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Here at Connections, we believe in the Bible.  We affirm what it says.  So when Ephesians 2:8 and 9 says “For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — not from works, so that no one can boast.”, that’s what we believe, that’s what we live by.  We cannot earn our way into Heaven.

And that’s what Martha believed, too. But let me tell you, she had such a servant’s heart that you might think she was leaning towards getting to Heaven by her works.

She participated in the Walk for Life, one of the ways our church supports the local Pregnancy Care center.

We have pictures of her when the church went to pack food for hungry kids in Africa, about ten years ago.

She helped prepare communion, back pre-covid when we had trays instead of individual servings.  I have a voicemail from her, letting my wife and I know how that week’s preparations went.

She had her own coupon ministry, where she would get coupons out of the Sunday paper and give them to people.  Not just randomly – she knew what people liked and targeted the coupons to them.

She had a deviled egg ministry.  Whenever we had a carry-in dinner at the church, everybody knew not to take deviled eggs, because sure as anything Martha was going to!

She could receive as well as give.  One time the youth of the church were distributing pumpkin pies.  It would have been around this time of year, though I don’t remember which year, but she was appreciative.  And after she had moved into assisted living, the church swung by and sang her some Christmas carols – and again, even though she was starting to lose her faculties, she was very grateful and thankful.

It wasn’t just the physical things.  After one of our ladies was in a bad car accident, the women’s group was praying.  Martha replied “Thank you for the update.  I have been praying for her almost hourly.  I have her name on my kitchen table and when I pass it I pray for her.”

I don’t know Martha’s Bible reading habits.  I’m sure she had read the passage I opened with, and I’m sure she read the very next verse, Ephesians 2:10.  “For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.”

And that is the Martha Downing I remember, trusting in Jesus through faith, and always walking in the good works that God had prepared for her.

Brian recommended a book to me. I got it and started reading. It is science fiction, full of good guys and bad guys, and rocket ships and space aliens. A week later he asked me how it was. “I haven’t finished it yet.” “Oh, where are you in it?” 

Surprisingly, this was a hard question. The book was really good, and every other page there was a major event that made everything before pale to insignificance. Where I was at that point wouldn’t be as significant as where I’d be two pages down the road. So I told him “about fifty pages in” and left it at that. 

The next time I saw him, it was a quarter through, then a half, and right now I’m about three quarters done. 

Then I started thinking about the best book I ever read, one I’m part of. I have no idea if I’m sixty percent through my own story, or 95%,or 99.99%. And the bigger story I’m a part of, human history as recorded in the Bible, I have no idea how far along that is. No man knows the day. 

The Bible’s story doesn’t have rockets or aliens. It does have good guys and bad guys, and angels and miracles. It has parts that seem boring – genealogy lists, census reports, and real estate boundary documents. Those parts are important, even if they don’t seem exciting.  It has exciting parts – Daniel and the lion’s den, Samson, Noah’s ark. But the biggest, most important thing happens just over half-way through. There are clues before, and explanations after. 

Isaiah 53:5 says “But He was pierced because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on Him, and we are healed by His wounds.”

Luke 2, from 10 and 11: “I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today a Savior, who is Messiah the Lord, was born for you in the city of David”

From Hebrews 12, 1 and 2: “Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that lay before Him endured a cross and despised the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne.”

There is one exciting part still in the future. From Revelation 5, verses 5 and 9 and 12: “The Lion from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has been victorious so that He may open the scroll and its seven seals.  And they sang a new song. You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because You were slaughtered, and You redeemed people for God by Your blood from every tribe and language and people and nation.  They said with a loud voice: The Lamb who was slaughtered is worthy to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing!” 

And the best thing is that this story is true, and each one of us has a part in the story. Let’s pray. 

Father God, thank You for giving Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. Thank You that He didn’t live His life for excitement, but for obedience. As we take the bread and drink the juice, symbolizing His body and blood, remind us that we are called first to be Christ followers. We are offered joy and peace, not necessarily excitement. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Maybe you have heard this in your house: “whatever you want”. And you probably know that simple words like that can have multiple meanings, depending on what’s behind them. 

In the book of Isaiah, God is speaking to King Ahaz through the mouth of Isaiah the prophet. Chapter 7,verses 11 and 12. “Ask the LORD your God for a sign of confirmation, Ahaz. Make it as difficult as you want—as high as heaven or as deep as the place of the dead.”  But the king refused. “No,” he said, “I will not test the LORD like that.”

God replied, in verse 14, “All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’).”  You might have heard that before. 

This sounds wonderful – the king acknowledging God like that, and God prophesying the birth of Jesus. But if we look into the backstory a little, King Ahaz wasn’t honoring God. Ahaz was a bad king, making metal idols, setting up altars to himself, stealing the utensils of the temple to hire an army, even sacrificing his sons to other gods. So when Ahaz said “whatever you want”, he was really telling God to take a hike. 

Now let’s take a look at another “whatever you want”, with a different meaning behind the words. Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before His crucifixion. He’s talking to the same God that Ahaz spoke to. But it’s different. Matthew 26,verses 39 and 42.

He went on a little farther and bowed with his face to the ground, praying, “My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want Your will to be done, not mine.”

Then Jesus left them a second time and prayed, “My Father! If this cup cannot be taken away unless I drink it, Your will be done.”

That isn’t someone telling God “Go away, don’t bother me”. That’s someone saying “Father God – Dad – I know what’s coming up, and I know it’s going to hurt bad. I’m going to be physically murdered, painfully, and then I’m going to be separated from you for the first time in literally forever. I would really prefer not to do that, to be scourged and then crucified, and go to Hell for somebody else’s sins. But I know You love Me, and You absolutely know what’s best, so Your will be done.”

And Jesus meant it when He said “whatever you want”. He went to the cross to pay the penalty for my sins and your sins. That is what we are remembering right now, with the wafer and the juice representing His body and His blood. Let’s pray. 

Father God, You hear the words and You know the heart. King Ahaz died and was buried, end of story except to be a bad example. Jesus died and was buried, rose again on the third day, and ascended to Heaven where He sits at Your right hand, reigning in glory. Thank You for Your everlasting love. In Jesus’ name, amen. 

Did you ever stop to think about stones? God did – He made them, so He must have thought about them.  And I think He likes stones, because He made a lot of them. 

Stones in the Bible have lots of uses – walls, altars, seats, even pillows.  I want to look at four stones or sets of stones – two around King David, and two around Jesus.

1 Samuel 17, verse 40.  Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.  And then verse 49: Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground.   

Good for David, good for the Israelites, good for God.

Then in Second Samuel 16, King David’s son Absolom has gotten friendly with the population, and is having a revolution to take over the throne.  David is running away before he gets killed.   Verses 5 and 6: As King David approached Bahurim, a man from the family of the house of Saul was just coming out. His name was Shimei son of Gera, and as he approached, he kept yelling out curses. He threw stones at David and at all the servants of the king, though the troops and all the mighty men were on David’s right and left.   

Unsurprisingly, his military commanders wanted to kill Shimei.  David says “no”.  Verse 10: But the king replied, “What have I to do with you, O sons of Zeruiah? If he curses me because the LORD told him, ‘Curse David,’ who can ask, ‘Why did you do this?’ ”

With Jesus, the most famous stone is the one that covered His tomb after He died, that an angel rolled away when He was resurrected.

There’s some advice I’ve heard about reading the Bible, and that’s “Always look for Jesus”.  For the last stone, we’re going to go back to the Old Testament, and it will be easy to find Him.  Ezekiel 11, verses 19 and 20: I will give them integrity of heart and put a new spirit within them; I will remove their heart of stone from their bodies and give them a heart of flesh, so that they will follow my statutes, keep my ordinances, and practice them. They will be my people, and I will be their God.   

Now that was written about the Israelites.  That heart of flesh wouldn’t last – they had to keep going back to the Temple, to offer annual sacrifices for their sin.  It took Jesus, the perfect sinless sacrifice, to make that sacrifice once and for all, to make it permanent. 

And that’s what we are celebrating now, with the wafer and the juice, that all Christians are invited to partake of.  The emblems represent the body and the blood of the One who could take away a heart of stone, and give us a heart of flesh.  Let’s pray.

Father God, I thank you for the gift of Your only begotten Son, Jesus Christ.  I am sorry for my sin that caused Him to have to go to the cross.  And I am so thankful that I have a heart of flesh because of His sacrifice.  The whole plan – giving us choices, having a payment for our sin from One who never sinned, and the Holy Spirit living within us after baptism – it’s inconceivable from a human perspective, and it’s perfect.  Because You are perfect, and You love us.  In Jesus’ name, amen.

The Bible tells us in Ephesians 5:19 that we are to “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”.  Good advice – it’s hard to go wrong when you’re following the Bible.

Dominic and I share a common interest in a Christian band named Waterdeep.  They use a lot of scripture in their songs.  On their album Everyone’s Beautiful is a track called Psalm 131.  And – no surprise here – they use the words of Psalm 131.  In the New King James it says

Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor my eyes lofty. Neither do I concern myself with great matters, nor with things too profound for me. Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with his mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forever.

And that sounds wonderful and mellow, the mother and the child, peaceful, serene.  But if you think about how they got to this place, it may not have been so peaceful.  All the child has known is being nourished by his mother.  Cuddling, eating, going to sleep, and repeating as often as the child wants.  Then one day Mom effectively says “No more – that’s it.  From today, you’re eating big people’s food.”  The peaceful child would react – vocally, perhaps with a temper tantrum, perhaps acting out or being disagreeable.  Not fun, not pretty.  He’s probably mad at his Mom.

But you know what?  Mom wins.  In the struggle over supper tonight, the kid is either going to eat from a plate or bowl, or he’s going to be hungry.  That’s how it’s going to turn out.

And eventually the little boy discovers that there can be some good things on that plate, that there are other food sources besides Mom.  And the child is weaned, and then the mother can accept him back, and the little boy has a smile as he is cuddled by Mom.

David, in the Psalm, isn’t talking about the weaning process, that difficult transition time.  He’s talking about being weaned in the past, and now relating to his mother differently.  David says “I have calmed and quieted my soul”, as opposed to allowing external events to take control.

We face the same sort of decisions with our Maker, with God the Father.  Do we want to accept that external, perfect truth, even though we may not understand?  Jesus said “Not My will, but Thine”.  He understood, and trusted.  Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, as we come to the time of communion, we may have some troubles or concerns inside of us.  Let us, with David, calm our souls.  Help us to remember the sacrifice of Jesus as we take the emblems, the wafer and juice representing His body and blood. Thank You for talking to us throughout the whole Bible.  Thank you for Jesus. In His name, amen.

My Mom died seven weeks ago today. I was able to fly to Arizona and see her before she passed, talk to her, pray with her. 

And then I lived with my Dad until the memorial service last weekend, and flew back this week. 

Part of what I did with my Dad was technical stuff – setting up a new computer and new cell phone, getting a new printer and house phone. Part of it was deciding about my Mom’s stuff – clothes, books, craft things. 

And part of it was getting the house livable. 

When I got there, the fridge was full. Open the door and it was solid. Not shaky – nothing fell out. But nothing could go in. 

I knew that wasn’t right – two people cannot completely and usefully fill a fridge. I’m not going to give details, but after I got done, there was room in the fridge. Space on shelves, visibility to the back wall – it was beautiful. 

But how did it get like that? My Dad had a couple rough months, with my Mom in and out of different hospitals in different cities. The fridge just didn’t rank high enough in his list of priorities. I get that. 

But I also know that time passes and things go bad no matter how busy you are – and it gets worse the busier you are. 

So we are at the time of communion. 1 Corinthians 11:28 says “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” This is talking about your own fridge, your own stacked-full shelves and drawers. Don’t remember that special dinner from two months ago? See it for what it is – old, spoiling leftovers. Don’t hang onto a thing if it isn’t doing anything good, if it isn’t good. See things with new eyes, with Jesus’ eyes. Every time of communion, every prayer, can be a fresh start. Let’s pray. 

Father God, thank you for the encouragement, for your redemptive power to make all things new. In Jesus’ name, amen. 

I was thinking the other day about ones and twos.  One cat, two cats.  One dog, two dogs. It kind of breaks when you get to one fish, because it’s also two fish, or a school of fish.  Fish are different.

And then there is the United States.  It’s not really as big of a jump as it seems.  Just like you can’t tell from the word whether “fish” is singular or plural, some people think the United States is singular – “The United States is”.  Some people think it’s plural – “The United States are”.  Sometimes it depends on the context – looking outside can be different than looking within the borders.  And sometimes it depends on who you’re talking to – a big believer in states’ rights is much more likely to see the plural, as opposed to somebody who’s in favor of a big federal government.

All those things are examples, helping us to start thinking about important things like the church.  Ephesians 5:23 says “Christ also is the head of the church”, so that’s pretty clear.  And Colossians 1:8 says “He is also head of the body, the church”.  We have Jesus as the head and the church as the body.  One head, one body.  But wait – are we part of the same body as that church around the corner, that church down the road?  That megachurch in California? Well, only if you believe the Bible.

And that means when you read First Corinthians 12:16, which says “And if the ear says, “I am not part of the body because I am not an eye,” would that make it any less a part of the body?”, you should think about your place in this church, Connections Christian Church.  And you should think about the place of Connections in relation to all the other parts of the body.

Then we start applying this same thinking in hard ways.  First Corinthians 12:27 says “As for you, you are the body of Christ, and individually you are members of it”. Is that true? When you think of yourself and Jesus Christ, do you think single or plural? Integrated and one, or a duality? First Corinthians 11:28-29 says “Each one must examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.”

If that makes you scared, congratulations. You have started to understand Philippians 2:12 – “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling”. But notice that it says to continue – you aren’t coming into this as an outsider, because Jesus Christ, the head of the church and the head of you, gave himself as a sinless sacrifice on the cross. First Timothy 4:10 says “we have set our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, that is, of those who believe”. That’s you and me, because of the body and blood of Jesus.  Let’s pray.

Father God, I remember the Shema. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord is one”. You don’t want division, disunity. The world was created as one, and then separated by sin. Jesus’ sacrifice, which we celebrate now with the wafer and the juice, brought the hope of salvation, the hope of unity to all of mankind. Thank You for the gift of Your only begotten Son, Jesus. In His name I pray, Amen.

Communion Meditation 2021-09-12

Yesterday was the twenty-year anniversary of 9/11, when terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and into a field in Pennsylvania.  That was a terrible, tragic event, one that I hope never happens again.

The whole country, the whole world, was alarmed, very watchful, on high alert – and rightfully so.  Everybody was glued to their news sources – television, radio, newspapers – for days on end, wanting to find out more, to understand what had happened.

Which brings me to my own twenty-year anniversary, which is today.  On September 12th, twenty years ago today, I was scheduled to have my gall bladder removed.  We had confirmed that yes, the surgery was going to go forward.  So I went.

My memory is a little hazy, because of the anesthesia, but my recollection is that everybody, from the receptionist up to the surgeon, was watching the TV.  The nurse feeding me jello afterwards would kind of aim the spoon at my mouth and let me finish the action, because she was looking elsewhere.

Did this concern me, make me wonder about the quality of the surgery I had just gotten?  Yes, it did – but without reason.  As distracted as they might have been, the doctor and nurses were still professionals.  They got their job done, regardless of the cost.  They may have had relatives or friends on the planes, or in the buildings, but they did what they needed to do.

And that makes me think of Jesus.  He had a task – to do God’s will.  That included living a perfect, sinless life, and dying on the cross without guilt.  He gathered and taught the disciples across years, teaching and correcting them. He had one job, and he did it perfectly.  Was it easy?  No – He was tempted in every way, just as we are – but He resisted temptation.  Did He want to pour out His blood on the cross?  No, He prayed the exact opposite.  Did He do His Father’s will?  Yes.  Hebrews 12:2 says “For the joy set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” He did the job, He ran the race, He won the prize.  That is what we are remembering now, with the bread and the juice.  Let’s pray.

Father God, You loved and still do love Your Son.  You loved and still do love us.  Thank you for having Jesus show us the way, and pay the price for our salvation.  In His name I pray, Amen.

I wish I was a dog.

I was having one of those whiny, gripey woe-is-me moments, thinking life was unfair, and then I realized that dogs have many advantages.  They get fed on a regular basis, and sometimes get scraps from the table.  They get to go for walks with their owner.  And even at the end of their lives, they aren’t worried, because they trust their owner. Wonderful.

Then I started to count my blessings.  I do have ready food, and choose when I want to eat.  I don’t get scraps from the table – I have a seat at the table.  Dogs lying around most of the day is overrated – ask anybody who has spent quantity time in the hospital.

And then, as He does, God moved my thoughts into the spiritual realm.  That table that I have a seat at – it could be anything from David’s “Thou preparest a table before me, in the presence of my enemies” to Revelation’s marriage supper of the Lamb.  Going for walks with my owner – well, the great theologian Merle Haggard put it like this:

I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on roses
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The son of God discloses

And he walks with me and he talks with me
And He tells me I am His own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known

The leash that dogs wear?  Jesus said “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light”.  All through my life, and at the moment of my death, and for all eternity, the Holy Spirit is there, comforting and guiding.

And all this is because although I am a creation of God, like dogs are, I am much more than that.  I am made in His image.  And because I have accepted the gift of salvation, I am a child of God.

So, my life, as it exists right now, even with burdens and cares, is much, much better than a dog’s life.  “This is the day that the Lord has made.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”.  And why rejoice?  Because of God’s love for us, expressed through Christ and His sacrifice.  Jesus was willingly obedient, by choice, by love, to die for my sins and yours, to ensure that the end of our lives would not be the end of our life with God.  Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, as we celebrate communion with wafer and juice representing Christ’s body and blood, I thank You for the indescribable gift of salvation.  Your ways are not our ways.  Like Job, I sometimes need to put my hand over my mouth.  I know You love us, and You have plans to give us hope and a future, plans established in time immemorial.  Help me to seek Your will here and now, not wish for something not in Your plan.  In Jesus’ name I pray, amen.

Remember being in junior high school – everybody was against you, and nobody would let you do anything you wanted?  If only you could be in high school, because they could do anything, even drive when they got old enough.

Remember being in high school – nobody would let you do what you wanted?  You were an adult, almost, and you should be able to make your own decisions.  If only you could graduate right now, and then go to college or get a job, and everything would be perfect.

Remember being in your first job, thinking about how you didn’t have enough money to do what you wanted, how you had to live in a little apartment or with your parents, and thinking to the future where you would be rich and could do anything you want?  Get married, buy a car, buy a house – the possibilities are endless.

This sounds a little like “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” –  and there’s some truth to that.  Certain parts of other people’s lives can look appealing, but we don’t always see the whole picture.

But this isn’t a “be peaceful and accept your lot in life” meditation.  There’s some truth to that, too – but that goes against the Proverbs 31 wife.  Verse 16 says “She goes to inspect a field and buys it; with her earnings she plants a vineyard.”.  That isn’t passive.

I am not recommending some sort of middle ground, where sometimes you’re active and sometimes you’re passive, based on a coin flip or doing what you want.

John 5:19 says “Truly, truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing by Himself, unless He sees the Father doing it. For whatever the Father does, the Son also does.”  And that’s what Jesus does.  He has His own wishes and desires – praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, He said “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me.”.  He knew it was going to hurt.  And He knew that the physical pain wasn’t going to be the worst part.

But that isn’t where Jesus stopped.  You all know that He continued “nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.” Jesus could have had anything He wanted – that is how Satan tempted Him. But Jesus, though He had a choice, did His Father’s will.

And that is what we are celebrating now – the death of Jesus on the cross, in the body and blood represented with the wafer and the juice, and the resurrection on the third day that gives us hope.  Let’s pray.

Father God, Jesus showed us how to live perfect lives.  He was in fellowship with You, and it cost Him His life, and gave us eternal life.  Help us to live not wanting more, but wanting Your perfect will.  In Jesus’ name, amen.

Communion meditation June 6, 2021

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