Weekly Reflections



King's Cross Anglican Church Tucson

3 Year Lectionary

by Jennifer Callaway

servants

Isa 42:1-9 Ps 89:20-29; Acts 10:34-38; Mark 1:7-11

One danger we face in the church today is consumerism. As Americans, we always look for value in our investments, and we’re taught that the more you get for your time and money, the better the deal. This leads us to ‘shop’ for a good deal when we go to church; do they have what I/we want? Do we like the way they look and sound? Do we leave every service feeling like well-fed sheep?

That mindset means the churches that look and feel and sound the best become mega churches. It also means that the church faces the temptation to please people so they’ll choose us out of their many options. This often makes for a fun church to visit. But what happens when those ‘awesome’ churches face a crisis?

            We are seeing what happens when great attractors become great failures. If you follow any Christian news at all you have heard about the scandals that are taking down some of the most popular Christian celebrities. And the massive fallout they leave in their wake means dozens or even hundreds of lives are shaken to the foundations. What happens to cause such calamities? I think we can trace it back to one little word we forget in the life of the church‑the word “servant.”

            The church is a body of servants, not customers or bosses. We are called to the attitude of David, of Peter, of John the Baptist, and Jesus. Our readings this week highlight our identity in Christ as a people who serve God, and by extension His creation. We do not own our lives anymore. As servants of God, we live to please Him and do His will. This includes, but isn’t limited to, the local body of believers. It means that in every area of life—personal relationships and work and every other public venue—we listen to and obey the Master. Nothing is off limits in the way our servanthood guides our lives.

            John the Baptist understood this better than most. He knew that his job was only to announce the Messiah. He didn’t presume to deserve special treatment. In fact, he made it clear he considered himself unworthy even to tie Jesus’ shoes. He lived like a servant, and he died like a servant. As did Jesus.

            Do you think of yourself as a servant? If you want to test yourself, think about how  you react when someone treats you like one?

Because Jesus

Jer 31:7-14; Ps 84; Eph 1:3-14; Matt 2:13-23

Yesterday in his homily, Father Pete juxtaposed the kingdom of Herod against the kingdom of God, illustrating why we need Jesus by the reminder of the “Herod” who lives inside each of us, demanding power and control at all costs. But the story of Herod’s attack on the small boys of the land drew me up short and made me think about the evil in the world.

            There was a time I would have said, in answer to the question ‘does God cause bad things to happen?,’ that yes, He does, in the sense that what He has the power to stop, He doesn’t. He allows little boys to be murdered—in fact, these little boys were murdered in direct response to the birth of Christ. Because of Jesus, a king came unglued and went on a rampage. Because of Jesus, countless people have lost their lives to jealous tyrants over the centuries. Because of Jesus today Christians live in hiding in some countries, their lives in danger for claiming His name. Does that mean this is all somehow under the umbrella of God’s will?

            I won’t pretend to solve the problem of evil here. But I do think I have a better understanding now of how all this works together. Evil comes not from God, but from the broken world, a world that He gave us in pure perfection, and we broke like children playing with a toy too precious for them. Evil comes from that brokenness. Some of it is the evil that men do, men like Herod, or Judas, or Cain, or me.

            Some of it is the profound disunity of nature and people and God that happened in the fall. Think cancer and natural disasters. What I understand now though, is that God so loved the world, Christ entered into all of the mess we made as one of us, with the ultimate goal of setting everything right. In the fullness of time, He will finish what He started. In the meantime, He enters in, walking with us, crying with us, praying with us, dying for us, until the day comes that He makes all things new again. It is not an easy journey, and we see plenty of evil on the way. Nothing has changed since Herod.

            But because of Jesus, we have hope. Because of Jesus we can rejoice that this is not the end of the story. Because of Jesus we have more riches than the richest of men. Read our Ephesians passage for a glimpse of all we have to celebrate. Evil may yet live for now. But it does not reign. It cannot. Because Jesus does.

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

Isa 61:10-62:5; Ps 147:13-21; Gal 3:23-4:7; John 1:1-18

“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”(John 1:12-13)

John Chapter One is so full of truth and layers of meaning that it’s breathtaking. There’s one little phrase I want to focus on today, because I think that embracing it’s fullness would change our lives. It’s the phrase, “believed in His name.”

            Names in the Hebrew tradition were full of not only meaning, but description. This is why God sometimes changed a name to signify the change in a person. Two examples come to mind immediately; Abram, who became Abraham, and Saul, who became Paul. The small change in the name meant a change in identity. And the name became not just a label but a description.

            Jesus is called many names in Scripture. As a young believer, this was baffling and confusing to me, until I started understanding what the names said about His identity and work. I could not list them all here, but I’ll give a sampling. There is Immanuel, which means “God with us.” There is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end of everything. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the path to truth that leads to life. He is the Lamb of God, the only sacrifice that will satisfy forever our sin debt. He is our Faithful Witness, whose testimony is 100% reliable. He is the Bread of Life, who gives us the only food that will sustain us forever. He is the Good Shepherd, who cares for us when we can’t care for ourselves, who protects us and guides us. These of course are just a few, and as you can see, these few names tell us enough about Him to know He is Worthy. And that leads me to the other part of the phrase, “who believe.”

            Belief is not just a nod of the head. Believing in His name means life changing acknowledgment and actions that all He says He is, we know to be true. It means we act according to Who He is, not who we are. Immanuel tells me I am never alone, even when it feels like I am. Faithful Witness means that what He says is absolutely trustworthy. Good Shepherd means that He is always protecting and guiding and caring for me. Believing these things is not just a one-time event. It is a way of life that changes my focus and my fears and helps me honor His truth in times when truth is hard to find.

There is only one Truth. Believe in Him and all the other truths—and lies—will become clear.

PROMISES, PROMISES

2 Sam 7:1-17; Ps 132: 8-19; Rom 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

            Making a promise is the easiest thing in the world. Keeping it is not. A promise is defined as “a declaration that one will do or refrain from doing something specified.” I have lived long enough to make and break many promises, and to be on the receiving end of such treatment as well.

            Most promises are broken for good reason. Life happens, and we cannot always fulfill what we’ve said we will do. We are only as good as our strength, our resources, and our lifespan can make us. This is why the most binding of promises we make in this life, the marital covenant, has so many conditions in it. Sickness and health, better or worse, etc. And the only way out is death. Thus the admonition and promise, ‘til death do us part.

            I am so thankful that our God is not like us! In our readings this week I counted 34 direct or implied promises that God made. Many of His statements included reminders of all the past promises He kept, so that the listener could remember and trust Him. “What God has done in the past is a model and a promise of what He will do in the future” is one of the most helpful quotes I got from my time in school. Along with the reminder, He is too creative to do things the same way twice.

            And that leads us through the long years of waiting between His promises to David, and Gabriel’s words to Mary. God is in this for the long game. But He is keeping His promises, just as He has in the past. And unlike us, He has no reason to break them. He is eternal. He does not change. And as our Luke passage says, “nothing will be impossible with God.”

            God has promised to give us rest, to protect us, and to deliver us safely into His kingdom. No matter what we face between now and then, His word is sure and true. Stand on His promises, and no matter what, you will not fall.

~What promise of God do you struggle to believe? Pray and ask Him to give you faith that His promise is true.

rejoice!

Isa 65:17-25; Ps 126; 1 Thess 5:12-28;  John 3:22-30

What are we to do when God takes over our plans? As I thought about John the Baptists’ prophetic words, “He must increase, but I must decrease” I’m quite sure that John had no idea that his own death was close at hand. He had surrendered his life to the work of preparing the way, but like most of us, he had no idea where that way would lead him.

            Like John, we may choose to follow the way of Christ, but we cannot choose where that way leads us. We want a roadmap, a set of clear instructions, and a play book that says “if (a) happens, do (b).” We feel ill equipped to make decisions whose outcomes we can’t predict. After a time, we learn to live with the constant sense of helplessness, but few ever learn to be comfortable with it. How do we cope with such uncertainty?

            In a word, rejoice. Rejoice in a sure future with no more death, no more tears, no more loss. Rejoice in all that God has done in the past for His people and for us personally. Rejoice that “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.

In John’s own words, “The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice.”

            Finally, rejoice that Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians, quoted below, has been, is, and will continue being answered with a resounding “Yes!”

“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” Amen.

COMFORTED

Isa 40:1-11; Ps 85:1-13; 2 Pet 3:8-18; Mark 1:1-8

Comfort is a big commodity in our world today. Whether it’s a mattress, shoes, pillows, or clothes, this is probably the most often advertised advantage in a product. And it doesn’t stop there. We have comfort food, comfort zones, and the comforts of home. We all long for comfort, and we sacrifice other important qualities to get it. For evidence, just look at the popularity of Birkenstock shoes, whose ugliness is only surpassed by their amazing ability to conform to the foot of the wearer.

            We live in a world that leaves us seeking comfort wherever we can find it. This year of conflict and sickness and death strips away any illusions of a world that is safe and secure. The reality of its brokenness and eventual end is harder to ignore when we face such insurmountable problems every day. Every attempt to save it is met with a new set of equally challenging problems, and while politicians fight over how to save the world, the groans of pain and exhaustion get a little louder and more frequent every day.

            In addition, most of those places we look for comfort have costs of their own. Turning to other people is risky. Only those who have learned how to comfort themselves well can be any help. Many other forms of comfort, like eating, shopping, or snuggling under a blanket behind a locked door, have their own limitations. There is only One whose comfort costs us nothing, and whose only limitation is the boundaries we place on letting Him in.

            Isaiah’s words reflect the heart of God, “Comfort, comfort my people..” and God’s word reflects His heart for us. He promises His word is eternal, all-powerful, and will stand when everything else has burned. He promises it will bring peace and justice, salvation, and restoration. Ultimately He assures us that all will be made new, and our only challenge is to wait patiently and peacefully and faithfully as He prepares the way in us and through us. We need strength, and renewal and joy. And the way we find those things is through the comfort of His word.

            There’s only one catch. We must read it. Often. While it seems logical that once we’ve read and studied it, the comfort will be ours, that is faulty thinking. We may know what it says, but His word is alive, and active, and when we read it we aren’t just performing an intellectual exercise. We are listening to words of comfort directly from the Source of all comfort. And when we’ve received such comfort, we are equipped to offer it to others who don’t know where to look. We can offer the world a comfort no amount of money can buy. It’s our calling as comforted people in a comfortless world.

stay awake

Isa 64:1-9; Ps 80:1-7; 1 Cor 1:1-9; Mrk 13:24-37

            I’ve driven many, many miles in my years as a military wife. And one of the things I dreaded most on those trips the feeling of trying to stay awake when my mind and body wanted to sleep. The smart thing to do, of course, is to pull off the road and park so I could nap. But I must admit to many times just gritting my teeth and fighting the sleep, thinking I’ll sleep when I get there. I am certain I’ve been a hazard on roads on those days, and I’m thankful that God protected others and me from my own foolishness.

            Have you ever experienced that? I hope I’m not alone! When we have our minds set on a goal, it can be hard to take orders from our bodies to eat, or rest, or take care of any of our other mundane human needs. But when our body says “enough” it can be hard to argue.

            Jesus certainly knew that. How many times did He tell the disciples, “come away” or stop to eat and rest Himself? While it’s clear He often pushed His physical limits for certain seasons and purposes, He knew when to go and when to stay, when to fast and when to eat, when to pray and when to act.

            When we read His admonition to ‘stay awake,’ along with this explicit command is an unstated, implicit one. That is ‘take care.’ By this I mean, get the rest you need so when the time to wake comes, you will be prepared. As we enter into Advent, this seems a timely message.

            Advent is a time of preparation for the biggest event in history. His first coming is the biggest by far, up to now. But we also prepare for the event that will eclipse it, the return of our King. When He returns, everything will be shaken until only what cannot be shaken remains (Heb 12:27-29). We would be wise to spend our time tending to our spiritual health and strengthening our spiritual muscles for the Day.

            Advent is a perfect season to add a new spiritual practice, or to remove something that makes you spiritually sleepy. In the same way the physical rest we get affects our mood and energy, our spiritual health will only give back what we put into it. “And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.”(Rom 13:11).

That's our king

Rather than write my own thoughts this week, it seemed appropriate to  share the YouTube short version of the Lockridge sermon Father Pete referenced in his homily yesterday. It is inspired and inspirationsal. We need this reminder as often as we can get it right now. Click on the picture, watch and be blessed.


FAITHFUL DAYS

Zeph 1:7,12-18; Psa 90:1-12; 1 Thess 5:1-10; Matt 25:14-30

 “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.(Ps 90:12)” What does Moses mean in his prayer? How can we number our days? We can recognize and respect and learn our limitations, so we can live wisely. It’s accepting that we have limits, which gives us the desire and motivation to seek God.

            I believe when we dig through all the different causes and roots of sin, it comes back to a refusal to accept limitations. Adam and Eve ate the fruit because they wanted to know more, and to be like God. And from there on, humans have tried to figure out ways to escape our limitations without submitting to God. That leads to a few problems, doesn’t it? And maybe we’re just good enough at figuring things out that we make it a habit. The advances in medicine, and space exploration, and artificial intelligence are absolutely astounding. It seems we should be able to conquer the universe!

            Until, that is, a virus that is too small to see paralyzes the world. And all our best solutions haven’t been able to solve this one, because we will never overcome our limits.      We can only see what’s in front of our eyes. We can only hear what’s in earshot. We can only be in one place at a time. We have to eat and sleep or we will die. Every year we pass the date of our own future death without even knowing it. Being human is hard! We know just enough to know what we can’t know, and what we can’t do. What we do with what we can’t do is what should set believers apart from the rest of the world.

            We face an election battle that seems far from over. Our COVID numbers are going up, not down. The global economy has been turned on its head by all the lockdowns and other measures that have been taken to slow the spread. Our political rhetoric continues to grow more hostile and polarized all the time. Everything is just too weird right now, too much not the way things are supposed to be. Even with our limited imagination it’s pretty easy to picture the Day of the Lord we’ve been hearing about in our readings.

            Knowing our limits is only one part of the picture, though. Knowing God is the most important thing we can do. He does not share our limits. So trusting Him is the only wise way to live as we number our days. When we know Him, we can trust Him, and like the parable we can do our best with the resources and abilities He gives us. Can you imagine hearing Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant?” You can expect to, if you serve Him the best you can with what you have. That’s all He asks.

active love

Amos 5:18-24; Ps 70; 1 Thess 4:13-18; Matt 25:1-13

            In recent days, I have thought and even said out loud “Come quickly Lord Jesus!” The chaos of this world is not getting better, and we all know enough to expect that it will just continue on this path of destruction until the Day of the Lord. And then everything will be wonderful, right? Well, maybe not that fast.

            To be clear, the prophet Amos was talking to the people of God who were living in disobedience when he described the Day of the Lord. The images of sudden attack when you least expect it come through in his description of “fleeing from a lion, only to meet a bear” (my paraphrase). Think of that. You think you’ve escaped harm, only to be completely overwhelmed before you know it. The feelings of dread it conjures up are exactly what he was going for, as he tried to get the attention and affection of a wandering people. As believers in Christ embraced by the new covenant, we can expect that we will escape that ultimate destruction. But it might be arrogant to think that we won’t experience the suffering of the world as it stands before God’s judgment.

            How can we possibly be ready for such darkness and gloom, as God will bring ‘on that Day’? Our small group last week talked about that, what it means to be ready. We all came to some form of the same idea, which was to serve the Lord as best we can. And Father Pete used an expression in his homily that caught my attention this week; “active love.” That is, a faithful, ongoing loving relationship with Jesus.  

            Active love will go when He says go. It will rest in Him when He calls us to. Our love expressed through obedience to His commands and His calling will keep us on course. When that Day comes, it may not be a fun time. But it will be a hopeful time, a time to look up as we see our Redemption draw near.

ALL SAINTS

Rev 7:9-17; Ps 149; Eph 1:15-23; Matt 5:1-12

            Of all the Apostle Paul’s letters, I love Ephesians most. It was studying this little letter, probably intended for all the churches though addressed to the church in Ephesus, that taught me what it means to be a church member. It’s also where I grew to understand what the church is, and what it isn’t.

            It is a body of saints, people saved by the blood of Christ. The head of that body is Christ. This means that we are all connected, every single believer, in a mystical union that no one can destroy. I love to think about these truths. You and I and every other saint whether living or dead, have a bond stronger than any earthly force that may try to come against us. The most powerful authorities on earth are no match for our strength. All the squabbles between us cannot destroy the fact of our unity, or weaken the reality of it.

            This means that though we may look completely different and behave in different ways, we are still one in Christ the same way that completely different body parts function in different ways and yet still move the body forward. If all parts were the same, the body would be a very strange one indeed, too uniform to function. While we are here on earth, we must work hard at protecting the unity we have in Christ, so that His work can be done through us.

            But the glimpse we have of what awaits us from Revelation is perhaps the greatest motivation and hope as we press on with Christ and one another. “...a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Multitudes. But one voice. Can you imagine? I try, but I’m sure it will far surpass anything my mind can conjure.

            All Saints’ Day is not just for those called saints by the church. It is for all of us who by definition are saints through faith in Christ. We live for the Lord. We die for the Lord. Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. And in Him, we are One. Amen!

LAW OF LOVE

Ex 22:21-27; Ps 1; 1 Thess 2:1-8; Matt 22:34-46

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

            We hear these words from Matthew’s Gospel every single Sunday. I find great comfort in their familiar ring, but I confess that I am so comforted by them, I don’t often stop and think of what they mean. They are in danger of becoming what Jesus called vain repetitions if we don’t consider how pivotal they are to understanding not only our actions, but also the motivations behind them.

            I’ve often heard the two terms “law” and “grace” treated as opposing forces in God’s dealings with us. But in reality they are just two sides of the many-faceted mercy of God. The words of Jesus in the great commandment help us make sense of that idea. If we start with the knowledge that God wants us to love as He loved us, then we can go back and read all of Scripture through the lens of love.

            The law, in other words, was God’s kind guidance for us to see what love in action looks like. But the law without grace and love is legalism and leads to cruelty, as the religious leaders displayed so well. On the other hand, grace without the guidance of the law becomes permissiveness, as the idolaters of every age have proven. This is why we can only fulfill the law of love when we follow the great commandment.

            When we love God with all that we are, we will understand His law because we will see the reason for it. We will understand why we must sacrifice selfish desires when others have needs, because He sacrificed for ours. We will care about the things God cares about, and hate the things He hates, because we will know His heart. In this way, we will fulfill the Spirit of the law, which leads automatically to fulfilling the letter of it.

~How might your attitudes change if you thought in terms of love when reading God’s law? 

GENEROUS LIFE

Mal 3:6-12; Ps 96; 1 Thess 1:1-10; Matt 22:15-22

            Our readings this week naturally lead us to think about giving. We had a good discussion in our small group about giving, what the Bible says about it and what each of us believe about tithing practices and other offerings. 

            But afterward, I realized that these passages are about much more than just giving money. Where and how much, and when to give become just more laws like all the laws that Jesus came to fulfill. The greater point, and the principle we as believers are called to practice, is generosity.

            Generosity is a lifestyle, not just a concept limited to how much money we give, or even the spirit in which we give it. Generosity applies to every area of a Jesus follower’s life. We give because with God as our provider, we have no fear of poverty. We give because we see others’ needs as more important than our own desires. We give because we know that the things to which we cling, will cling to us in return. We give because our security is in Christ so we need not try to find it in the things we hoard for ourselves.

            We give freely, because God gave so freely to us. We forgive easily because so much has been forgiven us. We love without reservation, because Christ held nothing back for us.

            Generosity embodies all that we are in Christ. Every “one another” we read in Scripture can be captured in this one simple idea. We love, because He first loved us. And He so loved the world, He gave...

~How can you be generous today? Think of time, or money or attention that someone needs from you. Freely has He given to us. Freely give.

well rested

Isaiah 25:1-9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:4-13; Matthew 22:1-14

 

I am so grateful for the practicality of Paul’s letters. He writes with simple, clear instructions for dealing with almost any situation a Christian encounters. Why then is it so easy to misunderstand and misapply the principles that make life more peaceful for us?

            Our Philippians passage is a great example of this. When I was deep in the throes of anxiety, the words “do not be anxious about anything” struck me as a command I wasn’t obeying. So the words Paul meant to be a comfort became a source of more anxiety for me, another sin I would confess and worry about my standing with God over. It took some time for me to take in the rest of the words, but when I did this passage became a lifeline. If I used my feelings of anxiety as reminders to pray, it would remind me that God was with me. If I gave thanks every day in my journal, I remembered all the good things in my life. If I rejoiced, even when I was afraid, peace that I truly did not understand would edge out the terror, and I could breathe again.

            Part of my anxiety stemmed from the culture that surrounded me. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” was the slogan for overburdened Christian leaders. But rarely, if ever, did we stop to ask whether the things that kept us so busy were what Christ would have us do. We assumed the busier we were, the more we were accomplishing for the kingdom.

            But Paul was writing this in prison, at a time when he could do very little of what he would rather be doing. In its context, he was speaking of contentment, the ability to rest in what he had, whether plenty or scarceness. The best translation I’ve ever seen for this verse that captures the Spirit of it says, “By the grace of Christ, I can accomplish all that God requires of me.” I automatically sigh with relief when I read that!

            We have a God who provides for us, who is always near and able. He promises that He will save us when the time is right. We can rest in that, and rejoice in His salvation.   

OBEDIENCE OF FAITH

Isa 5:1-7; Psa 80:8-19; Phil 3:14-21; Matt 21:33-44

            The thing that always chills me about the Gospels is that the very ones that believed they were the most obedient of all, who followed the law to the letter, did not recognize their Messiah when He was standing in front of them. The Torah and the temple and the promises of Messiah have been their whole life. But the vast majority of them never knew Him when He came to them. Could it be that their obedience to the law blinded them to the obedience of faith?

            Obedience does not guarantee that all will go perfectly for us. And it’s not a bargaining chip with God. Obedience is always about living within the life-giving boundaries God has given us for our own protection and flourishing. There may be adversity and suffering as we walk in obedience-ask Jesus or Paul if you doubt that. But we will still be able to rest in the knowledge and assurance that even adversity has its good result for His purposes. And we can trust that He is using that adversity to grow us more into His likeness as we learn to run with endurance the race set before us.

            What is obedience for us today? Is it just going to church, or not lying? In our small group this week, we talked about that a good bit. It seems a little less clear cut when we don’t have the law to follow. It certainly is more than keeping the commandments. Our talk landed on a few things that were helpful for all of us, and I’ll share them with you.

1) Sharing God’s priorities- Our Philip passage gives a good example of the difference between heaven citizens and earthly-minded people. First, he says “join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” He then warns them of who to avoid. He says they “walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”

            Who do you imitate? If others imitated you, what would they reveal about Christ? Would others witness the priorities of God in the ways that you live?

The second gives us a bit of the “how”

2) Listening to the Spirit’s prompting-We agreed that listening to the Holy Spirit who lives in each of us, and following His lead is the path of obedience. That led to the question of how we can be sure it’s the Spirit,

3) Reading God’s word regularly-We cannot learn to recognize the voice of the Spirit if we do not know His voice as revealed in God’s word. And reading Scripture itself is an act of obedience. Scripture is full of admonitions to meditate on it, feed on it and understand the benefits of knowing it.

4) Community- Our relationships are some of God’s best tools for shaping us as individual disciples. But that is only one of the many reasons we need each other. We need to encourage each other by sharing what we have seen God do in our lives. We need to pray for each other and share the results and praises, and sorrows. We need others to challenge us to looks at problems from a heavenly perspective when our minds are set on earthly things.

            Following Christ is not easy. But it is possible, by His Spirit and with all the grace He gives us to do so. And the beauty of the Gospel is that we are secure in His embrace even when we fail. Practice obedience, and let Him guide you.

 

costly words

Ezek 18:1-4,25-32; Psa 25:15-21; Phil 2:1-13; Matt 21:28-32  

The Israelites were angry with God. They wailed against their captivity in Babylon, saying that they were paying for the sins of their forefathers, and it just wasn’t fair (Ezek 18). They had observed the feasts and the Law, mostly. They had only done a few things that God had told them to avoid. They allowed some idols into the sanctuary, and made relationships with foreign nations, but what was the big deal? They were saying everything God wanted them to say, did He really think they had to practice it as well? Surely what they were suffering now was not their fault?

            They shifted the blame to their ancestors, and to God Himself. In spite of the centuries of prophets warning them to change their ways, they continued on the path of lip service to God while they actually lived whatever made life for them the easiest in the moment. And now God has said ‘enough’. His love for His people has not died. But He must do what it takes to get their attention, no matter how painful the lesson will be.

            We are living in a world full of the “blame game” right now. Politicians are particularly good at pointing fingers away from themselves and toward their opponents. Protests on every side revolve around the notion that someone else is responsible for my pain. Often there seems to be more attention and time placed on figuring out who’s at fault than working on solving the problem.

            Closer to home, I am often struck by how those in the church point to the world ‘out there’ in frustration and dismay. I am speaking for myself when I say that Bible study and God’s principles for how we should live leaves me hopeless in this world full of pride, anger, and violence. And it’s only getting worse as we watch the rhetoric escalate to dangerous levels.

            This is when we must remember that the Bible was not given for the world. God gave it to us, His people, so that regardless of how the world behaves, we know what He has called us to do. ‘They’ can plead ignorance. We cannot. As a people that have the Word of God and the power of His Spirit, we have no excuse. God warns the Israelites and us, that each will give account only for him-or-herself before Him.

            Instead of trying to place blame on circumstances and people, we need to look to God and ask, “is it me?” Where are we careless in our actions while we claim Christ with our words? Some Ukrainian friends we know call Christians “repenters.” Can we learn to live lives worthy of that description?   

true love

Jon 3:10-4:11; Ps 145:14-21; Phil 1:21-27; Matt 20:1-16

As he sits in the wilderness east of Nineveh, the only thing more shocking than Jonah’s anger toward God is his reason for being angry. He says “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” He is angry because God had mercy on the Ninevites! More than that, he is angry because God forced him to bring the message of mercy to them. 

            It’s hard not to laugh a little at Jonah’s self-pity. It’s also hard to ignore God’s message to him and to us. God created every human being in His image. Good or bad, black or white, liberal or conservative, your best friend or your fiercest enemy. All of us come from Him, and He desires that all would come to know Him. He wants all to know the relief and joy of casting their cares on Him and trusting Him with their life.

            To be fair, Jonah had good reason to resist calling the Assyrians to repentance. They were notorious for their barbaric war practices, worshiped idols, and were one of Israel’s archenemies. What God had asked Jonah to do was to offer salvation to those he thought least deserved it. And when Jonah objected, God would not take no for an answer. That brings the story back to us today. Where would any of us be if God had let our Jonahs run away from His call to share His love and mercy?

            This is a tough lesson for all of us to think about. Who do we assume is too bad for God to save?  Who do we think deserves for God to bring down disaster on their heads? Sometimes I will wrap it up in Christianese, praying for God to use situations to draw people to Himself, without wanting to be the one to lead the way. Or I will just mentally dismiss people from a list of possibilities because they seem too far gone down the road to destruction.

            Whoever it is, God created them. God loves them. And our only job in this life is to show them that love. Love takes many forms, but if it comes from a heart that wants to put a person’s hand in the hand of God, to make them know His love, it cannot fail to please Him. And that’s all that matters. He will take it from there.

~Ask yourself who the person or group you think is least likely to respond to the gift of the Gospel. And start praying for God to take you there.

COSTLY GRACE

Ecclesiasticus 27:30-28:7 Ps 103:1-14 Rom 14:5-12 Matt 18:21-35

            In my last post (below) I shared a story from my past about a process of repentance and forgiveness that I had to walk through when I felt betrayed. Though there were many moments of clarity in the road to forgiveness, the parable Jesus tells in our gospel reading this week was the pivotal moment when God tapped me on the shoulder and said “You are the wicked servant!”

            The story is about two people who each owe a debt. The first owes his debt to the king, and the debt is massive. In wages, 10,000 talents would be equivalent to 150,000 years’ work!  The point is obvious; the debt was so large to pay it would be impossible. On the other hand, the debt the other servant owed the first servant was equal to 100 days’ work. Though the Master had forgiven him the massive debt he owed and could never repay, the first servant showed no mercy at all to the one who owed him a fraction of that. Because of his failure to show mercy, the Master changed His mind, and made the unforgiving servant pay his own debt.

            This can sound harsh to our fragile ears. It is so easy to overlook, excuse and justify our own sin. But the most important thing we have as Christians is forgiveness. The forgiveness God has given us was paid for with the life of Jesus. Jesus paid the debt I never could for me. When I spent time pondering my own sin that God has forgiven, how could I withhold forgiveness from anyone, for anything?

            If there is one chronic issue I see in the church, one thing that cripples us individually and as a body, it is our failure to forgive one another as we have been forgiven. This is absolutely necessary. Let it go and watch God’s healing work happen.

~Who are you struggling to forgive? The act of forgiving is not a feeling, or a release of the person’s responsibility for their sin. It simply moves the burden from your heart and mind to the shoulders of your Heavenly Father. It gives you freedom to move forward in love and peace   

FORGIVEN

Eze 33:1-11; Ps 119:33-48; Rom 12:9-21; Matt 18:15-20

            The most difficult temptations we face in the church are those that come in the midst of conflict. Jesus’ instructions on handling such situations are straightforward. Why are they so hard to follow? I will share a personal example that taught me more about temptation, my own sin, and forgiveness than I ever wanted to learn. It happened many years ago, but it still guides me today, and I hope it can help you as well.

            I had a dear friend who had gotten very close to my family and me. I thought of her as more of a spiritual sister than just a friend. She had played a pivotal role in the darkest days of our life when my mother was dying, and was a practical and spiritual support through the weeks and months after her death. I trusted her completely—until my father gave her a large sum of money that they both said was a business loan for her.

            When this happened, all my alarm bells went off. I begged her not to take the money and begged him not to give it to her. But the loan went through.

            Thus began a long process of learning and repentance and forgiveness for me. Without going into all the details, she ultimately did not pay back the loan, and when my father died two years later I found out she had later borrowed even more. I quickly went on the offensive, walking through the Biblical steps exactly as Jesus laid them out. She eventually agreed to a repayment program, and for a very short time I felt vindicated. That’s when the Lord held a mirror up to me.

            You see, I had become so focused on her perceived sin against me, I justified all the times I gossiped about her and tried to take revenge, wanting to harm her as I believed she had harmed my family. What I considered justice was actually my own sinful reaction. It was no more excusable than anything she had done.

            So, when Matthew 18 failed me, Romans became my training ground. I had to learn to live at peace with her; to allow God to be the Judge; to not repay evil for evil. Ultimately, God led me to overcome evil by doing good—not her evil, but mine.  Through that process and to this day, I have held the lessons I learned close.

            There is no room in our Christian family for unresolved conflict. The harm such problems inflict on our body is much bigger than the humility required to forgive and to ask for forgiveness. Conflict cripples the body, but forgiveness heals it. Don’t hold on to the resentments and offenses you are nursing. They harm all of us, and what harms us makes us less effective at our mission of advancing the love of Christ to the world. Forgive as you have been forgiven.

HOLY IMPULSES

Jer 15:15-21; Ps 26; Rom 12:1-8; Matt 16:21-27

In our gospel passage Peter has a moment that makes him much more human to me than his great sermons, his confessions of Christ as the Son of God, and his major role in forming the church. Fresh on the heels of his bold proclamation of Christ’s divine identity, he declares that Jesus will never face His coming tribulations. In response, the same Lord who just commended him for his insight calls him Satan and a hindrance.

            How could that switch flip so quickly? Impulsiveness. While Peter made bold moves of faith because of it, he just as quickly made decisions that would mark him for life. His impulsiveness led to reckless behavior that cost him more than he ever imagined paying. But over time, he would learn how to respond instead of react, through the transformation of his mind.

            What is the difference between a reaction and a response? How do we learn from the Lord to walk wisely in this world full of strife? As our faith is tested in these turbulent days, we face a unique opportunity to show the world through our actions what Jesus would do. But in order to show the world, we have to know the answer for ourselves.

            Jesus didn’t do what people expected. He opposed the ones we most identify with, the religious leaders. He showed compassion to those all others had rejected. He did what He saw His Father doing, and refused to waste time doing things people wanted Him to do. He did not conform to the patterns of the world. Instead, He transformed the world by following His call all the way to the cross.

            Jesus never reacted. A reaction suggests that we must act according to the way someone has acted toward us. Jesus on the other hand responded. He acted according to the way God has acted toward us. He did not trade insults, or seek revenge. He loved His enemies, and prayed for His persecutors. He gave according to the true need, which He knew better than those who asked for His help. Few of the things He did made sense to the world.  But conforming to the world was not His way, and neither should it be ours.

            Study the gospels. Think of His words and His ways, all of them. Pay attention to how He speaks and acts, remembering that everything He did, He did in love. You have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16). Strengthen it, inform it, and act on its impulses. You will be transformed, and you will transform the world for Christ.

rock bottom

Isa 51:1-6; Ps 138; Rom 11:25-36; Matt 16:13-20

            In Isaiah, God reminds us through the prophet to look to the source of everything. He begins with Abraham, but quickly moves on to tell us that God is the One who blessed Abraham and made him a nation.  Lift up your eyes to the heavens...the heavens will vanish like smoke and the earth will wear out like a garment, and they who dwell in it will die in like manner...BUT My salvation will be forever, and My righteousness will never be dismayed.

            We are in times unlike any of us have seen before. Where are our foundations? The history of our country is literally being destroyed, and there has even been talk of having our constitution re-written. One of the things that make America different than so many other nations is the peaceful transfer of power, but that seems more in jeopardy than ever before. When the foundations crumble, what can the righteous do? Says the Psalmist. I think these readings give us the answer.

            The foundation of the United States of America is not our foundation. Job security and good health are not foundations. These can be gone in an instant, as we know all too well. So we are wise to consider very carefully where to place our trust.

            One of the unique things about this time is that we are all facing a similar challenge. But the individual fears that come from that can tell us a lot about where we find security. For me, security lies in the common courtesies that we extend to each other in daily life. The air of hostility all around us is scary. Some of us are afraid for good reason of the virus itself. Others are afraid of its effects on our economy. Examine your fears and you will find your security blanket.

            Once we identify our fears the next step is simple, though not easy. There is only one Rock that can overcome all of these things. Only one Rock will stand against even the gates of hell. Our Gospel passage has been interpreted different ways, but there can be no argument that the only Rock that has supported and sustained and carried us as the Church and as people, is the Rock of Jesus Christ. Making the step of faith to focus on Him, to trust Him, is our way forward. Setting our minds on His presence and character will see us through no matter what happens.

            Individuals feel close to God and strengthened by Him in different ways. Some of us find Him in nature. Some find Him in community. Some find Him in musical worship. Connecting to Him in these times is more important than ever. Whatever your way, look for Him. Pay attention to what He is doing. Remember that He is still in control. He is still the Rock. Turn to Scripture in whatever way you can.

            We do not know what God is doing right now, but we know who He is. Hebrews 12 has words of encouragement for these times that we can understand in a new way, and cling to as all around us shakes. “...He has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”

Hold on to the Rock. Everything else will fail, but He is unshakeable.

 

GOD’S PEOPLE

Isaiah 56:1-8; Psalm 67; Romans 11:13-24; Matthew 15:21-28

            Who are the people of God? Is it something we are born into, or a decision we make? Is it something we earn, or accomplish? This question has haunted humankind as long as we have wandered outside the Garden.

            But the astonishing truth is that there is no mystery in the answer, at least not the “how” of it. Isaiah said, among other things “everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer.” The Psalm speaks of “all the ends of the earth” fearing God. Then Jesus affirms the faith of the Canaanite woman, and God’s plan crystalizes. Finally, Paul’s passion for the salvation of both Jews and Gentiles confirms what God had planned from the beginning.

            There is one thing all these peoples have in common, one thing that makes them people of God. The Canaanite woman expressed it best when she said “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David...” Her faith in Christ opened the door to His mercy. Her words expressed faith in His identity, and her request that He heal her daughter showed faith in His ability. Many question His response, and some have even suggested this woman taught Him something about the reach of God’s mercy. No! The Son of Man had no need to be shown or taught anything. What we see is His test of her faith, not for His own benefit but for hers, for His disciples’, and for all who would read these words and believe.

            But what is faith? Is it a mental assent to the words of the Nicene Creed? That is a great place to start, but if that’s where it stops, then something less than faith is at work. Faith does something. Faith rests in God, not in circumstances. Faith looks for God at work in every situation and responds, as He directs. And faith continues to cry out for His help even when we feel like He is ignoring us.

            As we struggle through these dark days, don’t forget that God is with us. Don’t forget that He is greater than every illness, every political party, and every weather anomaly. Nothing is beyond His reach. By faith, we are His people. Nothing can change that. Trust that He will lead us to the other side.

FLOODS

Jon 2:1-10; Ps 29; Rom 9:1-5; Matt 14:22-33

       In ancient Hebrew tradition, water was a symbol of chaos. I’ve been thinking a lot about that as I studied our readings this week. Water is the common element in the story of Jonah, in the imagery of our Psalm, and in Peter’s shaky steps of faith in response to the command of Christ.

     Water is a powerful force. Too much, and we have a flood. Not enough, and we have a drought. Though we have been able to channel it, float on it, and swim in it, when it unleashes its power we are helpless. Think of the tsunamis we’ve witnessed, the floods and hurricanes and all the damage water does. We cannot live without it, though. So the one that controls the waters truly holds life in His hands.

     In these readings God uses the water to train his people in the way they should go. Jonah faces the insurmountable obstacles of both water and fish before he relents and agrees to go where God has told him to go and do what God has told him to do. In Matthew, Christ uses water to bring His disciples to a state of helplessness and then to test Peter’s faith. And our Psalm is a recital of the many ways our God reigns over all things; “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.”

       These passages remind us of our need to fully trust God in every season and circumstance. Dams will break. Boats will sink. Trying to keep our own heads above water will fail when our own strength does. Here in the desert, we know only too well the hazards of both drought and flood when the monsoon rains don’t come or when they come too fast. Either way, it has the capacity for absolute destruction.

     Our dependence on water is only as sure as the One who controls it. Without Him, we understand the meaning of chaos all too well. With Him, chaos becomes order. Our practicing faith is the key. Like Peter, when we look away from Jesus to the dangers around us, we will sink into them. Thank God for His grace that stretches out a hand and guides us to safety. In drought or flood, let’s keep our eyes on the One who reigns over the waters.

DESOLATE PLACES

Neh 9:16-21; Ps 78:1-12; Rom 8:35-39; Matt 14:13-21

I’ve been in a desolate place, spiritually speaking, for some time now. Physical challenges, the hostility and chaos in the world, and the isolation we're living in have conspired to convince me that I am alone. The presence of God that has always been so real to me seems like a distant fantasy. The multitudes of miracles I have witnessed from Him are faint memories, easy to dismiss. So when I read our gospel account I thought about what might have been going on in the minds and hearts of the Twelve that day.

            It had been a long day, and no doubt the news of John’s death was discouraging to the disciples. So when they approached Jesus, they said. “the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” The clues are in their word choices; the day is over; send them away; food for themselves. Those phrases communicate these ideas: We are tired; they need to leave; they need to fend for themselves now.

            Though it’s easy to assume that unbelief was their problem, perhaps there was another common human failing at work—good old-fashioned exhaustion. All of us at times feel we have nothing left to give. Jesus’ first words, “you give them something to eat” must have set off alarm bells in all their minds. Their responses show their shock. “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” In other words, impossible! “And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’” The only work they still needed to do, was to give Him what they had, and when He blessed it and gave it back, to pass it out. Then after everyone ate and was satisfied, “they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over.” I’m guessing they weren’t feeling so tired after participating in such a miracle!

            What does this story offer us today? What does it offer me, when I am in a desolate place? I have faced the temptation to tell Jesus to send people away to fend for themselves. I know that I am not the only one. This world grows stranger and darker by the day, and all we can do is watch and wonder what’s next.

            And at this point we must realize that our role here is more crucial than ever. Every moment moves us closer to that Day when the work is over. We just need to keep showing up, handing Jesus what we have, no matter how small we think it is, then doing the work of feeding when He gives back the blessed abundance. Only a little longer...

~Who around you is hungry? Have you asked Jesus what He wants you to feed them?

GLORIOUS GRACE

1 Ki 3:3-14; Ps 119:121-136; Rom 8:26-34; Mt 13:31-33,44-50

            I always find the narrative parts of the Bible fascinating, because there’s not usually a lot of commentary about what happens, just the facts. Many times the reader has to discern whether what happened was good or bad, right or wrong. For example, all the polygamy among Old Testament families makes it seem like God approved, so much so that some religions have adopted the practice. A reader must think about the character of God and His plans for the world in order to notice such things.

            That’s what interests me in our reading from 1 Kings this week. It says “Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of David his father, only he sacrificed and made offerings at the high places.” Almost as if it’s no big deal! Further, it goes on to say that Solomon pleased God with his request for wisdom, so much that God gave him honor and riches as well.  What is going on here? Why would anything this lawbreaker does please God?

            There’s only one explanation. In a word, grace. Paul’s description of grace in Romans gives us a hint of its magnitude. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”  If we think anyone or anything is beyond the help of God’s grace, we don’t understand grace, or the love of the One Who gives it. If we think anything we do earns it, we are confusing grace with karma. That’s a different god.

            The God we worship loves and accepts us beyond what we do or fail to do, beyond who we are and in spite of what we deserve. In fact He loves us so much that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Christ died for me when I was a wild teenager running from Him as hard as I could. He died for you even in whatever state brought you finally to your knees at His feet. He didn’t wait for us to earn it. Even when the timeline of redemption was on the other side of the Cross, His future death covered Solomon in the same grace His past death covers us. This is the power of grace, and it’s what sets us apart from those who try to earn the favor of God.

            Grace is offered to all, but only those who give up on their own efforts receive it. Embrace grace and live into the kingdom. 

HOPE GROANS

Wis 12:13, 16-19; Ps 86; Rom 8:18-25; Mt 13:24-30,34-43

            Those of us that have experienced the suffering of labor and childbirth can understand what a “hopeful groan” sounds like, and what pain with a purpose feels like. No woman looks forward to it, but we know that at the end we will forget the pain in the joy of a newborn baby. Our hope looks forward to a new life in more ways than one. Not only is the life we bear new, but also the life we live ever after is irretrievably changed. Our purpose is different. Our perspective shifts from self to other. Our vision grows from the present to the future.

            This is the kind of groaning Paul refers to in Romans. It’s a groaning that hopes for the future freedom of all creation, and even for ourselves. This is the guarantee Paul refers to in Ephesians, the hope of the Holy Spirit, “who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”(1:14)  What a future we have to look forward to! This is the promise we run to obtain, the heavenly treasure we ask God to give us. Hope.

            But this isn’t the kind of hope we usually think of in our daily life. The kind of hope we often mean is the kind that can fail. I hope for an end to Coronavirus restrictions, but there may not ever again be the kind of freedom we took for granted just six months ago. We hope to see an end to all the ugly division in our country, but that is not likely to happen. Most things we hope for are little more than a wish with a slight possibility of coming true.

            On the contrary, the hope Paul talks about is sure. This means what we hope will absolutely happen, because the One we hope in is faithful. Our hopes will be fulfilled, not just meeting our expectations but also wildly exceeding them. Who of us can imagine what a resurrection body will look like? What it will feel like to be free of the limitations of age, illness and injury? What relationships free from sin will be like? What living in the visible presence of God will mean? When we see these things we will no longer hope, because we have more than we could ever hope for. What more could we want?

            Hope in God. He alone is worthy.   

PLEASING GOD

Isa 55; Ps 65; Rom 8:7-17; Mt 13:1-9,18-23

 

    Our collect this week says in part  “that we may receive what we ask, teach us by your Holy Spirit to ask only those things that are pleasing to you...” as a recovering perfectionist, this was a hard prayer to digest. But as I looked through our readings, I began to see a few characteristics of prayers that please God. Here are a few of my favorites.

             First In the prophet Isaiah, we see a promise from God. He says “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Notice it doesn’t say’ might accomplish or ‘might succeed.’ What He purposes will happen! Praying with confidence in His promises shows faith, and that pleases Him.

            Next, in Romans Paul says “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are Children of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God”

            Another prayer that pleases God is a prayer of confidence in Him as our loving Father. This is about attitude, an attitude that believes God is intimately involved in and interested in our life.  We can be confident, not in our ability to pray a great prayer, but in God’s care for us as His children. A prayer with that mindset will please God.

            Finally the prayer that pleases God is accompanied by acts of faith. I’ve looked at the parable of the sower and the seed in many different ways, but this is the first time I’ve thought about the actions of the sower. The sower is freely tossing out the seed. There’s no study going on to determine the best place to drop it; no special preparation being done to the ground. There’s no hesitation about when and where to let it fall, but a free hand as he goes along dropping it. He’s not concerned about whether the ground it lands on is going to be fruitful or how much fruit it will produce. His job is to sow seeds, and what happens to them is between the soil, the seed, and the growth.

            What can we learn about prayer through all this? Prayers that please God believe His promises. They have confidence in His love and care for His children. They lead to acts of faith. The world we are living in makes even knowing what to pray difficult. But if we do these things in our prayers, God will be pleased. And because prayer helps us to grow in our relationship and understanding of Him, we are sure to please Him. 

KINGLY WISDOM

Zech 9:9-12; Ps 145:1-13; Rom 7:21-8:6; Matt 11:25-30

When I first seriously studied the Bible, I came to the text with many preconceived notions, more than I even realized at the time. I had been raised to believe in a very one-dimensional Jesus, who was meek (interpreted weak) and mild (interpreted yielding).          Among the images I put in this category was a picture of Him “humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey,” as Zechariah proclaimed. I’ve ridden horses most of my life, and my ideas about donkeys were less than flattering. Indeed this seemed a sign of weakness and lower status.

            Christ’s talk about children and God’s particular interest in them sealed my impressions. In Matthew He prayed “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.” I didn’t find children particularly compelling. Surely I was much smarter than a child.  What could I possibly need to learn from Him?

            My first in-depth study, which happened to be the gospel of Matthew, began to reform my views. This “meek and mild” Man stood toe-to-toe with the most powerful leaders of His day, calling them hypocrites, frauds and speaking such profound truths that they could not answer Him. The ones who had all the answers had simply never been asked the right questions!

            Another study, this one in the Old Testament book of Judges, taught me that in His time, riding a donkey was a sign of a king coming to the land in peace, rather than war.  Nevertheless, the rider would never be mistaken for anything other than a king. This knowledge transformed the scene of His entry into Jerusalem from one of humble service to one of peaceful power.

            These things, and many more, have convinced me that the wiser I thought I was, the more foolish I proved myself to be. Until I learned to admit that I didn’t know everything, there was very little I could learn from God. That is the attitude of a child; the unselfconscious humility that looks in awe on the object of our worship. That is the wisdom God wants, and offers to teach us. When we lay aside our own conceptions and investigate His truth, only then does He reveal it to us.

            What do you want God to help you understand? Lay aside your own knowledge, and humbly seek His truth.

ALIVE TO GOD

Isa 2:10-17; Ps 89:1-18; Rom 6:1-11; Matt 10:34-42

I hear many different explanations for original sin. Some say the root is pride, others might say rebellion, and others say distrust of God. What strikes me in the story, whatever the reasons was a willful decision to refuse to live within the limits God had provided. The limits were minimal­—one tree they couldn’t touch, out of all the bounty at their fingertips.  But what that tree represented became their undoing. They believed it would open their eyes to things they wanted to know, even though God had warned them they were better off not knowing. Rebelling against their limits brought about their bondage.

            We still feel the consequences, thousands of years later. And we still struggle with that part of us that thinks we must know, we must control, we must conquer. Sin itself becomes that kind of problem for us; we justify it, or ignore it, or cover it up and hope no one notices. And we always have that little voice saying, oh well I am forgiven so it’ll be okay.

            I won’t assume that about you, but this is my reality. It’s far too easy to think that because of Jesus, small sins just aren’t a very big deal. The little lie, the unspoken apology, or the ugly attitude that I’m sure stays hidden doesn’t really matter, does it?

            Paul’s response to that question leaves no room for misunderstanding. ‘By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.’ We too. Like Jesus. We are dead to sin, and alive to God!

            So why is it so hard to stay free of sin? I’ll refer you back to the beginning of this reflection...and so the cycle goes. Sin, confess, repeat. It feels hopeless at times.

            Thanks be to God in Christ Jesus, it is not hopeless. A sin-free existence isn’t even really the goal anymore. Instead, our goal in Christ is to be alive to God! Live to worship Him, to turn to Him first in trouble, and to speak His name whenever possible, living in love and always looking only to Him to provide all we need. As limited human beings, we will not do it perfectly. But as Spirit-filled followers of Christ, we can do it well.   

HOPEFUL LAMENT

Jer 20:7-13; Ps 69:1-16; Rom 5:15b-19; Matt 10:16-33

Jeremiah is my favorite prophet. His story is one of fifty years of suffering, discouragement, social stigma, loneliness, persecution, threats, and dread of the certain near future and Gods promise of Judah’s demise. This element alone, the knowledge that there is no hope of avoiding the horrors to come, is enough to kill a person.

            Yet not only did Jeremiah live, he lived faithfully. He persevered through betrayal and defeat, and his book contains some of the most hope filled passages in Christendom. I think you’ll recognize this one...  “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope”. What graduate hasn’t received at least one card, or plaque, or keychain with those words of greatest hope? Yet, if we read the context, we know what Jeremiah was really saying. Get ready for 70 years of captivity! So let’s just say these were God’s long term plans for His people.

            This is the ultimate goal of lament. The act of lamenting itself is an expression of faith. The lamenter cannot complain to a God that he or she doesn’t believe a) exists, b) is listening and cares, or c) can do anything to help. It’s an honest response in a world that is not the way it’s supposed to be! But the beauty of lament is that it turns our sorrow to God. And when we turn our sorrow to God, we ultimately find hope. He is the only true hope and the only sure hope. There will always be disease, and natural disaster, and conflict of every kind, as long as this world is still here. Our government will always be corrupt. Science will always change the answers to big questions. Humanity will always, always let us down. Lament serves to remind us of the only true hope that we have.

            What do you need to lament? Sickness? Job loss? This crazy world? All of the above? God invites you to trust Him with your need. There is no guarantee that He will give you what you want. But it invites Him into your suffering in a way that helps you see Him in the midst of things even when they are at their darkest.

ENDURING GRACE

Ex 19:1-8; Ps 100; Rom 5:1-11; Matt 9:35-10:15

I think we’ve all been walking around a little ‘shell-shocked’ lately. Pandemics, riots, brutal murders, and wildfires are all around. As a people whose heritage is ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ this kind of insecurity and suffering feels strange and unwelcome. The extra hardships associated with church gatherings seem too uncomfortable to bother with. Staying in the safety of my home is a great temptation. But then I read Romans, and I am encouraged.

            According to Romans 5:3-5, we can rejoice in suffering! This is a time in which our endurance is building our character, our strengthened character is helping us to have hope, and because God has given us the Holy Spirit, our hope is real and solid, not resting on all the things in our world that can die and burn and kill, but in eternal goodness given to us through Christ. We are standing in grace!

             Think about that. Grace is not a one-time gift that opens our eyes to our own sin and turns us to His righteousness. It continues to flow to us, and it will continue until it carries us right into His presence one day. It defends us, it convicts us, it gives us abilities to do those things we cannot do. Learning to stand in it is a lifelong process. But we can be sure that when the gloves of life come off, and we feel beaten down and afraid, we are still standing in it.

            So, stand. Whether you come to church or stream it; whether you feel brave or terrified; whether you reach out to encourage others, or hunker down in a safe place away from the threats of a world gone wild, you are standing in grace. It’s grace that God extended to us through Christ while we were still sinners. It’s extended to every area of our life. And it extends from eternity past to eternity future. It is enough to hold you up, in every circumstance.

            And while you’re standing in grace, extend a hand to somebody else. In these times, a ‘hand’ might be an email, a phone call, a card, or some other means. Nevertheless, invite them to stand in it with you. There’s plenty to go around.

Perfect UNITY

Gen 1:1-2:3; Ps 150; 2 Cor 13:5-14; Matt 28:16-20

            It is impossible to overstate the consequences of the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. The man and woman, designed to be one in purpose and dominion, became adversaries of God, of one another, of nature, and even of themselves. The perfect unity that God created in His own image divided, and the universe broke along with it. Thus we have disease, and wars, and racism, and hatred of every sort. Each of these is a form of death in itself, and they all lead to ultimate death. This profound brokenness is what Christ came to heal. But He did not do it alone.

            The Trinity is our most important doctrine, but it is also our most misunderstood and most difficult to explain. The Oneness of the Three Persons is so unique that our human experience can’t understand it. But this kind of unity was God’s intention for us and one purpose for Christ’s incarnation.

            Spend some time contemplating what it is like for a group of three to have such perfect understanding, respect, and love for one another. Each knows His own place and the place of the others; though they share mission and desires and ultimate goals, each knows and submits to His role in the plan. There is never jealousy, or pride, or misplaced anger. Selfishness does not exist. Power is never an issue; each knows when to take their place, and why. They are so much of the same mind that there is no such thing as a misunderstanding. Oh, what a dream!

            This is, though, a glimpse of our future. When everything that has breath is praising the Lord (Ps 150), there’s no space left for disagreements and disputes. And the mission we’ve been given, (Matt 28) has the same effect. We have one purpose—making disciples of Jesus Christ. It takes many, many forms, in the same way the three persons of the Godhead act in different ways. But we are one body, with one goal. In these dark days, the goal is brighter and closer than ever.

            We can be creative, as our Creator is. We can encourage and trust one another in the Spirit to follow where He leads. We can forgive because we are forgiven. We can set aside less important agendas and personal preferences in order to work with one mind, one heart, one voice, one Body, towards the Day that is fast approaching. We are in this together. May we press on as one, for One.

ONE SPIRIT

Acts 2:1-11; Ps 104:25-32; 1 Cor 12:4-13; Jn 14:8-17

“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place.” But we are not. “And at this sound (of tongues) the multitude came together.” We, on the other hand, cannot come together.

            Father Pete’s homily this week shifted my focus on this passage as I thought about what it means for the church body to live apart as we’ve been doing for the past weeks. Even as we attempt this Sunday to begin moving back to the Ballroom and sharing space again, the new realities we live with require a physical distance that feels so strange and unnatural that many of us can’t even think of it as church. Is this season going to pass, or are we facing a whole new way of being the church? And if that’s the case, how do we function apart from each other? What in the world is happening?

            Another passage from Acts keeps coming to mind as I ask the questions, that may offer at least an answer about our next steps. Acts 8:1 says “...a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all...were scattered...” That seems to describe us, doesn’t it? Maybe not the persecution part, but certainly the scattering. The story could have ended there, but as we know, it had barely begun. As they scattered, they preached, and converted, and did great miracles in all the places they went. God’s purpose of spreading the gospel was fulfilled through what looked like disaster. The Spirit, given on Pentecost, indwelt each as they went forth, empowering them to carry the gospel individually everywhere they went.

            And even though they scattered, they were still bound, through the unity of the Holy Spirit, who gifted each to use those gifts to speak truth, to prophecy, to heal, all for the common good. Though far from one another, they were together.

            We are not apart from each other either, not in the truest sense of that word. In the Spirit we are one. In our mission we are one. In our hope we are one. God has placed each of us uniquely, but He has placed all of us in Christ, one in Spirit no matter how far apart we stand. And Christ promises that we will stand, His purpose will prevail, and we will reign with Him. Lets not lose sight of Him as we look around at a broken world coming to its inevitable end.   

WITNESSES

Acts 1:6-14; Ps 47; 1 Pet 4:12-19; Jn 17:1-11

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

This final word from Christ before He ascended is near and dear to my heart. In my first class on Bible study at seminary, we had to take this one verse and make a total of 100 observations about it. Yes, it is possible! And needless to say after that much time spent on it, I have thought a lot about the use of words and the implications and applications for the apostles then and for us today.

            For example... ‘you will receive power...’ this is a declaration of fact, not a conditional phrase.  ‘when the Holy Spirit has come upon you...’ again "when" not "if". This is a promise, a certainty. Then ‘you will be My witnesses...’ though these are all future tense, we know that when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, believers then and everyone who believes since then can know three things for certain. We have the Holy Spirit. Therefore we have power to be witnesses for Christ. And finally, we are witnesses.

            It’s easy to think that being a witness is just about saying certain words at certain times, to certain people. But as Holy Spirit-indwelt vessels of the life of Christ, we embody His message and methods to the world. What people see in our behavior and in our lives, these things are our witness of Christ.

            When I look the other way when I see a need, I am a witness of a Christ who doesn’t care about the pain and suffering of others. When I remain silent in the face of injustice, I manifest a Christ unconcerned about God’s justice in the world. When I say “yes Lord” as I act disobediently, I betray the obedience of the Christ who went to the cross for me. If I demand my rights, I forget the One who gave up His rights for the world.

            On the other hand, when I am peaceful in the midst of chaos, I am a witness to the peace that passes understanding, a peace that’s different from what the world gives. When I encourage the fainthearted and speak healing into the lives of others, I show forth the Healer and Encourager. When I do all that is in my (Holy Spirit) power to ease the suffering around me, I am fully engaged as the kind of witness Jesus spoke of. This is the power that we all have, wherever in the world we are.

            What about you? Since you are a witness of Christ, in the whole world, what does the world learn about Christ from you? 

religious life

Acts 17:22-34; Psalm 148:7-14; 1 Peter 3:8-18; John 15:1-11

‘Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.”’ (Acts 17:22)

            When I read this statement Paul made to the Greek pagans, I decided to look more closely at the word ‘religious.’ The definition from the Greek word can go two ways: in the positive sense, it means ‘devout.’ But in the negative sense, it means ‘superstitious.’ I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that many who might call us ‘religious’ would mean it more in the negative sense. His comment about their altar to ‘an unknown god,’ causes me to wonder if even Paul’s words, spoken to begin a gospel message, were more about their superstitious embrace of anything at all that might help them than about his admiration for their devotion. The same is true today; many people think we go to church because we are weak, or foolish, deceived into thinking that an invisible God cares at all. And even if He did, do we really believe He is powerful enough to do anything to help us?

            All of us have been affected in some way by the removal of Sunday morning church gatherings and weekly group meetings, even though we’ve done our best to maintain connections with the amazing technology available to us. But if it’s that easy to be the body without gathering together, what is it we are really doing on Sundays? Is what we practice just religion? Or is it a life devoted to the God in Whom we live, and move, and have our being?

            As we move into the process of joining together again, we can all benefit from some time thinking about why we come together. It’s so easy to form a habit, and a habit over time can become a mindless activity disconnected from meaning. We just do it because it’s what we’ve always done. This is religion.

            But life in the Body of Christ is meant to be so much more. It is a community to which we can bring our brokenness and need and find acceptance, love and healing. It is where we come to worship a living and sovereign God, remembering His mercy and receiving His body in ourselves. It is where we learn to forgive and to repent, to serve and receive the service of others, to love and be loved. As we prepare our hearts to come back together soon, may we have a new appreciation for and understanding of church. It’s not just religion. It is our practice of kingdom life.

~Spend some time thinking about why you go to church. Is it religion for you, a set of empty practices? Or is it an expression of your life in Christ?   

TRUE SACRIFICE

Acts 17:1-15; Ps 66:1-8; 1 Pet 2:1-12; Jhn 14:1-14

...you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ”(1 Pet 2).

 

What is a spiritual sacrifice? We talked about this question in our small group last week, and I’ve been meditating on what the Bible says about it ever since. It is critical to our life in Christ, and to our effectiveness in the world.

            God made the first sacrifice to cover the original sin of Adam and Eve, when He killed animals to skin them and cover the couple’s nakedness. So the animal was the sacrifice, and God was the priest. The sacrifice wasn’t for His own sin, but was made on behalf of those who could not do it for themselves, His fallen children.

            He later instituted the sacrificial system in the book of Leviticus. The idea was that the priest, made clean before God himself by his own ritual of sacrifice, took an animal that was clean of sin and offered it as a substitute for the blood of the sinner it represented, the Jewish man or woman. It was a bloody, messy rite that happened over, and over, and over again, day in and day out. Until Christ came and sacrificed Himself once for all, this system was the only hope for sinful humanity to be in right relationship with God.

            But Jesus did come, and cleansed us once and for all, by faith in Him. So, we in a sense are now the priests who stand in for the rest of the world, making sacrifices on their behalf in order to draw them to Himself and keep them in His care.

            So what are these spiritual sacrifices? They are sacrifices of time spent listening to hurting people. They are prayers for healing and hope in this broken world. They are forgiveness for those who do not deserve it, love when people are most unlovable, a kind word when an insult would come more easily. They are the things we do as ambassadors reaching out on behalf of a God Who so loved the world that He sacrificed His only Son.

            We agreed in our discussion that a sacrifice doesn’t always feel like a sacrifice. But sometimes it does. We know Christ felt it, when He asked the Father to take it from Him if possible. But He did it, and by that sacrifice saved us. In light of that, the sacrifices we make are small. But for those God is calling to Himself, they mean everything.

CERTAIN THINGS

Acts 6:1-9; 7:2a, 51-60; Ps 23; 1 Pet 2:13-25; Jn 10:1-10

Many commercials I hear lately, especially for things like security services and insurance, begin with the words “In these uncertain times...” The pandemic and its massive fallout is definitely a new situation, unlike anything most of us have experienced before. But when I think about it, we never know accidents, disease, or other disasters will strike until they do. In that sense, every time is uncertain to finite creatures seeking to survive and thrive in a hostile world. The beauty of Psalm 23 is its reminders of what—and Who—we can be certain of, regardless of the times we live in.

            First, we can know that He will provide for us. There is no “maybe” in the first verse; the Psalmist declares “I shall not want.” Look at the icon I chose to go with this reflection. I particularly like this one because the lamb is looking to the face of his Shepherd, trusting Him with its need.

            We can also know that He wants us to take this time, not to fret or be frantic about the future, but to rest. “He makes me lie down in green pastures,” is a command, not just a suggestion! In the last couple of years of my health issues, this has become something of a joke to me, but also an acknowledgment that when we are sidelined for whatever reason, the Shepherd is not worried about getting us back to productivity. He has given us a place to rest, meeting our needs all along the way. He wants us to restore, refresh and revive, not to fret and worry.

            We do that by reminding ourselves that He is never apart from us. In the valley of the shadow of death, He walks with us and comforts us. Then, He feeds us and cares for us even in the presence of this enemy of disease. He gives us so much our cup overflows. That abundance is our opportunity to give abundantly to others.

            In these times when we are aware of just how uncertain life is, can we take these things we are certain of, and encourage others to trust in this amazing Shepherd who cares for us so deeply? A card, a phone call, an email to someone who is afraid can go a long way in encouraging very scared sheep. We, the church, are one way the Shepherd speaks. Use your voice to share His.

GOD REVEALED

Acts 2:14, 36-47; Ps 116:10-17; 1 Pet 1:13-25; Lk 24:13-35

“Why couldn’t they recognize Jesus?” has always been my question when I read this passage from Luke. If these disciples on the road to Emmaus knew Jesus even a little bit, it would seem strange that they didn’t know Him when they saw him. But as I read the story again this week, I wonder if the better question is, why He didn’t reveal Himself to them immediately?

            At the heart of divine revelation is the understanding that unless God chose to reveal Himself, we would never know Him. The idea is clear all through Scripture, from the Garden, to the Psalms, to the prophets, to the life of Christ. He reveals Himself through creation. He reveals Himself through people. And the author of Hebrews said  “in these last days he has spoken to us in a son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he created the world.”(1:2)  With that thought in mind, I did some re-reading and thinking about this passage. No brilliant answers, but a couple of thoughts.

            First, it’s so interesting what their description of events revealed about what they believed. “But we had hoped that He was the one to redeem Israel.” Past tense, meaning they were no longer hoping. Then, in their description of the women’s experience, they qualified it with words like “a vision” of angels, and no acknowledgement that anyone had actually seen Him. These clues combined with their sadness demonstrated clearly their unbelief. So the Lord schooled them.

            Beginning at the beginning, He described and revealed every truth spoken about Him from the Scriptures. As they listened, and as He broke the bread, their eyes were opened! And more amazing than that, the moment they recognized Him, He vanished! They no longer needed to see with their eyes to believe what their hearts had been telling them. He was, and is, risen indeed. He has defeated death, and those who trust in Him will never die.

            One final thought. When we break the bread every week in the Eucharist, we remember and celebrate the Living Bread, in order that we will once again see with our hearts what He has revealed to us. This time of abstaining from the practice can be a great time to reflect on the importance of it in our life of faith. We taste it, touch it, and consume it in order to remember He is real. He is alive. And in Him we live, now and forever.

FAITHFUL DOUBT

Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Ps 111; 1 Pet 1:3-9; Jn 20:19-31

     For those of you that know us well, you know that my husband Kevin and I are polar opposites in many ways. He likes to be in charge, and I prefer to just do what I’m told. He is bold, and I am timid. He is not afraid to say what he really thinks, and I don’t want to say anything that’ll rock the boat.

            But one of the most interesting differences between us is what faith looks like to us. To him, faith requires a bold leap into the unknown based on what he thinks he’s hearing from God. For me, it means waiting for clear guidance every step of the way, so that I have confidence in God’s leading.

            Both these approaches have strengths. But they also have weaknesses. The weakness for me is that sometimes I wait too long, and my doubts make me err on the side of caution. And for him it’s sometimes acting too quickly, afraid he’ll miss an opportunity and then getting ahead of God on when and where he needs to act.

            Thomas reminds us we all have weak spots in our faith. We tend to focus on the doubts of Thomas and make that the point of his story. He becomes kind of a cautionary tale to us, the “don’t be like him” kind of believer. But the focus in the story needs to be on the response of Christ.

            When Thomas expressed his doubt about the resurrection, Jesus didn’t criticize him or banish him or declare him unworthy to be His disciple. Instead, he invited him closer, to discover for himself the truth of what he was hearing.

             Thomas said, “unless I see and touch, I will not believe.” So Jesus said, “Come, see and touch.” And Thomas’ response? “My Lord and my God!”

            His close encounter with the resurrected Christ banished Thomas’ doubts forever. We can see it in the life he lived after the church scattered. According to Eusebius and other historians, he went to India and established the Christian church there. Tradition says he was martyred in India around 72 AD, but there still exists today a thriving group of St. Thomas Christians that he evangelized. Imagine if Christ had cast him aside when he expressed his honest doubts!

            Jesus does the same for all of us. He only asks is that we take one step in His direction, stretch out one hand and see if what we think we’re seeing is real. And sometimes the places we most fear to go are the places He will most strengthen our faith.

            So where is your doubt? What requires more faith for you in this moment, staying or going? Is it about health, or jobs, or caring for someone else? Is it fear of the future we are facing? Pray that Jesus will show you His Lordship and power to care for you. And watch for Him to answer. He will.   

THE VOICE OF GOD

Acts 10:34-43; Ps 118: 14-17, 22-24; Col 3:1-4; Matt 28:1-10

            As a woman who serves in the Church, I sometimes feel awkward and defensive about my role. There are few things that churches across the spectrum debate more than whether or not women should be included in the leadership of the church, and if so, in what capacity. So it is difficult for me to feel comfortable in public settings when I worry that some may think I am being disobedient to God’s leading and overstepping my bounds.

            When I feel doubtful, the Matthew 28 recounting of the resurrection of Christ is where I turn. It was the dawn of a new day, both literally and spiritually. The New Covenant was about to be announced in all the glory of the resurrected Christ. As a sign of the overturning of all the traditions and laws of the Old Covenant, the very first witnesses were women. And the first command Christ gave them was “go and tell my brothers.” So, what if these women had said, “oh no, we can’t do that, it isn’t our place to tell the men anything!” That sounds ridiculous!

            Yet, when women are told they need to stay within very narrow parameters in their service and go no further, this is exactly what is happening. Women who have gifts that go beyond the traditionally (not Biblically) defined roles are effectively muzzled. That is a painful thing to witness and to experience.

            I can’t speak for others, but I have never desired a “title” in the Church, or what some might call power. And I know few women who do. I am so thankful for King’s Cross, where we are allowed to express ourselves in the many ways God has gifted and called us. Women have a voice. When we are allowed to use it, the fullness of the gospel message comes alive in the same way our Savior lives. We go where He sends us, and say what He tells us to say. He is Risen! He is risen indeed! 

The Darkness of Doubt

Isa 52:13-53:12; Ps 22:1-11; Phil 2:5-11; Mt 27:1- 54

            One of my favorite ways of meditating on the events of Christ’s final hours comes from putting myself in the shoes of those closest to Him. Some were physically close, as in Simon of Cyrene, who was pressed into service and helped carry His cross. Others were close friends and family, but were nowhere in sight as His final hours commenced. The disciples were hiding, or denying, or committing suicide. Their fear and doubt had won the battle, and they abandoned Him in His darkest hour.

            I find it a little easier to relate to them in these strange days of Coronavirus. I feel far from those who share my faith, and saddened by the knowledge that it will be at least a few more weeks before we can worship together in person again. Add that to the alarming number of deaths from this disease, and it’s a little easier to imagine what it was like to be on the dark side of the cross. Hiding in the Upper Room is similar to sheltering in place, and showing our face in public is risky, both for others and us. The enemy is different, but just as real. In such days, fear can be overwhelming.

            And it is in days such as these that we can most look forward to the end of this story. As Resurrection People, our hope lies not in rescue from physical death. Whether from this virus, or cancer, or brain bleeds, or any of hundreds of possibilities, we each face the dark side of the cross, the “valley of the shadow of death.” In fact, life itself is a journey to Golgotha. And yet, we have the amazing advantage of knowing what awaits us on the other side.

            Jesus Christ is alive, and we who are in Him are destined to live with Him. We may, like the disciples, lose battles with fear along the way. But we can by faith win the war, because the One Who goes before us has won. It is finished. In the midst of chaos, we can rest assured. He is risen!

BELIEF

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Rom 6:15-23; John 11:1-44

 

Is belief in Christ a onetime decision, or should it influence all of our days? The story of Lazarus is a fascinating look at several different believers, the decisions they make in the midst of a trial, and the outcome each experienced.

            The disciples were the first to face a scary decision. Should they follow Jesus back, or stay away and protect themselves? Some said, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?”  But Thomas, the one who is so often called “doubter,” is willing to risk it. In him we see a mixed bag of faith and doubt, the one I most often can relate to. “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” He was willing to go, even though he was certain they were going to their death. I can relate; I am almost always willing to follow, even though I am sure the outcome will be disastrous.

            Back in Bethany, the faith of Mary and Martha comes center stage. They knew that Jesus could save their brother, but when He didn’t arrive before the sickness killed him, they despaired. They didn’t doubt what Christ could do, they just thought His timing stank.

            Martha lashed out in anger at His tardiness; she knew He could’ve made a difference, but it was too late! Mary was so despondent that she didn’t even come out to greet Him, lost in her personal nightmare. Both sisters fully believed He could heal, but He hadn’t. Confusion and anger at His inaction and the indifference it displayed clouded their vision and brought them deep sorrow. Though He was here now, it was too late. What could He possibly change now?

            This is another faith challenge that I can relate to. How often do I decide whether God is good or whether He cares based on the outcome of a situation? Is He only good when things go in our favor? We see that Martha began to grasp that, when she said “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” But her faith fully matured when she said the words, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” It no longer mattered what she believed about Him, only that she believed in Him. What a beautiful picture of the life of faith!

            Where do you see yourself in this story? Are you afraid of the destination, so you don’t want to start? Are you willing to go, but feel sure it will lead to your doom? Are you dependent on a good outcome to trust Him? Hopefully like me, you can say “yes” to all these questions. It is a journey, and growth happens not when everything is light and happy, but when we feel confused and afraid and must learn to say “I believe You, Jesus.” Sometimes He does a miracle. And sometimes the miracle is the faith He gives us as we face the tomb.

HOW DO YOU KNOW?

1 Sam 16:1-13; Ps 23; Eph 5:1-14; Jhn 9:1-38

 

The story of the man born blind (John 9:1-38) is one of my favorites. In the middle of all the controversy his healing had caused, this marginalized and forgotten man was suddenly the center of attention. As an issue, at least, though not as a person.

            The powerful and well-educated people of the day were arguing over him and around him about the identity of his healer. The great theologians insisted that Christ couldn’t have been from God, because he was a sinner. They said He was a sinner, because He had broken the Law and healed on the Sabbath. To which the man responded, “Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” BAM! Who can argue with that?

            A Southern Baptist preacher I knew used to say “A person with an experience is never at the mercy of a person with an argument.” The Pharisees could argue theology and Law all they wanted to, but at the end of the day, they couldn’t deny the radical experience of this man. They couldn’t explain it away, either. When they tried, his simple reply was “You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.” All the knowledge these men had could not withstand the simple truth of experience.

            We have a unique opportunity to challenge all the panic and doom saying that those with lots of knowledge are broadcasting around the world. We can experience the peace of Christ, the healing that only He can bring, and the hope that goes beyond vaccines, and antidotes, and respirators. We love and serve the One who has conquered death. The author of Hebrews says,  “(Christ) himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”

            We can be slaves to the news, to tests, to isolation. Or we can hold these things with trust in the One who holds our lives in His hands, knowing that even death for us is not feared, but the ultimate deliverance and healing. We can be wise without being afraid. And when someone wants to know the reason for our peace, we can say, “I know the One who holds the world, and my life is safe with Him.”   

RESTING HEARTS

Ex17:1-7; Ps 95; Rom 1:16-32; Jhn 4:5-26, 39-42

            At this moment I’m fighting the urge to go to the grocery store and ‘stock up’ on some things. It’s hard not to join the panicky masses that are emptying the shelves faster than they can be stocked.

            Our world feels a little surreal right now, doesn’t it? The familiar routines of work, school, and even the grocery store are changing so rapidly it’s disorienting. Add to that the predictions that this is only the beginning of our tribulations, and I find it difficult not to hoard.

            Somehow it makes our Exodus reading not so ridiculous. The people grumbled at Moses, saying, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” Their shaky faith seems a little more understandable today. After all, is God going to supernaturally fill our pantries if we can’t get groceries? What will we do if all the services we rely on suddenly become unreliable?

            As my fretful questions suggest, it is so easy to forget Who supplies all our needs. God hasn’t been caught short on stock for the Coronavirus. He is not wringing His hands, wondering whether the end is near. He alone knows the answer to that question. He promises, “ 7 For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. Today, if you hear his voice, 8 do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, 9 when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.”

            To a person, I know we have each and all seen God’s work in our lives. In this time of uncertainty, we can know one thing is certain. God is still with us. He is still providing for us. He is still in control. And we can trust that He will give us all that we need, even when the systems of this world cannot.

~What are you most afraid of in the coming days? Name whatever it is, and prayerfully give it over to God.

VIRAL FAITH

Gen 12:1-9; Ps 33:12-22; Rom 4:1-17; John 3:1-16

 

The week’s news of a viral epidemic sweeping the globe have prompted a lot of interesting thought and discussion about the nature of faith. Our homily on Sunday was a great reminder that faith is much more than a mental assent. It is a continuing commitment to ‘rest’ on the foundation we claim to trust. This potential threat gives us great opportunity to practice our profession of faith.

            The nature of a viral illness makes it particularly insidious. We can’t see it or hear it coming; even if we contract it, we have no idea what the outcome will be. So we simply do the best we can to prepare, and wait for it to pass over.

            Trusting God with an unknown future can be difficult in the best of times. With the media sensation leaving us uncertain of just how serious this health crisis is, it would be easy to go one of two ways. We could panic, and lock ourselves in our homes for weeks. Or, we could pretend it doesn’t exist, living so carefree as to be reckless. It seems something in between is the best response.

            Our collect gives us insight that seems no coincidence in its timing. “Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul.” What a perfect prayer and reminder for us in this moment! In other words, “God, we are helpless to defend ourselves from this virus, and we can easily fly into a panic if we think we have to protect ourselves. Please help us put both our bodies and our minds in Your more than capable hands.” Amen!

The Psalmist reminds us this week of our true hope,

“ The king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.
 The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue.

Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love, that he may deliver their soul from death.”

Trust in the Lord. He is our Great Physician, and our only true hope.

ENOUGH

Gen 2:4-9, 15-17, 25-3:7, Ps 51:1-13, Rom 5:12-19, 21-22; Matt 4:1-11

The season of Lent is a fairly new concept for me. I have often joked that in my tradition the church calendar is where we looked to find out when the next potluck would be. But in all seriousness, the idea of fasting from anything was frowned on as legalistic and works-based. As the idea and the practice has formed in me the last few years, though, I have come to appreciate it as a helpful method of intentionally forming things in me that by the end of the season become new and healthy expressions of my faith.

            This year’s Lenten fast has been difficult to settle on. I am getting to an age where temptations of the flesh like foods and drinks just aren’t much of an issue. Spiritual disciplines are good, but what to add or subtract? Spend more daily time in prayer, give up podcasts and listen only to spiritual music, add more Bible reading? Nothing felt right. I kept thinking and praying about it, and I landed on the thing I need most to fast from. I’ll use this space to share it with you. Please, don’t hesitate to ask me how it’s going.

            The thing I struggle with most is a spirit of fear. It’s a habit of mind to expect it, dwell on it, and make decisions based on it. At its root is always the fear of not having enough. Enough time, enough money, enough study or intelligence or prayer or sleep or...whatever, you get the idea. So I structure my life in ways that protect me from lack. It’s such a habit of mind and life that I don’t even think about it anymore; I just react, and shrink life down to a size that’s manageable for me to feel safe.

            So my practice this year is to fast from fear. It’s an attitude and thought pattern that has been shaping me for so long that I must consciously think through what I’m thinking, and why. Is it true? Is it helpful? Or is it the door of my mind snapping shut to protect me from some unnamed but terrifying possibility?

            It’s my desire to find out. What if the things that terrify me are where the greatest blessings lie? What if I’m shutting the door on the very best things God wants for me? One thing I know that I have more than enough of is fear. This is the fast I will choose.

~What about you? What do you have more than enough of? What would it look like to lay it down for the next month?   

GLORY TO GLORY

Ex 24:12-18; Ps 99; Phil 3:7-14; Mt 17:1-9

I love the NT Wright translation of our gospel passage this week. In his version, Jesus is transformed in front of the disciples, and “ Peter just had to say something. ‘Master,’ he said to Jesus, ‘it’s wonderful for us to be here! If you want, I’ll make three shelters here – one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!(Matt 17:4)”

            He could not fathom just sitting in awe. It seemed that this revelation demanded a response, so he obliged, even though any works he could have done at that moment would have been pathetic in comparison. It took the sound of God’s voice to put him on his face, which was the only appropriate response.

            Peter is so real, and so relatable. I find great encouragement in his stumbles and his fumbles, and the fact that they never keep him from ultimately trying again to understand and do the will of God. Otherwise, the feast of the Transfiguration has the potential to underwhelm us when we think of our own feeble appearances. Our collect promises that God gives us grace to be “changed into His likeness from glory to glory”;

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I feel woefully unchanged. Until, that is, I look back over the years and remember where I started.

            Like Paul in his letter to the Philippians, I was dependent on my flesh and the things of the world. When Christ rescued me out of that life, I tried to follow Him but still had to contend with the person I had been for most of my life. Learning to depend on Him, to respond with worship rather than works or terror, is an ongoing transformation. But again Wright’s translation expresses much better than I can, “My dear family, I don’t reckon that I have yet overtaken it. But this is my one aim: to forget everything that’s behind, and to strain every nerve to go after what’s ahead. I mean to chase on towards the finishing post, where the prize waiting for me is the upward call of God in King Jesus.”(Phil 3).

            I may fall, and stumble, and even sometimes retreat. But if I focus more on the past than on the glorious future, I will miss out on the vision of Jesus. That would be the saddest, most unnecessary loss any of us could suffer. Let’s press on together. Stop looking behind and instead, simply glory in His glory.   

WHOLE HEARTED

Ecclesiasticus 15:11-20; Ps 119: 9-16; 1 Cor 3:1-9; Mt 5:21-37

      Is it possible to be 100% obedient to God, 100% of the time? When we look at some of this week’s passages, it seems the obvious answer is ‘yes’, it is possible. Ecclesiasticus claims, “If you will, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.” A simple decision, right? But if it’s so easy, why has no one but Jesus ever done it?

            Throughout the readings, we see clues to the answer. The Psalmist declares,  “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” And in His revolutionary teaching on the Law, Jesus throws down a gauntlet. While it may seem He is raising the standard of obedience, He is actually presenting a completely different view of the Law, one which gets at the heart of a person, not just his or her actions.

            The purpose of the Law is always about the heart. It not only guides the outworking of the heart that loves God, it helps the honest seeker realize the impossibility of keeping it in our own flesh. It shows us, as Paul pointed out to the Corinthians, we can be believers and still be of the flesh. Which is why, as I already pointed out, complete obedience is a bridge too far, even for the most devout believer. Our heart simply wants it’s own way. It’s loyalty is divided between self and God.
            So, I had this thought. What if, instead of just trying to keep the rules, we found ways to cultivate more love for God? If we stopped worrying about being good and just thought of ways to love God more, could that be the shift we need? For I who am always falling short, this could be truly revolutionary. If our life flows from our love for God and others, obedience will be unavoidable.

~What rules do you find difficult to obey? What if you focused on loving God more? What would that look like and how would it affect your actions?

power up

Hab. 3:2-19; Ps 27; 1 Cor 2:1-16; Mt 5:13-20

            I remember when I began to teach the Bible in a parachurch ministry. I have talked before about what a fearful person I am, and a big part of my testimony is about my life or death battle with anxiety. I was not strong; I was not Bible-educated. I was not a dynamic speaker or leader. But for reasons known only to Him, God very clearly called me into teaching, leading and ministering in a Bible study ministry.

            I was terrified! How could I possibly lead when I was so clearly a follower? How could I teach when I didn’t know nearly enough? It was during the first days of agonizing and questioning that the words of Paul to the Corinthians became my prayer and the source of comfort and strength as I navigated the very difficult times that followed.

            For a little background on the reason for Paul’s “fear and trembling,” we can look at all he endured in the time leading up to his ministry in Corinth. The Book of Acts tells us that he had been repeatedly persecuted, beaten, imprisoned, and even stoned and left for dead. Even this man who seems unstoppable had to be feeling vulnerable, tired and afraid of what would happen each time he opened his mouth.

            So when he arrived in Corinth, he decided “to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”(1 Cor 2) Paul understood what it was to be afraid. But he also understood and believed that he had everything he needed to share the message of God, because he had the Spirit and he knew Christ. On these things rested his confidence, even though he was well educated, a brilliant teacher, and a passionate evangelist.

            Each believer has the mind of Christ, the power of the Spirit, and the grace of God to do all He has called us to do. It is His strength, His wisdom and His timing that make it all possible. He may call us to do things beyond our own strength and ability, but never beyond His. Lean in, and trust Him. He will do more than you can ‘ask or imagine.’

~What are you afraid to do for the Gospel? Consider whether that might be exactly where God is calling you to trust Him.

SEEING GOD

Mal 3:1-4; Ps 84; Heb 2:14-18; Lk 2:22-40

 

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”(Matt 5:8) Though this verse from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount was not one of our readings, it has been stuck in my head all week. Variations of “pure” are used or described throughout the passages, and the gospel tells the story of Simeon and Anna, two people who exemplify this trait.

            Simeon is my model for prayer today. This is a devout Jew who had been waiting and praying for his Messiah for all the years of his life. The most amazing thing about the story is that despite the fact that the Savior of Israel came as an infant, Simeon saw Him for exactly Who He was. He saw God, even though God was  clothed in humanity.

Like Simeon, Anna had spent most of her life praying and fasting in the temple. And like Simeon, she recognized in this young family the salvation of God. These two show us exactly what a pure heart looks like. It is a heart unclouded by the concerns of life, not because those concerns do not exist, but because those concerns are filtered through the goodness and sovereignty of God.

            The pure in heart see God in the trials of life, as their Refiner. They see Him in their disappointments, as the One protecting them from their own foolishness. They see God in the joys of life, the blessings of those who trust in Him. They see God in the faces of those they encounter in the course of their work, as Simeon and Anna did. They recognize the answers to their prayers, because they pray His will and not their own.

            The pure in heart see God everywhere, because they are looking for Him with eyes of faith. They please Him because, as we’re told in the Great Commandment, they love Him purely, without competition. He favors them because He is good, He is loving and He is the rewarder of those who seek Him.

            In Christ, we too have the promise of a pure heart. But we must choose to walk in it by seeing life through eyes of faith. When we look through these lenses, we will see God.

~What concerns cloud your vision of God? Will you ask Him to purify your heart, so your eyes will see Him?

 

ONE SON

Amos 3:1-11; Ps 139:1-16; 1 Cor 1:10-17; Mt 4:12-22

     My husband and I are very different in the ways we express our faith. We have differing political views as well. And, our styles of leadership and service are so opposite that for a long time we found ourselves butting heads at inopportune times, such as while we were leading a group study together.

        But along the way, we learned that the very things that make us so different are also the things that make us one. His strengths fill in my weaknesses, and I do the same for him. As we practice unity in the midst of our diversity, it’s amazing to see how God takes two limited, flawed people and makes a team that is greater than the sum of our parts.

      Our marriage, like every marriage, is a microcosm of the church. Unity in Christ is a fact of our identity as believers; it’s not just a nice idea. How we choose to relate to one another in our differences is what sets us apart from the world. When we allow one another to work in our strengths and convictions, the Gospel light goes out to the whole world for the glory of Christ.

     When we argue about things that don’t change the truth of the Gospel, we get distracted from the light of Christ by our own shadows. And very little work gets done for the kingdom. This is the problem Paul was addressing to the church in Corinth; they were too busy fighting over things that didn’t matter to focus on the one Person that did.

       I often see the phrase, “we seek unity in spite of diversity.” I would take it further. We only have true unity when we celebrate and rely on our diversity, allowing each to engage the world in the ways that are true to our unique qualities. Therefore, true unity only happens because of diversity, not in spite of it.

        As this little church grows, we will face many challenges of personalities, gifts, preferences, and focus. When we focus on Christ, we will overcome all these things, and He will be glorified. Let’s do it together.   

BEHOLD

Isa 49:1-7 Ps 40:1-10 1 Cor 1:1-9 Jn 1:29-42

      The Gospel of John is unique in its perspective. The other three gospels are known as the “Synoptic Gospels,” meaning they are very similar to one another in the stories they tell and the picture they present of the words and works of Jesus Christ.

     John’s account is very different. He gives life to another side of the Savior, the God-Man who cared deeply and had close personal relationships with the people He walked alongside. While the other writers focused on facts about Jesus—His genealogy, His miracles, His teaching, His death and resurrection—John presented tender, intimate moments that showed Him to be fully man, a friend and protector who wept at the death of Lazarus even as He prepared to bring him out of the tomb (John 11).

            Each encounter, from John the Baptist and the men he led to Christ, to the woman at the well, to Mary Magdalene on the morning of His resurrection, gave the person a story to tell about the life changing encounter. As they told their stories, the word spread. And as the word spread, the encounters became more and more numerous. Today we’re more than 2,000 years from the days of John the Baptist, and there’s no end in sight to the impact Christ has on every person He encounters.

            Just as the stories spread, their content also changed. Because He lived, lives, and will live on, we are blessed to have fresh encounters with Him. Our testimony is not only a moment in time, it is an epic saga. As He reveals Himself in our lives, and we respond to Him, we have fresh opportunities to bear witness that this is the Son of God. He is the Lamb, who takes away the sin of the world. He is the Bread of Life. He is the true Shepherd. He is the Light of the World. He is the Living Water. He is the true Vine. He Is.

            As we begin 2020, Father Pete has asked that we be prepared to share fresh encounters with Christ on Sunday mornings. Be intentional about looking for Him at work in your life. Then tell us about it. He will be glorified and our faith will be strengthened. And the Word will continue to spread.

WHY BAPTISM?

Isa 42:1-9; Ps 89:1-29; Ps 89:20-29; Acts 10:34-38; Mt 3:13-17

            We’ve all had the experience of thinking too long about a word or concept, until something that has been so familiar seems suddenly strange and incomprehensible. If I think too long about baptism, it doesn’t make much sense. Why do we need to go through this strange ritual as a basic Christian rite of passage? What is its purpose and meaning? I’ve been thinking about that, and looking up some historical and theological meanings, and here, though by no means an official teaching of the Church, are my thoughts and conclusions.

            First I looked at Jesus’ mysterious words to John when he said “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

             To what righteousness was Christ referring? Though baptism is now a Christian practice, it wasn’t practiced in the Old Testament in the way that we now see it. There was no ritual expectation that a new convert to Judaism should enter the waters of baptism. More importantly, in what way does Jesus’ baptism fulfill righteousness if it wasn’t fulfilling the law?

            It is true there is no Old Testament precedent that requires every convert to undergo baptism. But the person entering water as an act of faith is all over the parting of the Red Sea, the crossing of the Jordan, and Noah’s building of the ark. Stepping into the water was itself an act of faith, with the only hope of deliverance on the other side being the power of God Himself.

            These stories have two things in common; faith and water. Each of these OT saints made a conscious and courageous decision to do what God told them to do even though everything their eyes saw and their ears heard said to do otherwise. For each of them it meant entering into water and trusting that God was going to bring them out of it delivered, a new entity, into a new purpose and even in a whole new place. And they would have no doubt Who had made this happen. That is faith, tested and proven.

            The prophet Habakkuk said, “the righteous shall live by faith.” Jesus’ act of faith revealed His identity to the world, and empowered Him to walk the path to His purpose. We believe that as we follow Him, baptism does the same for us. As we celebrate the covenant confirmed in baptism, may we each take some time to ponder the faith it took to bring us to this point, and commit to continue to walk in that faith, knowing God’s purpose for us is unfolding as we go.

SHAMEless

Jer 31:7-14; Ps 84; Eph 3:1-13; Lk 2:41-52

            The negative emotion I struggle with most is shame. I feel shame at much of my past; I was a wild and rebellious teenager, a thief and drug user and what mothers of the boys I knew would call “not a nice girl.” I earned that description, and others like it. I scoffed at preachers and avoided religious people, and lived up completely to my ambition to be bad. I remember at times looking at myself in the mirror and thinking ‘who are you and why are you living like this?’ but I never stopped long enough to hear the answer.

            God saved me in spite of myself. I have realized that I didn’t even want to be saved, maybe because of my misunderstanding about what it meant to be a Christian, but probably more because I knew I could never live up to that standard. And I never have been able to live up to it. Which leaves me to deal with a new kind of shame, the shame of letting Christ down. Like Paul in Romans 7, I do not do what I know I should, and do what my inner person who loves God does not want to do. This is the reality of my inner life.

            But thank God, I do not have to stay mired in shame. Because of the dignity God has given me, even while I was a sinner, I can choose to let go of it. Our collect this week says in part “...God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ.”

            Dignity. What a beautiful word it is. As those stamped with the image of God, we have dignity that goes beyond our personal behavior and character. We can do our best to destroy it, by the way we treat ourselves and others. We can live like I did, determined to behave our worst. But my deepest shame cannot overcome His love and grace and mercy. And it cannot destroy the dignity of His image borne by me. It’s the dignity every believer in Christ bears as well.

            Our readings are full of these assurances. Psalm 84:11 says “For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor.” Paul tells us in Ephesians that we all are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel, and that “we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in [Christ].”

            Boldness. Confidence. Heirs. Partakers of the promise in Christ. There is no hint of shame in any of these words. And as a new creation in Christ, this is who I am. These are the descriptors that define me. May I grow in grace to believe it.

            This is also who you are. Believe it, and share in the divine life.

~What about your life seems least like who and what God says you are? How can you begin to change your self image to look more like God sees you?

LIGHT HAS COME

Is 61:10-62:5 Ps 147:13-21 Gal 3:23-4:7 Jn 1:1-18

            Back in the early 1980s, I had the unique experience of touring a cave in Tennessee that’s known for having the largest underground body of water in the world. Our guide extinguished every source of light at one point, so that tourists could experience the profound blackness that comes in the total absence of natural light. I could literally not see my hand in front of my face, even when the lights were kept off long enough for eyes to adjust. Though it’s been close to 40 years since then, I have never forgotten it, and it has helped me to understand the power of light. It has also helped me remain encouraged in a world that grows spiritually darker as the years go by. 

            No matter how dark it is, you see, it only takes the tiniest spot of light to pierce it. A pinprick of light wreaks more havoc on the darkness than a thousand times that amount of darkness can do to the light. This is our greatest tool in kingdom living. The “light” we have is Christ. John says “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” His life is light, and when we have light, we can see what has been hidden. More than that, His life lives in us, and therefore we are light.

            And this is where the idea truly takes form. We have a choice to make. As the world grows darker moving into 2020, we can be overwhelmed and retreat from it. But what if we instead go forward knowing that the darker the world is, the brighter the light of Christ will shine, and the less forcefully we need to ‘wave it around’? It amazes me that the most radical works God has done in and through me have happened with the smallest act of faith; a word, a smile, a prayer, a visit. The light of Christ needs less help than ever, because He shines on a backdrop of profound darkness. Let’s start the new year thinking of and acting on ways we can shine in the darkest places. If it isn’t a radical idea, all the better. He can do amazing things with the tiniest pinpoint of light.

~Think of the darkest places you spend time in your life. Then prayerfully come up with one way you can shine the light of Christ there.

REDEMPTION STORIES

Is 7:10-17; Ps 24; Rom 1:1-7; Mt 1:18-25

            After all I have gone through with my health in the last few years, the latest round of Bell’s Palsy which left me with facial paralysis felt like the last straw. I have been so tired of fighting to live and be well; I decided it was time to just wait to die. My story was over, and I could just sit out the rest of it. But God has other plans.

            The stories of Ahaz and Joseph reminded me that God’s plan will go forward whether or not we cooperate. Our life is His story lived through us, and every believer who has become part of this new revelation of God, the Church. We all have a part in God’s redemption story, and the decisions we make at crucial points won’t change the ultimate outcome, but can definitely change our own lives.

            It is, at least in part, about you. And me. We are members of the Body of Christ, who are telling the ongoing story of God’s redemption of the world by the way we live. We still inhabit a human body, though, and we deal every day with the weaknesses and sins that can affect our choices. Are we living by faith, or by self-reliance, dangerous alliances, self-protection, or legalism? These are just some of the sins Ahaz and Joseph both faced down. One chose to act in faith, and one chose unbelief. Which do you think you can more relate to?

            In both cases, though, God’s story continued. It continues today, and we are each living out our role His story. We don’t get to decide to opt out of the story, but we do get to decide how we will interact with a living God. By faith, we are carrying forth His story, living it out on earth but remembering that it is playing out in a much greater sense.

We do not live in any single moment. But there are many moments that will decide our part. In the eternal picture, we often hear that our lives are so short, and in one sense that is true. But as long as we’re here, there’s a reason, and the reason is eternal.

            So, I may be a little less able than I used to be. But refusing to participate in God’s redemption story is not an option. It just requires more faith than it did before. As I face each decision, will I choose to trust Him, or the things my eyes see, and my flesh counts on?  The decisions we make have an impact much bigger than we think. The story has an ultimate outcome, but we’re not there yet. To finish well, we need one another. Let’s keep running the race together.

Voices Of hope

Is 35:1-10; Psalm 146; James 5:7-12; Mt 11:2-19

“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Whether he asked to bolster his own struggling faith or to address his disciples’ nagging doubts, this question coming from John the Baptist was astonishing. This is the fearless prophet, the one who paved the way for Christ by calling the people to repentance. He issued the same call to everyone, from the lowliest child to the most powerful authorities. When he challenged a high authority with the truth of his sin, it landed him where he never wanted to be, in jail awaiting a fate that was completely out of his hands. Surely he didn’t think his work was finished yet. Such thoughts could lead anyone to wonder if they had gotten everything wrong. And nothing leads more quickly to discouragement than fears that the thing we hope for most is untrue.

            In the response of Christ, we find hope. Using the words of Isaiah, another prophet from long before John’s time, He replied “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” Think about it. The ultimate Prophet encourages His prophet with the words of a long ago prophet. In that exchange, we see the power of prophecy. It echoes truth through centuries and generations, giving hope to those who have yet to see its promise fulfilled. Even more, it opens the eyes of the faithful to recognize the face of God when we see Him. And even beyond that, it assures us as we wait to see the rest of the story unfold.

            We can know whether a prophet is of God by whether his prophecies are fulfilled. (Deut. 18:22). The fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies was long in coming, from our human perspective. But they were accomplished in the first advent of Christ. Though there still remain some outstanding promises, enough has happened to grow our faith as we await His final entrance. Then there will be no more sorrow, or sighing. No more injustice or inequality. We will say with one voice “The Lord will reign forever, your God, to all generations. Praise the Lord!”     

HOPE FOR JUSTICE

Is 11:1-10; Ps 72:1-15; Ps 72:16-19; Rom 15:1-13; Mt 3:1-12

     I have always loved true crime stories. Each is unique in many ways; the investigation techniques, the motives, the relationships and the circumstances. Some are unsolved cases, while others have made their perpetrators notorious. But in one way, they are all the same. The reason we hear about them is someone is searching for justice.

            Justice imagined takes many forms in these victims. It’s whatever the injured party or their representative requires to have peace, and to feel that the wrongs done to them have been somehow made right. Some demand prison or the death penalty. Some just ask for the guilty to admit what they did. The sad truth is, though, that nothing will truly make the wrongs right again. Nothing can turn back the clock to when the world was right.

            The Bible says all humans are equal, all humans are created in His image, and all humans deserve to be treated with fairness. But, what is fair? How can we determine equality when we are unequal ourselves? With our limited knowledge of any person or situation, how can we ever hope to be truly just?

            The prophet Isaiah says of the coming Messiah, “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear.” Justice is much more complex than we think it is. Limited humans cannot know what is best in any situation. Often what we think is good and helpful brings in a whole new set of complications. What we meant for good becomes a burden and a hardship. In cases of harm, we cannot even always know what really happened, and why.

            But God does. He knows every thought and intention of the heart. He knows who is at fault and why they did what they did. He shares the pain of the lost and of the one who loses, and grieves with them. He grieves so much over this broken world, in fact, that He is working even now to make everything right, and new, and just, and equal.

            We in His kingdom are charged to do all that we can to give the world a glimpse of the world He is bringing. Paul’s blessing promises “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Harmony. Together. One voice. This is the world we look forward to. As we wait, let’s hope together. Justice is coming. We can rejoice in that certainty.

Let Us Go!

Is 2:1-5; Ps 122; Rom 13:8-14; Mt 24:29-44

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” (Isaiah 2:3)

I have shared before that when I first came to know Christ, I was in a church that immediately encouraged me to go out and tell someone else about Jesus. This was confusing to me. Tell them what, exactly? I didn’t even really understand what had happened to me at that point. How could what I said make an impact on someone else?             But I found that as I began to act on the things I was professing to believe, I experienced His presence in new, personal and miraculous ways. A story unfolded, and the story was about a journey. I was walking on a path that Christ had laid before me, walking with Him and learning to walk like Him. If I had never started walking, I would indeed still be back at that starting point, wondering what all the fuss was about and why I needed to tell others about Him. But at this point in my journey, I want others to know the Jesus I know. And I have a lot to say about Him, because of what ‘going’ has taught me. True faith acts, and actions strengthen faith. That is the rhythm of discipleship.

            Our readings this week are full of action words. Go, walk, cast off, put on, love, pray, and other verbs give us clear direction for living in the light of Christ while we wait for His return. Contrary to what so many might lead us to think, being a Christian is not just about a point in time when we say ‘yes’ to Jesus. It’s about everything that happens before and after that point. Who and what brought us to that decision, what has happened since that day, and where we are today on that journey, is the result of the acts of faith we have undertaken as we have walked in His paths.

            Are you where you hoped to be? Are you far beyond anything you ever hoped for? Or are you disappointed at your lack of progress? Ask the Lord if you are working out the faith He has given you. If He shows you areas of unbelief, step into what He’s given you to do and walk it out. You will be so glad you did, and the world will be better for your faith   

THAT’S OUR KING

Jer 23:1-6; Ps 46; Col 1:11-20; Lk 23:35-43

            It is disheartening to witness the political battle going on in our country at this moment in history. But I came across a resource that is helpful for my peace of mind, a podcast that week by week goes through the presidential elections from the very first, and will finish the week our 2020 election is decided.

            I find it encouraging for the simple reason that it reminds me there is nothing new under the sun. From the earliest days of our republic, there have been intense struggles between those who wished to influence the country and alter the course of history. As the influence of our nation in the world has increased, so have the struggles. The desperation to prevail has reached an all time high in recent days, and it’s because of this that we can lift our heads, knowing that our redemption is drawing near. At least that’s what the gospel tells us.

            How are we to live in the meantime, though? Can we live with confidence that God’s plans will unfold in His time? If we place our hope in a president or political party, we’re on shaky ground. When we hang our hats on fragile egos, a breath of scandal is the only thing standing between disaster and us. Earthly kingdoms always fail, sooner or later. So we need to remember King Jesus is our hope.

            We know our King is the only true, right King. He is the only hope for the world. And He is the only hope we need. Our King is the perfect Judge, righteous Ruler, our Defender and our Justifier. He will never be overthrown and He will never die. There is no army that can defeat Him and no economic challenge too great for Him. He cares equally for all His citizens and needs no programs or investors to accomplish His plans. His promises are ‘yes’ and ‘amen’ and He never bases His decisions on election year polls.

            The probability of His success is 100%. He is scandal free and has a clean, proven record that generations of people have witnessed and verified. Not everyone believes He is King, but no election could oust Him. He will not be thwarted, and unbelievers will find out they were wrong. He is unimpeachable. That’s our King!

~Are you fretting over the political process in our country? Take a step back and breathe in the fresh air of the gospel. All shall be well.   

GENUINE IMITATION

Mal 3:13-4:6; Ps 98; 2 Thess 3:6-16; Lk 21:5-19

I am so grateful for the people who taught me how to follow Christ. Karen taught me how to pray and to love even when it was hard. Jane showed me the importance of encouraging others and supporting them in doing their best. Kendra taught me how to laugh in the midst of grief, and anger, and uncertainty. Georgeann taught me the value of quiet strength. In the early years of my formation, these four were pivotal. But they make up only a tiny fraction of the army of people who have modeled Christ in ways that changed me into the person I am today.

            One of the phrases I heard a lot in those days was “be Jesus with skin on.” That packed in a nutshell the things I was learning as I studied God’s word with these people. We had certain accountability to one another because we were learning the same things at the same time, and learning how to practice the ‘one anothers’ as we grew together in community. Like the faithful in Malachi, we “spoke with one another.” And in my heart is written a ‘book of remembrance’ that the Lord wrote. Like Malachi says, I saw  “the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him “ And much more than philosophical discussions or good arguments about theology ever could, their behavior and example changed me for the better.

            The importance of guiding each other into His life permeates our readings this week. Paul says he worked hard and endured in order  “to give you in ourselves an example to imitate.” He challenges believers to not grow weary in doing good, to work for their food, and to warn those who stray. But we all need each other to keep us on track, and to help us look for and imitate the image of Christ in each other. We are a people who belong to a different kingdom, with different ethics and practices that we learn through God’s word and practice with one another. Who are you practicing with today?

~If all Christians modeled their life on yours, would it look anything like the life of Christ? What would be the same? What would be different?

hope alive

Job 19:23-27a; Ps 17; 2 Thess 2:13-3:5; Lk 20:27-38

“For I know that my Redeemer lives.” God gave us these words, spoken in Job’s darkest hour, for the purpose of giving us hope. Our collect this week echoes the theme of eternal hope ; “...(Jesus) came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure.”

            There are three foundations in this collect on which our hope is built. Christ has destroyed the works of the devil. He has made us children of God. And as children of God we have inherited eternal life. So what should we do when circumstances make us feel like the devil is working freely, and God has abandoned us, and we are all too mortal?

            It would be dishonest to say that I have believed any of these lies; as a longtime lover of the promises of God in Scripture I know very well where my hope belongs. But it would be even more dishonest to say that I am feeling the truth of these promises right now. I am in a dark place, questioning why God has brought me to this point and what I am supposed to do now. I feel less sure of my abilities than ever, and I am afraid to commit to anything I may not be able to complete. I live with the uncertainties of my health influencing my life more now than ever before. But according to the words of Paul, “who will save me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Christ Jesus our Lord!”(Rom 7:24-25).

            I am daily reminded that our hope is unlike the hope of the world. The world hopes in the ‘right’ political candidate winning; the latest scientific study that will tell us how to live longer; the best diet, the ultimate exercise, the right mental attitude. The problem with these kinds of hopes is that they will all fail at some point. The object of that kind of hope is the problem, not the hope itself. If we truly believe our Redeemer lives, our hope is sure. Our Redeemer will stand on the earth at the last. My hope, and yours, must train itself to rest on what we know, not what we feel. Eternal life is here; we are living it right now. That means quality, not quantity. Whatever our circumstances, and whatever we feel about them, the fact is that our Redeemer is our hope. And our Redeemer lives.

The Only True Need

Isa 1:10-20; Ps 32; 2 Thess 1:1-12; Lk 19:1-10

One of the easiest sins for me to spot is the sin someone else commits. My family can attest to that. How many times have I listened to a sermon or read a devotional or Bible passage, and thought, wow, _______ needs to hear this!

            This is something I often hear expressed in Bible study classes and other groups of believers as well. We talk about a passage of Scripture, or a principle of Christian ethics, and immediately point to “people.” As in, the world outside the church. If only “people” would do what the Bible says, all would be well. And most certainly, it would.

            The Israelites knew this as well as we do. They were, after all, God’s chosen people. They knew Him best, and had walked through the darkest of times with Him. They saw the failings of those around them, those who worshiped lesser gods and lived lives that were immoral and self-centered. They looked outward with an air of superiority as they practiced the rituals and prayers God had mandated for them. The problem was, their actions might look pious, but their hearts were deadly. Ultimately, their lack of real repentance led to their captivity. Yet God did not give up on them. Instead, He implemented the plan He’d had from time immemorial—He sent the Savior they desperately needed, even though they didn’t want Him.

            Zacchaeus was one of those most reviled by God’s chosen. As a tax collector for the Roman occupiers, he was considered the scum of the earth. Tax collectors were given the task of collecting money from the citizens for the Romans, with one interesting twist. While a person may only owe a set amount, the tax collector had the sanction of the government to collect as much as he wanted, with the overage going into his own pocket. The sin of greed was the tax collector’s motivation, and his downfall in the eyes of the righteous. Can you imagine the horror of the people when Jesus called on Zacchaeus out of all those ‘good’ people around Him?

            Zacchaeus’ response tells the rest of the story. He said yes to Jesus, professing his faith and repentance by making a radical promise to repay anyone he had defrauded, including self-imposed penalties. He saw his own sin, and acted. His actions declared that the things he had held so dear no longer mattered. And in front of a crowd of Zacchaeus’ most outspoken critics, Jesus vindicated him.

            When Jesus vindicates us, we need nothing else. The only requirement is to admit our need, and believe He is the only remedy. Our salvation depends on it. Our actions verify it. Our lives bear the fruit of it.

~Do you notice the sins of others, and ignore your own? Turn to Him and be vindicated!

indefensible

Jer 14:7-10, 19-22; Ps 84; 2 Tim 4:6-18; Lk 18:9-14

“We know we’ve been less than perfect, but why don’t You just look the other way and bless us anyway?” ask the idolatrous and unfaithful Israelites. “I am so glad for You that You have someone like me, who is so much better than this scummy tax collector,” says the self-righteous and proud Pharisee, as the tax collector bows his head in shame and begs for mercy from the One Who governs all things.

            Both of these images, one from Jeremiah and one from Jesus, are ways in which God’s chosen people attempt to defend themselves before the only perfect Judge. One says our wrong actions are not such a big deal. The other says our right actions make us a big deal. Both are dangerously wrong. If there were any excuse for sin, or any way in which we could do enough right to overcome our wrong, then the death of Christ would have been pointless and His resurrection unnecessary. Sin is not just what we do or refuse to do. We are, by nature, sinners. Our only hope is rebirth, and the only Person able to offer that hope is Christ.

            As born again believers, we have options. We can choose to be like the Pharisee, sitting smugly in our circles wishing everyone else ‘out there’ would get their act together like we have. Or we can be like the tax collector, convinced that we are not even worthy to lift our eyes to heaven.

            But the best example we see in our readings is the one Paul offers in his letter to Timothy. He has poured out his whole life in service to his Savior. Though he has had trials, he has not wavered in his belief that the Lord has been with him and strengthened him, even though he stood alone. He says, even as he faces his own execution, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom.” He finds comfort in the knowledge that he has finished the race and kept the faith, and he knows that whatever reward he receives is determined by the only righteous Judge.

            This is our model. Not ignoring our sin, nor wallowing in pride or guilt. It’s pressing on, repenting when we need to, praising His infinite mercy, and humbly going where He calls us to go, and doing what He gives us to do. Anything else is truly indefensible.

~Do you tend more towards ignoring sin, living in guilt, or being impressed with yourself? Ask God to show you where you need correction, and act on it.

look up

Gen 32:3-8,22-30; Ps 121; 2 Tim 3:14-4:5; Lk 18:1-8

            Jacob was terrified. He was about to face his brother Esau, whom he had betrayed in the most despicable way. He had taken Esau’s birthright as the firstborn of Isaac, an act of the worst imaginable treachery at that time. A birthright was everything. It gave status and cultural position, an inheritance of land, name and all the implied benefits. Jacob had fairly earned his own birth name, which meant ‘supplanter’ or ‘to seize by the heel’ when he ruined his brother. So in his usual fashion, he tried to prepare for the meeting with a plan of manipulation.

            First, he loaded up with gifts for Esau and sent messengers to ingratiate themselves to his adversary with livestock and servants. The words he used to address Esau imply that he believed his life depended on Esau forgiving him. He called Esau ‘my lord’ and himself ‘your servant.’ He begged to find favor in his sight.

            Esau’s response through his messengers scared Jacob even more. Not only was Esau coming, but he had 400 men with him! At this point Jacob was sure he was about to reap the deadly consequences of his nefarious scheme. So, he sent his servants, wives and children ahead of him, putting them in the line of fire, and found himself alone. Would he run, or hide, or throw himself on the mercy of his brother?

            What happened next remains one of the most fascinating and mysterious stories in the Old Testament. Jacob wrestled with God. All night. It is probably safe to say he wasn’t thinking much during that night about his coming encounter with Esau or how to defend himself from his much-deserved comeuppance. He faced the only One who could truly bless him, and he didn’t quit wrestling until he got what he needed most. He didn’t come out of the encounter unscathed. But he did come out with a new name, no longer the ‘heel grabber’ but now the one who has ‘striven with God and man, and prevailed.’

            There is a great lesson in this story, where we look for help in times of trouble. Even when our trouble is of our own making, as Jacob’s was, we have a God who wants to help us, to redeem us, and to ultimately change our name. Our wrestling happens in prayer, as Father Pete so eloquently reminded us Sunday. And the one to whom we pray holds all the power, all the wisdom, all the mercy and all the plans. He has much more forgiveness than we have for others or even for ourselves. So we can wrestle as much as we want to, but in the end, He wins. And paradoxically, when He wins, so do we. 

~What do you wrestle in prayer about? Don’t stop until He blesses you. And share the blessing with others.

Steps of Faith

Ruth 1:1-19a; Ps 113; 2 Tim 2:1-15; Lk 17:11-19

Do you ever wonder whether your faith is strong enough? When I was young in my faith, this question was at the root of all my unspoken fears. I read Ruth’s story and marveled at her faith to leave all she knew to live in a strange land, with a foreign people. I have done that before in our military life. It’s much more frightening than it may seem, so that part of her story especially resonated with me.

            But our walk of faith isn’t usually that dramatic. Most of my life hasn’t been like that, either. It’s been much more about what Eugene Peterson called ‘a long obedience in the same direction.’ It means day after day, trusting that the decisions we make and the steps we take are leading us toward our God and not away from Him. It means trusting that our affections and desires are formed by His Spirit at work in us, and not our earthly ambitions and sinful egos. His Spirit purifies what we offer, and He completes His will in ways that surprise and delight us.

            But when we choose to walk in our own ways rather than follow Him, we are not the only ones who miss the blessing. Our steps of obedient faith have consequences that go far beyond our own satisfaction or sense of fulfillment. We do not walk in a vacuum! Our steps of faith, no matter how big or small, affect more than just ourselves.

            Naomi’s step of faith when she was at in the pit of despair was simply allowing her son’s widow to follow her home. Had she not done that, and the Moabite Ruth not gone to Jerusalem, we would have a hole where her name is in the genealogy of Christ. Naomi might likely have died alone, bitter and destitute. Boaz would not have been blessed with such a woman of faith. And there would have been no inspiration for generations of believers who read their story.

            And what about Paul? If Paul had decided to spend his last days curled into himself, awaiting the final blows, we wouldn’t have his letters to Timothy. With his final words, he encouraged and challenged all of us to remember:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;

if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he also will deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful—

for he cannot deny himself.

Don’t miss this message! Our faith rests in One who must be faithful. Bring the faith you have, offer it to Him, and step where He tells you. In Him, one small step of faith can make an eternal difference.

Godly Light

Hab 1:1-13 ; Hab 2:1-4;  Ps 37:1-17; 2 Tim 1:1-14; Lk 17:5-10

            Our collect this week prays this interesting phrase, “Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in continual godliness. A great measure of godliness shows in the way we respond when bad things happen. Our readings this week offer a wide variety of negative reactions; doubt, confusion, accusing God, and favorable comparison of self to others. The gist is “why would You let good people suffer and bad people flourish?”

            The answers are mingled in with the complaints, though. God teaches Habakkuk that He can use any means necessary to discipline His wayward people, including the evil Chaldeans. The Psalmist ultimately recognizes that God is good, and all people, good or bad, will die. So all suffering is temporary for the righteous, and God will take care of him or her.

            In his letter to Timothy, Paul exhorts his young protégé to persevere, knowing that he has a purpose to fulfill God’s plan for His church, and God will make sure it is accomplished. Finally, the servant in Jesus’ short parable in Luke highlights the importance of humility. In essence He says ‘who are any of us to think we deserve anything better than anyone else?’

            The role of suffering in our spiritual growth is critical. Paul knew this when he was writing from prison. Christ knew this as He prepared to enter Jerusalem. The crucible of their afflictions shaped them into instruments of God’s work in the world. Neither of them shrank from their duty, and though it is dangerous to compare Paul’s suffering in any way to that of Christ, the reality is that they both lived by faith as they died at the hands of unjust systems and people.

            Because of this, we find ourselves today beneficiaries of God’s great gift of salvation. When we suffer, we choose how to respond. Will we blame, curse, doubt, or accuse God? Will we look at those who seem to have life so much better than we do? Or will we agree with David,  “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.”

~What can you find to be grateful for in the midst of your adversity? Thank God for it aloud, or write it down. And watch Him bring light to your darkness.   

INTERNAL SECURITY

Amos 6:1-7; Ps 146; 1 Tim 6:11-19; Lk 16:19-31

Perhaps my greatest weakness in serving God is my own insecurity. I am so needy! I need to know others are thinking well of me. I need to feel safe standing up to speak. I need reassurance that I am competent and effective in the things I write and speak and teach. This is not a new problem for me. It has plagued my entire life, and I have tried every method of conquering it. Memorizing Bible verses that assure me of the true source of my security, trying to stay as close to my comfort zone as possible, and even seasons of complete withdrawal to rest and rebuild my reserves have all served the purpose at different times.

            Our weaknesses are the place God wants to meet us most powerfully. But our nature is to look everywhere but Him. The Israelites were the smallest, weakest nation in the international warfare that was happening in Amos’ time, so they looked to bigger nations to save them. Timothy was Paul’s mentee who struggled to stand in his shoes when they weren’t together, so he was tempted to shrink back from the strong leadership the people needed. Lazarus in his poverty was dependent on whatever the rich man might toss his way. Their common need was security in an insecure world. Some trusted in powerful people. Some trusted in riches. Some trusted in their geographic location. And some trusted in their own comfort and ease.

            Every one of these resources will fail. People die or let us down. Our own health will finally fail, even when we take care of ourselves. Money will not keep us alive. Government proves itself more every day as a false hope. In the face of such failures, how can we continue to have hope and joy and peace?

     In the words of the Psalmist,  "Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God,."  This is reality. Our feelings have very little to do with it in the final analysis. I can fret but it changes nothing. The Israelites went into captivity for their unbelief, but God still  cared for them through their time of discipline. Timothy's name and ministry are recorded for all time. So believe it or not, in Him we are secure. I am secure. You are secure. Internally and eternally. May I learn to allow that security to be external as well.

~What circumstance or need most threatens your sense of security? What can you do to show that your faith is in God and nothing else?   

The Purposes of God

Amos 8:4-12; Ps 138; 1 Tim 2:1-15; Lk 16:1-13

            For as long as I have served in ministry, I have been hounded by certainty that I am falling short in fulfilling God’s purposes for me. I have questioned whether I could do enough—say enough, pray enough, learn enough, teach enough, give enough, or suffer enough—to please Him. Even going to seminary and forsaking many of the more selfish pursuits of life have only made me doubt my own motives and pick at the evidence of pride I still see lurking in the shadows of all I do.

            In the last two years, I think God has been peeling away the last vestiges of that fear, by allowing the very thing I dreaded most. Though on the outside I may still seem to have it all pretty well together, the result of brain hemorrhage and other physical and emotional damage has been that I simply cannot do it. I have reached the limits of me. I have the desire, but not the will or the energy or the focus to continue to be more. I am walking “in the midst of trouble,”(Ps 138) and God is not removing me from it. I am not likely to be healed in this life, at least not physically. I am unlikely to reach some pinnacle of achievement ‘for God.’ Instead, I have been in a season of coming to terms with all that I am not. The purpose I assumed God had for me, though unclear, is now impossible. Perhaps now He can truly fulfill what I could not.

            Psalm 138 once shone a beacon of God’s love and faithfulness in a very dark season of my life. My hope has focused though, on verse 7, which says ‘Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life; you stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies, and your right hand delivers me.” Now, I find verse 8 catches my eye and captures my imagination, “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.” This reminds me that it is His purpose, not mine, that matters. It is His work, not mine. His love endures forever and His plans are absolutely irrevocable. I am finding hope that as I reach the end of my resources, it may just be the beginning of what He really had in mind all along.

            ~Has your life gone off the script you had planned for yourself? Where do you see God’s purpose becoming clear in that new reality?

Finding grace

Ex 32:1, 7-14; Ps 51:1-17; 1 Tim 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

            There are things in my past that can still make me cringe in shame when I think about them. I have asked forgiveness. I have changed my life, and my mind, and my heart. And yet they still haunt me. They can still make me question whether I am really who God says I am. How can I be a beloved child of God when I was such a rebel?

            Am I the only one? Maybe you also wonder, did God really wipe the slate clean of all the wrong I have done? Or, maybe He wiped the slate, but isn’t He still expecting us to atone? Maybe part of the reason we go to church and try to live well is to balance the books. I used to call God my “Heavenly Taskmaster,” and though I said it as a joke, the reality was that my need to somehow make up for all the bad I had done drove much of the good I wanted to do.

            It doesn’t take long to burn out on that kind of theology. We can never be good enough, no matter how hard we try. Thank God we can know we don’t have to be. The picture we see of our God this week reflects back our own helplessness. A lost sheep (Luke) is completely vulnerable and in great danger. He is lost! The shepherd comes not to punish, but to rescue. He doesn’t send the sheep into time out, or make the sheep find his own way home, or restrict it to it’s room for a month. He sees the sheep as desperate and in danger, and His mission is life or death for the lost one. He will do whatever it takes, without punishing or condemning, to save the one He loves.

            King David (Ps 51) and the apostle Paul (1 Tim) understood this better than most. Their sin was great. But their very great sin served only to increase their appreciation for grace. They knew that they did not deserve God’s compassion, which was exactly what made His compassion so amazing. He not only forgives, He completely embraces and restores and redeems. None of us deserve it. And that’s what makes it grace.

~What limits do you place on God’s grace? Who do you believe is too lost to ever be found? How would your prayers for that person change if you think that grace is pursuing them?

Costly Obedience

Deut 30:15-20; Psa 1; Philemon 1-21; Lke 14:25-33

            I have been thinking back on a time I was under deep conviction about a wrong I had done against someone. I had done it years before, and the ones I had harmed weren’t even aware of my treachery. But the Lord wouldn’t let it go. Repeatedly, He brought me back to this one point of obedience. I must confess and make restitution to the ones I had harmed, or I would never move on in my walk with Him.

            To make a long story short, I did what I had to do. It was hard, and messy, and I wish I could say that I felt greatly relieved, but I didn’t. Instead, I saw the consequences of my sin in the tears and look of betrayal on the face of my confessor. The relationship was broken, and I still live with that. However, the act of obedience also broke a dam of pent up rebellion in me that had to go in order for me to move forward with Christ. If I hadn’t done it, I know it would still be affecting my walk with Christ today, 20 years later. As it is, I learned much about the reason God says, “don’t.” And I have never forgotten that lesson.

            Our relationship with Christ is like this. It isn’t always hard, but there are times when we must do the hard thing because it is the right thing. Sometimes it might be a small inconvenience, like saying “I’m sorry’ for being cross.

            Sometimes it’s a big thing, one that could change your life drastically. When Christ said to count the cost, large or small, we must decide regularly whether He is worth it. In the moment of fear and self-protection, it can be easy to answer ‘no.’ But in Christ, there is a cost either way.

            The cost of ‘no’ is a barrier of pride and stubbornness standing between God and us. This is what Paul was challenging Philemon to avoid. Pride would keep him in its own prison. Forgiving and receiving Onesimus as a brother would be difficult and humbling. But it would yield a harvest for him, for his slave, and for the kingdom of God. We aren’t told what Philemon ultimately decided, but that is beside the point. We know clearly what he needed to do. He would pay a cost either way. But only one way would reap eternal rewards.

            What has it cost you to follow Christ? If you can’t think of anything, pay attention to just how closely you are following Him. Do the next right thing, no matter what. He is worth it.

Free Indeed

Ecclesiasticus 10:7-18; Ps 112; Heb 13:1-8; Lk 14:1,7-14

I have lived in the prison of fear for a large part of my adult life. Much of my fear didn’t even have a name; it was just an underlying dread of what each day would bring that ultimately made me so physically and emotionally sick I thought I would die.

            During those darkest days, I cherished the book of Psalms, soaking my mind and heart with words of hope and peace, and the promises of who God is and how He treats His children. Psalm 112 is one of those places that grounded me in truth. I found a devotional written based on this Psalm, and it says what I think better than I can. I’ll share it here...

    “All kinds of fears are taken care of if we fear the Lord. One is family fears. ‘His descendants will be mighty on earth; the generation of the upright will be blessed’ (v. 2). Commit your children to Him and you won't have to worry about their lives.

Fear of the Lord also drives out financial fears. ‘Wealth and riches will be in his house’ (v. 3). This doesn't mean we will all be millionaires. It means we'll always have what we need. If we fear the Lord, we can let go of our financial fears.

     Some fear the dark. ‘Unto the upright there arises light in the darkness’ (v. 4). Fear God and you'll always have light when you need it. You will have His guidance and direction.

     Some fear the future and change. ‘Surely he will never be shaken; the righteous will be in everlasting remembrance’ (v. 6). God says, ‘Don't be afraid of the changes that are going on around you or in you. I am the God of the universe. Fear Me, and I'll take care of the changes.’

     Finally, some people have a fear of bad news. But verse 7 reads, ‘He will not be afraid of evil tidings; his heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord.’ No news is bad if you're walking in the will of God.” (Baker Publishing).

            This has begun and continues in me today, a practice of turning fear into prayer. Prayer in turn opens my prison door and sets me free. Prayer reminds me that God is in complete control. He is with me. He loves me. He has my best interests at heart. In Him I can be free to open my home, my life, and all the things I hold dear, because I have Him, and in Him I have everything. What do I need to fear?

~What are you most afraid of? How does that fear affect your life? What can you pray for God to do with your fear?



TRUSTWorthy

Isaiah 28:14-22; Psalm 46; Hebrews 12:15-29; Luke 13:22-30

 

October 12, 1989 was a normal workday at my restaurant job on Old Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey, California. I got off at 5:00 and made my way up the stairs to the office area to finish my paperwork for the day. Suddenly, the floor began to shift and shake, the light fixtures swung wildly, and within a few seconds, the electricity went out. By the time I comprehended that it was an earthquake, it was over. But for many, the nightmare was just beginning. The death and destruction caused by the “Loma Prieta Earthquake” is still remembered 30 years later. And it taught me lessons I will never forget.

            I have lived through a deadly tornado and numerous hurricanes, but an earthquake is unique in a couple of ways. First, it strikes completely without warning. And second, there is no way to run from it, because the very surface on which you run will betray you, and any shelter you seek can collapse on you. Sounds a little like life, doesn’t it?

            The trials we face usually come with no warning. But often they show us the weaknesses in the very things we trust to support and sustain us in life. Financial trials highlight holes in our money security. Health trials leave us dismayed at the frailty of our bodies. Relationship failures remind us how fragile love and connection are.

            There is only one sure thing that we can trust. Psalm 46 reminds us “1 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.2 Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,3 though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.” These trials happen not so we can be afraid, but so that we can learn where to place our trust. And Hebrews goes on to confirm this truth. God says,  “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” 

            When the earth is shaking around us, we can know that the One who holds it, and us, in His hand will let us be shaken only until what cannot be shaken remains. When the things we trust in fall away, we can rejoice in knowing that the only One that matters will not. He is our firm foundation, no matter what.

~What are you trusting in order to feel secure in your life? How can you transfer your trust to the only trustworthy One?

CARRY YOUR CROSS

Jer 23:23-29; Ps 82; Heb 12:1-14; Lk 12:49-56

...”the Lord disciplines the one he loves,  and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son. 7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children.” (Heb 12:6-7)

 

One of the most misunderstood ideas about God is kept alive by the interchangeable use of the words ‘discipline’ and ‘punishment.’ Punishment is pain inflicted in retaliation for a wrong action. Discipline is training, meant to mature and strengthen us. Our idea of a punishing God makes Him seem punitive and gives lie to the understanding that He is our loving Father, who loves us enough to do what we need most even when it’s hard.

            I remember experiencing a season of extreme discipline. I had accepted a ministry position I felt completely unqualified for. But between Scripture, the counsel of others, and every other means of discernment, I was certain that God was calling me to it. I was terrified and had many conversations with God in which I begged Him to make it easy for me.

            It turned out to be the toughest season of life and ministry I have ever experienced. My father’s terminal illness, my own marriage troubles, and difficult relationships with ministry partners only added to what was already an overwhelming responsibility. Every single day I had to make decisions that would guarantee I would let somebody down, the most agonizing possible scenario for me who desires to please everyone.

            I was confused, trying to understand what I had done wrong that would cause God to punish me in such a way. I was living in desperation, and the only thing I could do was pray and believe His promises one day at a time.

            Over the first several months , light began to dawn. The intensity eased, issues were resolved, and I gained perspective on what had happened. I realized that I was able to do the job not in spite of the hardships, but because of them. Though I had felt God had deserted me, He had been everywhere I looked. By the end of that first year, I had grown exponentially in faith, peace, and trust in Him.

            It was then I fully understood this passage. My season of discipline was not punishment. On the contrary, it was proof of God’s love for me as His daughter. He knew exactly what I needed in order to grow as His child, and He loved me enough not to spare me from the fire of testing. Out of that fire, I learned obedience and faith. In other words, I was made more like Christ. I still have a long way to go before I am who He wants me to be. But I am less afraid of the hardships, because I know they bring good fruit. More than that, I know they prove He loves me.

~What hardships are you experiencing right now? What is God teaching you about endurance and obedience?


Gen 15:1-6; Ps 33:1-9; Heb 11:1-16; Lk 12:32-40 

“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.”(Heb 11:8) I came to Christ very confused about what it meant to be a Christian. I knew things were supposed to be different, but I didn’t know what that looked like except for going to church and not doing bad things anymore. To make things worse, the people I went to church with didn’t seem to expect anything different from me. It was as if saying I had faith was all that mattered. I could now go on with life as if nothing had happened. I knew that wasn’t right. But for a long time, that was exactly what I did. Thank God, He was not finished with me. There came a point when I saw that in order to experience a different life, I had to act a different way. I had to stop looking at life like God didn’t exist. I had to start acting like He does, and that He cares about my life and the lives of those around me. That meant, one step at a time, doing the right thing. It was at first small things, like always telling the truth, being kind to others, serving others, and going to church. But as I grew to know Him more, it was bigger things, like studying His word and spending time with others who did. Step by step, when He showed me what to do I did it. I’m still doing that, and when I look at how far we’ve come together, it is astonishing. I don’t know where we will go, but I know where it will end, and Who I will be with. That makes the journey a little less scary, even for a ‘fraidy cat like me. Faith is action. It might not be as dramatic as Abraham’s. In fact, it often is almost imperceptible. It’s saying ‘yes’ when you want to say ‘no.’ It’s getting out of your comfort zone because you know God has prompted you. It’s submitting to authority when you disagree, and showing up when you want to stay home. Faith, after all, is not about us at all. It’s about Him. We honor Him when we exercise it. ~Where is God prompting you to exercise faith today? Tell someone about it, and ask them to walk with you as you follow Him.

Heavenly Matters

Eccl 1:12-2:11; Ps 49:1-20; Col 3:5-17; Lk 12:13-21

 “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”(Ecc 2:11) The most shocking thing about the day my mother died was just how ordinary it seemed. It was a beautiful Wednesday morning in April. Neighbors were taking their morning walks; the news show that had started Mama’s days for most of my life was playing in the background as the funeral director removed her body from the house. Even now, 16 years later, it feels surreal to think about. Her death did not even make a ripple in the wider world. It dawned on me that in just a few years, no one living would remember her at all. The person that began and nurtured my life was gone, and it didn’t seem to matter to anyone except us, her family. Mortality was suddenly real, and I began to ponder the answers to questions I had never wanted to ask before. I spent a great deal of time reading the book of Ecclesiastes, and for the first time related to the despair of the Preacher. All was vanity; what I gained would be lost; the things I had spent my life doing meant nothing. As I mourned Mama, I mourned my illusions of what mattered and of what would last, how long it would last, and what the purpose of life should be. I mourned my own death and how meaningless it would be. But somewhere in that time of meditating, my outlook began to change. Instead of focusing on the words “all was vanity,” I started seeing the words “under the sun.” I grew slowly to understand that life itself is not vanity. Even the things we do, the relationships we have, and the ways we spend our time are not meaningless, unless we try to find all our meaning in them. For the Preacher the important things were possessions, partying, and total lack of self-denial. It was these pursuits that left him hopeless, not life as a whole. He wraps up Ecclesiastes with these words. “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” My season of grief continues to shape my life. I do not want to live with only ‘under the sun’ priorities. I want to focus on what God cares about, to do what matters to Him and to see the world through His eyes. I am far from perfect at this, and I’m easily distracted. But I won’t give up. I will keep my focus “Above the sun,” and try to do what matters there. What distracts you most from doing what matters to God? How can you rearrange your life to give Him top priority?

one spirit

Acts 2:1-11; 1 Corinthians 12:4-13; John 14:8-17 The Church was baptized by fire on Pentecost! Things happened on that day that defy our modern imagination and cause us to doubt whether such miracles are still possible. But debates about how many signs and wonders still happen today can distract us from the true miracle of Pentecost, the fulfillment of the promise of Christ to send the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the miracle, the presence of Christ to be with us and in us, to make us the dwelling place of God on earth both individually and as a body. Learning to depend on and trust the indwelling Holy Spirit is probably the most neglected discipleship teaching and practice in Christianity, though it is critical to living the abundant life Christ offers us. The Spirit gifts us and guides us as we go where He sends us to minister to the world Christ died for. We each receive gifts, experiences and relationships that determine what the Lord calls us to do individually to bring His message of hope and life to the world. Your gifts and place of influence are unique, designed with God’s plans in mind as His Spirit directs your life choices and the people you interact with regularly. In the broader church community, these gifts and ministries will vary widely. Just as personalities and natural abilities vary, so will the Spirit’s direction for individuals. What you think is the most important and natural direction for believers to go will by God’s design be different than what I think. On nonessential issues of our faith, we will see things differently. That is not only okay, it is a part of what unity means. If we were all alike, that would be uniformity. When we, in our diversity, follow the same God by the same Spirit that is unity. One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. Many expressions, but all for the common good. Where is your Spirit-led ministry? ~Are you following the Spirit’s leading in your life? What promptings are you following and what are you ignoring? What practices can you begin that will help you listen to His voice?

Gen 18:20-33; Ps 138; Col 2:6-15; Lk 11:1-13

My prayer life consists mostly of “I’m sorry” and “ thank You.” I always feel guilty that I haven’t prayed more for current needs, that I haven’t been consistent in prayer, that I don’t spend more time praying overall. So, I have to tell all that to God before I dare to ask Him for anything. Then, my mind turns to thanksgiving for His forgiveness and His mercy that open the door for me to be able to pray at all. And by the time I have done all that, my prayer time is over! I get distracted, or run out of time, before I’ve even gotten to any kind of request. Which starts me back the next prayer session to “I’m sorry,” and I repeat the cycle. This means that most requests I make happen ‘on the fly,’ one short sentence for someone in need. It often happens when I am thinking or reading or writing and a name crosses my mind. It might just be “Lord please heal him/her,” or “please give wisdom” or “favor” or whatever the need might be. Or, if I’m not sure what the real need is, “Your will be done.” Most shocking of all (!), I may not even say it aloud. But prayers are answered. Healing happens, hope is restored, situations resolve in ways only God can do. I have seen it over and over again, and this recognition makes me realize and remember that though prayer is crucial, the “power of prayer” is the power of the God to whom we pray. This knowledge gives us confidence to pray in whatever way we can, whenever we can, however we can. It gives us boldness to, like Moses, ask for exactly what we want, but like Jesus, to trust that the One we ask will give good gifts. As our collect reminds us, He is always better at giving than we are at asking. So if you’ve given up on prayer because you’re so bad at it, don’t despair. Our God is greater than our limitations. Just keep showing up, and pray.

Gen 18:1-14; Ps 15; Col 1:21-29; Lk 10:38-42

“And the Lord appeared to (Abraham) ...” Who did Abraham actually see? According to the passage, the God we might envision doesn’t seem to be on the premises. Instead, three men appeared before him. But Abraham knew who they were immediately. He said “Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant...” By the end of the visit, God had promised that the long awaited son would arrive soon. At which Sarah laughed. Who could blame her? On this long journey, they had seen so much, traveled so long. She had suffered and had caused others to suffer. She had known the grief of childlessness for decades. She had been hearing the promises for so long, she had every reason to be skeptical. But God proved Himself faithful, and when the promised son arrived, his name was Isaac, which means “laughter.” So God really did get the last laugh! Like them, we are called to run a long time, depending on promises that often seem too impossible to be true. We see our own limitations and doubt that God can accomplish such extravagant plans in us and through us. Or we wait so long and make so many wrong choices while we wait, that we are sure we’ve forfeited our right to expect anything from him. But if we pick ourselves up and carry on, we find that God can truly do miracles. I am astonished at the healing and redemption and gifts He gives us in response to our smallest steps of faith. Like Abraham and Sarah, we are on a journey to obtain promises God has made to us. Though the ultimate fulfillment may seem long in coming, the experiences He gives us on the way are like signposts that we never expected or even knew to ask for. He surprises us with His kindness and generosity. He makes us laugh with His audacity and creativity. We experience Him and we know we are headed in the right direction. We just have to keep going. ~How do you experience God in your life right now? Do you recognize Him when you see Him?

Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Psalm 25:1-14; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

Our collect this week provoked an interesting question in our small group discussion. The prayer reads in part “that we might receive what we ask, enable us by your Holy Spirit to ask only what accords with your will.” Is it possible to only pray what agrees with God’s will? If God doesn’t act exactly as we’ve asked Him to, does that mean He is not answering our prayer? I think the gospel reading gives us some insight into exactly what is happening in prayer. If we consider that conversations with Christ are dialogue with the incarnate God, we can gain some insight. God sees the heart behind the prayer. We are told in the text that the desire of the lawyer was to ‘test Jesus’, and ‘justify himself.’ This was the underlying motive Christ responded to. So this was the real need Christ addressed in His answer. Christ placed the lawyer in the shoes of those who denied help to the man in need, the religious leaders he could most relate to. Then He turned the tables, forcing the man to consider that someone to whom he thought himself superior would be the hero who did the right thing. By doing these things, He expanded the scope of the question from a target to a mindset. This wasn’t about following the rules, but about keeping the Great commandment. It means love that costs something. In His answer, Christ forced the man to realize his own need for mercy. Likewise when we pray, God sees the need behind the request. When I pray for a cure, God sees the true healing that needs to happen. When I pray for the end to a situation, God sees an opportunity to grow my patience and mature me in the process. When we pray for God to do something, we often find that His answer is to send us. Prayer is as complex a practice as it is challenging. But it can be as simple as “Help.” This is a prayer He will always answer. We only need a heart to see the answer, and praise Him for His care. ~Think of prayers you’ve thought went unanswered. Can you see what God was doing that you might have missed? Thank Him for His perfect provision.

Isa 66:10-16 Ps 66:1-8 Gal 6:1-18 Lk 10:1-20 “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” I have been weary of doing good for quite some time now. I can give reasons, but they really are excuses. While I think there is a legitimate element to it in which I just need time to rest and to grieve the life changing events of the last 18 months, there is also a way in which I withdraw in order to wallow in self-pity. Thankfully, God has not allowed me to sulk in my inner sanctum for long. Friends and neighbors with needs, and brothers and sisters with words of encouragement and understanding have reminded me that I may want to be alone but I am not and should not be alone. I am not alone because the Spirit is constantly with me and in me, enabling and prompting me to do good. I should not be alone because alone is a dangerous condition for a weary person. Alone leads to indulgences of the flesh that reap a harvest of corruption, and ultimately reinforce the cycle of self-pity. Doing good, on the other hand, leads to thinking and doing for others instead of myself. It leads to acting on impulses to do more good and to think more about the needs of others. It begins a cycle of remembrance of the goodness and mercy of God. And it causes me to have more energy to do more good. I cannot claim to have mastered this cycle. But I will practice it, in small ways while I rest and recover, with an ear to listen to the Spirit of God in me when He prompts me, and to respond. I am not the Master of the harvest. That is His business. But the work of the harvest belongs to you and me, and all the workers He calls. We will have seasons of sowing and seasons of reaping, but we all have good work to do. May He cause us each to be faithful in every season. ~What does doing good look like for you in this season of your life? Are you doing it?

free to love

1 Kings 19:15-21; Ps 16; Gal 5:1,13-25; Lk 9:51-62

James and John were outraged, and rightly so. The Samaritans had shunned them, but worse than that, they had mistreated Jesus. The disciples were ready to use the power of God to bring judgment down on the heads of these unbelievers. But Jesus rebuked them, and in this small vignette we get a glimpse of the love of God, expressed fully and completely in the Person and work of Jesus Christ.

            The resurrected Christ breathed life into the church, His new creation. As His body, we were designed to express His life in the way we treat one another and those we encounter in our daily circumstances. But this new creation faces the same temptation as the first; to use our freedom for self-indulgence and the propagation of our own agendas. Paul addressed this when he said to the Galatians “...do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”

            What does this kind of freedom look like? As believers, we are free from the need to be validated and understood by other people. We are free from the standard measures of success and significance. We are free from the anxieties of the unknown, trusting in the One who holds everything. We are free to love with no expectations of that love returning to us in the ways we want. We are free to forgive repeatedly, because we know that justice and even vengeance belongs to God. We are free to serve without recognition because we know the One we serve sees us. We are free from insecurity, from jealousy, and from a need to dominate and control. We are free to embrace our diversity and enjoy our differences, instead of insisting that we all be alike.

            James and John may have been right in their motives, but Jesus swiftly corrected their reaction. Had they done what they wanted, the Samaritans would have died in condemnation, when Christ came into the world to save sinners. Judgment will come in its time and way, but until then, our job is to love. Love freely, asking God to meet our needs as only He can. This kind of love is free indeed.

~Who in your life makes love challenging? Ask God to show you how to love them freely. And do it.

all good things

Zech 12:8-10; Ps 63; Gal 3:23-29; Luke 9:18-24 “It’s all good” is a popular phrase in 21st century America. We use it to assure someone their failure has not caused too many problems, or to place a positive spin on a situation that has many contradictory aspects. It also describes the nature of paradox, defined as ‘a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true.’ The life, death and resurrection of Christ stand alone as the ultimate example of paradox. He was the richest of rich, but became poor. “The Son of Man has no place to lay His head.” He created us, and we killed Him. He called us to die so we could live, to receive so we could give, and to love those who hate us and pray for our enemies. He gave up His life so we could live, and calls us in return to give up our life in order to save it. But what does that mean? The nature of paradox is counter-intuitive, so the fuel of paradox is faith. For example, when we give up a little of our life through a sacrifice of time spent with someone in need, the benefit for us is a sense of blessing that gives back much more than we lost. When we submit to trials with a spirit of trust and surrender rather than a bitter demand that God remove our suffering, we find that the most difficult seasons of life become the most beneficial and serve as memorial markers in our journey with God. When we, by faith use the gifts He has given us to serve His kingdom, the benefit to us and to the beneficiaries of our efforts far outweigh the personal cost. Spend a little time with this exercise. Look around your life and think of all the trials and failures you have experienced or are currently experiencing. Pray and ask God to show you “what is good about this?” or, if there is nothing good about it, ask Him “what good can You bring from this?” Perhaps you are His answer to that prayer. If so, go by faith into the uncertainty and entrust the outcome to Him.

three in one

My seminary class on the Trinity will go down as the most difficult of all the classes I took. I often joked that it was like “dancing on the head of a pin” every time I talked or wrote about it; one tiny step in the wrong direction and I would fall into heresy. I came to realize that many of the ways I had tried to understand it were, in fact, famous heresies in church history.

             The profound unity of the three Persons is beyond our understanding, yet the unique nature of our Christian faith is founded on the reality of it. Nowhere does Scripture use the word “Trinity” and there is no attempt to explain it in either Old or New Testament. Our faith, however, is rooted and grounded in the reality of it.

            I believe that the Trinity is best understood by experience, as so much of our life in Christ is. Here are a few examples that come to mind...

            When I am afraid and feel life is out of control, I think of God’s absolute sovereignty and the stories of how He uses all things to achieve His purposes. Even the disobedience of His chosen people has brought about the accomplishment of His will.

            When I feel assaulted by life and the people and circumstances that seem to conspire against me, I think of the incarnate Christ, asking Him ‘what would You do?’ and finding comfort and clarity in His answer, the answers I find both in the Gospels and in His sinless and courageous character.

            When I step out in faith to do His will, I find the strength of the indwelling Holy Spirit guiding and helping me as I go, bringing to mind what I need to think and say and do, and working through my efforts to accomplish what I absolutely could not do on my own initiative and ability.

            Each member plays a role in daily life; all are involved in everything each does. God is both transcendent over all creation and intimately, lovingly involved in our mundane existence and limited understanding. His Trinitarian essence is both a comfort and a model of absolute unity and perfect love. When we worship and acknowledge the mysterious but necessary Unity, we live into His best for us in every circumstance.

~What are your current circumstances stirring up in you? How does your worship of the Trinitarian God help?   

exalted

“O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before...” I looked up the word “exalt” in order to get a better sense of what our collect this week means. The definition read in part ‘to raise in rank, power or character; to elevate by praise or in estimation.’ By it’s nature, the word implies that some outside force strengthens, or exposes something that already exists. I can exalt, or point out, things that I think others need to see. The question becomes, what will we choose to exalt? The paradoxical nature of the life in Christ says that in order for God to exalt us, we must humble ourselves before Him (Jms 4:10, 1 Pet 5:6). This is not a one-time act, either. Humility is not something we feel; humbling ourselves is something we do, a practice like prayer or fasting. We come before God and exalt Him. In doing so, we grow more and more aware of how great He is. In direct proportion, we begin to understand how unworthy we are. His Holy Spirit, who dwells in every true believer, shines His light in our heart and shows us our smallness. Paul and Silas gave a perfect example of this exaltation in Acts 16:13-34. Though their circumstances were dire, they did not ‘exalt’ their prison or the fear of what their captors would do. Instead, they exalted God, giving Him glory in the midst of conditions that demanded misery. And as they exalted Him, He exalted them, freeing them so dramatically there was no doubt Who they worshipped. As a result, many prisonser's were freed, and even their jailer humbled himself before God. Who we will exalt is a choice we make regularly. Unfortunately, my own practice tends to be more about exalting me. My thoughts, my education, my experiences, and my opinions become the most important thing I can elevate. If my practices are any indication, I want others to follow me, not God. When I think about the logical outcome of where that would end, I’m horrified. It takes all my focus to follow Him for myself, much less to lead others to be exalted! While this season of physical trials has been frustrating and discouraging for me, it has also been humbling. And according to our faith, humility is our most desirable practice and state of mind. Can we rejoice in the things that remind us of our limited condition? If they also remind us of the unlimited One we exalt, I think we must. ~What struggles in your life point out and exalt God? Tell someone about them!

only one

The passage from Acts this week gets at the heart of our collect prayer, and reminded me of this quote from Calvin’s Institutes; “Man's nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” Indeed! In this passage, (Acts 14:8-18) Paul participates in God’s healing of a man crippled from birth. I don’t say Paul healed him, because the passage clearly says the man’s faith healed him. Paul simply recognized his faith and called forth the healing. The people’s response is interesting, though. They immediately turn from their many idols, and begin to worship Paul and Barnabas, calling them Zeus and Hermes. Even though the apostles beg them to worship only the living God, restraining the new ‘converts’ from offering sacrifices to these mere mortals is difficult. And so is perpetuated the way of humans from the Garden of Eden to today. We turn to whom or what meets our immediate, felt needs, and this becomes the source of our wellness and the focus of our worship. Our idols today are often subtler. They can be ordinary things that make up the life of every person, like money, jobs, education, medicines and doctors, food and entertainment. We all partake of these in some form, which makes it much harder to recognize when they become too important to our wellbeing. But when our peace of mind and hope for healing depends on them, we can know they have crossed this line. Christ reminds believers in our John passage, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.” The peace He gives us is not based on our circumstances or physical wellness; it is based on the unchanging love and goodness of the God we call Father. And the worship we offer Him is not based on what He does for us, but on Who He is, and who we are because of Him. Save your worship for the only One who is worthy. Everything else will let you down, showing itself for what it is; a worthless image. Only He will save you. Worship Him in gratitude, awe and complete devotion. ~What do you depend on for wellness? Can you release it to the One who created all the things you might hope in?

steadfast

There is a word in the collect for this week that is illustrated and exemplified throughout the readings. It is the word ‘steadfast’, as in “Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life.” Those that have been around to hear, know that this was a trying week for me. Dealing for the second time with a debilitating condition when I was just beginning to feel myself recovered from last year’s brain bleed, has left me beyond discouraged, about as close as I have ever been to despair. What has been the clearest thing about my life up to now, the call God has placed on me to teach His Word and minister to His people, suddenly feels too hard, leaving me to wonder if it’s time to just be quiet. But I don’t think that’s what the word ‘steadfast’ means. Steadfastness is what the church in Acts demonstrated when they were hounded and vilified and persecuted, but kept on preaching Christ every chance they got. It’s the love that God gives us, unwavering and unconditional, consistent in every season. It leads to the result we see in Revelation, the saints worshipping and sitting down to the marriage supper of the Lamb. Most of all, it’s in our Savior, who ‘set His face like flint’(Is 50:7), and finished what He started. And it’s in the kind of love He calls us to have for one another. This is a love we must be willing to both give and receive, in every season of joy or hardship. This is all that God asks of us, to remain steady and to finish. And we know that as the Author and Perfector of our faith, as the One Who promises that He will complete the good work He has begun in us, we can finish well. We only need to cooperate with His Spirit at work in us. What does this mean for me? I don’t know yet. But I will keep showing up and doing what He has given me to do, trusting Him for the energy and the words to encourage His people. What does it mean for you?

perfect hearing

John 10:22-30

One of the things I have struggled with most is the assurance, first, that I belong to Christ, and second that I will truly be able to distinguish His voice from my own. How can I know that the things I want to do come from Him and not my overinflated ego? Many people will say that it’s simply a matter of making sure that what you desire lines up with Scripture. Generally speaking this is true. We know about faithfulness, compassion and mercy among many other principles just by reading the words given to us. But what about the more personal decisions? Do I work in that ministry, or collaborate with that person, or take that different direction in work? How can I know if the Lord is directing me, or I’m just doing what I want? The words of Jesus in the Gospel of John contain a phrase that I think we can take as a promise of assurance. In the midst of intense questioning by the Jews, He says “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” In this are three unconditional statements; 1) My sheep hear my voice; 2) I know them; 3) they follow Me. When we belong to Him, the voice we hear calling us to follow Him is His. We can rest in that. He promises, and His word will not return void. No one can thwart Him and our life is completely secure in His hand. A common mistake Christians make is in thinking that this means all we do in His Name will succeed, at least based on our measures of success. Surely, we think, if this is God’s will then it’s going to be like the church in Acts, measured by thousands of radical salvations and miraculous works. Therefore if our work seems to limp along, or even worse fails completely, we must have heard wrong, right? Wrong! We have to remember that the goal of following the Shepherd is to first be obedient, and second to become more like Him. What if where we see failure He sees a follower who looks more like Him than ever? That is the greatest measure of success. So, if you’re thinking you hear His voice and trying to decide whether to step out and follow it, keep these things in mind. His goal is obedience. His idea of success is transformation, most especially of His follower. And His promise is absolute security. No matter what.

awesome God

There’s a silly old joke I first heard many years ago. There’s a scientist and God. And the scientist challenges God to a contest of who can make the better human being. God tells him that he’s on, at which time the scientist, in great delight, bends over to pick up some dust to make his human being. Then God says, ‘No, no … you go and find your own dust.’ I keep thinking about this as I look at our readings and collect for this week. In our limited understanding, it is easy to forget just how limited we are. Psalm 33 reminds us in its beautiful poetry that “He spoke and it came to be...” and “the earth is full of His steadfast love.” The only fitting response is that we “fear Him” and “stand in awe of Him.” (Ps 33) His plans and purposes never fail, and He will ultimately rule on earth as He is in Heaven. Every knee will bow, whether willing or not. Every tongue will confess His worthiness, saying “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”(Rev 5). TWO DAYS LATER... I am continuing this after a forced interruption that included an emergency room visit and an overnight stay in the hospital. My limited body has failed me once again, and my desire to whine and demand that God explain Himself is great. But I have walked with Him long enough to know that the timing of the first part of this reflection was no accident. He put these thoughts at the forefront of my mind at the exact time He knew that I would need them. I don’t pretend to know what He is doing, in the midst of new physical limitations and the emotional pain that these particular restrictions cause. But there are things I do know. Along with what I already wrote, I can say God is good. His goodness does not depend on my circumstances. He loves me. His love is perfect in ways that I cannot fathom. He has plans that will not fail, and I am a part of those plans in some small way. Instead of sitting and feeling sorry for myself, I need to be asking “what next?” and paying attention to the doors He opens and closes. My sister reminded me of something I had shared with her several years ago. Hebrews 12:7-11 says, “7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? 8 If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. 9 Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! 10 They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” Amen. May we all be disciplined by such a Father...

he is risen

HE IS RISEN! He is risen! And we have hope. He is risen! And we have peace. He is risen! And we have life. He is risen! And we are free. Free from fear. Free from death. Free from bitterness. Free from despair, and desperation, and the need to be and to have enough. We are free to many things as well. Free to be obedient to God. Free to give with no expectation of receiving, because we have already received more than we can ever spend. Free to love without reserve because our own protection is in the hands of One far greater, who gave His life for our life. We are free to serve everyone, including our enemies, because He modeled it for us and promised to bless us. We are free to pray for miracles, because in Him we are witness and evidence to the greatest miracle of all; that God loved pitiful, unlovable, selfish and arrogant people so much that He laid down His life for us in the Person of His Son. We are free to lay down our lives as well, moment by moment in the dailyness of jobs, and families, and errands, to choose ‘not my will but His’ be done. What a gift of freedom He has given us! With this gift also comes freedom to choose what we will do with it. We can certainly squander it, by living the rest of this life holding our hope close, as if sharing it might cost too much. Or we can believe that the One who died for us is worth living for. The first may feel safe. The second feels risky. But the life of faith is never risky, because we hope in One who cannot fail. He will see you safely home. And His resurrection is proof of His promises. HE IS RISEN INDEED!

hope on Palm Sunday

The Gospel narrative of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem in Matthew 21:9-10 uses a word that reflects the mind of the people on that day “Hosanna!” The word means “save” and is both a cry for help and a shout of praise. I found this description that helps us understand what the people were celebrating on that day... “Hosanna is often thought of as a declaration of praise, similar to hallelujah, but it is actually a plea for salvation. The Hebrew root words are found in Psalm 118:25, which says, “Save us, we pray, O LORD!” (ESV). The Hebrew words yasha (“deliver, save”) and anna (“beg, beseech”) combine to form the word that, in English, is “hosanna.” Literally, hosanna means “I beg you to save!” or “please deliver us!” In our days of creature comforts, excellent medical care, and technological marvels, it can be hard to imagine the kinds of suffering the people of that time experienced. There were no hospitals or doctors, not even the relatively minor conveniences of modern kitchens and grocery stores. The lack of transportation made travel difficult to impossible, and days consisted of a basic fight to survive. Their world was dark and oppressive, and they had no reason to expect life to get better. They had no choice in the social and government constructs of the day but to live out their lives as they had begun them, in poverty and desperation. If there were ever a people that needed saving, the Israelites of Jesus’ day were it. The palms they waved and threw at His feet seem to symbolize and recognize a sense of goodness, well-being and victory. They believed their Savior had arrived! So what happened? How did this people go from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify Him!” in the space of a few days? It is quite simple, and a cautionary reminder to us who hope in His next coming. They had expectations that centered on their own desires for a Savior, their own sense of justice and prosperity, rather than a Savior who transcended time, place, class, and every human institution. They thought that what He promised, and what they needed—justice, healing and prosperity—He could not accomplish. They rejected His hope because they didn’t see its fulfillment according to their timetable and methods. In the same way, we can forget the hope of Christ that we have today. The world seems to go on as always, creeping ever nearer the precipice of oblivion and doom. We can, like the rest of the world, begin looking for hope in other places, forgetting that we have hope that transcends all these powers and raises us up to resurrection life. We can in essence ‘crucify Him’ because we look elsewhere, for hope that cannot satisfy. We can forget that we hope not in this world or the kingdoms of this world, but in the Kingdom of God. If you feel hopeless this week, remember where your true hope lies, not in His death, but in the coming resurrection. With hope like this, why would we ever despair?