Monday, April 17, 2017

New Beginnings, Over and Over Again

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

When people fall, do they not get up again? If they go astray, do they not turn back? - Jeremiah 8:4

Jesus said to him the third time, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep." - John 21:17

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 50:7–15; Job 20; 1 Corinthians 1:21–2:2

It's been almost a month since I posted my "daily" reflections here. I guess you can tell that this was not my top Lenten discipline!

During the time when I "ran out of time" or "get out of the routine" of daily posting, there were several days where I found grace in the Daily Texts verses and/or the sections of the two-year reading cycle. Lent, of course, is also known for its theme of "returning to the Lord." So even though I didn't do so well at posting here regularly, I was able to keep up (on most days) with reading and prayers, and I was grateful for messages that kept pointing me back to God's faithfulness and love, regardless of our human standards of success or failure.

Now, it's the day after Easter, and I (like many pastors!) feel like I'm emerging from a time of extra responsibilities. Here, the weather is even promoting that feeling, as it's sunny and fairly warm, and signs of spring are budding all around. So it was pleasing, but not surprising, to find that today's Daily Texts led me again to a sense of grace. Jeremiah seems to know that we often "fall" in our daily routines, and "go astray" from the best paths. And John's gospel takes care to show that even Peter's three-times denial of Jesus is forgiven and turned around with Jesus' three-times question about love and call for Peter to get back to his ministry.

I was also struck today by Psalm 50:14, which points out that it's thanksgiving that is our best offering of sacrifice to God. Instead of material things, it's an intimate relationship with us that God desires most.

And in 1 Corinthians, Paul's reflections on "proclaiming Christ crucified" and on "God's foolishness and weakness" speak of a God who identifies with us in our limitations - and uses those very limitations as occasions for God's unique love and power to be shown.

Humility, obedience, love, and faithfulness are familiar themes here. In all that I try to do in my life and in my ministry - including posting here - the fate of the world doesn't depend on my success or failure. Instead, all is in God's hands, and God calls me to be involved as I'm able. 

Maybe you can join me in gratitude for second chances, for being called repeatedly to get back up, to return again, to dust off and step back into the work God has at hand for us. This is the season of new life in the resurrection, of bright surprise in where we do and don't find God, of finding a way where we thought there was no way, of astounding and humbling results when we're able to do the simple things God calls us to do. Thank you, God, for new beginnings, over and over again.


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

All the Way to the Cross

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity. - Isaiah 53:3

Pilate released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will. - Luke 23:25 (NIV)

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 37:27-33; Nehemiah 12:1-43; Romans 6:17-7:6

Paul has been leading us through a remarkable story as we read through Romans.

Part 1 is that no one - neither those who know the Law nor those who don't - lives a life up to God's standards; we all fall short and break relationships with God and others.

Part 2 is the Gospel (good news) that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, everything that needs to be done to reconcile these broken relationships has already been done by God; although we could never repair the situation on our own, simple faith in Jesus' saving work is all we need.

Part 3, which we're still reading today and will be for a few more chapters, is that once we've been given this gift of faith through the Holy Spirit, we recognize the truth of Parts 1 and 2, and our lives begin to change. Justification is a word we use to describe our status as people saved by grace through faith. Sanctification is the continuation of that status, as we are made holy and live into the righteousness of God that has saved us. We are no longer servants to sin, which leads to death; but servants to God, which leads to life.

Jesus himself talked about this same process when he mentioned "taking up our cross daily and following" him. I have that in mind as I read the Old Testament and New Testament verses for today. Isaiah writes about "the suffering servant," a poetic, prophetic figure who certainly foreshadows Jesus - but also represents God's people. The gospels tell the story of Jesus running into powerful opposition, being betrayed, arrested, tortured, and killed. This is the Lord we serve.

It's the best good news of all - and pleasant and inspiring for us to think about - that Jesus was willing to endure all of this for us. But it would be easy to forget - and view it as unpleasant or disturbing - that in being saved by him, we become part of his life and work, with the goal of serving and sharing the good news with others. We live in an age that glorifies riches and power and "winning," and by these standards, Jesus' path looks weak and foolish. Yet this is where we find him. This is where he goes, and if we follow him, we go there too.

I love and appreciate Jesus, but I'm also human, firmly attached to my sense of preserving and glorifying myself and seeking what's comfortable and pleasant for myself. The church is the very body of Christ in the world, but again human, always bending itself around our self-centered desires. It's good for me, good for us all, to wrestle with what it means to follow Jesus, especially when we encounter conflict and suffering. What does it mean to be despised? rejected? identified with suffering? acquainted with infirmity and weakness and need? How might we be swapped out and sent to the cross while people who do real harm are set free?

We don't find easy answers to these questions. But we have assurance, that begins with the gift of faith we've been freely given, that pursuing those questions leads to God's answers. May we resist the easy and pleasant-sounding diversions that would only warp us back and entrap us again in sin. May we keep our eyes on Jesus and follow him into human need, all the way to the cross.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Meditating and Pondering

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

My eyes are awake before each watch of the night, that I may meditate on your promise. - Psalm 119:148

Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. - Luke 2:19

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 36; Nehemiah 5:1-6:14; Romans 4:1-12

Today's texts speak to me of the "brain work" of time with God and scripture. There are lots of ways to do this, including "meditating" and "pondering."

My favorite explanation of Christian meditation on scripture is to read a passage, then focus on it in silence, keeping the "mental cursor" centered on a phrase or image from the passage. If the brain wanders or starts getting too active, just gently let go of that and return to focus. It's a form of listening, abiding in the presence of God and of the scripture's message, subtly allowing this word from God to inform and enlighten. I don't use this form of meditation every day, but when I do, I find it relaxing, centering, reassuring, and often the most fruitful part of my day in terms of connecting with what God has in mind for me.

Then there's pondering, which for me is more of an active process of piecing together scripture's message, my own situation, the context of the world around me, and what I know about God from life experience so far. What message am I getting? What is God calling me to do about it? What connections do I find with other situations, stories, people? Who should I be talking with or working with about this? What might come next? What should I be looking and listening for in the near future? When pondering, I find journaling - longhand, in a nice-quality, old-fashioned notebook - to be the best medium. I have only paper and pen, no other distractions, and I try to take the time to work through however small or large the process seems to be that day. Again, I don't do it every day, but in times of uncertainty, or when the Spirit seems to be ramping up the windspeed, it's helpful.

Today's scriptures give a few examples of people meditating and pondering. David recommends it for everyone, all the time! Psalm 36 includes a little inspiration: "In your light, we see light." Mary treasures and ponders the words of angels and shepherds after the birth of Jesus. Nehemiah watches, listens, stays aware of both God's will and the sneaky plans that would distract or lure him away from it. Paul draws stories and quotes from scripture to help us start to comprehend the grace of God that's so different from the way the rest of the world works.

Life with God is like this. It takes brain work, as well as physical work and emotional processing. God is revealed to us a little at a time, light ray by light ray, at a rate we can handle, alongside others who are trying to figure this all out too. Sometimes I think it would be nice to just be suddenly "zapped" all the way up to a new level of understanding! But in general, I'm thankful for the gift of meditating and pondering, the time and effort it takes to absorb the fullness of what God is saying and doing, and to experience the wonder of the One who is beyond our comprehension yet intimately involved in our lives.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Unlimited

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

The Lord was my support. He also brought me out into a broad place. - 2 Samuel 22:19-20 (NKJV)

Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. - 2 Corinthians 3:17

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 35:1-10; Nehemiah 1:1-2:10; Romans 2:17-3:2

Reading today's scriptures makes me wonder whether we often have more freedom than we think. We can spend time cooped up and waiting for someone (God?) to swoop in and make things better. We may pine away for the change we're waiting for, thinking, "Then, I'll be able to ..."

I do believe that in general, waiting for God is a good thing. Our human souls can be impatient and impulsive, always wanting something, and chasing after it rashly. It's good to take the time to pray and consider what God would have us do.

But there are other times when we truly are free, rescued from a bad situation by the grace of God, and "brought out into a broad place" where we have many options. What holds us back? What stands in the way of us claiming this freedom and doing something new and life-giving?

As the book of Nehemiah opens, Nehemiah isn't free at all by the standards of the world. He's in exile, a servant under the Persian king Artaxerxes. But when he hears of the need to rebuild Jerusalem, and after he takes time to pray about it, he decides that it's up to him to rebuild the city. The king asks him what's troubling him, and then, "What do you request?" Nehemiah takes a deep breath, prays again, then asks for permission to go and rebuild, as well as for the king's provision and protection. His requests are granted, and the rebuilding begins. Nehemiah the exiled servant becomes a leader of free people.

In the Romans passage, as Paul starts to explain how faith and obedience are all that's needed to claim God's free gift of grace, he gives us some examples showing that our status, and our external markers of standing, make no difference at all. God is not limited by the things we think are denying us our freedom!

Both examples, from Nehemiah and from Romans, make it clear that this freedom doesn't come by our own efforts. We can't claim it, earn it, seize it, or manufacture it. Instead, freedom is a gift from God. As such, we don't take it for granted, or abuse it. It would be self-defeating to use God's gift of freedom to start doing things that cut us off from the source of our freedom and strength! But within our faith and obedience, God opens up a "broad place" where there are many possible choices of directions to go and moves to make that still keep us connected to God and aligned with God's will.

What's holding you back? What stands in the way of your claiming your God-given freedom and doing something new and life-giving? If there's something you're waiting for ... imagine that you already have it. What now? What would you do?

And are you so sure you can't already do it, right here and right now? Today?

Friday, March 10, 2017

God's Strength for God's Will

Reflection on yesterday's Daily Texts:

He is a shield for all who take refuge in him. - Psalm 18:30

Paul wrote: The Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one. - 2 Thessalonians 3:3

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 34:8-18; Ezra 8:21-10:6; Romans 1:26-2:4

and on today's Daily Texts:

God said to Solomon, “Because you have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word.” - 1 Kings 3:11-12

Jesus says: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” - Matthew 7:24

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 34:19-22; Ezra 10:7-44; Romans 2:5-16

I didn't intend to skip yesterday's post and combine it with today's - but it turns out they complement each other well, and shed light on each other. The theme that stood out for me in yesterday's texts is God's protection; and today, it's God's wisdom. There are some interesting connections and contrasts as the scriptures talk about human strength vs. God's strength, and human judgment vs. God's direction. And in the daily prayers written for the Mt. Carmel Ministries edition of the Daily Texts, both days include a prayer for courage to "do your will" and to "act upon your word."

The simple language of the prayers is a good place to start. It's God's word and God's will that we aim for. If our eyes are set on a different destination, something demanded by our own selfish interests, then we're not even heading in the right direction. And it's useless to hunt around for the path God has set and the protection God has provided, if every step we take is actively leading us farther from where God wanted us to go.

Once we start with the right destination and direction, God's wisdom comes into play along the way. As we travel, we need to keep checking periodically to make sure we haven't drifted off course. The more often we check, the less we drift. It's tempting to say that listening to God is what we need here. But Jesus makes the point that the wise are those who listen and act on his word. Hearing is not enough! We take what we hear, and put it into practice. There is room here for human creativity, for people with different gifts and perspectives, in different situations, to apply God's word in different ways. The key thing is to dedicate ourselves to ongoing listening and action and course correction.

The scriptures for these two days offer an interesting example of how this difference works. Ezra and the other leaders who brought the people back from Babylon to Jerusalem were rediscovering God's command to keep separate from the other nations, and at that time, with a small remnant returning to rebuild a weakened city, there was danger in diluting the proper worship of God with foreign influences. They agonized and prayed about this, and came up with a plan to send away any wives and children who had become mixed in with the people of the tribes of Israel. Hundreds of years later, we have Paul's letter to the Romans, in which he argues strongly that both Jew and Gentile have a place in God's kingdom, by God's grace as received through faith. Paul rejects idolatry and self-centered indulgence as strongly as Ezra did (and reading Romans 1:18-32 as a whole unit shows that Paul is not laying down a new universal law against same-sex relationships, as we might think if we pick out just verses 26 and 27, but showing a multitude of examples of how an orientation against God's will leads to all kinds of behaviors that go against God's will and a person's own nature). But now, with the revealing of Jesus as the Messiah who opens the kingdom of God to all people of all nations, Paul's plan aims not for tribal purity, but for individual and communal life lived by the power of God's spirit instead of by each person's self-centered desires.

And this brings us to the theme of God's protection and strength, and the courageous act of trusting in God. The Bible, throughout the Old and New Testaments, consistently witnesses to God's ability to provide whatever is needed, even when human evaluations of the situation make it look incredibly unlikely. Faith in God comes alive with what we call courage, when we go beyond thoughts and words to take real steps of action that grow out of our faith. There's great power in the confidence that comes from God's direction, God's living guidance, and God's strength. Much of what we struggle against, even when it looks daunting, is made up of lies and deception and a "house of cards" built on limited human knowledge and power. It can't stand up against faith active in love, which moves with the strength of God's truth.

This is no guarantee that everything will always be wonderful. Paul, and Ezra, and David, and many other people of the Bible, knew that following God faithfully could sometimes result in suffering and danger. We are all limited, fragile, mortal beings, and we will all have our moments of pain and trouble and, eventually, death. But being centered on and motivated by God's will gives us meaning and courage for life, and also company on the way. We travel this journey of life anyway. We can be thankful that we're invited to travel with God who makes the journey better for everybody.

What is God calling you to? What direction are you being shown, or toward what destination? How is God inviting you to put one foot in front of the other, and to keep checking in along the way? What fears and threats do you see? What if you just get started, with courage, taking action on God's path?


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Power of God for Salvation

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God. - Psalm 42:11

"Your sorrow will be turned into joy." - John 16:20 (NKJV)

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 34:1-7; Ezra 8:1-20; Romans 1:13-25

One of the most powerful statements in Paul's letter to the Romans comes at the end of his introduction:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, "The one who is righteous will live by faith."
He'll continue to explain the gospel, or "good news," about Jesus. And in this letter, he makes clear that this powerful news comes as a gift from God, by grace. It results in faith and righteousness and justification. The gospel brings salvation.
One of my favorite metaphors for God's salvation is being rescued from drowning. There are situations in life where we are just totally "under water," and need intervention from someone more powerful, who's not limited by the same forces that are threatening us. Like a drowning person is rescued by someone stronger and with better footing, we are saved by God who reaches down into our situation and draws us out into something better.

Today's verses hint at another thing we can learn from this metaphor. It's easy enough to imagine being "saved from" what endangers us. We know from our own lives, and can find plenty of examples in scripture, of people being saved from all kinds of trouble.

But we are also "saved for" something. When we're delivered, we're capable of doing things we couldn't before. Maybe it's as simple as being able to breathe, speak, move, and survive more than a few minutes. Maybe it's more comprehensive, as being able to live a life unencumbered by worry or guilt; to know that our existence has meaning and value; to discover how forgiveness and mercy release us to build, or rebuild, life-giving relationships with others.

This is how our lives are changed, and our sorrows turned to joy. May we give thanks for the gift of the gospel, the power of God for salvation for all. May we be freed from the things that entrap us, and freed for the fullness of life God intends for us.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Beginning and Ending with Praise

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Praise the Lord! How good it is to sing praises to our God. - Psalm 147:1

Speak to one another with the words of psalms, hymns, and sacred songs; sing hymns and psalms to the Lord with praise in your hearts. - Ephesians 5:19 (GNT)

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 33:12-22; Ezra 6:13-7:28; Romans 1:1-12

Today, to go along with the praise-themed verses of the day, we have a story about praising God at the conclusion of a long, difficult project, as Ezra's work on the temple and city of Jerusalem are complete. And in our first reading from Paul's letter to the Romans, he introduces himself mostly by introducing God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all there, in these few verses!) and glorifying what God has done for us in Christ. This is a beginning, the first taste of what will become a powerful and lasting effort by Paul in Rome.

This combination of scriptures reminds me how good it is to praise God at all of our beginnings and endings. We might think of life in the church, and life in general, as a series of projects or challenges or stages in a journey. Complete one, rest a while, start another. But it's good to remember that the whole journey, the whole process of life, takes place in the context of God's presence and guidance and grace. God leads us forward, weaves our stories in and out of the stories of others, and draws new people and new events together for growth and abundant life.

It's good, at the beginning of something new, to stop and praise God for getting us where we are already. The praising renews our faith and trust in God, and the singing unites us and propels us ahead. This is what Martin Luther had in mind when writing a prayer for the beginning of each day:
In the morning, as soon as you get out of bed, you are to make the sign of the holy cross and say: 
God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit watch over me. Amen.
Then, kneeling or standing, say the Apostles' Creed and the Lord's Prayer. If you wish, you may in addition recite this little prayer as well: 
I give thanks to you, heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ your dear Son, that you have protected me through the night from all harm and danger. I ask that you would also protect me today from sin and all evil, so that my life and actions may please you. Into your hands I commend myself: my body, my soul, and all that is mine. Let your holy angel be with me, so that the wicked foe may have no power over me. Amen.
After singing a hymn perhaps (for example, one on the Ten Commandments) or whatever else may serve your devotion, you are to go to your work joyfully.
And it's good, at the end of something we've been working on for a while, to stop and celebrate what's been accomplished, new learnings, new relationships, new life. Again our faith and trust are renewed, and the rest we take next begins with the sound of gratitude ringing in our ears. Again, as Martin Luther wrote in his prayer for the end of each day:
In the evening, when you go to bed, you are to make the sign of the holy cross and say:
God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit watch over me. Amen.
Then, kneeling or standing, say the Apostles' Creed and the Lord's Prayer. If you wish, you may in addition recite this little prayer as well:
I give thanks to you, heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ your dear Son, that you have graciously protected me today. I ask you to forgive me all my sins, where I have done wrong, and graciously to protect me tonight. Into your hands I commend myself: my body, my soul, and all that is mine. Let your holy angel be with me, so that the wicked foe may have no power over me. Amen.
Then you are to go to sleep quickly and cheerfully.
It is good to sing praises to God, alone and together, at our beginnings and at our endings, for ourselves and for the people around us.