Pepper Patch Mercy

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16 ESV)

In a series of posts last summer titled Lessons From the Cotton Field, I reflected upon a number of Biblical principles I learned firsthand in the cotton fields of my youth in rural Georgia. A recent segment on the local news featuring students picking bell pepper at a nearby farm surfaced memories of another episode from those days.

While cotton was our primary cash crop growing up, my father would occasionally experiment with other crops as well, such as watermelons, butterbeans, peas, and corn – all of which we would peddle locally and at the Farmer’s Market south of Atlanta. (I much preferred the peddling over the picking!)

One year he decided to plant bell pepper to sell at a local processing plant in Jackson. Like many memories from those years, my memories of that crop are a bit hazy. But one incident stands out vividly. It was the day I decided to conduct my own one-man work strike against my father.

When it came time to harvest, I soon realized that the cotton-picking sacks we were using were not suitably designed for gathering pepper. The sacks quickly became uncomfortably heavy.

Daddy didn’t seem nearly as concerned about that design flaw as I was. So to make my point more emphatically, when the weight of my sack became unbearable on my ten-year old shoulders and neck one day, I declared for all to hear, “This pepper sack is choking my guts out!!!”.

In the face of the laughter that serious declaration generated from my father and my siblings, I dragged that sack of peppers to the end of the row and dropped it. Ignoring Daddy’s threatening commands to return and disregarding whatever consequences might ensue, I defiantly walked off the job.

But instead of taking the most direct route home, I decided to take the longer way – the one that happened to pass by my Granny Wells’ house. There I found a sympathetic ear to my complaints. I can still hear her soothing and comforting words, “Well bless your heart, let me fix you something to eat.”

After an appropriate time of grandmotherly coddling, I made my way home to receive whatever punishment I had coming. Bracing myself in my room as I heard Daddy coming through the back door, I waited for that call every child dreads in such situations. And waited. And waited. And waited …..

Finally, I heard Mama calling the family to the supper table. (Yes, we called it supper in the South. Dinner was the noon meal.) With my head hung low like Ralphie in The Christmas Story after he broke his glasses fighting Farkus the bully, I made my way to the kitchen table to face my fate.

Daddy’s first words to me were “So I hear you visited Granny Wells this afternoon.” “How did you know that?” I replied. “A little birdie told me,” he answered.

And that was it!  No further discussion and, most surprising of all, no punishment. (Of course, I would never live down that “choking my guts out” declaration!)

At Granny Wells’ house that day, I experienced grace – undeserved favor. And I suspect it was due primarily to her intercession on my behalf that I received mercy from Daddy that evening – not getting the punishment I clearly deserved. (Perhaps Granny Wells had reminded him of similar acts of rebellion from his own childhood.)

Little did I know at the time that I was getting an early glimpse into the ways of my Heavenly Father.

All of us appreciate receiving love, mercy, forgiveness, and grace. But the appreciation I felt at the supper table that night pales in comparison to the gratitude I feel when I consider that when Christ interceded for me at Calvary, he wasn’t pleading my case – he was bearing my punishment.

While I was yet a sinner, Christ died for me!  (See Romans 5:8)

“He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him: as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103: 10-12 NIV)

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Stargazing

“To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name.” (Isaiah 40:25-26 NIV)

Encountering this verse in a recent morning devotion, my mind took me back to a vividly memorable night from my childhood. As the third of five children, there were times when I felt invisible to my parents.

Deciding to test if they would even miss me, one evening I wandered out to the large field behind our house intending to see how long it would take before anyone would even notice I was gone and call out for me.

As I lay down on that hard Georgia soil and gazed up, I was awestruck by one of the most breathtaking scenes I had ever witnessed. In all my years, I cannot remember a more resplendent night sky.

Those feelings of invisibility were immediately swallowed up in the celestial spectacle above me. This experience was perhaps my first conscious realization of an invisible and awesome Creator who had just made himself visible to me.

How quickly my problems seemed so small compared to the vastness of the universe on display. Little did I know at the time just how vast that universe is. The countless stars I could see that night are only a fraction of the 400 billion stars inhabiting our galaxy. Not only that, but we now know that ours is only one of 100 billion other galaxies God created, each of which swarms with hundreds of billions of celestial bodies.

As I reflect on that experience today, I’m reminded of these words penned by David:

“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him.” (Psalm 8:3-4 NIV)

No matter how mindful my parents were of me that night, God certainly was, revealing just a glimpse of his glory. But it would still be years before I realized that this unfathomable Creator desired a personal relationship with me.

So the next time you begin to feel overwhelmed by life or powerless, invisible, and insignificant in the midst of it all, step outside on a clear night and look up. Gaze at the stars and consider that the One who hung each one and calls them each by name is mindful of you. He even sent his Son to die that he might have a relationship with you for all eternity.

Immerse yourself in that truth and those feelings of insignificance should quickly fade as they did for me that memorable Georgia night over fifty years ago.

A sense of the universe, a sense of the all, the nostalgia which seizes us when confronted by nature, beauty, music – these seem to be an expectation and awareness of a Great Presence.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

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Why I Write

“The Sovereign Lord has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught.” (Isaiah 50:4 NIV)

These words from Isaiah hit me like a resounding gong earlier this week. They reminded me why I began Ridgetop Reflections over two years ago – to comfort, encourage, and edify those who take the time to read my posts.

And yet it has been six months since my last post. Somewhere along my writing journey I lost sight of that original purpose. Several factors have contributed to that silence, including a lack of focus and self-discipline.

But being honest with myself and with you, I must confess that the diminishing size of my readership made me lose confidence in my abilities as a writer, leading to a serious case of writer’s block.

As I wrestled with those issues, I realized that my motivations for writing had become corrupted. Falling victim to a common trap of social media, I became too focused on numbers – how many people visited Ridgetop Reflections, how many hits each post received, and how many likes, shares, and comments were recorded on Facebook and Twitter.  So I stopped writing until I could sort all that out and honestly address the question, “Why do I write?”.

This passage from Isaiah began to reveal the answer. Like Isaiah, it is usually in the mornings that the Holy Spirit “wakens my ear to listen like one being taught”. Psalm 96:2-3 (NLT) says “Each day proclaim the good news that he saves. Publish his glorious deeds among the nations. Tell everyone about the amazing things he does.” 

That is why I write – to comfort the weary, to steer the seeking, to encourage the discouraged, to strengthen the doubting, to edify the faithful, and most importantly, to glorify the One who “came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10 NIV)

Recently I was reminded that the apostle Paul never boasted about the size of his ministry or the reach of his impact. In fact, while Paul planted many churches, he could not possibly have known that his letters to those churches would continue to comfort, encourage, and instruct believers for thousands of years to come. He only knew that Christ’s love compelled him to do what he did and he left the rest in the Lord’s hands.

Going forward, may that be my motivation as well.

“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15 NIV)

 

 

Reflections From the Upper Room

“It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” (John 13:1 NIV)

On the night before his crucifixion Jesus gathered with his disciples in a room that has become simply known as “The Upper Room”.

Knowing that the events of the next 24 hours would severely challenge their faith and that he had limited time to prepare them to carry on in his absence, Christ poured out his heart to them in a way that is unmatched in all of Scripture.

In fact, some have referred to the Upper Room Discourse detailed in John 13-17 as the “Holy of Holies of Scripture”. As we approach Easter, my next few posts will be anchored in those chapters.  

There are times in our lives when we all need to be reminded of the truths our Lord shares with his disciples that fateful night – times when our faith is being tested; times when God’s ways do not line up with our expectations; times when we need to rest in the perfect love, infinite wisdom, and sovereign control of our Heavenly Father.

In my mind, the Upper Room Discourse contains some of the deepest theology found in God’s Word – theology that is pivotal to understanding and practicing the Christian faith in a world that is often hostile to our message:

  • In Chapter 13, Jesus gives us a new command: “Love one another”, demonstrating his own love toward the disciples in an act normally performed by the lowest slaves – the washing of their filthy feet.
  • In Chapter 14, he speaks of the place he has prepared for us – words that have comforted countless people through the years, knowing that loved ones who have died in Christ are with Him, and that as fellow believers, we will join them there when the Lord calls us home.
  • In Chapter 15, Jesus describes himself as “the true vine”, with the Father as “the gardener”, while we are “the branches”, employing a memorable metaphor to illustrate perhaps the most important key to living the Christian life – staying connected to the vine.
  • Chapter 16 defines the role of the Holy Spirit in maintaining that connection, reminding us of Christ’s words, convicting us when we fail him, and guiding us into even deeper truths than the disciples were able to bear at that time.
  • Chapter 17 contains the longest prayer of our Lord recorded in the Gospels as he prays for himself, for his disciples, and lastly, for all of us who would come to faith through their message. 

Just as these words of Christ were carefully crafted to equip the disciples to carry on in his absence, they equip us to live the life we are called to live as his followers, drawing from the supernatural strength of the Holy Spirit to be bold in our witness, loving to one another, and faithful in following his commands. 

A few blog posts will cover only a small portion of the 155 verses in these chapters, just scratching the surface of the vast treasure that is stored there. I encourage you to find a quiet place and explore further into the depths of the Upper Room Discourse with me. Feel free to add your insights and comments.

There may be no better way to prepare our hearts to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord.

“Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:17-18 NIV)

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Bible Reading Plans

“I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. … I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. … Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.”  (Psalm 119:11,15,105 NIV)

Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the entire Bible. Fittingly, it is focused on the blessings of knowing and applying the commands and principles of God’s Word. 

Perhaps some of you resolved to read your Bible cover-to cover in 2017. Countless reading plans are available to keep you on pace toward accomplishing that goal.

Through the years, my personal Bible reading plan has grown increasingly ambitious until it now looks like this:

  • One Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) each month
  • Remainder of New Testament: Every six months
  • Psalms and Proverbs: Every six months
  • Remainder of Old Testament: Once each year

Bible reading plans designed to cover the entirety of God’s Word in a year are not without benefits, especially if you’ve never read the Bible cover-to-cover. Following them will certainly help ingrain the discipline of reading God’s Word into your daily routine.

But annual Bible reading plans are not without their pitfalls either. They can lead to reading hurriedly and mindlessly in order to cover the required material for that day without sufficiently digesting, meditating upon, and applying its content. While you might accomplish your reading goal, God’s greater goal of molding you into the image of his Son often suffers.

Recently, I downloaded a devotional Bible to my iPad. Described as a “cover-to-cover journey through the Bible”, it is organized into chapter readings covering six days a week for a full year, with each reading followed by a devotion. One of those daily readings covers chapters 13-17 of John’s Gospel, which detail the events and the compelling teachings of our Lord as he gathered with the disciples in Upper Room on the night before his crucifixion.

Given their importance, I spent two months on those five chapters when I taught the Gospel of John several years ago. While I can certainly read John’s account of the Upper Room Discourse in one sitting, I can’t imagine adequately grasping its content and application for my life in one morning Bible study. A 500-word devotion cannot scratch the surface of the important lessons Christ conveys to his disciples that night.

The written Word is God’s primary means of communication with us. It is too important to rush through in order to accomplish a New Year’s resolution while ignoring its application for our lives. I encourage you to read your Bible daily, but do so prayerfully, patiently, attentively, and systematically. 

Like the psalmist, ask the Lord to open your eyes that you might see and comprehend the wonderful things contained within the Scriptures. (Psalm 119:18) Read with the expectation that God will answer that prayer and respond appropriately when he does. Highlight or underline those passages that particularly pierce your heart. Make notes in the margins or in a separate journal. A marked-up Bible, like the one shown above, is one that has been digested rather than merely read.

As for that Upper Room Discourse in John 13-17, I can’t think of a better place to spend some quality time over the next couple of weeks as we prepare our hearts for Easter, reflecting on the final teachings of our Lord before he went to the cross. I hope you will join me on that journey.

“The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple. … Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me.” (Psalm 119:130,133 NIV)

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