Encouragement for Thursday

Many times I have heard people use the expression “The good die young.” It is often used to try to soften the effect of someone young passing away, but it is hogwash. Someone good might indeed die young. Our savior Jesus experienced His earthly death at a young age. No other human has ever been as good as He was. Noah died at the age of 950. It would be a stretch to call that young in any possible way. Yet Noah belonged to God and dedicated his life to serving Him and showing His glory. I believe Noah would be considered good. The choices we make in life can certainly affect how long we live, but the length of our earthly life doesn’t depend on our being “good” or “bad.”

I considered these thoughts because of a recent news item. Lucile Randon, known as Sister Andre, died on January 17, 2023 at the age of 118. She was recognized as the oldest living person on Earth. In 3 more weeks she would have reached 119. Sometimes at my current age I feel old and I am roughly half that age.

It is somewhat staggering to read of the things that she related as influences in her life. She spoke of learning a new word, “electricity,” when electric lights came to her school in the early 1900’s. She said that the day she felt happiest was Armistice Day, which marked the end of World War I, and she was able to be reunited with her soldier brother. She lived through the worldwide Spanish flu epidemic in 1918 as a teenager. She was baptized at age 26, and dedicated herself to service as a nun in the Catholic Church with the Daughters of Charity 15 years later. She was assigned to work at a hospital in Vichy (occupied) France during World War II and worked there 31 years. She spent much of her life serving orphans and the elderly. She kept working in active service to others to the age of 108. She lived at a nursing home in Toulon, France, and became the oldest person to recover from COVID in 2021. Until her death she was recognized for trying to positively influence her neighbors.

When asked about the reason for her longevity she replied “Only the good Lord knows.” She believed that continuing to work helped keep her going. She also ate chocolate and drank a glass of wine daily. I think there is some benefit from blending enjoyment in life with fulfilling work. She echoed Paul’s belief that she would be better off in Heaven (“I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” (Philippians 1:23-24)). As she aged she lost her eyesight, and had trouble hearing. Her body became weaker, but her mind and spirit kept her trying to benefit those around her. In one of her last interviews she said “People should help each other and love each other instead of hating. If we all shared that, things would be a lot better.”

I don’t know if I will die this year or if I will live to be 100. To borrow Sister Andre’s line, “Only the good Lord knows.” It is a bit overwhelming to think about living to 100. In any case her life serves as both an example and a challenge. I can only hope to be as faithful and as useful to God and His service when I am at an advanced age. Our society seems to make us feel that we become less valuable as we get older. Is it possible that in God’s sight we become even more valuable?

Take heart and be encouraged!

Encouragement for Thursday

I can sense a question coming: “Joel, why do we see a picture of the left rear fin of a 1957 Buick Special? It isn’t particularly encouraging.” It is a reminder of a memorable time for many (although before my memory). Our country and economy were generally strong. Family and church life maintained primary importance with many people. Many even loved the bold, flashy styling of cars like this Buick.

This picture wasn’t included for any of these reasons. If you look closely in the chrome on the fin, bumper, and trim, you can see reflections of me (or at least parts of me). “Oh yeah Joel, now that you mention it, I CAN see you. At least your distorted head and some of your body and arms. Well, it doesn’t look totally like you, but I see at least a partial resemblance.”

“Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put aside childish things. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:8-12, CSB)

I believe I am generally a patient person. But there are times I find myself thinking, “Why can’t I pray more effectively?” “Why can’t I explain things better?” “Why don’t I listen as well as I should?” “Why am I not a more consistent example of Christ?” I believe Paul considered some of the same lines of thought for the benefit of all believers. In the passage above Paul mentions abilities and qualities that help us to mature. The intended meaning of the word “perfect” there is not “flawless” as we tend to understand it as modern Americans. The idea of the word (telos) in Greek is “completion,” “finish,” “end,” or “goal.” The lifetime sanctification we experience as believers leads us from being children in faith to mature adults, ready to meet Christ when He returns.

Our ultimate goal is reaching the point when the most obvious, shining characteristic we show is God’s love. It takes time—a lifetime, in fact. Our dedication to faith and hope in Christ will help us reach the finality of our development in God’s love. It may not be at the pace that we would like, but it will be at the pace God knows we need. Don’t forget the Spirit’s help. One day we won’t be an imperfect reflection, but a clear image of His love and nature!

Take heart and be encouraged!

Encouragement for Thursday

Recently I read an article discussing our fascination with New Year’s day. It contained a quote I don’t remember reading before:

“I wish for those I love this New Year an opportunity to earn sufficient, to have that which they need for their own and to give that which they desire to others, to bring in to the lives of those about them some measure of joy, to know the satisfaction of work well done, of recreation earned and therefore savored, to end the year a little wiser, a little kinder and therefore a little happier.” (Eleanor Roosevelt, in a column from “My Day” on January 1, 1937)

I wonder how acquainted she was with The Scripture because her thoughts parallel Biblical teachings. Ecclesiastes came to my mind immediately:

“This is what I observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.” (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20)

Intertwined in her words is the message of Jesus in Matthew 7:9-12:

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

I think sometimes I miss the gifts of God in my present because I am either dwelling in my past or yearning for my future. I am reminded of a quote by Allen Saunders (often incorrectly attributed to John Lennon, who later used it in a song): “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.” Sometimes our past offers motivation—we either want to repeat something that worked well for us, or change something that didn’t. Our future, especially as believers, means an eternal future in God’s presence. It is hard to not look forward to that. Our present is our life. Every day we live for God’s glory, learning and maturing a little bit each day along the way. That development shows that we belong to Christ, and that the Spirit lives in us. The development and display of who we belong to serves to reach others for Christ whether we realize it or not. Every day matters. When Christ returns, all of our days will help prepare us to meet Him as mature servants.

Lord, help us to receive comfort and strength from remembering our past. Help us to receive comfort and strength from looking to our future, knowing that our eternity lies with You. Let that comfort and strength serve us each day in our present, so that we can be your agents here on Earth, letting the world see You. Amen!

Take heart and be encouraged!

Encouragement for Thursday

Merry Christmas! This week I would like to share 2 songs and videos. The first is a beautiful classic Christmas hymn that we do not often sing. The second is a secular song that we often hear during the Christmas season. Please watch and listen.

After hearing those songs you might be thinking they have little in common, which is incorrect. Both had at least their lyrics written by Benjamin Russell Hanby. Benjamin’s father William was a maker of harnesses and saddles. He was also a minister (later bishop) of the United Brethren Church. Their home in Rushville, Ohio, in Fairfield County, was a noted stop on the Underground Railroad in the 1840’s. Benjamin grew up with the same dedication to God, and to the abolition of slavery as his father. The family eventually moved to Westerville, Ohio, where William helped establish Otterbein University. Benjamin enrolled there at 16, and graduated. He also became a minister in the Brethren Church. The Hanby family continued to assist former slaves by providing shelter and protection in their Westerville home.

Benjamin was a self-taught musician, and loved music. He began to write songs in support of abolition. One of his earliest and most famous songs was “Darling Nelly Gray,” which was based on the account of an escaped slave named Joseph Selby. He planned to save up enough money to free his love, Nelly Gray, who had been sold to a plantation as a slave. Unfortunately Joseph was very ill, and died in the Hanby home before he was able to fulfill his dream. Joseph and his story made a deep impression on Benjamin. “Nelly Gray” became very popular, and was sung by troops on both sides of the Civil War– as inspiration for the Union, and in a derogatory manner by the Confederacy. He wrote several other songs in support of abolition.

He discovered that he loved teaching, especially children. He continued to write musical scores and lyrics. One of the songs he taught to his classes was one designed as a sing along to help his students develop– “Up on the Housetop.” He also wrote many hymns, including “Who is He in Yonder Stall?” He moved to Chicago to work with a music publishing company to produce and publish his music. There he contracted tuberculosis, and passed away at the young age of 33.

I am always impressed by someone like Benjamin Hanby, who was able to make such an impact on so many people in such a short earthly life. Again I am reminded of Jesus’ parable about the talents, where someone who makes the most of their blessings will receive even more. During his lifetime the efforts of his family to help many to freedom and safety was undoubtedly appreciated by many and had a lasting impact. “Darling Nelly Gray” played a role in rallying people to the cause of ending slavery. After his lifetime his songs have lived on. “Who is he in Yonder Stall?” beautifully describes Christ’s person, work, and place in the Kingdom, reminding us of God’s greatest gift. Even a less serious song like “Up on the Housetop” continues to remind people of Christmas and establish the mood of the season.

We know that we do not deserve God’s grace, and can in no way give Him any gift comparable to His gift of Jesus to us. We can accept His gift and try to live a life pleasing to Him. I am reminded of the final words of Christina Rossetti’s carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter”: “Yet what I can I give Him, give my heart.” It is a blessing to see these words lived out in the life of Benjamin Hanby.

Take heart and be encouraged!

Encouragement for Thursday

Many of the hymns or carols we sing in the Christmas season come from a Western European or British Isles origin. This is natural because these are the areas of origin of most immigrants to America during the time our holiday traditions were being established. Some writers were immigrants or were descended from them. Other carols were brought from their home country and translated to English when necessary. One of our most joyous Christmas songs has a decidedly different origin.

From ancient Biblical times people have enslaved other people to suit their own desires or purposes. In some occasions it was due to indentured servanthood, where people were dedicated to working for others for a given period of time to pay a debt. On other occasions it was due to a conquering nation in a war taking advantage of those conquered. This was the cause of the slavery that the Jews endured in Egypt during the time of Moses. These two occasions were also the cause of slavery in Africa. Indentured servanthood existed, and conquered tribes were taken as servants by their conquering tribes. Beginning in the 7th century or so Arab Muslims and Europeans are believed to have participated in the practice of chattel slavery in Africa, where captured people were seen as property to be bought and sold. Africans captured as property were sold in Europe, and in China and the far east. It is believed that the Portuguese first brought African slaves across the Atlantic in ships to the Americas in the 1600’s. The first ship was supposedly intended for the Spanish inhabitants of the Caribbean and Central America. It only made it as far as a landing near the Jamestown colony, where the slaves were sold instead. Thus began the disgraceful history of slavery in North America.

When the United States became a country in 1776 slavery was an accepted practice. Some slaves were treated well, and many others very poorly. Regardless of their treatment they were seen as belongings without their own personal freedom. In the early 1800’s people began to question the morality of slavery. There was a movement within the country that wanted to declare that all people should be considered free, and not subject to ownership or servitude by others. They wanted this declared at a federal level to guarantee this right to all. Many southern states seceded from the union because they didn’t believe that the federal government should be deciding this, and that states should be able to decide this type of law themselves (calling this “states’ rights”). Hence the Civil War. As we know the Union won, and slavery was ended.

The experience of slaves in America draws a parallel in my mind to the slavery that the Israelites experienced in Egypt and Babylon. They were subjected to a hard, harsh life and looked ahead to the day when they would be free. The feelings of sorrow and despair buoyed by hope in God built the foundation for a very particular type of music that blossomed in the mid 1800’s– the spiritual. Nothing could stop them from worshiping God, and many did. Despite their enslaved status, poor living conditions, and uncertain earthly futures they maintained a strong faith in the God who would save their souls.

Spirituals were songs that were created and taught verbally, and passed to new generations. They weren’t written on fancy sheet music in universities, or practiced on pianos or organs in churches or well to do homes. John Wesley Work III, a musician and music professor at Fisk University, began collecting and documenting spirituals. He wrote them down, transcribed the music, and eventually recorded many of the songs with Fisk students. His 1907 collection, “Folk Songs of the American Negro” included one of our most jubilant Christmas songs– “Go Tell It On the Mountain.”

The verses of the song give an account of the events on the night of Jesus’ birth, and end with the acknowledgement that God will reward those who seek Him and eventually make them great in His sight. In between the verses is the chorus, which declares Christ’s coming boldly and with joy:

Go, tell it on the mountain,

Over the hills and everywhere.

Go, tell it on the mountain

That Jesus Christ is born.

I struggled to locate a version of the song that I believed shared the original intent and feeling that was intended when the song was written. Many of the versions I watched were stylized performance versions that didn’t seem quite right. I finally found one that captured the exuberant spirit I think the song intended. There are a LOT of people singing in this video and they seem genuinely excited. Please step outside your musical comfort zone as I did and feel the joy!

Take heart and be encouraged!

Encouragement for Thursday

We have many Christmas movies and specials that mean a lot to us for different reasons. Thanksgiving, not so many. When I was in junior high school, I believe, one of the local T.V. stations (probably channel 43) showed two movies on Thanksgiving day for a number of years in a row: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Snow White and the Three Stooges. I have to admit I liked both of them (although the Stooges’ shorts were much more artistic than their full length movies). How they related specifically with Thanksgiving is anybody’s guess. A number of years later a movie with Thanksgiving as the driving force of its plot appeared.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles was introduced in 1987. It was written, produced, and directed by John Hughes, who specialized in movies that focused on human relationships. The plot revolves around two men who meet by chance due to travel difficulties as Thanksgiving approaches. Neal Page (Steve Martin) is a straight-laced business executive that is trying to get back to his home and family in Chicago in time for Thanksgiving. Del Griffith (John Candy) is a shower curtain ring salesman traveling for business. They are polar opposites in personality. Neal is serious, reserved and restrained in his actions. Del is a joker, open and talkative. After their initial travel plans fall through due to bad weather, Del promises Neal he will get him home in time for Thanksgiving, because he feels at least partially responsible for Neal’s predicament.

Their trip becomes a comedy of errors and hardships, traveling on, yes– planes, trains, and automobiles, and also trucks. Throughout the journey Del remains focused on his goal of trying to get Neal home to Chicago in time for his big family Thanksgiving dinner. Neal also remains focused on his goal of trying to get home in time for his big family Thanksgiving dinner. Along the way Neal changes. He has to move out of his comfort zone. He has to learn to “fly by the seat of his pants,” so to speak. He has to adjust to things outside of his control, which seems foreign to him. He learns that he has to accept Del for who he is– he can’t change him to be the way he would like him to be. He also learns to laugh.

Eventually Del does get Neal back to Chicago on Thanksgiving day. He will make it in time for dinner. As the two men part ways on the platform of the El in Chicago they both appreciate what they have been through. The change in Neal becomes apparent as he rides on the train, reflecting on the past few days. As he remembers events and conversations his mind turns away from himself and toward Del. He returns back to the station where he got on the train and finds Del sitting in the station alone. When he asks why he is there he learns that Del’s wife had passed away 8 years ago and that he is alone and homeless. He takes Del home with him, so that his new friend can share Thanksgiving with his family.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look not to his own interests, but rather to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4, CSB)

It would have been easy for Neal Page to continue home on the train, and forget about Del Griffith. The experiences of the past few days could have been a lost exercise in frustration. Instead they turned out to be a lesson in humility brought about from considering another man’s situation instead of his own. He gained a true friend.

Although Planes, Trains and Automobiles doesn’t quote Scripture and can’t really be considered a Christian movie, it has at its heart the message of Philippians 2:3-4. Del always seemed genuinely concerned for Neal’s welfare. For the majority of the journey Neal was oblivious to Del’s needs. His lesson in turning his mind to someone else rather than himself is a reminder that each of us needs from time to time. Pastor James’ emphasis the past month or two has been on considering others and being in harmony. Philippians 2 at its core emphasizes considering others and working together. From beginning to end, so does Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Even a Thanksgiving comedy movie can serve as a positive example, and lead us to remember Scripture!

I have attached a clip of the ending of the movie. It is about 7 minutes in length. If you have enough time, please watch.

Take heart and be encouraged!

Encouragement for Thursday

This year Jim Sperry has shared a few messages with the church. Although the Scripture texts has varied the underlying message has been consistent: “God is awesome!” That theme reminds me of one hymn in particular—How Great Thou Art. Since I was young this hymn has been one of the most common hymns that would be considered among a small group of foundational classics that come immediately to mind (to my mind at least), including Amazing Grace, Sweet Hour of Prayer, Just As I Am, and A Mighty Fortress. Many hymns were written by noted hymn writers and musicians, and were originally written for use in worship services. How Great Thou Art took a longer, more winding path.

In 1885 a Swedish editor named Carl Boberg was walking home along a coastline. He was generally enjoying nature when a sudden thunderstorm arose. He found cover until the worst of the storm passed, and then rushed to get home. After he got home he opened his windows to see a clear beautiful sky. He listened to the birds and heard church bells ringing. He sat down and wrote a poem that he called. “O Store Gud” (which is Swedish for “A Mighty God”). He shared the poem, and it was eventually published in the local newspaper. A songwriter saw it and matched the words with a Swedish folk song. In the early 1900’s it was translated to German. Later a Russian version appeared. It was translated to English in 1925 by E. Gustav Johnson to a version unlike what we have today. In the 1930’s British missionary Stuart K. Hine heard the Russian version while he was in Ukraine. He translated that version into English. In 1949 he introduced his version with a new title, “How Great Thou Art.”

The hymn was published in a missionary magazine called “Grace and Peace.” J. Edwin Orr, an evangelist, was traveling in India and heard an Indian choir singing the hymn. He loved it and brought that English version back home to America. He had it performed at a conference he was holding for college students, where it was heard by Tim Spencer’s children. Tim was a singer formerly in the Sons of the Pioneers, Roy Rogers’ cowboy band. He owned Mana Music and bought the song rights. It was mostly unknown until 1954, when George Beverly Shea heard it.

He and Billy Graham loved it and used it as the theme song of a world crusade he was conducting at the time. From that point its fame spread and it was recorded by many, including Elvis Presley, Loretta Lynn, and Tennessee Ernie Ford. Over the years since it has been performed and recorded an immeasurable number of times. It became a worship standard in English speaking churches.

I was motivated to consider this song because I heard a performance version of it that I had not previously heard. YouTube suggested that I watch a video of it performed by a group called GQ (“Girls Quartet”). I have watched several other performances by them. They are not very commercially famous to my knowledge. It is a group of women who met years ago while they were in college in Baltimore County, Maryland. They began singing together, writing and/or arranging a lot of their own music. They graduated long ago, and I believe at least three of them are now teachers in schools. They continued to perform after college.

I am usually a traditionalist about a lot of things. Sometimes I hear different or modernized versions of hymns and songs that simply turn me off. At other times I am motivated to appreciate one in a new light. This heartfelt version by GQ is in the latter category. It took me out of my comfortable place of hearing the same melody in the same style (great though it is), and caused me to focus on the words again, and feel the emotion behind the song. I hope it does that for you also:

Take heart and be encouraged!

Encouragement for Thursday

Today’s date, November 10th, is one that catches my attention every year. It is the date in 1975 the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior during a terrible storm. The event is forever ingrained in the memory of those directly affected by it—surviving family members of the crew, friends of the crewmen, fellow shipping crews on the Great Lakes, and even shipping crews of the future through changed and updated safety regulations for shipping. Many who were not directly affected by the tragedy became familiar with it through a ballad written by Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” The song is largely based on the facts of the event, but there are some details in the song provided through legend and poetic license.

“The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy”

Lake Superior has an average depth of almost 500 feet. At its deepest it is 1,332 feet. The Fitzgerald rests about 535 feet from the surface. The average water temperature during the year is 40 degrees. At its deepest parts it is colder. The verse in the song above has a basis in fact. When a physical organic body–plant, fish, or human sinks to the bottom of a warm body of water, bacteria and other tiny creatures cause decomposition. As this happens tissue bloats and expands, which normally causes objects to rise to the top of the water. In water as cold as the depths of Lake Superior there is little to no bacteria to decompose organic objects. They stay at the bottom of the lake and are preserved for a long time. Therefore the lake never gives up its dead.

That characteristic of large and deep bodies of water is only one of the many reasons that deep water, and the oceans especially still hide mysteries from us. Every year scientists discover creatures and plants in the depths of the oceans that have escaped our gaze and study. During more ancient Biblical times even greater mystery surrounded the watery depths.

In the New Testament the Greek word translated as “sea” is “thalassa”. It generally indicates a natural body of water: an ocean, sea, lake, seashore, or body of water in general. It doesn’t always mean “ocean” in the largest bodies of water on Earth sense. The Sea of Galilee is a freshwater lake and is much smaller than any of the Great Lakes. Yet the fishermen and travelers of Biblical times were very wary of it and its weather and waves. Much more fear entailed as people entered the Mediterranean Sea. It is much larger and deeper, and held creatures in its depths that the Sea of Galilee did not. Reports in ancient times of fearful creatures like the kraken were probably not fanciful fiction but borne by encounters with creatures like the giant squid or octopus. A trip out on a boat or ship, especially on a large body of water brought no guarantee of a safe return home. A thalassa meant uncertainty, lack of control, danger, fear, and possibly disappearance and death to the people of the New Testament period.

“Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.” (Revelation 21:1)

I believe that the sea mentioned in this verse represents the fear and uncertainty people feel for unexpected and unseen danger and death. Some apply a literal meaning to this term, saying that it means that the physical New Earth will have no seas or large bodies of water. I don’t believe this harmonizes well with the other obviously figurative language in the following verses of the chapter. Did John literally see the Holy City “prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (v.2)? He is trying to describe what he saw in the most applicable human terms possible to show the beauty and grandeur of the occasion.

The disappearance of the sea coincides with the second sentence of verse 4: “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” The theme continues in verse 5: “He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’” His “making everything new” doesn’t simply mean our physical home on Earth. It means the entire system in which we exist. We won’t have the separation from God, death, sorrow, sickness, and pain that we face now as consequences of sin. For true believers who have accepted Christ as savior this means being in His presence for eternity as a member of His family. The sea is no more. Hallelujah!

Take heart and be encouraged!

Encouragement for Thursday

Many years ago I was involved in a theological discussion of sorts from a post on a friend’s Facebook page. If I remember correctly, the general theme of the discussion was the continuity of teaching throughout the New Testament. After one of my responses, another man said the following: “Well, I follow Paul’s Gospel, not Jesus’ Gospel. It isn’t the same.” After lifting my jaw off the floor because of that heretical proclamation, I made a lengthier response explaining that Paul followed Jesus’ teaching and Gospel precisely. The man didn’t respond. He had a very faulty opinion of what constituted the Gospel along with a misunderstanding of Paul.

Pastor James’ sermon this past Sunday brought that discussion to mind. Paul’s words in Philippians 2:1-8 run a very strong parallel to the words of Jesus presented in John 15:9-15. I can easily imagine Paul having these words in mind as he wrote to the Philippians. Here are the words of Paul in Philippians 2:1-2:

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.”

Following are the words of Jesus presented by John in John 15:9-11:

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. How are we united with Christ, and how do we have comfort from His love, and share in the Spirit? “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.” (John 15:9-10).

Jesus reminds us that there is no separation between Himself and His Father, and acknowledges the Spirit later in His discussion: “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me.” (John 15:26). I believe this is the basis of Paul’s instruction to be “like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” What is Jesus’ goal? “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11). In Philippians Paul is seeking the joy that Jesus promises from all of us being united with Him.

Jesus continues His message:

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.” (John 15:12-14).

Jesus fully knew the meaning of His statement “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Even in the immediate days following His crucifixion I am not sure the disciples understood. After He met with them following His resurrection it became much clearer. This is where Paul’s mind was focusing when he wrote about Jesus humbling Himself and dying on the cross for us. He was in the form of a man yet still divine. Still, He considered us more important than Himself. Paul was looking to Jesus’ example as he wrote verses 3 and 4:

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

Many times in the New Testament we have Scriptures from the Old Testament, or even other New Testament writers quoted. In Philippians 2 we see Paul not simply quoting other verses for the point of teaching. He is exhorting in a way that indicates that he has internalized Jesus’ teaching from John 15. Jesus’ way of thinking has become Paul’s way of thinking. That is the purpose and intention of the Bible. It isn’t just a historical record, or a rule book to follow. God’s ways must become our ways.

Lord, help us to make Jesus’ teaching part of our lives and being as Paul did. Let us share His love, tenderness, and compassion with each other. Thank You for Your love and compassion for us, and for considering us friends.

Take heart and be encouraged!

Encouragement for Thursday

One of the areas I visited in northeastern Ohio this past summer was the Ashtabula, Ohio area. I was in the area to see and photograph some of the covered bridges that are still standing in Ashtabula and Trumbull counties. In the late 1800’s through the first half of the 1900’s Ashtabula was a busy industrial center. Its harbor on Lake Erie brought manufacturers due to the convenience of shipping materials and goods to and from the area. The Ashtabula River brought goods from further down state to the harbor. Railroads from the east coast passed through the city on their way west.

On December 29, 1876 the largest train disaster in the United States to that time occurred in Ashtabula. That night the Pacific Express, a Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway train, traveled through the area in the midst of a heavy snowstorm. The train was carrying nearly 200 people bound for different western destinations, in addition to the crew. Two locomotives were pulling 11 of a variety of types of cars. As the train crossed the Ashtabula River the iron bridge collapsed. Only the lead locomotive was able to reach safety on the far side of the bridge where it was not involved in the impending tragedy. The second locomotive separated from the first and was eventually dropped down as the last link in the chain of train cars that plunged 75 feet into the river. After the cars settled the coal fired boilers and oil lamps set the wooden train on fire. Around 64 people were able to escape with injuries. The remainder (exact count unknown) perished in the crash or the fire. Most of the victims were not identifiable. The railroad purchased a large plot in Chestnut Grove Cemetery in Ashtabula, and the remains that could be gathered were interred. A monument listing the names of the missing passengers was later added at the site to remember those who lost their lives.

We have heard the account of how Horatio Spafford wrote the words to “It is Well with My Soul” while passing the spot in the Atlantic Ocean where his 4 young daughters lost their lives when the ship they were traveling on sank. After writing the lyrics of the hymn he contacted his friend Philip P. Bliss to ask him to write the music to accompany them.

Philip Bliss left home at a young age to try to find work. He found himself particularly interested in music and was eventually able to take enough specialized schooling to become a teacher. He became a traveling teacher, stopping in certain locations for limited periods to teach music to those who were interested. His faith in God led him to begin to write hymns. He composed the music and wrote lyrics. He began to perform sacred music concerts in addition to his teaching in schools and conventions. While attending one of Dwight Moody’s revival meetings he noticed that the singing portion of his meetings needed support that he believed he could provide. Mr. Moody gave him a chance and was grateful and impressed. He invited him to come to any of his Sunday evening meetings he could to share his musical abilities in improving the music worship. Dwight also encouraged him to become a singing evangelist, giving up his other lines of work.

He eventually did, dedicating his life to God’s service. Over the years many hymns that Philip Bliss wrote became standards used in many churches. Many of us have sung at least some of them: “Let the Lower Lights be Burning,” “Wonderful Words of Life,” “Hallelujah what a Savior,” “I Will Sing of My Redeemer,” “Jesus Loves Even Me,” “Dare to Be a Daniel,” “Almost Persuaded,” “In the Cross of Christ I Glory,” “Meet Me at the Fountain,” and many others. Some of the Titanic survivors reported that those in their lifeboat sang his hymn “Pull for the Shore” as they tried to reach safety.

You might be wondering what the Ashtabula train disaster has to do with Philip Bliss. He and his wife Lucy were passengers on the Pacific Express when it plunged into the Ashtabula River. He was on his way to Chicago to work with Dwight Moody in a series of evangelistic meetings. They were among the unidentified who perished in the wreck. Their trunk, which contained songs that Philip had been working on, survived. One for which he had only finished the lyrics was “I Will Sing of My Redeemer.” Friend and sometime colleague James McGranahan wrote the music to accompany it.

At the time of his death Philip Bliss was only 38 years old. It is easy to focus on the tragedy of his relatively early passing. I can just as easily look at his life and say, “Wow! He made quite an impact for God in only 38 years.” His words and music have educated and strengthened many believers; more than his evangelistic meeting contributions could have touched. I pray that I, and each of us, can also make an impact for God on people that we may never meet in our earthly lives.

I was prompted to remember Philip Bliss yesterday because of a posting by one of my Facebook friends, Changsoo Kim. He is a great ukulele player and educator in Korea. He is also a believer and has arranged and performed many hymns and Christian songs. His posting yesterday was an instrumental recording of “It is Well with My Soul.” As much as I love the words of this song, this version highlights the musical talent and contributions of Philip Bliss. Please listen:

Take heart and be encouraged!