
In his famous Christmas song, Longfellow writes, “And in despair I bowed my head.  'There is no peace on earth,' I said, 'for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.'”  As we enter the season of Advent, we find a tension between the message of “peace on earth, good will to men,” and the reality of violence around the globe.  Isaiah said, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore (Isaiah 2:4 NIV).”  Many of us wonder, when will that day come?
Isaiah believed peace would arrive on the Day of the Lord, when the Messiah arrived and set up His kingdom.  Christians know that Jesus came the first time as a suffering servant (Isaiah 53), and that at his second advent the Lord will return as the King who brings both judgment and peace (Isaiah 11).  But do we have to wait until the return of Christ, in order to beat our swords into plowshares, and our spears into pruning hooks?
The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “Plow up the hard ground of your hearts! Do not waste your good seed among thorns (4:3 NLT).’”   Hosea said, “Plant the good seeds of righteousness, and you will harvest a crop of love. Plow up the hard ground of your hearts, for now is the time to seek the LORD, that he may come and shower righteousness upon you (10:12 NLT).”  This is something we can do today, to ready ourselves for the return of Christ.  We can let God remove our violent, hateful thoughts from us.  We can let Him plow up our hearts, to make them soft so He can plant His seeds of righteousness.
In John 15:1-2 NIV, Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.”  Let Jesus prune away from your heart every thought of unpeace.  Let Him use His pruning hooks in your life, trimming off all that is unfruitful.  Then the words of Longfellow will ring true:  Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: 'God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail with peace on earth, good will to men.'”

Swords-Plowshares.jpg‎ (607 × 451 pixels, file size: 70 KB, MIME type: image/jpeg)
Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares, a sculpture by Evgeniy Vuchetich, given by the Soviet Union to the United Nations in 1959; my picture taken from UN grounds showing sculpture in front of the East River.

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"Prison Visits" - My Article in the Southside Messenger

Spirit & Truth # 203
“Prison Visits”
By Rev. Greg Smith

            Jesus of Nazareth.  Joseph, son of Jacob.  Paul the Apostle.  John the Evangelist.  The Apostle Peter.  John the Baptist.  They all did time in jail.  Some more, some less.  Each of them knew the bite of chains, the pain of punishment, the darkness of the dungeon.
            One day, each of us will stand before the Judge in a heavenly courtroom.  To those whom God approves, Jesus will say, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me (Matthew 25:35-36).”  From this, it is evident that Jesus had compassion for those in prison.
            As I write this article, I’m sitting in a court room, waiting for my parishioner’s case.  Some defendants have been brought into the courtroom with chains about their waists, wrists, and ankles.  They anticipate additional prison time if convicted of their crimes, which were committed while in jail.  Others stand to lose their freedom if they are convicted today.  Each of them, at this moment, is fearful of the future.  And each of them is a child of God.
            Those who are on trial today know the potential for being forgotten once they enter the prison system.  Friends forsake you.  Family intends well, but visits are infrequent.  Yet while society as a whole forgets these children of God, we must never forsake them.
            Jesus puts prison visits on par with food, water, and clothing.  Without these most basic needs being met, a person shrivels up and dies, either physically or spiritually.  Christians who follow Jesus’ example must also be about sharing the same compassion that He shared, even with those who are easily forgotten or ignored.  We need to consider and care for the needs of prisoners, the same as we would care for those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, or sick, especially during this holiday season, when loneliness and despair threaten to break the human spirit. 
Do you know someone who is incarcerated right now?  Why not send them a card, write a letter, or make a visit?  It’s not as difficult as you might think.  Actually, it’s quite rewarding.  Once you do it, you’ll want to go back again and again.  You’ll want to share the love of Jesus with those who need it most.
            Frankly, visiting people in prison is not something that most Christians take seriously.  We write inmates off and say they deserve it.  But Jesus says that a lack of compassion on our part just might cause us to fail the final test.  “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me (vv. 41-43).’”

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Daniel's Yellow Belt

Daniel earned his yellow belt in Tae Kwon Do yesterday.  He's so proud.  Just wanted to share.

A Picture's Worth a Thousand Words

If a picture's worth a thousand words, then I can just post this one, without comment, except...

Now THAT's Life!

Monday, November 15, 2010

"Those Who Dream: Restoration" - My Article in the Southside Messenger

Spirit & Truth # 202
“Those Who Dream:  Restoration”
By Rev. Greg Smith


Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
       like streams in the
 Those who sow in tears
       will reap with songs of joy.
 He who goes out weeping,
       carrying seed to sow,
       will return with songs of joy,
       carrying sheaves with him.
(Psalm 126:4-6 NIV)

 “Author Leo Buscaglia tells this story about his mother and their ‘misery dinner.’ It was the night after his father came home and said it looked as if he would have to go into bankruptcy because his partner had absconded with their firm's funds. His mother went out and sold some jewelry to buy food for a sumptuous feast. Other members of the family scolded her for it. But she told them that ‘the time for joy is now, when we need it most, not next week.’ Her courageous act rallied the family (Christopher News Notes, August, 1993).”
Psalm 126 was written as a worshipful response to God’s deliverance of the Jewish people from their captivity in Babylon.  As they returned home to Jerusalem, it seemed as though they were in a dream.  They approached God with joy and laughter, even though they didn’t know what future lay ahead of them.  They knew they faced hard work and danger in rebuilding their city.  The future was still uncertain, yet they anticipated it with joy.
Each of us goes through “captivity” times in life.  Like Israel, we endure seasons of hardship.  God’s prodigal sons and daughters wander away from His blessing, only to find ourselves desperate for Him.  And so we return, leaving captivity behind, hoping for God’s restoration.
When your future is uncertain, you can trust in the same God that Israel knew.  God sees your trouble, and God restores your fortunes.  When you return to Zion, God does not leave you standing with empty hands before His throne. If you have suffered loss, then trust the God who tells you, “I will repay the years the locusts have eaten (Joel 1:4; 2:25).”  Like streams in the desert, like water from a rock, God brings a flow of blessing back to His people who trust Him. 
What have you lost in life?  Has your depth of spirituality suffered because of hardships you’ve endured?  Have you gone through financial trouble, or medical hardships, or difficult relationships?  When you pray, God restores.  Prayer is like sowing seeds into God’s fertile ground.  You may be sowing seeds of any kind—repentance, righteousness, relationship, requests—and your prayer may require many tears.  But watered by your tears, your prayers will germinate and grow, and spring up to new life in God’s due season.  You’ll be able to return with songs of joy.  You’ll be able to see the fruit of your labor in prayer, carrying your sheaves with you.

Monday, November 1, 2010

"Be a Fish" - My Article in the Southside Messenger

Spirit & Truth # 200

“Be a Fish”

By Rev. Greg Smith

In Luke 18:18-30, a rich, young ruler came to Jesus and asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. He said that he had kept all the commandments from his youth. Jesus replied that he lacked one thing: he must sell all that he has and give it to the poor. The man went away sad, because he had many possessions. The Lord then told his disciples, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God."

You’re missing the point if you think this story is about money. It’s really about the idols we have in our lives. Augustine said, “Idolatry is worshiping anything that ought to be used, or using anything that ought to be worshiped.” The young ruler needed to get rid of his idol in order to put God first. When he was unable to do that because his money meant too much to him, he abandoned Jesus.

Most idols aren’t inherently bad things. The worst kind of idol is the thing that’s good. Wholesome, fun activities can become idols if they keep us away from church on Sunday mornings. Things like patriotism, good health, and charitable work can become idols when we lose our godly focus in order to follow them. Too often we can pursue good things, in exchange for the best things that God has for us. Even your family can be an idol, if you let caring for them deprive you of the time you need to give to God in prayer and the reading of God’s word. Only when our priorities are straight can we truly be effective for our families, our churches, and our God.

There’s an old story about two monks who came to a rushing river. There they saw a lovely young woman trying to cross. The older monk graciously offered to carry the young woman across the torrent to the shore on the other side. When all three reached the other bank, they left the young woman and the monks went on their way. For some time, the younger monk said nothing to the older monk, but eventually he could contain it no longer. “We monks are not allowed to touch a woman,” he said, “especially one that is young and beautiful!” The older monk replied with a smile, “I left the woman a long time ago at the bank. It looks like you’re still carrying her.”

God wants us to shed those things that have become idols in our lives. Anything that has taken a higher priority than God in our thought-life must be abandoned. In Prayer, Simon Tugwell writes, “St. Ambrose gave his congregation some very good advice. Using the old Christian symbol, he compared them in this stormy world to a fish swimming in the sea. And to them he said: ‘Be a fish.’ We must learn how not to be swamped by the [tempting] situations that we find ourselves in. We must learn how to get through them with a minimum of damage, and a maximum of profit.”

Jesus urges us to let our idols go. Leave your temptations behind you, and devote yourself only to God. Be a fish, and let anything that distracts you from God float on by.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"Churches and Nudist Camps" - My Article in the Southside Messenger

Spirit & Truth # 199
“Churches and Nudist Camps”
By Rev. Greg Smith

            Recently I shared the following story at a large gathering of Baptist women.  In his book, What God Wants to Know, Bruce Larson tells about a story from a family member who was a conservationist.  She and her husband and her five-year-old son were on vacation in Florida when they saw a sign saying “Naturist Camp.”  The conservationist assumed that a naturist camp was the same thing as a naturalist camp, so they stopped to check it out.  When they reached the beach, they learned their error.  The naturist camp was actually a nudist camp, full of vacationers in the buff.  Some swam, some rode bicycles—in all their glory.  Eyes wide, and pointing at the naked cyclists, they boy said, “Look Mom and Dad.  They’re not wearing safety helmets!” 
            The women who heard this story were delighted when I told them that I intended to compare a close-knit church with a nudist camp.  We don’t emulate naturists in every way (hopefully), but there are some ways that we’re similar.
            First, in a close-knit church as well as in a nudist camp, everybody knows everybody else’s faults, flaws, and embarrassments.  The Bible says “everything is naked and open to the God to whom we must give an account (Hebrews 3:13).”  When you’re in a faith community together, you realize you’re all equal before God.  No one person has more value than the others.  God sees us all the same.
            Second, because everybody knows everybody else’s blemishes and defects, nobody has any room to judge.  There’s only one judge, and that’s God Himself.  The good news is that while we see our faults, God only sees people who are made in His own image.  When we come to see one another through God’s eyes rather than the critical eyes of human judgmentalism, we truly begin to live in community.
            Finally, may it be true of the church, just as it was true of the nudist camp, that nobody wears any safety helmets!  Ministry is risky.  Ministry is dangerous.  Reaching out to care for people, ignoring their failings and imperfections, is a perilous proposition.  God doesn’t expect us to wear helmets in the ministry, keeping ourselves safe.  He expects us to go boldly into people’s lives and share His love.
            I knew a church full of elderly members that renovated its entire facility.  When the work was done, one member was so excited about the church’s ministry potential that he suggested they open the building up to be used by outside groups like Girl Scouts and such.  The church’s response was, “We’ve got this beautiful facility now—the last thing we want to do is have kids running around getting dirty fingerprints on everything.”
            The people we care for have faults, flaws, and failings.  But so do we.  We can’t stand in judgment of them—instead we need to charge headlong into ministry, unshielded from their humanity and dirty fingerprints.  We need to make ourselves vulnerable for the sake of their souls.  It is in this mutual self-exposure (of spirit—not of flesh) that nudist camps and churches have something in common.

Monday, October 18, 2010

"Your Double-Edged Sword" - My Article in the Southside Messenger

Spirit & Truth # 198
“Your Double-Edged Sword”

By Rev. Greg Smith

In Uncommon Decency (pp. 20-21), Richard J. Mouw writes:

At a recent gathering of seminary professors, one teacher reported that at his school the most damaging charge one student can lodge against another is that the person is being "judgmental." He found this pattern very upsetting. "You can't get a good argument going in class anymore," he said. "As soon as somebody takes a stand on any important issue, someone else says that the person is being judgmental. And that's it. End of discussion. Everyone is intimidated!" Many of the other professors nodded knowingly. There seemed to be a consensus that the fear of being judgmental has taken on epidemic proportions.

If this is true in seminaries, then certainly it is true in the rest of the world. We live in a world of relativism, where everybody talks about “my truth” and “your truth,” but not “the Truth.” Even many of our religious leaders believe that truth is a relative thing. This couldn’t be farther from the truth!

There is a measuring-stick for ultimate Truth, and that’s the Word of God. We mean two different things when we use that phrase. First, we mean the Bible, which is “God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).”

Hebrews 4:12 says, “The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow.” While your Bible is inspired by God, its pages and binding aren’t living. This can only be referring to our second meaning: John 1:1 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus is The Word of God, who became flesh and dwelt among us. The Word (Jesus), and His word (The Bible) are the sword that judges the world.

Though the world doesn’t like the idea, it will be judged by the Word of God. Some secretly smug Christians like to hear fire-and-brimstone sermons because they like the idea that God will judge their neighbors. God’s Word judging the world is one side of the double-edged sword. Yet the other edge is when God’s Word judges you. “It judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account (Hebrews 4:12b-13).

The sword of God’s Word will judge the world. It is our standard for ultimate Truth, by which we may discern between right and wrong, verity from error. Yet God’s Word is also a surgeon’s scalpel that cuts the tumors of sin and ignorance from our lives. God’s sword may hurt when it cuts, but it always brings healing. God applies the same standards of justice and judgment to our lives that He uses for the rest of the world. May we lay ourselves bare before the hands of the Great Physician, so he can do heart surgery on our souls. May we open ourselves to the healing that only He can bring.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

"Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive"

After my recent post, "Accentuate the Positive," I wanted to share this video with you, from The Singing Detective.

Wikipedia says:
"Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive" is a popular song. The music was written by Harold Arlen and the lyrics by Johnny Mercer, and it was published in 1944. It is sung in the style of a sermon, and explains that accentuating the positive is key to happiness. In describing his inspiration for the lyric, Mercer told the Pop Chronicles radio documentary "I went to hear Father Divine and he had a sermon and his subject was 'you got to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.' And I said 'Wow, that's a colorful phrase!'"[1][2]
Mercer recorded the song, with The Pied Pipers and Paul Weston's orchestra, on October 4, 1944, and
I hope you have a positive day today.

"Selah" - My article in the Southside Messenger

Spirit & Truth # 197
By Rev. Greg Smith

            Pastor Larry Chell writes: 

“In the Philippines I heard a local pastor use the following parable to illustrate Christ's offer of rest (Matt. ll:28) and the response of people who won't trust Him completely: The driver of a carabao wagon was on his way to market when he overtook an old man carrying a heavy load. Taking compassion on him, the driver invited the old man to ride in the wagon. Gratefully the old man accepted. After a few minutes, the driver turned to see how the man was doing. To his surprise, he found him still straining under the heavy weight, for he had not taken the burden off his shoulders.”

            This is the way we go to God, accepting His invitation to carry our burdens, while all the way we try to shoulder our own heavy loads.  Yet God’s word shows us a better way—the way of rest.  Today I want to introduce to you one of the least read words of the Bible.  Though it appears in Scripture seventy-one times, most people simply gloss over the word “selah” when the read it in the Psalms.  It looks like it belongs in the margin rather than the text of the Bible, yet we need to appreciate its meaning and appropriate it in our lives.  “Selah” is a Hebrew word that means “rest.”
            Psalm 46:1-3 says, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in times of trouble.  That is why we are not afraid even when the earth quakes or the mountains topple into the depths of the sea.  Water roars and foams, and mountains shake at the surging waves.  Selah.”  This short word which seems tacked onto the end reminds us to find rest in the midst of life’s storms.  It reminds us to pause and reflect on God’s goodness even when we’re in trouble.
            “Selah” is a word used in musical notation.  Literally, it’s an instruction to musicians to stop and rest.  Have you ever tried to play a song on a musical instrument, while avoiding the rests?  It no longer sounds like music, but a raucous cacophony.  Our lives are the same way when we don’t take the time to rest, to pause and reflect on God.
            A look at this word’s origins shows that it has many meanings.  It can mean “to weigh in the balances.”  Each of us needs time to weigh life in the balances, to ponder and reflect.  “Selah” can also mean, “to lift up,” as in lifting up holy hands to God in worship, or “to praise.”  Rabbi Simcha Bart says, “One of the primary commentaries on the translation of words in Prophets and Writings - Metzudot Tzion - says that 'Selah' always means 'forever' (Tehillim 3:3).”[i]  When we rest ourselves in God, we need to remember that His promises are forever. 
            The next time you’re reading the Psalms and you come across the word “Selah,” remember to actually stop and actually do it.  Pause.  Rest.  Place your trust in God who sustains you in the storms of life.  Take His yoke upon you, and He will give you rest.

[i],2146172/What-does-the-word-Selah-mean.html.  August 20, 2010