Saturday, December 24, 2016

Free and Bound in Christ

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

I kept my faith, even when I said, "I am greatly afflicted." - Psalm 116:10

If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. - John 8:36

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 147:1-6; 2 Kings 21:1-22:10; Acts 7:17-29

These are unusual scriptures for Christmas Eve! But they get me thinking about what it means that Jesus was born for us. Freedom is certainly one answer. "Free from bondage to sin and death" is a familiar way to talk about Christian life. When we think about Jesus as God's light coming into the world, we can say that the light sets us free from the problem of walking around in the darkness, getting lost or banging into things. Today's scriptures, though, show freedom in a unique way, somewhat different from the way we usually mean it in America.

The American ideal of freedom is mostly about "freedom from." Our national personality loves the idea of the rugged individual unfettered by any chains, a lone cowboy out on the open range. Our Bill of Rights is a list of areas of life in which we're free from government restriction. We don't like anything that limits or binds us.

Christian freedom obviously has this "freedom from" dimension too. In Christ, not only are we free from sin and death, but from the power of evil, and from the ability of all kinds of suffering to harm who we truly are as children of God. In John 8, Jesus is talking about "freedom from" worry about our status with God. In him, with our bondage to sin broken, we can be assured that we have "a permanent place in the household" alongside Jesus, the Son, forever.

But this is one example of how, when we start to take a closer look at Christian freedom, other dimensions quickly become obvious too. Christian freedom means that we are free in Christ, in a constant relationship with him. Being "in the household" of God connects us with all the other family members in the household. We are creatures made in God's image, which includes relationship (since God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thus relationship is part of who God is, not just some additional thing God does). To be set free to be the people we were created to be is to have our natural bonds of relationship with God and all creation be strong, pure, unbroken, and uncomplicated. Christians are never lone cowboys, but members of a body, a family.

Because these bonds are part of our very being, just as they're part of God's being, they are not limits, but expressions of who we most truly and fully are. Our freedom is not compromised, but enhanced, by being intimately connected with God and all creation.

One example I saw this morning was with our little dog, Reggie. He was free to go wherever he felt like and do whatever he wanted. But as he often does at prayer time, he was plastered right up against my right thigh. He used his freedom to do something he loves, namely hanging out close to his people.

In the same room where I was reading and praying, we also have a little nativity piece that's one of my favorites (despite my pet peeve about overly modern-Caucasian images of Jesus and other people from the Bible). It looks as if it's carved from rough wood, with Jesus and Mary and Joseph all bodily connected. Different, unique, but from the same substance. Mary holds Jesus, and Joseph holds Mary, and Jesus holds everybody's focus. It's not a bad picture of Christian freedom, everybody set free and at the same time everybody connected.

This brings up the other dimension of freedom. In addition to "freedom from," we also have "freedom for." There are things we are created for, which we don't have the ability to do while we're in bondage to anything other than God. Sin, death, evil, selfishness, brokenness - all take away from our "freedom for" things like love, compassion, seeing others fully as people created in God's image, being known ourselves as who we really are in the same way. There is a way of life for which we are created, a way that lets us joyfully and powerfully be all that we can be, and gives us ways to foster the same kind of life for others. I love the Hebrew word shalom, deep and abiding peace and harmony, to hint at this way of life. Other words like steadfast love, justice, righteousness, mercy, and grace point to different dimensions of the same way of life. This is what we are "free for" in Christ. And the Bible's strong language about family and unity show how this freedom includes a dimension of being bound up together with others.

For me, that's the Christmas Eve message of the day. In a world badly broken, torn by violence, darkened by evil, rotten with sin that wants to turn in on itself and shut out the rest of the world, God sends Jesus as a helpless child, born to ordinary confused parents, announced to disrespected shepherds, raised in humble circumstances, gentle in spirit, strong in love. The world's worst will assault this child, and will appear to have won. But Jesus will take it and transform it all - for us. In Christ, we are free indeed, and bound indeed to God and to each other and to the world.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Bless this Mess

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

All the ends of the earth shall turn to the Lord. - Psalm 22:27

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. - John 1:9

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 146:6-10; 2 Kings 20:1-21; Acts 7:4-16

Today's scriptures remind me of the old "Bless this mess" cross-stitch art that hangs in lots of homes. I have no idea where the idea started, but I imagine a skilled and competent 19th century woman, trying her best to make a nice home for her family, finding that it's really just impossible to keep it all together perfectly, and coping with humor and creativity and a simple prayer. "Bless this mess" is a pretty good theology of grace! And it fits with the way God has worked in human life throughout history.

The verses of the day both come to people who are living in less-than-perfect situations. Psalm 22 is the psalm quoted by Jesus from the cross; it begins "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" and goes downhill from there. In planning worship, I like to include this psalm during the "stripping of the altar" at the end of the Maundy Thursday service. There seem to be two alternating voices: one that cries out to God for current suffering, another that finds comfort and solace in trusting God. Both are given equal weight in the psalm, though the voice of faith gets the last word, in a section that includes today's verse. John 1:9 is from the majestic introduction to John's gospel, which will be read on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. John gives us the loftiest view of the coming of Jesus into the world. No stables or shepherds or wise men or even babies, but Jesus as God, the eternal Word, the giver of life, the light of the world. Another powerful verse highlights the strength of Christ's light against the darkness of the world: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

So these words of faith and trust and hope come in contexts of suffering and darkness. There is a mess that sorely needs to be blessed! And God chooses to do that. This happens over and over in our human condition. In a way, we are all like the first person who cross-stitched "Bless this mess." We lose our illusions that life can be perfect. We recognize our need for help. And we trust in God as the One we turn to for that help.

In the two-year readings for today, Psalm 146 is a psalm of praise, whose praise comes from acknowledging God's light in our darkness. We hear "Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help," but "Happy [or blessed] are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God." And we get a number of examples of God's love and mercy and compassion in different kinds of need. 2 Kings 20 gives us another story of the messed-up lives of the kings, where shortly after God has removed the immense threat of Assyria, King Hezekiah shows both faith and foolishness. In Acts 7, Stephen is on trial, about to become the first Christian martyr and set a record for shortest time as a Christian leader, and his testimony is to re-tell the whole story of God's action among God's people from the time of Abraham on. He will end up pointing out the mess God's people have made of God's work, and his opponents won't take his judgment kindly.

Stephen inspires us to take these ancient stories of God and human beings, and hold them up against our own lives, to learn from them, to recognize our own mess, and to carry on the faith by looking to God, and God alone, for our help. Today, we live in an age of ideological conflict. I have my image of how the world should be, and you have yours, and we each judge each other's to be flatly wrong. We don't tolerate differences. We don't appreciate that other people, also made in God's image but finding themselves in different circumstances in the world, might legitimately come to different conclusions. We don't have enough humility to see that the world is more complex than we can grasp, and that our ideas about ideological perfection are always too small. And so we label, and we fight against each other, red vs. blue, liberal vs. conservative, American vs. foreigner, urban vs. rural, rich vs. poor, black vs. white, yadda yadda yadda. What a mess. We need to be blessed! And our biggest danger is that we will look for our blessing not from God, but from the same ideological mess we're already drowning in.

On one hand, I have a bad feeling about the time we're living in. We seem to be consistently choosing to descend further into division and distrust and violence. On the other hand, scripture and history show that this is the way it's always been. The mess lies within our basic human nature. And scripture keeps pointing us back to God, with a hope that one day, "all the ends of the earth shall turn to the Lord" fully and completely. And even now, in the midst of the darkness of our mess, we are given the great gift of knowing God, through Christ, "the true light, which enlightens everyone." The blessing of Christmas is the news that he has already come into the world! Even now, we can choose his way over darkness. Even while we cry out in despair with one voice, we can lift up another voice of faith. May we watch and wait for that day when the light completely defeats the darkness. And until then, may our mess be blessed.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

God's Justice

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Woe to those who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent. - Isaiah 5:22,23 (NIV)

With the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. - Matthew 7:2

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 145:17-21; 2 Kings 19:1-28; Acts 5:41-6:7

Fairness, justice, and equality are the themes that are obvious to me in today's scriptures. Jesus' words from Matthew 7 also set those themes in the larger context of Christian life. This is part of the "Sermon on the Mount," three whole chapters of Jesus teaching about what it means to live a life centered around God. A few verses of this material touch directly on judging and justice. But the whole sermon teaches us to live according to God's way of life, not the world's.

I'm also struck today by the simple reliance on God, even in really difficult circumstances, found in Psalm 145:17-20:
The LORD is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings.
The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfills the desire of all who fear him; he also hears their cry, and saves them.
The LORD watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy.
Clearly, justice - and everything we need for God's way of life - originate with God's nature and God's power.

The other scriptures, from 2 Kings 19 and Acts 5, are separate stories that each show a resolution of a conflict by God's power. King Hezekiah literally lays out the threat against him, and prays:
"O LORD the God of Israel, who are enthroned above the cherubim, you are God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth. Incline your ear, O LORD, and hear; open your eyes, O LORD, and see ... Save us, I pray you ... so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O LORD, are God alone." - 2 Kings 19:15-19
And the verse that I previewed and marveled at yesterday, with the following verse:
They rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah. - Acts 5:41-42
Seeking God's justice and righteousness is a whole-life effort, which comes with real risk and cost. But over and over again, the Bible testifies that pursuing God's way, even at this cost, is the most excellent way.

Last night, I launched a new blog that will focus on justice and righteousness as I see it (or don't see it) in our political system. There are some risks in doing that. There is also the risk that I might get too self-righteous and caught up in my own biases and opinions. The answer to all these risks - and any others - is to keep rooted in God's word and in prayer, turning always to God's justice and righteousness as my foundation.

That is my prayer for myself, for all who are touched by what I say or do or write, and for our nation as a whole. Through faith and by following God, the way will be prepared for "all the kingdoms of the earth" to know God and God's ways.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Grace Upon Grace

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

God does great things beyond understanding, and marvelous things without number. - Job 9:10

From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. - John 1:16

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 145:8-16; 2 Kings 18; Acts 5:17-40

I've always liked John's phrase, "grace upon grace." God piles on the undeserved blessings of love, beyond our understanding. We find one blessing, and think that's the end, and then, surprise! there's another.

There's another stark contrast today, in how Jerusalem is treated. In 2 Kings 18, the Assyrian king, probably the strongest political and military leader of the world at that time, sends messengers to threaten the king of Judah and the people of Jerusalem. What God can stand against us? Surrender or die! Safe to say, this is the opposite of grace. Boasting, might, arrogance, self-focused pride. And it can never last. Spoiler alert: by the end of the next chapter, the Assyrian king will be dead and gone, and Jerusalem will be safe from his threats.

On the other hand, in Acts 5, the power of God is shown in Jerusalem through a handful of ordinary people who faithfully proclaim Jesus as Lord and extend Jesus' compassion to people in all kinds of need. The authorities in Jerusalem are again shocked and afraid at this threat to their power! But this time, it's God who is coming to take over the city and the world, with the reign of the risen Jesus, a reign of peace and mercy and love, grace upon grace. The followers of Jesus are not warriors - and yet no power of the authorities can stop them. When imprisoned, the bars can't hold them. When called to testify, they go peacefully, glad for the opportunity to tell the story again. In this story, the spoiler is the next verse after today's reading ends, v.41: "They rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name."

What I take from all this is that power and honor always have to be considered by God's standards, not the world's. God chooses to come with humility, patience, mercy, gentleness, love, grace upon grace. And God finds ways, even where human eyes can see no way, for this reign to expand and be made known. As I think about the way we regard power and honor in the world today, in many different ways, I realize that I have a long way to go in being able to see and trust in God's grace for everything in all situations, even when there's risk of danger or dishonor by human standards. But as I seek to take a step or two forward on that long way of learning trust, I know enough to be confident that God will walk with me all the way, guiding, leading, teaching, forgiving, providing. That's just how God works, grace upon grace!
A few gifts of grace

Monday, December 19, 2016

Light Dawns

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Light dawns for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart. - Psalm 97:11

When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. - Matthew 2:10 (NKJV)

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 145:1-7; 2 Kings 17:7-41; Acts 5:12-16

Light is a common theme in scripture representing God's presence, guidance, goodness, grace, and hope. In today's verses, there's an additional element of readiness and awareness of God's light. Are we expecting the light to come? Do we know what it will look like? Are we watching and waiting for it? And there's an element of time passing and a story unfolding as the light becomes fully visible. At sunrise, we can see the first light of the sun long before it officially dawns on the horizon. And the visibility of a star depends on how much other light is around, the position of the viewer, and other factors.

The obvious connection, in this Advent season, is the coming of Christ. The Messiah is expected - but in very different ways by different people. While people close to the history of Israel had no clue about Jesus' birth, foreign stargazers from far away saw something worth traveling hundreds of miles for. In the context of the psalm, God's coming means joy for those who are aligned with God, but something else - fear? dread? defeat? - for people who look elsewhere for their highest good.

Today, my own thoughts turn again to our national political situation. Today the electors of the Electoral College cast their official votes, confirming that Donald Trump will be our next president. There are some who see this turn of events as light and hope - a chance for change from a political system that has been broken for a long time, or new energy put into conservative economic policies they think will benefit the country, or even a white nationalist hope where "light" connects to a preferred skin color. There are others, like me, who see Trump's election as a turn into darkness, fearing that the appeal of his campaign has been to division and discrimination and disagreement.

Time will tell which "side" has the more accurate take on Trump's prospects for America and the world. I'm reminded again of the long parade of kings of Israel and Judah, some judged good and others judged bad or evil by later writers of the Bible. At the current stage being retold in 2 Kings 17, the shortcomings and convenient alliances of the northern kingdom have run their course and taken their toll, and the northern tribes have fallen, never to be seen again. The southern kingdom stays in place, though weakened, and will have its own up-and-down history for hundreds of years before becoming the place where the Messiah is finally born. The little community that springs up in his name, of which we still hear the beginnings in Acts 5, is built instead around mutual love and care, truth-telling, sacrificial giving, acts of mercy and healing, and a sense that the blessings of God are for everyone. At a time of darkness and difficulty, Jesus' young church begins to bring light in a growing sphere of illumination.

Whether I'm right or wrong about Donald Trump, I find encouragement in today's scriptures. Jesus is Lord. God is in charge. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. God's light dawns despite anything worldly darkness can do, and in it we can find joy. May we do our best to be faithful, and righteous, true and focused on the light of Christ.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Sharing the treasure

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Fathers make known to children your faithfulness. - Isaiah 38:19

Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old. - Matthew 13:52

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 144:1-4; 2 Kings 14; Acts 4:13-22

There are different explanations of Matthew 13:52. My favorite is that becoming a "scribe," a teacher or interpreter of God's word, is an aim for all followers of Jesus; and that in "bringing out of our treasure what is old and what is new," our work is to connect the scriptural stories of God's action in the past with what we see of God's action in our current context. What did we learn? How was God revealed to us? How have God's people experienced salvation and inspiration? What does it all mean for us today? This is a lot like parents passing on the faith to each succeeding generation - but more as well. We can be teachers and interpreters for anybody who might need to know what God's word means for their life.

In Acts 4, Peter and John are working to make God's history real for more people. They're living out Jesus' call to spread the word in ever-widening circles: "You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). The crowds and the authorities recognize that Peter and John are "uneducated and ordinary men," yet because of what God is doing through them, they have enough influence that the only threat the authorities can come up with is to tell them to be quiet! Of course, they can't; they say instead, "we cannot keep from speaking."

I believe it still works this way! At Zion Lutheran Church, where I serve, we recently took orders for copies of the Daily Texts. These little daily guides to scripture are also available on the web each day at:
     http://www.mountcarmelministries.com/daily-texts-devotionals/
Or you can sign up to receive them by email at:
     http://www.moravian.org/faith-a-congregations/moravian-daily-texts/subscribe-to-the-daily-texts/
I think it's great for every Christian to work on a regular habit of reading some scripture, praying about it, and reflecting on what you read and what you hear from God in prayer. It's even better to talk about it with a few friends, or create your own journal or blog. This is a simple, easy way to start becoming a "scribe," learning to recognize and interpret God's word and share it with others.

We'll find that the circle of God's story and Spirit keeps widening, and every Christian has the chance to be a part of it. Just by living and walking with God, we accumulate a treasure of our own experiences with God and the proclamations of other people. We also come across people who need what we've been given. To "bring out of our treasure what is old and what is new" is to watch and listen, be a friend and partner to people in need, and to give deeply and generously from God's abundance. How has God enriched each of us? Who is God putting in our lives who needs that story and inspiration? What can we do to make God's love real for them, through what we do and what we say? May we be learners and teachers, "scribes" who receive and share God's great treasure for the needs of the world!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Make Something of It

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

The God of heaven is the one who will give us success, and we his servants are going to start building. - Nehemiah 2:20

We are God’s fellow workers. - 1 Corinthians 3:9 (NKJV)

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 143:7-12; 2 Kings 12,13; Acts 4:1-12

Nehemiah is directing the rebuilding of the walls and the city of Jerusalem. Paul and Apollos are planting seeds and watering and tending them so that faith grows in Corinth. The kings of Israel and Judah, in a long parade, build their nations according to their own designs, for better or for worse. Peter, having begun with healing one man in Jerusalem, points to Jesus as the cornerstone for all that must be built, and begins to build the church with a public speech in front of the authorities.

God constantly gives us materials to work with. What we're given, and what we're called to build with it, can vary a lot over time! But we're given the gifts of creativity and industriousness. Every day God provides for our daily needs, giving us strength. And every moment God's Spirit directs us, like wind that fills a ship's sails and moves it forward.

I find a lot of grace and freedom and joy in God's way of calling us to make something of what we're given. We're created to walk with God and draw our strength from our closeness with God, as David seeks to do in Psalm 143. We find that there are definitely wrong things to do, as the rulers of the northern kingdom find out when they keep turning to other gods and other powers. But within the way God calls us to walk, there are plenty of right options. Sometimes we get clear, specific assembly instructions from God, but often it seems that God is just giving a general direction, looking for us to add our God-given gifts and ideas and passions to the mix, and delighting in seeing what we create.

Wherever we find ourselves in life, whatever we have on hand to work with, may we find purpose and joy in being servants and fellow workers with God as we make something of it!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Glory and Grace

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Show me your glory, I pray. - Exodus 33:18

Philip said to him, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied." Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?" - John 14:8-9

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 143:1-6; 2 Kings 11; Acts 3:11-26

Today's Old Testament reading is just six words from the amazing story of Moses' walk with God. Moses prayed for God to be with the people of Israel on their journey to the Promised Land, to lead them, and to teach them God's ways. God grants that request, and when Moses asks to see God's glory, God grants that too (at least from a "rear view"). God's "goodness" is what will pass before Moses, and God adds, "I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy." God's covenant, and the Ten Commandments that come out of Moses' encounters with God, are marked by grace and mercy.

Something like 1400 years later, God's glory, and God's grace and mercy, are revealed most fully in Jesus Christ. John's gospel in particular testifies to Jesus as the bearer of God's glory, especially in his being "lifted up" on the cross to reconcile God and humanity. In today's passage from John, Jesus confirms that to see him us to see God.

In the Acts reading, Peter also testifies that God has glorified Jesus. The ability to heal comes not "by our own power or piety," but by the name of Jesus. Faith in Jesus gives strength and healing, and the glory of God connects with human life in grace and mercy and compassion.

We may miss it because it's such a well-known theme in Christianity, but it's really amazing that is where God's glory is seen best. God could attract attention for a lot of things! But God chooses to be known as love, grace, mercy, compassion, healing, and new life. And God brings these things by pure grace, undeserved, free to everyone in need. We don't earn our way to God's gifts, or stockpile earthly glory for ourselves. But in receiving or sharing God's grace, we find God's glory freely given.
grace

It makes me think about our human concepts of glory, as well as power, wealth, influence, prestige, and all kinds other measurements of ability or value. Life is not a war where we have to fight and defeat others to gain. God's glory and grace always go together,

Today I'm also led to pray for everyone who seeks or holds power, wealth, influence, or prestige. May we remember that true glory, as shown by the creator of the universe, is merciful and compassionate and full of grace. And may our world learn to appreciate this! May Moses' prayer, "Show me your glory," be met with God's display of mercy and grace. And may this gracious, merciful grace be reflected in our own lives.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Give What You Have

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. - Proverbs 31:8

Remember the prisoners as if chained with them - those who are mistreated - since you yourselves are in the body also. - Hebrews 13:3 (NKJV)

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 142; 2 Kings 10; Acts 3:1-10

The Bible is packed full of calls to work actively for the well-being of people in all kinds of need. We have two examples in today's Daily Texts verses, and another in the story of Peter (and John) continuing Jesus' ministry of compassion and healing. Throughout the Bible, the idea of "righteousness" (being in right relationship with God) is closely connected with the idea of "justice" (being in right relationship with others, the community, and the world). When Jesus was asked about the most important commandment, his answer was to love God with everything you have, and love your neighbor as yourself.

In the Proverbs 31 verse today, we're called to speak, to each use our voice for advocating for those who can't speak for themselves. Psalm 142 shows the power of one's own voice in prayer to God; we can use this power for ourselves and for others. Acts 3 shows Peter using his voice to get the attention of a man in need, to proclaim Christ, and to move him to health. I love the line, "I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk." For me, Peter's words connect to Jesus' "great commandment" to love with everything we have, loving neighbor as self, and inspire me to give what I have for the sake of others.

In our society, speaking up is still important. A couple of quotes I've been reminding myself of lately:
"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act." - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
But in the last decade or so, we've become so accustomed to social media, blogs, forums, comment sections, and other ways to create and consume "content" that just voicing an opinion has become effortless. If all we do is post something on Facebook, we're effectively remaining silent because the noise level is so loud, we'll be drowned out or forgotten almost immediately.

Our call is to use our voice - and all that we have - for God's purposes, including compassion and active help for people in need. We should still speak! But how can our speaking carry real weight and influence in the world? How can it be connected to real dialogue and mutual learning? How can our voice make a real difference in the world, so that something actually happens to make life better for those in need?

The Hebrews 13 verse urges us to put ourselves in the place of those in need, supporting them as if we were physically there with them. Peter and John live this out, meeting the man in the place where his circumstances limited him to being, looking him in the eye, seeing and acknowledging and meeting his need.

Like a microphone connects our voice to instruments that enter into others' lives and create movement, our call to follow God still includes finding ways to give what we have, so that something really happens. May we be guided by the word of God, especially as spoken into the world in the love and compassion of Jesus. May we pray and ponder and look and listen and discern what needs to be said, and said by us. Then may we say it, and follow through so that something moves in response.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Grace Where You Are

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

I will gather the exiles. I will give them praise and honor in every land where they have suffered shame. - Zephaniah 3:19 (NIV)

Jesus saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. - Mark 6:34

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:5-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

I find it interesting that in today's section from Zephaniah, God promises two things that seem to work differently. One is to gather together people who are in exile. The other is to honor them in the land where they find themselves now. So there is both a journey home, and a blessing before they get there. It shows that God has authority over all the earth - not just within certain borders.

I was reading a book recently (A Field Guide for the Missional Congregation: Embarking on a Journey of Transformation, by Richard Rouse and Craig Van Gelder) that noted the difference between a "journey" and a "quest." With a journey, you have a destination and it just takes you a while to get there. With a quest, there is something you're seeking, but you don't know where you'll have to go to find it. The difference has been rattling around in my mind. And when I read today's scriptures, I wonder if I tend to focus too much on the "destination" I've set for myself. I do really like the journey metaphor for life. But maybe it would be good for me to think more in terms of the quest, worrying less about where I'm going, and paying more attention along the way.

This is how I see God working in today's scriptures. It doesn't matter where we are, how far away from home we are, or in what direction we're moving. God finds us, and cares about us. God extends grace to us wherever we are. May we receive it! And may we extend grace to others. May life be a journey toward God, and a quest for God's grace and love in all places and forms.


Saturday, December 10, 2016

Anointed for Salvation

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. - Jeremiah 23:5


Those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!" - Mark 11:9-10

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 141:5-10; 2 Kings 9; Acts 2:29-47

Today's scriptures point to leaders who have been anointed, literally or metaphorically, for their work. And with the fulfillment of prophecies of the Messiah in Jesus, we hear the cry "Hosanna!" which means "Save, we pray!" God continually gives leaders for this purpose: to meet people in their time of need, and give them a way to better and fuller life. We may need to be saved from enemies, from oppression, corruption, idolatry, our own sins - the list of human troubles is endless. God is consistent with grace, forgiveness, mercy, and generosity.

Before Jesus, there were some good, effective, and faithful leaders among plenty of bad ones. There was also the promise that the best things in these leaders were only hints at the righteousness and power of the Messiah, who would save all people forever. With the coming of Jesus, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, leadership comes from God in the form of Spirit-led following of Jesus. Peter, anointed and filled with the Spirit, preaches boldly to the crowd. These people, too, can be baptized into the same life with Christ, opening the way for their own salvation - and for their influence in showing love to others, so that they too will know Jesus and come to salvation.

The pattern continues today. As we are baptized into Christ and his church, we're anointed with the Spirit and called into God's reign of salvation - both for ourselves, and for others. We become leaders in our own unique style, showing the way for anyone who cares to take a look at our lives and the peace and assurance given through Christ.

It may be uncomfortable to think of ourselves as leaders in this way! But look again at the stories of people before us who have been anointed for salvation. Often feeling unprepared, seeming to be unqualified, they were called to live lives worthy of the love and grace they'd been shown, and to speak to other people about all that God has done. This seems to be God's preferred way of sharing the good news!

Gracious God, thank you for the word and water and spirit and call of our baptism. Thank you for anointing people before us to bring the story to our lives. And thank you for anointing us to rest in your salvation and to carry the good news on to still other people.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Submitting to Right

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Balaam replied, "Although Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the Lord my God." - Numbers 22:18

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. - Romans 12:21

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 141:1-4; 2 Kings 8; Acts 2:14-28

In today's scriptures, I see a common theme of doing the right thing no matter what, and firmly persisting in it by faith, and trusting that whatever happens, God will be there to help keep us connected to each other and to the right thing for the next stage of the journey.

"There is always some peace in having
submitted to the right. Don’t spoil it by
worrying about the results, if you can help it.
It is not your business to succeed (no one
can be sure of that) but to do right: when
you have done so, the rest lies with God."
- C. S. Lewis

The sketchy prophet Balaam gets his priorities right in today's Numbers 22 verse, understanding that every true word of prophecy comes from God, and that his command as a prophet is to speak the word God gives him, nothing else - not even for money. In 2 Kings 8, the woman who cared for Elisha listens to his word again, spares herself seven years of famine, and is restored to her house and land. Peter's speech in Acts 2 proclaims to the crowd that faith in Jesus means life, because it was impossible for Jesus to be held in the power of death. In Romans 12, Paul tells the young, conflicted church community not to sin, but to do what's right and good - even (in the very next verse, 13:1) submitting to authority, the same authority that will eventually imprison and presumably execute Paul.

There is a sense, in all of these stories, that the ups and downs of life don't change or lessen or go away for God's people. In fact, they may be sharper and more difficult, because faith in God can attract resistance from other forces. Danger, and even death, are real possibilities. Yet, in all of these stories, there is some learning and growth and witness that comes from the journey. And in the long run, God's kingdom is served.

I think we face a number of moments in life where we can choose to do the right thing, or what seems to be the easy, more comfortable, more expedient thing. We can stick with God's way, trusting in God's help along what we (probably rightly) judge to be a challenging path. Or we can cave in, compromise, or chicken out, hoping (probably in vain) to avoid trouble while at the same time weakening our faith and distancing ourselves from God's strength.

I believe it can sometimes be hard to tell which way is the right way, especially when numerous options are available. But there are many times when the choice is clear, simple, and direct. In my own life, I've had times that have gone both ways. And I've learned from both. When I've chosen the easy way, I've found that I'm disappointed by the shallowness of the results, or I've missed out on an experience that would have made me a better person. When I've chosen the right way, there is always some sacrifice, but I've never lacked for the resources to make it through (even when I had some doubts about that along the way) and the blessings and learnings have been far beyond what I could have imagined in the beginning.

This kind of choice (what C. S. Lewis called "submitting to right") is a recurring part of the faith journey of any person who tries to follow God. I see it in my personal life, and I see it in the decisions I have to make as a pastor. I definitely fail to make the right choice sometimes! But I believe that God will continue to reveal truth to us, whether we choose the right thing or the easy thing. It's a blessing just to get to see God's kingdom unfolding and growing, as it weaves our own individual lives into the big picture of God's love for the world. May we choose to stick with God, and see more of the picture.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Obedience

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped, and he said to him, "What do you command your servant, my Lord?" - Joshua 5:14

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

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 140:6-13; 2 Kings 6:24-7:20; Acts 2:1-13

We have a number of weird, dramatic stories in today's scriptures! Joshua receiving his marching orders for the fall of Jericho; the plundering of the suddenly-abandoned Aramean camp outside of Samaria; the disciples being given the gift of the Holy Spirit. Each of these high points of drama were preceded by times of waiting, watching, uncertainty, looking for God's will. And they all came at times of great need. God heard, and intervened with the words of the prophets and direct action.

Reading these stories today, I started to think about how rare they are: a few mountaintop moments in the thousands of years of people's life with God. But then I thought about the story of the Son of God born in a manger, and how that story has changed everything forever. In the Luke 11 verse, Jesus is responding to a woman who wants to particularly bless his mother, and he says that actually the blessing is for everyone who hears and obeys God's word. With the gift of Jesus and his ministry and teaching, life and death and resurrection, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, we all have opportunities, all the time, for weird dramatic stories that come from waiting, watching, wrestling, listening for God's word and will, and obeying. Often it's hard to faithfully persist far enough into the listening phase. But it also seems to be hard for us to simply obey, once we do get our marching orders. As Bonhoeffer said, simple obedience is what faith actually looks like in action.


In my own life, I can't say I've brought down any city walls, looted any enemy camps, or rushed out into the streets speaking in tongues. But I do recall times when prayer and Bible study and conversation with Christian friends has led me to be convinced that God was calling me in a certain way. And when I followed, there were abundant blessings beyond what I could have imagined. That's weird and dramatic enough for me.

In this Advent season, may we be strengthened for the acts of waiting, watching, wrestling, looking, and listening. And may we surrender our strength enough to simply follow and obey, once God has spoken. May we see and testify to God's guidance and power and faithfulness in what comes.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Love Overflows

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed. - Lamentations 3:22 (NIV)

The grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. - 1 Timothy 1:14

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 140:1-5; 2 Kings 5:15-6:23; Acts 1:15-26

I've missed a week of posting here, and a number of other things, as I've been feeling wiped out and worthless with a cold and with stress. I felt myself starting to come out of it yesterday, and felt a connection with one of yesterday's texts, from 1 Kings 18:21: "Elijah said, 'How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.'" I don't think I got as far as worshiping idols, but after a week or so of feeling run down, tired, and lethargic, I was aware of the unhealthy direction things were going. Less sleep leads to less energy leads to less exercise leads to less self-care leads to feeling down leads to being unmotivated leads to things not getting done leads to more stress leads to less sleep, and so on. It doesn't take long for a negative trend to take root and grow.

Yesterday, I received Elijah's challenging words as a gift of grace. "Are you going to let that negative spirit run your life? Or will you wake up and draw strength from God's Spirit?" I think we receive invitations like this, all the time, to recognize that God is at work, that God's strength can get us out of situations we might get stuck in otherwise, and that God will always let us "come back" and get back on God's track. Yesterday I felt like I was turning that corner.

Today's scriptures reinforce that feeling, with a focus on God's love that saves us, and a psalm and stories in 2 Kings and Acts that identify some times of trouble and some ways that God intervenes for people in need. Love is a powerful force that seeks the best for the beloved. Love is willing to go into unpleasant, undesirable situations and walk the beloved out of there. Love watches, waits, reaches, calls, persists, connects, enlightens, energizes. Love transforms. Love saves.

In the words of 1 Timothy: Love overflows. Love occupies whatever container we think represents our lives, and fills it, pushing out other forces that may be toxic to us. Love is an unbounded, flowing source of life that keeps going until its work is complete. Love knows our own hearts and provides what we need (Acts 1:24). Love surrounds harmful forces with its overwhelming power, whether we can see it or not (2 Kings 6:16). Even when we bring the harmful forces on ourselves, there is no end to God's love (Lamentations 3:22).

My week has been a very small taste of negativity. But it reminds me of the real power of the things that sidetrack us and drag us down. The answer is God's overflowing love. I'm grateful for it in my own life, and I pray that I've had my eyes opened a little more to how important it is to share God's love and direct others to it as I'm able.