Weekly Reflections



King's Cross Anglican Church Tucson

3 Year Lectionary

by Jennifer Callaway

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?

poor and needy

Our collect this week says, in part “Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise...” Have you ever considered what would happen if God removed His enabling grace from your life? I have thought about that a lot lately, as I struggle with an unkind spirit that seems to have taken charge of my thought life. Predictably, my actions have followed. I say and do uncharacteristically harsh things as I battle the inner demon that seems to have taken up residence in me. Or, maybe battle is the wrong word? If I am losing the battle, perhaps that just means I have quit fighting. Because honestly, there are times it simply feels good to make jokes at another’s expense, or speak harshly about or to someone that I truly love. Though the cost is great in relational destruction, I am willing to pay it, at least on it’s front end. It reminds me of wise words from a Bible teacher I once heard. He said “sin will take you further than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and cost you more than you want to pay.” As I see the harm my careless words cause, I feel the truth of this more than I even like to admit. I am finding some comfort in the words of Paul this week, as he reminds us of his own spiritual journey. In Philippians he says “Not that I have already obtained this (knowing Christ completely) or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers (and sisters), I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” He goes on further “Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.” Ouch! I think this is the root of my problem. I thought I had this kindness thing down pat. And God is saying to me, “grow up.” I will never stop needing His grace to pour out on me in my pursuit of maturity. Right now it’s about my speech, and the heart attitudes from which it comes. I need His grace to help me love what He loves, and so guard my words. As we near the end of Lent, what do you need an extra measure of grace for God to change in you? The promise of Easter is that forgiveness and life were poured out for us on the cross. Thank Him first for His incredible gift. Then receive. He will give more than sin could ever take for His child.

servant of the sovereign

“...We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.” A quick Google of the word “ambassador” gave me this definition... “a diplomatic agent of the highest rank accredited to a foreign government or sovereign as the resident representative of his or her own government or sovereign or appointed for a special and often temporary diplomatic assignment.” Interestingly, the word itself comes from the Latin for “servant” or “minister.” The duties of an ambassador include protecting the citizens of their home country, supporting its efforts toward prosperity, and working for peace. This gives us a clearer picture of exactly what Paul meant when he told the Corinthian believers to think of themselves as ambassadors for Christ. We represent the Kingdom of God in a very real way. The way we interact with others in our everyday life says something about how we see them and the rest of the world around us. Are we blunt, impatient, indifferent or resentful to the people around us? Or are we compassionate, long-suffering and gracious to them in the same way that God has been with us? Do we present the message of Christ as a series of propositions they must believe, or as an invitation to a refuge, a safe haven and a promise of home at the end of their long journey? We are a new creation! Not only individually, but as a Body. A new creation shaped in the form of Christ, left here in this foreign land to invite others to yearn for our home country. We will all be there together one day, but we are left here for a time to make this place feel a little safer, a little more like home for those already in the Kingdom, but also to extend the invitation whenever we get the chance. Who do you want to invite to the Kingdom? You have been given the authority and ability to do so. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord!

fresh grace

One of the dangers we in the church face is falling into the trap of favorably comparing ourselves to “them.” There is a subtle pride that suggests we have all the answers, and if only “they” would live as we do, the world would be right. Who is ‘they’ in these scenarios, but those who have not experienced the grace of God? This is part of the issue Christ was addressing in His rebuke of those discussing the misfortunes that had befallen some Galileans and Siloamians. The Jewish mindset was such that they judged peoples’ standing in God’s sight according to the things that happened to them. Everything from birth defects to disease, infertility and other common misfortunes were viewed with suspicion, with an assumption that the person had done something to incur God’s wrath. As only He could do, Christ leveled the playing field to one standard; repentance. It was the same for the Pharisees as it was for the woman caught in adultery, and everyone in between. But the good news of the gospel says that while the same standard applies to all, the same response does as well. God promises that He will remove our sins “as far as the east is from the west,” that His “steadfast love endures forever,” that He “redeems our life from the pit.” Can any of us who have experienced His redemption ever sit in judgment of those who have not? If the answer is “yes,” we need a fresh understanding of the work of grace in our own lives, and our ongoing need of repentance. As we continue this journey toward the Cross, let’s take time to examine our own lives, the many ways that we have sinned, “by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” Take time to consider what your life might be like if God had given you what you deserve. Then take it one more step and consider how the Cross continues to meet you where you are, daily and hourly. When we practice these things regularly, we will be hard pressed to see the rest of the world through anything but humble, clear vision. We will see the pain, yes. But we will also know that grace can save “them” just as it saved us. And saves us. And will save us. Forever and ever, Amen.

striving to rest

“Strive to enter through the narrow door”(Jesus, Luke 6) Father Pete’s homily this week sparked quite a lively conversation in our house. If salvation is a free gift of God, for what do we need to strive? When God says in Psalm 46, “Cease striving and know that I am God,” how does this not contradict Christ’s admonition in Luke? And this is the same Jesus who said ‘come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.’ What does striving have to do with rest? These are questions we need to seriously consider, that go to the heart of the gospel. If salvation is only about what will happen to us when we die, then our gospel is missing something. The free gift is not about earning salvation, but our response to it shows whether we value the gift. Faith in Christ calls us to act as His body in this world. Hands that hold, feet that go, eyes that see the needs and lips that speak hope. Like it or not, that requires work. Striving, even. The beauty of the Christian life, though, is that even as we strive, we rest. We rest in the power of God that shelters us and delivers us. We rest in the work of Christ that guarantees our acceptance before a holy God. And we rest in the incredible miracle that is “Christ in you, the hope of glory,”(Col 1:27). God has saved us, not for the good we have done, but because of His incredible grace and mercy. And He has given us the amazing opportunity to share His gift with a world that ever more desperately needs it. This will look different for each of us, in our particular sphere of influence. But it will show, if we let it. Follow Christ as He has called us all to do. Strive to be His body. Then rest in Him. ~Where has He called you to a particular place of influence? What would striving look like there?

temptations of the flesh

In Luke 4:6, Satan said to Jesus, “To you I will give all this authority and [the glory of the kingdoms of the world], for it has been delivered to me...” Imagine the power those words could have in causing Christ to open His mouth, to “set the devil straight.” Pride was the temptation for Christ in all of the Luke 4 scenarios. It is the most natural thing in the world to want to prove someone wrong when they challenge you. And natural is the key word. Lent is a time that calls us to go beyond the natural. Paul reminds us that the natural man or woman can’t discern the truth because that requires the Spirit (1 Cor 2). God calls us to humble ourselves, not to prove ourselves; to depend on Him to give us what we need, not to use Him as a means to get what we want. Lent helps us learn, by giving up the comforts and habits of our flesh, how much we need Him. Lent for you might include practices of giving up something that gratifies your flesh, but has no benefit. Or something that builds up your ego and your bank account, but costs the integrity and joy of living out who you really are. Or practices of sacrificing things you think you must have to live, things that seem more important to you than God. They can even be relationships that tempt you away from God. It may be one thing, or several. Christ is not only our model; His Spirit inhabits us and empowers us. The cross and resurrection sets us free to resist temptation. He only asks that we cooperate when He gives us direction. So, what is your great temptation? I have temptations I have overcome. But I also have temptations that have so overcome me I no longer try to fight them. They don’t cause a struggle in me, because I give in without a fight. So my Lenten practices have a lot to do with reining in attitudes, words, and actions that don’t reflect God’s heart, and replacing them with ones that do. Lent is not ‘one size fits all.’ Finding out where you have an overabundance of flesh and an under abundance of Spirit is usually not that hard. The question is, what will you do about it?

transformed

The core prayer of this weeks’ collect expresses God’s will for every believer in Christ, that we, “...beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness...” How has life in Christ changed you? Have you been changed? Before you answer too quickly, consider the person you were. How did you deal with conflict, or hardship, or the daily pressures inherent to life in a physical body? What were your temptations and desires, compared to what they are now? The length of time you’ve known Him will impact your answer, but the process of transformation is underway for every true believer. It’s described in various images throughout this week’s readings. For Moses, it took place on Mt. Sinai as he met with God, and his face glowed. Paul describes it as a level of knowing that we have never experienced before, like going from looking in a mirror to seeing face to face. And Christ Himself changed in a moment as He prayed before the disciples, a dazzling specter they could barely look at for His brilliance. The common denominator between all these descriptions and the people that experienced them is a “face-to-face” encounter with the Lord. This seems to be a normal part of life in Christ, and one that is impossible to escape unchanged. So don’t be surprised as you reflect on your life to realize just how much transformation has happened. Day to day it can often feel that little changes, and we fight the same battles with sin and temptation over and over again. But as we practice the rhythms of this Christian life, change is happening. Inch by inch, line by line, we are becoming more like the One whose face we look into. Trust Him with the process, and the crosses of this life will yield a resurrection only God can accomplish.

here comes the judge

“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”(Luke 6) Christ’s teachings on judging others may be some that confuse us most of all. When we look at the whole passage though, it makes a little more sense. The teaching is a caution to believers. What we do, others will do to us. This is different than Karma. It is more about people than it is about God; He gives us what we do not earn or deserve, and even sent His Son to die in our place so that we could have life, not because of who we are, but because of who He is. That is grace. However, we must remember that the ways we judge other people, believers or not, are coming back to us. When we look at someone and make judgments or condemn or refuse to forgive, we can know that someone is viewing us the same way. If I judge someone for driving a fancy car, someone is probably judging me for the car I drive as well. If I condemn someone for his or her lifestyle choices, I can know that someone somewhere is condemning my lifestyle as well. It is this awareness that should make us very careful about what we dish out in terms of our worldview. Not to say that we should never judge! But when we do, we must do it with a cautionary look in the mirror first. Does the plank in my own eye cloud my ability to see clearly to deal with another’s splinter? One of the most interesting pieces of advice from spiritual advisors I’ve heard is ‘pay attention to the things that provoke you.’ Why does a particular attitude or activity that someone else engages in cause me such discomfort that I must point fingers? It could be that they remind me of myself in some way. It could be that they cause me anxiety I’d prefer to avoid. It could be that they make me look bad in some way. Until we get to the root of our discomfort, we will be unable to make a right judgment about someone else. When we have done that, we are right and free to judge others. But even then, don’t be surprised to find the same charges leveled at you somewhere along the way. So judge carefully and be prepared to pay the cost.

blessed

If someone were to ask you, “how do you know you are blessed?,” what would you answer? Would you think of financial prosperity, a good reputation, a strong family, or a general sense of happiness? For the people of the Old Covenant, this was true. The Law and the Prophets in the Old Testament promised material blessing for obedience, tangible benefits for following God and walking in His ways. Such things as barren women, illness, drought, and oppression by enemies were considered signs of God’s curse for disobedience. So imagine how strange the words of Christ would have been! Blessed by poverty, hunger, grief, and persecution. Cursed by popularity, abundance, and happy times. Christ, who claimed to be the Son of God, was turning everything they knew and had passed on for generations on its head. How could it be true? It is true in the same way that Christ is the King. We may not see it or feel it right now, but if we belong to the Kingdom, then we have blessings that go beyond this short, subjective life. Ask any believer who has suffered and they will likely tell you that the darkest days they have experienced have in some way transformed into blessings by the vision of God they gained in the midst of it. As we see beyond unfolding events, and try to understand them in the light of our loving God, we see Him. Though our own heart and flesh is weak and deceitful (Jer 17:9), the LORD sees us, knows us, and by His grace blesses us with a new understanding. Then we can know the kingdom belongs to us. Our rewards will be great, we will find ultimate and complete satisfaction, and we will rejoice with God. In this knowledge we can rest, and find blessing in everything that comes our way. Even as I write this it makes me realize that even when we feel blessed in this life, we have yet to experience what true blessing will be. So regardless of how we feel, we can truly and with conviction say, I am blessed. No matter what. Hallelujah, what a Savior!

the danger of frailty

Perhaps the greatest danger of our own frailty is our failure to recognize it. A year ago this week, I went to bed one night, and woke up in Intensive Care sixteen days later. Unbeknownst to me, I had an aneurysm, a weakness in one of the blood vessels in my brain, which started to bleed. It was such a tiny and well hidden spot that it took hours and many tests to discover it. But if it had remained undetected, I would not be writing this reflection. I had no idea it existed until it almost killed me. And in that simple idea, I see a much deeper truth for all of us. Our major frailty lies in the self-delusion that we are strong, self sufficient and in control. God makes it clear, though, that until we release this myth from our belief system, we will only hurt ourselves. Throughout our readings this week, His sovereignty and care for us rings through. He told Jeremiah (1:4-10) “I formed you...I knew you...I placed My words in you”...and ultimately “I am with you to deliver you.” The promises are echoed through the Psalms, and ultimately from the lips of Jesus Christ. He read the words of Isaiah and assured His audience that they were seeing and hearing the fulfillment of prophecy. The Jews’ response to His challenge (Luke 4:21-32) seems extreme unless we consider what His words implied about them, and about their ancestors. That Gentiles such as Naaman and the widow of Zarapheth would have received what had been withheld from Israelites was an insult to their understanding about who they were and how God beheld them. Their pride and self conscious status as God’s favored people made them blind to the reality of the Prophet that proclaimed not only Isaiah’s prophecy but His fulfillment. They failed to recognize their own frailty. Their assumptions about this man they thought they knew blinded them to the Incarnation of God standing in front of them. What about you? Which of your achievements makes you feel most assured and most accomplished? What makes you feel strong and in control? Could that be the very thing that causes you to miss the work of God in your life? Let go of your need to be strong, and you will find true strength in the provision and love of God.

proclaiming life

I can remember my confusion as a new believer over what exactly I needed to tell people about Jesus. In the Southern Baptist tradition, we were told ‘now you’ve been saved, go tell others about Jesus and how they can get saved!’ This command left me more baffled than enthusiastic. The only thing I knew at that time was that Jesus died because I am a sinner, and if I want to go to heaven when I die, I will believe He lived and died for me, and tell Him I’m sorry for my sin. I was pretty sure that wouldn’t go over well with strangers. Over time and learning, it morphed into the ABCs, (admit, believe, confess), the Four Spiritual Laws, or some other of the many techniques for sharing Jesus. I bombed at all of them. If evangelism is a gift, it bypassed me. But something happened instead that helped clear the mist of confusion for me. I got to know Jesus. I read about Him, and talked about Him, and served Him, and sat many hours with Him, in pain and joy, in grief and fear and desperation. And in that journey, He set me free. He freed me from spiritual poverty and captivity and oppression. He freed me from spiritual blindness and worldly ideas of success. Today He is still setting me free, as new circumstances and the fears that accompany them rattle the shackles and try to bind me again. He has even freed me from the oldest fear of all, the fear of death. This is the gospel. NT Wright says “If we make salvation about going to Heaven when we die, there is an awkward and embarrassing gap between our baptism and our funeral.” Trying to condense the work of Christ in the world for today and for eternity seems almost undoable. But a changed life is a great conversation starter. ~How has knowing Christ changed your life? Can you tell that story to someone today?

make a joyful noise

As someone who is quiet by nature, one of my favorite quotes has always been St. Francis’ saying “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” But much to my disappointment, I have discovered he apparently never said such a thing. While it’s attributed to him by many sources, the quote can’t be found in any of his writings. In fact, St. Francis had a reputation as a powerful preacher. Like the prophets, and Paul, and Jesus Himself, he preached the gospel whenever he had a chance. From his day to this day, the Word is not silent. Our deeds can certainly give credence to our words, but sharing the gospel with words is the lynchpin of our faith. What does that sound like, though? Our readings this week were full of descriptive terms for praise that points to our God and to salvation. “Sing to the Lord,” Bless His name,” “tell of His salvation from day to day,” are just a fraction of the references we see that call us to celebrate His great salvation and goodness. I watched some of the championship football yesterday, and the noise of the crowds was earsplitting. How would that compare to my report of God’s healing, or provision, or simply His love, mercy and forgiveness? Do I shout His praise in the streets, or whisper softly in the shadows? Do I speak boldly to someone that needs encouragement, or do I convince myself they don’t want what I have to offer? I want to learn to be outspoken in sharing good news. When God shows His care in my life, I want to tell people about it, joyfully and fully giving Him credit for it. When the wine in my life runs out and He replaces it with better (John 2), I want to celebrate with anyone who will listen. ~What word of praise does someone need to hear from you today? Will you tell them about the love of God?

the gift of revelation

“[Jesus] went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him”(Acts 10:38) We are called for God’s purposes. God did not randomly choose us, set us apart, and give us gifts for our own benefit and comfort. I have never been more aware of that than today. As I face the reality of my mortality, I know in the core of all that I am, He has me here for a reason. That reason formed in His mind before the world began; in my life it began at my baptism. This is how I am like Christ. Though Christ understood far beyond what I know or ever will grasp in this life, God identified us both in our baptisms, as He has all of His children. There are different views on exactly what happens in baptism, but there is no question that something does. The Bible says “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him”(Acts 10). God anoints all of us with gifts, and through the Spirit He gives us power, so that we can accomplish all His will for us. Our responsibility is to believe, and by faith serve His purposes with our lives. We believe that He is with us, that He is pleased with us, and that all we do glorifies Him and accomplishes His plans in the world. Each of us has a mission that is defined by our time, place and gifting, and our baptism is the first step of obedience in understanding that mission for us. The anointing of Christ was unique, and so it is for each of us. What has God identified in you through your baptism? What has He anointed you to do? Do you have a sense of His presence as you go ‘about doing good’? Listen to His voice!

light of the World

Epiphany- a moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way. “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” CS Lewis God has been revealing Himself from the very beginning. He initially revealed Himself in creation; it seems no accident that the first thing He spoke into being was light (Gen 1:3). And so it has continued, from then until now. He revealed Himself to the first people, and when they rejected Him He forgave them, and covered them by His own sacrifice even as they paid the consequences for their sin. This pattern of revelation, fellowship, rejection of Him and death has repeated itself ever since. Until the Light of the world came, and defeated death forever. He suffered our rejection once and for all so that we would not have to. Christ is the ultimate epiphany of God (Heb.1:2-3). How could God more clearly reveal Himself to mankind than by becoming one of us? “Fully man” does not just mean another human. It means ‘fully’ as in completely, without the brokenness of sin that has infected our DNA. So He is a man unstained by sin, tempted but able to withstand temptation to the very end. In Him this kind of resistance is possible, because He made it so. He is an example of a sin free, Godward life without compromise or self-aggrandizement. He is the model of prayer, and love with no pretense or limit. He is the sacrifice to pay our debt. He is our Intercessor, not only in our moment of salvation but again and again when we fail. He paves the road back to God so that we can come without shame, knowing He has borne our shame. God did not have to reveal Himself this way. He chose to, for the simple reason that though we are not particularly loveable, He loves us. He wants us to experience the very best that He has for us. In Christ, He gives us that opportunity. If an epiphany means suddenly seeing something in a new or clear way, then Christ is an ongoing epiphany, whose light shines on all darkness and removes the shadows of doubt, uncertainty and despair. Therefore Epiphany is not just a season we celebrate, but the very reason for our celebration. Glory to God in the highest!

god's will

Mary and Joseph were experiencing the most radical event anyone ever undergoes, even in the most normal of circumstances—the birth of a first child. But much more than that, they were encountering the implications of an incredible miracle, the Word made flesh(John 1). Though how much they really knew of who Jesus was is a subject of much debate, there is no question they knew something world changing had happened, and that God had called them to be an integral part of it. For many, this would signal a change of practices. They were responsible for the Savior of the world! How many questions would you have, and how many fears and pressures would you feel? They were an ordinary couple, called by God to a once-in- eternity task. There would seem to be no better time to fast, to pray, to lay prostrate before the Lord until we knew what to do next. But in the simple, obedient way of servants, Mary and Joseph just did what was in front of them. According to Luke, “they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” When they arrived at the Temple, they were greeted by two other servants who had done nothing but be faithful to what they had been doing for many, many years. Just by their being in the same place at the same time, Christ was revealed to Simeon, and to Anna, and to all who heard their voices that day. So many of us agonize over the will of God for our lives. But simple obedience to what He has given us to do now, today, will guide us every step of the way. We can usually see that looking back. It’s not so clear looking ahead. But if He hasn’t clearly directed you to something new, then doing the next right thing is His will. Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna all understood and practiced that. Their story encourages us that God will accomplish His will. It is not up to us to figure it out ahead of time. Just be obedient today. ~What are you questioning God about in your life? Do you fear missing His will for you? Finally, are you being obedient to what He has already given you to do? If not, start there.

small great things

Our God is the God of ‘small great things.’ He uses the weak to show His strength; He works through the ordinary so that His extraordinary will be on display. In Mary, He used a young, simple girl to accomplish His greatest feat of all—the salvation of the world. Through her He brought our Savior, in the form of the smallest and weakest of all, a tiny baby. And through this act of love and power, He gave us the ability to do His will. Mary had the one thing that caused God to work through her—obedience. Out of her unquestioning and unhesitating obedience came the conception, birth and life of Christ. Like the faithful before her, she took God at His word and trusted Him to accomplish what He asked her to begin by one step of faith. The only thing she did to set it in motion was to say ‘yes.’ Even in her ‘yes,’ though, we can learn a lot. There was no hesitation, and almost no questioning at all. Even though this event turned her life upside down and forever changed its course, she only asked ‘how can this be?’ before assuring the angel of her devotion and acceptance. And she followed this up in the home of her cousin Elizabeth by singing praises to her God, and our God. We’ve been left this record of her song, not just to share at Christmas, but to cling to in any time where our circumstances test the limits of our faith. May these words from Father Pete encourage you this season. “Mary’s song is our song too! For those who find themselves in need of a savior…this is your song For those who are humbled and seek after help…this is your song For those who know they have been blessed as they acknowledge that God has done great things for them… this is your song. For those who have received mercy in their time of need, this is your song. For those who have been brought down but will be raised up by the gracious King of creation, this is your song. For those who seek after the food that satisfies and are filled to overflowing, this is your song. And finally, for those who remember, from generation to generation, the deliverance that is upon us as we await the birth of our Savior in the coming days…this is your song, my song, our song... The day of our salvation is very near.” Amen. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

repent and believe

"Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice...The Lord is at hand.”(Phil 4:4-5)

I have some friends from Ukraine. When they talk about Christians, they refer to us as ‘repenters.’ Instead of someone getting saved or receiving Christ, they say the person repented. I find this helpful as we think of this week’s readings. We are a people defined by the importance of turning to God in Christ and learning to walk in obedience by returning to God in every failure and asking Him to forgive and enable us. Our need for Him is never more obvious than when we sin, and His grace is always ready to receive us, heal us and set us back on the path, wiser and more capable for what we have learned along the way. If we think of repentance only as turning from sin, we are missing a huge part of its meaning. We are never so near to God as when we humbly ask Him to forgive and restore us, and when we admit that we cannot walk in obedience without Him. And the nearer we are to Him, the more we have to rejoice over. For the repenters, nearness to Him means joy, safety, hope, peace, wisdom, and comfort. No matter how many times we fall, He is ever calling, ever beckoning, ever waiting for us to come Home. Like the beloved children we are, we can take great comfort in knowing that He will delight in us when we come back to Him. ~Do you have a sin so strong in your life that you have quit asking for forgiveness? God never runs out of patience. Keep bringing it to Him and let Him heal you.

Eat this book

“Digest the Word...that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.”(Collect) Why do we study the Scriptures? As one whose life was radically changed over twenty years ago by opening the Word of God, I can give lots of reasons. It’s like a treasure hunt, seeing new insights in passages I’ve read dozens or even hundreds of times. It’s an adventure, peering into the lives, minds and hearts of people who lived several thousand years ago. It’s a guide for life, telling me what to omit and what to practice in my life. For some, it is a puzzle to solve. For others a hobby that distracts them from the drudgery of life. Some find it a social aid, discussing it endlessly. Others want to find clues to the future there. It makes us think, causes us to argue passionately, inspires us and encourages us in our darkest moments. But if it does not deeply, supernaturally transform us into the likeness of Christ, then something is wrong. When transformation is absent, the Word becomes a bludgeon in our hands, designed to dominate and rule others, as the religious leaders of Jesus’ day illustrate so well. Christ Himself is the Word, made flesh. The prophets, apostles and psalmists all point to Him. His life, death and resurrection prove His worthiness and identity. The firsthand accounts of His actions and teaching tell us exactly what is most important to God, and therefore to those who claim Christ as our Savior. While eternal life in Christ will spin out in eternity, it has already begun for any that call Him Lord. If we sense no evidence of His power in our own heart and life, we must ask why not? When you come across a challenge in Scripture, rather than studying it more, ask God to make it real in your life, and do the next right thing. When faith becomes action, it becomes sight. Not a vision of ourselves, but of “Christ in us, the hope of glory.”

lift your head

One simple statement in our gospel reading this week has captured my attention. Jesus says to His disciples when He speaks of the coming cataclysm, “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”(Luke 21: ) What?? He has described deadly natural phenomena, clear signs that the end of everything we know is at hand, and that He is coming in judgment. People everywhere will be fainting in terror, but it will be believers’ moment of redemption. His judgment will pass over us, and we will finally experience the full reality of the redemption Christ has bought for us. This is a fitting end to the paradox of life in Christ. In the kingdom of God, first is last, last is first, small is great, and weak is strong. A king is born in a stable, a Prophet foretells His own death, and a Messiah saves the world by dying on a cross. Who more appropriate to come back as Judge, than the One who gave His life for us all? And Who could we trust more and place our hope in more, than a Judge that paid the penalty for our sin Himself? Hallelujah, what a Savior! Savior, Prophet, Priest and King, He embodies all these things, Living, dying, rising then, There’s nothing left but to come again. Can the Judge in Him we face? The One Who loved, and took our place? He says ‘Yes. Come and see. You will find it all in Me.’ As we come into this Advent season, what are you afraid of? Judgment? Disasters? Wicked people? Whatever it is, the Savior says bring it to Me, and lift your head. You are redeemed.

Christ our king

“King of kings and Lord of lords.” This is a phrase so familiar that it’s easy to miss it’s meaning. But think about it for a moment. Our King is king over every king that has ever existed. His kingdom surpasses every kingdom ever established. His rule overrules all the authority of any king in eternity, no matter how powerful or widespread. He has everything He needs and requires nothing from any other king or kingdom. There is no royal dynasty beyond the scope of His sovereignty, in any age that is past, or any that reigns today. No matter how powerful or long lasting, every king and kingdom passes away. Though their power may seem immutable, they all ultimately fail, through death, overthrow, or even the destruction of the kingdom itself. History books are strewn with the stories of empires that seemed impossible to overcome. But every single one, whether through stronger enemies or internal weakness eventually crumbled, becoming at best a shadow of their former glory, and at worst an ancient civilization that history uses as a cautionary tale, a reminder of the folly of men’s pride. Except of course, for our King and His kingdom. As the nations rage and men fight for power, our King sits on His throne. He knows that their struggle is in vain, and bides His time until He says “today.” And when His kingdom comes with the return of Christ, every other king will be silenced. Every throne except His will cease to exist. Those who thought they held all the power will bow their knees and confess their King, and their Lord. But what difference should this make for us now? Should King Jesus make a difference today, when democracy rules, kings are old fashioned, and we are determined to have some control over our lifestyle choices and destiny? Absolutely. Ours is a King whose authority is trustworthy, whose power can and will only be used for the good of those who swear allegiance to Him, and who will always have our very best in mind. Bowing to Him requires fully believing this, and acting on that belief. He will never be defeated. Aligning ourselves with any other king is a disaster in the making. There is only one true King. Surrender to Him! ~What areas of your life belong to another king? Will you give them to King Jesus?

the blessings of poverty

1 Kings 17:8-16; Ps 146; Heb 9:24-28; Mk 12:38-44

 

‘Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God’(Ps 146:5).

             Americans often refer to ourselves as ‘blessed’ due to the abundant material wealth that we enjoy. We have the best food supply in the world, the most advanced standard of living, and the highest average income on the planet. According to these statistics, we have no need of anything physically. But does that truly mean we are blessed?

            God knows that true blessing requires a completely different measure. Only those whose earthly resources are completely depleted can fully understand the blessing of God’s provision. When we have all that we need in this life, we are in danger of misunderstanding our real poverty—the spiritual starvation that only God’s riches can supply.

            Only God can give us true hope. Only God can give us true peace. Only He can fulfill the longings and soothe the sorrows that nothing on this earth can satisfy. When the widows in Zarephath and and in the temple gave, they placed their confidence and hope in the God they knew would take care of them in life, and in death.

            They knew that they were blessed because their hope didn’t depend on anything this world could offer. They had suffered in this life, but out of their suffering had come a blessing. Desperation had driven them to turn away from government (princes) and people (sons of men) and to look to the living God, who gives justice for the oppressed and feeds the hungry. And when they turned to Him, He blessed them.

~Where do you tend to place your hope, instead of God? Doctors, or education, or other people? What would it look like to place your hope in God alone? Is there a step of faith He wants you to take?     

defeating anxiety

“Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly...” What in the world are you anxious about? What keeps you awake at night with fears and doubts about the circumstances of life? Illness, finances, relationships, responsibilities and a sense of inadequacy are at the root of most of my personal anxieties. I expect these are somewhere on the list of most peoples’ fears. And the question we ask God is something along the lines of “will I have enough?” Will I have enough healthcare, money, time, intelligence, or talent? How can we cope with such questions, when we don’t know what the future holds or how to prepare for the unexpected? Our collect and readings this week give one, all-encompassing answer to the many questions we have in our limited understanding and unlimited insecurity. Jesus gave it in response to the question that was designed to stump Him. “Which commandment is the most important of all?” He sums up everything that matters in life, and in this lies the answer to coping with everything that frightens us and bewilders us. “...love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” When we love God with all that we are, we see everything here on earth in the radiated light of His love, His wisdom, and His values. What may seem the most important thing suddenly becomes trivial, or at least manageable. Out of this singular focus our priorities change. And out of the change flows the desire to care for others, and shifts our anxiety over life’s problems to our willingness to be God’s answer for someone else’s problems. Our obedience flows from gratitude to Him rather than fear of Him, and our obedience leads to blessing for us as well as through us for others. When we act out of love rather than fear, His blessings flow. ~ What anxieties keep you awake at night? How can you turn your fears into love for God and neighbor?

praying for a miracle

Mark 10:46-52 Jesus was leaving Jericho. He had confronted a rich man held captive by his own wealth, and two disciples distracted by their own ambitions. But His final encounter as He left the city to meet His destiny in Jerusalem shows us what true prayer looks like. Bartimaeus is a personification of faith in literal darkness. We only get a snapshot of his day-to-day existence, so it’s easy to forget that he lived a whole lifetime of blindness up to now. Think about the days of his life; hungry and often cold, his only hope the pity of strangers to help him. It was indeed a desperate life. But this was his world. It was what he knew. And he had survived up to now, so it would be easy just to stay in his spot, with his cloak, and say this is as good as it gets for me. To have his sight would mean a new world, and it would not be easy. His sight would mean new responsibilities and expectations. Sometimes a miracle is a scary thing to ask for! But Bartimaeus knew whom he was asking. He called Jesus by His real name, Son of David, when His own disciples called Him merely “teacher.” He didn’t stop calling out for mercy even after everyone told him to be quiet. And he asked for a miracle, knowing only God could give it. Jesus gave him the miracle he asked for, no questions asked. And Bartimaeus followed Him.


~What are you praying for? What do you want Jesus to do for you? This is a multi-layered question, as we can see through these examples. I challenge you this week to give it some real prayer, and consider what the answer might require of you. Then step out in faith and follow Jesus.

free In Deed

Isaiah 53; Mark 10:35-37

One of the most persistent and loudest demands we hear is the cry for freedom. Our country is founded on it, and our government has made it a rallying cry to come to the defense of the oppressed the world over. But in the words of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Unfortunately, the kind of freedom many demand today is destructive and deadly. It’s the kind of freedom that wants no consequences for our actions, and no accountability for our misdeeds. And the great irony is that it only leads to some other kind of bondage, some other kind of oppression. The way of Christ is the only way to true freedom. In Him, we no longer have to carry the chains of bondage to ego, to selfishness, or to the desires of our flesh. True freedom means forgetting ourselves, as He has forgotten Himself. It means serving where service is needed, instead of serving where my ego is gratified. It means freedom from self-esteem and self-fulfillment. It means willing sacrifice to lead others to true freedom. The amazing thing about this kind of freedom is that it grows. It grows our own sense of freedom as we leave behind the bondage of the world’s freedom. It grows the kingdom of God as we lead the way to His freedom. It grows the fruit of the Spirit as our sense of freedom blossoms into greater freedom. And it grows relationships, spiritual maturity, and confidence that the way of Christ is the only true freedom. ~What do you struggle to be free of? 

life within limits

The common theme I see in my life is the deep resentment I feel when I come up against my limitations. I want to be smarter than everyone, have all the energy I need to do all I want to, have just the right words for every conversation, and accept every invitation. Like all humans, I hate to hear or to say the word “no.” In the Garden it was the one tree that was off limits that the first people found irresistible. Ever since they set our example, it has been rebellion against our limited understanding, our lifespan and our physical location. Most technologies and medical research are aimed at overcoming human limitations. In fact, I think we have become quite good at convincing ourselves that we are only as limited as we let ourselves be, and when we bow to limitations we see it as weakness. If we can only figure out the right mix of diet, exercise, mental stimulation and spiritual practices we can live forever. Our readings this week provide a much-needed correction, though. There is only One unlimited Being, and we are not Him. He teaches us to “number our days” in order to gain a heart of wisdom. He is the “builder of all things.” The only true treasure is with Him in Heaven. He returns us to dust. And He is eternally God. Even our Savior submitted to these limits in His time on earth, giving us a model of life and hope for the possibility that we too can let go of our self-will, personal ambitions and pride and learn to thrive within the limits God has given us. Though He was God, He did not cling to His rights, instead submitting Himself to the same limitations we have, yet without sin. He lived His incarnation out in a small town, a tiny country, surrounded by desperate need and pressure that only grew as His reputation spread. Yet He never gave in to the pressures and never wavered from doing only what the Father wanted Him to do, because He knew that was all that mattered. The rich young ruler asked “what must I DO to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ answer was clear; let go of the things that make you feel secure in this life, and follow Me. It’s about the heart, not the actions. This man wanted to find his own way there, and had deluded himself into thinking that the strength of his riches held a key. In fact, it was that self-sufficient refusal to accept his limitations that led to his downfall. There is no such thing as life without limits. As believers, we must learn how to thrive within them to be all that God calls us to be. Trying to kick against them opens us up for failure. ~What limitations do you come up against in your life? How have you learned to accept and submit them? What do you still struggle against?

one flesh

Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”


Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. Genesis 1:23-24

 

            Marriage is intended to be a picture of the unity of the Trinity. This is a unity of two separate people whose diverse gifts, experiences, and personalities converge to make one complete person. This is who we are called to be in marriage; the strengths and weaknesses of each meld to bring balance, and to glorify God in this world.

            However, sin has affected this unity just as it has affected every institution and every person from the Garden of Eden to now. Our own sinful relational patterns often lead to a breakdown of this most sacred of unions. I speak as one who knows. I went through a divorce many years ago, and the echoes of it still reverberate in my life. I was young and foolish, and made many bad decisions. But God, by His grace, gave me the opportunity to try again.

            I have been married to my husband for 31 years now, and we have gotten to experience moments of this kind of unity. But it is hard! We both fight for our marriage, and work to become the “one flesh” in reality that God assures us we are in His covenant. We make choices that regard one another as better than ourselves. We practice forgiveness over and over and over again. We repent from our own selfish thinking and discipline our minds to think the best of one another. We take opportunities to share with others how it is only by God’s grace that we have persevered. We work to accept one another’s weaknesses by thanking God for the other’s strengths. We still have a long way to go, but we are committed. The grace of God brought us together. The grace of God has kept us together. The grace of God will see us through to finish well. We can count on that, because He never fails, even when we do.


~Are you suffering because of a broken marriage? Ask God to heal you, and to work through the causes so that you can be the kind of spouse He calls us to be.

~Are you struggling in a difficult marriage? Thank God for your spouse’s strengths, and ask Him to help you find the way to love them by supporting them where they are weak instead of tearing them down for it.   

the quiet mind

Numbers 11:4-29; Psalm 19:8-14

Our readings this week contain contrasting pictures of those who rely on God, who turn to Him in rest and trust, and those who rail against God and demand that He give them something different or new. The words of the wicked and malcontents contrast sharply with the words of those who accept the gifts of God and turn from their own ways to His mercy. Even God’s servants are in danger of such unrest. Moses, in response to the whining discontent of the Israelites, in turn whined to God about them. “Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me?” Moses was blaming God for the peoples’ treatment of him and the burden of leading them, and the people were blaming God and Moses for not providing what they wanted to eat. In the midst of such discontent, Moses seemed to experience what we today call burnout. He even told God, “If you will treat me like this, kill me at once.” Oh, how quickly we forget! Like Moses, our struggle often depends on how we think about our circumstances, and how we think about God. When we try to see God through our circumstances, rather than looking at our circumstances through what we know of God, our mind begins to race with doubts, fears, and worst-case scenarios. But when we focus on Him, as the psalmist does, our thoughts turn to truth, light, and hope. Our own ways are illuminated and we see ourselves as God does. And we say with the Psalmist, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” We repent and ask Him to help us see things rightly. Our mind quiets and we hear His voice, the only voice of Truth. ~What is troubling your thoughts today? How can you change your mind to see things from God’s view?

the gift of humility

I’ve been thinking about something that happened about 20 years ago, when my husband and I were first getting involved in leadership at church. A couple of people had made comments to me about how humble I was, and I was thinking one day that I was really on the right track. And it hit me like a bolt of lightning; I was proud of how humble I was! I wish I could say that had been the last time I’ve been tripped on pride. But of course that is in itself a prideful statement. Pride has been compared to water on the roof of a house; if there is a way for it to get in, it will. There is only one way to prevent ‘leaks’ of pride. Humbling ourselves before God gives us His perspective and His values. James tells us God opposes the proud, but give grace to the humble. Jesus warns that greatness lies in servanthood, not dominance. And Isaiah makes it clear that the LORD is the only truly Great One. We tend to avoid humility, and humiliation is considered a negative experience. But what if we could see it as the best attitude and experience we could have? Is choosing humility even possible? Of course it is, or the Lord wouldn’t tell us to be humble. One term for it that has helped me to understand it is ‘self-forgetfulness.’ CS Lewis once said ‘humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.’ Thinking less of yourself can be a twisted form of pride, which still puts ‘me’ at the center of everything. When we as children of God deride and belittle ourselves, we tell our Creator and Father that He did a poor job when He created us. So, the reverse of that is gratitude for who He has made us to be, submission to His plans and purposes for us, and service to others in their need. If our focus is on these things, there isn’t much room for self-centeredness of any kind. ~How does pride show itself in your life? What can you do to humble yourself before God?

help

Isaiah 50:7; Psalm 116:1-9; Mark 9:20-27

The readings this week recall for me a time of desperation in my life that I hope never to repeat. In my weakness I seemed unable to pray, unable to muster up the faith I needed to survive. One afternoon in particular, I remember only being able to say the name, “Jesus” over and over again. But the faith—the tiny seed of faith—it took to say His name, was enough. Because I learned in the midst of that trial that it was not up to me to fight the battle. The only thing I needed to do was ask for help. He heard. He delivered me. And He has done the same thing many times since then, more times than I count. So often we talk about the power of prayer. This can lead to the mistaken conclusion that the power lies in the prayer itself, which means our prayers have to be long and eloquent for God to answer. The father of the boy in Mark 9 simply said, “I believe. Help my unbelief!” Simple and honest, no fancy words or specific expectations. Just “help.” He wanted to believe, and that was enough. Jesus heard him, and healed his son. He is still the Healer. He has given us the faith we need to ask. He only requires that we exercise that tiny seed of faith, and say the word “help.” ~What are you praying for right now? What do you need so desperately that you almost can’t bring yourself to ask for it? What do you struggle to believe that God will do?

Changing Temptations; Unchanging God

When I was younger, I struggled with different temptations than the ones I struggle with in older adulthood. Different seasons bring different desires, and hopes, and fears. And in the midst of those changing values, it can be easy to grow insensitive to the Spirit of God as He convicts me. Fears about my health seem more normal; my expectations shrink because of cynicism; pride in my accomplishments trumps humility at my shortcomings. I’ve left behind the sins of my youth. But the sins of my adulthood are always knocking at the door.

            Thanks be to God, He hasn’t changed. His grace is still sufficient to withstand the assaults of the world, the flesh, and the devil, no matter what they look like. We only need to ask, and He will intervene; sometimes by removing the temptation, but more often by fulfilling His promise to give us grace to withstand it. And if we fail, what a relief it is to ask for His forgiveness, knowing that in Christ He gives it, every time. That is what grace is! His love and mercy never fail, no matter how much we do.

            What is your particular sin struggle? If you think you don’t have one, consider whether it might be pride. On the other hand, if you think you are too far gone to ever deserve God’s forgiveness, you are in the perfect condition to turn to God and say ‘help me.’ Because forgiveness is not about what we deserve, it’s all about grace. In Christ, it is the very recognition of our failure that brings God’s compassion. Don’t give up the struggle, but bring the struggle to the only One that never changes.

~What do you struggle with in your walk with Christ? Confess it, and ask Him to help you.

heart problems

Deut 4:2; Mark 7:1-23

“You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you.”

            Do you ever think about why you do the things you do, or avoid what you avoid? Many of us make daily choices in entertainment, activities and relationships that reflect our desire to please God in the way we live. We guard our hearts from corruption in order that our actions will be uncorrupted. This is a wise way to navigate the culture in which we live. It can, however, become a rulebook that keeps a stranglehold on our life in Christ.

            Anything that takes priority over the love of God in us and through us is fair game for inspection. If we take pride in the purity of the movies we watch, but fail to guard our hearts from coveting someone else’s possessions, then we are in danger of an impure heart. If we fight for social justice by the politicians we support but don’t care for the poor around us, we must question our own motives and desires. If we attend every church activity but avoid the discomfort of caring for those who are hopeless and lonely in our neighborhood, we feel righteous without risking the rejection our Savior experienced.

            If we take pride in our knowledge of the Bible but avoid doing what it says, we have indeed become the Pharisees at heart. If we rationalize our choices with anything other than love for God and His creation, we have become the Pharisees in action.

            My challenge for us this week is simple. Ask God to show you where your habits and lifestyle choices reflect His love, and where they reflect your desire to appear righteous. He will show you. And when He does, ask Him what change you need to make in order to extend His love to the world.   

Where will you turn? 

Joshua 24:16; Psalm 16:1; John 6:67-69

On whom or what do you depend when you are in distress? Perhaps it’s a friend who always seems to know what to say. Maybe it’s a comforting kind of food, or a distracting activity like exercise, reading or watching TV. We are born with the desire to comfort ourselves, and life gives us plenty of opportunities to practice these behaviors. But God offers us a better way. Most human distress boils down to a fundamental fear of death. Think about this for a moment. Death is the ultimate loneliness. The end of all hope, the final meaninglessness for those who think this life is all there is. So the need to comfort our fear is almost mindless; whatever works will do. And this is how idols are formed. The Israelites sought comfort by assimilating to the culture around them, and pagan gods became their idols. Jesus’ disciples wanted privilege and power in the form of popularity, and in that way He ‘disappointed’ them again and again. Those who refused to walk with Him any longer declared their loyalty by their actions. Their idol was man’s approval, and Jesus refused to bow to this ‘god’. But Peter, in one of his amazing moments of clarity, followed Joshua’s example from centuries before when he said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” There is only one God. Father, Son and Spirit. Though we can choose to seek ‘life’ through all kinds of ‘gods,’ we can be assured that they will lead to death. There are many kinds of death, and many gods can lead us to them; death of relationships, death of purpose, and ultimately eternal death. But the One who leads us to Life, promises that He will give us not only eternal life, but abundant life. Only He is the true Bread. All other bread passes away, out of the body. When we learn to feed on the Bread of Heaven, we will find true life. ~Where do you turn for comfort when life is hard? What would it look like to turn away from those things, and turn to Christ?

Walking wisely

Our readings this week focused partly on the need for wisdom in our walk in this world. The word ‘wisdom’ is defined as “the soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of experience, knowledge, and good judgment.” Of course, wisdom will always be limited by experience, knowledge and judgment. Or will it? When we are in relationship with Christ, and through Him with the Father and the Spirit, this insurpassable wealth of knowledge and experience is available to us. As we walk through life with Him, God reveals Himself in His Word and through our circumstances. Then He teaches us through those things to trust Him and learn from Him. We don’t just learn a bunch of facts, though. We learn who He is, His desire for us and for all His creation, His way of guiding us, and His completely trustworthy nature. By that learning, we grow in the knowledge of which way to go at every turn as we face the unknown future. Sometimes He shouts from the mountaintops, but other times He quietly requires us to go deeper in our knowledge of Him. These are the most precious times, as frustrating as they often feel. It’s through these times that, if we turn to Him, we experience Him more richly, and therefore gain in good judgment. The key then is simply to apply, by faith, the things we know, and trust that He will make the outcome profitable for our salvation (His ultimate goal). The effect is wisdom in the twists and turns of life. All true wisdom comes from Him, and He delights in giving it to His precious children. Rarely does He make decisions for us; we must seek and find, ask and receive, knock until the door opens. But when it opens, we can expect the Person on the other side to welcome us with open arms and teach us all we need to know to walk in wisdom. He just wants us to do it—one step at a time. ~What do you need wisdom for right now? Have you asked the source of all wisdom to guide you?

He Will

Deut 8:1-10; Psalm 34; Eph 4:35-5:2; John 6:37-51 

            What are you seeking God’s will about? It’s easy to get overwhelmed at the decisions life calls for—vocation, relationships, education, just to name a few. Have you spent a lot of time in prayer, and read books on how to discern His will, only to find after all that you aren’t any clearer than you were in the beginning?

            I have good news for you! God makes His will clear in Scripture. In this week’s passages alone, He tells us enough of His will to keep us busy and on the right track for the rest of our lives. There are decisions in life that are just not that obvious, and we need His wisdom and insight. But if you are doing the things He has clearly given you to do, you will know Him better. And when you know Him better, you will know what He wants for you.

            This is the point of life! Not what we do in our work, or where we live, or even who we marry. The interest He has in those things is more about how they drive us to Him than whether or not our life is self-fulfilling and happy. His desire is that we walk closely with Him, and all that He does in our lives accomplishes that, if we cooperate.

            Following Christ with intention is a full time job. It requires self-control, and patience, and the humility to return to God with your failures again and again. It demands the willingness to risk offending other people in order to please God, by refusing to follow them into evil. This is the stuff our character is built on, and it happens just about every day.

            If this were all we had to look forward to, it would be a hard path to walk. But the beauty on the path is the God who walks beside us, who waits at the end of the journey, and who dwells in us for power and assurance as we go. We do not walk alone. This is evident from the long list of “I wills” in the readings. As you read them, think about the fact that these are promises from a God who cannot fail us. If we think He has let us down in any way, the fault is not in God, but in our thinking about Him. He never breaks a promise!

            His ultimate will was to give Himself so we might live forever. It’s because of this that we, in community, live the way we do. We sacrifice because He sacrificed. We forgive because He forgives. We speak truth because He is Truth. We are kind because God has been so kind to us. We are merciful to reflect His mercy. We are hopeful because He is the source of true hope. We are generous because His generosity overwhelms us.

            Though we are pale reflections of our Heavenly Father, we nevertheless reflect Him in all that we do. His will is that we grow to reflect Him well.

~What has God clearly shown you of His will? Are you acting on it? 

The true bread

It was the manna that caused the Israelites to survive in the desert. (Ex 16). But the bread wasn’t given just to fill their hunger. It fell from Heaven so that they would know God. “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread. Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.” Though they could only see their own physical needs, God knew that they had a much greater need, to know and believe Him, and put their hope and trust in Him. Christ encountered the same confusion. “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” (John 6). Jesus fed them so they would recognize their Savior. Instead, they sought Him out only because He had fed their physical hunger. They were ignorant of the real hunger He could fill; real life, spiritual life that would free them from ever needing to eat again. He wanted to fill a need so profound that they couldn’t even recognize it; the need for true life. Today, people are no different. We think we know what we need. We pray for God to follow our instructions and solve our problems, our way. What might be different if we saw God not as our problem solver, but as the solution in Himself? What might change about our prayers and our lives if we asked God not to give us solutions but to give us Himself? It would certainly affect our problems. But the more important effect would be how we view those problems. We could see them as God sees them; important in that they drive us to Him. We could see them perhaps as opportunities to witness His work, and tell of His power and His mercy. This is the bread of life; the spiritual food that grows us up into faithful, obedient followers of Christ. And it is this bread that grows the church, the bread that we find when we look to the Source, and the bread we feed to others in the name of Christ. Are you seeking the true bread? He is worth the effort.

Our Giving God

Our collect this week expresses an attribute of God that weaves throughout Scripture from the first words in Genesis to the last in Revelation. Our God gives. His resources are inexhaustible. His intentions are always our good. He gave the very thing that makes us worthy in His eyes—His Son. And in this Gift, we receive all other gifts. He gave us the prophets (2 Kings 2), who spoke His words to His people long before Christ walked the earth. He gave His prophets the miracles they needed to prove His worthiness, and He gave them one another to encourage, support, and together see a fuller picture of how He was working. He gave us the Psalms (114) to guide us in our worship of Him, teaching us line by line who He is, and who we are and are not. He used the Psalms to admonish, correct, and engage with His people when they were suffering and when they were celebrating. He gave His Son (Mark 6:45-52), who opened the eyes and hearts of a small group of people who, even in their failures and foolishness, managed to spread the truth of the gospel around the world until now, centuries later, we still resonate with its message. And He gave us, in the resurrection of Christ, the hope that we too can stand before Him with confidence, not in our own worthiness, but in the surpassing greatness of this gift. Finally, He gave us the church(Eph 4:1-16), this group of people whose tendency is to doubt, to question, and to repeatedly slide back into the darkness of our flesh. He gives us the church to sanctify us. He calls us to challenge and encourage and equip one another, recognizing that while we are one in the Spirit, we are many in diversity. And we all have one purpose; to glorify Him on the earth. One purpose. Many expressions. But every single one matters to One. Every member has a place, a calling, and a gift. Are you there? ~ How are you fulfilling the giving purpose of God in the church and in the world? If you’re not, what could you do to take a step in that direction today?

god of peace

And he came and preached peace to you who were far off (Gentiles) and peace to those who were near (Jews). For through him (Christ) we both (Jews and gentiles) have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you (gentiles) are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints (all believers) and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,”(Eph 2:17-19)

            Do you have the peace of God? Before you answer, think about the meaning of ‘peace’ for the believer in Christ.  Some things it does not mean include; calm circumstances, a comforted feeling, or experiencing the love of everyone in the world. Though these things can come out of the peace of God, trying to find peace in them will fail you. They are as changeable as the buzzing of a fly or the sting of a careless word.

            Peace for the believer is much more profound. In Christ, we have peace with God. Though we in our fallenness are corrupt beyond deserving any peace of any kind, He in His great mercy chose to send His Son for our salvation. And when He did this, He did it so that anyone who enters in by faith in Christ can have it. It isn’t a feeling; it is a reality beyond any experience we expect to find through our performance or our surroundings.

            Do you long for peace? If you believe in Christ, you have it. He has already given it to you. If you want to experience it, walk in His guiding shadow, and make the simple choice to believe it. Simple, yes. Easy, no. But faith believes in a reality we cannot always see, only to find that when we believe, what was shrouded in darkness becomes crystal clear.

~What in your life leaves you feeling hopeless or conflicted? What would it look like to believe you have God’s peace in that area? 

promises to faithful saints

Who are you? We usually respond to this kind of question in its various forms with our name, our work, or even our church affiliation. But in his amazing letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul tells us exactly who we are.

Saints- Paul begins the letter “to the saints in Ephesus.” Every believer is a saint; it has nothing to do with how you behave. It is your identity in Christ.

Chosen before the foundation of the world-God has sovereignly chosen you to be His child.

Holy and blameless-In Christ, sin is forgiven and holy is what we are, not what we do.

Adopted Children- We are God’s children, not His slaves or His mistakes.

Redeemed- We have been bought by the blood of Christ, rescued from sin and Satan.

Forgiven- Completely. By God, through Christ. He is our salvation.

Lavished by grace- Lavished means, “cover something thickly or liberally with.” We are buried in grace, which by definition means we don’t deserve it. We have done nothing to earn it. And we can do nothing to lose it, or to keep it. It is His to give, and He has given generously, liberally, lavishly.

Knowers of mystery-We have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2). It’s part of the deal when we submit to Him. And in Him all the mysteries dwell. Know Him and you will be amazed at all that you come to understand.

Heirs- We are promised to receive all this in Christ. And how could He who did not spare His own Son hold back anything else?

To the praise of His glory- All that we receive is intended glorify Him. The benefits we personally receive are just another example of His lavish grace.

Sealed by faith with the Holy Spirit- Sealed means that our identity is legitimate; the stamp of the Spirit declares our authenticity in Christ.

Guaranteed this inheritance- We all love guarantees, but they are only as good as the value of the guarantor. One who will never go bankrupt or go back on His word guarantees us.

            All this is who we really are. Never sell yourself short.   

gifts of the king

Last Sunday was an amazing day for King’s Cross. To see the bishop confirm so many of us (11!) was powerful. And to have him pray for each of us the power of the Spirit for ministry was inspiring. His prayers were prophetic, and unique to each of us. It’s an exciting time to be a part of this church! So, what now? How do we move forward from here? The answer to that is just as unique to each of us as Bishop Keith’s prayers were. But it is all bound up in the life of this body. We are one Body, but many parts. And we’re designed by God to work together for the building of His kingdom. Every one of us has gifts that He has given us for the purpose of making His Kingdom manifest in the world. Do you know what He wants you to do? Do you know how He’s gifted you? And if not, are you willing to find out? You do have at least one, if not more. It is surprising how many believers think that they don’t have a spiritual gift! Often we think we don’t because it feels too scary to use it, though. Outside of Christ, not only can our gifts go undiscovered. They can even become weaknesses in themselves if we use them without the guidance of the Spirit. A merciful person becomes an enabler; a prophet becomes a critic. An encourager becomes a badger, and a shepherd becomes a controller. There is nothing a believer has that can thrive outside of surrendering it to Christ. He may be able to work, but He won’t work mighty miracles. Give it to Him by faith and see what He does! This is discipleship, to serve in the gifts and calling God has for you, and if you want to grow in Christlikeness, it’s a major key to finding His way for you. If you aren’t sure what your gift is, or how to use it, or where it would work in the kingdom of God, please, talk to one of our leaders. The Kingdom of God needs you more than you think.

a generous spirit

“...in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.”(2 Cor 8:2). What does poverty have to do with generosity? Paul teaches us a profound truth with this seeming contradiction. It is only in poverty that generosity can truly be experienced! We may feel generous when we give out of our abundance. When I am taking a leisurely stroll down the street and stop to chat with a neighbor whose company I enjoy, I can walk away from that encounter feeling that I have been magnanimous with “my” time. But what if I am in the midst of a particularly intense passage in the audiobook I’m enjoying, or trying to finish my walk in time for an appointment? What if the person is one I’d rather avoid? My true heart becomes visible when my poverty of time meets my opportunity for kindness. I use this example for the simple reason that as Americans, our lack seems to be more about time than money. I may give monthly for an orphan in Uganda, but my heart towards him shows when the organization requests me to write a letter to him. Who has time for that?? If our poverty is time, Spirit-powered generosity is required to spend it. If our poverty is wisdom, only the power of the Spirit can impart. Wherever we feel the pinch of need, therein lies the point of God’s purpose and power. That is where He calls us to rely on His power and provision, not only willingly but enthusiastically, powered not by our own abundance, but His great mercy. We love because He first loved us. And because He loved, He gave His Son. ~Where do you sense a need but feel powerless because of your poverty? Will you trust God to provide through you?

true love

I love to talk about God. Whenever someone engages me on the topic of theology, I get excited beyond control, sometimes literally. This happened recently when I talked almost nonstop for an hour in a meeting, hardly giving anyone else room to comment. I am convicted this week that this is not the way of Christ. Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians of our true calling. We are to be ambassadors for Christ (5:20), appealing to the world to be reconciled to God, in Christ. Additionally, he reminds us that it is God’s work, not ours. “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” He made. So that we might. No opinions. No arguments. No deep theological discussion, only a heartfelt plea to be reconciled not to us, but to God. God doesn’t need us, but we desperately need Him. We desperately need Him so we know when to speak and when to listen. When to love by standing firm on what is right, and when to love by reaching out with an appeal. We come to know His leading as we follow in obedience and see what He accomplishes, with little to no help from us. Each of us has unique gifts, areas of influence, and relationships. As followers of Christ, it is our calling to represent Him to the best of our Holy Spirit-empowered ability in everyday life. In this way, we experience the reality of His power not only in us, but through us. As Kingdom ambassadors, we have the best job in this realm, and the next. We represent a Kingdom that will never fail, never be defeated, and never end. Why wouldn’t we want to invite everyone to meet the King?

planting God's Garden

Have you ever noticed that our definition of some words might differ from God’s definition? The simple word ‘good’, for example. I have gone through many things in my life that I would not file under the category of Good. Quite the opposite, in fact. But it amazes me when I think of all the good that has come out of some of the most horrible of those events and circumstances. Good things like character growth, strengthened relationships, and opportunities to share of God’s love and mercy that I never would have had.

            This reminds us that only God knows. Only He knows His plans, His purposes and His ultimate goal in each life, in each circumstance, whether the most personal, quiet moment or the most earth shaking event. He knows His child better than we know ourselves, and He knows our limitations. This leads many to say “God won’t give me anything I can’t handle.” I would vigorously disagree with that; He will give us things we can’t handle, so that we will turn to Him in our weakness.

            He did this repeatedly with the Israelites, and He did the same with the early church and the apostle Paul. Though His purposes were very different, there was one goal that runs like a theme through the readings this week; to remind us of our weakness, our smallness, our need of Him. Whether from sin or persecution, pride or the desire to serve Him in the most difficult circumstances, His goal is that He is glorified and we are sanctified. This is the kingdom of God. As it’s citizens, we must always remember we only plant the seeds through every season, and watch Him produce the growth.   

Mercy Wins

There are so many things in this life that weigh us down. Burdens that seem at times impossible to carry, events that are completely out of our control, and decisions we must make in which we have no idea the right thing to do. All of us have ways of coping with these things, from various kinds of escapism like hobbies or even addictions, to taking matters in our own hands and plowing through any resistance to our solutions. One of the most powerful testimonies we can have as believers, though, is how we deal with those reminders of how limited we are. We do not know the future; we do not know what is in the heart and mind of others around us; we do not know even what we do not know.

            In this way, we are like Adam in the garden. The first couple made the decision that they wanted to live without limitations that God had placed on them. They looked at what was denied to them and decided they must have it. They listened to the one who told them God was holding out on them. And they acted. The consequences were devastating, and still shake this world. But God...He did not give them what their sins deserved, and by extension spared us as well. And ultimately, He sent His Son to bear our burden and set us free from those consequences.

            Sin, however, still tries to tempt us from accepting our limitations and trusting God. We figure out ways to shoulder the load, making up our own path and paying the consequences for it. Until we once again find ourselves on our faces, asking for His mercy.

            I believe these are moments precious to God. His child sees what he cannot do, and the mess she has made, and opens bleeding hands to Him, saying ‘help me please.’ Mercy wins again.

~What do you need God’s mercy to cover? Will you ask for Him to save you from yourself?

Protector God

God’s commands are often thought of and talked about as limitations, or prohibitions. But if we think of sin at it’s root as our refusal to accept and live within our limitations, it quickly clarifies the necessity for these boundaries. And their purpose is to protect us, not to limit us. We often think the world is corrupt beyond measure, but have we ever considered just how bad it could be if not for the protection of our Creator? Even those who claim no belief in any god or our God almost without fail follow a code along the lines of the commandments. They may not realize the influence but it is unmistakable. And one of the profound influences of the commandments is the Sabbath rest. While it is true that Sunday is less sacred than it once was, the need for most people to take some kind of rest on that day is so engrained in society that it’s influence still affects government, business and leisure activities in every segment of our culture. And the reason God commands a Sabbath rest is in the command itself. “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” Do you see the connection? A slave doesn’t choose when he or she can rest. Only the owner can permit rest. Coming out of slavery is freedom! And the One Who brought them out of it is not demanding work, but rest. This is rest that reminds them of their freedom, and honors the One that set them free. The One Who, when they were helpless and enslaved, split the sea, stopped their pursuers, and walked them to freedom and safety. Not to bring them into His own kind of slavery, but to set them free. We are free to love God and love our neighbor. We are free to forsake idols and worship the only One Who deserves worship. We are free to rest, knowing that God will take care of all that concerns us. We are free from fear, because the One Who loves us knows all, controls all, and provides for all. Rest in Him. ~What do you find most difficult to rest from? Worry? Work? Relationships? Whatever it is, declare a Sabbath in Jesus’ name, and trust Him to provide.

All For One

What is unity? I’m afraid that what most of us think of as unity is really uniformity. We must think alike, act alike, and worship alike in order to be unified. But the unity of the Godhead is much more profound. These three, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are never, ever at odds with one another. They have oneness of focus, namely the ultimate restoration of the whole world. They are completely agreed in each member’s contribution to that focus.


            This does not mean they are all doing the same thing. On the contrary, they act in very different ways at different times. The Father is the first to reveal Himself, but this does not mean He existed before the Son and the Spirit. Christ came to humanity thousands of years later, but He was with the Father from the very beginning. And the Holy Spirit waited until Christ had ascended before coming to permanently indwell believers, even though we know He was also part of the acts of God from the foundation of the world. All three Persons have the same overall goal. They are all working together to accomplish the redemption of the fallen world. They act in very different ways and at different times. But they act in perfect harmony in order to bring about the plan God had from the beginning.

            

The local church is the Body of Christ quite literally, which means we are part of the Trinity. So, like the Trinity, our work is the restoration of all things in Christ. This is where true joy is found for every believer, as we take part in that work by His power.

            

So, what about you? How are you building up the Body of Christ? Do you consider that someone else’s job? I pray that you will use your gifts to make God visible in the world, and to glorify Him. I pray that you will celebrate the beautiful diversity of the Body of Christ, rather than insist that others must be like you. I pray that you will begin to notice the needs that different churches meet, and that you will encourage them in their work. I pray that all of us will serve to our last breath on this earth, that we will each enter into eternity hearing the words “well done, good and faithful servant.” When we remember and practice the unity Christ died to give us, we can know we will.  

The gifts of God

Do you believe that God has gifted you? Hopefully, your answer to that question is a resounding ‘yes’! Sadly though, far too many believers fail to recognize the gift or gifts God has given them. But our reading this week leaves no room for doubt. 1 Cor 12 states “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.” The Holy Spirit Who indwells every believer also gifts every believer. And the gifts have a common purpose-to build up the church, both inside the Body and outside. For example, some are gifted to lead people to Christ, the gift of evangelism. But once that new believer is brought into the church, the gifts of teaching and healing and other such means of establishing the new believer in his or her faith come into play. Whatever those gifts happen to be, the common denominator is stated clearly in Jesus’ words. In John 4 He says “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” The glory of God is always the goal, whether through teaching, evangelizing, physical or spiritual healing, or whatever He has gifted you to do. Do you know your gifting? If not, ask someone else. It’s usually pretty obvious to others. And when you find out what it is, use it! God will be glorified and the church will be edified. This is a promise from the Savior.

True Truth

Acts 1:15-26; Ps 68:1-20; 1 Jn 5:6-15; Jn 17:11b-19 A popular philosophy today is that there is no objective truth. What is true for you may not be true for me, and we each have to come to our own truth. Though this sounds reasonable at first glance, we must question it. We can immediately see at least one major problem. If there is no truth, then how can even this statement itself be declared true? On what grounds can it be true? There must be something that we can rely on, that we can know to be true. And once we know truth, we must choose to live that truth. The life we live, in fact, gives a clear testimony to what we know to be true, regardless of what we say with our words. As Christians, we have the truth. God’s word, tried and tested and taught and lived over thousands of years, is the clearest and most objective truth for all people, everywhere, in every time. This is a wonderful and comforting promise, that when we are sanctified, or set apart, in the truth of His word, we can know that we are protected and empowered by Him even in the midst of controversy and persecution. Though it does not guarantee an easy life, it does guarantee a fruitful, abundant life here on earth as well as an eternity with Him when this temporary life gives way true life. What truth do you struggle to believe? Is it that you have God’s peace, even when your circumstances are not peaceful? Or perhaps that God knows your needs better than you do? Pay attention to your life, and you will quickly learn what you really believe by the way you respond to trials and circumstances. And when you spot areas of unbelief, take the small step of faith to pray that God will help you trust Him more. He will meet you there.

Amazing God

Isa 45:20-25; Ps 33 or 33:1-8; 1 Jn 4:7-21; Jn 15:9-17 


What is your definition of good? Is God good because things turn out the way we want, or because His goodness is self-sustaining? We often forget that only God knows what is truly good, as defined by what most fits His plan and what brings Him glory. We don’t have the capacity to know or understand Him apart from the incredible gift of His Son. When we follow Christ, everything changes. Love becomes what is best for the other person, not what is best for myself. Sacrifice becomes second nature, because our thoughts are about the other, not ourselves. Imagination is enabled to think beyond the obvious and see things we never would have dreamed. And good becomes whatever God says it is. Because only He truly knows what good is. And He chose you to know Him, and to serve Him. Serving Him means seeing life from a different perspective, one that recognizes what seems terrible may actually be what is good, and right, and that what seems good may lead to things that are anything but. Only by walking closely with Him and paying attention to His work, can we discern the difference. His ways are truly not our ways! What are you struggling to understand in your life right now? An illness, a broken relationship, financial hardships or just the weariness of daily drudgery? Whatever it is, God is present in the midst of it, and His vision is far better than yours. Can you trust Him to bring something amazing out of it? Pay attention, and you may just be astonished. ~Where in your life do you need to see God’s perspective? Pray and ask Him to show you His face in the midst of it.

the shepherd's Voice

Ezekiel 34:1-10; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:1-10; John 10:11-16

            Do you know the Good Shepherd? If you belong to Him, He promises that you will. He promises also to give you rest when you need it, and to be always close to you. He will protect you from fear in the direst situations, and He will make sure you never go without. He gives you peace, and abundance, and security. He gives you all that, and eternity in His house along with it. He calls you His child, and the greatness of His love is hard to imagine. Nothing and no one can take what He has given you, and because of that you are secure from your most evil enemies.

            Are you grieved, though, by the sin still clinging to you? Do you despair that you will ever walk in righteousness? As a child of God, you need not worry. He will do the work to grow you evermore like Him in your time on earth, and what He sets out to do, He does.            

            On the other hand, if there is no sin in your life that grieves you, this is the time to despair, or more important to bend your knee and submit to the Chief Shepherd. A lack of conviction is a sure sign of an unconverted or hardened heart. None of us will ever walk sin-free. And if we think that we do, we are walking in pride. But renewal is always, always available for the heart that turns to Him in repentance.

            All of us are somewhere in this picture. Where do you find yourself? Whether grieved by your rebellion or uncertain where you stand, bowing the knee is the answer. The Good Shepherd will meet you there.

the perfect mentor

Acts 4:5-14; Psalm 98; 1 John 1; 2:1-2; Luke 24:36-49

            Who is your role model? Most of us have someone to whom we look for advice and teaching, someone we would like to shape our lives after. It isn’t always someone we know personally; sports figures and movie stars are high on the list for many Americans. The ones we choose to emulate tell us a lot about our ambitions, our deepest desires, and ourselves.

            As Christians though, there is only one role model for us. In the gospels we learn about and come to know our ultimate Role Model. In every situation and every circumstance we learn how to thrive by studying and absorbing the life of Christ. Between His teaching and His interactions with people of all kinds, we can know all we need to know about Him.

            But He goes even further with us. I remember once knowing an evangelist who asked everyone he met, “do you know Jesus?” The most honest answer I ever heard him receive was “I know of Him.” What did the speaker mean by that? She was talking about the difference between hearing and experiencing.

            This difference for believers is crucial. When we, by faith, repent and turn to Christ as Savior, we receive the indwelling Holy Spirit, Whom Jesus promises will teach us everything we need, and be with us always. What this looks like in everyday life is the little ‘nudge’ we get when either He is leading us to do something we ought, or avoid something we ought not do. It is through His guidance and constant presence that we come to know Christ experientially as we know Him in Scripture. Do you want to know Christ? Listen to His Spirit living in you, and follow where He leads. You will be amazed at the power of His presence and work through you. More than that, you will know Him rather than just knowing of Him. What a difference that makes!

~In what arenas of your life do you ignore the counsel of the Holy Spirit? What would it look like to give that over to Him?

Palm Sunday 2018

It’s no great secret that the number one objection people raise against the idea of a loving God is suffering in the world. Famine, disease, war, and natural disasters (aka acts of God), are just a few of the things we face in life. We ask the question, “if God is so good, why do we have to go through these things?” Here are some things to think about as we head into the week leading up to Good Friday, the day that Jesus suffered for us. If we don’t sit in the truth of why Jesus suffered, we won’t grasp the true magnitude of His resurrection and the hope that it gives us.

         Why did Jesus have to suffer? Because of me. And because of you. Because the truth is, we are the cause of the suffering in the world. This seems to be the one thing no one likes to talk about. Suffering comes, either indirectly or directly, from the sin in this world. Even the most innocent who suffer, do so because the world is broken because of sin. It doesn’t mean that person did something to deserve their suffering. It means that the world is suffering, and they got caught in that.

         But was the physical pain of His torture and crucifixion His true suffering? Was this the thing that had Him begging God the Father to remove in the Garden of Gethsemane? I don’t think so. As bad as it was, it paled in comparison to the suffering He faced when the Father forsook him. The intimate fellowship of the Trinity is so unbreakable that we can’t even imagine the pain it caused Him to think about such a separation. We experience the faintest shadow of this when our own sin comes between God and us, and the only remedy for that is repentance, and reconciliation. Yet even in our most sinless moments, their perfect unity is beyond our wildest imagination.

         In the midst of all He endured, His trust in God never wavered. Not when they tried Him in a kangaroo court. Not when they laughed and scorned Him, took His clothes and beat Him half to death. Not when they hung Him on the cross. And not when He experienced the pain of separation, a pain that we can’t even imagine because we have never experienced just how sweet perfect fellowship with the Father can be. But Jesus suffered as one step in the plan to put an end to sin and brokenness forever. He was rejected so we would be accepted. He was condemned so that we could be forgiven. Yes, Sunday was coming! But it wasn’t here yet. First He had to drink the cup of suffering prepared for Him before the foundation of the world.

         What about you? Are you suffering today? If so, are you waiting for God to land the next blow? Or are you more like Jesus, who trusted His Father completely, even as He walked the road of suffering? Either way, we have life yet to live, and trusting Him with it is part of being a disciple.

         If you are suffering today, can you dedicate and entrust it to the Father? Pray for Him to help you trust Him, and to use it to make you more like Christ.   

the price of repentance

Why is the act of repentance so much like dying? Why does giving up my own will hurt so much? Because it is a death. And dying hurts, until it is accomplished and resurrection life emerges from the remains.


            Like Jesus, we must learn obedience in the midst of trials and suffering. Unlike Jesus, we will repeatedly fail in our endeavor. He learned obedience by being obedient in temptations and trials, the sinless Son of God emerging still sinless from the tests. We, on the other hand, learn obedience most often by suffering the consequences of our disobedience as His saved-but-sinful children.

            Our disobedience cost Christ His life. The smallest transgression to the most heinous act of evil comes out of the rebellious fallen nature of sinful people. Our refusal to live within our limitations and accept the protective boundaries of our loving Father leads to pain and sorrow every single time. And the only way back is to admit our guilt and fall on the mercy of the One Who died for us.

            The beauty in this death, though, is the incredible, disproportionate life that springs forth when it is finished. A life of freedom, of joy and of a special kind of mercy for those who are one step behind us on the path. A life of faith, which recognizes a little bit more every day that obedience is the only way, even when it costs. After all, it will never cost as much as disobedience does. Our disobedience cost Christ His life, given on our behalf. We will never pay that price. In light of such a gift, what is a little death?

 

Ephesians 2:4-10

  Do you know the answer to that question? Does your existence in this vast universe make any difference at all? The answer, whether you believe it or not, is a resounding ‘yes.’ God has saved you! And if He has saved you, which He has, and if you hear Him, which you do, or you wouldn’t be listening right now, He has a plan and purpose for you.

            But what is that plan? I can’t tell you exactly, but I can tell you a few things that will guide you as you figure it out.

            First, it will glorify God and show off His grace, to you and through you. His whole purpose is to show His kindness and mercy, and He has chosen you through whom to do it.

            Next, it likely won’t be where and what you expect. It will connect your life experiences, your talents and your opportunities, and those often come to us in ways we do not choose or necessarily even want. But when we begin to walk in it, we will know it. Others will know it, too. There will be a power not of this world, and a sense of freedom that only God can give.

            Finally, you only need to start walking to live it out. He created the good works He has for you before the beginning of the world. He doesn’t need you. But He wants you to experience the joy of walking with Him and seeing Him accomplish what you could not do apart from Him.

            You are His workmanship, created in Christ for good works. Rejoice, go forth, and walk!

The Voice of True Freedom

"O God, you know that we are set in the midst of so many and grave dangers that in the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright: Grant us your strength and protection to support us in all dangers and carry us through every temptation; through Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen."

Collect for Week Four in Epiphany


Deut 18:15-22; Ps 111; 1 Cor 8:1-13; Mk 1:21-28

            

           The role of the prophet in the Bible is not so much about telling the future as it is about telling the truth (Deut 18). Prophets are God’s gift of grace, given to us for the purpose of encouraging and challenging us to follow the often-difficult path of discipleship. Though these people were the source of much pain to the Israelites, they acted out of love for God, love for His people, and a desire to protect and deliver them from their own foolishness.   

            But the people most often reacted with anger and rebellion. They repeatedly shook their fist at God by going their own way, only coming back to Him in humiliation after they had suffered for their folly. And when the ultimate Prophet came, the rebels robed in religion rejected Him.

            However, their rejection didn’t nullify His Truth. Thankfully, those of us who believe the Truth are free to walk in it.

            And part of that freedom includes setting others free (1 Cor 8). Free of our preferences and convictions, and free to walk their own path of freedom in Christ. We are free to love in truth, and free to set aside our right to our freedom for the better interests of another. As we all submit to God in those places of personal conviction, we grow as a community in love and truth.

            When we live out this kind of community by personally submitting to God and to one another, we grow in authority (Mark 1) to speak truth in the wider world. As those who have received the full Truth and revelation of God found in Jesus Christ, our prophetic voice in public will be as strong as our love and submission in community makes us. So by all means, let’s enjoy our freedom. But let’s also never forget our responsibility to one another. Through this kind of community, the Voice of freedom rings.


~What area in your life do you need to let go of for the benefit of another believer?

Living into the kingdom

Jer 3:19-4:4; Ps 130; 1 Cor 7:17-24; Mk 1:14-20


            When we repent and believe the gospel we become temples of the Holy Spirit, so wherever we are, there is the kingdom of God. That means we don’t do anything without taking the Holy Spirit with us. “They will know we are Christians by our Love.” Not by our ability to apply a Bible verse to any situation, or our condemnation of their behavior. Jesus saved His harshest warnings of judgment for the religious leaders, and expressed His greatest compassion for the sinners and the lowest of society, those who knew they weren’t worthy of salvation. When we look around today we see unbelievers living like unbelievers. We shouldn’t expect anything different from them. But we who have the Spirit of Christ in us should be different.

            In our day-to-day lives, it’s so easy to fall into patterns of behavior. How do we treat the person that is rude to us in line at the supermarket? Do we treat the people that serve us in restaurants as human beings or as robots designed to meet our needs? Do we walk into the places we go always on the lookout for hurting people who need to see God’s love? This is a very different picture than standing on the street corner with a sign that says Repent or Burn! It is tempting with the anger and hostility we see in the world to just withdraw. This is a common reaction of Christians. But the gospel would call us to press in even more, and learn to respond rather than react. Let me explain what I mean by that.

Reactions are often based on fear and insecurities, and are not the most rational or appropriate way to act. It’s the automatic lashing out at someone who offends us. The gesture at the car who cuts us off, the sarcastic remark to the rude person, no tip for the server who forgets to check on us or messes up our order. This is easy; it’s what everyone does.

Responses take the situation in, and decide the best course of action based on our values of grace and love, the greatest values of the gospel. This would pray for the person who cuts us off, kindness in return to the rude person, a generous tip and maybe an offer to pray for the server who is obviously having a bad day. Nobody does that; that’s the gospel.

            One of the top criticisms we hear about churchgoers today is hypocrisy. What if we stopped reacting by making excuses and started responding by living the gospel? Living in a continual attitude of humility and grace proclaims the gospel more loudly than words. 

Revealed in Christ

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


            As part of my first time celebrating the Feast of Epiphany, I decided to do a small study of the word “epiphany.” The common dictionary meaning is ‘a sudden realization; any moment of great or sudden revelation.’ But the most interesting note I gathered was the meaning of its root in Greek; “to reveal.”

            It’s so easy to take for granted the epiphany of God, His manifestation to us, for us. We forget that He owed us nothing. It is hard to fathom the possibility of life without His choice to come, to lower Himself and dwell among us. In this context, it helps us to see many of the purposes of His baptism. He did it to fulfill all righteousness (Matt 3:13-15). He did it in preparation for ministry. And He did it to give us an example to follow.        

            Likewise, it is easy to take our own baptism for granted. Whether we were infant-baptized, or baptized as adults, it can seem a strange-but-necessary ritual that we just have to endure as part of our initiation into the church. But Jesus’ example and teachings show us that it is so much more.

            As a symbol, it marks our old life as dead and our resurrection as a new creation

(2 Cor 5:17). As an act of obedience, it humbles us (whether we are parents having our child baptized, or being baptized ourselves) and makes a public proclamation of our faith. As a supernatural empowerment, it marks us as full of the Holy Spirit and prepared to do every good work God has called us to. And it identifies us to the rest of the world as set apart, consecrated for the work of God on earth.

            But all this starts back at that moment of epiphany, when Christ was “coming up out of the water, (and) he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” This was a word of encouragement for Him, and a word of revelation for us. It is our privilege and responsibility to reveal Him to the world as He has revealed Himself to us.


~”You were created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”(Eph 2:10) What were you baptized into Christ to do? How can we in the body here at King’s Cross encourage you in doing it?   

the light of Christ


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

            I once experienced darkness so profound it was terrifying. In the depths of a cave, far below the surface the light was extinguished for just a moment. The effect was instantaneous and intense—disorientation, panic and paralysis all at once. Such darkness needs no bogeyman. It holds a terror all its own.

            The amazing thing about even such deep darkness is that the tiniest pinpoint of light will dispel it, and the deeper the darkness, the more powerful the contrast to the light.

            We live every day in such darkness. The spiritual forces of darkness are constantly at work in the world, seeking to gain territory and smother light. But they are working in vain; they will never overcome the light of Christ. And His light will only grow brighter until the day when there will be no need for an alternate supply of light. The only light will radiate from Him, and it will be undimmed, without a hint of darkness (Rev. 21:23). It will be so bright, in fact, that in our current human form we couldn’t bear it.

            In the meantime, we have a job to do. As those given the right to become children of God through belief in His Son, the Light, we bear the light that will not be overcome by darkness. While the song “This Little Light of Mine” is cute, it makes a serious error in its rhyme. The light is not mine, or yours. It is His, and we have the staggering privilege and responsibility of carrying it in the world. When we cooperate with Him in His work, it shines ever brighter. And the darker our surroundings get, the brighter our guidance will be.

            Don’t be afraid of the dark. Embrace it with the light and love of Christ, and know that He will overcome.

~Think of the darkest place you inhabit regularly. How can you more fully embrace it with the light of Christ?

a specific time and space

Isa.9:1-7; Ps 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14

            How can one describe the human beginning of an infinite God? The incarnation had a very definite starting point in space and time, so familiar to us that we almost glaze over the words, “baby..., “born in a manger...” Such an ordinary event in the experience of human life; we all were babies once, many of us have had babies, and the idea of the God we worship being a baby seems almost anti-climactic. How can we even begin to understand it?

            Truly ponder it. In the words of the genie in the Disney classic Aladdin, “Great Cosmic Power! Itty bitty living space!” This can take our breath away. In Christ, God focused in on a specific time and place, said “here, now” and stepped down into our lowly realm.

            Theologians argue endlessly over all the meanings and specific details of exactly how and why this happened. Perhaps the best answer to all these theories is “both, and.” Though the limitless God chose to limit Himself in His Son, His true nature and purpose and plans never changed or failed. He came as example, and sacrifice. As perfect man, and weak human. As payment and Payee. As judge and condemned.

            All this, and so much more. All for us. All for you. All for me. All for humanity, and the time and space we inhabit. Does that mean we’re special? Oh, no. It means He is.

            Like Christ, we inhabit a specific time and space.

How can we better communicate Jesus in us, through us, in the day-to-day life He’s given us? 

Advent 3

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

            When we truly repent, or ‘change our mind,’ we stop thinking about what we want, and start thinking what God wants. We might want to call that humility, but I like the word self-forgetfulness. It means, learning to fill your mind with the thoughts of God and the needs of other people, so that thinking about yourself starves to death. This is critical to becoming a holy person. It’s also what makes for a holy community. Following are some examples from our Thessalonians passage.

Encourage the disheartened - When we set aside our own agenda for just a few minutes and listen to one another, we will know when we need encouragement, and it’s our obligation to lift one another up. Pray right at that moment instead of saying “I’ll pray for you.”

            Help the weak - This is one of our foundational values in Christ, and sets us apart from the rest of the world. Here, we help those who are weak, we don’t judge them. Paul elaborated on that in 1 Cor 12, the passage where he describes the church as a physical body. He says,”... those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor.”

            Be patient with one another. The patience God extends to us, we extend to each other. We are all “difficult people” to somebody.

            Help one another deal with conflict in a godly way. That means doing what is best for each other as the Holy Spirit guides us, even when we risk angering our brother or sister in the process. Real love, Christ’s love, speaks truth even when it’s hard. When we forget ourselves we don’t try to protect ourselves, and we’re free to take risks in our love for each other. This is the kind of love that God has for us.

            Rejoice, pray, and give thanks. How often? Always! Paul’s just given us a tall order. To fill it, we must call on the power of God’s Spirit at work in us, both individually and collectively. Don’t get bogged down in wondering how you’re supposed to do these things always. It’s a mindset, not just an activity. It means, keep in touch with God’s Spirit in you. Look for silver linings in circumstances by thanking Him for whatever you can think of. When you think of someone, pray for them. Pay attention to the good things He has given you, including this community. Focus on God’s will no matter what’s going on around you. Don’t look at things through a filter of whether they’re God’s will or not. Instead, ask Him how He wants you to live with joy in the midst of it?

~In what circumstance or relationship do you need to practice self-forgetfulness?

Advent 2

Isaiah 40:1-11; Ps 85; 2 Peter 3:8-18; Mark 1:1-8

 

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”(John 1:1)

 

            John the Baptist knew the word of God. As the son of a priest, he grew up learning the Scriptures, which included the law, the prophets, the Psalms, and the historical books. He would have been raised to meditate on them, digest the words, and come to know the God to whom they testified. Through his study and growth, he came to fulfill the unique calling that God had placed on his life.

            We hear it in his cries (Mark 1), cries that echoed the prophet Isaiah’s announcement and call to repentance. It also shows in his refusal to point to himself as the one the people should place their hope in. He understands that though his role in the unfolding story of God’s redemption is critical, it is not the most important element. The only value his ministry holds lies in the One to Whom he points, the One to come, whose sandals he is not fit to tie.

            John’s story is truly unique. But each believer has a calling, a role to play in God’s redemption story that only we can fill. We discover this calling as we discover the One who calls us. As we come to know Father, Son and Spirit through the words of Scripture, we come to know what we were created to do. It will be unique for each of us, as individual as a fingerprint. But it will share one critical common denominator. It will point others not to us, but to Jesus, the Christ.

            There is one pre-condition, though. When we approach the Scriptures, we must be prepared to allow the word to “change our minds,” or lead us to repentance. We must take the words not just to mind, but to heart. We must commit that what He says, we will do. This is true repentance, true transformation. This kind of change only happens through the power of the Holy Spirit, given us when we admit our helplessness and turn to God through Christ for salvation. As you approach his word, ask Him for ears to hear. And be prepared for anything.

~What keeps you from regularly reading God’s word? What can you do to overcome that obstacle?

Advent 1

The readings this week carry a common theme. Though written from vastly different times and perspectives, all are making the same request: “Show Yourself to us, Lord!”

            In our gospel reading, Jesus responds to the request. We want to know how long we have to wait. But He essentially says, stop asking when. That knowledge is not for you. Instead, ask how can I serve the Master while I wait? Watch. Expect that it could come any moment. And keep doing what you know to do in the meantime.

            The first and absolutely essential thing we know to do is implicit in all of Scripture. Repent. Turn to Him. Turn away from sin. When we read the cries of Israel, this is often a missing ingredient. In Psalm 80, their cries seemed to blame God for their situation; there was no sign of repentance, only a hint of accusation. They failed to see how they were complicit in their situation. They only wanted God to show up and fix things, make them special again in the eyes of the world.

            We can do the same thing. Our patterns of behavior, our coping mechanisms, and our underlying sin nature conspire along with our circumstances against the righteous ways God teaches us. We lie without intending to, lash out in anger when we need to forgive, and offer only judgment when others need compassion. Our salvation is not an automatic protection from such transgressions. The only difference between believers and non-believers is that we have the choice to turn to God and humbly seek His empowerment to refrain from sin, and His forgiveness when we fail. And we will fail. If we delude ourselves on this level, then pride has a foothold, and that calls for its own repentance. Only when we seek Him with no barrier of pride, self-will or sin between us is there a hope of seeing Him.

            As we enter the season of Advent this year, turn to Him. Pray for Him to open your eyes to your own need of Him. When He answers your prayer—and He will—repent. And you will see Him.

the great divide

Ezekiel 34:11-20; Ps 95; 1 Cor 15:20-28; Matt 25:31-46

            The moment Adam fell, he caused a great division that has remained until today. Men divided from God and from one another are just some of the consequences. In the end, God’s redemptive work will set it all right again, but not before one more great divide takes place—that of the wicked from the righteous.

            Pretenders have lived in every age since the garden. Ezekiel calls out the false shepherds of Israel, who have used their power to take from the weak and sick to make themselves sleek and fat. Psalm 95 reflects on the Israelites who refused to believe God in the wilderness and suffered the consequences. In the end, Jesus will stand in judgment, and all pretense will be gone. Those who know Him will be fully known, and those who do not will no longer be able to pretend.

            But what are the criteria? They are remarkably simple, and alarmingly easy to overlook. How did you care for the “least of these”? Not a word about church attendance or baptism. While these things are important markers of the spiritual life, unbelievers do them all the time. Instead, Jesus points to a much more basic idea; serving the needy of every kind. Care like this is what James calls in his epistle “true religion.”

            This isn’t the only test. There is more to it than that, as we know. But there is certainly not less. In serving needy people of every kind, we serve Jesus as surely as if He were standing there in place of the person whose needs we meet. And in doing so, we help to build a bridge across the divide.

            This is what we’re here for. Our purpose lives in the streets and neighborhoods of Tucson. The needs might be physical, relational, mental, or spiritual, but they are real. And the way we respond to those needs, not just in our actions but in our hearts and minds, can help us to know Him better, and therefore know ourselves. Don’t be afraid of the answer. Just give someone a hand across the divide.

~Who do you see as “the least of these” in Tucson? How can you help bring them to Jesus?

The Comfort Zone

There’s a law of exercise called the law of diminishing returns. This means that if you do the same form of exercise consistently, long enough, your body adapts to it, and it gets easier. Your body naturally finds the path of least resistance, and before long you actually begin to lose condition.

            I think our spiritual life can be like that too. We are living in the ‘end times,’ but the time seems endless. In the Thessalonian letters, Paul was dealing with people who had stopped working because they expected the Lord’s return any second. And Paul himself made it clear that he expected it at any time as well. So, here we are 2,000 years later, still waiting...and because we’ve waited so long, it’s easy to just think less and less about it, until life is just the everyday existence of the people that Paul says live in darkness. They don’t expect God at all, so they do what they want, live how they want. When the day finally comes, they’ll be completely undone. And it’s easy to let the path of least resistance gradually ease us into living life the same way. Being a faithful Christian is hard! It requires a lot of time spent in our discomfort zone.

            We only discover and reflect God’s power when we’re uncomfortable in some way. Stretched just beyond, or way beyond, our own resources. Given a job that we know is impossible without His intervention. Or suffering in some way that forces us to depend on Him. But that’s also how we do the things that make us rejoice when we see God work in the midst of our frailty. This is how we come to know His power, and it is the only way.

            Jesus said “let your light shine before men, so they will see your good works and glorify your Father who is in Heaven.” When people see us accomplish things they know we aren’t capable of, things that bring a little bit of light to a dark world, we reflect God’s power and glory.

            However, discomfort zones take all kinds of forms. They can include some personal, private spiritual practice that you decide to try when there’s nothing else you can do for the Kingdom. They can mean learning to be still and know that He is God. Whatever it may look like, whatever you do in the kingdom will matter more than you think it does. And whether the Lord comes back, or we go to meet Him in death first, we each will stand before Him. For His faithful, that will be the ultimate comfort zone. No more tears, no more disease, no more sorrow, no more night.

            As children of the light, He calls us to work while it is day, and that whatever our hand finds to do, do it with all our strength. Stay uncomfortable in His name, and you will ultimately find a comfort you can’t imagine.   

Banquet or Banishment?

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

            The when and how of Christ’s return is a matter of great debate among people who like to study such things. But on one facet there is no debate. The “Day of the Lord” will be unprecedented. It will be spectacular, and terrible. The process of turning the fallen world right-side up again will be so unlike anything we have experienced, it defies our greatest imaginings. However, there are some details we can know.

            The oppressors will be oppressed. The selfish rich will mourn, and the generous poor will feast. The slave will walk free, and the slaver bound in chains of judgment. It will be a great day, but it will be a horrific day. Even those who rejoice will tremble at the fierceness of God. His justice is perfect. He makes no mistakes and He leaves no deed ignored.

            Not even churchgoers are safe. Like the foolish virgins in Jesus’ parable, we can live religiously with no real expectation of His coming. We can separate the temporal things like home, money, and social status, from what we think of as the eternal things; serving the needy, healing the sick, and acting as ambassadors for the Kingdom.

            But reality provides a different view. Everything in our lives has eternal significance. What we do Monday through Saturday—how we live, what we prioritize, and the heart attitudes we cultivate— matters to God. Are we like the foolish virgins, looking forward to a good party but not seriously preparing for it? Preparation requires investment. No one of us can make the investment on another’s behalf, and we cannot depend on the investments of another. We each will stand alone before the Judge on that Day. On that great and terrible Day, our true heart will become irrevocably, blindingly clear. Now is the time to commit ourselves fully. Then it will be too late.

~What things in your life would you not want to be doing when Jesus returns? Consider replacing those things in your life with the things that remind you of eternity.

Faithless people, Faithful God

Our readings are full of faithless people. They use His gifts for personal gain. They speak lies and attack God’s chosen ones. They try to prevent the spread of the gospel. These people do evil out of faith in themselves and their power, rather than faith in God. Because their lives and ways are faithless, He will bring them down. Their self-exaltation will be the best they receive, because they will ultimately face His judgment.

            We can see it in the history behind these passages. Just as God promised through the prophet Micah, Jerusalem was destroyed and His people went into captivity. Though Paul was thwarted constantly, the gospel continued to go forth, and we hold his words in our hands today. And Jesus, the cornerstone of our faith, went to the cross faithfully, using the very faithlessness of God’s chosen people as an instrument to bring about the salvation of the world.

            Men and women fail God at every turn. Even when we love Him and serve Him, we are prone to try to control outcomes, seek our own resources, and demand rewards. These tendencies come sometimes from subtle pride, sometimes from fear, and sometimes from our limited understanding—but sometimes out of a rebellious heart. Yes, even those who love Him.

            Thankfully, God is not like us. He is 100% faithful. If He says He will discipline us, it will happen. He promises completion of His mission, and that will come to pass. He promises justice, and His judgment is perfect.

            God’s faithfulness does not depend on our faithfulness. When we are faithful, we have the blessing of participation in His work in us and through us. But His faithfulness isn’t for our sake. He is faithful because He is faithful to Himself. It is a part of His perfect character that will not change.

            Where do you need to trust God’s faithfulness today? What can you stop doing or start doing that comes from faith?

GREATER LOVE

Jesus reminds us this week that everything about our salvation and life on earth hangs on two things. Loving God, and loving our neighbor

            Loving God is explained in the first four of the Ten Commandments. How we follow these is a sign of our love for God. Worship only Him. Keep the Sabbath to remember His provision. Don’t use His name in making false oaths. Don’t worship idols.

            The Jews had stopped practicing idolatry after the Babylonian exile, so as far as they were concerned, they were doing well. But Jesus clearly saw otherwise. The truth is that the Jews turned the command itself into an idol. The Law was their god, so they didn’t know or love God. Their cold hearts were proof of that.

            The second phrase, “Love your neighbor as yourself” is only possible when the first phrase is in order. Jesus is referring to Lev 19:18.  The other readings for this week detail what such love looks like. The care we give to the poor and oppressed among us comes from God, not from us. It is our purpose as believers, not a nice option to choose if we want it.

            God saved us because of His completely undeserved, radical love for us. The Greek word for God’s “love” is agape, which is the selfless, other-centered love that we humans are incapable of. Human love is sweet and indulgent at best and dangerous at worst. Only God loves perfectly, so only in a deep abiding relationship with Him, by listening and following the guidance of His Holy Spirit in us, can we truly love others.

            If the Pharisees had recognized God’s love expressed in His son, their hearts would have recognized their Messiah. But that’s not what happened. Instead, they just stopped asking questions. And we all know what happened after that. They killed their King.

            This is a danger for us too. When we go through the motions of religion, we lose touch with our purpose of bringing God’s kingdom into this world by loving Him and loving those who cross our path. We’ll start seeing His mission for us as an inconvenience that we can’t be bothered with in our busyness.

            So think about this when you interact with those around you. Ask God to show you how to love like He has loved you. Then do what He says. Go where He sends you. Be His body in the everyday world around you. This is love. God sent His Son. And He sends us too. So go.

~Where is God calling you to express His love in your life? Are you doing it?

feasting with God

Isa. 25:1-9; Ps 23; Phil 4:4-13; Matt 22:1-14

            The feast is a Biblical symbol of the intimate presence and perfect provision of God. His people throughout history understood this and placed a high priority on the table of fellowship and celebration. It’s given by Him as a way to remember His mighty acts of deliverance, from the Red Sea in Exodus all the way to the New Jerusalem in Revelation.

            The readings this week highlight that intimacy. Isaiah’s promise echoes in the final verses of Revelation, the story of God’s final plan to make the world new again. The Psalm comforts us with promises of His care in every circumstance, which leads us right into Paul’s exhortation (Phil) that we can be content—feast—in any and every situation.

            Our gracious God only asks that we accept His invitation and come clothed in the garment He has provided; the righteousness of Christ (Matt; see also Rom.13:14; Col. 3:12-14).

            Though our gospel reading of the parable of the Wedding Feast has many interpretations, it is unmistakable that coming to the party requires more than just responding to the invitation. Without the proper credentials, no one will escape the eye of the Host. And once the party has started, there will be no second chance.

            Do you know what it means to be clothed in the righteousness of Christ? If not, find out. Then come join the party.

~Do you know of someone who wants to follow God but doesn’t believe that Jesus is the Way? How can you encourage them with these readings to understand what they’re missing? 

Blind Rebellion

Isa 5:1-7; Ps 80(1-6) 7-19; Phil 3:14-21; Matt 21:33-44

            The depth of the Israelites’ rebellion is stunning. In our passages this week, we see a pattern of revolt against God so profound that His prophets, His discipline, and even the coming of Messiah cannot pierce. The blindness formed of self-righteousness and pride leaves them unable to see God when He is standing right in front of them.

            The results are clear. Instead of bearing the fruit of righteousness, they bore the blood of injustice (Isa). When God disciplined them, they blamed Him and demanded He save them so they could be happy and look good to other nations (Ps). Finally, though they claimed to wait in hopeful anticipation of Messiah, they rejected Him because He didn’t meet their criteria (Matt). They had become so accustomed to thinking God existed to serve them that they ultimately killed their King.

            Their arrogance is breathtaking, and it’s easy to take offense on God’s behalf when we read of it. But we must stop and ask the question “is there an area of my life in which my rebellion runs so deep that I can no longer recognize God at work?” It is possible to ask Him to help you, and then reject His help if it requires too much change from you.

            We all have the potential for that kind of rebellion. And though we may fool other people with our piety, the Vineyard Owner is no fool. We must humble ourselves and ask for His help, by His means. When it comes, we must accept it regardless of the cost to our pride, selfishness, and rebellious independence. In reality, He has already paid the price. The perfect fruit of repentance is grateful obedience.

 

~Where do you need to humble yourself and receive God’s help in His way? Commit to share this need with someone who can help you recognize and respond when it comes.



You can hear Fr. Pete's homily, "A Tireless Love" on the sermons page. 

true obedience

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25:1-14; Phil 2:1-13; Matt 21:28-32

by Jennifer Callaway

 

            One of the subtlest dangers Christians face is replacing obedience to God with religious activity and claims of piety. God has a particular disdain for it, and He confronts it repeatedly in both the Old and New Testaments. It results from a drift that leads us so far from God we no longer acknowledge our sinfulness and need for Him.

            Ezekiel challenged the Israelites about it during the years of their exile. The proverb suggested that they were suffering for the sins of their ancestors, not their own.

Ezekiel’s response crushed that assumption. His corrective? “Repent and live!”

Meaningless religion amongst a sinful, selfish people has led to their captivity. Humble obedience will lead them out.

            In the gospel reading, Jesus confronts the same issue with the Pharisees, who have fallen into the same trap. He challenges the legalists’ ideas of their own superiority and perfection, with a simple parable. The story asks the question, “Is obedience found in our words or in our actions?” The answer to the question came easily to the Pharisees. How it applied to them, they failed to see. They were blinded by their religious busyness.

            Finally, Paul tells the Philippians if they want to know what obedience looks like, look at Jesus. The downward path Jesus took guides the steps of His disciples. Do what you are called to do, dying to yourself daily and pouring your life into it until you die, for the purpose of glorifying God in Christ. Church on Sunday is designed to nourish and grow that obedience, not replace it.

            ~When you go to church, how does this prepare you to serve?

            ~What is your personal calling, and how are you serving Christ there?

            

dangerous Compassion


Jonah 3:10-4:11; Ps 145: (1-13) 14-21; Phil 1:21-27; Matt 20:1-16
by Jennifer Callaway

One of the most difficult things to understand about God’s grace is that it isn’t fair—at least, not in the ways we consider fairness. God removes all human measures, leaving all equally dependent on His compassion. Our readings this week show how we might respond to Him, and teach us how God views our attitudes.



Jonah’s anger-Jonah knew that God would extend His compassion to the most evil of people, the Assyrians in the capital city of Nineveh. His anger at God’s mercy is understandable. The Assyrians were the vilest of enemies to the Israelites. They were renowned for their brutality in war, priding themselves on such things as skinning people alive and burning their enemies’ children alive.


But Jonah went too far. He pouted, shaking his fist at God. He was so angry that he completely missed how God was caring for him while he wallowed in his misery. God was merciful to him. But Jonah missed the blessing of God’s miracle in Nineveh because of his self-righteous anger.




Who do you avoid because you think they don’t deserve to hear God’s message of compassion?

The workers’ grumbling- Jesus tells the story of vineyard workers hired to work for the day. Each group in the story took the opportunity presented to them and fulfilled their obligation. The owner only promised the first group a specific wage; the following groups only knew they would get what “seemed right”. 
All of us can understand the displeasure of the first workers when all received the same wage. But their displeasure was quickly silenced. They had received what they were promised. The others had received generosity. In the upside down world of the Kingdom, those who earn the least, stand to gain the most. This is grace.


Who do you know of, that seems to receive much more than they deserve? How do you see the Kingdom of Heaven at work in those lives?

Principles for forgiveness

Gen. 50:15-21; Psalm 103:1-14; Rom. 14:5-12; Matt. 18:21-35

by Jennifer Callaway

Christians are called to forgive in ways that the rest of the world cannot understand. These readings teach us how to practice radical forgiveness in any relationship or circumstance. Think about these things.

1) Remember God is in control- Joseph knew what his brothers had done was inexcusable. He was also wise enough to know that their ‘repentance’ was more likely from fear than a true change of heart. But his unwavering trust in God made him able to recognize that God had used their horrible crime to save their own lives as well as the life of Israel in the famine. His forgiveness is a model for us to understand that God uses every circumstance in the lives of His faithful for some kind of good.

2) Remember the mercy of God- In Psalm 103, the psalmist proclaims the forgiveness and compassion of God. Remembering, “we are dust,” keeps the reader of the Psalm face-to-face with our own need for mercy. When we remain in this posture, it’s difficult to see the fault of others.

3) Remember that God is the Judge- In his letter to the Romans, Paul makes clear to people who were squabbling over insignificant issues that God is the only Judge any one of us need be concerned about. Regardless of what we think of another person, the only one they will answer to is God. We have no right to condemn them.

4) Remember all that God has forgiven us- This parable of Jesus leaves no question about whether we should forgive. Every one of us is the servant unable to pay, whose debt the king forgave. When we refuse to forgive, we become that servant choking his fellow servant and forgetting what God has forgiven us. The conclusion to the parable is chilling. Forgiveness is not an option, it is a command.
CS Lewis says it so well “To be a Christian is to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”


This week, consider:
Do you have any “outstanding debts” that you are refusing to forgive? 
Is someone holding something against you that you refuse to make right?
If so, do something about it. It’s the only Christian thing to do.


To Hear Fr. Pete's Sunday Sermon Based Upon The Readings: Click Here