Falling down with my enemies

To the church in Philadelphia, Jesus gives the encouragement to keep holding on. They have little strength left from enduring rejection and persecution from the leaders of the local synagogue who deny Jesus is Lord. But they can indeed hold on knowing their current situation will not last forever. Jesus promises He is coming soon, giving the church hope that the time is coming when wrongs will be righted.

More than that, Jesus tells the Philadelphian church they can look forward to the day when those who hurt them will “come and fall down at [their] feet.” Those opposed to God and His people will one day experience the return and victory of King Jesus. At that time they will hear Him say He is on the side of His people and He loves them.

But as Lou Lotz once noted, this talk of enemies groveling at one’s feet smacks of triumphalism and vengeance, and seems to be out of character with Christ’s command to love our enemies. True, but the picture of poor souls who have always resisted Jesus and harmed the church bowing down to Jesus’ followers helps me in two ways: 1. I’m given hope: Ungodliness will not endure forever. One day, to quote Pastor Lotz, “the tables will be turned, and God’s people will be vindicated.”

2. This picture also offers inspiration: Christians desire to love their enemies, to love their enemies to Christ. The more Christ’s reconciling grace is in me, the more I want no one being punished at my feet. I’m not saying there won’t be anyone; I’m just saying Christians love their enemies and the church’s enemies with the dream that all of them will change and love Jesus today and in eternity.

I’m fascinated by the actual words used in Jesus’ letter to Philadelphia, that those who oppose Jesus and His church will one day “fall down.” This is the same language used elsewhere in the Bible (in Revelation 4, as one example) for falling down in worship! I think I’m supposed to love my enemies, praying that they’ll fall down in worship with me and all God’s people.

Graphic found with Google

Morning star

Photo found with Google
In his letter to the church of Thyatira, Jesus gives that church and the church today one of the most encouraging promises you’ll ever receive. To the church that, by grace, repents and holds on, Jesus promises “the morning star.”

One of my favorite professors at Regent College was Darrell Johnson. He taught me that the morning star is the star that “appears at the darkest time of the night… It usually emerges at that point when the night is as dark as it’s going to get. When it appears, there is no sign of the dawn. But when it appears, very faint and small at first, you know that the night cannot withstand the dawn; it is just a matter of time until the dawn wipes the night away.”

Even when things are the darkest, Jesus assures me He is with me – and not only with me, but also ruling over all things and caring for me until the last bit of darkness in my life has dissolved forever.

I said that in a sermon at Trinity CRC a couple weeks ago. And people said “Amen!” I’m glad they were encouraged too.

COVID-19 and creation

With all the devastating health and economic impacts the COVID-19 pandemic has brought (which I do not wish to minimize), it’s a relief to hear about one positive effect the pandemic is having: In some ways, the pandemic has been good for the environment.

Less traffic, grounded airplanes, and decreased production in factories have improved the air quality in many places. In India, for example, people are seeing mountain ranges in the distance they haven’t seen in decades due to pollution. Satellite imagery over China shows reductions in nitrous oxide and carbon monoxide being pumped into the air. Cities such as Rome, London, Los Angeles, and New York are Average NO2 concentration in northeastern US. From theconversation.comalso reporting improved air quality.

I’m aware there have also been environmental setbacks. For example, cities report the collection of more garbage (including personal protective equipment like disposable masks).

I nevertheless remain encouraged by the news of improved air quality. Again, I recognize COVID-19 has resulted in lost jobs, economic chaos, illness, and death, and I do not downplay those. But I do wonder whether the pandemic is giving humanity a little preview of how, when it comes to the environment, things could be better.

As a Christian, I believe God calls me to care for his creation. It is among the first tasks he gives to the first humans in the first garden. And it’s a recurring theme in the Bible. In addition to mandating a weekly sabbath rest, God also commanded his people to give creation a Sabbath rest: “In the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest… Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines.” God promised that if his people obeyed this command, their land would produce enough in the sixth year to provide for them through the seventh year and beyond. God designed creation so that when we care for it, he will direct it to care for us. I wonder if COVID-19 is forcing us to give the land and sky an overdue sabbath rest.

And that leads me to wonder whether instead of trying to go back to normal, we can investigate ways to create a “new normal” in which we can restore jobs and improve the economy while also carefully tending the land and keeping the air clean. Can leaders in government, industry, agriculture, and business find innovative and profitable ways to run things both so people can work and so creation is respected? I ask myself where in everyday life I can recognize and change my greedy and consumeristic tendencies that harm creation. Can I buy a bit less? Can I reuse things more? Can I travel fewer miles? Can I conserve energy?

In the middle of the pain of the pandemic, there has been an unexpected blessing of the environment faring better than six months ago. Can we receive that as a fresh invitation from God to care for creation? I for one would like the air we breathe to not go back to what we called normal prior to COVID-19.

I wrote this article for Perspectives column
in this week’s
Rock Valley Bee.

Deep darkness

I read this meditation earlier this year
and its call to humble joy even in gloomy times
still echoes in my mind. I’d like to share it here too…

::– –::– –::

There are four little goings-on that universally create joy, making even the gloomiest heart smile:

  1. hearing your name called because you won,
  2. being chosen for the job,
  3. someone else picking up the tab, and
  4. being rescued from danger.

So why is it sometimes so hard for the people of God—called and chosen, redeemed and delivered—to feel incredible joy and give God the glory he so deserves? Jeremiah says it is our pride, lamenting, “If you will not listen, my soul will weep in secret for your pride.”

John calls it the “pride of life” and the Amplified Bible elaborates, “pretentious confidence in one’s resources or in the stability of earthly things.”

Jeremiah tells the people of God if they take credit for the wealth and beauty around them and take responsibility for their own security, God will allow darkness, stumbling, gloom, and deep darkness to overtake them.

Today, we have light to see the mountains ahead. They may be steep, but we need not stumble around in the dark because…

  1. Our names were called.
  2. We were chosen for the job.
  3. Our debts are paid.
  4. Our rescue is complete.

Graphic found at npr.org

As you pray, consider what God has done, lay down pride, and dare to feel the joy of it all.

This meditation was written by Amy Clemens
and published by
Words of Hope on 12 Jan 2020.

Helping kids worship

People are gathering again in person at Trinity CRC. We’re doing our best to make our facilities and procedures as safe as possible to prevent the spread of germs. I must say it’s wonderful to sing, pray, listen, and talk together again irl (in real life)!

As more families begin attending services again, it’s a good time to consider how to help our children engage in worship. Standing to sing songs or sitting still to listen to the Bible reading and message might be a bit harder after getting used to watching the services from the comfort of home. These ideas from the CRC’s Faith Formation Ministries might be helpful for your family as they have been for mine.

1. Be positive.
Instead of saying, “We have to go to church,” say “We get to go to worship.” Worship isn’t a place we go, it’s something we do with God’s family, and when we’re not there, God’s family isn’t complete. You can create patterns to help you and your family anticipate going to worship such as choosing clothes the night before and setting the alarm a little earlier so that you can arrive at worship in a peaceful state of mind. As you get ready, play worship music and maybe even sing together.

2. Take along worship tools.
Worship tools available from jane.comBring along tools that will involve your children in worship rather than simply keep them busy. Some ideas: a storybook Bible or a Bible geared for teens, a small notebook, and colored pencils or pens for drawing or writing quotes, questions, impressions, and prayers. Older kids may like to decorate a blank journal to use as their own weekly worship journal.

3. Let kids choose the seats.
With four people in our family, we sometimes have four different preferences for where to sit on Sunday! Parents with young children often feel most comfortable sitting toward the back of the worship space, but children might prefer the front so they can see, hear, and participate better. Can a different family member choose each week where to sit?

4. Be a “church whisperer.”
Help kids stay engaged during worship by discretely asking questions and making observations. During a song, whisper, “My favorite verse of this song is the third one. Which part do you like the best?” As Scripture is read, ask your child how it would feel to be living in that story or what they think the pastor will focus on in the message.

5. Talk about worship on the way home.
Ask kids about what they saw and heard in worship. Affirm their insights and encourage them to learn more. Ask if they wonder about anything that was said. As you talk, use words you heard in the worship service to build your family’s biblical vocabulary.

I put this together for last week’s Rock Valley Bee.
A similar article will also appear in the next issue of
News & Views
at Trinity CRC. You can purchase the Kids Bible Study Journal
pictured above at
jane.com.

New normal

I hear people say they are looking forward to things returning to normal after the pandemic is over. Me too. I wonder, though, if things won’t so much go back to normal as we will enter into a “new normal.” Sort of like after 9/11 – you can still fly, but new security protocols have changed your experience in the airport and on the plane.

Here’s my wish list for what I hope part of the “new normal” will be like after COVID-19 is over.

In the “new normal” we no longer take our ability to gather with others for granted. Or, put positively, we are more grateful for opportunities to spend time together with other people. Handshakes, high fives, and New Normal greeting card available at emilymcdowell.comhugs mean a bit more than they did before. We’re more intentional about deepening friendships and connecting with the neighbor up the street we’ve never met. Gathering weekly with others for worship, fellowship, and growing in faith is a higher priority.

In the “new normal” we better manage our schedules. We continue having meals together as a family and spend less time racing around from one event to another. There’s time in our day to check in on the family who just had a baby or the acquaintance who is homebound. We take seriously our need to rest body and mind on a regular basis, choosing to do so ourselves before having a pandemic force it upon us again.

In the “new normal” we are quicker to say Thank You. Some of us can work from home. Some of us are doing a decent job of keeping our kids on task with their online schoolwork. Others of us, though, have no choice but to work at the hospital or the grocery store, to continue manufacturing or driving truck. And some of us are receiving abundant confirmation that we’re not cut out to be teachers. So we begin to intentionally express gratitude to hospital staff, store cashiers, shop workers, truck drivers, teachers, aides, principals, and anyone else who serves us and our community.

In the “new normal” our eyes and hearts are open wider to God’s provision and grace. We’re quicker to talk to him just because he loves to hear from us and we love to be in his presence. We continue prioritizing prayer instead of waiting to pick up the conversation with God until the next crisis hits.

What are you going to do or prioritize differently in the post-COVID-19 “new normal?”

This column appears in this week’s Rock Valley Bee.
You can purchase the greeting card pictured above
at emilymcdowell.com.

How this Easter will be a bit more like the very first Easter

The coronavirus pandemic that’s wreaking havoc around the world and disrupting our lives is forcing churches to celebrate Easter very differently this year. I appreciate these reflections suggesting how that might not be an entirely bad thing. This has been making its way around the internet and I do not who originally wrote it.

::– –::– –::

The very first Easter was not in a crowded worship space with singing and praising. On the very first Easter, the disciples were locked in a house. It was dangerous for them to come out. They were afraid. They wanted to believe the good news they heard from the women, that Jesus had risen, but it seemed too good to be true. They were living in a time of such despair and such fear. If they left their homes, their lives and the lives of their loved ones might be at risk. Could a miracle really have happened? Could life really had won out over death? Could this time of terror and fear really be coming to an end?

Alone in their homes, they dared to believe that hope was possible, that the long night was over and morning had broken, that God’s love was the most powerful of all, even though it didn’t seem quite real yet. Eventually they were able to leave their homes, when the fear and danger had subsided. They went around celebrating and spreading the good news that Jesus was risen and love was the most powerful force on the earth.

This year we might get to experience a taste of what that first Easter was like, still in our homes daring to believe that hope is on the horizon. Then, after a while, when it is safe for all people, when it is the most loving choice, we will come out, gathering together, singing and shouting the good news that God brings life even out of death, that love always has the final say!

This year we might get the closest taste we have had yet to what that first Easter was like.

Artwork of Jesus appearing to His disciples found with Google

The disciples desperately needed to hear
Jesus’ words to them that first Easter:
“Peace be with you.”
Those are Jesus’ words to us this unusual Easter season, too.

Prayers for the pandemic

Coronavirus graphic found with Google

It’s hard to find words to express what’s in my heart in light of the illness and anxiety caused by the coronavirus pandemic. I’ve come across numerous meaningful prayers offered by others. Here are two of the shortest and simplest and (in my opinion) profoundest.

Prayers with Children
God of love and hope,
you made the world and care for all creation,
but the world feels strange right now.
The news is full of stories about coronavirus.
Some people are worried that they might get ill.
Others are anxious for their family and friends.
Be with them and help them to find peace.
We pray for the doctors and nurses and scientists,
and all who are working to discover the right medicines
to help those who are ill.
Thank you that even in these anxious times, you are with us.
Help us to put our trust in you and keep us safe. Amen.
– from the Church of England


Prayer for the Christian Community
We are not people of fear:
we are people of courage.
We are not people who protect our own safety:
we are people who protect our neighbours’ safety.
We are not people of greed:
we are people of generosity.
We are your people God, giving and loving,
wherever we are, whatever it costs
for as long as it takes wherever you call us.
Barbara Glasson, Methodist Church (London)


More prayers:

:: Prayer for a Pandemic by Cameron Bellm

:: A Pray to God in Anxious Times by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.

:: Prayers for People Affected by the New Coronavirus
:: by Kathryn Reid, World Vision

:: CRC Centre for Public Dialogue

Why do I preach?

Attending Pastors Day at Inspiration Hills was definitely a highlight of my week. Led by Reformed Church in America pastor Seth Sundstrom, it focused on honing our sermon preparation skills.

At one point Seth had us all take 20 minutes to answer this question:
Why do I preach and what do I hope to accomplish through it?
It took me 5-10 minutes to come up with this response:

1.
I preach
to give the Holy Spirit a forum –
fallen and broken,
yet willing and available –
to grow my listeners (starting with me)
into people who follow Jesus
more closely,
more loyally,
and more lovingly.

Because I still had time left over, I decided to try writing more responses. There is some overlap between them, but I think they each express something unique getting at why I preach:

2 (option A):
I preach as part of God’s work of changing me,
changing my listeners,
and changing the world
to be more like Christ.

2 (option B):
I preach as part of God’s work of changing me,
changing my listeners,
and changing the world
to align more with His Kingdom values and purposes.

3.
God uses my preaching to grow His beloved church
into the beautiful bride and effective ambassador
that He knows it is and made it to be.

4.
I preach because God reveals glorious things in His Word
that the church and world need to hear
and that I cannot keep to myself.

When we reconvened and were asked to share what we wrote, I chose to read 2B.

::– –::– –::


The following day, I decided to do a little research into how other theologians and preachers have answered Seth’s question through the ages. Here are some responses that resonated with me and contribute to the reasons I’ll get up to preach tomorrow morning:

I preach to restore the throne and dominion of God
in the souls of my listeners.

– Cotton Mather (1700s), quoted by John Piper

I preach to humble the sinner,
to exalt the Savior,
and to promote holiness.
– Charles Simeon (1800s), quoted by Peter Adam

I preach in order to explain and apply the Word of God
to the people of God
in order to prepare them for service,
unite them in faith,
and foster maturity and growth.

Peter Adam (1990s)

God uses my proclamation of the Word
to comfort, challenge, correct, inspire, and deepen
the faith and life of God’s people.
The Worship Sourcebook (2000s)

I preach to make the spiritual bones of God’s people
more like steel,
to double the capacity of their spiritual lungs,
to make the eyes of their hearts dazzled
with the brightness of the glory of God,
and to awaken the capacity of their souls
for kinds of spiritual enjoyment
they didn’t even know existed.
John Piper (2000s)

I preach because through it
the Holy Spirit effects change,
gives grace to weak and weary sinners,
and elicits faith in the hearts of God’s people.
The goal of my faithful preaching of God’s Word
is none other than the holistic conformity
of God’s people into the image of Christ.

Leah Baugh (2010s)

Preaching graphic found at challies.com

O Sordid Town of Bethlehem

Until recently, if you’d have asked me what I imagined the town of Bethlehem to have been like in Bible times, I would have described a pleasant hillside village on a cool evening surrounded by peace and quiet. I assumed the Christmas story takes place in a sort of wholesome US Midwest small farming town, where people are generally friendly and values matter.

Artwork by Carol Sheli Cantrell

It turns out that the Bible paints a startlingly different picture of Bethlehem. The place is first mentioned in Genesis as the location where patriarch Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel sadly dies in childbirth. After that, the next two stories with references to Bethlehem come in the book of Judges. These stories are filled with idolatry, injustice, rape, and murder that culminate in civil war. Then right on the heels of that comes the story of Ruth which begins with a famine in Bethlehem that makes a local family flee to a foreign country. We learn in 1 Samuel that the great king David is from Bethlehem. But we’re first introduced to him as the youngest son of Jesse who doesn’t even bother inviting the kid to the feast when the prophet Samuel asks to meet all of Jesse’s sons. In 2 Samuel, Bethlehem is under the control of the Israelite’s enemies, the Philistines, at that point in history.

We read about Bethlehem once more in the New Testament soon after Jesus’ birth in that town when King Herod goes on a murderous rampage in an effort to destroy “the one who has been born king of the Jews.” The despot kills all the children in Bethlehem 2-years-old and younger.

To summarize: Stories in the Bible connected with Bethlehem are filled with extreme sadness and sin.

Yet despite its sketchy history, God chooses Bethlehem as the birthplace for His Son! I see in God’s choice of Bethlehem a picture of God’s redemptive purposes – His tendency to rescue the most hopeless of situations.

I head into Christmas fully aware that I do not have the perfect family that people might be inclined to think we have based solely on the smiling faces on our Christmas photo card. Our home is not always a haven but sometimes a place filled with stress and short tempers. There always seem to be temptations vying for my attention and opportunities for me to mess up and hurt others.

Yet I need not despair: If God can bring something (Someone!) good out of Bethlehem (of all places, it turns out!), then God can use me and whatever mess I find myself in. The Good News is that God specializes in redeeming bad places, relationships, and situations.

Which, of course, is why Jesus came to Bethlehem in the first place.

These reflections appeared in last week’s Rock Valley Bee.
They are an adaptation of something I blogged for Christmas 2015.

Dressed for the holidays

Tuxedo graphic found with GoogleIt’s that time of year when you dress up for Christmas programs, concerts, and parties.
In one of his daily e-devotions, retired pastor
Dale Vander Veen reminds me of some apparel that’s always in season and should always
be worn regardless of the occasion.

“Therapy”

Occupational therapy. Recreational therapy. Massage therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy. Anger management therapy. Holistic therapy. Hydrotherapy. Psychotherapy. Group therapy. Physical therapy. Aromatherapy. Magnetic therapy.

A large clothing store suggested… apparel therapy. When you’re down, buy a gown. When you’re blue, get something new. How about hair therapy? When I’m blue, get a new do. (Note: Not recommended for men like me who lack the necessary raw material.)

God recommends apparel therapy. When I loathe, I should clothe. When I mess up, I should dress up. What shall I wear today? In one of his richest epistolary gems, Paul parades this collection on the fashion walkway. I can clothe myself with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, peace, thankfulness, wisdom, and singing (humming suggested as a sensitive substitute). Nothing flashy, nothing faddish. Always seasonable, always reasonable. Someone next to you wears the same outfit? Thank God and move a little closer!

And did you notice? All pieces of “The Classic Collection” mix and match to perfection. I can wear the entire wardrobe every day – and never appear out-of-date. Above all, I must not forget the final touch. “Over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

…With the prayer that today you will find your heart therapy
in the wardrobe of Jesus.

Ruth the risk taker

Ruth graphic from timewarpwife.com

Each time I read about her, I’m singularly impressed by the Ruth of the Bible. I admire her as a loving risk taker.

Out of love for her mother-in-law Naomi, Ruth risks leaving her family, her country, and her culture to move to Bethlehem. Widows did not have it easy in ancient Israel, and things would have been even more difficult for an immigrant widow like Ruth. Yet she declares to Naomi:

Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.

These brave words echo down through history, sometimes even making their way into wedding vows today.

Once in Bethlehem, Ruth does not passively wait around to see what will happen next. She takes the initiative, suggesting to Naomi that she go out and find work and food for the two of them. Destitute people in Israel (often foreigners and widows) were permitted to pick up leftovers from the edges of the fields during harvest time. Perhaps recognizing those leftovers would not be enough for both her and Naomi, Ruth takes another risk and asks the foreman if she can gather grain from among the sheaves behind the workers who were harvesting. Instead of being told to remember her proper place, Ruth is allowed to work among the harvesters. Landowner Boaz recognizes the spirit and not just the letter of the law meant to help the poor and he ensures Ruth is both welcomed and protected among his workers.

Naomi soon perceives that Boaz may make a fine husband for Ruth and she concocts a plan that looks like a marriage proposal. Naomi carefully instructs Ruth with what to do and say, but when the time comes, Ruth veers away from the script Naomi provides her. Ruth asks not only for Boaz to consider her, but to embrace his role as the entire family’s guardian-redeemer, making it possible for Naomi to reclaim her family’s estate. Out of love for Naomi, Ruth risks challenging a powerful landowner to fulfill his duty for Naomi’s family regardless of how costly it will be for Boaz.

Ruth is rewarded for her love-filled risks: She finds a stable food source for herself and Naomi, she restores Naomi’s honor in Israel, and she herself finds a place among God’s people that will be remembered for all history.

The apostle Paul calls God’s people to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Some might argue that headstrong, risk-taking Ruth is not very submissive. I disagree. She perhaps is not always very compliant, but I nevertheless see her as one who, instead of looking out for her own interests, looks out for the interests of others – a good role model for myself and my selfish tendencies. She submitted to the God of Naomi and discovered how to submit to others while still taking the initiative. She sets a great example for both male and female Spirit-filled followers of Jesus today.

Read the entire story of Ruth – at only 4 chapters,
it’s a quick and exciting read. To dig deeper into this story,
I recommend Carolyn Custis James’s book,
The Gospel of Ruth:
Loving God Enough to Break the Rules
.