Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Need? Come.

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters. - Isaiah 55:1

Jesus stood with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. - Luke 6:17-18

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 24; 2 Chronicles 20:20-21:17; Acts 22:3-16

Sometimes I have a hard time relating to the Bible's stories of healing and miraculous cures. Before I really took Christian faith and scripture seriously, I was a science student, a believer in the powers of observation and creativity and reason. My first career was in computer science, where logic and predictability were the foundation (although anybody who's spent much time with computers knows that logic and predictability aren't always what they seem).

Today I'd say I'm a believer in both Jesus and science/reason. Faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God explains a lot that would be otherwise incomprehensible to me. And I've experienced enough of the Holy Spirit's mysterious ways that I'm convinced that the Bible's witness about God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - is true.

So in my own life, when I have a need, I turn to both the healing of my faith and the remedies available in our world of science and reason. I pray for health and wholeness for myself and others I know, and I take Mucinex or antibiotics when I'm sick. When I had prostate cancer, I gladly received the prayers of family and friends, and found them enormously helpful, and I did my research and picked the best doctor, hospital, and medical procedures I could find.

Those of us who live in the Western world at a certain level of affluence have the privilege of taking this both-and combination for granted. We have some of the best medical care in the world easily available and (if we have insurance) reasonably affordable. So of course we use that. And sure, we'll take all the prayers we can get along the way. There's a lot of evidence that when we reach this level of prosperity, we start to feel that we don't need spiritual faith of any kind, let alone the very specific faith in Jesus, a particular guy who lived in a particular place thousands of years ago, and the very specific stories of his ministry of healing.

But this same world that tempts us to think we've "outgrown" Christian faith highlights the very need for it. For those who are not so prosperous, our society has shown a sickening, short-sighted greed. We who are wealthy don't ever seem to find satisfaction with "enough," but, just because we can, we seek more and more wealth, comfort, affluence. We're poisoning the earth and sentencing most of the rest of the world to be held down in poverty so that we can have more, more, more - and we want to put up walls to keep our affluence to ourselves without sharing. And we lose sight of the toll this disparity takes on our own souls. Why do we spend so much money on meds for depression and anxiety? Why do we so easily fall into addictions that numb us or distract us from this life that's supposed to be so wonderful? Why so many guns? Why the suicides of people of all ages?

The truth is that we can hunger and thirst without even being aware of it. We can be sick, dis-eased, and "troubled with unclean spirits," but believe that we have everything under control, not even admitting our need, let alone knowing what to do about it. For all our accumulation and efforts, we're in much the same position as the common poor people of Bible times.

So when I read in the Bible about God's call for all who thirst to "come to the waters," I know that it means both physical thirst and H₂O, and much more. When Jesus' words and deeds attract people from all over the world for healing and cleanness and connection with God and others, I believe that there is both the opportunity for physical health, and a cure for our spiritual illness. I reject the lazy "prosperity gospel" that says we can unfailingly "name it and claim it" and that if our faith is strong enough, God will magically erase all of our problems. Yes, the Bible calls for faith and persistence as we pray, but Jesus also speaks about needs that went unmet. For us who are privileged to have the cures and comforts of science and reason, they are gifts from God, and we'd be insulting God not to use them (and, of course, to try to make them available to as many others as possible). But there are people who don't have access to these options. And there are times when the best medicine and science and other resources aren't enough, for those of us who do have them.

In those times, for all people, poor and rich, with whatever kind of need, God's call still stands. Come to the waters that satisfy your thirst. Come with your diseases and demons and be restored to health and community. Thank you, God, for your promise that when we have any need, we can come to you.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Far and Near, Great and Small

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

You are the Lord, you alone; you have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. - Nehemiah 9:6

From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. - Romans 11:36

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 23; 2 Chronicles 19:1-20:19; Acts 21:31-22:2

It's interesting to compare the cosmic, all-encompassing view of God in today's verses with some of the longer passages. Scripture affirms that all of creation is the work of God, and that God is so much greater than everything we can experience, we can't begin to imagine the infinite nature of God. Yet scripture also affirms that God is intimately involved in every life, bringing life and health and all provisions, and a loving connection with God, each other, and all of creation.

In Psalm 23, the God of the universe is "my shepherd," providing care and guidance that leads us through trouble and watches over us forever. We can never be truly lost or alone to God.

In 2 Chronicles, King Jehoshaphat, who has already had problems relying on human power instead of God, turns immediately to God when his nation is attacked. His prayer of faith: "We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you." God's word comes back: "Do not fear or be dismayed; for the battle is not yours but God's." Jehoshaphat's army never has to fight at all against this enemy, but is just sent out to salvage the fallen enemy's possessions.

In Acts 21, Paul is about to be torn apart by a mob, and then arrested. But his arrest turns into a chance to bear witness to God to his people.

Where is God for you today? Far away? Closer than your own understanding? Or both? Is God at work on matters of universal importance? Caring for you and each person individually? Or both?

May we keep our eyes, minds, and hearts set on God. May we trust that the God of the universe, "from whom and through whom and to whom are all things," includes each life among those things, caring deeply for us. May we seek God's help, God's word, and God's ways.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Warning and Hope

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

I will delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in Jerusalem, or the cry of distress. - Isaiah 65:19

Rejoice in hope. - Romans 12:12

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 22:9-21; 2 Chronicles 14,15; Acts 20:32-21:4

We all love a message of hope! But we can only understand the power of hope within the context of real hardship. Today's verse from Isaiah 65 comes near the end of one of the longest books of the Bible, full of back-and-forth tides of sin / warning / consequences and forgiveness / hope / restoration. Our hopeful little snippet from Romans 12:12 is followed by the rest of the verse: "Be patient in suffering. Persevere in prayer."

The dynamic of hardship vs. hope also appears in today's longer readings. Psalm 22 contains two "voices," one crying out in despair, the other lifting up hope. In the 2 Chronicles story of King Asa, his smaller army defeats the Ethiopians by trusting in God, but his later alliance with the Arameans (instead of relying on God) results in more war. Paul, near the end of his story in the book of Acts, is repeatedly warned that he's in danger, but his faithfulness to God's message keeps leading him forward.

Faith in God is more than a soothing lotion to put on a sore spot. One - sometimes valid - criticism of religion is that it can be used to gloss over real suffering and need in the world. "Don't worry about it, God will get you through this." This attitude can be, and has been, used to distract people from wrongs in the world and sap their energy for doing anything about them.

Real faith acknowledges both hardship and hope. It comes with warnings as well as messages of comfort. When it's our own pride or thoughtlessness or sinfulness that leads us toward trouble, God confronts and challenges us. The consequences of our actions come back to bite us and bring us pain. When danger comes at the hands of someone else, God's word is not to be a doormat, but to look for justice, work for righteousness, rely on the resources God provides to improve the situation. "Be patient in suffering" means more than rolling over and taking it, but also "persevering in prayer" to continue seeking the best from God, even in the midst of pain and trouble.

The image that comes to mind is of God as a crossing guard! The aim is to keep us healthy and whole and safe and together. Sometimes the red STOP sign is faced toward us, and it's our responsibility to pay attention, pick up the sign, and come to a stop. It's inconvenient and slows things down, and it means giving up control to someone who's in the position to know things better than us. But even then, if we're willing, we pick up on the hope of making healthy progress. Listening and following the direction of the crossing guard helps ensure that we'll live to repeat the process tomorrow. We know that when the time is right, the sign will turn, and we'll move ahead.

Thank you, Lord, for preparing a way for us, and for watching over it. Help us to walk in your ways, follow your guidance, and move together toward the goal. Show us your love, so that we can trust in you every day.

Not Alone

Reflection on Thursday's Daily Texts:

By awesome deeds you answer us in righteousness, O God of our salvation. - Psalm 65:5 (NASB)

Jesus said, "Everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened." - Matthew 7:8

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 22:1-8; 2 Chronicles 12:13-13:22; Acts 20:17-31

It was just about a week ago, I wrote about John 16:24, in which Jesus "Ask, and you will receive," much like his words in Matthew 7:8 today. In fact, all four gospels record Jesus saying something similar. I notice that Matthew adds the following explanation (which Luke 11:10-13 also records, with a few small differences):
Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
So it's the good things that God is most interested in giving us. What we translate as "good things" here is a rich word that can mean: good in a moral sense,  good in performance, good in quality, beneficial, useful, productive, valuable, helpful. God doesn't give stones to those in need of bread, or snakes to those hungry for fish. But God, like a wise parent, might indeed give bread to those who ask for cotton candy, or fish to those who ask for chili dogs! As I wrote before, there seems to be something about the act of asking. One of the good things - maybe the best thing of all, seems to be the living connection and conversation with God.

I can't help but notice the contrast between Matthew 7:8 and the beginning of Psalm 22: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" For years now, I've had Psalm 22 read in worship on Maundy Thursday, after the "stripping of the altar" that prepares the church for Good Friday and represents the humbling, the self-emptying, of Jesus as he prepares for the cross. Psalm 22 lends itself to being read by two separate voices. The first voice cries out in anguish, returning again and again in the psalm to lift up the pain and suffering and humiliation of the present moment. The second voice, often beginning with the word "Yet...", keeps remembering the faithfulness of God in difficult times. For example, from today's section: "Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. / In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them." The psalm gives the last word to this second voice, with hope and trust that despite the present suffering, "a people yet unborn" will proclaim God's praise. Christians, of course, see this fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus, which changes everything forever for everybody.

It's easy to get caught up in our current needs, and cry out for relief. Jesus acknowledges, and in fact embodies, that pain. (And Matthew 7:8 is one place that does encourage us to pray for our individual needs! It's translated as a plural to avoid excluding women, but more literally, Jesus says, "For each one who asks receives, and the one who searches finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.") It's also easy to forget how many good things we're receiving when we're not in pain.

Whatever we're going through right now, it's helpful to remember that although we suffer and cry out in a singular sense ("the one who asks / searches / knocks"), we are not alone.  We're part of a whole community of faith, and part of the history of God's people who have witnessed God's faithfulness, love, and mercy all along. We ask and search and knock together. And we trust in God for good things for all. I pray today for all who are in need. And I pray that I, and the church as a whole, can be signs of God's love and faithfulness wherever we're able. We are not alone!

Strength

Today's reflection on Wednesday's Daily Texts:

But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? - Malachi 3:2

You wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. - 1 Corinthians 1:7-8

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 21; 2 Chronicles 11:1-12:12; Acts 20:4-16

When I read Wednesday's texts, it struck me that the focus on God's strength stands in contrast with what we experience in life sometimes. For example, Psalm 21 begins and ends with praise of God's strength, and the whole psalm revels in the blessings and victories that come to "the king" with God's power. Yet on the same page in my Bible, I noticed Psalm 22, the psalm that John says Jesus quoted from the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

There are some insights in today's texts about endings and beginnings, too - and these also have to do with God's strength. In 2 Chronicles, King Rehoboam sees the end of the days of wealth and splendor left over from his father Solomon's time, and yet because he and the nation stayed faithful and connected with God, "conditions were good in Judah." In Acts 20, a young man suffers death by sermon boredom, but the power of God working through Paul restores him to life.

The Bible's ultimate ending and beginning, of course is the Day of the Lord, to which the Malachi and 1 Corinthians verses refer. We wait, we aim to stand, we endure, we require strength in the time between now and then. This end time usually seems far away to me (I enjoy pointing out that there have been well over 200 specific predictions of the end time since Bible times, and all have been wrong - and that 0-200 is a far worse record than the 2008 Detroit Lions, the 2011 Indianapolis Colts, or the 2016 Cleveland Browns). Yet the Bible clearly lifts up the vision of the Day of the Lord, so strongly that it impacts us now. This vision's assurance and hope colors today.

All of this together says to me that human life continually has its highs and lows, endings and beginnings. We know the full range of human emotion, from exuberance to despair. We long for some endings and dread others. We may or may not recognize what will come whenever something new begins. And all of this happens within the time Malachi and Paul are writing about, this in-between time when God's victory has been promised, but not yet come to be. We wait. We aim to stand. We endure. We require strength. And whether the moment we're in today is something we would judge as "good" or as "bad," we have promise and assurance and hope that God is our strength.

May we live in this hope. May we stay connected to God in faithfulness. May God's strength be ours, so that the good news of God's love will be known by us, in us, among us, and through us.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Trust in the Lord

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

The fear of others lays a snare, but one who trusts in the Lord is secure. - Proverbs 29:25

Who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. - 1 Peter 3:13-14

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 19:1-6; 2 Chronicles 6:24-7:22; Acts 19:6-20

What I hear today in Proverbs 29:25 is similar to what I wrote about based on yesterday's Daily Texts: that fears are natural and normal in this world, but that there's greater power in trusting God. In today's texts, the particular angle I hear is a question of who we focus on.

Are we afraid of some other person? That fear "lays a snare" for us. I remember as a boy, whenever some bully chose me as his or her victim, the fear of the bully was worse than the actual bully. Later in life, there were fears of meeting somebody else's expectations, fears of the whims of people who had positions of power in my life, fears about how someone might treat my kids, and on and on. I'm not a particularly anxious person, I enjoy life, and generally have a positive and relaxed attitude toward life - and yet, I've lost a lot of sleep and spent a lot of waking time tending to fears like these.

Today, the fear that eats at me most is our national political situation, and I guess the person I fear the most is Donald Trump, with Steve Bannon close behind. I believe our new President to be incompetent, unprincipled, unpredictable, and uncaring, so easily distracted and redirected that he might easily become a puppet for strategic thinkers who do have a rigid ideology that strikes to the core of our national principles of equality and justice and liberty for all. I fear that the power in these hands will bring tragic and costly changes to who we believe we are, and how we treat ourselves and others. Many people will disagree with my opinion! Yet I think these fears are not personal phobias or imaginary monsters. I think I have legitimate, rational reasons for these fears, and I know many who do agree.

But the message of Proverbs 29:25 is that my fear lays a snare for me. I can almost watch this happening these days. Liberals, who have scoffed at conservatives for years for their supposed blindness or gullibility in rallying around Fox News and Tea Party initiatives, are now starting to rally around sources of left-leaning material that feeds liberal biases and blind spots. Sign up with this service, that list, those petitions, these politicians. It's so easy for anybody to be distracted from core values and the big picture, to be co-opted for someone else's agenda. We get snared easily.

And it's not just external influences. The snare set by our fears can also deprive us of our connections to the beliefs and practices that really feed us. Every minute spent reading or watching another outrage piece is a minute we didn't use for what's most important in life. We need to stay informed. We need to be vigilant about what matters. Yes, fears are natural and normal. But to focus on and chase after the fears is to ensnare ourselves. Better to remain watchful but free to be true to ourselves and our core convictions.

For people of faith, the other half of Proverbs 29:25 is helpful. Our fears make us worry about our security - but it's only in trusting God that we find true security.

I believe we have to be careful about seeking security. Martin Luther referred to security as an idol; when what we seek is our own security, we will latch on to anything that offers us comfort. And this focus on personal comfort and security, a priority placed on what's good for me, triggers our ever-present tendency to put ourselves before God. Jesus knew this, and this is why it makes total sense when he calls us to become his disciples (learners, followers) by denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following him (Luke 9:23). "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?" (Luke 9:24-25)

I believe it's in the sense of chasing after selfish security that Christian leaders like Franklin Graham have "sold out" and begun pointing to Donald Trump as God's chosen one. In some sense, they've started to see him as a savior from the things they fear.

I believe there is a danger, among people whose fear is Donald Trump, of falling into the same snare. So we need to be careful that our eye is not set on security. Instead, Proverbs 29:25 lifts up trust in God. I would say the same goal could be summed up as faithfulness or obedience.

Rather than asking "what are we afraid of?" and being defined by that fear, or by something or someone we see as a secure shield against that fear, we avoid the snare and ensure our freedom by submitting ourselves to God's will. We ask "what would God have me do?" and we set out to do it.

The advantage of focusing on a human being, an ideology, a place or program, is that it's easy. It doesn't require us to do much other than look - either with fear, or with reverence - and allow our thoughts and actions to be defined by what we see. But with this easiness, the snare is laid, and we're slaves to an idol.

Following Christ, listening and discerning and aiming to do God's will, is far from easy! It's work. It calls us to stay connected, keep putting our feet into the footprints he left, seek time with God, and serve others with compassion when we see a need. It calls us to be clear that our ultimate allegiance is to Christ and nothing and no one else.

For me, this line of thinking helps me reframe my thoughts and efforts. I want to work not out of fear, but out of a sense that I serve God and God's kingdom in Christ. The ends do not justify the means; any good I do, I'll do by doing good all the way. It's in weakness that God's greatest strength is shown. I want to serve and follow and learn and pray and obey. I want to strive to hear Christ's call and strive to respond. I want to learn the meaning of his promise that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

I'm also helped today by the beginning of Psalm 19, one of the other passages chosen for today:
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
     and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
     and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
     their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
     and their words to the end of the world.
As I face my fears, it helps to hold on to this vision of God's voice streaming out all the time, day and night, around the world. It puts my fears - and my human reactions to those fears - into perspective. It helps me to trust God alone, and to find security for myself and all people in the will of God.


Rejoice - Always!?

Reflection on yesterday's Daily Texts:

I will glory in the Lord; let the afflicted hear and rejoice. - Psalm 34:2 (NIV)

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. - Philippians 4:4–5

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 18:46-50; 2 Chronicles 5:2-6:23; Acts 18:22-19:5

I can't hear today's words from Philippians 4 without remembering a hospital visit I made, back in the very early days of being trained as a pastor.

Part of the seminary experience is a unit of "Clinical Pastoral Education" (CPE) which begins to equip you as a giver of pastoral care, and lets you loose, with supervision and a structure for processing and learning. My CPE time was in a hospital system where I was on call to the whole hospital at times, but mostly focused on a surgery ward and a palliative care (end of life comfort care) ward. An intense experience over just one summer, it was probably the single most helpful piece of my formation as a pastor, at least in terms of helping me come to grips with my fears about hospitals and fears about whether I could really do this pastor thing.

The visit I'm thinking of came shortly after that CPE summer, when I was working as an assistant to the pastor of our local church. We divided up the duties of caring for members of this relatively large congregation (thus giving me the foundation of the "Care Team" model I've promoted throughout my ministry) and I was assigned to visit a woman, a few years younger than me, wife and mother of several kids, who was in the hospital waiting for a very serious surgery, after months of suffering with her medical condition. I was still new enough at these visits that I was worrying about what in the world I could do or say that would help.

I got to her room, and before my fears had the chance to develop into any real words or actions, she was thanking me for the visit, and talking with me - more than that, she was proclaiming the gospel to me! - around her faith. She quoted part of this Philippians 4 passage, which I'll quote here again, along with the two verses following today's New Testament text:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
No doubt she was worried, in this situation! But she wasn't in the habit of focusing on her worries, instead trusting, thanking, praying, even rejoicing - and discovering that peace of God that surpasses all understanding. It was a calm, prayerful, deep conversation. I think I ministered to her, just by being there as an affirmation of the care of God and her church. I know she ministered to me. This moment was real, flesh-and-blood, transformed-heart proof to me that faith in Christ Jesus is a thing of enormous power, connecting us in a community of care and hope.

For me, this visit changed every future visit and pastoral conversation. I've been anxious about what to say and do at times since then, but never truly worried. I know that God is already there before I am, and that I and the people I work with are equal partners in letting our faith and our gentleness be known. I don't have all the answers, but I know Who does.

For the woman I visited, the surgery turned out well. She left the hospital soon after, came home, and enjoyed better health and a more unshadowed life with her family. I haven't seen her in years, and I don't know how things are going for her today. But I would guess that in the ups and downs of life, she has found many more things to pray about, and many more situations in which she can rejoice. And I believe that even if that surgery hadn't gone so well, she would still have been rejoicing.

For the church and the world, I know there are always easy times and hard times, sun and clouds, plenty and need, fear and leisure. According to our understanding, our moods and attitudes ought to fluctuate too. But the real, deep truth of faith in Christ Jesus is this peace, which truly does surpass our understanding. Being rooted in him, trusting in his presence, extending his gentleness, love, and care to others, we can live in his way and have the blessings of God's kingdom, in any - yes, any - circumstances. May we rejoice in the Lord, always.