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.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Obedience and Freedom

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice. - 1 Samuel 15:22

Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it! - Luke 11:28

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 89:19-29; Isaiah 49:22-51:16; Colossians 1:1-14

Today's obvious theme is "obedience." That can be an intimidating word, and it may carry a lot of negative connotations. But it's a key concept in the Christian faith, and understood in connection with God's love and grace, makes a lot of sense.

In today's section at the beginning of Colossians, Paul writes:
We have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Here, the foundation of grace is clear! God loves us, and reaches out to rescue and redeem us from all sin and brokenness. The gift of Christ is our entry into God's reign of light. We are adopted as beloved children into God's way of life. God's will and God's Spirit are also gifts that fill and guide us. Our lives are no longer self-centered, constricted messes that only result in us falling on our faces in the muck. But now we can "lead lives worthy of the Lord," growing, bearing fruit, gaining strength and endurance. God can work through us ordinary flawed people, to bring the good news of this love and new life to the whole world.

We are set free in Christ, from everything that would hold us down, condemn us to wallow in the stuff that trips us up, and separate us from God. AND the path of freedom is what we call obedience. If God knows the way, if God is our foundation and our strength, then it's only reasonable to stick close to God and not wander back into our former prisons, or new ones.

Maybe our fear and suspicion of "obedience" comes from our human experience. Nobody else other than God can be fully committed to our best interests - not even ourselves! Every human authority that wants to claim our obedience is tainted by a human agenda, intentionally or unintentionally. The world is full of cases where our submission would lead only to servitude or abuse or slavery, our freedom being sacrificed for our loss and somebody else's gain.

It's different with God. Jesus' paradoxical language of gaining our life by losing it, denying ourselves and taking up our cross daily, carries the truth, because it points to God as the only power that really leads to freedom. By giving up our own way and following God's way, we become ever more the people we were created to be. We set aside the illusion of self-will, seeing that we are very poor masters of ourselves, and that the living God can and does and will provide a better way.

Thank you, God, for your grace and redemption. And thank you for not closing the story and leaving us there, but continuing to lead and guide and fill and increase us. Help me to set aside every other influence, and follow you in humble and faithful obedience. Thank you for the freedom and joy and boundless new life that comes in you.

The Story of OUR Redemption

My reflection on the Daily Texts for Saturday, July 22:

We have all become like one who is unclean and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. - Isaiah 64:6

The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, "Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times." And he went out and wept bitterly. - Luke 22:61-62

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 88:6-12; Isaiah 43:22-44:23; Philippians 3:1-11

I've been saving some notes from last week that I haven't written up until now. The Daily Texts scriptures for July 21 and 22 have stayed with me as examples of how simple and powerful the message of faith in God can be.

My last post was about the scriptures for the 21st, giving a wide-angle, cosmic view of God's redemption in Christ, for Israel and for all nations. It struck me how the very next day gave an equally simple and powerful set of scriptures bringing that story of redemption down to a very intimate, personal level.

Peter's denial of Jesus might be the most famous example of someone who had a promising spiritual life, then blew it by showing himself to be full of fear and weak in faith. Isaiah 64 addresses the shallowness of our spiritual efforts - the highest standard of purity we can reach on our own will soon be shown to be worthless. In Philippians 3, Paul also confesses that his previous self-righteous state has turned out to be counted as nothing. (The word "rubbish" in 3:8 is much too polite a word; Paul is literally saying that in comparison with knowing God's grace in Christ, he regards everything that came before as "sewage" or "dung" or "human waste" - you can supply your own word.) Psalm 88 is known as the darkest of all the psalms, in which the writer is aware of sin and mortality and pain and judgment, and no note of hope is given.

Yet Jesus forgave Peter, prayed for him, and after the resurrection called him again to care for Jesus' flock. Paul found that stripping away the life he was most proud of actually led him to the freedom to "put on Christ" and live a new life by God's power, not his own. Psalm 88 is not the last word of the book of Psalms, and is vastly outnumbered by the psalms that do offer hope and praise, even in times of great need and personal collapse. In Isaiah 43-44, the prophet testifies to God's love and faithfulness despite human failure, and God's willingness to save and transform:
I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins ... For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring. They shall spring up like a green tamarisk, like willows by flowing streams ... Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you, you are my servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me. I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you.
More than just a lovely theory or a panoramic view we could see from far away, this word of God becomes real for each of us, in a very intimate and personal way. The story of redemption comes to me at times of MY life where I realize my own faults and limitations and brokenness, and it becomes the story of MY redemption. The same for you, and for all of us.

As I wrote in the last post, "There is no place, no condition so far gone that it can't be reached, redeemed, and renewed in Christ." That's true in a grand, global sense - and it's also true at the finest level of detail, in your life and in mine.

Thank you, God, for love this particular, for grace and mercy and forgiveness this close to my own heart. Touch my life, and the lives of others through me and your whole church, that everyone might live through you, know your protection, and have peace with you and one another.

The Story of Redemption

My reflection on the Daily Texts for Friday, July 21:

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. - Psalm 118:26

God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. - 1 John 4:9

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 88:1-5; Isaiah 42:10-43:21; Philippians 2:19-30

I've been saving some notes from last week that I haven't written up until now. The Daily Texts scriptures for July 21 and 22 have stayed with me as examples of how simple and powerful the message of faith in God can be.

From the 21st, the 1 John 4:9 verse echoes John 3:16, and gives a summary of the heart of the gospel message. God loves this world, and wants redemption and freedom, reconciliation and forgiveness, abundant life for everyone - and has accomplished this in Christ.

Following shortly after the first "servant song," Isaiah 42 tells about God's will for the people of Israel:
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
And a little later, Isaiah speaks about this salvation extending beyond Israel to all the nations of the world. Using images of new life in lifeless places, he writes:
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
An entire landscape that was barren will now foster life and growth! Christians see this being done for the whole world through Christ, the ultimate fulfillment of the "servant" themes of Isaiah, and other messianic prophecy. There is no place, no condition so far gone that it can't be reached, redeemed, and renewed in Christ.

Thank you, God, for love this enormous, for grace and mercy and forgiveness this all-encompassing. Touch my life, and the lives of others through me and your whole church, that everyone might live through you, know your protection, and have peace with you and one another.