Shine, Church, Shine!

A week ago today, the governor of Ohio announced that all K-12 schools would be closed for 3 weeks. The announcement came the day after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak to be a pandemic. Even though we’d been hearing news reports about the virus for a few months, those 2 reports got my attention in a way that others hadn’t. Ohio is a neighboring state which had just 5 coronavirus cases at that time, and the announcement brought the concerns much closer to home. By the next morning, we learned that schools in our area of southwestern Pennsylvania were considering a 2-day closure. That same afternoon, the governor of PA declared that all schools in the state were required to close. Each day since the closure of schools, coronavirus diagnoses and deaths in the U.S. have increased and the situation has become more alarming.

Today is my fourth day off work from my job at a school in a local youth shelter. I spent all morning and part of the afternoon shopping for the items on a grocery list for my parents who are in their upper 70s and who are following social distancing recommendations. Toilet paper, Lysol disinfectant spray and Lysol wipes were included on the list. 5 hours, 15 stores and 30 miles later, I delivered their groceries. It wasn’t until the 11th store I visited that I found toilet tissue. Up until then, not one of the 10 stores I had been in had a single package of toilet tissue. In store number 11, I found a shelf with a small number of individual rolls of toilet tissue with a limit of one roll per customer. As for the Lysol items, there were none to be found.

I began thinking about those folks in our community who might not have had 5 hours to spend going from store to store or who might not have a reliable vehicle or gas money or who might have difficulty getting in and out of the vehicle 15 times in search of a package of toilet tissue. If really needed, I could have spent more time or driven farther, but what about others? Could they? Could my neighbor? 

“Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” Don’t those words from Romans 13 apply to this situation? Aren’t we to be thinking of our neighbors when we choose to fill up our grocery carts and vehicles with package after package of toilet tissue or carton after carton of eggs? Shouldn’t it occur to us that others may need those supplies for their homes as well? Could my hoarding make life more difficult or inconvenient for another person who might be elderly or ill or without the means that I have to search for them?

Interestingly, crises like the one we’re facing now seem to bring out either the best or the worst of humanity. For those who claim Christ, we should expect to see the best. We would expect to see sacrificing, giving, kindness, compassion, empathy and service towards our fellow man. Christians should have no part in greed, selfishness, arrogance, and self-centeredness. Simply stated, we are to love our neighbor as ourself (the second greatest commandment, according to Jesus).

Fortunately, there has been a lot of good being done. In our community, churches have voluntarily cancelled worship services in order to help curtail the further spread of the virus. Some churches have been preparing and donating free meals to those in need. Others are offering virtual Sunday messages being given by their pastors which could in turn be shared on social media to potentially many more people than would normally be in their Sunday services. Two friends of mine are doing virtual Ladies Bible studies which I’ve joined and am looking forward to attending. A high school friend who is a church worship leader will be taking the time to regularly share a devotion, prayer, and a youtube link to a favorite praise song. The adult Sunday School teacher from my church will be continuing our Sunday School class by video so that we can still have class “together.” What a blessing and what excellent and creative ways God is giving His people to continue as the Church!

Many Christians, including me, will not be worshiping in our church buildings for the time being. I’ve heard it said several times over the past few days: Don’t go to church. Be The Church. This is our time to shine, Church. Let’s do it.

HOPE NUGGET: The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light [Romans 13:12].

As White as Snow

Growing up in Pennsylvania meant being able to count on having several snowstorms during the winter months. My childhood included sled riding, snowball fights, snowmen, snow angels, snow forts, snowmobiles and a favorite of most kids – snow days home from school! As I’ve gotten older, some of the reasons why I enjoy snowstorms have changed. I don’t spend as much time outside in winter as I used to and appreciate more now the beauty of snow from within the house next to the crackling fireplace with a steaming cup of hot chocolate.

This winter though has been disappointing for any of us who look forward to the snow and who enjoy it for whatever the reason may be. After months of anticipating some “real snow” in southwestern Pennsylvania and not just another dusting like the ones we’ve been having, we finally received a more significant snowfall this past week. The ground was covered with over 4 inches and snow clung to the drooping tree branches. Such a beautiful sight! 

Our home is located in the Laurel Highlands, a region that lies in the western foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. Just about a 20 minute drive from our house is a scenic mountainous area where we enjoy spending time. After the snowfall last week, my husband and I drove up there over the weekend to do a little hiking in the woods. By then the heavier snowfall had ended and had turned to gentle flurries which were barely visible. As we walked along the snow-covered trails, completely surrounded by trees which just the week before were brown and bare (as would be expected in February), the beauty and tranquility of the place was breathtaking.

It is while out in nature that I most often marvel at God’s creation. How could I possibly be in a setting like that and not be reminded of the marvelous works of His hands? One of the most meaningful verses in all of scripture for me is found in Isaiah 1:18. It says, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” Here we were in this beautiful place, which had turned from brown to white since our last visit the week before. While there, the image of my scarlet sins becoming white as snow, coupled with the tranquility of this small piece of heaven on earth, brought an incredible sense of peace. 

The God of the universe – reaching out to sinners such as me, such as you, inviting us to “come” and “to reason together” is way more breathtaking than any mountain setting, way more breathtaking than the most wonderful blessing in this world. I am washed white. God does not see scarlet nor does He see crimson when He looks at me. He sees white – my sins are white, as white as snow, as white as wool. I am forgiven. Perhaps when God sees me, a child of The King, one who is washed in the precious blood of His Son, Christ Jesus – perhaps He is affected like I am when I visit that special mountain site which He created. Perhaps it takes His breath away to see me washed clean and white as snow.

HOPE NUGGET: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. [1 John 1:9]

A Fresh Start With A New Heart

I remember that day vividly, nearly two and a half years ago. That morning, while getting ready for work, my sister-in-law Amy called to say that it looked like today would be the day. A day that our family had been anticipating for months. Her 18 year old son, our nephew Matthew, would undergo lengthy heart transplant surgery at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. There was no way of knowing for sure if the surgery would actually take place that day, or if so at what time. Being that the hospital was only about an hour drive away, I got ready and left for work.

On the day of Matthew’s birth, we had gathered at a local hospital, excited about meeting the newest addition to our family. There was no reason to think that there would be any problems; we fully expected a healthy baby to be delivered. Within a short while after birth, we were told that Matthew was having trouble breathing and that a heart problem was detected. It would be necessary to transfer him to Children’s of Pittsburgh where determinations could be made of his condition and where he would receive more specialized care. 

Matthew at 1 month old with cousins Nick & Simon
(Matthew usually has a much more pleasant personality than shown in this picture!)

The devastating news came soon: Matthew had been born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome. The left side of his heart was underdeveloped. The diagnosis came with 3 options for my husband’s brother and his wife. 1 – they could choose to not intervene at all which would mean Matthew would not survive. 2 – they could choose to do a heart transplant. 3 – they could choose to have Matthew undergo a series of surgical procedures over several years which would allow his life to be extended, hopefully at least into his teens. The third option was recommended by doctors and chosen by Matthew’s parents.

There we were, 18 years later. Matthew certainly had his share of struggles by then, but had a happy and fulfilling life. Even though his heart was filled with love and joy, it had become too weak to support and sustain his life. There would not be much more time ahead for him without a heart transplant. While at work later that day, I got the word that Matthew was being prepped for surgery. The day we had hoped and prayed for was finally here. Matthew’s hospital room slowly filled with a few friends and close family. There was joking, nervous laughter, some hidden tears (both of joy and concern), prayers, hugs and see-you-after-the-surgery goodbyes. Matthew waved as he was wheeled down the hallway and the rest of us headed to the waiting room where we’d be together until late in the evening. Hours later and much to everyone’s relief, the phone call to Matthew’s parents came informing them that the surgery was a success. The new heart was beating strongly inside Matthew’s chest. 

Matthew with one of his biggest supporters – his brother Andrew (ages 10 & 5)

Ezekiel was a prophet to the Jewish people for at least twenty-two years and lived among the Jewish exiles in Babylon. A large portion of Ezekiel’s message to the Jews communicated judgment due to their continued rebellion against God [Ezekiel 1-32]. Despite their disobedience to Him, God offered them a wonderful gift with a message of hope through Ezekiel: “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” [Ezekiel 36:26]. God’s desire was to restore Israel physically and spiritually. Physical restoration would occur with Israel returning to its own land as a nation. Spiritual restoration would occur through His Spirit as God transformed them and empowered them to do His will. He gave them a fresh start with a new heart.

Matthew was given a fresh start. God answered our prayers by means of a generous heart donor and a talented and dedicated medical team who provided him with physical restoration. Without the transplant, Matthew could very well not be with us today. A new heart was required to sustain his life. You and I may never be in need of a heart transplant, but the Bible makes it clear that we are all, even more importantly, in need of spiritual restoration. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God [Romans 3:23]. Like the rebellious Jews who received God’s message through Ezekiel and like the people of Judah in Jeremiah’s time who didn’t incline their ears to hear from God, our hearts are evil and stubborn and disobedient [Jeremiah 7:24]. Walking in our own counsel is not the remedy; only God can give a fresh start with a new heart. The requirement is to turn to Christ, to put our Hope and Trust in Him. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10).

HOPE NUGGET: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” [2 Corinthians 5:17].

The Lady in the Window

It’s funny how the brain works and how suddenly out of nowhere, a random thought occurs or a memory which was buried deep within suddenly resurfaces. This coming June will be 10 years since my dad’s mom, my Grandma Alice, passed away. She was 90 years old when she was found sitting at the window of her kitchen. Grandma had spent many hours at that window, a window positioned in such a way that a comfortable chair next to it allowed for a view of the church next door, the railroad trestle, the homes of several neighbors, including a granddaughter and her family, and the main road which ran through the small town.

From early childhood, I remember countless times when visiting Grandma that we’d find her relaxing in her chair at the window. Often during visits, we would sit around the kitchen table while Grandma sat in her usual window seat. Some of my strongest memories of Grandma are of her in that seat or of the visits on warm summer evenings when we’d gather on the large front porch. We’d spend hours out there – Grandma usually on one of the gliders, while other family members sat on porch chairs or gliders or on the wooden ledge at the top of the porch’s wall around its perimeter. The wooden ledge was a favorite spot of mine, but reserved only for the older grandchildren and adults. Sitting there came with a warning to be careful and not fall off to the ground 7 feet below. I’d often sit with my back leaning against one of the porch posts with my legs stretched out and resting on the ledge. From that front porch, we’d talk to neighbors across the road or wave at passersby in their cars or on motorcycles as they honked their horns. It was a carefree time. 

Graduation day with Grandma Alice in her yard (June 4, 1982)

In Grandma’s aging years, she had become forgetful and would sometimes be confused in her thinking. During one of our visits, we had a conversation about that kitchen window and the chair where she sat. Grandma remarked that she enjoyed sitting at the window and waving at neighbors or to those in vehicles as they passed by. I know for sure that she did because anytime that we passed by her house without stopping to visit, we’d make sure to slow down enough to catch a glimpse of her at the window, to look for her wave, and to wave at her. I waved at Grandma in that window dozens upon dozens of times throughout my life. As our conversation proceeded, Grandma, as serious as could be, went on to tell us that she needed to be at that window, for if she wasn’t at the window, then the people wouldn’t wave at her. There’s no doubt that Grandma was convinced of that.

Our family still chuckles over Grandma’s declaration every time it’s retold. And yes, it is true. My Grandma Alice, The Lady in the Window, took her last breath while sitting in her chair at the window. On her final day at the window, my dad, who faithfully visited her every day, made the short drive from his house to see his Ma. On that early summer evening, as he approached the side porch of the house and looked toward the window, he noticed that she was still, and that she hadn’t waved. I’ve wondered different times about who the final person was that she waved to and who the final person was that she saw wave to her. 

Grandma waited and she watched. She was ready at that window every day. I know that Grandma was always ready to wave to her neighbors and even to strangers who would pass by. I don’t know if on that last day, she expected Jesus to call upon her. She believed in Him. She claimed Him as Savior. She had sat in the pews of that small church learning about the Gospel of Christ. But, did she expect to see Him that day? Did He wave to her or did He gesture for her to go with Him? I trust that she was ready to meet Him on that day.

Grandma Alice, Christmas 1994, age 74

Are we waiting and watching for Jesus? Are we ready for Him? Are we dressed for service with our lamps burning? When He knocks, will we open the door? Have you opened the door of your heart to Him?

HOPE NUGGET: “Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like servants waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes…..You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” [Luke 12: 35, 36, 37a, 40]

Flashlight Tag

A favorite activity of our 2 and 4 year old granddaughters on “sweepover” nights is playing “Flashlight Tag” with Pappy & Grammy. The popular children’s game of Hide-and-Seek can be traced back to second century Greece. It’s a game that most anyone reading this probably played as a child. The game resurfaced in our household when grandchildren came along, with Uncle Nick being “It” and little Junie hiding in the same spot every time under the covers in the bed of “The Toy Story room.” She would run back through the hallway giggling and diving under the covers of that bed, convinced that she was fooling Uncle Nick and that he would not be able to find her this time! 

Flashlight Tag hiding place!

Our game of Hide-and-Seek evolved into a game which we now call Flashlight Tag. This game has become a routine for us played on sleepover nights after the sun goes down and before bedtime stories. The past 2 weeks of Christmas vacation included countless rounds of Flashlight Tag. The team of Hiders uses their flashlights to find a good hiding spot and after shouts of “Ready, Set, Here We Come!” the team of Seekers uses their flashlights to locate the Hiders. Flashlight Tag with 2 and 4 year olds is highly entertaining …. flashlights left on while in their hiding spots, laughter coming from the places of hiding, hiding over and over in the same locations, and shouts of surprise when a hider is found! 

On Sunday morning, our last day of Christmas vacation together before their drive to the airport, we did something different together by holding “House Church” at Pappy and Grammy’s. We read the Bible story of Jonah and sang songs and talked about how Jonah ran from God. Like 2-year old Ellie playing Flashlight Tag and thinking that she could leave the flashlight turned on while under the cover and not be found, Jonah mistakenly thought that he would not be visible to God if he went in a direction opposite of Ninevah, the place where God had commanded him to go. Jonah thought that he could run from God. He thought that by boarding the ship sailing for Tarshish that he could avoid obeying God’s voice. He ran, but he could not hide. The cover of the ship did not keep God from finding Jonah’s hiding spot. [Jonah 1]

Our House Church lesson…paintings by Junie and Ellie

Our 4 year old granddaughter has improved her skills in Flashlight Tag. She stays quiet when hiding, she doesn’t leave on her flashlight, and she now tries to find unique and different hiding locations. She understands that even when putting a lot of effort into hiding that sooner or later she will be found. Do you wonder why Jonah had the idea that he could avoid God’s plan for him to speak to the people of Ninevah? How could he have not realized that no matter how far he traveled that he wouldn’t escape God’s presence? Why did it take something as drastic as being in the belly of a great fish for three days for Jonah to submit to the will of God? Will God need to get your attention or my attention by appointing a great fish to swallow us?

HOPE NUGGET: “I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.” [Jonah 2:2]

A Cautionary Tale

Have you ever been told to “trust your heart” or to “follow your heart” when making a decision? It’s a pretty commonly given piece of advice, from both Christians and non-Christians. Most of us have more than likely followed that advice at one time or another. Sometimes when doing so, it went well and things worked out for us. At other times, the outcome was disastrous. The advice was well-intended and meant to help, not to harm. The problem though is that according to God’s word, we know that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) 

Would it be wise to follow the advice of something known to be deceitful and sick? It would mean following something that lies to us, that misleads us. You see, God knows the hearts of man better than we even know them for ourselves. He understands what motivates us and what drives us. He knows that apart from His guidance, there will be failure in our decision-making. That is why He gives us warnings to not rely on our hearts to guide us and that is why He cautions us to seek Him in all things. Unless and until your heart is aligned with God’s, it cannot be trusted to guide your decisions.

What to do? Make sure that your heart is right with God, that it is tuned in to the heart of God, that it aligns with the principles laid out in scripture. Make sure that you seek God with all of your heart when making plans, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” [Jeremiah 29:11-13]…..and…..”Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (Proverbs 4:23)

HOPE NUGGET: Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. [Proverbs 3:5-6]

Make me a servant

“Make me a servant, humble and meek, Lord, let me lift up those who are weak, And may the prayer of my heart always be: Make me a servant today.” The lyrics to this 80s gospel song by Kelly Willard is a wonderful prayer for the start of the new year, and for the start of each and every day. In my early days after becoming a Christian, it seemed like we often sang this chorus. It had a big impact on me. Though the words are simple, I knew that they had deep and important meaning to my newfound faith. I knew that choosing to follow Christ would mean a complete and necessary change of lifestyle for me. I knew that making the commitment to serve Christ would mean sacrifice. It would mean a sacrifice of time, talents and treasures.

But finding ways to serve didn’t feel like a sacrifice. It felt right and good. The hours that I had been devoting to myself and to the ones close to me would need to be shared with others, sometimes for others who I barely knew or didn’t know at all. The gratitude and enthusiasm I had for being accepted as a child of God into God’s Kingdom spurred me on with a strong desire to serve. I remember not yet having a solid grasp of the Bible’s teachings, but I did have an interest and willingness to learn. Because of that, one of the natural places for me to begin to serve was in children’s ministry. I had young children of my own, and through teaching them and the other children of the church, I learned more of the Bible stories that are taught to kids. It was a time of growth and service.

Since then, I’ve continued to have the desire to serve. There’s definitely satisfaction in doing so, along with rewards for all involved. I came to realize that my interactions with others and my acts of service made as much or more of a difference to others as the words I spoke. In recent years as the leader of a young adults ministry, weekly meetings were held and Bible lessons were taught, but if my words to the young adults hadn’t been combined with the outreaches and activities that we were involved in, and in serving one another in various ways, the ministry would have been much less effective. I’m still working on perfecting an attitude of servanthood, both in word and in deed. Having a servant’s heart means having a meek and humble attitude, as the song declares. Servanthood isn’t a chore. It isn’t to be avoided. Instead of asking ourselves, “Why should I have to do ‘this or that,’”we should be offering our services for the benefit of others. Servanthood might mean investing some “sweat equity” into a task (credit for this term goes to my friend Sharon who shared it with me recently).

True leadership requires servanthood. The greatest leader and servant of all time is Jesus Christ “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2: 6-7). Christ is the ultimate example of servanthood and He is the standard after which we should model ourselves. It isn’t always easy; it can be exhausting. But ohhhh…..serving others is extremely rewarding and is the essence of Christianity and Christian ministry. Dear God, make ME a servant. So, Christian friends, let’s humble ourselves, roll up our sleeves, and serve God and others.

HOPE NUGGET: For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).