Sunday, November 30, 2014

Watching and Waiting - The Great Adventure

 Advent is a time of great adventure.  It’s a time of excitement, yet also a time of waiting.  It’s a festive season that feels like no other time of year.  Along with the church sanctuary, most homes are being decorated, but the real time of celebration is not yet here.  And so we wait.  This is a difficult thing to do—especially for the impatient and the immature.  I remember when I was a child, trying to stay up all night and wait for Santa Claus.  But somehow, no matter how long I waited, no matter how I tried to keep my eyes open, I would always end up waking up with a start on Christmas morning—having missed the nighttime visit of Old Saint Nick.  Jesus tells us to keep watch and wait, to not grow weary but to be alert. 
Advent is a time of adventure.  The word advent means “important arrival.”  During the Advent season, we wait for the important arrival of the Christ child.  We also remember that Christ will come again—and we wait patiently for His return.  The word advent is related to the word adventure.   Adventure means “to risk the loss of something.”[i]  Advent is a time of waiting, but waiting can be tough because it seems like we’re risking loss while we’re waiting.  On the contrary—purposeful waiting, godly waiting, means resting in the knowledge that God will bring His purpose about in the right time.  The adventure of Advent isn’t in striving, but in patiently trusting God.  Advent Calendars and Advent candles help us with this work of waiting.  They help us mark time and remember that God’s Advent will come. 
Some things are worth waiting for, but they definitely need to come at the right time.  Like the birth of my second grandchild a few weeks ago—Jonah was definitely worth the wait!  In the same way, Christmas is worth the wait.  You wouldn’t want it to come prematurely.  If people could decide to have Christmas anytime they wanted, then 25th December wouldn't be as much fun.  It's good to wait and to enjoy things together.
Mark’s thirteenth chapter is all about watching and waiting—not for Christmas to come, but for the greatest adventure of all.  The chapter is called Mark’s Little Apocalypse.  It is divided into two parts.  The first part is Jesus’ answer to one question.  The second is Jesus’ answer to another.  Verses 1-4 (NASB) say:

As He was going out of the temple, one of His disciples *said to Him, “Teacher, behold what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down.”
As He was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew were questioning Him privately, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are going to be fulfilled?” 

In verses 5-23, Jesus answers the first question, “When this destruction will come?”  His answer brings chills to the spine.  He speaks of false christs, betrayals, wars, and famines.  He tells his followers to flee when they see an abomination in the temple, for the end is near.  That end came about in 70 AD, when Rome destroyed the temple in Jerusalem.  In verses 24-27, Jesus answers the second question, “What will be the sign when all these things will be fulfilled?”   Matthew 24:3b (NASB) renders these two questions more clearly: “Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?”  Jesus’ first answer is about events that must happen within a generation.  The second answer is about events that will take place at the end of the age.
Many people get hung up on verse 30, which says, “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”  The NASB conveniently adds a footnote which points out that the word Jesus used, genea, can also be translated as “race.”  In other words, since Jesus has just finished talking about the destruction of Jerusalem, the fall of the temple, and a threat to God’s people, He wants to assure His disciples that God’s people will not be utterly destroyed.  This verse does not indicate that verses 24-37 must be interpreted as being within a literal generation of Jesus’ prediction.
At the end of the age, Jesus says the sun and moon will be darkened.  Angels will act as reapers, gathering God’s faithful.  The last day, the day of judgment, will be a day of fear for the faithless, but a day of delight for the redeemed.  In verse nine, Jesus says, “Be on your guard.”  In verse thirteen, He commands us to endure.  In verse 23, He says, “Take heed.”  Jesus says in verses 33-37:

33 “Take heed, keep on the alert; for you do not know when the appointed time will come. 34 It is like a man away on a journey, who upon leaving his house and putting his slaves in charge, assigning to each one his task, also commanded the doorkeeper to stay on the alert. 35 Therefore, be on the alert—for you do not know when the master of the house is coming, whether in the evening, at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning— 36 in case he should come suddenly and find you asleep. 37 What I say to you I say to all, ‘Be on the alert!’”

            Waiting on God is difficult for me.  It is difficult for us all.  Perhaps you have something happening in your life, where you have to wait for God’s timing.  It seems like the answer never comes, and you get anxious just sitting around waiting.  The summer, 1993 issue Leadership talks about someone who made some bad decisions because he couldn’t deal with boredom.  He showed how difficult it is to just sit and wait:

Several years ago, I heard the story of Larry Walters, a 33-year-old man who decided he wanted to see his neighborhood from a new perspective. He went down to the local army surplus store one morning and bought forty-five used weather balloons. That afternoon he strapped himself into a lawn chair, to which several of his friends tied the now helium-filled balloons. He took along a six-pack of beer, a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, and a BB gun, figuring he could shoot the balloons one at a time when he was ready to land.
Walters, who assumed the balloons would lift him about 100 feet in the air, was caught off guard when the chair soared more than 11,000 feet into the sky -- smack into the middle of the air traffic pattern at Los Angeles International Airport. Too frightened to shoot any of the balloons, he stayed airborne for more than two hours, forcing the airport to shut down its runways for much of the afternoon, causing long delays in flights from across the country.

Soon after he was safely grounded and cited by the police, reporters asked him three questions:

"Where you scared?"  "Yes."

"Would you do it again?" "No."

"Why did you do it?"  "Because," he said, "you can't just sit there."[ii]    

Sometimes it can be difficult to just sit there and wait on God.  We can become anxious and decide to take matters into our own hands.  Like Larry Walters, we can end up a victim of our own hasty decisions, suspended between this thing and that thing, and at the mercy of any wind that may blow us back and forth.  G. Campbell Morgan advises us to wait.  “Waiting for God is not laziness. Waiting for God is not going to sleep. Waiting for God is not the abandonment of effort.  Waiting for God means, first, activity under command; second, readiness for any new command that may come; third, the ability to do nothing until the command is given.”  I hope that you’ll learn patience as you watch and wait.        
This Advent season, we wait for the coming of Christmas, the celebration of the advent of the Christ child.  But we also remember Jesus’ instructions to us: that we are to watch and wait for His second coming.  I remember my dad telling me the story of something that happened to him one day as he was driving.  A cloud formation, combined with a trick of the sunlight, looked so amazing that Dad said he had to pull off the road.  He didn’t pull over just to get a better look, but also so that he would be ready in case this was the Rapture.  Of course, it wasn’t the Rapture, but Dad wanted to be prepared if this was the second advent of Christ.  He wanted to be ready for the great adventure.
I’m not saying you need to pull your car over for every cloud formation.  I am saying that during this season of Advent we need to wait for His arrival.  We need to look for His coming in the clouds, in the snowflakes, in the carols carried by the crisp wind.  Seek Him in the manger and in the faces of the children gathered round.   Look for the ways God is appearing in your life.  Be patient.  Keep alert.  Watch and wait.  Seek Him, and you will find Him.  That is the great adventure.

[ii] Leadership, Summer 1993, pp. 35.

Monday, November 24, 2014


Having family in West Virginia, my sister-in-law Kimberly hates to hear people make jokes about West Virginians.  Growing up in Virginia, she certainly heard a lot of them.  If you’re not from Virginia, then maybe you don’t know that most West Virginia jokes have something to do with people marrying their relatives.  In West Virginia, for example, you are free to marry your first cousin once-removed, but you may not marry your half-cousin.  However, Virginians have nothing to joke about—our Western relatives have a law that bans first cousins from marrying each other, while in Virginia, first cousins are free to marry.[i]  If you want to compare, I guess the joke’s on us!
            While I have never actually known anybody who married a cousin, I have known some people who have married distant relatives.  Two of our dear friends found out that they were distantly related to each other, after the wedding.  Then there are two different ladies that I have known who each married a man and then his brother after his death.  They didn’t do it because they had to—but because they fell in love with one brother after the other.  This practice of one brother marrying another brother’s widow, is called levirate marriage.  It was common in biblical times, and wasn’t done simply because of love.  In fact, it was required by Hebrew law.[ii] 
            In those days, their idea of the afterlife wasn’t as complete as it is today.  For a person to “live on” after they died, it was believed that the family name had to be preserved.  So it was very important for a man to have a male heir—both to carry on his name and to inherit his land.  If a man died without a male heir, then his brother was supposed to marry his widow, and give her a child in the name of the deceased brother, in order to carry on her late husband’s legacy.  Keeping family land in the family was also important, so if land was sold outside the family, it was the obligation of the closest male relative to purchase it back as soon as possible and keep the land in the family name.  Also, in those days only men could own property, so if a man died without a male heir, the closest male relative was supposed to purchase the property from his widow, in order to keep the land in the family.  Typically, the man who married his late brother’s widow would also purchase his brother’s land from the widow.  In this unique role, this man was called the widow’s kinsman-redeemer.
            We find this practice exemplified in the story of Ruth.  In chapter one, Naomi’s husband Elimelech dies, and Naomi’s son Chilion dies, leaving his widow Ruth.  The two widows move from Moab to Bethlehem, where they try to survive on charity.  In chapter two, we read how Ruth discovers that the the property where she is gleaning is owned by a man named Boaz, who is a close relative of her late husband and his father.  In chapter three, Ruth makes him aware of the family connection, and her need of redemption.  He agrees to redeem her, unless there is a closer relative who might do so.  In chapter four, Boaz discovers a closer relative who might redeem Ruth by purchasing the property and marrying her.  Yet that relative (who shall forever remain nameless) is content to pass on the responsibility to Boaz.  Unlike the shirking family member, Boaz agrees to both the land transfer and the wedding, and becomes Ruth and Naomi’s kinsman-redeemer.
            We find this word redeem in scriptures.  We use it in hymns and sermons, but few people really understand its full meaning.  It can mean “to buy back,” as in a land purchase that returns it to family ownership.  It can also mean “to make good,” in the sense of giving something value that previously had no value or even negative value.  For example, when I take a newspaper to the grocery store and present this coupon, I can redeem the coupon for a dollar value.  The coupon has no value in and of itself, but when I redeem it, I can get something valuable for it.  The kinsman-redeemer did both of those things.  Boaz bought back the property, and he brought Ruth and Naomi out of poverty by taking Ruth as his wife.  Further, Boaz gave Ruth a son, Naomi a grandson, and Elimelech an heir to carry on his name. 
            In her blog, Worshiping with Children, Carolyn Brown of Charlottesville, Virginia points out that Ruth is a story of three people who go above and beyond the call of duty in order to do the right thing.[iii]  First, Ruth leaves her homeland behind in order to take care of Naomi.  Then, Naomi carefully thinks out a plan for Ruth’s happiness instead of wallowing in her own loneliness.  Finally, Boaz redeems Ruth and Naomi, even though there was a closer relative who truly had that duty.  In the same way, God calls Christians to go out of their way to take care of the people around them—to lift them out of poverty, loneliness, despair, and that feeling of worthlessness that so quickly destroys the soul.  This is the job of the kinsman-redeemer.  This is the job of every believer.
            It’s our job to redeem our fellow human beings because Jesus modeled that kind of love toward us.  Jesus did more than He had to, in order to set us free from poverty, despair, worthlessness, and oppression of the soul.  More than the love of a husband for his wife, Jesus’ love for you was the purest, most undefiled kind of love.  Jesus redeems all who receive Him when He trades their spiritual poverty for His great riches, when He takes a soul that feels worthless and gives it value and meaning.  Then He calls us to love our fellow human beings with the same everlasting love.
            In Wake Up Calls, Ron Hutchcraft writes:

A gathering of friends at an English estate nearly turned to tragedy when one of the children strayed into deep water. The gardener heard the cries for help, plunged in, and rescued the drowning child. That youngster's name was Winston Churchill. His grateful parents asked the gardener what they could do to reward him. He hesitated, then said, "I wish my son could go to college someday and become a doctor." "We'll see to it," Churchill's parents promised. 
Years later, while Sir Winston was prime minister of England, he was stricken with pneumonia. The country's best physician was summoned. His name was Dr. Alexander Fleming, the man who discovered and developed penicillin. He was also the son of that gardener who had saved young Winston from drowning. Later Churchill remarked, "Rarely has one man owed his life twice to the same person."[iv]

We find ourselves in a similar kind of debtorship to God—we who have been saved by Jesus’ grace.  So our Lord calls us to pass on the blessing.  Like Ruth and Naomi and Boaz and Jesus, we go out of our way to bless and redeem those around us.  We do it because we are thankful—because we are grateful for what our Lord has done for us.

[ii] Deuteronomy 25.5-6
[iii] Brown, Carolyn.  Worshiping with Children.  “Year B - Proper 27, 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, 24th Sunday after Pentecost (November 11, 2012)”  October 25, 2012. 
[iv] Ron Hutchcraft, Wake Up Calls, Moody, 1990, p. 22.

Friday, November 21, 2014

At the Feet of Jesus

            Today I want to talk about feet.  Yes, feet.  I’ve heard that in the average person’s lifetime, your feet will carry you the equivalent of five times around the planet—yet we give them very little thought.  Until something goes wrong with them, that is.  I’ve broken the little toes on each of my feet, and I’m amazed at how one little digit can affect so much about the way a person stands, walks, and balances.  Now that I’m a runner, I think about my feet a lot more than I used to.  I try to pick out shoes that will not only cover my feet, but support them properly as well.  I may be developing a little tendonitis in one of my toes, so that makes the right shoes all the more important.  My feet will be carrying me for the rest of my life, so I want to take care of them.
            I know the consequences of not taking care of your feet.  One spring break I went to New York City on a mission trip, washing and trimming and bandaging the feet of homeless people who had not taken care of their feet all winter.  You can imagine what that was like!  Feet are ugly things on anybody, but especially on those who haven’t taken care of them.  But the Bible says there are some people who have beautiful feet.  “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, who announces salvation, and says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns (Isaiah 52.7 NASB)!’"  Today I don’t want to talk about just any feet—I want to talk about beautiful feet.
            In the third chapter of the book that bears her name, a poor girl named Ruth sneaks up on the sleeping landowner Boaz and uncovers his feet.  He awakens and sees the woman at his feet.  She introduces herself as his close relative in need of protection, and asks him to spread his cloak over her.  Most readers are confused about the meaning of this chapter, and even biblical scholars disagree about its significance.  Some think that this story is indecent, while others suggest a chaste ritual that has been lost to modern readers.  Either way, the result is that by placing herself at the feet of Boaz, she makes a covenant with the man who will become her redeemer.  No matter how funky Boaz’ feet are physically, Isaiah 52.7 rings true in the ears of Ruth. 
            As I read this story, I can’t help but think of other accounts of some women named Mary who place themselves at the feet of their Redeemer.  There’s Mary of Bethany who anoints Jesus’ head and feet with expensive ointment.  She wets his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair.  She is rebuked for being so forward (especially for a woman with a checkered past), yet Jesus praises her for it.[i]  In one form or another, this story makes it into all four gospels, and Jesus says that everywhere God’s word is preached, her story will be told because of the good thing she does for him.
            Then there’s another story of Mary of Bethany, who has a particular love for Jesus.  In Luke 10.38-42 we read about Jesus visiting the house that Mary shares with her brother Lazarus and her sister Martha.  Martha gets irritated with Mary because Martha is making all the preparations for the meal while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet.  Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to help out, but Jesus affirms Mary’s behavior, saying she has chosen the better thing.
            Again we have the story of three women named Mary who gather at the foot of the cross.  Scholars disagree about all their identities, but many believe them to be Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Salome the aunt of Jesus and wife of Cleopas, and Mary Magdelene.  When all the other disciples abandon their Lord, only these three Marys and John the Beloved remain at the cross.  Because she remains at Jesus’ feet, Mary receives a blessing from her son and John receives instructions to care for Jesus’ mother.[ii]
            Today, Christians need to remain at the feet of Jesus.  Like Ruth, we need to recognize our Redeemer, the only One who can save us.  We must remove anything that separates us from our Lord, receiving His blessing and salvation.  Like Mary of Bethany, we have to sit at His feet, not missing out on any opportunity to learn from Him.  As she anointed Jesus feet with and wet them with her tears, we need to pour out our worship as we wait on the Lord.  Remaining at the feet of Jesus means risking everything to be with Him, the way John and the Marys stuck by the Lord at His crucifixion.  Like them, we receive His love and instructions when we wait at Jesus’ feet.  Placing ourselves there, we relate to Him as Lord.  It’s at His feet that we understand our position of humility and servanthood and gratitude for what He has done for us.
            Nobody knows exactly what Jesus looked like physically.  Isaiah 53.2 says that the Messiah would not be beautiful, that we should desire Him.  Of all his body parts, certainly Jesus’ feet must have been the most ugly—dirty and worn from hard toil and travel.  It was Jesus’ feet that received the nails that held Him to the cross.  Yet the Bible says, “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, who announces salvation, and says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’"  It’s at the feet of Jesus that we meet our Redeemer, that we receive His teaching, that we pour out of love before Him, that we hear His pronouncement of love, and that we receive His instructions for life.  Let’s make sure that we take a proper position with Jesus—and sit at His feet.

[i] Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:36-50; John 12:1-8.
[ii] John 19.25-27.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Lord of the Harvest

“Lord of the Harvest”

Ruth and Boaz
             Like many farmers in Rural Virginia, Boaz grew up in a good home, learning to love God and take care of his neighbor.  He came from generations of farmers before him.  His family grew wheat and barley that provided bread for the people of the small town of Bethelehem, which literally means “House of Bread.”  Like many of our local farmers, he was raised with a good work ethic, and believed that people who can work should work to provide for themselves.  Yet he also took care of those who couldn’t meet their own needs. 
            In Boaz’ day there were no welfare plans or social security systems in place.  Those who could not work begged for bread.  The poor who could work but had no jobs gleaned in the fields.  Going behind Boaz’s grain harvesters, gleaners picked up the bits left behind, the pieces that fell to the ground unbundled.  It took gleaners a long time to gather enough to eat, but at least there was enough to eat.  Boaz had compassion for the gleaners, and followed the tradition of leaving the edges and borders of his field uncut, just so there would be more for the poor.  He instructed his reapers not to pick up pieces that were accidentally left behind, so the gleaners could have even more.[i]  In this way, Boaz honored God by caring for the less fortunate.      
When Russell and Lois Harris, members of my church, first told me about the gleaning ministry they work with, it was in explanation of all the boxes of produce they had sitting around their house.  Occasionally they would give me a bag of apples or potatoes, telling me about the ministry that they help that goes around to salvage food and distribute it to the poor.  In my mind, I pictured a few people with trucks going to farms and collecting fallen apples off the ground to give to the poor.  But I found out it is much more than that.
In 1998, Rev. Ron Davidson was so convinced of the need for an organization that met human needs in a way that other relief organizations did not, that he left his church of 1,200 members in order to work full-time to start a non-profit ministry called Gleaning for the World.  Modern gleaning is where corporations donate their overstock supplies or goods that are close to expiration to charities like Davidson’s, and those organizations distribute them to people in need.  Gleaning for the World partners with other local groups that help with the distribution.  They have developed a crisis response plan that helps them respond to disaster situations.  Now, every year his volunteers distribute over $40,000 worth of food, medical supplies, clothing, and other life-sustaining care to people around the world.[ii]
Rev. Davidson remembers a man in Guatemala with four children who were sick, whose family got the food, medical care, and clothing that they needed.  He recalls toddler twins who were starving to death, who got the nourishment and care they needed, and who are now healthy six-year-olds living in an orphanage.  He tells the story of a grandmother in central Virginia who was trying to raise five grandchildren on social security, who now has a full pantry because of his ministry.[iii]  Gleaning also has a Teddy Bear Brigade that distributes stuffed animals to children in crisis, providing a sense of emotional well-being to kids who just need something to hug.  Now, Gleaning for the World is continuing to meet local needs, and is also working to stop the spread of Ebola in West Africa and protect Christian refugees from the spread of militant Islam in Iraq and Syria.[iv]  As it does its work of humanitarian aid, Gleaning for the World is blessed to lead over 30,000 people to Christ every year.[v]  People like Rev. Davidson, and Russell and Lois, make that possible.
You know, it’s easy for people who are blessed with plenty to have a lying attitude in which they’re convinced that they don’t have enough.  “I don’t have enough stuff,” they say, so they have to hoard more.  “I don’t have enough time,” they tell themselves, so whenever they’re asked to volunteer to help others they make excuses.  They say, “I don’t have enough money,” so when they’re asked to donate of their resources in order to help the poor they tighten their grip on their wallets.  Metaphorically, they never leave the edges of their fields unharvested because they’re convinced that they need it all.  They forget that the Lord of the Harvest provides enough for those who trust Him to have their needs met, and to have something to share.
As he was in his fields, Boaz met a poor young widow named Ruth.  She was gleaning on the edges, picking up the leavings that she could find.  Before he had ever seen her, he had heard of her reputation.  She was that foreign girl who had left her father and mother in the land of her birth, giving up everything that she had previously known, in order to accompany her widowed mother-in-law to Bethlehem.[vi]  He knew that she could have chosen selfishness, but believed instead that somehow if she was faithful, her needs would be provided. 
Boaz believed the Lord had called him to provide for Ruth and Naomi—to be the caretaking agent of God in the world.  He could have had an attitude of poverty, convinced that he had to harvest to the edge and keep it all for himself.  Instead, his grateful heart knew that the Lord of the Harvest would provide his needs so that he could take care of others.  So he invited Ruth to drink from the water that his servants drew, to feel safe among his workers, to eat the food that he provided, and to harvest the extra that he commanded his servants to leave behind. 
God calls believers to provide for the needs of the poor in the same way.  You might do this by donating to Gleaning for the World or working for a local relief organization.  You could help those in poverty by contributing to the relief efforts of your church or denomination.  During this season of harvest we need to remember that the Lord of the Harvest will meet all our needs so that we can be generous with those in need.  This is how we put our faith into action.
James 2:14-17 (NASB) says:

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.

2 Corinthians 9:11 (NASB) reminds us that if you give to the needs of the poor, “you will be enriched in everything for all liberality, which through us is producing thanksgiving to God.”  Acts 20:35b (NASB) says, “…You must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” During this season of thanksgiving, as we give thanks for what God has provided for us, our natural response should be one of gratitude and charity.  I pray that you, like Boaz and Rev. Davidson and Russell and Lois, will put the needs of others ahead of your own.  I pray that as you’re generous toward others, you’ll trust the Lord of the Harvest to provide your needs.

[i] Leviticus 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19
[iii]  November 8, 2014.
[iv]  November 8, 2014.
[v] If you’re interested in helping Gleaning for the World, or making a donation, they can be reached at 7539 Stage Rd., Concord VA 24538.  Phone: 1-877-913-9212. 
[vi] Ruth 2:11

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Ruth and Groot

                 Once upon a time in a land called Moab there lived a young woman named Ruth.  She fell in love with a young man named Chilion.  The problem was that her one true love was not a Moabite—he was from the land of Judah, and the Judeans were a very different people.  Ruth had been raised to worship the family gods and goddesses, but these Judeans believed in only one God.  Their ways were different from her people’s ways.  Their food was different.  Their language was different.  Their clothes were different.  Yet love won out, and the two were married. 
            Ruth’s new home was one of those modern blended families.  She wasn’t the only Moabite in the household—her husband’s brother, Mahlon, had married a Moabitess as well.  They all lived together in one home, along with Ruth’s newly widowed mother-in-law Naomi.  Being one of those modern blended families, they suffered from discrimination on the part of both the Moabites and the Judeans who lived in the area.  It seemed like they didn’t fit in anywhere.  But Ruth was glad that at least they lived in Moab, among her own people, and not in Judea where she would be a foreigner.  For ten years they lived together as one big family, until tragedy struck.  In a freak accident at work, Mahlon and Chilion were both killed, leaving the three widows to grieve together under a leaky roof.
            Soon poverty added to their sorrow as they discovered that neither the Judeans in Moab nor the Moabites wanted to assist three grieving widows in such a modern, blended, mixed household.  As social pariahs in Moab they faced starvation.  Then one day Naomi announced that she was returning to Judea, where she could rejoin her family of origin and receive their care.  Though it broke her heart, Ruth’s mother-in-law urged her and her sister-in-law Orpah to remain in Moab and remarry Moabite men.  That way they could know happiness again, and also find some financial security.  Orpah thought this was the best solution, kissed Naomi, and returned home.  But Ruth’s heart broke to think of separating from this woman whom she had loved for ten years.

Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.  Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may the Lord do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me (Ruth 1:16-17 NASB).”

So Ruth and Naomi said goodbye to Orpah, packed their bags, and moved to the village of Bethlehem in Judea.  They knew life would be a struggle, but they were determined to struggle together.  For Ruth, loyalty was worth more than a life of ease.  She gave up the possibility of a future among her own kind in order to take care of a widow that she knew would be a burden in her old age.  She was willing to do this because of her sense of duty, and also because of her love for Naomi.  Even though they were not of the same people, they were one family.  “Your people shall be my people,” Ruth said, “and your God, my God.”
               When I followed God’s call to ministry at Bethel, I essentially said the same thing to the church I serve.  Though I’m not from Halifax County, I will become as one of them.  Their accent will become my accent, and their quirks my quirks.  Likewise, they agreed accept this boy from the Richmond area as their own, overlooking the fact that I don’t sound like I’m from Southside Virginia and that I have more of a city attitude than they have. 
            This week at Bethel we ordain two new deacons, whose job it is to assist the pastor in ministering to the needs of the people.  Though they are not physically family, they are to become as Ruth was to Naomi, helpers and kindred in spirit.  Rather than looking at the people under their care as burdens, they will follow the advice of the apostle Paul, who said in Romans 12:10 (HCSB), “Show family affection to one another with brotherly love. Outdo one another in showing honor.”
            This task is not for pastors and deacons alone.  It is the duty and privilege of every Christian to adopt as their own the people around them who need their care.  We may not be of the same family, language, custom, or creed, but that doesn’t matter in God’s eyes.  Believers need to care for the helpless regardless of their differences, and not only serve them but love them as family. 
            I love the character Groot from the 2014 Marvel Studios movie Guardians of the Galaxy.  With his guttural baritone voice by Vin Deisel, this intelligent tree-like creature battled to defend his friends and stuck by them no matter what.  Throughout the movie, he has only one line which he repeats over and over: “I am Groot.”  Others in the movie get annoyed with him from time to time because it seems like this is all he can say.  (Spoiler alert) Near the end of the film, when the group is in danger of certain death, Groot sacrifices himself to save his friends.  When Rocket Raccoon realizes that Groot’s actions will cause his death, he asks why he would do this.  The hulking friend simply answers, “We are Groot!”
            “We are Groot!”  This is no simplistic sentence composed of monosyllabic words.  Instead, it is a mystical expression of the unity possessed by people who are so at-one that they can no longer tell where one ends and the other begins.  It is a statement of the symbiosis that the group has achieved.  When one suffers, all suffers.  When one celebrates, all know joy.  Self-sacrifice for the sake of the group is not out of the question, because after all, “We are Groot!”  This was the cry of Ruth.  This is the song that the deacons sing.  This is the mystical expression of every believer who sees the unity of the body of Christ and gives everything to secure one another’s well-being.  It doesn’t matter that we’re aliens from all parts of the galaxy, that we’re Moabites and Judeans, or that we display any other differences that might separate us.  We are Groot—we are one!
            I pray that like Ruth you’ll recognize the oneness of those who are different from you, that you’ll commit yourself to loving and protecting and serving those who need you, no matter the cost.  I pray that you’ll become a guardian of the galaxy—or at least your corner of the world.  I pray that you’ll look at your family, your church, your neighbor, and even your enemy and say, “We are one!”

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Playing Dress-Up

Beth and me in at Bethel's Trunk or Treat.
Also our costumes for the Wicked 10k
Children love to play dress-up—and there’s no better time for dress-up than right now.  Halloween stores have opened where storefronts have stood vacant the rest of the year.  Other stores have stocked costume items, accessories, and other things to make your dress-up holiday more fun.  Even  those who don’t celebrate Halloween per se often dress up as Bible characters or some other non-scary persona.  According to US economy expert Kimberly Amadeo, the average American spent $77.52 on Halloween this year.[i]  And, of course, dress-up isn’t just for kids.  Adults make up a huge percentage of those who will go costumed this year, either on October 31 or some other day.  Whether it’s Trunk-or-Treat or the Wicked 10k fun run in Virginia Beach that we ran in October, I love to play dress-up as much as the next full-grown adult. 
            Of course, dress-up doesn’t end with Halloween.  This is just the beginning of the dress-up season.  We deck the halls for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.  Plates and cutlery aren’t enough for our Thanksgiving tables anymore—now they must be decorated and dressed to impress.  Kids put on plays, dressed as pilgrims and Indians.  We put on living nativity scenes and costumed Christmas pageants.  And don’t forget how fun it is to get a coat and tie on your six-year-old boy, and ruffles on your three-year-old girl, for the obligatory holiday pictures in front of the fake hearth at the photographer’s studio!
            Yes, we love our dress-up—mostly because we enjoy pretending we’re somebody that we’re not.  If you’re a meek underachiever, you can put on a mask and cape and become a superhero for the day.  Or, if you’re the underling who constantly gets kicked around, you can put on a zombie outfit and become somebody’s worst nightmare.  There’s a societal reason why people love to play dress-up.  There’s a lot of emotional fun and relief when we get to act like we’re someone we’re not. 
            I knew a family that struggled financially on a long-term basis.  Most of their clothes were shabby, yet whenever they loaded up the car to visit the grandparents the kids dressed up as if they were going to church.  Why?  Because the parents wanted to impress the grandparents, and convince them that they were doing better than they really were.  They were playing dress-up for the same reason we do at Halloween—it’s often more fun to pretend you somebody you’re not than it is to just be who you are. 
            Holidays, events, and other fun reasons for dress-up are great ways to put on a show, blow off a little steam, engage in harmless fantasy, and just have a lot of fun.  But when our dress-up becomes a way of deceiving ourselves and others, perhaps we need to rediscover who we really are. 
            Sunday mornings are one particularly popular time for dress-up.  This is fine for those people who were always raised to show respect for God by wearing their best.  Yet there can be a lot of opportunity for deception in our church attire.  For example, we might convince ourselves that we’re good Christians just because we look like Christians.    We say the right words, wear the right clothes, know all the right catch phrases, and refrain from all the wrong behaviors—and by this masquerade we convince ourselves that we’re okay with God and He’s okay with us.  Yet, if we look beneath the mask of our religion, many of us would be afraid to find that there’s not a lot of reality there.  Christians who play dress-up might have everybody else convinced that they’re fine, upstanding pillars of the community, or even that they possess some sort of spiritual depth.  However, while we may deceive ourselves some of the time and fool others all of the time, we can’t trick God any of the time. 
The Bible says, “People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart (1 Sam 16.7 NLT).”  God knows who you truly are, inside and out—no matter what you wear.  He knows that everybody’s clothes are only a costume, a put-on to convince people of what you want them to believe about you.  Whether you wear jeans or a three-piece suit to church, whether your shoes match your dress or not, what matters is that you’re genuine with God, who sees you as you truly are.  So come to church as you are, or as you aspire to be at your genuine best.  But come to church honestly.  Take off the mask.  Be who you are.

[i] Amadeo, Kimberly.  “What Are the Trends for Halloween Retail Spending?”  October 17, 2014.