I stood in the cemetery, looking at the stones with the different names on them, spotting familiar last names that brought up persons whom had been distant memories. There were flags on the graves of those who had served in the military. There were flowers on the more recent ones, and down at the other end were grave markers from the 1800s. I saw years that indicated long life and years that indicated only a few months. Of course, the one place that is special to my wife is the large stone that reads “Weaver.” This is where her grandparents are buried. This is where, each year on Memorial Day her aunt sets up her music stand and plays her trumpet to songs like “Yankee Doodle” and “America the Beautiful” among other selections. I watch as others bring flowers and gather around graves…Lee; McCombie; Coble; some more Weavers, among others.
This year, for the first time, I attended a Memorial Day service featuring “Taps” and a message by a retired minister about the importance of remembering. He told a brief history of Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as it has been designated in the past, and then moved on to remind us of the sacrifices of soldiers and their families. He touched on the Vietnam Days and those who didn’t support the war…or the soldiers…and how that trend is thankfully changing…slowly, but it is changing.
My mind wandered a bit as he told stories, and I went to Joshua 3 where the Israelites crossed the Jordan River and they were commanded to place rocks at the place where they crossed as a memorial to God’s action. This happens in several Old Testament stories, and it made me wonder if that is where we get the notion of headstones in our cemeteries. So, a quick search…
These graves were usually marked with rough stones, rocks, or wood, apparently, as a way to keep the dead from rising. (Ok...I thought this line was funny!)
They were mostly marked with the deceased’s name, age, and year of death. Gradually, churchyard burials evolved involving large, square-shaped tombstones prepared from slate (1650-1900) or sandstone (1650-1890). The inscriptions carved on slate used to be shallow yet readable.
Public cemeteries evolved in the 19th century. Eventually, people started giving importance to the gravestones, headstones, footstones, etc. as a means to memorialize the dead. (https://www.iscga.org/history-of-gravestones.html)
Interestingly enough, gravestones can be traced back to ancient civilizations like Egypt, and that could also explain the use of them as memorials by Israel. But what I thought about was not just gravestones, but remembering and how I am trained to look forward and not backwards. We don’t do much remembering or reminiscing do we?
Here I stood in the cemetery and I began to think about my own family, my grandfather who served in the Navy. I remembered, and as I did I started to tear up, longing for just one more conversation with those who in my childhood seemed so large and so wonderful. In that graveyard was the story of our families…and it is the same with all of us. It is a shame that we don’t take the time to ponder, reflect, and tear-up from time to time. Or once a year, just because we get the day off to do it. I have heard it said among Christian circles that the person is on there anyway, so why visit? Well, maybe visiting a graveyard isn’t supposed to benefit the dead, but to benefit us who are living. Maybe when we see the larger story of life, we have a better understanding of the unfolding larger story, and not just the moment.
At one point, we started talking with my mother-in-law and came to the realization that the place we were standing were actually the plots that my wife and I own…we were standing in the place of our burial. That was sobering! Shocking really…and I joked that I wanted to make sure the view was nice! WOW…awkward moment.
It made me wonder who might come and visit my headstone one day. I wonder what the name “Woodall” will mean to those who visit the cemetery and who will plant the flowers and decorate my grave, because my life meant something to them. You see, the day before my daughter and her grandmother went to put flowers on the family graves, and her artistic flare could be seen…her presence definitely known. I’m all about having a good time, enjoying family and friends, and having a great meal—but we must also learn to remember in a sobering and weighty manner that places our lives in the context of larger “Life.” If you haven’t visited a cemetery that matters to you in a while, my homework or challenge for you is to go there and sit by a headstone and remember for a few moments.
“The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming. But again and again we avoid the long thoughts….We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. And why not, after all? We get confused. We need such escape as we can find. But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us. The name of the room is Remember—the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.” ― Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces
In the writing of Zephaniah, there is a recurring theme of the “Day of the Lord.” Two points to be made about this “Day of the Lord” is, first, the prophets use it to point us to a particular moment in which the Lord’s intended order of things will replace the brokenness and corruption we know and live currently. Second, there may be several “Days of the Lord” before the grand and never changing “Day of the Lord” in which God’s justice and will correct a piece of the whole, but not the entirety of the world.
Zephaniah displays this in his oracles against nations and cities, using flood and fire language to talk about wiping them out and leaving them desolate for their arrogance and complacency. In fact, one line that stood out to me was from 1:12 which reads:
“I will search with lanterns in Jerusalem’s darkest corners
to punish those who sit complacent in their sins.
They think the Lord will do nothing to them,
either good or bad."
In the midst of this alarming and terrible imagery, there seems to always be a way out of the judgment that is eminent. For example, Zephaniah, shares this with the people at the beginning of chapter 2:1-3
Gather together—yes, gather together,
you shameless nation.
Gather before judgment begins,
before your time to repent is blown away like chaff.
Act now, before the fierce fury of the Lord falls
and the terrible day of the Lord’s anger begins.
Seek the Lord, all who are humble,
and follow his commands.
Seek to do what is right
and to live humbly.
Perhaps even yet the Lord will protect you--
protect you from his anger on that day of destruction.
One of the aspects that we must face in thinking about the “Day of the Lord” is the fact that God has feelings and the “Day of the Lord” is prompted by God’s pain and anger that peoples have not responded to God’s actions in their lives…God’s care and protection and victories have gone unappreciated. God speaks in Zephaniah 3:7 and listen to his words, you may even begin to sense the pain that God is feeling here:
I thought, ‘Surely they will have reverence for me now!
Surely they will listen to my warnings.
Then I won’t need to strike again,
destroying their homes.’
But no, they get up early
to continue their evil deeds.
I like the ESV that ends this verse by asserting: “But all the more they were eager to make all their deeds corrupt.” So God has poured out his love, protection, and in the law a guide to help humans live a righteous life, and in return their actions have prompted this “Day of the Lord”
Yet, in the end we cannot simply see the “Day of the Lord” as purely negative, and we must flip the metaphorical coin over on the other side and see this event as a stoppage to the broken world and as a world that truly is full of God’s order. Some the verses in Zephaniah 3 speak to this order:
9 “Then I will purify the speech of all people,
so that everyone can worship the Lord together.
11 On that day you will no longer need to be ashamed,
for you will no longer be rebels against me.
I will remove all proud and arrogant people from among you.
There will be no more haughtiness on my holy mountain.
12 Those who are left will be the lowly and humble,
for it is they who trust in the name of the Lord.
17 For the Lord your God is living among you.
He is a mighty savior.
He will take delight in you with gladness.
With his love, he will calm all your fears.
He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.”
20 On that day I will gather you together
and bring you home again.
I will give you a good name, a name of distinction,
among all the nations of the earth,
as I restore your fortunes before their very eyes.
I, the Lord, have spoken!”
Yes, the “Day of the Lord” has a positive side, it is the world we long for and one that can only happen through the purifying work of the Lord. Which brings us to the notion that there are several “Days of the Lord” before we get to the ultimate and full “Day of the Lord” Every time we are called to deeper faith, greater service, purer hearts, and truthful speech, we are experiencing a “Day of the Lord” that is preparing us for the “Day of the Lord.” If we choose to obey and not rebel, then the “Day of the Lord” is not something to be feared and dreaded, but something to be celebrated and enjoyed. Lord, help us to hear your word, obey your will, and wait for your Day to come!
I was reading in Acts 7 this morning where Stephen is preaching to a very hostile crowd. If you know the story in Acts, Stephen gets stoned to death by those listening to his words, and while being stoned that Bible records that he looked up to heaven to see, “the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” The crowd of the high priest and synagogue attendees was so angry at Stephen that the text says they “ground their teeth” at him and were “enraged.” So, what did Stephen say? Well, there were several aspects of the old system of religion that Stephen criticized, but I think the nail in Stephen’s coffin happened when he spoke of the Temple in Jerusalem. He said this:
46 “David found favor with God and asked for the privilege of building a permanent Temple for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who actually built it. 48 However, the Most High doesn’t live in temples made by human hands. As the prophet says,
49 ‘Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
Could you build me a temple as good as that?’
asks the Lord.
‘Could you build me such a resting place?
50 Didn’t my hands make both heaven and earth?’”
The Most High doesn’t live in temples made by human hands… God lives in the heaven and the earth, God created his throne and God crafted his dwelling place. God lives with us, not separated from some stone barrier. …and this didn’t go over all that well, but we should understand why. In fact, that mound that still exists in Jerusalem sure does continue to get a lot of attention from religious people. Stephen tells them that they resist the Holy Spirit…that is God’s indwelling, God’s presence among his people. They resist it because they have put their faith, trust, and allegiance in the Temple.
God is bigger than that temple, and maybe we might say that God is bigger than our temples. I know we don’t have stone structures that contain God, but we all have boxes that contain God. I know how God thinks and I know how God acts. I know given a particular situation God would do this…and I know that if we don’t fully do what God wants then God will respond in this way. But Jesus changes all of that, we are talking "law" and Jesus came to SAVE…which the law only condemns.
So, let’s check our “temples” today and not try to contain the Most High in boxes created by human hands (or minds). Lord God, show us your glory as high as the heavens and may we see your throne not as a temple, box, or doctrine, but as a Kingdom where you reign and a Kingdom we live today, now, and forevermore in your presence! Amen.
Happy Mother’s Day week! We all love our moms and we love the way they are on our side and push us to be better than we really are. They are fans, disciplinarians, cooks, huggers, and they pour themselves into us. Moms come in all forms, but one thing that is a standard of proper society and just plain being a good mom…Moms take up for their children. I was reading in Mathews account of the Gospel and came across this story…and I must admit that I event hesitate to share it on Mother’s day week but I often share from what I’m reading and so here I go… It is from Matthew 20
20 Then the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus with her sons. She knelt respectfully to ask a favor. 21 “What is your request?” he asked.
She replied, “In your Kingdom, please let my two sons sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.” 22 But Jesus answered by saying to them, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink?” “Oh yes,” they replied, “we are able!” 23 Jesus told them, “You will indeed drink from my bitter cup. But I have no right to say who will sit on my right or my left. My Father has prepared those places for the ones he has chosen.”
24 When the ten other disciples heard what James and John had asked, they were indignant. 25 But Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. 26 But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. 28 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Now, I don’t mean to be rude or to read too much into what is happening in this text, but the first line strikes me as something “so motherly.” I mean, of course a mom would come to Jesus and ask such a thing…she wants her boys to succeed and she wants her boys to do something meaningful. She just wants her two boys to be in “places of honor” next to Jesus. It is so cute…and so destructive…
While Jesus doesn’t really address mom and goes straight to the James and John with his questions about drinking from cups of suffering, the problem is that the other ten disciples can’t believe that James and John would ask such a thing…or maybe they are jealous that they asked it first. The thing that I find so intriguing is Jesus’ words to the fighting disciples, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave.” And there, in the middle of that conversation was the mother of James and John, who like other mothers, was a personification of what Jesus had just taught to his disciples. It was the men of the ancient world that had set up the “lording over” system and fought the wars and had the authority. It was the women, the moms, that served the household and had the servant’s heart. I might be flirting with stereotypes here, and I'm sure there are exceptions to the rule; but I reference the specific setting of the Roman Empire during the first century in and around Jerusalem.
So, here is mom going to Jesus, the Lord and authority, asking if her sons might be a special part of that system. Sure it is misguided, but it is also so sweet. It is sweet because within the request you can see the respect she has for Jesus and the love she has for her boys. It is misguided because she forgot that there are other sons sitting around their Lord and she was only interested in the success of her boys…not the whole team of boys.
Poor James and John, an object lesson to this day of what not to do - don’t seek the honor, seek the service. Poor mom of James and John, who thought it was a great idea to ask Jesus this. Poor “us,” if we think that we are superior to those around us and have attitudes that portray such a falsehood.
I thank God for this story, and for the moms who understand that the success of their children is wrapped up in the success of the TEAM around their children. In my home, my mom (and my dad) were fans of the team of boys surrounding me. When I played football, I could hear mom cheering on my friends. When I sat the bench in basketball, my parents were at every game cheering the guys on the court. I am so thankful for those who raise a community and not just their family…and I am thankful that although my parents weren’t perfect they understood that my success was wrapped up in my community’s success. I pray that God might give me some of that as I raise my kids.
Today’s reading included a familiar Psalm, the 23rd one. I read it, even though I recited it first to make sure I could still do that. I’m not trying to be prideful, but I believe that scripture is meant to be read, memorized, and recalled when needed. Some persons do that with movie quotes and song lyrics…I do that too…but scripture is more helpful (or it should be anyway). So, here is the familiar 23rd Psalm.
1 The Lord is my shepherd;
I have all that I need.
2 He lets me rest in green meadows;
he leads me beside peaceful streams.
3 He renews my strength.
He guides me along right paths,
bringing honor to his name.
4 Even when I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will not be afraid,
for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff
protect and comfort me.
5 You prepare a feast for me
in the presence of my enemies.
You honor me by anointing my head with oil.
My cup overflows with blessings.
6 Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I will live in the house of the Lord
At a church event I attended last week, one of the speakers made a comment that I wish to use, he said that Americans are terrible at following. We all want to be leaders and we are told at a young age to never settle for following. What I want to add is that this attitude really sets us up to accomplish little, love less, and become more lonely. In a culture of free spirits, uniqueness, and rage against the establishment…how are we to trust the Holy Spirit, become like Jesus, and worship the God whose first act was establishing the very order we know.
Jesus tells his “disciples” or followers to follow him. Jesus says that as we follow him more the world will react to us more…and not necessarily in a good way. The church is to be a people who are following Jesus and even are leaders are those who are truly following Jesus.
So, for today…Jesus…I just want to be a dumb sheep. I want you to lead me and feed me, to give me water that I may never thirst again. I want you to fight my enemies and bless me. I just want to be a sheep…a follower…and I want led by you. Please Lord…make it so.
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.