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Sunday, July 28, 2019

“Hope in God…”

A sermon based upon Psalm 42, CEB
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
July 28th, 2019

Why, I ask myself, are you so depressed? Why are you so upset inside?
(Ps. 42:11 CEB). Why? I’ll tell you why.  It’s can be a depressing world out there.

You pick up a paper or turn on the evening news and what do we encounter daily, but death, disaster, pain, misery, despair?  The stories that make news seem to be constantly about disaster, violence, abuse, struggle, corruption, or it’s about those daily, personal obituary notices.   I recall asking my Father what he was reading in the paper.  He told me there was nothing worth reading but the obituaries.  How depressing!  A person told me recently that he stopped watching the news for mental health reasons!
The Psalm we are considering today is about what we all experience, at least at certain times in our lives.  Somewhere, even on a good day, there are always those who have hurting, aching, yearning and even depressed hearts and souls.  Here, in our text today, the psalmist pictures himself, like a deer, frantic, exhausted, having run from danger through a barren, parched desert, now craving for, searching for, as the old devotionals called it, ‘streams in the desert’.  This is, the psalmist says, how ‘my whole being craves” for God. 
If your honest, we’ve all been to such a barren place.  We’ve all yearned and craved for meaning, purpose, hope, and of course, to be sure that God is there.  We’ve all been in this negative space, unless, that is, we are still living in denial or we’ve found a way to try to numb and deaden ourselves.  Life can surely be depressing at times.  God can seem absent.  Sometimes it seems like nothing matters at all.  Even in the summer, when the weather is nice, the grass is green, and the pool is warm, and you’ve got a nice glass of iced tea in your hand; in spite of all that is good, glorious and wonderful in your life at the moment, life can still hurt, it can still get dark, and you may sometimes wonder to yourself, as the Psalmist does, asking himself, where is God

What I want to consider is how the Psalmist dealt with the negative feelings that arose within.  Now, please understand, I’m not a medical doctor, nor a psychiatrist, or a legally licensed counselor.  I have had professional training in psychology and pastoral counseling to know when to refer; to discern the difference between having occasional negative feelings or having a more serious, chemically induced depression.  “Clinical Depression” may require not only extended sessions of professional counseling, but may also need medications prescribed by a medical doctor.  I have an adopted daughter who was medically diagnosed with what is also called “Manic Depression”.   I know a lot more than I want to know about what it means for a person to be chemically, chronically, and genetically depressed, so that no amount counseling or therapy that will help without some sort of medicine.  If negative feelings occur too often, or if it interferes with how you should be able to live your life, then you need to be recommended to see a doctor, not only a preacher or a counselor.  

The feelings this Psalm addresses are not chronic, but occasional.    The Psalmist speaks of certain times when we are ‘upset inside’; when the ‘tears come’.  Like when are made fun of, or when we feel like the world is against us.  What do we do when life gets dark, difficult, and depressing?  Do we deny these feelings?  Do we, as some do, drink to forget?  Do we bury ourselves in distractions, drugs, or resort to scanning social media?  Getting lost in unhealthy choices can make life even more depressing, then, actually changing the chemical make-up of your brain.  In other words, without facing your demons, and without tackling the ‘black dog’ of depression, you can find yourself at an even darker place.

So, what are the kinds of healthy, spiritual habits that we can follow, especially when we feel depressed?  How did the Psalmist work through a day that he would like to forget, but it hung over him like a very dark cloud?

If you haven’t noticed, this Psalm was not originally written to be read, but it was originally written as a song, to be sung.  Did you notice that it is addressed ‘to the music leader, to direct the ‘sons of Korah?  That sounds a lot like the German word for Choir: Chor.  The ‘sons of Korah’ were the both the choir and the orchestra in ancient Israel.  Interestingly, they were descendants of their forefather, Korah, who rebelled against God and followed idols, but the ‘sons of Korah were spared (Numbers 26: 9-11).  They certainly had something to sing about, and ultimately, this became their role in Israel’s worship, to lead the people in making music to the praise of God.

Now, it might sound a bit strange to our ears; to sing about being depressed, empty, and thirsting for God.  It sounds strange because most of our songs in our hymnals don’t acknowledge this ‘dark side’ of life.   Most of our spiritual songs tend to be written to lift us up, rather than help us face describe in spiritual terms, how we might feel when are when we are down and out.   You know how some of our great hymns go: “What a Fellowship, what a Joy Divine!  Leaning on the Everlasting Arms!”  Great song!   We certainly do need to ‘lean on his everlasting arms, especially when we feel depressed!  Another great song is “Love Lifted Me” : “I was sinking, beneath the waves, far from the peaceful shore…”  The song tells does a good job at telling it like it was, but it doesn’t dwell much on how it is, how it can still be, even after his love has ‘lifted’ us, and we feel like we’re sinking down into sin or sadness again.  What do we do then?  

Another great cheerful song is “Joyful, Joyful, we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of love, Hearts unfold like flowers before thee, opening to the sun above.’  Again, a great song, and we do need to keep singing these songs, especially when we are feeling down.   They can really help to ‘melt the clouds of sin and sadness’.  They can help to ‘drive the dark of doubt away.’  Through music, as Henry van Dyke’s song says, God is ‘giver of immortal gladness’ to ‘fill us with the light’ and to call us to ‘rejoice’ and to ‘lift us’ up to ‘the joy divine’. 

Music is one of the most important, universal, human and divine gifts, that helps us deal with the dark places of life.  But what we encounter in this Psalm is a different kind of song, that might even sound too depressing to be sung.   How can we be cheered up when we are singing a sad song? 

Well, interestingly, while there may not be very many ‘sad songs’ in our hymnal, there are an awful lot of sad songs out there in the world, and people want to, and perhaps even need to hear them too.  Have you ever wondered why people like to sing songs like, ‘heartbreak hotel’?
“Since my baby left, I’ve found a new place to dwell,
Down at the end of lonely street they call ‘heartbreak hotel’. 
I get so lonely baby, I get so lonely, I get so lonely, I could die.”
That song goes on, with words that are even more prophetic:
Although its always crowded, you can still find a room,
For the broken hearted… to cry away the gloom.
I get so lonely baby, I get so lonely, I could die.”

Or what if you are a country music fan, you can find the same kind of song, like the song Merle Haggard recorded,
“Sing Me a Sad Song, sing it as blue as I feel,
If a tear should appear, it’s because she’s not here
Sing me a sad song, sing it for me…  
And even stranger the song continues;
Sing me a song of sadness, pretend it’s the end of the world,
Sing it sweet, and sing it low,  and then I’ll have to go.
Sing a sad song and sing it for me.
And what did they call the title for the Biography of the Life of the first breakthrough country artist, Hank Willaims?  “Sing a Sad Song!”   Folks, I’m not making this up.  And what’s the saddest song Hank Williams every wrote?  Get ready, this is not pretty, but it’s how many people still try to deal with and wrongly ‘medicate’ their sadness.  The song goes: “There's a tear in my beer, 'cause I'm cryin' for you, dear, you are on my lonely mind. Into these last nine beers I have shed a million tears. You are on my lonely mind I'm gonna keep drinkin' until I'm petrified. And then maybe these tears
will leave my eyes.”

Now, that’s very depressing, and even dangerous too.  You do know that Hank Williams died at age 29!  But the tunes were catchy, weren’t they?  And there still a long of sad, depressing songs, that people still stream and listen to.  Why on earth do people want to hear a ‘sad song’?  I’ll tell you why, and it’s not just the rhymes and rhythms.  People need to hear a sad song because we are need to know that we are not alone in our struggles, and that we are all in this together.  Especially, when we come to a dark, difficult place, we need to know that someone else has been there, where we are now.

While there are not many ‘sad’ songs in our hymnals, like on the airwaves, I did encountered several in the German hymnals we used in Germany.  In those hymnals, there a lot of very candid, honest, questioning songs that didn’t always end on a high noe.  They often ended in minor or dissonant tones, rather than major keys.  They still had the uplifting songs, too, but do you know why they included the sad ones too?  Europeans Christians had lived through some very dark, depressing, and difficult times; like two world wars.  But most of these songs went all the way back to an even darker war, that lasted 30 years, when Christians were at war against each other; when Catholics were killing Protestants, and Protestants were killing Catholics.  It was a difficult, dark time for the Christian faith, and it’s part of the reason that Christianity has died in Europe.  The people who did not learn to ‘sing’ through their pain, lost their faith and it never returned.

One of the important things those ‘sad’ songs did for those who kept their faith, is to help them to be honest with their deepest feelings of doubt and frustration.  This is something that was not just part of old Germany, but it was also true among the Psalmist and among the biblical prophets, who were not afraid to bring their questions directly to God.  

We often need to be reminded that much of the Psalms and all the Bible is not simply about finding answers, but its also about asking the right kind of questions.  The prophets were very honest in their approach to God, often asking God ‘why’, about as much as they returned to tell the people ‘how’ they should live.  “How Long”.  “My God, My God Why?”  Where are you God?  As verse 9, says, sounding just like Jesus, or should I say, sounding like where (cp. Psalm 22:1) Jesus found his own words for his cross: “I will say to God, my rock, why have your forgotten me?”

Do you notice, that even when the Psalmist feels forgotten or forsaken, he still calls God ‘my rock’.  He is not cursing God in this Psalm, but he is talking to God; he is talking to himself, and he is praying.  He is doing what anyone should do when they are down cast, depressed, and sad.  They shouldn’t hold it in, but they should find a way to express it, to sing it, to say it, or to pray about it.  They should, we should, as the great old hymn says, “Take it to the Lord in Prayer!”

Isn’t this what prayer is supposed to be.  Prayer is not simply saying nice religious words, nor is it magic words that make everything alright, or words that force God to give us what we need or want.  No, prayer, more than anything else is what we should do, as dependent, breakable, and fallible human beings.  We should ‘take’ our deepest longings, hurts, and cravings to God.  We should not keep them to ourselves.  We should not bury them deep in our hearts.  We should, as the Israelites did, just before God delivered them in the Exodus,  we must ‘cry out’ our ‘grief’ to God; not because God must hear it, nor simple to hear ourselves whine, but we ‘take it to the Lord in prayer’ so that we can, as the book of Peter says, ‘cast our care upon him’ to be reassured that ‘he cares for us’, even when in the moment, it seems like he doesn’t, or he’s far away.  This is the way Satan works on our minds, Peter continues.  Then Peter says something I think this Psalmist doing by writing and asking this song to be sung and prayed by the people together.  Peter wrote:  “Resist….stand firm in the faith.  Do so in the knowledge that your fellow believers are enduring the same kind of suffering throughout the world….” Then Peter gives some very remarkable words, that point directly to what the Psalmist is saying:  After you have resisted, and stood firm, knowing that others are with you,  then ‘the God of all grace, the one who called you into his eternal glory in Christ Jesus, will himself restore, empower, strengthen, and establish you.” (1 Peter. 5: 7-10)

When Peter uses the word ‘resist’ he means exactly what the Psalmist is implying with this Psalm.  When the dark moments come, when the ‘black dog’ is pulling on your leg, then fight back.  Don’t give up, don’t give in, but resist the devil, resist the darkness, because the light of hope and fullness of God’s presence will return.

Again, sometimes, if we have chronic bouts of depression, we may need medicine to help us, but please know, that even the best psychiatrists know that ‘meds’ can’t do it alone.  You have to want to get better.  You have to fight against the down moods.  You have to do your part in having faith, and putting up a good fight.   But what does that mean to fight against the darkness, the loneliness, or the against the feelings that God is not there?  

In her wonderful book of sermons, “Gospel Medicine”, Barbara Taylor wrote about what the prophet Isaiah wrote in Isaiah 58, when he echoed what the people where saying when they fasted and prayed, and God was silent; either absent, or not willing to answer.  "Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?"  Dr. Taylor speaks of the time we too have a story to tell, like Israel sometimes told, when have prayed, ‘even prayed for all its worth’, but nothing happened.  Taylor goes on to say that “God’s silence is especially stunning for those who like to talk a lot.”  How do we begin to ‘fight against’ feelings like this, feelings of darkness and disillusionment?  She suggests that we start, exactly here, by taking apart the word, ‘dis-illusionment’; which mean the ‘loss of an illusion’.   And often we need to start right where God started, by confronting the illusion of his own people.  The answer God gave to ‘why’ God doesn’t take notice, or ‘where’ God is wait a minute, you want me to be close, then why don’t you move closer to me?  God says, through the prophet: “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers (Isa. 58:3 NRS).  Maybe the reason they couldn’t find God, was because they were not willing to go where God was.  As someone has said, “It’s a great mistake to think that God is chiefly interested in religion’.  God is much more interested in how we live our lives every day; how we treat our neighbors, our family, our friends, our co-workers and especially those under our care.  If you want to know where God is go, where God is; don’t wait for God to come to you. Listen to what the prophet prescribed for how to ‘fight’ against the dark feelings.  These words are more telling than anything I can say to you:
Isn't it sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house, covering the naked when you see them, and not hiding from your own family?    
8 Then your light will break out like the dawn, and you will be healed quickly. Your own righteousness will walk before you, and the LORD's glory will be your rear guard.
 9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and God will say, "I'm here." If you remove the yoke from among you, the finger-pointing, the wicked speech;
 10 if you open your heart to the hungry, and provide abundantly for those who are afflicted, your light will shine in the darkness, and your gloom will be like the noon.
 11 The LORD will guide you continually and provide for you, even in parched places. He will rescue your bones. You will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water that won't run dry (Isa. 58:7-11 CEB).

Isn’t the Prophet’s prescription for dark feelings of God’s absence and silence, exactly what the Psalmist means in verse in verse 7, when he writes about ‘deep calling to deep’ so that “By day the LORD commands his faithful love; by night his song is with me-- a prayer to the God of my life (Ps. 42:8 CEB).  The point the Psalmist makes is more than good advice.  The Psalmist is reminding us of what you should already know; that when you are with God who commands his faithful love by day; that is who calling us to live in the light of that love, by doing good, right and needful things, like reaching out to help those who are hurting around you, then ‘by night his song’ will be with you.  In other words, the best way to ‘fight’ against and resists the ‘darkness’ and the ‘demon’ of the ‘black dog’ of depression, is not by getting all religious, but by simply living in the love God has given to us, for ‘goodness sakes’, which directs us to love our neighbor daily ways that ‘get you out of yourself’ and put the focus of God’s love is needed in the world.

When you live in God’s faithful love, by reaching out to others, you will also ‘make your way into God’s house’, where you hear the ‘glorious shouts’ or the ‘thanksgiving songs’ so you can faithfully worship him.  When you do this, the Psalmist implies, then, when the dark days comes, you can spark and ignite your faith because you have something to ‘remember’.  Twice in this text the Psalmist speaks of remembering.  In verse 4 and then again in verse six, he says: ‘my whole being is depressed. That's why I remember you (Ps. 42:6 CEB).  But it is what and how he remembers that is most important.  When he is depressed the Psalmist says he can remember sounds of worship; the music, the prayers, the crowds, where everyone else comes to worship, because they have exactly where you are, but they are still there; they are still here, in your memory and in your heart.  Worship is the way we keep refreshing our memory that keeps blessing our hearts, so that ‘deep’ continues to speak to ‘deep’ so that through worship and the memory of worship, we overcome the darkness and dark moments that can enter the human heart.

But perhaps the most important spiritual and psychological insight into overcoming our dark feelings is heard throughout this Psalm.  We have to decide. We have to choose. We have to, as the old song says we must have and show ‘resolve’.  You can hear the Psalmist own ‘resolve’, fight, and determination to overcome throughout this Psalm, but his most obvious need to ‘choose’ and make a decision is reinforced at the end: “Why, I ask myself, are you so depressed? Why are you so upset inside? Hope in God! Because I will again give him thanks, my saving presence and my God” (Ps. 42:11 CEB).  Finally, after he expresses all his thoughts, feelings, and frustrations, in the end he knows, what we all need to know, is that ‘happiness is a choice.’   As the great America psychologist William James once said: “The greatest discovery of any generation is that a human can alter his life by altering his attitude."  In other words, no matter how difficult or dark it gets, you must know that you always have a choice.

Not too many years ago, Magazine Editor and Christian political activists, Jim Wallis was speaking to young people at a graduation ceremony, making the key note commencement address.   He told those graduates, how as a young Christian, he once thought that the great choices in the world were between God and atheism.  But now, he says, after traveling the world, he understands that this choice is also about hope or cynicism.  Some people he says, come to God to give up, when they need to come to God and get started, that is, to go out there, and to decide not just to make a living, but to make a life, and to make a difference. Wallis challenged those youth saying: "For the first time in history we have the information, knowledge, technology, and resources to bring the worst problems in the world to an end. What we don't have is the moral and political will to do so. And it is becoming clear that it will take a new moral energy to create that political will."

Where do we get the moral and political will to make a difference?  Isn’t it the same place we get the emotional will to see things differently?  Doesn’t it come with the decision we make ‘deep’ down in our heart of hearts? The Psalmist concludes this Psalm by challenging, deciding and telling his own soul what he must decide to do, to “HOPE in God!”, because he knows and believes that things will change.

In that speech, Jim Wallis began his address by recounting another speaking engagement, this one not at a university, but rather at Sing Sing Prison, one of the first prisons in the state of New York.
Wallis received an invitation letter from the prisoners themselves and it sounded like a good idea, so he wrote back asking when they wanted him to come. In his return letter, the young Sing Sing resident replied, "Well, we're free most nights! We're kind of a captive audience here."
So, arrangements were made – for just Jim to come and to spend 4 hours out 80 guys incarcerated in that dark prison.   Wallis especially recalled, now what he said, but what one of those young prisoners said to him that night,
"Jim, all of us at Sing Sing are from only about five neighborhoods in New York City. It's like a train. You get on the train when you are about 9 or 10 years old. And the train ends up here at Sing Sing."
Many of those prisoners were not just inmates, but now, they were students too, studying in a unique program of the New York Theological Seminary to obtain their Master of Divinity degree – right there in that dark place, behind the walls of the prison. They were going to graduate about the time when their sentences were up.  Here's what that young man at Sing Sing told Jim Wallis he would after his graduation: "When I get out, I'm going to go back and stop that train." ( opinion&article=CO_040616_wallis).

You might not recognize the name of Horatio G. Spafford, but you will remember the obvious decision he also made to sing in his own night.   Mr. Spafford was a successful Chicago lawyer who lost most of his wealth in the financial crisis of 1873. He had sent his wife and four daughters on a trip to France, but on their way, their ship was struck by another, and sank. Of 225 passengers, only 87 of them survived. Mrs. Spafford was among the survivors, but the four daughters perished. As soon as Mrs. Spafford reached land, she telegraphed to her husband with these words: "Saved alone. Children lost. What shall I do?"

Spafford left for France to join his wife and return her to Chicago. It was in the depth of his loss and grief, that he wrote his song in his night, that still speaks to us when the darkness comes, and it will come:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrow like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot,Thou hast taught me to say, "It is well, it is well with my soul.”

"I ask myself, soul, why are you so depressed?  Why are you so upset inside? The Psalmist continues, in so many words: “It will again be “Well with your Soul”, but first you must make the right choice, to sing, keep praying, keep fighting, and to keep remembering, not to forget, so you can prove that you have decided to do what you must do, and what we all must do, especially when it gets dark; that we must continue to: ‘Hope in God.”   Amen.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

“The Lord Is My…”

A sermon based upon Psalm 23, CEB
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
July 21th,  2019

There is a 2,000-year-old story that has been passed down, that may or may not have happened, but has been passed down because it is so true to life. The story took place when much of the world was unknown and largely unmapped. Cartographers had to have some way of portraying those areas of the earth that were as yet unexplored, so they symbolized these regions by dragons, monsters, and large fish. The message was clear. Uncharted territories were frightening, fearsome places. Terrors lay buried there.

But as many maps declared, "There be treasures" as well. The story is this: One commander of a battalion of Roman soldiers was caught up in a battle that took him into the territory that the mapmakers had represented with their monsters and dragons. Not knowing whether to forge ahead into the unknown, or turn back into the known, which would also be a retreat, he dispatched a messenger to Rome with this urgent request: "Please send new orders. We have marched off the map."  (The Six Longest Short Verses in the Bible," Homiletics, 5/7/95).

Ever feel like that; that your life has marched off the map into uncharted waters, going off either the technological map, the political map, the economic map, the environmental map, the ethical map, the relationship map, the medical map, or virtually whatever map you can think of?  How do we possibly hope to navigate the uniqueness of our lives which are always, in some way, ‘off the map’?

The only way any of us can navigate the unknowns is with help, that's how.  The help I’m referring what David meant when he first penned the words of the 23rd Psalm. "The Lord is my shepherd...." This Psalm is probably as well known and well-loved as any portion of scripture.  Generations have memorized it; in Sunday school or at the knee of parents or grandparents, this is usually one of very first Bible passages we learn.  And it is often some of the last words that are spoken over us.  Thus, our first hope in life, and our final hope in death, is that God, the Lord, will shepherd us, lead us through to our final destination.

Don’t you find it interesting, that even here in America, and in the south too, where finding a Shepherd or Sheep is almost like finding a needle in a haystack, that this Psalm is a favorite, if not the favorite?   What can these old pastoral images of a Shepherd and his sheep have to say to us in high-tech world, very un-pastoral world? 

Well, for starters, no matter how high-tech, low touch, and virtual our world becomes, the human person still needs to know that we are not ‘alone in the cosmos’.  We need to know that at the beginning of everything, at the end of everything, and also in the middle too, there is always someone that cares.  We need to know that at the basis of everything life is, is a personal, loving, caring mind, with heart and hope, we call God.  As the British scholar NT Wright once said, the major concern of the Apostle Paul when writing the Galatians, was not did they have knowledge of God, but did they know about God’s knowledge of them (“Wouldn’t You Love to Know: Toward A Christian View of Reality, Dec.6, 2016,

Even as a King, David needed to have this kind of knowledge.  David probably penned these words based on his own experiences as a Shepherd boy, watching over his Father Jessie’s flock.  Later, when David became King of Israel, his mind must have traveled back to simpler, less complicated times.  It was those early realities in his life that must have given his heart constant assurance, that no matter what he was going through, and no matter how troubled or complex life became, and also no matter how many mistakes he made, he could only remain hopeful and confident as long as he remained connected to the most basic realities he observed as a young shepherd boy.

What this Psalm reminds us, in a very rural, pastoral, ancient, and even most primal way, is that we are ‘all’, in some way, helpless before the realities of life and death.  Our only true help, and our only real hope, is a personal, promising, loving God, who not only created life, but sustains and reddens our lives, desiring more than anything else, to ‘shepherd’ our lives all the way home.

I told you earlier, about the famous atheist, Anthony Flew, who spent his whole life as a philosopher, trying to logically prove that there was no logical reason to believe in God, or to believe that there is a loving purpose behind human life.  But late in life, only 7 years before Dr. Flew died, he changed his mind.   He said that after reexamining all the complexity of human DNA, he had to come to another, even more logical conclusion; that the human person, created with almost limitless thinking, feelings, and relational capacity could not be accidental.  He believed the scientific evidence pointed to not only a purpose of our capable minds, but also to the great mind with great purpose; though he did go as far to say ‘who’ or ‘what’ that mind was.

I share this story with you again, because we live in a world that seems to think that Science and Religion are enemies of each other.  But the truth is, as one great Scientist has said, “Science likes to take things apart and tell us what it is, only faith can put things back together and tells us what it means.”  Science and Faith are looking at the very same realities we all face, but they do look at them differently.  Science can reveal what we should be afraid of, but only Faith can tell us how we need not to be afraid.   

Interestingly, David didn’t yet understand all that life was, as a boy, or a man, but he certainly understood, even without a science book, or a PHD, what he needed to know, most of all.  We can too, if we allow David’s heart-felt words to touch our own hearts.  As a thinking, creative, spiritual person created in God’s image, David understood God’s care for him to be reflected in the image of his own care for the Sheep.  This how why he could say in confidence, both in life, and also with the constant threat of death:   “The Lord, is my ShepherdI shall not want.”

Because ‘the Lord was (his) Shepherd’, David said: I lack nothing.”  David understood, that life finally comes down, not to what you have or don’t have, but who has you: Life finally comes down to ‘who’ you are with and who you can trust.  

In our lives today, we all know and experience so much information, so many choices, and so much opportunity, that people become more and more confused about who they are and what they should do with their lives.   David would suggest to us that it all comes down making life-giving, healing choices; not life-stealing choices.  All these very beautiful pastoral images of ‘green pastures’, ‘quiet waters’ and ‘right paths’ point us toward those nourishing, calming, and healthy life-choices we humans need still must make.  They are kinds the healing choices God would lead us to make.  We might call them the healthy-trio: healthy body-nourishment, healthy-soul nourishment, and finally, healthy mind-nourishment, which comes from seeking, finding, and staying on the right path in life.

But what is the right path?  Isn’t that what’s so confusing to modern people.   We live in a plurality of ideas, religions, and opinions.  How do we know how to decide which path is the right one?  We all heard stories of people hiking in wilderness areas, getting lost and confused, until they were finally located by rescue teams. One of the first skills I learned in Boy Scouts, many years ago, was how to focus on high places, to keep from walking around in circles. I don’t know whether they even teach that basic skill today.  Recently I heard on a news report that there is no place in these United States, where you will find yourself more than 5 miles from a public road or highway.  But while our geographic wilderness may be shrinking, our emotional, relational, and spiritual wilderness seems to be enlarging.  How can modern people who no longer take time to trust, connect to, or make room for the healing, nourishing, and reflective places of life, find their way home, when they get ‘lost in the cosmos’ where they live their lives as if there is no God, to whom they constantly and continually return for the health of their soul, or to find the right direction for living?

But what David never outgrew, and always came back to, even after times of wandering and getting lost,  is only when we allow the LORD to be your Shepherd, can you actually know how he is the  ‘GOOD’ and True Shepherd to guide your life.  When Jesus picked up on David’s Psalm, and named himself as ‘the Good Shepherd’, Jesus said he could be known as ‘good’ because ‘the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep’.  The hired hand, he said in contrast, will ‘run’ when trouble comes, but the ‘true Shepherd, will stay put, and even put his own life at risk to guide and care for his sheep. This is why Jesus could can be trusted to have ‘the words of life.’  For life is what his shepherding and his sacrifice is about:  “I have come” Jesus said, ‘so that they may have life, and have it abundantly (Jn. 10:10). 

Besides, having to choose the right, healing, heathy and helpful ways that give life; real life, what does this life really matter if we are only ‘matter’ that doesn’t matter, since we are just ‘dust’ anyway?

Years ago, I used to sing a strange, somewhat depressing rock song with young people.  I didn’t sing it to depress them, but to shock their mistaken illusions that their lives really only belonged to them; were eternal, and to challenge their careless, and often excessive carefree lifestyle.  That song was written by Kerry Livgren, and recorded by his rock group, Kansas, entitled, ‘Dust in the Wind’.   It begins:
“I close my eyes, only for a moment, and the moment's gone
All my dreams pass before my eyes, a curiosity
Dust in the wind,    All they are is dust in the wind
Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea
All we do crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see
Dust in the wind, All we are is dust in the wind.  Oh, ho, ho
Now, don't hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky
It slips away.  And all your money won't another minute buy
Dust in the wind.  All we are is dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind. Dust in the wind.  

Then the song ends with the most shocking thought of all.
Everything is dust in the wind, Everything is dust in the wind
The wind….

What is most interesting, is that only a few years, after writing, and performing this song, over and over again, the spiritually seeking musician, Kerry Livgren, who was experimenting in very strange spiritualities, became finally convinced that Jesus of the Bible is the true Shepherd, and our only hope. Today Kerry teaches a Sunday School class at Topeka Bible Church.  He is currently working on a musical production of the biblical story about the Raising of Lazarus.  Kerry’s creative and spiritual questions only found resolution in the message of God’s care and promise, and in Jesus Christ as his Good Shepherd.

How do you resolve the pressing existential issue which reminds us, whether we want to be reminded at all, that we are ‘dust’?  That popular insurance company slogan, “life comes at you fast” certainly had a very serious portrayal recently, when cameras captured an alarming video of a speeding hockey puck passing a newsman’s head and then crashing the camera lens.  If you saw it, the newsman didn’t even react until the puck had already seemingly long passed him, bouncing off and breaking the lens.  He had come just inches from death, but didn’t know it.  If that puck had hit him, he probably would not have even known what cut his life short. Having such an event on camera, records not just a near miss’, but serves as a wake-up call for any of us. It’s another sobering reminder of just how ‘fast’ and ‘fragile’ life can be? 

Without God, without God’s promise and protection for our souls, Kerry Livgren is right, ‘All we are, is dust in the wind’.  We might be amazing, remarkable, exciting, and memorable creatures, but without God’s care, and without God’s eternal presence to promise us that no matter what happens, ‘God has our backs’, where is the ultimate value or meaning of anything we are, or in anything we do.  Of course, there is the next generation to care about, but if we have no promise and no sense of God’s care and protection for our own souls, how will they also find any ultimate hope?

Isn’t this the confidence we need, both for life, as well as, in death?  Don’t we all face the vulnerabilities of life like helpless Sheep, constantly needed the protection and provision that the only the great shepherd can give?  Don’t we, in light of all that threatens, need this most basic promise, that the Lord’s strength is always there and that no matter what happens, to hear his promise, that we have nothing to fear? 

For me, however, the most powerful picture of God’s promise and protection, isn’t just going through this Valley of Shadow of Death, but it is God’s promise that, we can continue to graze and feast on life’s goodness, even when ‘enemies’ are always present.  Sheep always grazed in lush valleys with many predators lurking around them, especially at night. In the much the same way, also for us, the enemies of life can easily gain the advantage over us were it not for the presence, the promise, and the protection of the shepherd.  If we don’t wander away from the flock of his care, in spite of what is around us, or what is before us, we can find the nourishment we need for life, and receive the overflowing cup of God’s healing and hope.

Perhaps, the greatest and most wonderful surprise, even in this old, often repeated, ancient text, is the ending, that expresses how God’s ‘goodness and mercy follow’ him ‘all the days of his life’.  

It must have meant a lot for David to write this, but who knows whether David actually wrote this Psalm as a young shepherd boy, or he was looking back on those days and wrote it much later after he became a King?   Whenever he wrote it, it must given him great comfort to remind himself that God’s forgiving, faithful love was constantly ‘following him, all the days of his life’.  Without faithful, forgiving love, where would any of us be?

Here is the message, people often forget: In true Faith or religion, God is never out to get us, to steal our lives from us; but the true Shepherd is there to guide us, and to give life to us; to save us, redeem us, and to bring us into the fulness of life that he has purposed for us.   He also ‘follows us’ to bring us back to that purpose and his protection, when we have wandered too far away. 

The primary image here, is exactly this: David sees God’s ‘goodness and mercy’ following him, staying with him, even hounding him like a sheep dogs, one named ‘goodness’ and the other named ‘mercy’, circling him, restoring him into the fold of shepherd’s love and care.  The Good Shepherd, here, is exactly who Jesus described in his parable: God, the Lord, is like the Shepherd who leaves the 99 Sheep and goes after the 1 single sheep who has wandered astray.  When we get lost in life, the Shepherd is after us in much the same way.  The Lord of goodness and mercy is not out to get us, but he puts his most talented dogs on us to tract us down and corral us back into the Shepherd’s care. 

Is this kind of “Lord” your Shepherd?  The great poem by Francis Thompson, entitled the Hound of Heaven, pictured God love similar to this, like sheep dogs hounding us back home, saying so very compassionately, He wrote of the God’s love so poetically:
 “Deliberate Speed, Majestic instancy, came on the following feet and a voice above their beat…” How little worthy of love I am…” Thompson wrote, “who would I find who would love or could save me?  His answer comes at the end:
Yet, I am the one you love, and I draw my love from the one who loves me.”

Thompson’s final line reminds me of that old gospel him, which rings out the bass in the chorus, over and over, ‘even me’.  “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore, very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more, but the master of the sea, heard my despairing cry, from the waters lifted me, now safe am I.
“Love lifted me, EVEN ME.  Love lifted me, EVEN ME.  When nothing else could help, Love lifted me.  Love lifted me, EVEN ME.  Love, Lifted me, EVEN ME.
When nothing else could help, LOVE LIFT_TED ME!  

Dr. Steve Brown. Dr. Brown used to teach that  "the trouble with Christians is that we sometimes forget that we are defined by God's love; that is by God’s goodness and mercy, and not by our own.  Like the little boy who asked his father, “Do you love me, even when I’m bad.”  “Of course I do, I want you to be good for your own good, but I love you even when you aren’t as good as I want and expect you to be.”  The boy responded, “You’re the best daddy in the whole world”.

My and your value as a person is not found in terms of just what I do, my value lies in belonging to Christ, the Good Shepherd, trusting His direction and leaning on His Grace. I am valued--because I am loved by God.  Jesus never tells about any ‘good sheep’, only that his Sheep hear and respond to his voice.  Finding life value and find God’s love is just that simple; hearing God voice and responding to God’s love.  Yes, life is as simple as hearing and responding to God’s goodness and God’s love.

And this ‘love’ that can lift us, save us, when nothing else will, is the loving caring Shepherd, that David envisioned, even way back when he was a little boy.  David simple called him ‘the LORD’.  We can call the Shepherd our Lord too, because he wants to shepherd us so that his own ‘goodness and mercy’ can abide with us, and follow us, all the way home.  

Way back in 1937, the famous Golden Gate Bridge was completed. At that time, it was the world's longest suspension bridge. The entire project cost the United States government $77 million. During the process of constructing the first section of the bridge, very few safety devices were used, resulting in twenty-three accidental deaths as workers fell helplessly into the waters far below.

The toll was so significant something had to be done before the second section was built. An ingenious plan was arranged. The largest safety net in the world (it alone cost $100,000!) was made out of stout manila cordage and stretched out beneath the work crews. It proved to be an excellent investment in view of the fact that it saved the lives of at least ten men who fell into it without injury. Interestingly, the work went 25 percent faster, since the workers were relieved from the fear of falling to their deaths.

God's great net of security spans this globe.  No matter where God’s children live, God has stretched out His everlasting arms beneath us.  As a result, every one of us, who allow him to Shepherd us, can live and work freely and fearlessly, knowing that we are protected by His powerful presence and his wonderful promise never to ‘leave or forsake us’, because his goodness, and his mercy follows us, always. 

Will you allow him to be your guiding, protecting Shepherd?  And if you have wandered away, will you allow his ‘goodness’ and ‘mercy’ to catch up to you, and to escort you, and bring you back home?   Amen.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

“Making the Simple Wise”

A sermon based upon Psalm 19, CEB
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
July 14th, 2019

“Firefall”, is an astounding natural phenomenon which takes place in Yosemite National Park in California only one time of the year.   When the setting of the February sun hits the water fall coming down the side the mountain named El Capitan, at just the right spot, there is a stunning display of nature in all her glory.   It’s a sight that only lasts a few minutes each day, just a few weeks of each year in February.  The glorious brilliance of this natural event depends on everything coming together just right; the light of the sun hitting a good flow of water, and people, along with their cameras, hiking a mile to reach the remote area at just time, and looking toward the mountain at just right angle.  When you get the angle and timing just right, it looks like just like ‘fire’ falling off the mountain into the valley below.

Nature does many beautiful things; some of them once in a while like this ‘Firefall’ illusion in Yosemite National Park, and some of them every single day, when the sun rises and appears to faithfully travel across the sky.  Could you dare imagine what would happen if the earth or the sun were off just a fraction of a degree?  When the physicist Sir Isaac Newton, in 1665, for the first time, scientifically contemplated how an apple always fell downward, and never sideways, he not only understood the law of gravity so that he came to formulate the three most basic laws of the whole universe, he also that the gravity would not work, and the stars in the sky would not stay in their orbits, unless it God, who was the force outside of nature, was holding everything together.  He said, and I quote from his ground-breaking work, “Principa”:  “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent BeingThis Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all..”. (

Today, I find it not coincidental that the more modern lights and human inventions dim the basic realities of nature and sky, the more belief in a creator also becomes dim and diluted.  What the Psalmist contemplates in the sky as the natural revelation of God, is far from what most people see today; and many are not even looking.  But the Psalmist did look, and the words of this grand Psalm majestically begins: “The Heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork” (19:1 KJV).

This summer, we have been preaching from the Psalms.  Today we look at what C.S. Lewis called the most important Psalm of all; to Lewis the 19th Psalm was even more important than the 23rd Psalm.  His point is that if we don’t understand how God speaks to us, how could ever know God as the true Shepherd.  Psalm 19 is a majestic, poetic and rhythmical way of celebrating how God reveals himself in the world.   On the one hand, the first part of this Psalm celebrates how God reveals himself generally, through nature; particularly, it speak of how God speaks to us through the sky.   More specifically, and especially, Psalm 19 also celebrates how God speaks to his people through the Law; that is through Scripture or the Bible, the Law being the only Bible people had at that time.  In this Psalm, the writer, David or whoever else helped to write this Psalm, for it seems to be in two or three different parts, the Psalmist is rejoicing because God doesn’t leave himself without a witness in this world, either in nature, or the law of Scripture. 

But this Psalm concludes with one other way divine revelation, which was made possible by the other two.   Because God is heard in both nature and law,  now God is also able to reveal himself even more directly to the human person, through depth of the mind, the ‘heart’ or what we today would call the ‘conscience’.  When allow yourself to ‘wonder’ in nature, or when you learn God’s laws for wisdom, then you develop a heart so that you can now hear God speaking directly within you.  God reveals himself, so that you can begin to grasp, through nature, through the Bible, and also in your heart, why’ we are here, what life means, and what do should being doing with this miracle you’ve been given, called ‘life’.  Now, for a few moments, let’s look deeper into this magnificent psalm that can make even ‘the simple wise’.

Interestingly, the Psalmist is not lost in ‘wonder’ when he looks up into the sky.  He is not like those people ‘ooohing’ and ‘ahiing’ when they see the ‘firefall’ on El Capitan, nor is he like all those people staying up to watch a comet, or an eclipse?   The Psalmist not the least bit ‘lost in wonder’ about the night sky or the daytime sky either. 

The wonder the Psalmist feels and expresses in this text, is not based on what he sees with his eyes, or what he observes in a telescope, but he feels ‘wonder’ because of what he hears with the ears of his heart.  Do you see how this text flows?  The Psalmist says the “Heavens ‘tell’ the glory of God.  He says ‘day to day’ they ‘pour out speech’, and night to night ‘they’ declare knowledge, or perhaps better, insight.

Do you hear it?   If you are willing to listen, there is no place on earth, where their speech is not heard.  What is the sky saying?  The apostle Paul gave us his own interpretation in his letter to the Romans, ‘Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they (and we) are without excuse… (Rom. 1:20 NRS).  He also preached on his mission in Asia, that God “has not left himself without a witness in doing good-- giving rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling (us) with food and (our) hearts with joy." (Acts 14:16-17 NRS).  Perhaps Paul’s greatest words about natural, or general revelation comes from his sermon at Athens, when he explained how God “allotted the times of (human) existence and the boundaries of the places where (humans) would live, so that (we humans) would (naturally) search for God and perhaps (feel) him and find him-- though indeed he is not far from each one of us (Acts 17:26-27 NRS).
Many years ago, just after the Great War, and not long before World War II, in 1934, there was a serious debate going on between two of the greatest German biblical scholars in the world at that time; Karl Barth, the academic, and Emil Brunner, the scholarly pastor.  While both of the great thinkers were dedicated to Jesus Christ as the full and greatest revelation of God, they disagreed over one point.  Brunner, the pastor accepted, as the Psalmist says, that God can speak clearly to human hearts through nature, called ‘natural revelation’.  Barth, on the other hand, fiercely disagreed.  Barth said that the human heart has been made so corrupted and made ‘tone deaf’ by sin, humans are now unable to hear God speak at all in this world, without hearing the Word.  By ‘the Word’ Barth meant both God Word written in the Law which was finalized as God’s Word made incarnate in Jesus Christ.  For Barth, because of sin, natural revelation was no longer reliable, because, as the apostle Paul said, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.”   Without the Word of the man from Heaven, we can’t hear a single word from the Heavens.  

If the Psalmist had stopped here, with God speaking only through nature; Jews,  and Christians too, would have ended up ‘sun worshippers’ just the rest of the pagans around them, especially the Egyptians.  But what the great scholars were really debating about is whether or not there is enough of the image of God left in us, after the sin came into the world.  The pastoral scholar, was probably right to say that there has to be some of God’s nature left in us, even as sinners, or we couldn’t hear God speak at all, either in the world or in the Word.  But the academic scholar, was also right to say that the best of ‘nature’ won’t have any eternal impact upon us, unless we allow it to point us to the voice of God that was also speaks both in the written and spoken word of God, supremely revealed, not as the S.U.N., but most perfectly as the S.O.N---that is God’s son, Jesus Christ.  If the Sun doesn’t point us toward the Son, then, SIN  is still dominate and deafens the sound of God’ speech. 

The point the Psalmist is making here, is the point that life also makes, that the natural world we live in is to point us, not just to the laws of the universe, but the wisdom of the laws of nature in the universe should point us to the wisdom of the law of God.  This is where the Psalmist ends up in this Psalm; the glory of God in nature, leads us to the glory of God in God’s law, which he says, ‘are more to be desired than gold,…and more also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb’ (10). 

Honey was the most desirable ‘sugar’ before there sugar was discovered, and it is still healthiest form of sugar for a human diet.  But prescribing a physical diet is not the Psalmist point.  The Psalmist is point us to the pure ‘delight,’ the perfection, the wisdom, the purity, the rightness, and the reward of hearing, learning, and living by God’s law.   It is through the written Law that the Lord gave, and still gives God’s people the clearest ‘sound’ of truth. 

Since God’s law, not only leads us to wonder and to worship, just like nature should, it is also important to realize how God’s law should speak even more clearly.  Only through God’s law, are we taught about ‘who’ we are (our potential for good), and how we should live our lives.   This is what the Psalmist means when he says, that God’s law ‘revives the soul’, makes the soul rejoice, because we are given the most important perspective in life.  It is only God’s law that teaches us ‘the fear of the Lord’, meaning that we should gain a pure, humble reverence for life’ and ‘respect for ourselves and a respect for others. For this creator God, who not only gives us life and his law, he also stands as the final judge how we should live.  Just like we have to learn how to live by his natural laws, such as gravity and motion (recall those skinned knees).  Just like we find the joy of life by respecting these laws, why should we not also find the spiritual and written laws of God worth ‘rejoicing’ about?  As the Psalmist clearly shows, the law of God is not to stop us from living, or from having fun, but to keep us alive, both physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. 

In this short Psalm of Praise concerning God’s law, both in nature and in spirit, we don’t find any detailed description of what this Law is.  The Law was already clear to this Psalmist, as it had already been written down in the first five books of Moses. 
As Christians, we don’t add anything to those Laws, because Jesus didn’t add or take away from them either, but we do reinterpret these laws because Jesus ‘fulfilled the law’ so that the meaning and sum of all the law was explained once and for all, as ‘to love God with all our heart…’ and to ‘love our neighbor as we also love ourselves’.  So, when we start respecting and reverencing God, as our creator, our sustainer, and our redeemer too, we learn to care of each other, as we take care of ourselves.  Love, both in word and in deed, is why the Law of God can still give us life’s greatest joy.  This law, God’s law, is the most important ‘law’ the world will ever know.

Last year, when Mark Harris, the Baptist Preacher from Charlotte’s First Baptist Church, ran for Congress, I cringed.   I didn’t cringe because of who he was.  I also didn’t cringe because of the platform he was running on, or the political party he was a part of.  What made me cringe, was something my Father, as Baptist Sunday School teacher told me, after I informed him that I was going to become a Preacher and a Pastor; Minister of the Gospel, as my Ordination Certificate says.  My Father looked at me and said, “Son, remember, as a minister, the call to serve is the highest calling there is.  Don’t ever think about stepping down, even to become the President.”

I thought about what my Father told me, all through Mark Harris’ campaign, and also during the controversy which followed about voter fraud.  I even wonder whether or not Dr. Harris, still believes that stepping into political fray of this world was best?  The world, even a broken world, can’t be fixed by the laws of people; if the gospel means anything, if the Bible means anything, the world can only be redeemed through the law of God.  As my Dad reminded me: There is no higher calling, because there is no greater law, than the Law that is from God, and is intended, not just to be written down on paper, but is to be written down in our ‘hearts’.
Speaking straight to our hearts, the Psalmist concludes this grand Psalm with a ‘warning’ and a prayer; ending with one of one of the greatest prayers ever put in human speech: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

Here we can see the point, most clearly of what God’s word in sky law are finally about: they aim toward hearts that can become ‘tone deaf’ because of human sin.  This is what the Psalmist meant in verse 12, when he wrote: ‘who can detect their errors?’  He means, that while there are no ‘errors’ to be detected in God’s speech, there remain ‘hidden faults’ and inward rebellions that can transgress against God’s goodness.  So, when the Psalmist prays, ‘let the meditation of my heart be pleasing’ in God’s sight, he is not praying to a God who is hard to please, but he is praying for God to be his ‘rock’ and ‘redeemer’ to live up to the wonders that surround and call forth the living of his ‘best’ life.

Did you know one of the details lost amidst the tremendous historic and scientific achievements of the Apollo 11 mission that landed the first two human beings on the moon in July 1969 was that it also marked the first occasion on which a Christian took Communion on an astronomical body other than Earth. This event took place in the interval between the lunar module’s landing on the moon on 20 July 1969 and Neil Armstrong’s taking his first steps on the lunar surface several hours later; during that period, with the cameras and microphones off, astronaut Buzz Aldrin privately observed Communion using elements he had brought with him to the moon.  Why would he do that?  What was going on in the heart of that Astronaunt?

Perhaps the best answer came from Another astronaut, Jim Erwin, who later talked about the experience he had when he went to the moon. He said: "When I looked out and saw the earth, only as big as a little marble, I thought, How big am I? I'm just a speck of dust-if that big-compared to the universe.   And yet, this little speck has the capacity to know God!  To know the One who holds the universe, to know His love, and have His direction. For the first time, I saw felt God's love for the earth...I realized then that God loved that little blue marble, that little planet. He loved all the billions of people on it, and He loved me!    I realized at that moment that my relationship with Jesus Christ was the most precious thing I had.

For you see, nobody loves the sky like an Astronaut, who risks his life to travel into it.  But believing Astronauts like Erwin, and Adwrin, also know that the sky can’t forgive your sin nor can the Law make you do what is right and good.   While the sky can inspire you, and the law can warn you, only a personal, loving, redeeming, and saving God, can give you the eternal love you need to become all you are created to be. Now, that that can ‘make the simple, wise’ and is still worth singing about.   Amen.