I know that I know

Did you know you can pay for personalized messages from actors, politicians or athletes? Almost any famous figure you can imagine. You can do so through an app called Cameo.

Well, what can I say, I had a few boring moments during quarantine. As a result, I’ve gone through some Cameo videos. I didn’t pay for anything, but I watched people like Troy Aikman, Randy Travis, Tommy Chong, and Anthony Anderson, to name a few.

When I watched some of these videos, I noticed something.

First, celebrities, of course, use the recipient’s name. That’s the kicker, having your favorite musician or actor recognize you. Typically, a friend or family member arranged and paid for the video. So, they also say that friend’s name. It reminds me of when the wait staff comes to your table on your birthday. They don’t know who you are, but someone told them there was a birthday.

Something else struck me, though. It was what almost all the celebrities said. It went something like, “Your friend told me about what you’re going through. I know what you’re going through is difficult. I know you’ve had a hard time.” Or they’d say, “I know you’ve been sick.”

I know.

Did they?

Well, they read it from a form someone completed online. So, yes, they knew. But how much can you know about someone’s pain and struggle from one sentence or just by what someone else has told you?

Knowing involves more, doesn’t it?

Saul had planned to kill David. The king couldn’t stand the younger warrior’s success and fame. When David escaped from Saul in 2 Samuel 19, he went to see the prophet, Samuel.

Once Saul found out where David was, he sent messengers to capture him. When the messengers arrived they saw a group of prophets in a “frenzy,” led by Samuel. This was normal practice for prophets. As they prophesied, speaking praise to God, I assume, the messengers came under the spirit’s pull.

They joined the frenzy.

Saul found out and sent more messengers. The same thing happened to them. And it happened a third time with another group. Each time, Saul heard and knew what was happening.

Finally, he went himself.

Was he tired of hearing about what was happening? Did he run out of messengers? Was he intrigued? Whatever the case, Saul went to David himself. He, too, fell into a frenzy. This wasn’t the first time Saul had experience with this kind of activity. Read how that started in 1 Samuel 10.

Now, this isn’t a simple text. Saul will not reign for good; God rejects Saul as king. You also have to question the spirit Saul received from God. Some scholars have suggested Saul was insane.

So, I don’t mean to take all that lightly and churn out a trite Sunday school lesson. Instead, I think the deepness of the text invites us into a deeper understanding of the story.

And we can say the same thing about other stories found in scripture. Even about faith itself.

We can’t see or experience the deeper meanings if we aren’t willing to go past superficial knowledge. Knowing the story of Saul is one step in knowing how his experience speaks life into ours.

In order for us to truly know how God speaks to us, how faith moves mountains and how the mercy of God changes us, we have to go beyond just what someone else has told us. God has something to speak directly to your heart. It may be in a frenzy. It may be in a quiet moment of prayer or while in worship or service with God’s church.

Be willing to know more about God than those celebrities know about the people in their videos. 

Stay blessed…john

Baggage check

We’ve mentioned Harry Emerson Fosdick in our devotionals before.

Today, while reading our text from 2 Samuel 10, I thought of him again. I read something he once said that stuck with me: Only the preacher proceeds still upon the idea that folk come to church desperately anxious to discover what happened to the Jebusites.

I take that to mean Sunday morning sermons are not the occasions for drawn-out history lessons. Those are the sermons that bore people. Those are the ones most people forget. Yes, the Jebusites have a place in God’s story told through scripture. But, according to Fosdick, no one is there Sunday morning to listen to a lecture about an ancient people group.

We show up Sunday morning pretty selfishly.

We want to know what God has to say about my life. We want God to speak to my heart. To encourage me. To strengthen my faith. Now, to be sure, that’s not an altogether bad desire. It’s limited, but not evil.

That’s not to say we can’t learn from the Jebusites or the Ammonites, for that matter. See? When you start talking about all the “ites,” people already get confused.

In a devotional, we have a little more leeway to talk about history. Not too much more, I know.

King David had sent servants to the Ammonites at the beginning of 2 Samuel 10. Their king had died and David wanted to express kindness to them. The Ammonites did not receive the gesture well. They thought he wanted to spy on them so that he could conquer them. As a result, the Ammonites shaved the beards of David’s servants.

I wonder if church folk come to church desperately anxious to hear about what makes beards so meaningful. Truly! It’s an entire topic you can learn more about. In David’s case, it was a form of disgrace. Think of it as a slap in the face. The Ammonites also slit the clothes of the servants right down the backside–think old hospital gowns.

I love reading about this passage. Our translations go different ways. The Ammonites recognized the insult they threw at David. Some translations say they “obnoxious” or “odious.” The King James Version offers a more direct translation. The Ammonites “saw that they stank before David.”

The Message Bible also does a good job: It dawned on the Ammonites that as far as David was concerned they stunk to high heaven.

Realizing their stench, the Ammonites hired outside help to fight David and his army. David’s general, Joab, saw that the army was surrounded. His response was one of courage, faith and trust. He said, ” Be strong, and let us be courageous for the sake of our people, and for the cities of our God; and may the Lord do what seems good to him.”

I’m used to people telling me that my sermon spoke directly to them. “You were talking to me, brother,” they’ll tell me. I’ve learned to appreciate how sermons work like that. But you should know I don’t prepare a sermon to talk to you. I prepare for God to speak to us. Not just a collection of souls gathered in worship. But a collective group of God’s people gathered in worship. There’s a difference.

God checks your bags of concern, burden or joy that you bring to a Sunday morning worship gathering. Whatever you’re carrying, the Lord receives. That’s part of the reason we do more than listen to a sermon. We experience God’s grace through prayer, music and even silence.

As God comforts us, we become more able to hear God’s voice speaking through the word, even through a sermon like mine. Quite often, the message we hear is the same as Joab’s. Stay strong, be courageous and trust in God Almighty. That is a word worth rediscovering. 

Stay blessed…john

Back to God

Seven days without God makes one weak.

That’s what we call bumper-sticker theology. Cutesy maxims aren’t always the best way to illustrate our understanding of God. But sometimes they stick so well it’s hard to not use them.

This one does relate to a biblical passage.

The prophet Samuel is the last leader of Israel before they asked for a king. 1 Samuel 7 says that “Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life.” He was a faithful leader. So, he understood what the people of God needed if they were to live faithfully before God.

The text says the people “lamented after God.” The NIV helps us best understand what their feeling was. It says all the people, “turned back to the Lord.” Recall they had suffered a great defeat. As a result, the Philistines took control of the ark of the covenant. When it returned to their possession, the people felt a need to turn to God.

Had they concluded their failure was a consequence of a disconnect between them and God? It could be.

Had their suffering opened their eyes to realize something about what they had become? Perhaps.

These are reasonable thoughts based on Samuel’s response to them. He gave them instructions if, indeed, they were “returning to the Lord with all your heart.”

If they were ready to turn back to God, they would need to do three things: put away the gods they had grown accustomed to, direct their heart to God and serve God only.

Right before I began writing today’s devotional, I read an article from the Religion News Service. The article discussed a recent study that suggested more churches are closing in the U.S. than are opening. Of course, that kind of news is nothing new. We’ve long heard about the gradual decline in church membership over the last few decades.

In some regards, much of that is balancing off the exponential “growth” that happened in the mid-twentieth century. What the church in America experienced then was an anomaly. A perfect storm of factors contributed to the kind of growth the church experienced. Now, we’re seeing that erode.

It pains us to think our children are leaving the church. We can’t keep up with programs the way we used to do. Buildings are getting older and becoming more of a financial burden. Whether all of that is completely good or bad is what get’s talked about again and again in online articles, podcasts and even weekly sermons.

At the very least, many of us in the church realize something has happened. What is our response going to be? Taking a cue from 1 Samuel 7, turning to God requires something of us. If you’re reading this, I assume your response would be to turn to God. 

If so, understand this, there are plenty of gods in the church today. How many church leaders bow to the gods of statistics and finances? How many churches serve a sense of accomplishment and success instead of mission? So many of the ministry conversations I’ve had have centered around going back to what we had at an earlier time. It’s not because of what was happening, but, rather, because that is what was important to me. In many ways, we’re prone to serve ourselves before we serve God.

We’re weak if we keep with those ways. So, let’s do an inventory. What gods and idols take up space in God’s church today? And don’t just point fingers at others. That’s too easy. Look at your walk with God, what you expect out of church and what you’re willing to do or not do for the sake of the mission of the church.

If you experience the freedom of serving God in fulness, you’ll be better prepared to help the church do the same.

Stay blessed…john