Saturday, May 27, 2017

Jesus Christ and the Human Heart

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

The Lord said, "I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth." - Genesis 8:21

You know that the Son of God was revealed to take away sins. - 1 John 3:5

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 69:13-21; Proverbs 19; 2 Corinthians 2:14-3:11

"Good" and "evil" are categories that appear over and over again in the Bible, but for different writers and in different contexts, the words can mean different things. In some cases, "good" seems to mean something or someone that is aligned with God and God's purposes, while "evil" is aligned against God, sometimes connected with "the devil." In other cases, "good" means something that builds up life and is experienced as pleasant and desirable, while "evil" means something harmful or painful. 

There are also differences in how "good" and "evil" are applied. Sometimes they refer to people, sometimes to characteristics of people, sometimes to actions, sometimes to situations.

Both the Genesis 8 and 1 John 3 verses are parts of longer passages about good and evil. The first is part of the story of Noah, as the floodwaters recede after the whole earth is wiped out. Noah and his family emerge and make a sacrifice to God, and God makes a covenant, sealed by the rainbow, to never flood the world again. what God means in Genesis 8:21 is open to interpretation. It's a separate resolution, apparently spoken privately by God "in his heart," referring back to Genesis 3:17, where God cursed the ground due to Adam's sin. It helps to interpret 8:21 by noting that "the ground" is the Hebrew word adamah, "humankind" is the word adam, which is both the name of the first human and the name for humanity in general, and "the human heart" is "the heart of adam." The reason God takes action seems to be that adam's heart, from youth, is evil (ra', meaning rotten, flawed, willful, corrupt, ethically bad). Because of this, God resolves not to curse the adamah again. Why? Because God doesn't need to, since adam/adamah is already cursed? Because adam will curse adamah independently anyway? Because neither adam nor adamah could stand it if another curse were added? In the context of Noah's repentant offering, and God's covenant and restart with humanity, this resolution seems to be an act of grace and mercy. Humankind and the earth are bound together, and because human nature bends toward destruction, God will not add a further curse.

In 1 John 3, today's verse is a testament to the power and purpose of Jesus to remove "sin" (another way to describe the evil of the human heart, bent away from God's life-giving nature toward selfishness and death) from the world. The writer goes on to say that those who abide in Jesus don't sin, and that those who do sin are children of the devil. For a while this sounds like a clean division of humanity between good people and evil people. But then in the last few verses of 1 John (5:16 and following) the writer tells his readers to "give life" to a brother or sister who sins. So there is not such a clear black-and-white between good and evil. In light of the Genesis insights, maybe we can say that without Jesus, the human heart bends toward sin and evil and death and destruction, but with Jesus, there is irrepressible hope for life and the righteousness of alignment with God and God's ways.

It's not hard to find examples from daily life of good and evil, sin and righteousness, life and death, transgression and forgiveness, blessings and curses. And our temptation is always to draw a line between "us" and "them," where we mark "us" as good and "them" as evil. 

I think this very kind of line-drawing is an example of the evil of the human heart. We take what is comfortable, easy, pleasant, and beneficial to us, and act as if the whole world is defined around that. We dismiss the rest of God's creation, anything that is inconvenient to us or opposed to our desires, as evil. Yet God is the creator of all things, and all of humankind is made in God's image. We should be more careful with how we use words like "good" and "evil," especially when applying them to people.

In the face of all of this, the presence and purpose of Jesus stand clear. Jesus came because "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." He came "that they may have life, and have it abundantly." He came "that they may know the only true God." He came to give everything we need for a redeemed life that overcomes the faults of our human heart: "I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing." Thanks be to the grace and mercy and love of God, made known and made available to all people in Jesus Christ.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Light in the Darkness

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

God stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea. He is the Maker of the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the constellations of the south. - Job 9:8-9 (NIV)

Worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water. - Revelation 14:7

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 69:1-12; Proverbs 18; 2 Corinthians 1:23-2:13

Many of us find spiritual inspiration in nature. This week, a colleague wrote about seeing Lake Michigan on a calm day, and marveling at the sense of peacefulness and magnificence it brought him. At the same time, he knows that the lake can also be dangerous under different weather conditions. The combination of vastness, beauty, serenity, and power remind us of God.

For me and Sheryl, one part of nature that never fails to inspire us is the sighting of "God rays" (scientifically known as "crepuscular rays") where the sun's light comes down from sky to earth through the clouds. It reminds me that just as the sun is always there, though sometimes hidden by clouds or by the rotation of the earth itself, God is always present. And just as it sometimes takes a painful situation for us to remember God's goodness, we can only see "God rays" when clouds or other obstructions are partially blocking the sun.

I think this is the way our spiritual lives work. We learn and grow from experiences that we at first feel as conflict or frustration or confusion. We know the joy of victory only because we're familiar with the power of pain. From a Christian perspective, the resurrection of Jesus would have no meaning for us if not for the reality of death.

In times of trouble, then, we can take comfort when we see even small signs of God's presence, and the ability of God to bring beauty, meaning, grace, and new life from bad situations. Both of today's verses were written as a way to remind suffering people that in the end, God prevails. May we have the same assurance in our lives, today and every day. May the presence and promises of God bring us light in all darkness.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

On Witnessing and Suffering

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Those who are far off will come and build the temple of the Lord. - Zechariah 6:15 (NASB)

"Lord," Ananias answered, "I have heard many reports about this man Saul and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem." But the Lord said to Ananias, "Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel." - Acts 9:13,15 (NIV)

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 68:28-35; Proverbs 17; 2 Corinthians 1:12-22

Today is Ascension Day, the 40th day of Easter, when the resurrection appearances of Jesus are replaced with the story of him being taken up into heaven. The appointed scriptures for today include these last words of Jesus to his disciples, from Luke's gospel:
"Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high." - Luke 24:46-49
The word "witnesses" in Greek is martures, from which we get our English word "martyr." As Jesus suffered, so those who testify to his truth will also suffer.

Saul, also known as Paul, is a notable example of this suffering. Today's Acts 9 reading points out the suffering he himself has inflicted on Christians, making Ananias rightfully skeptical and afraid of him. God insists that he is chosen, and will be a witness to many. And the very next verse adds God's final word on the matter: "I will show him how much he must suffer for my name."

Paul did suffer greatly for testifying about Jesus the Messiah. In the first chapter of 2 Corinthians, he writes about being afflicted so greatly for his work that he thought he was going to die. But God brought him through it, he writes, so that he could continue to build up the believers in Corinth.

For me today, these verses make me think of the unlikely people God can choose to be witnesses and builders of the church. In fact, in a lot of ways, I'm a pretty unlikely choice myself! Who else might God be choosing and calling and preparing for this kind of work? No doubt there are people who don't seem to be qualified, who rub us the wrong way, who have dubious pasts or serious character flaws, who we would never choose - and yet God has chosen them. We can pray for the humility to let God's word be final, and to cooperate with those who do testify truly and build up God's kingdom.

Today's texts also make me think of the suffering and other costs that come along with testifying to God's truth. If we were preaching our own news, it could be something smooth and easy and comfortable and attractive, and people would love us for it. We might get rich and win affirmation by it. But speaking the truth that Jesus is Lord of all and the one way to life with God requires discipline and sacrifice, and it's not easy or profitable. I can't say I've suffered greatly for Jesus or his gospel, but working for him does come with certain costs. We can pray for patience and perseverance, and for the perspective to remember that when we do pay the price, we're staying close to Jesus and the path he himself traveled.

May we come from wherever we are, and join with God's other people however unlikely, to work together to build the kingdom of the Lord!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

All

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

The Lord has proclaimed to the end of the earth: Say to daughter Zion, "See, your salvation comes." - Isaiah 62:11

It is Jesus Christ who is the "Yes" to all of God’s promises. - 2 Corinthians 1:20 (GNT)

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 66:1-7; Proverbs 9:7-10:32; 1 Corinthians 15:3-16

Isaiah 62:11 and Psalm 66 both seek to cover the whole earth with God's word and God's praise. Wherever God's people are, God is there. Whatever promise of life God has begun, in every place, for every person, Christ fulfills it.
If you live in this general vicinity,
God loves you.

Thinking of these scriptures, and looking at an image of our planet from space, it strikes me that our human walls and borders and divisions are artificial and temporary. We focus on nations or "peoples," separated by every imaginable little difference. But God sees all people everywhere as valued and beloved children, each created uniquely in God's image.

Rather than walls and borders and divisions, God cares about the well-being of all those people, and about their relationships with God and with each other. The Bible's main narrative is the story of how God has created us for this togetherness, and how, when we get lost and separated and the relationships are strained or broken, God is active throughout the world to find us, bring us back, redeem us, reconcile us, restore us to wholeness.

My prayer today is about all people seeing each other as God sees us, and learning to give up our divisive human ways to seek God's ways instead.
"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight."
- Proverbs 9:10

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Justice and Order

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

"Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up," says the Lord; "I will place them in the safety for which they long." - Psalm 12:5

And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? - Luke 18:7

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 65:9-13; Proverbs 8:1-9:6; 1 Corinthians 14:36-15:2

There's a tension in today's scriptures. The daily verses clearly focus on justice for anyone whose life is constrained or limited by others, and over and over, the Bible shows God rising up and taking action against oppressors for the sake of those who need safety and freedom. On the same day, we read Paul's instruction to the Corinthian church that "all things should be done decently and in order," apparently including verses from yesterday that "women should be silent in the churches." Paul's appeal here is to order, and there are also plenty of places in the Bible that show God desiring and approving of order that gives peace and stability.

I think there always has been, and always will be, tension between justice and order. Both have benefits for human life, and both are associated with God's own character. Order calls for limits and boundaries. Justice calls for life and freedom for all people. There are times when efforts for order go too far, setting limits that are unfairly administered or unduly burdensome to certain people. And there are times when calls for justice can go too far, unnecessarily creating chaos that might make life worse for everybody.

It's good to remember that both justice and order are abstract concepts, but what's really important is life and love and relationship among God and human beings and the world. God is less concerned with beliefs and labels and ideas and things, and more concerned with people and relationships. With this in mind, we can always prioritize the concepts of justice and order beneath loving God and loving neighbor. We can strive for both justice and order, for a system that builds up life and liberty for all people in a peaceful, stable way.

Others may disagree, but I also see in the New Testament's witness to Jesus a preference for justice over order. With few exceptions (for example, overturning the moneychangers' tables in the temple) Jesus didn't focus on disrupting order. But his harshest criticisms were for those whose calls for order put harsh burdens on the lives of others. And in showdowns between tradition and even law against human need (for example, healing someone on a sabbath day), Jesus overwhelmingly went to tend to the people who needed his help and power. I think we can also strive for a system where order has a strong place, but is always trumped by the stronger place of justice.

There's a phrase in the Mount Carmel Ministries prayer for today that I think is helpful. The full prayer goes like this:
Merciful God, I thank you for granting justice to those who cry to you day and night—including me. Forgive me when I think you will not answer. Rise up and place the needy in the safety for which they long. Show me how to wisely increase your justice and safety for someone in need today. Amen.
I like the call for God's wisdom to "increase justice and safety," and I like that it's God's justice and safety we pray for. There's no doubt that the church, and the world, are better off for the growing place of women at all levels of the church. Paul's call for order eventually led to a system that was oppressive and exclusive, stifling the voices and wisdom and gifts of far too many women. In a turn toward justice, the church has found orderly ways to make a start at treating women as equal partners in the life of the church. God is obviously working through the lives and ministries of women who are local leaders, pastors, deacons, and bishops.

I hope we can take notice, and take action, in all areas of life, when our attempts at order go too far, and when God's emphasis on love and relationship call us to focus on justice. May we work every day to increase the justice God desires with the safety order provides.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Faithful

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Do not, O Lord, withhold your mercy from me; let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever. - Psalm 40:11

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. - 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 65:1-8; Proverbs 7; 1 Corinthians 14:20-35

Psalm 40 is a psalm of thanks to God for deliverance from trouble, and it uses the image of God "setting my feet upon a rock" to talk about God's faithfulness in need. We all know how different kinds of ground can feel under our feet. Soft sand, hard to get any traction in; miry muck, wet and sticky, gluing your boots to the ground; loose gravel or shale, treacherously making your feet slip or roll. A solid rock is firm and reliable. It gives a sense of ease and confidence. From there, we can much more easily take off and go other places, do other things. Or we can make the rock a strong foundation for a permanent structure.

These are all good images of God's faithfulness. Life is risky, and it does involve a journey of growth and change over time. We need that faithfulness as our place to call home, to lean on, to come back and get our bearings, to keep us centered and safe.

Today's scriptures also focus on God's action. The journey is ours, and we can decide what direction to strike out in, what paths to choose, where to step and where to stand. But more active and dynamic than just a rock, God is with us all along the way. God oversees, guides, provides safety, reminds us of who we are and whose we are, even when we feel lost or unsafe or far from home. Like the photo of a church built on a rock, God provides not only a home base to which we can return, but a faith that goes with us everywhere. Even when we are weak in our own faith, God's faithfulness is strength for us.

My prayer today is for the comfort and peace and confidence of God's faithfulness for all who need it. In easy or hard times, at every stage of the journey, God is our strength.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Wedding Joy

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

There shall once more be heard the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing: "Give thanks to the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!" - Jeremiah 33:10

John the Baptist said, "The friend who attends the bridegroom is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete." - John 3:29 (NIV)

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 64; Proverbs 6; 1 Corinthians 14:6-19

Today's verses brought me joy, as I immediately thought of my own kids' weddings. As it happens, Sheryl was in Indiana today for Elise's bridal shower. And her wedding is five weeks from today. So the wedding theme is strong!

As the Bible uses wedding images to talk about abundant life for God's people, there is always a sense of community. The couple who are getting married are there, of course. But it wouldn't be a proper wedding unless there are also friends and attendants, family celebrating, people who are expected to sing aloud of love and joy and gratitude.

There's also a dimension of plenty. A wedding would be a huge event for the whole town, with feasting and drinking and singing and dancing and celebrating for days. The wedding of two well-known people might be the biggest event of the year, and it would be remembered for ages, setting the tone for their whole life together. It would make sense to start off with an abundance of everything.

But one of the main pieces is the presence of joy, and I love how today's verses connect that joy with voices: the bridegroom approaching, the vows of the couple, the words of scripture, the prayers and songs and laughter of family and guests. Everybody is just enjoying the love the couple has for each other.

That joy overflows past the day of the wedding and on into the marriage relationship. Everybody knows that relationships take real work, and that in years or decades together, not every day will be a perfect, joyful day. But the realness of the wedding day is a source of continuing light, an unbreakable connection with the promises of God and each other, the prayers of loved ones, the celebration, the joy. Looking back at photos in a wedding album, whether the current day is dark or bright, can reconnect us with the love and hope and joy where it all began.

Today's verses remind me that this is how it is in our life with God, too. The New Testament verse is a quote from John the Baptist, who might be expected to be discouraged or jealous or angry when Jesus' ministry rises and starts overshadowing his. But John knows that he is the "friend attending," while Jesus is the bridegroom. The bride represents the entirety of God's people, and John has nothing but joy as he sees and hears these beloved ones coming together.

Life, even life with God, comes with its bad days and challenges. On those days, looking back at the deep joy of a wedding is not a mask to cover up and pretend that everything is fine, nor a promise that the bad things will just disappear. But the joy reminds us of our love, of those who support us, of community and abundance. Joy can keep us going with a light and clean and free heart, no matter what our current reality.

Today I pray for my kids and their spouses, and for all marriages. I pray that another good images comes to mind and heart, for everyone who is not married for whatever reason. And I pray that the image of laughter and singing and celebrating on a great wedding day, at a table large enough to include us all, will bring inspiration and joy.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Speaking God's Word

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Hear, you peoples, all of you; listen, O earth, and all that is in it; and let the Lord God be a witness against you. - Micah 1:2


Jesus Christ says, "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation." - Mark 16:15

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 63; Proverbs 5; 1 Corinthians 13:8-14:5

Today's texts reflect Law and Gospel, listening and speaking, reflecting and acting. In all of these pairs, both parts are important.

Law is God's NO, calling us out when we're on the wrong track. Gospel is God's YES, calling us back into relationship with God because Jesus has reconciled us all to God and God's ways.

Listening is how we receive God's life-giving word into our own lives. Speaking the same word is how we expand that life by communicating it to others.

Reflecting is time spent in stillness pondering, meditating, praying, and deciding about God's word. Acting is time spent in motion moving, creating, lifting, sharing the good news.

Psalm 63 expresses joy in God's help, and seeks to make that help known: "Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you." The book of Proverbs keeps going back and forth between the blessings of a life lived God's way and the hardships of a false life: "My child, be attentive to my wisdom; incline your ear to my understanding, so that you may hold on to prudence, and your lips may guard knowledge." Paul encourages speech that passes on the grace of God's words to others: "Those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation."

There are many reminders today that a life lived with God is filled with truth, life, health, and contentment, as opposed to a life of lonely selfishness that breaks down instead of building up. Of course not every moment of a life lived with God is pleasant and comfortable. Existence always comes with friction and challenge. But to have God with us is a great help in navigating the struggles of life, and God's promises of life are for all people, in all places, for all time.

God's word communicates God's presence directly into our lives. May we receive it and reflect on it, and take action for ourselves and others. May we appreciate both Law and Gospel. May we listen and hear God's word. And may we speak the same word to the people we encounter throughout life.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Created for Good Works

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

Like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand. - Jeremiah 18:6 (NASB)

We are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. - Ephesians 2:10

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 56:1-8; Job 36:1-26; 1 Corinthians 9:1-12a

Maybe the most common confusion in Christian theology is about "works." Most of life trains us that the good things we get, we get because we've worked for them. Do the job, then get your paycheck. Work the fields, then reap the harvest. It's easy to think that it's the same with God, too: Live a good life, then get admitted to heaven.

Then there's this image, scattered throughout the Bible, of God as a potter, who creates us according to a certain design and for a certain purpose. If we're planned and made in a fashion like this, then the "good works" we're able to do have already been thought of and anticipated as part of our DNA. The possibilities don't start with us, but with God. This connects with the important concept of God's "grace." As Paul writes in the verses leading up to Ephesians 2:10 about good works:
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.
Our place in God's reign is assured by grace, the pure unconditional love and acceptance of God, not by anything we do. First come the blessings, then come the good works we do. They are simply "our way of life," the paths in which we "walk worthily" of the love of God.

Our whole lives are lived within the atmosphere of God's grace, love, mercy, forgiveness, kindness. Breathing in that fresh, clean air, we can be grateful and at peace and productive for the reign of God. We don't need to compete or gasp for air, nor fret that the oxygen we need will disappear or be taken away without constant effort on our part.

Thank you, God, for creating us and infusing our world with grace. Thank you for your promise of loving kindness for all. Thank you for giving us form and purpose, and for calling us to be useful in your holy work. Thank you for helping us to believe and trust, and to work joyfully and diligently, each in our own way.