“…Since Christ is Lord of Heav’n and Earth, how can I keep from singing?” So asks the nineteenth-century American minister Robert Lowry in the second verse of his still-famous hymn.
No one could keep from singing Jesus’ praises on that very first Palm Sunday as our Lord rode into David’s city. He had wowed everyone with his acts of healing, his miraculous feedings, and his extravagant (and sometimes scandalous) love for all. He was the Savior King the prophets had promised.
Palm Sunday was great then, and it is great now. Who doesn’t love seeing our sweet children in their Sunday best, walking down the sanctuary’s aisle, waving palm branches and offering “the simplest and best” praises as the organist plays “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna?” Who doesn’t love that? It’s fantastic. How can we keep from singing?
Today is my husband’s birthday. Birthdays are big at our house: we hang streamers; we bake the birthday boy or girl’s favorite cake; we make birthday cards and homemade presents; we sing the birthday song ad nauseum. We can’t keep from singing.
Four years ago, though, we had trouble singing. Four years ago today, we suffered a miscarriage, less than a week after discovering we were expecting our second baby. The praises we had shouted as we learned of that pregnancy quickly turned to crying as we realized the horror that was happening inside my body. Easter seemed a long way away, and while we knew it was coming, we couldn’t yet wrap our broken hearts and minds around it.
We had to move on though—at least in practice. Being the clergy couple that we were and are, we had to continue planning for Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter. When Palm Sunday arrived, I wept my way through the processional. I was so very thankful that our daughter was joyfully singing God’s praises, and yet I was completely devastated that our unborn child would never have that chance. How could I keep singing?
Holy Week is a peculiar, and downright raw, few days. It is pure horror, bound on one side by naïve hosannas and on the other by unbridled hallelujahs. The parade-goers who cheered for the One who came in the name of the Lord had no idea that He would not be meeting their expectations in the ways they thought he would. The Palm Sunday crowd had no idea what the week would bring. They had no idea that their hopes would be destroyed on a criminal’s cross.
We, who are on this side of that first Holy Week, know the whole story though—and thank goodness. We know that Jesus was the fulfillment of every prophetic promise his people had heard. We know that Jesus was not what the people were expecting—he was more. Jesus Christ exceeded any expectations his people could’ve had because he did the unthinkable: he kept on riding.
On that first Palm Sunday, Jesus kept on riding into Jerusalem, knowing the horror that awaited him. He rode up into the temple and challenged the corruption he saw there. He rode into the festive Passover meal with his beloved friends, knowing it would be his last. He rode into an unfair trial and allowed himself to be condemned to death. He rode to the cross and endured its horrors, knowing that by His wounds, we all would be healed.
And then…and then…he rode out of his tomb, having conquered death as only this truly triumphant king could do.
On Palm Sunday and in the days that follow, we are reminded that our Lord has moved with us through our highest joys and our deepest, most unfathomable sorrows, because he moved through his own for our sake. Christ our Lord has vouchsafed that our moments of despair do not have the last word. Instead, the last word is and will be Hallelujah. Joy will come, because Christ has come.
How, then, can we keep from singing?
Anna Kate Shurley is a Baptist minister, a Presbyterian minister’s wife, the mother of Virginia and Oliver Shurley, a Girl Scout leader, a carpool magnate, a hopefully-soon-to-be-published author, and the Interim Director of Youth and Family Ministries at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Gulfport, Mississippi. She has lots of great reasons to sing.
One day, shortly after my second child arrived, a friend and mother of three leaned in close and asked, “So, how are you doing? How is your adjustment from one to two going?”
The uncensored version of my internal response is not suitable for online publication. The censored version was something like, “I DON’T KNOW HOW TO DO THIS! PLEASE TELL ME IT GETS EASIER!”
I think I said something like “It’s definitely interesting,” or, “it’s a whole new world.”
I am forever grateful for a friend who invited me to be honest. Her question and genuine listening ear remedied my overwhelmed loneliness.
Mothering two children has been a wilderness journey for me. My nurturing, loving, guiding energies feel depleted. Have I made the right parenting choices? Did I keep everyone’s medicine and menus straight? Do we have enough clean laundry to make it through the day?
I miss the time I got to spend with my husband during our one-child days. There have been long stretches of time through which every moment of every day is consumed with children, home, ministry, and then children again—caring for everything but myself. It’s been a year of transition—two moves, new jobs, new baby. When will I find my normal again?
In this passage from Isaiah 43, God’s chosen people, living in the wilderness of Babylonian exile, find themselves in an unanticipated season of “open possibility.” Under the crushing weight of exile, many of God’s people accepted displacement as the final reality.
We can understand why, when Cyrus of Persia invited the exiles to return home and rebuild their lives, the people had a hard time seeing the shifting political and social climate as a God-given opportunity. They did not expect God to work in such a way, still grieving the loss of what was.
Second Isaiah invites fellow believers to see God’s faithfulness and abiding love revealing itself, before their very eyes, in unanticipated ways. God had not broken God’s promise, but still claimed, loved, and sustained her children, especially in their wilderness.
God has done what God always seems to do—transformed my wilderness into a season of open possibility. Even when I keep looking for the normal that used to be, God ever and always claims me, loves me, and points me toward the “well-watered pathway.” God helps me trade in perfectionism and control for setting priorities and trusting the process.
God strengthens me to say “no”, to practice self-care, and to intentionally make space for what is most important. God emboldens me to have a soft heart that can love and be loved even when it’s risky. God delivers me from the idea that I have to do it all myself.
God whose love will not let us go, we offer gratitude and praise for your working in our wilderness. Embolden and equip us to be faithful witnesses to the working of your grace, power, and love in our hurting world.
 Samuel Adams, “Isaiah 43:16-21: Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) 125.
A Georgia native and graduate of Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, Hannah Coeserves as Associate Pastor of Children and Families at First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Missouri. Hannah and her husband, David, are parents to Katherine and Annalina. They enjoy playing, eating, and the occasional nap.
When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it,2 take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket.
Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name3 and say to the priest in office at the time, “I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the land the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.”
4 The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God. 5 Then you shall declare before the Lord your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. 6 But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. 7 Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. 8 So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders.
9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey;10 and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.”
Place the basket before the Lord your God and bow down before him.11 Then you and the Levites and the foreigners residing among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household. – Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Giving of the first fruits: But what if my first fruits seem unworthy?
I recently went on our annual Youth Beach Retreat. We provided lots of snacks during the weekend, including fresh fruit. (Providing the fruit makes me feel a little better about the tremendous amount of junk food available.) We always bring the left-over snacks back to the church and leave them in the youth room so the youth can snack on what is left. This year we had fruit left–surprise! So I laid the fruit on the counter and very little of it got eaten.
One day my daughter asked for an orange. (We practically live at church, so she makes herself at home, snacks and all.) I grabbed an orange and started peeling. It was soft and mushy and not acceptable to my 3 year-old daughter. The look on her face made was priceless.
This look made me think about firstfruits. Does God look at my first fruits with the same eyes of disgust as my 3 year-old daughter in response to an unacceptable orange?
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 talks about giving our firstfruits to God. This passage speaks specifically about land and inheritances. The idea was the firstfruits of the land were to be given to God as an offering and thanksgiving for all that God had done. The giving of the firstfruits was an act of worship.
As I read this I couldn’t help but think, but what if my firstfruits look unacceptable? What if they seem unworthy of an offering?
Firstfruits During Difficult Harvest Seasons
This thought came to mind as I reflected on many difficult times in my life. In these times the harvest did not seem plentiful and the fruits of my faith were not ripe or beautiful. Does God still want our firstfruits, even when they seem unworthy?
Maybe many of you have experienced these difficult seasons. Some of the hardest days for me during these seasons have been Sundays, our day of worship. I am a minister on staff at a church, so participating in Sunday morning Bible study and worship are requirements for me.
Every Sunday morning, my husband, daughter, and I arrive at church around 8am. We prepare for the morning mentally, spiritually and physically before others begin to arrive. We greet everyone and make our rounds around the Sunday school classes. We participate in Sunday school, rush off to choir practice, and then lead and participate in the worship service.
This Sunday morning ritual is usually a joy for me -people, study, and worship all in one morning – sign me up! However, I have to admit not too long ago this ritual became a burden.
I wanted to sleep in on Sunday mornings. I hated getting dressed-up in my “Sunday best.” I dreaded seeing or greeting people with a fake smile on my face. I would hide in my office or in the nursery with Scarlet so as to have the least amount of interaction possible.
I went to Sunday school, but cared little about what was to be learned. I sang in the choir, but only because I felt like I had to. I went through the motions of worship.
I was in what some would call a “funk.” This funk was simply due to me being overwhelmed by life. Being a wife, mom, minister, student, and overall nice functioning human being can overwhelming at times.
The difference between me being in a funk and the average church member is, the average church member can play hooky on Sunday mornings. I cannot.
So in my spiritual, mental and emotional funk, I entered a holy space and time each week with a not-so-holy attitude. While I wanted to resent having to participate in the Sunday morning ritual, I realized I was there and that had to mean something, right?
When people would ask me how I was, I would respond with “I am here.” While in my A-type, perfectionist, over-achieving mind that was not enough, I think in God’s mind it was. Being present was better than nothing.
In this season of life, my firstfruits were not pretty, not ripe, and maybe not life giving, but they were offered. Each Sunday, I pulled myself out of my funk and offered myself to God. Many times during this season, I bowed at the altar to pray. Sometimes there were no words, I had none to give; however, I offered my tired, worn-out, and over-worked body, mind, and soul on the red carpet steps of a holy place to a Holy God.
My first fruits felt rotten and unworthy, but my heart for God was neither. So I continued to offer these firstfruits, no matter how humble. Why? Because I had not lost sight of all that God had done in my life. I had not lost sight of God’s provision, power, and love.
“He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.” (Deuteronomy 26:9-10a)
Despite my seemingly unworthy fruits, God continued to do great things with my humble sacrifice. During this season, God continued to bring beautiful spiritual growth to the youth in my youth group. God did mighty works through me, even when I thought I could do nothing. God showed me grace and joy through my husband and daughter. God’s provision prevailed over my unworthy fruits.
God has given me this life, a life flowing with milk and honey (even when I don’t see it), so I bring God the firstfruits, whatever they may be.
Maybe your firstfruits are just making it to church with your children, without make-up on and the children in clean clothes.
Maybe your firstfruits are silence in the presence of God when you cannot even pray for yourself.
Maybe your firstfruits are a smile when you have been crying for days.
Maybe your firstfruits are reading a quick devotion while hiding in the bathroom (for moms of young children, you can picture this).
Maybe your firstfruits are simply getting out of bed in the morning.
Nowhere in this passage does it say we have to offer award-winning fruits. This passage merely asks us to offer some of our firstfruits. We are to give ourselves to God as an act of thanksgiving and worship, whatever that means for us. Sometimes our first or best doesn’t look pretty or isn’t what we think of when we think of a worthy offering, the challenge is to give anyway.
Stop Comparing Firstfruits
Also, in reflecting on my firstfruits I was condemned by how often I compare my firstfruits with the firstfruits of others. We have to stop comparing our firstfruits. Your firstfruit may be different depending on your life and season. God doesn’t want us comparing fruits, but to humbly offer what we have. Remember the widow’s mite?
I learned this lesson when I became the mother of a newborn. My firstfruits changed for a season. My fruits were different from the fruits of some of my friends with grown children (who did not have to depend on their parents for every need) and even different from the firstfruits of my past. I had to learn not to compare my life, offering, or fruitfruits to others. (I am still learning this lesson.)
Pinterest (and other social media) does the devil’s work when it comes to firstfruit comparison. I remember spending hours searching for Pinterest ideas for the perfect VBS decorations, youth devotions, or best birthday party ideas, only to have my attempts pale in comparison to the beautiful staged pictures online.
STOP IT! Stop comparing what you have and what you have to give to that of others. God doesn’t see in 2×2 inch boxes with beautifully staged pictures that God can scroll through. God sees the whole picture of your life; every season, every yield, every offering, individually. He has called you to your own crop. Each of us has different land, a different crop, and different yields. He knows your firstfruits before they even start to cultivate and grow. If you are giving YOUR firstfruits, God is pleased.
We have to stop comparing our fruitfruits and simply focus on offering them as acts of thanksgiving and worship. Our firstfruits are not about us; they are about God. Your firstfruits are beautiful in the eyes of God whether they are rotten or prize-winning.
During this season of Lent, reflect on your life. Find the flowing milk and honey. Remember what God has done for you and know God will continue to provide. Think about your firstfruits. In thanksgiving and worship, give them to God. If you are in a season where your fruits seem unworthy, give them anyway. If you are in a season of plentiful harvest, give abundantly.
Then you, your family, your church family, your neighbors, strangers, and all those around you will REJOICE in all the good things the LORD your God has given. (Sarah’s translation of Deuteronomy 26:11).
To God be the glory – unworthy, unripe, and rotten fruits and all. Amen.
Youth Wednesday Night
Silly Sarah and Scarlet
It’s a small world!
Rev. Sarah Boberg is a child of God, believer in Jesus Christ, wife to Bradley, mother to Scarlet, and tries to be a minister to all (especially to the family and community of First Baptist Church, Red Springs). She is a professed control freak and covets the prayers of all who read this that her dissertation work is completed soon!