Monday, October 23, 2017

God's Work

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established. – Proverbs 16:3

God is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. – Philippians 2:13

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 119:57–64; Ezekiel 27:12–28:10; James 5:13–20

I was part of a small group conversation recently about "God's work" of developing Christian maturity. Being made in the image of God, but also shaped by forces of self-preservation and human limitations, we are all "works in progress." We know that growing toward the image of Christ is our goal and destination, but we take long, circuitous paths that may or may not be clearly leading in that direction.

One interesting point of the conversation, which comes up again in today's scriptures, is God's role in this work, vs. our human role. How much of the process is God? How much is us? What is our responsibility? Where are the limits of our abilities?

The simple answer to "Is it God's work, or ours?" is Yes. It's both! And we know that God's work comes first, and does the far greater part. God takes the initiative to reach out to us, while we still are sinners, and it is completely by God's grace that we come to know anything about God or have any power to respond in faith. God's Holy Spirit inspires and directs our sanctification, the process of becoming more the holy people we are called to be. So in that sense, it's possible to say that it's all God's work.

Yet there is also clearly a sense where God's initiative of love and grace and sanctification call for human work as well. We could say this is an echo of the voice of God in our lives. Made in God's image, we in our very selves are awakened, enlivened, and empowered to imitate the moves of God that we see in Father, Son, and Spirit. We become disciples, followers, who learn to do what our teacher does. We are more than animated objects or robots; God honors us with some ability to choose whether to abide in God's abundant life and flourish, or chase after our own false gods and suffer the consequences, or something in between. As our spirits exist within God's greater Spirit, so our work influences the current within God's greater work.

Loving God, help us to embrace your work in our life, and let it lead us to our own work for you. Guide us, give us enough wisdom and strength and love to follow where you lead. And help us to become the people you created us to be.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Turn

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? – 2 Samuel 12:9

God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this inscription: 'The Lord knows those who are his,' and, 'Let everyone who calls on the name of the Lord turn away from wickedness.' – 2 Timothy 2:19

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 119:25–32; Ezekiel 22:23–23:27; James 3:1–12

Why do we do what's evil? People have been asking that for countless years and too many situations to comprehend. Evil happens. But it doesn't just happen: it's something we do. Things that are wrong, hurtful, sinful, selfish, inadequate, misguided, tainted, contrary to what we believe to be right and actually desire to do these actions do come from our mouths and hands and influence in the world.

After today's 2 Samuel 12 verse (the words of Nathan to David, after David commits adultery and arranges for the death of Bathsheba's husband Uriah), David makes no attempt to answer the question: Why? He just says, "I have sinned against the Lord." And this seems to be the pattern in scripture stories of sin and evil and consequences and recovery. It is just a fact of the human story that we get it wrong at times, that we and others pay the price, but also that the story continues and that repentance, learning, forgiveness, reconciliation, and sometimes unexpected blessings are all possibilities.

As I write this, I'm involved in several instances, some closer and some farther from me, of evils and wrongs being done, of people trying to make a way forward. This is not unusual, in the work of a pastor, or in life in general! Life could be unbearably hard, if we had to face each such situation on our own, bearing the burden of making it all right. But as Paul says (along with many other writers of the Bible), in God we have the gift of a solid foundation, a sense of identity, and a resource for making the turn toward a better way. God is the one to whom we can turn first, recognizing and admitting what has gone wrong, resting in mercy, and seeking a new direction.

The "Michigan Left" road sign below is a reminder that it seems to be an inevitable part of navigating human life to have to make a U-turn now and then. We go along on a path where life "goes south" before making the turn. My prayer, for anyone headed the wrong way in a difficult situation, is for faith and strength in God's guidance, and for courage and persistence to make the turn. May you know that you are God's, call on God's name, and successfully navigate the turn back onto God's way.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Clothed with Salvation, Covered with Righteousness

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

My whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness. – Isaiah 61:10

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. – Luke 6:21

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 118:22–29; Ezekiel 18:19–19:14; James 1:9–18

The image of being "clothed" or "covered" in faith has been strong for me this week. Part of it comes from planning for this Sunday, when Jesus' parable in Matthew 22:1-14 presents God's kingdom as a great wedding feast, where special robes are part of the celebration. And in fact, today's Old Testament verse adds another phrase with the same kind of image: "... as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels."

Part of the "clothed / covered" image for me is also the recognition that salvation and righteousness don't come from me, but from God. There is no way I could work up, from within myself, the ability to save myself from my own self-centered attachments, or from the powerful forces in the world that want to use and abuse me and squeeze my life out of shape. Jesus' blessings and woes in Luke 6 point us to an awareness of how God is the one true source of life. As God's grace sends Jesus' salvation into our lives, we "put on" Christ and extend his ministry to the world.

On many levels - as an individual, husband, father, family member, friend, pastor, citizen, and occupant of this planet - I know that I face a lot of challenges and decisions. When I try to meet this with nothing but my own resources, as hard as I try, the results are flawed and incomplete and disappointing. So I give thanks - as Isaiah says, "my whole being shall exult" - that as a free gift of God's grace, the salvation and righteousness of Christ is given to the whole world. Covering me over, with my own ways buried and submitted, the garments of Christ's ways can qualify me for God's kingdom and present to the world a much better image of the way life should be.

The stained glass artwork in today's image is from a window in Exeter College chapel at Oxford, representing Revelation 7:9, the worship of "a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands." In John's vision of eternal life with God, there will be many of us, clothed with salvation, covered with righteousness, who endure the challenges of life by the grace of God, and give thanks to God forever. For all who are hungry, weeping, put down, wanting in any way, divided or constricted by the forces around us - and for myself, too - I pray for the encompassing grace of God, covering us, saving us, drawing us together for the great feast, empowering us in all our differences and flaws to bear witness and serve and honor God.

--

Today is my first day back here, after a break of exactly two months. I struggled for a while with preparing and entering into a different daily scripture routine, as I was helping some small groups to get started with the "Essential 100" Bible reading plan (see http://e100challenge.com if you'd like to learn more about what that is, and how it works). I thought I might resume here with a focus on the E100 readings. As the groups got going, I found that I was able to follow the E100 schedule and that it was very good for discussion and prayer with the groups - but I missed the Daily Texts, and went back to focusing on them for my own personal reflection. So this week, a few weeks later than I originally hoped, I decided to continue these "Take Up Today" posts based mostly on the Daily Texts. (I'm sure some insights from the E100 readings will also sneak in here, too.) I guess this represents a decision that I'll always recommend some kind of plan and process for regular scripture reading, but yours and mine don't have to be the same. I'll stick with the Daily Texts here, and I hope that for some people, a place for daily scripture and prayer reflections might be helpful, whether you're reading along with the Daily Texts, the E100, something else, or nothing at all yet. As always, I'm glad for your company along the way, and I think it would be great for you to journal and/or share your own reflections. And in the spirit of today's scriptures, I'm glad whenever I can join some other people of faith in putting on God's salvation and righteousness and celebrating together!

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.

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!

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Children of Grace

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Remember the days of old, consider the years of all generations. Ask your father, and he will inform you, your elders, and they will tell you. - Deuteronomy 32:7 (NASB)

Jesus called the children to him and said, "Let the children come to me and do not stop them, because the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these." - Luke 18:16 (GNT)

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 81:1-5; Isaiah 17:1-19:17; Ephesians 2:1-10

A common theme in today's scriptures is the contrast between faithfully following God vs. rebelliously worshiping idols. Deuteronomy 32 and Isaiah 17 both speak of God as "the Rock" upon which the identity of God's whole people is built, and they point out - something like 800 years apart in time - how God's people nevertheless forget, and turn away from God, and make for themselves dumb idols fashioned from material things. These idols have no power, and can never really save us in times of trouble. So inevitably, there's a painful time when we suffer because of our misplaced faith. And then, maybe, we remember the one true God.

More hundreds of years later, in the early days of Christianity, here's how today's passage from Ephesians addresses this situation:
You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved - and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God - not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
We all fall into the human pattern of idolatry and disobedience. On our own, we'll do nothing but lose our way. Here one of my seminary professors has pointed out how important two little words are in scriptures like this: BUT GOD. On our own, we've reached a dead end. There is no way forward. BUT GOD makes a way. Even while we're stuck, God comes with grace, love, mercy, and faithfulness to make a new way. The gift of Jesus Christ is that as he goes through birth and life and ministry and death and resurrection and ascension, he takes all of our human experience up with him into the life of God. By grace we have been saved!

Today's verse from Luke 18 is one of many simple but powerful examples where Jesus shows how this works. Children in the ancient world were counted as having very little value, certainly not worth the time of a rabbi and prophet. BUT GOD, in the words of Jesus, insists that not only should these little children be allowed to be brought to him for a blessing, but also that the very Kingdom of God - God's way of life in this world and into eternity - belongs to people who are as small, under-valued, vulnerable, and needy as these.

This is the way of God. Our "Rock" has always insisted that God's ways come before human ways. Throughout the Bible, and especially in the life and teachings of Jesus, we see that God's ways are founded on love and grace and mercy, and include countless commands for the care of all people and all creation.

Now, more thousands of years later, our nation and generation face the same challenges, choices, and decisions people have always faced. As citizens of the United States of America in the 21st century, our inheritance includes our country's best instincts, our ideals of freedom and justice and equality. These values grow out of our Christian roots and are consistent with God's valuing of life. And we are so committed to these values that we want everyone to have them, even if they have a religious faith, or no religious faith, as a shared foundation of understanding for them. But we also inherit the temptations and fears and faults of those who have come before us. When we've obtained a degree of freedom and justice and standing for ourselves, we are too quick to deny the same things to others. As individuals and at every level of our governments, we have stood between "little" people and the blessing God wants for them.

Today, as we celebrate the 241st birthday of this country, may we remember that we are all children of grace. What we have was given to us, and is not the result of our works. As a result, we are called and prepared for a way of life worthy of the great blessings we've been given. May we remember our own place, and remember that God desires an equal place for everyone.

These days, I sometimes come close to despairing that America still has time to choose God's ways over selfish, idolatrous ways. Too often, "Make America Great Again" seems to mean that our greatness is to be found in money and power and notoriety and influence, rather than the greatness of heart and spirit to be found in God's ways. On our own, we will surely march toward the dead end of selling ourselves and our neighbors into slavery in the pursuit of human power. BUT GOD ... with God there is another way. I pray that we remember and listen to the witness of the people of God in generations before us, that we recover our vision of ourselves as children of grace, and that we welcome rather than hinder the inclusion of all people, so that everyone can be considered a child of grace too.

Speaking Out Boldly

My reflection on yesterday's Daily Texts:

If I say, "I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name," then within me there is something like a burning fire. - Jeremiah 20:9

"We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard." - Acts 4:20

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 80:12-19; Isaiah 15,16; Ephesians 1:11-23

It's ironic, or hypocritical, or something, to focus on the day's Jeremiah and Acts verses in this blog that's supposed to be a daily reflection (as the title Take Up Today even says!) but where I don't come close to posting every day. In fact, it's Tuesday as I'm writing this reflection on Monday's texts. So can I really claim that "within me there is something like a burning fire," or that I "cannot keep from speaking" about God's word and actions?

Well, I'm going to "sin boldly" and argue that yes, I can claim those things. And so can you.

It's true that I don't speak out for God perfectly, or even consistently. If you're keeping score, you should know that much more often than I post here, I do at least read the daily texts and ponder them and pray to God over them. But some days, I don't even get that far. Busyness is my go-to excuse, but we all know it's a lousy excuse. If we really had a burning desire to do something, we would set other things aside and get it done, right? So I make mistakes and bad decisions in my priorities and places to put my energy. Often my problem is that I haven't prioritized my own self-care enough to get enough sleep or sabbath time to have the capacity to stick to the things I think are most important.

But the thing is that perfection and consistency are not the ultimate goals of Christian life. We could say that faithfulness is much closer to the goal, keeping Jesus at the center, staying oriented toward the path he calls us to follow, walking ahead step by step whatever happens. But I think the best way of stating our goal, given to us by Jesus himself, is love. Love God with everything you've got. And love your neighbor as yourself. And since "all our heart and soul and strength and mind" adds up to something finite and less-than-perfect, I think Jesus must be OK with less-than-perfect faithfulness and obedience.

Martin Luther picked up this idea. He didn't exactly say "sin boldly." His exact words, in a letter to his colleague Philip Melanchthon, are "Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world." He meant that whatever we do in life, it won't be perfect, but tainted with the brokenness of sin. But it's not our perfection, neither in faith nor in anything else, that achieve favor or merit for us with God. We are saved by grace, through the perfect faithfulness of Christ.

This is how I can say that yes, I do identify with the prophet Jeremiah, and with Peter and John who spoke the bold words of Acts 4:20 before an accusing council. I do speak out. And I keep on doing it, despite a lot of obstacles including my own shortcomings. God moves me to keep at it, and so I do.

And so can you!

It would be a great loss for any Christian voice to be silenced because of guilt or shame over not speaking perfectly. That's the point of being a Christian! - that we can't be perfect, but that by the grace of God in Christ, we are accepted and called and equipped and sent anyway, to speak the word of God into the world! It's the devil who wants you to believe it has to be done perfectly, or not at all. Jesus chose a bunch of imperfect followers, and continues to do so. And these imperfect people become the imperfect church, through which God continues to work.

So I'll keep speaking out. Ideally, every day - but in reality, not so much. And that's OK. And I encourage you to speak out, in your own way, as boldly and as often as you're able!

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Established in Christ

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

When I thought, "My foot is slipping," your steadfast love, O Lord, held me up. - Psalm 94:18

It is God who establishes us with you in Christ. - 2 Corinthians 1:21

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 80:8-11; Isaiah 14; Ephesians 1:1-10

This morning, I went out to read today's scriptures in our screen porch, and this was the view looking east:

You might be able to see the raindrops remaining on the flowers and leaves and stems; we had some serious wind and rain last night. But this morning, the sun was out, and the flowers were aimed full-on toward the sun, soaking up the light. I was reminded of learning that flowers can actually rotate themselves throughout the day, so that they keep their faces to the sun.

In today's scriptures, I see a similar message about where to focus. Both Psalm 80 and Isaiah 14 speak about God's care for God's people, even after their unfaithfulness, even in the midst of serious pain and danger. Paul, in the introduction of his letter to the Ephesians, identifies Jesus as the one who shines the blessing of God's light into our darkness. The verse from Psalm 94 uses the image of a slipping foot and a steadying hand to describe the saving power of God's love.

But I think my favorite word from today's scriptures is "establish," the word Paul uses in 2 Corinthians. It's not a commonly used word. According to my handy Bible dictionary, it has shades of meaning that in English we might translate: confirm, establish, make sure; verify; strengthen inwardly, make unwavering. In this verse, when Paul says "us," he means himself and maybe also his associates in ministry. He's talking about controversies and conflicts with the people of the church in Corinth, some rockiness in their relationship, some criticism of him from other traveling preachers. His point is that it's "in Christ," and by the power of God, that he and the people he's writing to are strengthened, confirmed, set up, made one solid body.

Today's repeated images, of focusing on God as our foundation and source of strength, make me think of the worries, dangers, and anxieties of my own life and the life of the world around me. A while ago, I picked up a useful question to ask of God in prayer time: "What would you have me focus on?" Asking this question leads to an openness of mind and heart and spirit that is willing to be directed toward or away from certain areas. Before and during our trip for the wedding and our vacation, I had the experience several times of asking this question in prayer, while mentally holding up to God an array of various priorities I could choose from. It's like I was standing in front of God with a deck of cards: "Pick a card, any card!" But I felt that God's answer was, "Focus on me! And my presence with you!" Set down the deck of cards, and let's just be together.

So I've been trying to sit with my face turned toward God, soaking up the light. There are still a lot of choices I'll be making about what to do first, what to do later, what to let go of and not do at all. There are questions about life, small and large, near and far, that I'll continue to be puzzling over. But first I need to be established, with God, in Christ. I need to be strengthened inwardly. Without the power of God, I know I will never be made unwavering. But with the knowledge of God's presence and God's love, I know who I am, and whose I am, and that I am a part of the body of Christ, the church, a child of God's promises and possibilities. Whatever I choose when I do pick up my deck of cards, the things I do and the people I'm with will be so much better off, for the time I spend absorbing all that God has to give.

It is God who establishes us together in Christ!

Friday, June 30, 2017

Lay Aside the Weight

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

The Israelites said to the Lord, "We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you; but deliver us this day!" - Judges 10:15

Let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us. - Hebrews 12:1

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 80:1-7; Isaiah 11:10-13:22; Galatians 6:6-18

During my seminary training, I was part of a cohort of students from different seminaries and different traditions who went through a summer unit called Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). It was partly training, partly real-life experience working as hospital chaplains, partly an intense period of "messing with our stuff" as we shared with each other and with supervisors what we went through, what we learned, and how it all affected us personally. It was probably the longest, most difficult summer of my life! But I would still say that it was also the single most important and helpful thing I did that made me feel like I could do this pastoring thing.

During that summer, as we students were talking about what this all meant for us, one of us came up with this image: It was like learning to walk and function in life with a new awareness of the "baggage" we have accumulated. Some of us have had things relatively easy, and have a few metaphorical pockets full of billiard balls and lumpy backpacks over our shoulders. Others have much heavier burdens, or scars or injuries that can easily throw us off balance. To some degree, we will always have these burdens with us! But when we learn to identify them for what they are, and account for them, and learn how to walk ahead without having them derail or defeat us, we can keep moving and be effective, and even joyful, along the way.

Today's Bible verses remind me of a similar burden, the burden of guilt we carry when we're all too aware that our lives don't match up with God's standards, our standards, our parents' standards, or whatever measurement we value. It's easy to tell that some of our decisions and actions in life have brought pain and misery to ourselves and to others. There are plenty of messages that tell us how little we're worth, or how inadequate we are.

A big part of the value of Christianity, and maybe any faith, is how our beliefs affect this situation. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is the Law, which reveals the way God means for the world to work and makes us aware of how much, or how little, our lives line up with God's intent. The Law can be a curb or fence, marking off where we're not supposed to go. It can be a hammer, bringing down the judgment our actions have earned. It can be a mirror, revealing the truth about us and our lives. It can be a roadmap, showing us the best way forward.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is also Grace, or Gospel (good news), which conveys God's mercy and forgiveness and love. God does not judge only, or judge forever. But God reaches down, picks us up, dusts us off, sets us right, and leads us forward. The people in Judges 10 appeal to this side of God. The writer of Hebrews 12, having talked at length about how Jesus Christ has made God's grace and mercy and forgiveness and reconciliation available to us, and urged us to continue with faith in this promise, now lifts up this beautiful image of "laying aside the weight" of our wrong choices, and instead being free to run forward.

Given the strong witness of God's Grace in Jesus, Christians should know better than to labor under our burdens any longer than we need to. And yet, there is plenty of Law going around - spoken to us by our own inner voices, lifted up repeatedly by the world around us as something we should keep carrying, even preached in Christian sermons and actions all the time. But if our faith always burdens, and never frees us, then our faith is in something other than the love of God made known in Christ!

The Bible's word for "forgive" is the same as the word for "divorce." When God forgives us, the tie is cut, the burden is removed, the guilt is gone. I like the image of a helium balloon when the string is cut. It is cut off and separated from us. It's gone. We'll never get it back. This is the free gift of God's Grace!

As children of grace and forgiveness, we do have choices. The writers of the New Testament letters remind us, over and over again: Don't take up old, harmful ways of life. Don't turn your back on the freedom of Grace and trade it in for the burden of the Law. Don't trust in your own strength or inner compass, but in the faithfulness of God. Be loved. Be free.

May my life, and yours, be blessed by this Good News of Grace. And may we share with others the love of God in Christ that allows us to "lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely." May we all be free, and "run with perseverance the race that is set before us."

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Telling God's Glory

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

The heavens are telling the glory of God. - Psalm 19:1

Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." - Mark 1:10-11

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 79:1-8; Isaiah 9:8-10:11; Galatians 5:7-18

I haven't gone back and checked, but I think today marks the end of the longest gap in my posts here. Sheryl and I got back three days ago from our trip for Elise and Matt's wedding, followed by our summer vacation break. In the weeks leading up to the wedding, there was a lot of activity and detail work and stress, but the wedding day itself was wonderful, and the vacation following was relaxing and refreshing. Before and after this roller coaster ride in our family life, there was also the crunch of trying to get things done in advance at work and at home, then the inevitable catching up when we returned.

So today is the first day in a long time that feels "normal." I'm able to notice the everyday blessings of life a little better. And while there are still bills to be paid and things to be done, I'm feeling grateful for love, family, friends, and the freedom and ability to enjoy a sunny summer day.

Today's scriptures remind me that there is always tension in life. Psalm 79 reflects the voices of people burdened and troubled by the consequences of their actions and those of their ancestors - yet there is a note of hope in the love and mercy of God. Today's piece from Isaiah is written for a time of conflict and war and reckoning; it too speaks of both danger and redemption. The Galatians section highlights our choices of which forces to pay attention to, and how to align ourselves. All the scriptures point to God as the source of all good things, and God as the one who provides a path forward through the midst of our challenges.

In the same way, Psalm 19 proclaims that God's glory is told by all of creation. From the highest heavens to the smallest things in and on the earth, God gives life and guides us forward. The story of Jesus' baptism, which sets the tone for all Christian baptisms and shapes our own claims to be adopted as beloved children of God, makes God's glory personal for us.

Today, I hope that in some way, my life can join all of creation in telling about this glory of God. Soaking up the sun, giving thanks for God's love made known through the Son, I can see that I am (and all of us are) a part of God's glorious story. May this thankfulness take root and grow, and spread beyond me to be told into the life of someone else. May the power of God's glory be stored up in me and become part of a living memory and testament to the love and mercy and grace of God. May you and I, and all God's people, point others toward God's glory.

From the last line of Psalm 19: "Let the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O LORD, our rock and our redeemer."


Friday, June 2, 2017

In the Direction of Love

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying. Psalm - 77:2

May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ. - 2 Thessalonians 3:5

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 71:9-18a; Proverbs 24; 2 Corinthians 6:3-18

When I first read today's texts, my mind went to the idea of direction. Where do we look in times of trouble? When life is confusing and overwhelming, to whom or to what do we turn? Sometimes it helps just to limit the noise and distraction around us and know what direction to orient ourselves.

But I realized that a deeper and more important concept than direction is love. Today's texts speak of a living relationship of love with God. We are not alone, but God is with us, as an active, caring presence. Paul in 2 Thessalonians speaks of the "steadfastness" of Christ; that no matter how rocky or unsettled our world feels, there is the solid, reliable, loving presence of God through Christ. In today's verse, Paul's blessing for direction is not an abstract question of where to focus, but a reminder that life and love are always to be found in God. 

The point is a person, not a compass setting. The promise is a relationship of love, not a collection of paving stones. And our destination is not a place, a condition, a state of being, a concept, or a code of life. We are heading for nothing less than God! And for a place in the arms of God's love, now and forever.

As I write this, I think it sounds calmer than I feel. Today, my mind and spirit are overwhelmed with activity and the needs of the world, angry at the news that our President has withdrawn our country from important commitments to the environment and to the rest of the world, discouraged at our ability to make it through the complexity of human life to a point where we can meaningfully agree on how to move forward together.

In a sense, I'm eager for a direction. What can I do, Lord? Where should I direct my energy?

Instead, God gives me a call to remember love. I'm grateful for the reminder, and I can feel the grace of this word, washing over me with relief and cleansing. But part of me still resists. I want to do something.

So for today, I will seek the Lord. I will stretch out my hand to God. I will keep on praying that God will direct my heart, to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.


A New Creation

Reflection on yesterday's Daily Texts:

David said to the Lord, "I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O Lord, I pray you, take away the guilt of your servant." - 2 Samuel 24:10

Jesus says, "Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents." - Luke 15:10

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 71:1-8; Proverbs 23; 2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2

The daily texts for today speak of repentance, turning away from wrongs and mistakes we've made and turning back to God. The message of scripture is that God welcomes and rejoices over us when we're "lost" and return home. In fact, in the parables of Luke 15, God energetically takes the initiative to search out and "find" us. David's confession also includes a prayer for God's active role in removing guilt and restoring a place in the presence of God.

These verses lead in to another of my favorite lines in the Bible. Here's 2 Corinthians 5:17, in a mix of the NRSV and NIV translations that I think best gets at the meaning:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!
"Therefore" means that this newness is a result of God's action in Christ, who (5:15) "died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them." By the grace of God, whatever is "old" in us, small, corrupt, turned-in on itself, comes to an end and is gone and forgotten. Instead, there is the "new" of  reconciliation, reconnection with God and the world, the righteousness of God coming to become a part of us.

David, and other people of the Bible, make it clear that there may be multiple times in our lives when we stumble and fall and wander away and sin. God welcomes us back. God takes the initiative to seek us out. And it's by God's grace and power that not only are we returned to fellowship with God, but those old things pass away, and we become something new.

It reminds me of another favorite saying, from Martin Luther's writings:
This life, therefore, is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.
This seems to me to be a good way to remember that, even in the many imperfections of our lives and our times, in Christ there is a new creation.