Tuesday, March 21, 2017

All the Way to the Cross

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity. - Isaiah 53:3

Pilate released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will. - Luke 23:25 (NIV)

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 37:27-33; Nehemiah 12:1-43; Romans 6:17-7:6

Paul has been leading us through a remarkable story as we read through Romans.

Part 1 is that no one - neither those who know the Law nor those who don't - lives a life up to God's standards; we all fall short and break relationships with God and others.

Part 2 is the Gospel (good news) that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, everything that needs to be done to reconcile these broken relationships has already been done by God; although we could never repair the situation on our own, simple faith in Jesus' saving work is all we need.

Part 3, which we're still reading today and will be for a few more chapters, is that once we've been given this gift of faith through the Holy Spirit, we recognize the truth of Parts 1 and 2, and our lives begin to change. Justification is a word we use to describe our status as people saved by grace through faith. Sanctification is the continuation of that status, as we are made holy and live into the righteousness of God that has saved us. We are no longer servants to sin, which leads to death; but servants to God, which leads to life.

Jesus himself talked about this same process when he mentioned "taking up our cross daily and following" him. I have that in mind as I read the Old Testament and New Testament verses for today. Isaiah writes about "the suffering servant," a poetic, prophetic figure who certainly foreshadows Jesus - but also represents God's people. The gospels tell the story of Jesus running into powerful opposition, being betrayed, arrested, tortured, and killed. This is the Lord we serve.

It's the best good news of all - and pleasant and inspiring for us to think about - that Jesus was willing to endure all of this for us. But it would be easy to forget - and view it as unpleasant or disturbing - that in being saved by him, we become part of his life and work, with the goal of serving and sharing the good news with others. We live in an age that glorifies riches and power and "winning," and by these standards, Jesus' path looks weak and foolish. Yet this is where we find him. This is where he goes, and if we follow him, we go there too.

I love and appreciate Jesus, but I'm also human, firmly attached to my sense of preserving and glorifying myself and seeking what's comfortable and pleasant for myself. The church is the very body of Christ in the world, but again human, always bending itself around our self-centered desires. It's good for me, good for us all, to wrestle with what it means to follow Jesus, especially when we encounter conflict and suffering. What does it mean to be despised? rejected? identified with suffering? acquainted with infirmity and weakness and need? How might we be swapped out and sent to the cross while people who do real harm are set free?

We don't find easy answers to these questions. But we have assurance, that begins with the gift of faith we've been freely given, that pursuing those questions leads to God's answers. May we resist the easy and pleasant-sounding diversions that would only warp us back and entrap us again in sin. May we keep our eyes on Jesus and follow him into human need, all the way to the cross.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Meditating and Pondering

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

My eyes are awake before each watch of the night, that I may meditate on your promise. - Psalm 119:148

Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. - Luke 2:19

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 36; Nehemiah 5:1-6:14; Romans 4:1-12

Today's texts speak to me of the "brain work" of time with God and scripture. There are lots of ways to do this, including "meditating" and "pondering."

My favorite explanation of Christian meditation on scripture is to read a passage, then focus on it in silence, keeping the "mental cursor" centered on a phrase or image from the passage. If the brain wanders or starts getting too active, just gently let go of that and return to focus. It's a form of listening, abiding in the presence of God and of the scripture's message, subtly allowing this word from God to inform and enlighten. I don't use this form of meditation every day, but when I do, I find it relaxing, centering, reassuring, and often the most fruitful part of my day in terms of connecting with what God has in mind for me.

Then there's pondering, which for me is more of an active process of piecing together scripture's message, my own situation, the context of the world around me, and what I know about God from life experience so far. What message am I getting? What is God calling me to do about it? What connections do I find with other situations, stories, people? Who should I be talking with or working with about this? What might come next? What should I be looking and listening for in the near future? When pondering, I find journaling - longhand, in a nice-quality, old-fashioned notebook - to be the best medium. I have only paper and pen, no other distractions, and I try to take the time to work through however small or large the process seems to be that day. Again, I don't do it every day, but in times of uncertainty, or when the Spirit seems to be ramping up the windspeed, it's helpful.

Today's scriptures give a few examples of people meditating and pondering. David recommends it for everyone, all the time! Psalm 36 includes a little inspiration: "In your light, we see light." Mary treasures and ponders the words of angels and shepherds after the birth of Jesus. Nehemiah watches, listens, stays aware of both God's will and the sneaky plans that would distract or lure him away from it. Paul draws stories and quotes from scripture to help us start to comprehend the grace of God that's so different from the way the rest of the world works.

Life with God is like this. It takes brain work, as well as physical work and emotional processing. God is revealed to us a little at a time, light ray by light ray, at a rate we can handle, alongside others who are trying to figure this all out too. Sometimes I think it would be nice to just be suddenly "zapped" all the way up to a new level of understanding! But in general, I'm thankful for the gift of meditating and pondering, the time and effort it takes to absorb the fullness of what God is saying and doing, and to experience the wonder of the One who is beyond our comprehension yet intimately involved in our lives.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Unlimited

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

The Lord was my support. He also brought me out into a broad place. - 2 Samuel 22:19-20 (NKJV)

Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. - 2 Corinthians 3:17

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 35:1-10; Nehemiah 1:1-2:10; Romans 2:17-3:2

Reading today's scriptures makes me wonder whether we often have more freedom than we think. We can spend time cooped up and waiting for someone (God?) to swoop in and make things better. We may pine away for the change we're waiting for, thinking, "Then, I'll be able to ..."

I do believe that in general, waiting for God is a good thing. Our human souls can be impatient and impulsive, always wanting something, and chasing after it rashly. It's good to take the time to pray and consider what God would have us do.

But there are other times when we truly are free, rescued from a bad situation by the grace of God, and "brought out into a broad place" where we have many options. What holds us back? What stands in the way of us claiming this freedom and doing something new and life-giving?

As the book of Nehemiah opens, Nehemiah isn't free at all by the standards of the world. He's in exile, a servant under the Persian king Artaxerxes. But when he hears of the need to rebuild Jerusalem, and after he takes time to pray about it, he decides that it's up to him to rebuild the city. The king asks him what's troubling him, and then, "What do you request?" Nehemiah takes a deep breath, prays again, then asks for permission to go and rebuild, as well as for the king's provision and protection. His requests are granted, and the rebuilding begins. Nehemiah the exiled servant becomes a leader of free people.

In the Romans passage, as Paul starts to explain how faith and obedience are all that's needed to claim God's free gift of grace, he gives us some examples showing that our status, and our external markers of standing, make no difference at all. God is not limited by the things we think are denying us our freedom!

Both examples, from Nehemiah and from Romans, make it clear that this freedom doesn't come by our own efforts. We can't claim it, earn it, seize it, or manufacture it. Instead, freedom is a gift from God. As such, we don't take it for granted, or abuse it. It would be self-defeating to use God's gift of freedom to start doing things that cut us off from the source of our freedom and strength! But within our faith and obedience, God opens up a "broad place" where there are many possible choices of directions to go and moves to make that still keep us connected to God and aligned with God's will.

What's holding you back? What stands in the way of your claiming your God-given freedom and doing something new and life-giving? If there's something you're waiting for ... imagine that you already have it. What now? What would you do?

And are you so sure you can't already do it, right here and right now? Today?

Friday, March 10, 2017

God's Strength for God's Will

Reflection on yesterday's Daily Texts:

He is a shield for all who take refuge in him. - Psalm 18:30

Paul wrote: The Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one. - 2 Thessalonians 3:3

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 34:8-18; Ezra 8:21-10:6; Romans 1:26-2:4

and on today's Daily Texts:

God said to Solomon, “Because you have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word.” - 1 Kings 3:11-12

Jesus says: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” - Matthew 7:24

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 34:19-22; Ezra 10:7-44; Romans 2:5-16

I didn't intend to skip yesterday's post and combine it with today's - but it turns out they complement each other well, and shed light on each other. The theme that stood out for me in yesterday's texts is God's protection; and today, it's God's wisdom. There are some interesting connections and contrasts as the scriptures talk about human strength vs. God's strength, and human judgment vs. God's direction. And in the daily prayers written for the Mt. Carmel Ministries edition of the Daily Texts, both days include a prayer for courage to "do your will" and to "act upon your word."

The simple language of the prayers is a good place to start. It's God's word and God's will that we aim for. If our eyes are set on a different destination, something demanded by our own selfish interests, then we're not even heading in the right direction. And it's useless to hunt around for the path God has set and the protection God has provided, if every step we take is actively leading us farther from where God wanted us to go.

Once we start with the right destination and direction, God's wisdom comes into play along the way. As we travel, we need to keep checking periodically to make sure we haven't drifted off course. The more often we check, the less we drift. It's tempting to say that listening to God is what we need here. But Jesus makes the point that the wise are those who listen and act on his word. Hearing is not enough! We take what we hear, and put it into practice. There is room here for human creativity, for people with different gifts and perspectives, in different situations, to apply God's word in different ways. The key thing is to dedicate ourselves to ongoing listening and action and course correction.

The scriptures for these two days offer an interesting example of how this difference works. Ezra and the other leaders who brought the people back from Babylon to Jerusalem were rediscovering God's command to keep separate from the other nations, and at that time, with a small remnant returning to rebuild a weakened city, there was danger in diluting the proper worship of God with foreign influences. They agonized and prayed about this, and came up with a plan to send away any wives and children who had become mixed in with the people of the tribes of Israel. Hundreds of years later, we have Paul's letter to the Romans, in which he argues strongly that both Jew and Gentile have a place in God's kingdom, by God's grace as received through faith. Paul rejects idolatry and self-centered indulgence as strongly as Ezra did (and reading Romans 1:18-32 as a whole unit shows that Paul is not laying down a new universal law against same-sex relationships, as we might think if we pick out just verses 26 and 27, but showing a multitude of examples of how an orientation against God's will leads to all kinds of behaviors that go against God's will and a person's own nature). But now, with the revealing of Jesus as the Messiah who opens the kingdom of God to all people of all nations, Paul's plan aims not for tribal purity, but for individual and communal life lived by the power of God's spirit instead of by each person's self-centered desires.

And this brings us to the theme of God's protection and strength, and the courageous act of trusting in God. The Bible, throughout the Old and New Testaments, consistently witnesses to God's ability to provide whatever is needed, even when human evaluations of the situation make it look incredibly unlikely. Faith in God comes alive with what we call courage, when we go beyond thoughts and words to take real steps of action that grow out of our faith. There's great power in the confidence that comes from God's direction, God's living guidance, and God's strength. Much of what we struggle against, even when it looks daunting, is made up of lies and deception and a "house of cards" built on limited human knowledge and power. It can't stand up against faith active in love, which moves with the strength of God's truth.

This is no guarantee that everything will always be wonderful. Paul, and Ezra, and David, and many other people of the Bible, knew that following God faithfully could sometimes result in suffering and danger. We are all limited, fragile, mortal beings, and we will all have our moments of pain and trouble and, eventually, death. But being centered on and motivated by God's will gives us meaning and courage for life, and also company on the way. We travel this journey of life anyway. We can be thankful that we're invited to travel with God who makes the journey better for everybody.

What is God calling you to? What direction are you being shown, or toward what destination? How is God inviting you to put one foot in front of the other, and to keep checking in along the way? What fears and threats do you see? What if you just get started, with courage, taking action on God's path?


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Power of God for Salvation

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God. - Psalm 42:11

"Your sorrow will be turned into joy." - John 16:20 (NKJV)

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 34:1-7; Ezra 8:1-20; Romans 1:13-25

One of the most powerful statements in Paul's letter to the Romans comes at the end of his introduction:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, "The one who is righteous will live by faith."
He'll continue to explain the gospel, or "good news," about Jesus. And in this letter, he makes clear that this powerful news comes as a gift from God, by grace. It results in faith and righteousness and justification. The gospel brings salvation.
One of my favorite metaphors for God's salvation is being rescued from drowning. There are situations in life where we are just totally "under water," and need intervention from someone more powerful, who's not limited by the same forces that are threatening us. Like a drowning person is rescued by someone stronger and with better footing, we are saved by God who reaches down into our situation and draws us out into something better.

Today's verses hint at another thing we can learn from this metaphor. It's easy enough to imagine being "saved from" what endangers us. We know from our own lives, and can find plenty of examples in scripture, of people being saved from all kinds of trouble.

But we are also "saved for" something. When we're delivered, we're capable of doing things we couldn't before. Maybe it's as simple as being able to breathe, speak, move, and survive more than a few minutes. Maybe it's more comprehensive, as being able to live a life unencumbered by worry or guilt; to know that our existence has meaning and value; to discover how forgiveness and mercy release us to build, or rebuild, life-giving relationships with others.

This is how our lives are changed, and our sorrows turned to joy. May we give thanks for the gift of the gospel, the power of God for salvation for all. May we be freed from the things that entrap us, and freed for the fullness of life God intends for us.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Beginning and Ending with Praise

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Praise the Lord! How good it is to sing praises to our God. - Psalm 147:1

Speak to one another with the words of psalms, hymns, and sacred songs; sing hymns and psalms to the Lord with praise in your hearts. - Ephesians 5:19 (GNT)

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 33:12-22; Ezra 6:13-7:28; Romans 1:1-12

Today, to go along with the praise-themed verses of the day, we have a story about praising God at the conclusion of a long, difficult project, as Ezra's work on the temple and city of Jerusalem are complete. And in our first reading from Paul's letter to the Romans, he introduces himself mostly by introducing God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all there, in these few verses!) and glorifying what God has done for us in Christ. This is a beginning, the first taste of what will become a powerful and lasting effort by Paul in Rome.

This combination of scriptures reminds me how good it is to praise God at all of our beginnings and endings. We might think of life in the church, and life in general, as a series of projects or challenges or stages in a journey. Complete one, rest a while, start another. But it's good to remember that the whole journey, the whole process of life, takes place in the context of God's presence and guidance and grace. God leads us forward, weaves our stories in and out of the stories of others, and draws new people and new events together for growth and abundant life.

It's good, at the beginning of something new, to stop and praise God for getting us where we are already. The praising renews our faith and trust in God, and the singing unites us and propels us ahead. This is what Martin Luther had in mind when writing a prayer for the beginning of each day:
In the morning, as soon as you get out of bed, you are to make the sign of the holy cross and say: 
God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit watch over me. Amen.
Then, kneeling or standing, say the Apostles' Creed and the Lord's Prayer. If you wish, you may in addition recite this little prayer as well: 
I give thanks to you, heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ your dear Son, that you have protected me through the night from all harm and danger. I ask that you would also protect me today from sin and all evil, so that my life and actions may please you. Into your hands I commend myself: my body, my soul, and all that is mine. Let your holy angel be with me, so that the wicked foe may have no power over me. Amen.
After singing a hymn perhaps (for example, one on the Ten Commandments) or whatever else may serve your devotion, you are to go to your work joyfully.
And it's good, at the end of something we've been working on for a while, to stop and celebrate what's been accomplished, new learnings, new relationships, new life. Again our faith and trust are renewed, and the rest we take next begins with the sound of gratitude ringing in our ears. Again, as Martin Luther wrote in his prayer for the end of each day:
In the evening, when you go to bed, you are to make the sign of the holy cross and say:
God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit watch over me. Amen.
Then, kneeling or standing, say the Apostles' Creed and the Lord's Prayer. If you wish, you may in addition recite this little prayer as well:
I give thanks to you, heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ your dear Son, that you have graciously protected me today. I ask you to forgive me all my sins, where I have done wrong, and graciously to protect me tonight. Into your hands I commend myself: my body, my soul, and all that is mine. Let your holy angel be with me, so that the wicked foe may have no power over me. Amen.
Then you are to go to sleep quickly and cheerfully.
It is good to sing praises to God, alone and together, at our beginnings and at our endings, for ourselves and for the people around us.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Family

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

"Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God." - Ruth 1:16

You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God. - Ephesians 2:19

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 33:6-11; Ezra 5:1-6:12; Acts 28:17-31

Life is hard; it's good to have family we can count on, to help us get through the challenges. The power of Christian community - being part of God's household, God's family, together - is one of the things that we overlook and take for granted in the church today, at least in our part of the world. Around the end of my time in seminary, when people asked what was the most important thing I learned, that's what I would tell them: That we are never Christians alone. We are formed in faith by the "great cloud of witnesses" who have also traveled the paths of faith. We are upheld, supported, and loved by the church gathered and sent. And in living our faith, we also have the privilege of seeing God work through us to benefit many others.

It's ironic that in today's reading from Ezra, God's people who are rebuilding Jerusalem reject offers of help from neighboring people. This is interpreted as a good thing by the writer. At that time in Israel's history, they had suffered greatly from being led astray by foreign gods and customs, and felt that purity of belief and behavior and even biology were essential. The rejection of the offer causes some political backlash that has to be overcome.

Then, in the Acts 28 reading, the last section of this book, in fact the very last piece of the history of God's people in all the Bible, we end with Paul having reached Rome, waiting for his hearing before Caesar with some time to keep telling the story of Jesus. Some of his hearers believe, some don't. And Paul now picks up the prophet Isaiah's words about this kind of rejection, noting that outsiders will continue to hear and be saved, when insiders won't receive God's healing.

The determination of who is IN and who is OUT of the family is not really about biology. It's about receiving God's good news, internalizing it, letting it change us, and becoming a "new creation," bearing a new identity as a member of the body of Christ.

In my own life, I'm thankful for all the ways people have loved me and my relatives, and thankful for the opportunities I've had to learn and grow and serve, and play a part in helping others to grow in their own ways. I'm grateful to be part of this family. And still, every week in this ministry, I'm amazed to see new life and new growth among all kinds of people, in all kinds of settings, as the love of God is made known and lives are changed.

May the blessings of the household and family of God be yours as well!

Part of God's family, at the 2015 ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit

Saturday, March 4, 2017

An Example

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Remember me, O Lord, with the favor you have toward your people. O, visit me with your salvation. - Psalm 106:4 (NKJV)

I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. - 1 Timothy 1:16

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 33:1-5; Ezra 4; Acts 28:7-16

Today, Paul's note about being "an example" makes me think of several people I've known.

I think of Ken Macy, whose funeral service was the most recent I've done at Zion. Ken was a retired Marine, a Master Sergeant and drill instructor. To his family, he sometimes called himself "chief of sinners" (the phrase used in the King James Version in today's 1 Timothy passage, translated here as "foremost"). Ken talked with me at times about how he had kept a strict, even harsh standard in his work with Marines and with his family - all for the sake of making them strong enough to withstand what their enemies would eventually aim at them.

I think of Sharon Walker, whose birthday is today. Sharon, like me, is a pastor who was formed in Christian faith at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Mulberry, Indiana. This little small-town congregation, in an area that's kind of an outpost for Lutherans, has sent at least three people into ordained ministry in recent years. I can't speak for Sharon or anyone else, but for myself, I know that a number of the members and clergy at Gloria Dei have been examples for me of a life of Christian discipleship and service.

I think of Paul, who in the Acts 28 reading for today finally makes his way to Rome. As today's verse from 1 Timothy proclaims, the story of Paul making the final leg of the journey from Malta to Rome shows him reflecting God's patience, compassion, and mercy. Paul is well received on Malta because of his care for the sick, and in Rome because of his reputation as a teller of God's story and encourager of others. His reason for coming is for a trial before Caesar, the result of a long and violent campaign against him by his opponents - and yet, even here, he sees the opportunity to be an example of God's love for the world.

And I think of you and me. God seems to delight in touching the lives of ordinary people with grace, mercy, forgiveness, creativity, passion, and not a small amount of humor. We're right to receive this grace with gratitude and awe, and to rejoice in seeing how God transforms our lives into something more beautiful. But even beyond that, we all become an example of what God can also do for others. Paul's point in writing this little section of 1 Timothy is to say: "Look what God did in my life! And if God did that in me, as imperfect as my life was, just think what God can do in you."

Today I'm thankful for the people I've mentioned, and many others, who have been examples of Christian faith and life for me. And I'm thankful for all of you who read this, even if I don't know anything about the details of your life, because I know that God can work in you, and through you, with enough love and grace and patience for the whole world.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Stay Near

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Solomon prayed, “You have kept the promise you made to my father David; today every word has been fulfilled.” - 1 Kings 8:24 (GNT)

Indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. - 1 Peter 2:3

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 32; Ezra 3; Acts 27:39-28:6

We human beings are apt to see life as black or white, good times or bad times. It's like we expect to be able to divide life into stages, and label each one either a big dark challenge to be met, or a shining moment of victorious peace. We sometimes describe ourselves as optimists or pessimists, which has to do with whether we expect more good times or more bad times. But either way, we use these either/or categories to divide life into meaningful chapters.

There are several examples of this in today's scriptures. The 1 Kings verse shows Solomon dedicating the temple; life is good, because the work is done, the vision has been fulfilled, and now life will be better because the temple is ready. Several hundred years later, in Ezra 3, after Solomon's temple has been destroyed and the people have spent a generation in exile, they begin to return and rebuild and rededicate the temple. There is both rejoicing as God's ways are taken up again in the Promised Land, and weeping as people remember how much more glorious the old temple was. Depending on your point of view, life is either new and wonderful and promising, or depressingly inferior to the old days.

In the New Testament reading, which we're focusing on during Lent, the people on board the storm-tossed ship see land, even a beach where they might be able to safely run ashore. We're saved, life is great! But the ship hits a reef instead, and starts to break up. The soldiers on board consider killing the prisoners so they can't escape. Life is terrible again, we could be killed! But the centurion puts together a plan to get everybody to shore, and they discover that the island they've come to is Malta, where the people are friendly and helpful. Thank God, life is wonderful! But a snake bites Paul, leading people to expect his death again. Life is tragic - Why, God? But he lives. Life is so amazing, the people of the island even think Paul might be a god. And so on.

There are so many back-and-forth moments like this, it can make us dizzy trying to categorize the stages of life. Is this a good time, or a bad time? Should I be joyful or despondent? What's wrong with me if I feel the opposite way? What do I pray for? What special sign or act of God should I be looking for when it's time for things to turn around?

I don't think this is how life really works; I think we do this to ourselves with the black/white, either/or way of thinking. But what if we worry less about categorizing and labeling our times, and just focusing on the moment? What if we realize that in every moment, regardless of how we'd label it or how we feel about it, we have a living connection with God that sustains us, inspires us, and gives us whatever we need to keep going?

Psalm 32 tells the story of a moment like this, when the psalmist rediscovers how life-giving and refreshing it is to renew an honest connection with God:

            I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
                I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
            Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
                whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
                else it will not stay near you.

Maybe a better way to look at life is just to "stay near" to God - all the time, every day, no matter what's happening, whatever our hopes or fears or feelings are. Time spent in prayer and scripture and gratitude each day is a great antidote to feeling overconfident or taking God for granted in easy times, and to feeling rejected or worthless or distant from God in hard times. It's certain that we can expect all kinds of life experiences, and looking back, we can see how some were pleasant to be in, and some weren't. But every day, we do well to remember that God is near to us, and so we can stay near to God. May we find hope and vision and inspiration and sustenance for the journey - every day.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Desire and Hope

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? - Psalm 42:2

We who have the Spirit as the first of God's gifts also groan within ourselves as we wait for God to make us his children and set our whole being free. For it was by hope that we were saved. - Romans 8:23-24 (GNT)

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 31:21-24; Ezra 1,2; Acts 27:21-38

What stands out for me in today's texts is the connection between desire and hope. We tend to think of desire as a negative thing: there's something we lack, so we want it, and we don't have it yet, so we have to endure the inconvenience and discomfort of waiting until we get it, or even worse, worry that we'll never get it. And hope can seem like a weak, fragile thing, a vague wish that things might get better.

Both words mean something very different, more positive and constructive, in scripture. In Psalm 42, desire is expressed as a thirst for God. Like our bodies need water, our spirits need to be connected to God. Desire for that connection is the life of God's image within us, actively reaching out for the wholeness of God. This psalm is written to address the need for God in a difficult situation. But rather than just complaining or feeling the pain of desire, the psalmist writes (twice!) about the power of hope to reframe the situation and draw strength from God:
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
In the Romans 8 reading, Paul writes about desire as waiting and even groaning for the fulfillment of our maturity as children of God. And here he mentions hope as an intimate part of salvation. Again, desire is more than a negative; it might feel uncomfortable, but it represents the growth pains of our souls. And hope is far more than wishful thinking! It's clinging to God's promise and future vision, assurance that we are works-in-progress in a process of transformation that has already begun.

I'm reminded of a piece of coaching advice I got when I first took up running for exercise: Pick a spot up ahead, and visualize a rope connecting you to that spot, pulling you forward. It helps! The same process is happening, running stride by stride. But instead of focusing on the effort of each stride, you focus on a long, smooth view of the whole big picture. The running feels easy, comfortable, as if the effort is coming from outside yourself. There's less anxiety, and more openness. It allows patience and perseverance.

I think this is something like desire and hope in Christian life. We're called to be on the way, in motion. Perfection is not our goal, but abundant life with God and the rest of creation. And so we're always on the move toward more fully understanding and living that life. We've seen enough to know that there is joy and discovery in the adventure of the journey. We want more. And we travel lightly, easily, lovingly, obediently, expectantly, openly, willingly, joyfully, peacefully. God's vision of fulfillment lies ahead - but also reaches backward in time and space to touch us where we are, and to keep drawing us forward. Desire is the beating heart that keeps us going, and hope is our connection with the air we breathe, the wind at our back, the ground that passes under our feet.

In this Lenten season, we're getting ready to read through the book of Romans. Today's New Testament verse gives us a glimpse of where Paul will be going in this letter. The Acts 27 reading also provides a side view, one of the scenes from the journey Paul eventually makes to Rome (after writing the letter). Again, in that scene of a ship in peril on the sea, there is desire, even physical hunger, and hope in an angel's vision that everyone will live and that Paul will indeed come before Caesar. It was discouraging and terrifying to be riding out the storm, to the point that the sailors tried to escape in a lifeboat. But through Paul's eyes, we see the big picture, the way God is using him to touch many lives in many places with the good news of Christ. Desire for the fulfillment of that process keeps him going, and hope testifies to God's presence all along the way.

Whatever you're going through today, whatever terrain your journey requires you to travel, may you know the good and holy desire for God's will to be done in you and through you, and may the sure and certain hope of God's presence sustain you, every step of the way.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

My Times Are in Your Hand

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

The Lord said to Moses, "You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live." - Exodus 33:20

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. - Hebrews 11:1-2

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 31:10-20; 2 Chronicles 36; Acts 27:9-20

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. Many Christians will start a journey of 40 days (not including Sundays) where we cut down on something or add something to our lives in order to help us focus more on our spiritual lives. This is not something to brag about (as we'll hear Jesus say when we read Matthew 6:1-6,16-21 in worship tonight), just a quiet way to work on our relationship with God and others, for the sake of love. During Lent, I will try, harder than I have been lately, to write something here every day as a reflection on the Daily Texts. This isn't part of my own Lenten discipline, but just as an example and encouragement for anyone else who might want to try daily scripture reading and reflection.

For Lent this year, I have offered one idea for a Lenten discipline at Zion Lutheran Church in Valley City, OH, where I serve as pastor. I noticed that the Daily Texts' New Testament reading is from the book of Romans most of the way through Lent (with the first few days telling part of Paul's story, from the last chapters of the book of Acts), and readings from Romans also appear as the second reading for several of the Sundays in Lent, in the Revised Common Lectionary used by many churches. So I thought it might be interesting to read through Romans together. If you're looking for a Lenten practice, or just interested in reading along, you can check out the little guide I wrote by clicking here. The daily readings are listed on the second page. They're exactly the same as the Moravian Daily Texts readings, so if you're using those already, you won't need my list. The first page is an encouragement to get together with a few friends (I'm using the name "Step Group" for this) and talk together about what you've read, listen to and encourage one another, and pray for each other.

Whatever you decide about Lent, I hope this is a season of learning and growing in God's light!

Today, my attention was captured by David's statement of faith in Psalm 31:15: "My times are in your hand." The psalm covers times of need for both the psalmist himself, and all people of faith. It's a reminder that God is able to bring us through anything, no matter how big or scary.

And we have some examples: The Old Testament reading today is the last chapter of the book of 2nd Chronicles, which tells the story of the crumbling of Judah, the southern kingdom of God's people. After the ups and downs of kings wise and unwise, faithful and unfaithful, war and opposition finally consume the nation. Jerusalem and the temple are destroyed, and the people taken into exile. The record of the kings of Israel and Judah is closed. And yet, the people enter a time of seeing God at work in new ways, through new people. The exile turns out to be a chance for their faith to be renewed, reinterpreted, expanded, written down, and strengthened for future generations.

In the New Testament reading, as part of the last two chapters of the book of Acts, we have the story of Paul, under Roman guard and being shipped to Rome for his trial, experiencing a powerful storm at sea. Everybody on the ship is in danger of death. But Paul, the prisoner, will become a voice of calm and hope that helps them get through. In the big narrative of the Bible, this is just one small scene. But it's told so that we can be inspired by God's faithfulness, and by the simple power of reminding ourselves who's in charge of our lives.

"My times are in your hand." This is true today as well. I wonder sometimes what future history lessons will say about these years we're living through right now. Our records will show that we recognized this as a time of division, fear, frustration, and possibly danger for our country and our world. But we aren't the first people to have our world rocked, and we won't be the last! What will we say and do about it? Where will we turn for inspiration, for hope, and for a way toward something better? May this be a time when our story might someday be told as a way for people to understand the meaning and the power of this ancient statement of faith: "My times are in your hand."