Soap

soap

But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. —Malachi 3:2

I recently became curious about what fullers’ soap was. What I discovered was that in Bible times there were people with the occupation of a fuller. A fuller’s job was to use a strong soap and beat or stamp on wool until the impurities had been removed, so that it would be pure white and ready for dying, if desired. The smell of the soap was so strong that the work was done in what was called a fullers’ field outside of the city. The soap fullers used was made of salts mixed with oil and one of two other ingredients: carbonate of soda (what we call baking soda) or borax (a mineral commonly used in insecticides today). This was no Dial soap on the shelf in your shower. This was a harsh cleanser and the process of cleansing was rough on the cloth. But the end result was pristine fabric.

All our impurities, our sins, are removed through the “soap” of Christ’s blood shed for us through the beating of Christ’s back with whips and the stamping of nails into his hands and feet on the cross. This was a harsh process. But the end result was a removal of our transgressions and the purity of our souls.

In Revelation 7:14 Jesus reveals of the people in heaven, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” That is us. We are cleansed and we are purified because of Christ, better than any soap can do. We are cleansed to the depths of our souls.

Trails

trail

I have a few friends who have hiked extended trails like the Appalachian Trail in the eastern United States and the Pacific Crest Trail in the Northwest and West, and I have heard about the Camino de Santiago in France and Spain. The books (and movies) A Walk in the Woods and Wild chronicle the experiences of “through walkers” who made the trek from the beginning to the end of the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail respectively. The movie The Way tells the fictional story of a man who traversed the Camino de Santiago in honor of his wife who passed away.

As you can perhaps tell, I enjoy these stories of long-range hikers. So many things can be learned from their experiences. For instance, it is better to pack light and pick up supplies along the way. The too-heavy backpack can slow you down too much and even cause physical harm. It is always best to rely on the help and advice of those you meet along the way who have been where you are going. And it is good to have your rain gear close at hand.

The parallels to the Christian life are obvious. Jesus himself told us to pack light on our journey of faith. “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics,” Jesus said to his disciples before he sent them on their way (Luke 9:3). The point was for the disciples to become a part of the communities where they stayed and not be loaded down with their own baggage, if you will.

When it came to relying on others, Jesus said: “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. …  And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide” (Luke 10:5-7). It is good for us as Christians to be good guests of those we meet along the way and to take whatever we receive from others with great gratitude. Their wisdom and faith are the “food and drink” that nourish our spirits when we get tired or lost or scared down the road.

As for getting caught in the rain, Jesus makes it clear, “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33). The trail will have trials, no matter what. Getting wet is no fun. Every day will not be a sunny day. But here is the “umbrella” of love Jesus gives to us: “But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). We have Jesus to protect us and cover over us when we encounter any storms in life. His power is greater than any raindrops, thunder or lightning (literally and figuratively speaking) that come our way.

We all are through-walkers in this Christian life as well. We are not called to veer off the path or stop the trip midpoint. We are not to go over, under or around but through whatever lies before us, always trusting in the One who went before us in life and death to save us, always moving forward toward the glory at the end of the trail, where we will find a room prepared with a door ajar that beckons, “Welcome home, good and faithful servant.”

Behold

look closely

It came to my attention recently that when the Bible says, “Behold!” it means “Look!” That’s a good way to put it. But for me it goes even deeper. For me it means, “Look very closely.” Consider well these Bible verses:

And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.” —Genesis 1:29

Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is passing over before you into the Jordan. —Joshua 3:11

Behold, the champion, the Philistine of Gath, Goliath by name, came up out of the ranks of the Philistines and spoke the same words as before. And David heard him. —1 Samuel 17:23

[John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” —John 1:29

And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” —Luke 2:10

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” —John 19:26

These instances where “behold” is used help us to recognize most profoundly the blessings of creation God has given us, the holiness of the presence of God in our midst, the dangers that come our way (as well as our ability to overcome them), the gift of our forgiveness in Christ, the beauty of the message of the Gospel and the rewards of solid relationships with others.

What can you truly behold from God today?

Basalt Columns

basalt columns

I recently saw a picture of basalt columns in Iceland and was amazed by how square and exact the columns were. Upon reading up on why that is, the best answer I can deduce is that it happens because of the nature of heating and cooling melted rock. Basalt is a volcanic rock that at one time was a hot, flowing liquid before a cooling process pulls the molten material toward a center point that forms the rock into hard hexagonal shapes.

Though I still don’t quite get it, I am fascinated by the beauty of this natural phenomenon. It makes me wonder: “If God can make these columns rise up from the ashy substance from a volcano, what else can he do?” A lot, of course. But so often we don’t give God the credit he deserves. We continue to think in our limited minds that we know best or we know how God goes about things.

The psalmist gets it right:

When I consider your heavens,
    the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
    which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them?

You have made them a little lower than the angels
   and crowned them with glory and honor. —Psalm 8:3-5

We are only on this earth by God’s good pleasure. What he does and how he does things are still beyond our fully fathoming. We only get a glimpse of his vast ability and creativity when we see something like basalt columns. Yet this does not mean that he is not aware of us. By his great mercy, he crowns us with undeserved attention and significance. We are like the basalt columns, wondrously created and beautifully designed. And we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those similarly formed as prime examples of what our God can do by his mighty hand.

And marvel of marvels, God even takes the form of a human being in Jesus Christ that all the earth might be redeemed from the ravages of sin by the liquid flow of his blood through his death of the cross, that a rock might miraculous roll away from his tomb to reveal him alive forevermore. Now that’s a rock formation worth celebrating!

Yes, and …

talking

Did you know about something called “yes, and … ” thinking used in improvisational comedy and even in business? It is a rule of thumb that says that a participant in a conversation should accept what another participant has said (“yes”) and then expand on that line of thinking (“and”). It is a way of continuing a dialogue and letting the others in the conversation know that you are listening and paying attention.

It strikes me that “yes, and … ” thinking can be used very effectively in discussing Jesus with others. Say, for instance, that someone says to you, “Jesus is my Savior.” Then you could say in response, “Yes, and he is with you.” Or you could say, “Yes, and he gives you strength.” Or “Yes, and he will guide you.” The list could go on, of course. But the point is that using any number of additional attributes of Jesus in a “yes, and … ” response will lead to more discussion of and expansion on the role of Jesus in our lives. Jesus is not someone you can pigeon-hole in a box and compartmentalize. He permeates through every aspect of your life and thoughts and experiences. Just when you think he is limited to one thing, think again. As the Bible says, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:15-16). Now that’s a lot of “yes, and … ” language! Let us continue to be “yes, and … ” people for Christ.

New Year Visions

new year visions

On the cusp of a new year, we like to envision a fresh start, a change for the better, a bright future. We can so often put all our hopes and dreams on a new year. And there is nothing wrong with doing that, as long as we recognize that life does not always go the way we planned and we may be disappointed on any one of the 365 days to come.

The difference for us as Christians is that we put our hopes and dreams on Christ and not on a particular set of days. Putting our hopes and dreams on Christ opens our minds to the fact that every morning is a new start because of his forgiveness. Every day is a new opportunity to serve him. Every 24-hour period is a gift from our Savior, who died that we might live for him. Yes, there will be troubles, there will be detours, there will be unexpected bumps in the road, but our confidence in our risen Lord assures us that we will grow and learn and become stronger because of his presence with us.

As Ephesians 4:15 tells us, “We are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” No matter what your age, make growing up into Christ your goal for the year. He will make it happen! Happy new year to you all!

Christmas Moments

Christmas moment

There are always those special Christmas moments: children running down the stairs to find presents under the tree; families gathered around the dining table for a delicious dinner; phone calls (and maybe Zoom calls) from distant relatives. I hope and pray your Christmas has included one or more of these moments.

But the most important moment for me on Christmas Day has been when my father reads the Christmas story from Luke 2 from the King James Bible. That moment centers me on what the day is all about: the birth of Jesus and the story of his humble coming among us amid animals and angels, shepherds and straw to save us. The story is not that flashy, but it frames everything we do. Just as God gave us the gift of his Son, we give gifts to one another. Just as shepherds ran to be with Jesus, we travel to be with one another. Just as angels sang in the sky, we speak messages of peace and goodwill through satellite connections in space.

Jesus came at just the right moment that all our moments might be special because of him. Merry Christmas to you all!

Speech Acts

speech acts

The field of linguistics often uses the term speech acts. Speech acts are expressions by a person that not only present information but also perform an action. Speech acts commonly include such things as apologizing, promising, ordering, answering, requesting, complaining, warning, inviting, refusing, and congratulating. We experience speech acts when a couple says, “I do,” to one another in a wedding ceremony, when witnesses swear in court to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, or when we confess our sins in church. Speech acts such as these change the reality of the situation and often require a response from the addressee.

In Genesis, we read of God using speech acts one after the other:

“Let there be light,” and there was light” (Genesis 1:4).

“Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so (Genesis 1:9).

“Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so (Genesis 1:24).

You get the idea. When God speaks, things happen. The same can be said of Jesus who proclaimed: “Be healed,” and people were healed, “You are forgiven,” and sins were removed, “I am with you always,” and he was.

From his very birth Jesus as the Word Made Flesh accomplished that which God purposed and succeeded in the thing for which God sent him (see Isaiah 55:11). And the Word of the Lord is still at work in our world today as pastors say through water and the Word, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The Lord speaks in Holy Communion through the words, “Take and eat; take and drink.” Reality changes through these speech acts: children of earth become children of God; partakers of blessed bread and wine become united with Christ.

The Word of the Lord matters. The Word of the Lord has power. The Word of the Lord speaks into existence what we need most: a relationship with him. Let the Word dwell in you richly (Colossians 3:16).

Homeless Jesus

homeless

On the campus at Valparaiso University is a bronze sculpture called Homeless Jesus, by artist Timothy Schmalz, which depicts Jesus, identifiable by the wounds on his feet, sleeping on a street bench wrapped in a blanket. Other installations are located outside of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson, North Carolina; at Sts. Peter and Paul Jesuit Church in Detroit, Michigan; in downtown Charleston, West Virginia, and on a street leading to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The image is designed to portray the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:35-45, in which he explains that when we care for the sick, poor, naked, hungry, thirsty, imprisoned and strangers, we are really caring for him.

The statue is convicting, when I think about times when I have looked the other way, walked on the other side of the street or turned around completely when I have come near a homeless person. The statue reminds me that Jesus is often present in places where we do not really want to go. Even in our discomfort, we are called by Christ to do such things as say a word of blessing, give a granola bar or bottled water, or provide a gift card to someone we encounter whom we recognize is truly in need.

It is important to stay safe, of course, but it is still vitally important to expand our caring capacity in ways that extend our comfort zones. Jesus himself did not stay at home or steer clear of “the least of these.” He touched lepers. He spoke to beggars. He ate with sinners. No one was beyond his care, and no one should be beyond our care. We must open our eyes to the wounded among us and not shrink back in fear but reach out in faith that God will use each one of us in some way to bring relief to a hurting world, one precious person at a time.

Advent

Advent candles

We are now in the season of Advent, the weeks the Church has set aside to prepare for the birth of Christ on Christmas. What do we do during this time? There are any number of things you can do to get ready for Jesus. Counting down the days on a calendar, lighting candles on an Advent wreath, reading a seasonal devotion each day, attending special worship services in your church are just some of the activities you can engage in.

But the most important thing for you to do is to prepare your heart for Jesus. As the hymn says, “Prepare him room.” What does that mean exactly? It means ridding yourself of those things that have distracted you for the Christ Child—overindulgences on food, TV and smartphone time, for instance. It means clearing more space for thinking about Jesus and praying to him. It means making Jesus a priority in your personal decisions and planning.

When Jesus is at the center of who you are, then what you do will follow in line with his will and his way. As John the Baptist said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). What Jesus wants for you must take precedence over what you want. His life must become the driving force of your life. So Advent becomes a turning over of the reins of your life to Jesus and letting him steer the course of your future.

Advent then is deeper than candles and candy and decorations. It is about faith and trust and total dependency on Christ. It is about becoming a vessel in which he exists and thrives. It is about letting him be mangered in you forever.