Of Plague and Pandemic

Here in the United States we typically think of “Now Thank We All Our God” as a hymn of our November national day of Thanksgiving, and that is certainly an appropriate association. But it has a longer and broader history no less meaningful today as it was when it was written in the early 17th century.

Martin Rinkart (1586-1649) was a Lutheran pastor in Eilenburg, Germany during the upheaval of the Thirty Years War. His town became a refuge for political and military refugees, who crowded more and more into the confines of the city walls.

Not only were resources of food and fresh water severely stressed, plagues of deadly disease soon followed. Rinkart was the sole pastor in the community, and faithfully faced some of the most fundamental demands of ministry, caring for and burying a multitude. It is said that in 1637 he performed 4,000 funerals, including his wife’s.

It was into this crucible that he spoke the words “Nun danket alle Gott” – “Now thank we all our God” – indeed not for celebration around a family holiday table, but as a statement of bedrock theology under girding personal and potentially national trust. We only affirm what we believe until it becomes a matter of mortal danger. That is when we live and die according to what we really believe.

Jesus said in Matthew 7, “Those who hear my words and do them will be like one who builds his house upon rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.” There is no way to know whether Pastor Rinkart had somewhere in mind these words of our Lord when he wrote his most enduring hymn. But I can well imagine when life seemed to be crashing down around him and those he loved that he clung to the strongest and surest foundation he knew.

Within a decade “Nun danket alle Gott” had been embraced as something of a German “Te Deum,” particularly as it was sung at the time to Johann Crüger’s new and fitting tune of the same name. That melody eventually found its way into music of J. S. Bach and Felix Mendelssohn, and has become a ubiquitous musical component of thankful and grateful personal and national celebrations the world round.

From the depths of pestilence and plague emerged words and music of faith and trust, and the kind of sure and certain hope to be found only in the strength of their object. In the face of plague or pandemic, the quality of our faith means little. The object of our faith means all.

Now Thank We All Our God

Martin Rinkart (c. 1636), translated by Catherine Winkworth (1858)

Now thank we all our God with heart and hands and voices,

Who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices;

Who, from our mothers’ arms, hath blessed us on our way

With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,

With ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;

And keep us in God’s grace, and guide us when perplexed,

And free us from all ills in this world and the next.

All praise and thanks to God, who reigns in highest heaven,

To Father and to Son and Spirit now be given.

The one eternal God, whom heav’n and earth adore,

The God who was, and is, and shall be evermore.

Michael Denham

Honey Rock

That God is our abundance is rooted in the essential and relational character of the Holy One we worship. Jesus himself said, “If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

We clearly understand abundance in terms of plentiful or overly-sufficient supply. We all might need to learn how to live during lean times, but we surely appreciate a surplus!

Scripture seems clear enough that God will supply our needs, but he does so, not through a miserly calculus too often assumed, but with a Father’s wise, loving, and abundant generosity.

We remind ourselves of God’s abundance because we are prone to forget it. I remember as a child leveraging requests of my parents or grandmother with something like, “I’ll never ask you for anything else…ever again!” I was focused on my circumstances and my lack of whatever it was I wanted rather than on their essential and relationally loving character.

Sometimes the answer was yes. Sometimes it was no. When it was no I sometimes pouted for a while or, worse, wallowed in discontentment over not getting my way.

Discontentment has all too frequently plagued God’s people. The Old Testament book of Exodus sometimes says, “So the whole congregation of the children of Israel grumbled.” They grumbled that there wasn’t enough to eat, so God sent them “Manna.” Then they grumbled that there was only Manna. Later when Moses was sequestered before the Lord on Mt. Sinai, they grumbled that he had left them alone. So while God was delivering the very Ten Commandments, the people asked for an idol to worship. Later the prophet Samuel tells us that God’s children were discontent without an earthly king “like other nations.” God told Samuel that it was not the old prophet’s leadership being rejected, but God’s own sovereign role as king. The balance of the Old Testament sadly records Israel’s discontentment and disobedience over one matter or another, and the many opportunities they lost along the way to know – to really know – God’s loyal, steadfast, abundant ways.

Lest we judge them harshly, we too can remember God’s plea to his children in Psalm 81:

O that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways!

I would quickly subdue their enemies, and turn my hand against their adversaries.

Those who hate the Lord would cringe before him;

and their time of judgement will be forever.

But I would feed you with the finest of wheat,

and with honey from the rock would I satisfy you.

A blessed Lent to each of you as together we reflect upon the abundant gift of God’s Son our Savior!

                                                                                                                        Michael Denham

A Heart Set Free

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.

Ephesians 1:3-4

St. Paul’s New Testament letters are full of hope and life, gratitude and grace, maturity and truth. Profound change—total transformation really—characterized his life. He consistently calls us to that same perspective and practice.

One might think that if we live accordingly, life will be happier, safer, and more fulfilling. Yet Paul himself spent a good portion of his influential life in prison, unjustly shackled for the sake of Jesus. Lest we forget, this apostle whom we dare to believe and emulate did not live to a ripe old age with his children at his knee. He was martyred. What a dead end!

Or was it? Haddon Robinson was known to say that today people name their dogs after Nero and their sons after Paul.

A person of deep conviction, energy, and perseverance, St. Paul literally changed the world because he was a grateful man, a thankful man, a joy-filled man, a grace-made man. F. F. Bruce called him an “apostle of the heart set free.” Free from the bondage of sin. Free from condemnation of the law. Free to be a servant of Christ.

Throughout the prologue to his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul keeps reminding us that all of God’s decisions and actions on our behalf are to “the praise of his glorious grace” that we “might live to the praise of his glory…as God’s own people to the praise of his glory.” This apostle to the Gentiles knew at his core that for all God’s children grace invites gratitude in our worship and in our service in Christ’s name.

Michael Denham

Declarative Faith

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him...

Hebrews 5:7-9

In reading these verses from this New Testament sermon-letter, I was reminded of three separate comments from the Unspoken Sermons of George MacDonald, the 19th century British writer, theologian, and pastor who so deeply influenced the developing Christian thought of C. S. Lewis.

Lewis said that he knew of hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the spirit of Christ himself. Here let’s allow MacDonald’s words to act as unvarnished reflection and commentary.

Michael Denham

One is perfect in faith who can come to God in the utter dearth of feelings and desires, without a glow or an aspiration, with the weight of low thoughts, failures, neglects, and wandering forgetfulness, and say to him, “Thou art my refuge.”

When we no longer feel the truth, we shall not therefore die. We live because God is true. We know we live because we have understood the word that God is truth. We believe in the God of former vision, and we live by that word therefore, when all is dark, and there is no vision.

He could not see, could not feel him near; and yet it is “My God” that he cries. Thus the will of Jesus, in the very moment when his faith seems about to yield is finally triumphant. It has no feelings now to support it, no beatific vision to absorb it. It stands naked in his soul and tortured, as he stood naked and scourged before Pilate. Pure and simple and surrounded by fire, it declares for God.

Reflections on the Passing of a Son

            I meet most weeks very early on Friday morning with a covenant group of six other men. It’s a diverse gathering representing several professional backgrounds and church traditions. I’ve been with them 14 years, but they were meeting long before I was asked to join them.

            As you might expect, we’ve witnessed lots of change, and no small amount of challenges over the years: family issues, health issues, job issues, church issues, weddings, births of grandchildren, the moving away or the passing of friends.

            Through it all, there’s been a remarkable measure of faithfulness and the kind of personal concern and support likened to the “coming along side” ministry of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, this has required active, intentional listening and, if sought, careful counsel. Other times, it has called for simple presence and quiet contemplation—when God’s Spirit conveys to the throne of grace deep, verbally-inexpressible yearning, confusion, or pain.

            Such has been our course since early last week, when one of us lost his son, a 31 year old man married just three years ago. He and his wife had traveled briefly to California for a friend’s wedding. She was going to stay there a few days longer to visit another friend. He flew back home for work.

            That night he had supper with his family and, because they had been dog sitting for him, he spent the night at his parents’ home.

            The next morning they were preparing breakfast when they realized his clock alarm was still ringing. His Dad went to awaken him, and discovered that he had died in his sleep.

            Through all the ensuing turmoil of the week, they discovered viscerally that, though life may eventually be good again, for them it will never be the same. Of course, every moment of the day and night around the world many people discover the same thing. We all recognize this. But this was OUR friend, and this was HIS son.

            OUR friend was the one who had to call his daughter-in-law in California to deliver what he told her would be the worst news she had ever heard. It was OUR friend who wondered aloud to us how God would eradicate from his mind the image of his lifeless son that morning. It was OUR friend whose older son would momentarily and in grief shake his fist and rage at heaven.

            We told OUR friend to let him rage; that God can take it. I told him that pouring out our heart to God is one of the relieving features of the Psalms:

Out of the depths I cry unto you, O Lord! Lord, hear my voice!

            Sometime after our friend asked, “How do we walk through this?” Psalm 16 came to mind.

            Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge.

                        I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;

                                    I have no good apart from you…

                        I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;

                                    in the night also my heart instructs me.

            I have set the Lord always before me;

                        Because he is at my right hand,

                                    I shall not be shaken.

            Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices;

                        my flesh also dwells secure.

            For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,

                        or let your holy one see corruption.

            You make known to me the path of life;

                        in your presence there is fullness of joy;

                                    at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

                Psalm 16:1-2, 7-11

You make known to me the path of life;

at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

            Sometimes, there is only enough light on our path for the next step. Sometimes, pleasures forevermore come just in little increments. But these still are sustaining and guiding graces from God’s hand.

            Sometimes, we all need even unspoken reminders from those who love us and who come alongside us that the Lord is here, and that we never walk alone.

A Father’s Touch

Every good father comes to realize along the way that his own love for his children, however well intentioned, isn’t enough. Every child needs more than even highly motivated parents can offer. They need others—teachers, mentors, and friends outside the tighter family orbit—to influence and guide them. The older our children grow, the more apt for us is the prayer, “Lord, bring good people into their lives!”

It’s striking that even God himself entrusted the only Son of God to an earthly father and mother. God of course didn’t need Mary and Joseph’s help. But God did choose them to be integral to the incarnational events whereby Jesus became truly and fully human, and later, integral to everyday events whereby, as Luke’s Gospel tells us, he continued “to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom, and in favor with God and man.”

This happened, not away at some well-heeled and high-powered boarding school for up-and-coming leaders, but in and out-of-the-way Galilean hamlet in his father’s carpentry shop. Nor did it happen by accident. We can imagine Joseph patiently, skillfully, and methodically teaching Jesus to choose good materials, then to “measure twice and cut once.”

We also can well imagine this training embedded in the back of our Lord’s mind when he said,

            Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

            Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me,

for I am gentle and lowly in heart,

               and you will find rest for your souls.

            My yoke is easy and my burden is light.

From days at his father’s side designing and fashioning them, Jesus knew yokes, and that his would always be the best fit for us.

We don’t know much about Joseph from Scripture’s witness. Only Mary is mentioned later in Jesus’ days of ministry, and his dying concern on the cross was her continued care after he was gone. We can only surmise that Joseph had died at some earlier time. Yet it would be more than mere conjecture to imagine Joseph—during Jesus’ formative years—faithfully doing all he could to shoulder the unique and tremendous task placed upon him.

When Jesus later told his disciples, “I and the Father are one,” one wonders if, in the back of his mind, the depth of this heavenly reality might have quietly resonated with the memory of love which his earthly father also had shown him.

Merry Christmas!

Michael Denham

Hurry Up and Wait

“Advent” means “arrival.” When someone we love or think important is coming to see us, we busy ourselves getting ready. We clean the house, mow the lawn or rake the leaves, fill the pantry, and get a haircut.

We’ve just enjoyed our annual national visitation at Thanksgiving, when our homes bustle with family preparations perhaps more than at any other time of the year. Now we’re moving into a different season that marks the coming of our most welcome and anticipated guest: The Lord of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Christians prepare for our Lord’s coming from three vantages: First, we remember his historical incarnation and intervention—what the Bible calls “the fullness of time,” when as a tiny baby Jesus Christ slipped quietly and humbly into our lives in a back-alley barn in a small Judean village.

Second, we await his eventual historical return—what the Bible calls “the day of the Lord,” when a myriad of the heavenly host will follow in Christ’s train as he appears, not just as Redeemer, but as Ruler and Sovereign.

Between these two historical events—in this crease of history—we ask ourselves afresh what it means to welcome our Savior, not just to the world, but to each of us, and to the dark, needy corners and folds of our own lives.

Getting ready for a visit sometimes brings flashes of activity, but sometimes it calls for quiet, for stillness, for silence. Advent offers us a concrete part of our calendar to slow down, to listen, to reflect, and to ponder. It’s a good season to turn the old adage on its head: “Don’t just do something, sit there!”

As we prepare for the “coming of the Lord,” we do well to remember that for quite a while before Jesus was born of Mary, even God was silent. It had been 400 years since the most recent prophet was heard in the Holy Land. Malachi’s was the last Old Testament oracle:

Remember the law of my servant Moses,

The decrees and laws I gave him at Sinai for all Israel.

Behold, I will send you the prophet Elijah

before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.

He will return the hearts of the fathers to their children,

and the hearts of the children to their fathers;

Or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.

After that—silence—400 years of silence! Preaching and teaching, reading and learning, singing and worship continued in their courses. But apparently even God became silent in preparation for the coming Messiah.

But God did not leave himself without a witness. The sweeping revelation of the Old Testament draws our attention to the coming One in painstaking and striking detail in the prophet Micah:

As for you, O watchtower of the flock,

O stronghold of the Daughter of Zion,

the former dominion will be restored to you;

kingship will come to the Daughter of Jerusalem…

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,

though you are small among the clans of Judah,

out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel,

whose origins are from of old, from ancient times…

And so it was, above those Judean fields, that God’s silence was broken, when the angel of the Lord and the gathered company of heaven heralded to frightened shepherds the glorious good news of our salvation:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,

and on earth peace, goodwill to men.

Through 400 years of silence, for many the promise of God and the blessed hope of Israel had practically faded away. 400 years is a long time to wait. But when those bewildered shepherds heard the joyful power of God’s word in the night skies above their flocks of sheep, Scripture says they hurried to see what had happened!

Michael Denham

Pure Silver

Following Jesus in the storms of life was the focus of our sermon last Sunday—literal wind and weather storms, but also circumstantial, emotional, and relational storms of our everyday lives. All the way through I was reminded of something that was shared with me many years ago:

Sometimes God calms the storm.

Sometimes he lets the storm rage, and calms his child.

None of us really wants to be in a storm. Watching a storm from some safe vantage can be exciting, the kind of excitement we sense from being near danger, but not so much in danger. But if for some reason we find ourselves in the middle of a storm, well, that’s different. We’re not all like 19th century naturalist John Muir who, some say, during thunderstorms clamored up pine trees or redwoods just to get a better view. Most of us think tornados or typhoons can be terrifying!

What does it mean to follow God through a storm? How do we trust God in a storm? My guess is it depends on what we think of God as guide or shelter, and how dependable to us is his word.

The Psalms in various places liken God’s word to precious metals we have come to treasure. In Psalm 19 we read:

The precepts of the Lord are sure and altogether righteous.

They are more precious than gold, even much fine gold.

Psalm 12 also draws the comparison:

The Lord speaks purest truth, like silver seven times refined.

These psalmists essentially declare that the word of the Lord is pure, without blemish or defect, unalloyed. It isn’t just any word or anyone’s word, but God’s word—without dissimulation, completely reliable and trustworthy.

Psalm 12 illustrates this with a metallurgical metaphor about the refining of silver through intensive, successive heating. I’m no silversmith, but I’ve heard that in years gone by skilled craftsmen heated silver to such a degree that impurities in the ore continually rose to the top of the molten metal where they were skimmed away until the artisan saw his own image reflected in the surface of the liquid. It was then considered to be pure.

Allen Ross writes, “Obviously the word of God was never at a stage where there were impurities in it. David is simply emphasizing how perfect the word of God is. It can be trusted completely in everything it says. It is the only word that can be so trusted… Because God’s word is pure, what that word has promised is certain.”[1] Some Bible translations here even render “word” of God as “promises” of God. We trust God’s promises because they are utterly dependable.

Whether God calms our storm, or lets it rage and calms us in its midst, we can trust God’s word that we will never be left or forsaken, that our Lord is with us always. Because of God’s pure word, never means never, and always means always.

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,

Is laid for your faith in God’s excellent Word!

What more can be said than to you God hath said,

To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?

“Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,

For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;

I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,

Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.”

“When through the deep waters I call thee to go,

The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;

For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,

And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.”

“When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,

My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;

The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design

Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.”

“The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose,

I will not, I will not, desert to its foes;

That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,

I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”[2]

Michael Denham


[1] Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms, Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2011), 357.

[2] Author: Designated only as “K” in John Rippon’s A Selection of Hymns, 1787.

Thank You and Please

Rejoice in the Lord always…with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Philippians 4:4-6

Gracious God, we gather together during this season,

out of custom and a broad sense of national community,

to recognize your hand of blessing that has rested upon us for so long.

Yet we also come out of a sense of our own need—

some believing and rejoicing, some afraid or full of doubt—

many wanting and waiting for a word of hope from you.

May such hope well up inside us, even as we consider the words of the day:

your grace and our gratitude.

Parents want their children to be polite. “Please and thank you” is one of the first things we learn to say. But near the end of his letter to the early church at Philippi, St. Paul says, “with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Thanksgiving comes first, then our requests. It’s our childhood duty in reverse: “Thank you and please.”

Before he was a Christian, Paul was a very religious Jew. He knew the Hebrew Bible backward and forward. He knew that the Old Testament is full of stories about God at work in history—not only for Israel, but for the whole world. This point of view was part of Paul’s integrating worldview. He could see in Scripture an important and recurring pattern of God’s action and our reaction, God’s call and our response, God’s grace and our gratitude. The clear pattern is this: God acts on our behalf. God takes initiative. God intervenes. Then God invites us to notice.

Over and over in the Old Testament, Israel was challenged to remember what God had done for them. Not just so they could keep straight the facts, but so they could interpret and teach their significance and meaning from generation to generation. In Deuteronomy 29, near the end of his life, Moses told the children of Israel,

Secret things belong to the Lord our God,

but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever,

that we may follow all the words of this law.

Paul’s New Testament letters also emphasize that God clearly acts on our behalf, and wants us to clearly recognize those initiatives and benefits. It’s a matter of perspective. Noted preacher Earl Palmer, says that “for Paul, it’s the love of God that triggers human faith, not human faith that creates the love of God.” Paul presumes and preaches that God actually has done something for which to be thankful. Christians are marked chiefly by gratitude.

This isn’t a universally shared conviction. The late Ray Stedman, a pastor himself, told a story of a well-known minister who was awaiting his meal in a crowded restaurant. As he was being served, a man approached him and asked if he could join him. The minister invited him to have a seat, then as was his custom, bowed his head in prayer.

When he opened his eyes, the other man asked, “Do you have a headache? The minister replied, “No, I don’t.” The other man asked, “Well, is there something wrong with your food?” The minister replied, “No, I was simply thanking God as I always do before I eat.”

The man said, “Oh, you’re one of those, are you? Well, I want you to know I never give thanks. I earn my money by the sweat of my brow and I don’t have to thank anybody when I eat. I just start right in!” The minister said, “Yes, you’re just like my dog. That’s what he does, too.”

But even a dog nuzzles the hand of its master, and finds great joy in pleasing its benefactor. God’s children know that grace invites gratitude, and blessings invite thanksgiving.

Two New Testament words beautifully characterize this pattern of gratitude following grace. The first relates to God’s initiative, God’s intervention, and God’s invitation. From it we derive our words, evangelism and evangelical, because it’s the word for God’s message to us: the Gospel. The second relates to our response to God. It forms the basis for one of the words we use to describe Holy Communion: Eucharist.

Evangel conveys a sense of joy, news that cannot be contained, something to be heralded. Luke records the words of the messenger-angel: “I bring you good news of great joy…a Savior has been born to you.” Eucharist conveys a sense of grace or favor, leading to gratitude and giving thanks. Opportunity for rejoicing inherent in the word is why it has become one of our chief descriptors of the Lord’s Supper. Together Evangel and Eucharist beautifully capture the flip-side nature of God’s grace and our gratitude.

In one of his pithy “Rest of the Story” radio moments years ago, commentator Paul Harvey related the following story:

It is gratitude that prompted an old man to visit an old, broken pier on the eastern seacoast of Florida. Every Friday night, until his death in 1973, he would return, walking slowly and slightly stooped with a large bucket of shrimp. The sea gulls would flock to this old man, and he would feed them from his bucket. Many years before, in October 1942, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker was on a mission in a B-17 airplane to deliver an important message to General Douglas MacArthur in New Guinea. But there was an unexpected detour which would hurl Captain Rickenbaker into the most harrowing adventure of his life.

Somewhere over the South Pacific, the Flying Fortress became lost beyond reach of radio. Fuel ran dangerously low, so the men ditched the plane in the ocean.

For nearly a month Captain Rickenbacker and his companions would fight the water, and the weather, and the scorching sun. They spent many sleepless nights recoiling as giant sharks rammed their rafts. The largest raft was nine feet by five. The biggest sharks were ten feet long.

But of all their enemies at sea, one proved most formidable: starvation. After only eight days, their rations were long gone or destroyed by the salt water. It would take a miracle to sustain them. And a miracle occurred.

In Captain Rickenbacker’s own words: “Cherry—that was the B-17 pilot, Captain William Cherry—held a worship service that afternoon, and we finished with a prayer for deliverance and a hymn of praise. There was some talk, but it tapered off in the oppressive heat. With my hat pulled down over my eyes to keep out some of the glare I dozed off.

Then something landed on my head. I knew it was a sea gull. I don’t know how I knew, I just knew. Everyone else knew, too. No one said a word, but peering out from under my hat brim without moving my head, I could see the expressions on their faces. They were staring at that gull. That gull meant food… if I could catch it.

“And the rest,” as Harvey typically says, “is history.”

Captain Rickenbacker caught the gull and it was eaten. Its innards were used for bait to catch fish. The survivors were sustained and their hopes were renewed because a lone sea gull, uncharacteristically a thousand miles from land, offered itself as a sacrifice.

Captain Rickenbacker and his companions made it. And he never forgot. Because every Friday evening, about sunset, on a lonely stretch along the eastern Florida seacoast, you could see an old man walking, white-haired, bushy-browed, slightly bent. His bucket filled with shrimp was to feed the gulls… to remember that one which, on a day long past, gave itself without struggle… like manna in the wilderness.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice!

This is no idle call to naïve, “Pollyanna” living. St. Paul does not say “Always be happy!” Happiness is an emotional byproduct of an act of the will. Rejoicing is that act of the will—anticipating and responding to the initiative and intervention of God, no matter what happens, as did Captain Eddie Rickenbacker and his companions, lost and found at sea.

What a beautiful metaphor this is for us, in many ways lost at sea and in need of rescue. Our salvation has come through the advent of a Savior, uncharacteristically far away from heaven’s throne, to our little rafts, where otherwise we are without hope. News of his coming was a good word, the best word we could hear. How appropriate that this gospel was heralded by angels! Worship, and witness to this “good news of great joy,” are our best and most grateful responses to the seeking and finding grace of God.

Michael Denham

Caretakers

Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder.

James 3:4


When I was a young boy, my Dad offered me some fatherly advice that has stuck with me through the years. It has in fact “saved my bacon” more than once. He said, “Son, remember divine mathematics: God gave you two ears and one mouth.” What we say, how we say it, and whether we say anything at all are timely considerations.

James—the brother of Jesus—became leader of the early Church in Jerusalem. Laced throughout his New Testament letter is practical advice about living together in community, but near the beginning he shows his pastoral concern about how we speak to and of each other:

Know this, beloved: let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for human anger does not produce the righteousness of God.

A bit later James uses the nautical image of a rudder to emphasize his point about our speech: Rudders are by comparison quite small, but they control large ships. He couples this image with those of a guiding bit in a horse’s mouth, and the potentially destructive power of even the tiniest flame. For good or ill, our tongues can pack a punch!

James recognizes human frailty and propensity to “stumble in many ways.” But if we do not trip over what we say, how we say it, or whether we say anything at all, it certainly can indicate that we are in firm control of the rest of our lives.

He also recognizes that despite our best intentions we can be inconsistent or even duplicitous with what comes out of our mouths:

With our tongue we bless our Lord and Father,and with it we curse people who are made in the image of God.

In his address, “The Weight of Glory,” delivered during World War II from the pulpit of Oxford’s Church of St. Mary the Virgin, C. S. Lewis says,

“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter [in heaven]; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his [earthly] neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship…There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

If this is so, if we are in some sense caretakers of God’s image in others—however faint it might seem to us at any given time—then we do well to take care how we speak to and of them. Not mincing any words, even our Lord in his Sermon on the Mount said, “Anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

In this awareness we turn to a prayer written by Eric Milner-White, once Dean of King’s College Cambridge and later of York Cathedral, with Anglican hymn writer George Wallace Briggs:

Set a watch, O Lord, upon my tongue,

that I may never speak the cruel word which is untrue,

or being true, is not the whole truth; or being wholly true, is merciless

for the love of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Michael Denham