Monday, October 23, 2017

God's Work

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established. – Proverbs 16:3

God is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. – Philippians 2:13

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 119:57–64; Ezekiel 27:12–28:10; James 5:13–20

I was part of a small group conversation recently about "God's work" of developing Christian maturity. Being made in the image of God, but also shaped by forces of self-preservation and human limitations, we are all "works in progress." We know that growing toward the image of Christ is our goal and destination, but we take long, circuitous paths that may or may not be clearly leading in that direction.

One interesting point of the conversation, which comes up again in today's scriptures, is God's role in this work, vs. our human role. How much of the process is God? How much is us? What is our responsibility? Where are the limits of our abilities?

The simple answer to "Is it God's work, or ours?" is Yes. It's both! And we know that God's work comes first, and does the far greater part. God takes the initiative to reach out to us, while we still are sinners, and it is completely by God's grace that we come to know anything about God or have any power to respond in faith. God's Holy Spirit inspires and directs our sanctification, the process of becoming more the holy people we are called to be. So in that sense, it's possible to say that it's all God's work.

Yet there is also clearly a sense where God's initiative of love and grace and sanctification call for human work as well. We could say this is an echo of the voice of God in our lives. Made in God's image, we in our very selves are awakened, enlivened, and empowered to imitate the moves of God that we see in Father, Son, and Spirit. We become disciples, followers, who learn to do what our teacher does. We are more than animated objects or robots; God honors us with some ability to choose whether to abide in God's abundant life and flourish, or chase after our own false gods and suffer the consequences, or something in between. As our spirits exist within God's greater Spirit, so our work influences the current within God's greater work.

Loving God, help us to embrace your work in our life, and let it lead us to our own work for you. Guide us, give us enough wisdom and strength and love to follow where you lead. And help us to become the people you created us to be.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Turn

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? – 2 Samuel 12:9

God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this inscription: 'The Lord knows those who are his,' and, 'Let everyone who calls on the name of the Lord turn away from wickedness.' – 2 Timothy 2:19

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 119:25–32; Ezekiel 22:23–23:27; James 3:1–12

Why do we do what's evil? People have been asking that for countless years and too many situations to comprehend. Evil happens. But it doesn't just happen: it's something we do. Things that are wrong, hurtful, sinful, selfish, inadequate, misguided, tainted, contrary to what we believe to be right and actually desire to do these actions do come from our mouths and hands and influence in the world.

After today's 2 Samuel 12 verse (the words of Nathan to David, after David commits adultery and arranges for the death of Bathsheba's husband Uriah), David makes no attempt to answer the question: Why? He just says, "I have sinned against the Lord." And this seems to be the pattern in scripture stories of sin and evil and consequences and recovery. It is just a fact of the human story that we get it wrong at times, that we and others pay the price, but also that the story continues and that repentance, learning, forgiveness, reconciliation, and sometimes unexpected blessings are all possibilities.

As I write this, I'm involved in several instances, some closer and some farther from me, of evils and wrongs being done, of people trying to make a way forward. This is not unusual, in the work of a pastor, or in life in general! Life could be unbearably hard, if we had to face each such situation on our own, bearing the burden of making it all right. But as Paul says (along with many other writers of the Bible), in God we have the gift of a solid foundation, a sense of identity, and a resource for making the turn toward a better way. God is the one to whom we can turn first, recognizing and admitting what has gone wrong, resting in mercy, and seeking a new direction.

The "Michigan Left" road sign below is a reminder that it seems to be an inevitable part of navigating human life to have to make a U-turn now and then. We go along on a path where life "goes south" before making the turn. My prayer, for anyone headed the wrong way in a difficult situation, is for faith and strength in God's guidance, and for courage and persistence to make the turn. May you know that you are God's, call on God's name, and successfully navigate the turn back onto God's way.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Clothed with Salvation, Covered with Righteousness

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

My whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness. – Isaiah 61:10

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. – Luke 6:21

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 118:22–29; Ezekiel 18:19–19:14; James 1:9–18

The image of being "clothed" or "covered" in faith has been strong for me this week. Part of it comes from planning for this Sunday, when Jesus' parable in Matthew 22:1-14 presents God's kingdom as a great wedding feast, where special robes are part of the celebration. And in fact, today's Old Testament verse adds another phrase with the same kind of image: "... as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels."

Part of the "clothed / covered" image for me is also the recognition that salvation and righteousness don't come from me, but from God. There is no way I could work up, from within myself, the ability to save myself from my own self-centered attachments, or from the powerful forces in the world that want to use and abuse me and squeeze my life out of shape. Jesus' blessings and woes in Luke 6 point us to an awareness of how God is the one true source of life. As God's grace sends Jesus' salvation into our lives, we "put on" Christ and extend his ministry to the world.

On many levels - as an individual, husband, father, family member, friend, pastor, citizen, and occupant of this planet - I know that I face a lot of challenges and decisions. When I try to meet this with nothing but my own resources, as hard as I try, the results are flawed and incomplete and disappointing. So I give thanks - as Isaiah says, "my whole being shall exult" - that as a free gift of God's grace, the salvation and righteousness of Christ is given to the whole world. Covering me over, with my own ways buried and submitted, the garments of Christ's ways can qualify me for God's kingdom and present to the world a much better image of the way life should be.

The stained glass artwork in today's image is from a window in Exeter College chapel at Oxford, representing Revelation 7:9, the worship of "a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands." In John's vision of eternal life with God, there will be many of us, clothed with salvation, covered with righteousness, who endure the challenges of life by the grace of God, and give thanks to God forever. For all who are hungry, weeping, put down, wanting in any way, divided or constricted by the forces around us - and for myself, too - I pray for the encompassing grace of God, covering us, saving us, drawing us together for the great feast, empowering us in all our differences and flaws to bear witness and serve and honor God.

--

Today is my first day back here, after a break of exactly two months. I struggled for a while with preparing and entering into a different daily scripture routine, as I was helping some small groups to get started with the "Essential 100" Bible reading plan (see http://e100challenge.com if you'd like to learn more about what that is, and how it works). I thought I might resume here with a focus on the E100 readings. As the groups got going, I found that I was able to follow the E100 schedule and that it was very good for discussion and prayer with the groups - but I missed the Daily Texts, and went back to focusing on them for my own personal reflection. So this week, a few weeks later than I originally hoped, I decided to continue these "Take Up Today" posts based mostly on the Daily Texts. (I'm sure some insights from the E100 readings will also sneak in here, too.) I guess this represents a decision that I'll always recommend some kind of plan and process for regular scripture reading, but yours and mine don't have to be the same. I'll stick with the Daily Texts here, and I hope that for some people, a place for daily scripture and prayer reflections might be helpful, whether you're reading along with the Daily Texts, the E100, something else, or nothing at all yet. As always, I'm glad for your company along the way, and I think it would be great for you to journal and/or share your own reflections. And in the spirit of today's scriptures, I'm glad whenever I can join some other people of faith in putting on God's salvation and righteousness and celebrating together!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Taking a Break, Not Passing Away

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Lord God, you are God, and your words are true. - 2 Samuel 7:28

"Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." - Luke 21:33

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 96:10-13; Jeremiah 7; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-28

It was almost a year ago that I started this blog. It began as a project where a group of church leaders I was working with agreed to all post our reflections on the Daily Texts. This was intended to get us into a habit of providing a regular example of engaging and reflecting on scripture, as a guide to people we might be working with in small groups. I wrestled with the idea, gave it a try, and stuck with it even after that original group disbanded.

Now, on a much slower timeframe than originally planned, I'm getting ready to start working with an in-person group through the church I serve. In some ways, it will be similar to what we envisioned a year ago; in some ways, a little different.

I'm spending a lot of time lately praying, planning, thinking, pulling together resources, getting ready for the "Small Group Startup" we have scheduled for Saturday September 9. I've been (mostly!) taking time regularly to read and pray and ponder using the Daily Texts, but feeling stressed about finding the extra time to write these posts. So today I decided to make it "official" and tell myself and anyone reading that I will take a break from posting here for a while.

It may be that within a short time, I'll be back posting here - especially if the people I'm working with say they find it useful. If so, it's likely that I'll switch for a while from the Daily Texts to the "Essential 100," a survey of 50 Old Testament and 50 New Testament passages that we'll be using in our small groups here.

I feel OK about this change - one of many in my life! - especially with the words of Jesus in today's Luke 21 verse. Yes, many things do change. But the words of Jesus, and the good news available to us in his birth and life and ministry and death and resurrection and ascension, are forever. In every season of life, we do our best to stay connected and abide in those words in whatever way the season calls for.

Paul also writes in today's 1 Thessalonians 5 passage his encouragement to "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances." He's talking about a living relationship with God, which necessarily changes over time. Yet the connection continues unbroken.

Finally, in 2 Samuel 7, we're given an encouragement in the words of David, to remember that God is God, and God's words are true. This was part of a prayer by David after God told them that it would be Solomon, not David, who would build the temple. But David and his household would have a place with God forever.

Through Jesus, Son of David, Son of God, we also have a place with God forever. May God bless us along the travels and through the changes of life. May we all have a living, life-giving connection with God each day, through this break and beyond!

Monday, July 31, 2017

Free From Sins

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

I will remove the guilt of this land in a single day. - Zechariah 3:9

Christ himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness. - 1 Peter 2:24

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 89:46-52; Isaiah 56,57; Colossians 2:11-23

Too often, our faith that in Christ we are "free from sins" ends up seeming - to ourselves, and to others - like we're not really very free at all. Set free by God's grace, we respond with gratitude, and of course want to live godly lives. The problem comes when we forget the part about grace, and about our freedom being all the result of Christ's work. We seem to want to take back control over our status with God - and Satan is only too glad to work to convince us that we've succeeded, that unless we hold ourselves to some (impossibly high) standard of Christian behavior, then we've failed, God doesn't really love us, and we're doomed. Then we worry so much about following every little detail of every little law that we risk losing sight of our freedom.

But God has power over this situation. "In a single day," all the guilt of all the sins of a whole nation can be erased. Over and over again, scripture reminds us bluntly and simply that what we can't do on our own, Christ has already accomplished as a free gift. We are forgiven, reconciled, set free, in his life and death and resurrection and ascension, sealed by his teaching and action and example. Done. We are free from sins.

Isaiah 56 contains God's well-known promise that "my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples," quoted by Jesus when he took a whip and turned over tables, driving the money-changers out of the part of the temple that was intended for Gentiles to come and pray. What if we apply this image to ridding ourselves of the worry and guilt that comes from slavishly following the rules, as if our salvation depended on our perfection? What if Jesus, in one swift move, wipes all those worries away? What if he wants to make space for our own hearts and minds to be a temple where we can come as we are and be at peace with God?

Colossians 2 also gives a wide degree of freedom in how Christians live:
Do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ... If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, "Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch"? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings.
What if these kinds of observations are also the sort of restriction that Jesus wants to drive out? In tomorrow's section, the same letter turns to focus on having a heart connected to God through Christ. This sounds a lot like "living for righteousness" as mentioned in today's 1 Peter verse. What if we let go of all kinds of rules and human commands and teachings, and simply follow God, Father and Son and Holy Spirit? What if we let go of the control and pride we might fleetingly feel in moments of success in rule-following, and live always and abundantly in the grace of God in Christ?

God, thank you for this deep and true freedom! Thank you for removing our guilt fully and completely. Thank you for dwelling in and among us, so that we can live in this true freedom, knowing you are our way.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Unity and Protection

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Everyone is but a breath, even those who seem secure. - Psalm 39:5 (NIV)

"I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one." - John 17:15

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 89:38-45; Isaiah 54,55; Colossians 1:28-2:10

Today was one of those days that had me up early and going quickly. I didn't get time (or didn't make time) to read the scriptures for the day until this afternoon. In the morning, I attended one of the "Cross-Cultural Conversations" this synod offers, for people of different backgrounds to gather, share our stories and experiences, study the Bible, and pray together. Progress toward overcoming racism is one (not the only) goal of the gatherings. Today, John 17:10-15 was the text we studied. This is all part of the long prayer Jesus offers on the night of his betrayal and arrest, where unity is one of his key themes, and protection another. In verse 11, he prays to the Father, "protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one."

In the context of coming together from different places and directions, with the aim of "being one," we wrestled with the question: why does Jesus need to pray for our "protection?" There were a lot of thoughtful responses. We talked about the "bubbles" we learn to place around ourselves, the "comfort zones" where we define who is "like us" and who is not, who we will instinctively trust, and who is "different" and "other" and suspicious. We talked about the need to "look in the mirror" and see ourselves as honestly and clearly as possible; to try to see ourselves also as God sees us, created in God's image and being transformed by the Holy Spirit toward the perfect image of Christ; and to know that we, and all the other people we encounter, are "works in progress," requiring humility and faith. The evil one would divide and separate us and pit us against one another. But when God protects (literally, keeps or guards) us, we know we are all gathered together into the arms of the same God.

After a section noting the faithlessness and brokenness of God's people, today's Isaiah 55 section focuses on grace:
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.
And the Colossians 1 section calls all readers to remember that it is in God's mystery, in Christ, that we find all good things, not in any human "spirit."

Racial categories, and all kinds of other human divisions and distinctions, slice and dice our unity into constrictive little zones that shrink our view of the world and diminish our understanding of others and ourselves. A lot of energy is pumped into maintaining these "bubbles" - even more in recent months. It can be tiring and frustrating to live within these, and to fight to overcome them. It helps to know that the protection, the keeping, the guarding, the strength and provision we need, comes as a free gift of grace from God.

God, thank you for watching out for us, for actively providing for us and working against all those worldly forces that would divide and conquer us. Give us instead the unity that Jesus prayed for. Help us to see you at work in ourselves and in others, that we might be a part of your healing and life and peace in this world.

Abounding in Riches

My reflection on yesterday's Daily Texts:

Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food? - Job 38:41

The Lord is generous to all who call on him. - Romans 10:12

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 89:30-37; Isaiah 51:17-53:12; Colossians 1:15-27

The word translated "generous" in Romans 10:12 is describing the extent of Christ's own riches and wealth. And it's actually a form of a verb, not an adjective. So another translation says the Lord is "abounding in riches for all who call on him."

In Colossians 1, Christ is exalted as "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation," in whom "all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell." Now, that's abounding in riches. And the next few verses make it clear that it's through the cross of Christ and his death and resurrection that "God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things."

The passage from Isaiah also includes the fourth "servant song," which Christians see fulfilled in Christ. It reveals God's servant as one abused and rejected, but lifted up as savior. "But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed."

Over and over again, scripture shows that God's character of abundance and richness is bound up with God's love and mercy and forgiveness, and desire for the whole world to know peace with God and one another. God will stop at nothing - in Christ, even being willing to go to a humiliating death on a cross - to accomplish this reconciliation.

What a difference between how most of us see riches and wealth in the world! With God, status and power are not just things to be accumulated to create a widening gap with those most in need. But the Lord "is abounding in riches" for the purpose of reaching out to those very people, "for all who call on him." God provides, not just for our daily needs, but also for a place in God's abundance forever!

Thank you, God, for sharing your riches and abundance with me and the world. As you moved Paul, move each of us to see and appreciate your grace - and to share that good news with others.