Now I lay me down to sleep

A few weeks ago Eric Dirksen from Christ Church of Davis in Davis, California, spoke at Trinity CRC. His text was Acts 7, the stoning of Stephen. How Stephen met his death inspires me in how I live.

As Stephen is dying, he is overheard praying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Eric pointed out a couple things about this prayer. First, this is the same thing Jesus prays just before He died on the cross: “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.” Stephen is so Christlike he imitates Jesus to the very end.

The second thing Eric pointed out is that Jesus did not make up this prayer. It comes from Psalm 31, where the psalmist originally prayed:

Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God.
(verse 5, NRSV)

It turns out that this was (and perhaps remains?) an ancient bedtime prayer for Jewish children. I picture little children rubbing their eyes as they crawl under the blankets and reciting these words. It’s similar to a bedtime prayer Eric learned when he was a child – as did I:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
(attributed to Joseph Addison, 1711)

I cannot help but notice how the author of Acts records Stephen’s death soon after he recites Psalm 31 as his prayer: “When he had said this, he fell asleep.” The idea of sleeping is sometimes used in the Bible to describe death. How appropriate to use this expression for the man who just uttered his bedtime prayer one last time! The prayer he may have regularly prayed before falling asleep each night is the same prayer on his lips before his final sleep and moments before he opens his eyes in new life in Jesus’ presence!

This inspires me in a couple ways. First, I want to be so saturated in the Bible that my dying words echo truth and comfort from that Word. Second, I don’t think I have to wait until my dying breath to commit my spirit (or my mind or my life) to Jesus. As Eric pointed out, I can practice praying this prayer every day. Jesus invites me to entrust every aspect of my life to His direction and care. I believe it’s the best way to spend every waking moment until the last time I fall asleep.

Prayer graphic found via Google

Wildfires

Our family had a great time reconnecting with our parents, siblings, nephews, nieces, and friends in British Columbia this past month. And, as always, I enjoyed being back in the mountains and made the most of opportunities to hike some trails, including the Abby Grind and the Othello Tunnels / Hope-Nicola Valley Trail.

For the last week or so of our vacation, however, the mountains were obscured by smoke of the wildfires still burning in BC. Instead of clear mountain vistas, we often awoke to hazy skies. The wildfires also closed several highways between Prince George and Abbotsford, forcing us to detour over the Yellowhead Highway from Prince George east to Tête Jaune Cache and then south to Kamloops, Hope, Cache Creek wildfire photo from CBCand Abbotsford. We drove past barricaded highways and towns on evacuation alert.

Ashcroft First Nation fire damage photo from CBC

 

 

 

 

 

 

As it so happened, Michael W. Smith’s CD Sovereign provided the soundtrack for part of the drive. As we were driving through Little Fort, a town where the residents had returned following an evacuation but remained on high alert, the song “Sovereign Over Us” started playing with its reminders of God’s strength in our sorrows. These lines were especially appropriate:

You’ve not forgotten us;
You’re with us through the fire and the flood.

The bridge helps us confess:

Even in the valley You are faithful,
You’re working for our good,
You’re working for our good and for Your glory.

Literally and figuratively, God is present with His people in hazy valleys and fiery circumstances. That doesn’t necessarily make traveling through those valleys or enduring the flames easy. But it does assure me that I’m not traveling through them alone.

Lessons in hospitality

Graphic and quote found via Google

I once heard a story about a young college student named Bill. Bill had wild hair, spiked with vivid colors, and wore a nose ring. Bill regularly wore t-shirts with holes in them, blue jeans, and no shoes. Bill, a brilliant young man, became a Christian while attending college. He attended a Christian organization on campus, but he also wanted to find a church.

Across the street from Bill’s college was a conservative, very traditional church filled with well-dressed people. One Sunday Bill decided to visit that church. He walked into the sanctuary with his nose ring, no shoes, jeans and a t-shirt, and wild hair. The service had already started, so Bill walked down the aisle looking for a seat. But the church was packed and he could not find a seat anywhere.

In an uncomfortable silence, people watched Bill make his way to the front of the church. When he realized there were no seats left, he squatted down and simply sat in the aisle next to the first pew.

Although this was perfectly acceptable behavior at his college fellowship group, this had never happened before in this church! The tension in the congregation was palpable. The preacher didn’t know what to do so he stood there in silence.

As Bill was settling down in the aisle, an elderly man, one of the old patriarchs of that church, slowly made his way toward Bill. The man was in his eighties, had silver-gray hair, and always wore a three-piece suit. He was a godly man, very elegant, dignified, traditional, and conservative. As he started walking toward the boy, people wondered what he was going to do. After all, how can you expect a man of his age and of his background to understand some college kid with a nose ring, wild hair, t-shirt and jeans and no shoes, sitting on the church floor? Was he going to whisper in Bill’s ear and ask him to leave? Was he going to squeeze Bill’s shoulder and point him to the door? Was he going to pull Bill out of the church by his nose ring??

Because the old man walked with a cane, it took a long time for him to reach the boy. The church was utterly silent except for the clicking of the old man’s cane. All eyes were focused on him.

Finally, the old man reached the boy. He paused a moment, then dropped his cane on the floor. With great difficulty, the old man lowered himself and sat down next to the boy. He shook the boy’s hand and welcomed him to the church.

::   ::   ::

I’ve read before that the Bible is the story of God’s relentless hospitality towards His creation. My kind hospitality towards others simply reflects the hospitality first extended to me by God Himself. Even if it feels like a world of differences separates me from the other person – whether it’s gender, nationality, skin color, language, or cultural differences – it’s not even close to the huge difference that separated a holy God from sinful humanity. That means the uncomfortable space I perceive between myself and someone different than me is nothing compared to the chasm God bridged in Christ to reach me. To put it a bit differently: I am probably more similar than I realize to the person to whom God is asking me to extend kindness.

The story about Bill and the elderly church member is one of
a couple stories about hospitality from
GettingReadyForSunday.com.
I read the other story a couple weeks ago at Trinity CRC
when I spoke
on 1 Peter 4:7-11 and hospitality.

Order or disorder

Anyone’s who’s been around me for more than 5 minutes knows I’m a very organized person. A couple years ago I posted a devotional written by retired CRC pastor Dale Vander Veen about the virtue and occasional vice of being organized. He accurately expressed how I feel in that piece and has now done so again in a recent devotional titled “Order or Disorder.” I reprint it here with Dale’s kind permission.

::– –::– –::

Two verses in the same chapter speak of order: “God is not a God of disorder, but of order… Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.” I love order – in my flowerbeds, in my study, in my car, in my finances, in my sock drawer, in my closet, on my bookshelves, in my planning for the future.

Recently our son’s family was at our home and I wanted to check on someone from a church we served some years ago. I left the room and returned fifteen seconds later with that church’s pictorial directory. My daughter-in-law exclaimed, “Who but Dad would know that he had that directory – and exactly where it was?” Why wouldn’t I know? What are filing cabinets and folders for anyway?

Graphic found via Google

I think deep down inside that I’m not searching for order as much as for peace. Some people find that too much order robs them of peace, confining them in the anxiety of organization. And I must apologize to those upon whom I have foisted order beyond what they could bear. To such dear friends and family members I say, “Let there be disorder in your life if that brings you peace.” For myself I say, “Let there be order in my life so I may have peace.”

Peace is of greater value than order. I must admit I changed the last word of 1 Corinthians 14:33 above from peace to order. Paul actually wrote, “God is not a God of disorder, but of peace.” God’s ultimate desire for us is not order, but peace. How much better to do what God wants me to do, and let him bring order as he sees best. Even suffering (a disordering experience for most) advances God’s sense of order and peace, for suffering brings perseverance which brings character which brings hope. And it is the God of hope who fills us with all joy and peace.

Let there be order, but above all, let there be peace – the peace of God!

God wins

We are currently working through Revelation in our evening services at Trinity CRC. Revelation is the last book of the Bible, penned by the apostle John as he received a remarkable vision from Jesus himself. For many people it is a “closed” book, very difficult to read and understand. That’s both sad and ironic, considering how the word revelation itself comes from the word revealGraphic found at crosswalk.comand God very much wants to reveal things to us as we read Revelation!

I admit that Revelation is not always the easiest part of the Bible to read. But it’s not as terribly complicated as you might think. The message of Revelation can be summarized in two hope-filled words: “God wins!” Knowing that God currently reigns and will reign forever, his people confidently follow him and serve others. Granted, this is not easy, and Revelation acknowledges that in its vivid descriptions of the forces that distract us from purposeful living grounded in Christ and guided by the Bible. Thankfully, Revelation also shows how God is stronger than all those bad influences combined. What’s more, he is always present with his people, even in the toughest times.

One author who’s helped me understand Revelation a bit better is theologian and preacher Fleming Rutledge. I love this part from her book The Bible and The New York Times:

The book of Revelation has taken a bad rap. Once you get the hang of it, it really isn’t all that difficult. It shouldn’t be left to the David Koresh’s of the world. Almost all reputable interpreters today recognize that Revelation is poetry and liturgy. It is not a Rand McNally map of heaven. It is not a timetable for the end of the world. It is not a “Bible Code.” It is by no means as weird as we have been led to believe. It is full of encouragement, hope, and comfort, especially for oppressed people. When Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa was fighting the good fight against apartheid all those decades, he used to say, “Don’t give up! Don’t get discouraged! I’ve read the end of the book! We win!” The celestial vision arises out of the Revelation of Jesus Christ himself, the Son of God who reigns in heaven and who has drawn back the curtain just for a moment to allow us a glimpse of God’s future. (page 17)

In Christ, we win in the end, no matter how bleak things might sometimes look. My mistakes, brokenness, and sin – even my death – will not have the last word. God will. Personally, that fills me with a lot of hope and gives me purpose today. The next time you have an open Bible in front of you, find some of that hope and purpose for yourself in Revelation.

I wrote this column for this week’s Rock Valley Bee.
I’ve shared the quote from Fleming Rutledge
before.

In good company on a mission

Clouds picture found via Google

Jesus’ resurrection and ascension are Good News. This is a season in the church calendar for joy: I’m filled with joy that Jesus lives and reigns; I’m filled with joy that sin and death no longer have the last word.

But this is also a season emphasizing mission: As Dale Bruner points Matthew - A Commentary (Vol 2) The Churchbook by Frederick Dale Brunerout in his commentary on Matthew, every appearance Jesus makes to His followers after His resurrection includes a call to mission. The Holy Spirit of the living Lord sends me on a mission to where I work, go out for ice cream, and even travel on vacation.

When this sounds overwhelming to me, I remember I’m in good company with the first followers of Jesus.

Maybe I don’t feel bold enough to be part of Jesus’ mission. Well, I’m in good company then. Jesus first gives His commission to go and tell that He’s alive to a group of women who have been (understandably) frightened by a dazzling angel. He later commissions scared disciples hiding in the dark and sad disciples who will watch Him ascend to heaven. The truth is that Jesus equips and sends fear-filled people to free people from fear of alienation, sin, death, and hell.

Maybe I don’t feel qualified enough to be part of Jesus’ mission. Well, I’m still in good company. Jesus appears to and commissions 11 disciples – an incomplete number following Judas’ tragic death. In the Bible, 12 is a perfect number, not 11. But the truth is that Jesus equips and sends imperfect people to do His perfect work.

Maybe I don’t feel official enough to be part of Jesus’ mission. Guess what? I’m in good company. The Gospels refer to the disciples being commissioned by Jesus – no mention (yet) of specific leaders, church officers, or even the more official title of apostles. It’s simple people known as disciples who Jesus sends on mission. And that is all a Christian should ever want to be – a disciple. So the truth is that Jesus equips and sends ordinary people to do His extraordinary work.

Maybe I don’t feel spiritual enough to be part of Jesus’ mission. By now you’re not surprised to hear I’m in good company. Jesus first commissions a group of doubters. It’s not just Thomas, but a bunch of them who have doubts mixed in with their worship. But Jesus remains patient and forgiving: He does not divide up His disciples into two groups – commissioning those who believe and worship while telling those who fear or doubt to come back later when they have their acts together. No, in the Gospels, all are commissioned, leading me to see how Jesus’ sending power is far greater than His disciples’ faults and failings. The truth remains that Jesus equips and sends unsure and uncertain people to do His sure and certain work.

Maybe I don’t feel authorized enough to be part of Jesus’ mission. Again, I’m in good company with those feelings. I think about how the very first people to be sent on mission by Jesus are women. Today that’s no big deal, but in Jesus’ day, a woman’s testimony did not count in the law courts of the land. Women were not allowed to stand as witnesses. Everyone would’ve said that as women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary are poor choices as the very first witnesses and testifiers of Jesus’ resurrection. Yet the women are the first ones commissioned by the angel at the tomb to go and tell. Then they meet Jesus Himself who again confirms they are indeed the ones to go and tell the Good News. Throughout the Gospel, Acts, and the letters, we see women serving and proclaiming the Good News in wonderful ways. Still today the truth is that Jesus equips and sends all His sisters and brothers of all ages and cultures to do His work that enfolds everyone regardless of gender, age, and culture.

Jesus is raised from the dead and now reigns over all. This fills me with joy. It also sends me and all Jesus’ followers on a mission. The command “Go and tell” is for each of us. That’s joy and the mission of this resurrection and ascension season.