This past Sunday Katie and I had the wonderful joy of getting to attend worship at Trevecca Community Church. After the morning service we got to share our calling and journey with the great people of TCC’s Roundtable small group. When Carol Eby, a former missionary, reached out, we were so excited. We knew it would be a special time and we were not disappointed. It was a class full of missionaries, pastors, parents of missionaries, and passionate workers who served, and still serve, all over the world. It was so good to have the opportunity to share our passion for the first time in over three months. It was equally wonderful to stand around afterwards and hear the stories of retired missionaries and pastors, and the parents of current missionaries, as they talked about their lives, ministries, children, and grandchildren. There was so much wisdom to be harvested from these wonderful people. One day, in the great parade of victory that Christ will lead, these men and women will receive the just reward for their incredible service. It was encouraging and inspiring to be in their midst. We are thankful for new friends.
In the morning service, Pastor Shawna Gaines gave a wonderful message on the importance of recognizing that we are still on our way, that we haven’t arrived, and that on the journey it is the grace of God that transforms and sustains us.
(that is a big oversimplification of a great message you can find on TCC’s website)
As I sat there thinking about our journey my eyes wandered over onto the gorgeous and enormous stained-glass cross that dominated the wall behind Pastor Shawna. I know every inch of that cross because it was the backdrop of almost every chapel service I attended while a student at Trevecca. My eyes have studied that cross as I grieved my father, discovered new truths about my Creator, fell in love with my future wife, and began to discover myself as a creature and minister made in God’s image and called to bear it faithfully. The sun would often shine through that cross onto the sanctuary, and onto a young student from East Tennessee, on cold, confusing, triumphant, broken, and miraculous mornings before and after classes during my time at Trevecca. I would often linger after chapel and just sit in the presence, under the watchful eye, of that cross and my thoughts, informed by classes, sermons, songs, and conversations would ponder what it means to be a servant of the Savior of that cross. Somehow, in every season of my years at Trevecca, my eyes would be lifted to that emblem whenever I entered that sanctuary and I found hope, meaning, and comfort.
There is something powerful about the placement of emblems and symbols: a table, a flag, logo, a seal, a face, a cross etc. Many things can function as powerful symbols that lift our eyes. The first time I visited Razgrad, Bulgaria, I was struck by a certain aspect of the construction of the city that powerfully articulated this point. In the middle of Razgrad there is a large square with an enormous stage at its northern end. Actually, although I didn’t realize it at the time, many cities in Bulgaria have a space like this. This space dominates the center of the city and
cannot be ignored. I spoke with a Bulgarian about this one day who explained that this was a place for city gatherings, speeches, and celebrations. It is a space that was created by the Communist party to remind the city in their coming and going of their common identity. This particular gentleman explained how often on his way to work each morning his eyes would be drawn up towards that symbolic place and he would be reminded of who was in charge. I would end up calling Razgrad home for nearly a year and my eyes also, on my way to and from the store, church, friends’ apartments, and simple strolls, would be drawn to that enormous symbol.
The symbol in Razgrad and the symbol in the TCC sanctuary remind me of a passage that has always been a source of hope for me. It comes from Psalm 121. In this passage the writer's eyes are drawn upwards to gaze at symbols of power. In his day, the hills all around him would have been covered with pagan temples and poles that were emblems of the power and presence of the gods that many looked to in the journey of life. I always think of the drive I used to make to Nashville several times a week to pastor my college students from Blackman Community Church and how I would look up at the billboards full of advertisements for products of every kind promising happiness, wholeness, joy, and fulfillment in every season of life if they could be purchased. In time of need, the psalmist asks, I life up my eyes and see so many symbols and emblems of the powers that promise life. Which should I trust? Where does my help really come from? This is the question of the psalmist. The answer: "My help comes from the LORD, the maker of the heavens and the earth." (Ps. 121:2)
It has been a rough season for our family. Over the past month or so our family has dealt with sicknesses ranging from COVID-19 to pneumonia, ear infections, and strep. We have had to change our plans again and again. We have watched our nation struggle and I have often felt helpless as I drift without a place of ministry. We have continued to struggle in the visa process and still have not received definitive answers or a timeline on when we will be able to get home to Sofia. Pastor Shawna mentioned the symbolism of living in tents as part of her sermon. Well, we certain feel that way these days. In fact, to be honest, many days we have felt we have pitched our tent in a valley. However, the beautiful and enduring Gospel is that in the toughest of seasons we can lift our eyes up, from no matter how low a place, and find an answer to our cry for help. Our help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth, who is sovereign enough for the needs of nations, and intimate enough to be personally discovered in our own times of distress. He helps us in the big moments and in the daily grind. He helps us in the valley and on the mountaintop. He never fails. He is ever trustworthy and true. The steadfast love and compassions of our Creator endure forever. Let this be a daily emblem in our lives. Are you down? Are you struggling? Are you in a valley? Look up! Your help is coming from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.