Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Family Business

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

In you the orphan finds mercy. - Hosea 14:3

These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life: - "I know your affliction." - Revelation 2:8-9

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 87; Isaiah 41:8-42:9; Philippians 2:5-18

Any of us who are "orphaned" in suffering find in God the loving parent who adopts us as beloved children. As part of God's family, we are comforted, healed, provided for - and raised to be a part of the "family business" of spreading good news and compassion.

Psalm 87 speaks of God's love for "Zion," a name for Jerusalem, the holy capital city of God's people. God's children who are born there are known for where they come from. But that's only possible because they go out into the world, encountering people from other places.

Today's section from Isaiah is the first of a number of places where God's voice speaks to "my servant." These "servant songs" are well known poems, with strong images, lifting up the servant as a "light to the nations" (among many other metaphors) who will go out and connect people with God. Reading through Isaiah chapter by chapter, this first servant song sneaked up on me! After a long section pointing out God's superiority over other powers, Isaiah shifts to address Israel/Jacob and the call and purpose of the people. Moving into the first servant song, the language shifts to singular. Does the servant represent the nation of Israel? The Messiah? Every child of God? I think the answer is yes, all of these.

Christians see in the servant songs a number of clear prophecies that are fulfilled by Jesus. And he also takes up the theme of his followers continuing the "family business" of his work. Another really powerful scripture is the "Christ hymn" of Philippians 2, showing the life of Jesus as "emptying himself" down to the point of death on a cross, then being raised and exalted back up to equality with God. Paul's language about his own life being "poured out as a libation" and his call to "let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus" show how this emptying, serving, giving of ourselves for the abundant life of others leads our lives to reflect the life of Jesus.

God, thank you for drawing us in, and always keeping us part of your family. Thank you for healing, for relief from affliction, for finding us when we're lost and bringing forth new life from death. Help us to live fearlessly and joyfully. Call us and work through us as your children, formed in your likeness, echoing your love. Light up the world so that everyone knows you and trusts you and finds a home of peace in you.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Heart Health

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

I am the Lord who heals you. - Exodus 15:26

By his wounds you have been healed. - 1 Peter 2:24

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 86:11-17; Isaiah 40:6-41:7; Philippians 1:23-2:4

Along with today's healing theme, I'm struck by a line from Psalm 86 (which will be included in the scripture readings at many churches this coming Sunday): "Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name." The image of an undivided heart speaks to me of healing, transformation, change over time, becoming more and more closely aligned with God's love and God's purposes.

The psalm also describes God as "slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness," a phrase that's repeated a number of times in the Old Testament, beginning with Exodus 34:6, when God gives Moses the second set of stone tablets containing the covenant and the Ten Commandments. The echos of God's forgiveness, mercy, and healing power echo down through Israel's history for hundreds of years.

Today's section from Isaiah 40 also contains some well-known images of God, the all-powerful creator who comes first and last, being involved intimately in human life. We read some of these lines in the Advent and Epiphany seasons.

Then there's Paul in Philippians, calling for believers to be of one mind, getting ready to sing the "Christ hymn" which will come in tomorrow's readings. For all the problems and flaws that plague human life, Paul writes that God's grace and mercy in Christ is the solution for healing. And he calls on these people, whom he loves, to "only live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ."

For me personally today, "healing" means several things. I ran with new insoles, trying to overcome some foot pain. I'm a week or so into a yet-again-renewed effort to eat the right foods more consistently and avoid foods that give me problems with cholesterol, triglycerides, or kidney stone risk factors. I have some goals for time management and prioritization and getting enough sleep that I know will help me stay healthier. Physical, mental, social, relational, and other -als are all dimensions of healing that I hope for.

Today's scriptures remind me that healing is an ongoing process, and that we do seem to fall into the same patterns and fight the same battles repeatedly. But God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, saving us by grace in Christ, and giving the path of healing as a gift for us to walk in. From the last verses of Isaiah 40: "He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint."

Thank you for the healing you bring, God! May it continue, and spread and overflow for the healing of the whole world. May we have an undivided heart to listen, and rejoice and give thanks, and follow in your path.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

God's Care and Leadership

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Moses said to the Lord, "Consider too that this nation is your people." - Exodus 33:13

The shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice." - John 10:3-4

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 85:1-7; Isaiah 36:1-37:13; Ephesians 6:10-24

Today's texts all point to God as the guardian and strength of the people. Throughout the Bible's history of God's action in human life, God has been shown to be faithful and powerful, and human beings a flock that needs leadership and care. God chooses some to be a "light to the nations," because ultimately God's desire is for all people everywhere to know the peace of living in harmony with God and each other.

Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, picking up on an image that has been used for God and God's leaders for centuries. He says that the safety of the flock is in a long-time connection where they have come to know and follow the Shepherd's voice.

In the Old Testament texts, Moses and the psalmist and Isaiah are all addressing this kind of relationship, in times when the people are under threats, and there's a danger they'll rely on other powers instead of God. In Isaiah 36-37 in particular, the threat is very real. The previous chapters have been warning, for quite a long time, about God's judgment against corruption and injustice and sin, about the strength of other nations being only an illusion, and about coming dangers from Assyria. Now the king of Assyria is near, having defeated the other cities of Judah, and bringing an army to set up siege against Jerusalem, the capital. The city is surrounded, and the warriors who represent the Assyrian king come to boast, to strike fear, and to demand surrender. But here again, God's word is to keep relying on God, and not to make terms with the invaders. (Spoiler: the story takes a dramatic turn soon, and God turns out to be right. Again.)

Years after the words of Jesus, the closing paragraphs of Ephesians are lifting up the same theme. "Put on the whole armor of God ... so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm." And the armor is described, piece by piece. It's worth noting that it's all defensive, all for the protection of the wearer - except for "the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God." The very next verse is an encouragement to "Pray in the Spirit at all times."

As always, God stands able and ready to protect and to guide. God goes in front, and takes the lead in defeating the plans of enemies. The danger is not from opposing armies, but from temptations that would lead us to trust in anything else.

Thank you God, for your shepherding care and leadership. Help me to hear and listen to you, to trust, and to follow!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

God's Spirit Poured Out

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

"I will not hide my face from them anymore; for I shall have poured out my Spirit on the house of Israel," says the Lord God. - Ezekiel 39:29 (NKJV)

You were marked in Christ with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit. - Ephesians 1:13 (NIV)

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 83:13-18; Isaiah 30,31; Ephesians 5:8-20

The guidance of God's Spirit is what stands out for me in today's scriptures. Isaiah 30:15-16 gives one example, of a time when the people of God were anxious and fearful. God offered them a plan, but they rejected God's way for a human way: 
For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength. But you refused and said, "No! We will flee upon horses" - therefore you shall flee! and, "We will ride upon swift steeds" - therefore your pursuers shall be swift!
Yet only a few verses later (v.20-21), God forgives and again agrees to lead the people:
Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it."
Today's Ephesians 1:13 verse connects the gift of God's guiding Spirit with baptism, our entrance into the church. And in Ephesians 5:18-20, in the middle of a long section encouraging people to live lives worthy of this gift of grace, Paul mentions again the role of the Spirit in our lives:
Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We are not in control of whether the Spirit is with us or not - that is just a gift, and the Spirit is always present! But we do have some ability to choose which guidance to listen to, where to look for help, what to fill ourselves with. The Spirit is our power - our only power - to live godly lives.

There are always other forces and voices, temptations and distractions. There is always the self-centered desire to preserve our own power and control. But God calls us to keep returning home, finding rest in God. God pours out the Spirit, a river of living water, and every believer is a part of that outpouring.

When we're spiritually hungry and thirsty, the Spirit is where to find the energy we need to go on. When we're lost, the wind of the Spirit is what blows in the right direction. When we're exhausted, the power of the Spirit is what recharges and renews us and keeps us going.

Thank you, God, for the outpouring of your Spirit! Help me to lean on your strength. Move me to follow where you lead. Let the joy of living with you overflow and bring your joy to others too.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Imitators of God

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Be my strong refuge, to which I may resort continually; you have given the commandment to save me. - Psalm 71:3 (NKJV)

Paul knelt down with them all and prayed.There was much weeping among them all; they embraced Paul and kissed him, grieving especially because of what he had said, that they would not see him again. Then they brought him to the ship. - Acts 20:36-38

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 83:9-12; Isaiah 29; Ephesians 4:29-5:7

Today I'm struck by a couple of phrases from Ephesians 5. Following a passage about God's grace-filled action in calling and equipping all the saints for ministry (Ephesians 4:10-16, one of my favorites!), Paul has moved on to urge us to live lives that reflect this grace and calling. A few example phrases: put away your former way of life ... be renewed in the spirit of your minds ... clothe yourselves with the new self ... put away falsehood ... speak the truth ... be angry but do not sin ... speak only what is useful for building up ... be kind to one another ...

And early in Ephesians 5, "be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us."

It's astounding to think that we, ordinary people, can be imitators of God. Of course we wouldn't succeed in this by ourselves! But because of God's grace, poured out into our lives, with the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are led by God's power, not our own, toward this goal. We will never get there perfectly. But God is moving us in that direction.

Today's psalm and the verses from Acts 20 remind me that this call to be "imitators of God" is lived out in the middle of ordinary, daily human life. God is a "strong refuge," the foundation of our new life, to whom we can return continually. And the best way to see godliness in our lives is to see how God's Spirit, working through us, can transform the lives of other people. As Paul went from being a persecutor of Christians to an equipper and supporter, he knew that it was not his own strength, but God's strength working through him, that successfully communicated the good news of Christ to others, and helped them likewise become followers of Christ. The story of Acts 20 tells of Paul's farewell from people of the Ephesian church, the same church to which the letter is addressed. We can see how the love and gratitude he speaks of has taken root and grown.

For you and me today, God's word is the same, and the process God uses is the same. We have been given the gift of grace and love, mercy and forgiveness, new life and new hope in Christ. Now through that grace, God works within us to transform us, shedding the unhelpful aspects of the old life and putting on the Christ-like clothing of the new life, holy and wholly devoted to making love known and making love real in the lives of others. We will never do it perfectly, but in our own small ways, we can become imitators of God. And we can know that those little echos and reflections of God's love are true and real, and worthy of thanks!

Seasons of Creation

My reflection on yesterday's Daily Texts:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. - Genesis 1:1 (NIV)

It is by faith that we understand that the universe was created by God’s word. - Hebrews 11:3 (GNT)

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 83:1-8; Isaiah 28; Ephesians 4:17-28

I was intrigued by this little section from Isaiah 28:
Do those who plow for sowing plow continually? Do they continually open and harrow their ground? When they have leveled its surface, do they not scatter dill, sow cummin, and plant wheat in rows and barley in its proper place, and spelt as the border? For they are well instructed; their God teaches them. Dill is not threshed with a threshing sledge, nor is a cart wheel rolled over cummin; but dill is beaten out with a stick, and cummin with a rod. Grain is crushed for bread, but one does not thresh it forever; one drives the cart wheel and horses over it, but does not pulverize it. This also comes from the LORD of hosts; he is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in wisdom.
It sounds like a little farming advice! But it comes as part of a longer section, one of many in the Bible, that compares Israel and other nations to vineyards and other kinds of fields and crops. Isaiah never says it directly, but implies that the judgments and corrections and disciplines of God are like these steps of plowing, leveling, harvesting, threshing. They may seem harsh and painful, but they don't last forever, and they're for a purpose, for the production of something good and useful.

This summer, the "Revised Common Lectionary," used by many churches on Sunday mornings, is about to take us into a stretch of Matthew's gospel where the focus is on growth. To that theme, this section from Isaiah 28 adds a reminder about the seasons of growth, that what's going on in life today may be different tomorrow, or next week - but that in our generations, even the seasons of our own lives, we may experience the cycles of growth that others (maybe even we ourselves) have been through before. We can learn from that previous experience. When things feel difficult, we can know that this feeling won't last forever. When things feel pleasant, we can avoid being complacent, but enjoy the moment for what it is.

There's another interesting connection with the verses of the day, Genesis 1:1, the very first verse of the Bible, the beginning of the creation story, and Hebrews 11:3, which reminds us of the importance of faith in seeing the patterns of God's hand in creation.

Each season of life brings different joys and challenges, puzzles and insights, times of pruning and of growth. God, grant us faith to look around, look back, and look forward, to see your purposes unfolding in and through our lives. Help us to appreciate each moment, and to continually grow toward you, little by little. Keep us connected to you, and help us to be useful for you and for the world, in every season of creation.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

This is the Day

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. - Psalm 118:24

The father said to his slaves, "Quickly, bring out a robe — the best one — and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!" - Luke 15:22-24

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 82:5-8; Isaiah 26,27; Ephesians 4:7-16

You'd probably find Psalm 118:24 on a lot of people's lists of favorite inspirational scriptures. "This is the day that the Lord has made" encourages us to see God's hand at work all around us. And "Let us rejoice and be glad in it" encourages us to appreciate it, thoroughly enjoy it, give thanks and immerse ourselves in it.

There is a certain context for this verse, of course, and as always it's good to be aware of that, since taking a verse out of context can lead to misunderstandings and false hopes. This psalm seems to be celebrating a specific victory over enemies, so "this" day refers to the way God acted at that time, defeating human powers that threatened life and faith. But the psalm doesn't give many historical details, and it's written in a more general, forward-looking way, easily adaptable to any time of thankfulness, renewal of faith, and celebration of God's power. As with many psalms, it becomes part of the Bible's "hymn book" that can be used any time. And it contains some other "greatest hits" verses that many people may be familiar with:
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!
Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place.
With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can mortals do to me?
The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.
I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.
The Lord has punished me severely, but he did not give me over to death.
This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.
The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. 
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
Christians will recognize that some of these verses are quoted in the New Testament to identify Jesus as God's son, or reflect strong Christian themes. So we can say that the New Testament expands on this psalm's theme of victory and trust in God's power over human power, in a way that points to Jesus' unique way of revealing God's ways to all people.

It so happens that Psalm 118:24 is matched up today with one of my favorite scripture passages, the one I keep coming back to as the foundation for my sense of what God has called me to do as a pastor. I'm talking about Ephesians 4:11-13:
The gifts [Christ] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 
I believe we're living in a new time of reformation and renewal, an echo of the Reformation of Martin Luther and others that began 500 years ago this year. Due to various factors, some of which we experience as good and pleasant, some we might say are painful or threatening, the church and the world are reawakening to the place of all Christians as "saints" to be equipped for the work of ministry. This little passage probably says it most clearly, but the Bible is full of stories and encouragement for every believer to be involved in love of God, love of neighbor, and God's mission of love to the world.

I've been thinking lately that this time, a time of anxiety for many people in the church, may really be a time to be celebrated. There is risk, of course, in any change. And there is loss, and grief, and disorientation when anything familiar comes to an end and something new comes along. But just as Psalm 118 lays out a theme of trust and hope and joy, in images that foreshadow the coming of Christ, I think the struggles of our time may set the tone for celebration now and in the future. Rather than mourn for the lost stability of the past, we can look at what God is doing right now, notice how God is setting countless people free to live God's way and tell God's story, and rededicate ourselves to thanking and praising God and getting on with God's will.

This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!