Today's Scripture focus: Psalm 51
I grew up an avid fan of superheroes. Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Ironman, the Hulk, Captain America, The Flash, X-Men, The Fantastic Four . . . well, you get the picture. As you can imagine, I've been very interested in all the different movies that have been coming out in the past few years, bringing my childhood heroes to the big screen. I have a theory about the reasons behind the surge of these franchises and the relaunching of others. I think that a lot of the guys in my generation have grown up on computers and have become very good with special effects. They look at the ways their heroes have been portrayed and think, "I could do better than that." And so they try.
Now, I will admit that some have been more successful than others. While I have really enjoyed the way some of the more recent movies have sought to be more true to the original characters than previous movies, I can't help but think that some of these films are a special effects extravaganza in search of a plot. In some cases, the Hollywood portrayals have expanded way beyond my own limited imaginings, but this is not usually the case. Usually, the world that I had come up with in my head was much more interesting.
I had a conversation very similar to this recently with a friend of mine. We were talking about a certain series of books that is being made into a hollywood movie. He stated that he was having a hard time getting excited about the movie and was unsure that he would even go see it. "I think it will be done well," he said. "I just don't think they will be able to outdo the image I have in my head. It will probably ruin it for me." Many have said the same thing about such classics as the Chronicles of Narnia or the Lord of the Rings. While the movies were well-done, it just could never top the amazing world Tolkien or Lewis evoke in the mind with their wonderful prose.
"What does this have to do with Lent or, more specifically, Psalm 51" you may be thinking. Psalm 51 is a prayer of repentance. Traditionally, it is understood to be the prayer of King David after he has been visited by the prophet Samuel and outed as an adulterer and murderer. Before we can ever come before God in true confession and repentance, and before we can ever truly experience forgiveness, it is imperative that we think deeply about how we image or picture this God to whom we pray. As Brennan Manning puts it so well, "It is always true to some extent that we make our images of God. It is even truer that our image of God makes us. Eventually we become like the God we image" (The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus, p. 29). The writer of this Psalm gives us some clear indications of his Imago Dei (image of God) through his prayer.
Have mercy on me. The first assumption is that God is merciful. "What has the Lord required of you?" the prophet Micah asks. "Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8). In the book of James, we read that "Mercy triumphs over judgment!" (James 2:13). The God we come to in repentance is a God that repeatedly shows mercy - not giving us what we deserve, but giving us second, third, fourth, and fifth chances. In fact, God seems to specialize in giving us exactly what we don't deserve: mercy and grace.
According to Your steadfast love. This term "steadfast love" is greatly misunderstood. In most modern Western cultures, we think of love as an emotion - as something that you feel. The psalmist is not appealing to God on account of God's emotions towards us, however. Rather, the Hebrew term here (hesed) implies something much deeper than emotional fondness. Hesed refers to God's covenant faithfulness to God's people, God's loyalty to the covenant God has made. In essence, he is praying, "Be true to your word, God. Be true to your commitment to your people."
Blot out my transgressions. Before we can truly come to God to ask forgiveness, we must believe that God will actually forgive us. We must believe that forgiveness is possible. When we read statements like "as far as the east is from the west, so far has God removed our sin from us" (Psalm 103:12), it is not just good poetry. This is truth of who God is - a God of forgiveness. Look how many people in the scripture are incredibly flawed - Moses (murderer), David (adulterer/murderer), Rahab (prostitute), Tamar (incest), Paul (terrorist) - the list could go on and on, but God chooses to use them in spite of this. God chooses to offer forgiveness over and over again. Any judgment that God doles out comes only after chance after chance after chance or for forgiveness and repentance.
Ultimately, God is not pictured as some cosmic schoolmaster, sitting up in heaven waiting for you to get out of line so that God can smack your hand with a ruler. God is not so angry over your screw ups and failures that God us fuming up in heaven, just waiting for a chance to pour out some of that wrath on humanity. God is not pictured as a resentful father, up in heaven keeping track of all the different times and ways that you've messed things up so he can throw it in your face when the time comes. Instead, the psalmist goes to this merciful, loving, loyal, forgiving God to lay his heart bare and confess that his actions have alienated him in his relationship to God.
This is the God we approach in confession and repentance this Lent. This is the God to whom we need to be reconciled.
Prayer: God, I come to you in need of your mercy, love, and forgiveness. I have run away from you and violated our relationship time and again. In my sin, I violated relationships with your people - those you have created in your image. I confess these sins and ask you to forgive me. I need your reconciliation. I need your healing. Amen.
Today's Scripture focus: Romans 5:1-11
I am a workaholic. Sometimes I just don't know how and when to quit. To just take a break and slow down. I have a hard time really taking days off. Even those days that I set aside on the calendar as days off are often filled with all the stuff that I just didn't have time for the rest of the week. I find slowing down and really resting difficult, if not impossible sometimes. I am thankful that there are people in my life that help me to be accountable in this area. There have been days that I have shown up at the church only to hear, "Isn't this your day off? Why are you spending time on that? Can I do that for you?" I am thankful for these voices of reason and accountability.
I think that one of the reasons that I tend to work so much is that I like to create. It usually isn't a matter of not having a project to work on. Instead, it's more like, "Which of the five projects I have going do I want/need to work on today?" I was telling someone just yesterday that I probably have the general idea and outline for at least half a dozen books in my mind right now. I just need to set aside the time to write them. I would like to be able to spend time practicing the musical instruments that I enjoy playing - trombone, bass guitar, djembe, and Native American flute, but there are only so many hours in the day. There are some visual art pieces that I want to spend time on. There is work in my wood shop that's been sitting there for almost two years. There are computer programs that I need to learn how to use and countless books that I really want to read. The list could go on and on. The bottom line is that I like to be able to sit back and see the product that I've created - to hold the book I've written in my hand, sit and stare at a painting or craft project I've created, or hear a recording I've done in my makeshift studio.
When I probe even deeper than the act of creating, I have to admit that I probably attach a lot of personal worth to my performance - to my works. When I am "fruitful and multiply" myself through creativity, I feel that my time has not been wasted and that I have worth. When I can't see the results of my work, I often feel a real sense of failure. I'll admit that I look at the accomplishments of my friends at times (published authors, college professors, professional musicians) and feel like asking, "What have I got to show for my life?" The reality is that this kind of thinking can often lead one into a deep sense of isolation, failure, shame, dispair, and hopelessness. This is also what Paul is preaching against as he writes this letter to the church at Rome.
"God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us." It's as though God looks down on me when I've decided to get on that hamster wheel of performance-based worth and says, "What are you doing? What are you trying to prove? Who are you trying to impress? You are my child and nothing can change that." It's as if God is trying to get me to wake up and see that my identity and my value come, not from I can create or accomplish, but what has been accomplished for me. Whatever success or failure I have in life, it doesn't change the fact that the Creator, Sustainer, and Heart of the universe loves me - so much so that he sent Jesus to restore the vitality of our relationship, to show me a way off that hamster wheel. As Paul goes on to say a few chapters later in the same letter, God wants me to know that there is nothing in the world that can separate from the love God has for me- neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation. (see Romans 8:38-39)
And the truth is that when I can grasp this reality, I cease to judge others by the standards of performance but, rather, by their share in our common humanity - in our common identity as those created in the image of God, whom God sent Jesus to redeem. All of those external circumstances become nothing more than idols that I must lay down and of which I must repent. The truth is this: love - all love - is pure grace. There is nothing that we can do to earn it or deserve it. It is gift. The love of God. The love friends. The love of parents. The love of children. The love of companions. It's all grace. It's all gift.
Prayer: God, I want to get off the wheel, but sometimes I just don't know how. Help me see myself through your eyes. Help me find my worth and identity in you and you alone. Help me to find peace and comfort in the truth: that there is nothing in this world that can separate me from the love you have for me in Jesus. Thank you for that grace. Amen.
Today's Scripture focus: Isaiah 55:1-9
"Won't you come in? Have a seat. Can I get you something to drink? Some tea maybe?" (Mamaw was born, raised, and lived in the south - Mississippi to be precise - and she always had fresh tea in the fridge.) "Maybe a piece of pie or cake?" (Mamaw was known for her pecan pies, made with the fresh pecans she got from the trees in her backyard. She was also known for an amazing Italian Cream Cake. Since we usually visited her in the summer and my brother's birthday is in July, we would always request one of these as a birthday cake.)
There is something undeniable about food and hospitality in the culture of the South. I come from a long line of good cooks. My grandparents, my mom, and my wife are all very handy in the kitchen. Growing up, I remember that going to Mamaw's house was like living with a gourmet chef. You knew that you were going to get eggs, bacon, homemade biscuits, grits, and fresh fruit for breakfast. The thing we all salivated over, though, was the pear and fig preserves made from the pear trees in the orchard out back and the figs picked from the vine that grew up the side of the old chicken house. Mamaw also made the best creamed corn, chicken casserole, mixed vegetable casserole, and sweet potato casserole you've ever tasted. She never used a recipe, but would use a little of this and a touch of that. If you went hungry at Mamaw's house, it was your own dumb fault.
Consequently, I cringe when I look back and remember that there were times that we visited Mamaw that we considered it a great treat when we got to leave her house a few miles out of town and drive in to have dinner (this is what she called lunch) at the McDonald's. I'm sure it had something to do with the fact that she needed a break in the kitchen, but my brother and I thought this was the greatest thing ever. We would pile into her 1979 Ford LTD that was primer gray with maroon vinyl interior. It had only the factory AM stereo, but was one of the first cars with electric seats (they needed that because Mamaw was merely 5 feet 2 inches tall while Papaw was 6 feet 4 inches in stature).
I couldn't help but think of this while reading today's passage. "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food." Why did we count McDonald's such a treat when we were missing out on the amazing home cooking of one of the best chefs in the family? Why did we hunger for a meal that really wasn't going to fill us? That really wasn't going to nourish us? Why did we prefer the imitation over the real thing?
This is what the prophet Isaiah is saying to the people of Israel (and to us). We live in a culture that thrives on us not being satisfied. You shouldn't be satisfied with your looks - our product can make you look better. You shouldn't be satisfied with your job - you should be striving to make more. You should be satisfied with car - this car can drive faster and has more gadgets. You shouldn't be satisfied with your possessions - there is a bigger, better, newer, faster one to replace it. We live in a consumer world that thrives on disposability. Isaiah is reminding us that all of these things promise to fill us, but end up only being empty calories. They don't satisfy - at least not for very long.
This is what fasting during Lent is about - it reminds us that things we spend so much of our time trying to consume don't really satisfy in the long run. Ultimately, God is the only one who provide that which will nourish us and fill us. God is the only one who can meet that ultimate need, fill that vacuum, quench that thirst. And the best part about that is that God's provision come free of charge.“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price." (Isaiah 55:1 ESV) God is offering us a true spiritual feast that leads away from the starvation and malnutrition that sets in when we gorge ourselves on sin and the flesh.
Let's be honest, though. While some of us are well aware that we have walked away from God - that we have embraced rebellion - many of us don't even realize it. It doesn't even occur to us that the reality is that "life has lost its meaning in pursuit of a promotion or raise, [that] we have gotten buried under the demands of economic and social status" (Daniel Debevoise). In the midst of all those commercials and all those advertisements telling us what we need to be happy, to be pretty, to be fulfilled, to be satisfied, Isaiah is begging us to wake up: “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near" (Isaiah 55:6 ESV). Lent is just such a time. It is a time to renew a right relationship with the stuff in our lives and acknowledge that God alone can satisfy our deepest hungers. God alone can truly nourish us. God alone is the true way to fulfillment and peace. Let us seek God while God is near, for we never what distraction may come our way tomorrow to get us off track.
Prayer: God, I repent, asking you to forgive me for the way in which I've run after so many things that didn't satisfy in my life. I've paid te world's prices for what you offer free of charge. Free me from my bondage to the consumerist mentality of this world and let me find my true fulfillment in you alone. Amen.
Today's Scripture focus: Luke 13:1-9
It's amazing to me how many followers of Jesus are so quick to interpret the mind and heart of God for the rest of us when disaster strikes. I'm not interested in calling naming names, but there were those those that spoke up following Hurricane Katrina, saying that it was God's judgment on the city of the New Orleans. Others spoke up a couple of years ago when a tornado hit Minnesota, saying that it was the judgment of God on a certain denomination who was meeting at the time. According to this writer, God was sending a message of warning to this denomination because they were considering the adoption of a statement on the issue of homosexuality.
Now, most of us would not go so far in attributing such disasters as God's judgment, but we casually adopt similar thought processes. If someone seems to have had good fortune of late, we may say things like, "Well, you must just be livin' right." If a person seems to have fallen on misfortune, we might say the opposite, "You ain't been livin' right." Typically, these are said in jest, but I think that deep down there are many that believes that there is a direct cause and effect relationship between the two - God rewards good behavior and God punishes bad behavior.
I have to say that this kind of talk makes me really nervous - and really angry as well. It seems that Jesus felt the same way when a group of Galileans come to him and start making similar comments. "Be careful," Jesus seems to be saying. "Do you really think that one group of people were worse sinners than another group because they were victims of terrorism? Do you really think that this group of builders was worse off than the rest because of an accident at birth? Do you really think that this man was born blind because of some moral failure of his parents?" (see John 9)
It's as though Jesus has taken a lesson or two from my Mamaw: "Every time you point one finger at someone else, you have three more pointing right back at you." Or in Jesus' words, "Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?" (see Matthew 7:3) Twice, Jesus says in this passage, "unless you repent, you will all perish as they did." This is the real thrust of what is going on. The Apostle Paul really did get it when he emphasized, "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." No one is exempt.
I don't think that we really want a God like this - a God who rewards and punishes based on what our actions deserve. If God did act in this way, I'm afraid that none of us would be here. None of us is worthy. That is why it is called grace. In this text, Jesus refuses to allow simple answers to complex questions (if A, then B). Jesus will not allow quick fixes to solve some of the world's deepest problems. He also doesn't get into a debate about theodicy (how an all-good, all-powerful God could allow bad things to happen in our world) or try intellectually explain away God's actions.
No, Jesus turns things right around on his listeners. Jesus is on a mission to bring his kingdom on the earth. He takes advantage of this teachable moment to refocus their attention and their questions. "Let this be a warning to you all. You don't know what tomorrow will bring. Repent now. Get on track now. Start living now." Eternal life doesn't start after the casket is sealed and the dirt settles. Eternal life starts right now as you repent and seek to be a follower of Jesus.
So, instead of jumping to cast blame when disaster strikes, let it ring out in our heart a call to repentance. Every atrocity in the world (natural of man-made) is a reminder that we all sin and fall short of God's glory. Every sinister act serves as a mirror to the brokenness of our own soul. This is a time of repentance. Let it begin with me.
Prayer: God, I confess that as I look around the world, my heart breaks for the pain I see. And yet, I must confess that there is no sin I am incapable of committing given the right circumstances. I admit that I want to rank my sin and compare myself to others, falsely comforting myself with the thought that I am not as bad as they are. However, you are the standard and I fall so short. I repent. Forgive me. Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me. Amen.
Today's Scripture focus: John 4:5-42
I really don't want to admit it, but I am a self-described "conflict coward." I really don't enjoy conflicts at all. There are some people in the world that just seem to go around looking for an argument. They will intentionally poke and prod people to get them to disagree and start some kind of conflict over an issue. There are others that will get into a fist fight if you just look at them the wrong way. Others enjoy posting nasty comments on social networking websites and blogs just to stir up trouble. I am not one of those people.
Most of the time, I would just rather avoid conflict altogether. When I get into one of these uncomfortable situations, I usually have one of two reactions - (1) I will shut down or (2) use humor to try to defuse the situation. I'm sure you know the feeling of watching a conversation when you see the "train wreck" coming. You can follow the path that this conversation is heading and it isn't going to be pretty. Sometimes, you see it in the conversation of others - you know that tempers are starting to flare and one person is about to set off something that can only get ugly. It's usually about this time that I start inspecting the density of carpet fibers in the room or become intrigued by the design of ceiling tiles. I just can't bring myself to watch the wreck. I avoid eye contact, realize that "nature is calling," or find something to distract the parties from the inevitable collision ahead. Either that, or I make some goofy, off-handed remark about something that has nothing to do with the impending disaster about to take place. I will try to get attention focus elsewhere or on me rather than on the mounting tension.
I think that the woman in today's passage had a similar tactic. Jesus has come into town and found a seat by the well in the middle of the square. It is noon, one of the hottest parts of the day, and most of the people are inside, seeking shelter from the blazing sun. As Jesus rests his weary feet, a woman comes out to draw water from the well. Why did she wait till now? Why not come early in the morning, when all the rest of the women in town come to draw water, so that it's not so hot?
Aahh . . . there it is.
She comes when no one else is around. Maybe she's avoiding the inevitable conflict that would take place if she showed up when all the "respectable" women were there. Maybe she was avoiding the dirty looks, snide comments, the finger-wagging, and the condemnation. You see, this woman has a past. But that doesn't seem to bother Jesus all that much. Jesus asks her for water and, after she gets over the initial shock, she protests that he shouldn't be talking to a woman like her. Jesus then does something really amazing, he offers her an invaluable gift - himself. He offers her the living water that will quench every thirst and never go dry.
When Jesus encourages the woman to go call her husband, she quickly realizes that the jig is up. She's about to be outed. The thing she had wanted to avoid was becoming the central topic of conversation.
"I . . . I . . . I don't . . . have a husband," she stammers.
"You're right," Jesus replies. "You've had five husbands and the man you're living with now isn't even your husband."
What do you now? Your secret is out. You're standing there emotionally naked before this man that you don't even know, but he sure seems to know you. She does what comes naturally to conflict cowards - change the subject.
"I see that you are a prophet. I want to talk to you about worship."
This is one of the great temptations of the Lenten season. As we spend forty days meditating on the cross - on what Jesus did, on what it means, on what it is calling us to do and be - we have to take a long, hard look in the mirror. We have the chance during Lent to dig deep into our own soul and face our own demons. We have the chance to slow down and confront the struggles that we usually rush by in the daily busyness we call life. The temptation is to want to change the subject and change it fast.
Sure, God will let us do that. God's not going to force us to do anything we don't want to do. We can white-knuckle our way through Lent. We can go through the motions and still completely miss the point. This is a time to go deep with Jesus - to open up all the doors to all the rooms in our heart and let Jesus bring in his magnifying glass, pointing out things that we've become so accustomed to that we've overlooked it. It's time to let Jesus pull the mask off our hidden lives and allow his healing water to flow over them, to wash them, to expose them to the painful (yet healing) light of his truth.
Yes, this is a holy season. An uncomfortable season. A needed season of our life. Don't change the subject.
Prayer: God, being exposed can be painful. When I truly let you in, the shame, guilt, and ugliness of my heart gets brought to light. I realize that there are places in me that are dead with sin. Help me to be courageous and to place those in your hands. Bring me healing. Bring me life. Help me to keep from running away or changing the subject. Amen.
Today's Scripture focus: Psalm 27
If I were to try to count the number of worship services I have attended in my lifetime, I don’t think it would be remotely possible. Now, if I were to count the number of services that I distinctly remember and that had a profound impact on my life, it wouldn’t be more than a handful. January 2, 2005 was just such a date.
My wife and I were in Turkey, serving on a mission team ministering to missionary families serving in North Africa and the Middle East. Sunday morning, we left the resort and conference center and traveled to the amphitheater in the ancient city of Aspendos. Built approximately 180 A.D., this was an amazing place to gather for a worship service, especially considering that a place like this was likely used for the persecution of Christians. While the acoustics in that place were amazing for singing and Dr. Gary Chapman preached a powerful message on a passage from the book of Acts, the thing that stands out most is one a cappella hymn. One of the men from the praise team sang a solo version of Martin Luther’s famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
our helper he amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
doth seek to work us woe;
his craft and power are great,
and armed with cruel hate,
on earth is not his equal.
This powerful hymn of faith finds echo in today’s passage from the psalms. The Lord is light and salvation, it begins. There is nothing in the world of which I should be afraid. God is the stronghold of my life. God is my refuge. A mighty fortress is our God.
Unfortunately, the spiritual high doesn’t seem to last. At some point, you have to come down off the mountain. Talk of power and deliverance is soon swallowed up in hints of fear regarding enemies that seek to devour flesh and adversaries who lie in wait. Even though these first hints of trouble are couched in language of assured victory, by verse nine the psalmist’s tune has changed. You can sense the panic in his voice, “Don’t hide from me God! Don’t be angry with me! Don’t forsake Lord like my mother and father have! Don’t turn me over to my enemies! Don’t let them tell lies about me! Don’t let them inflict violence upon me! Please God, help!”
How many times have I started Lent with good intentions? How many times have I said, “I’m giving up sweets . . . caffeine . . . guitar . . . buying anything extra . . .” only to fail at the first sign of cherry cheesecake, or gourmet coffee, or a great new release at the bookstore? Our grand intentions run into cold hard reality so quickly. What happens when our intentions are put under pressure? While it seems that there may be a moment of wavering in this psalm, it ends on a note of hope and truth: “I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”
Fears and doubts, struggles and failures, up and downs can only be endured because of the presence of God in the midst of them. Therefore, if we don’t feel God’s hand guiding; if we don’t feel God beneath us, lifting us up; if we don’t feel safe under the shadow of God’s wing, just wait. Wait for the Lord. Wait for God’s deliverance. Wait for God’s strength. And as we wait, may we find Luther’s words ringing in our ears:
Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing,
were not the right man on our side,
the man of God's own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth, his name,
from age to age the same,
and he must win the battle.
Prayer: God, I admit that I go back and forth between fear and trust. I don't always live up to my goals and fail to keep my commitments and resolutions. Help me to rest in you, my fortress, my strength, my refuge. Amen.
Today's Scripture focus: Philippians 3:17-4:1
We sat there in the office signing papers, taking pictures, and paying our money. I had made a special appointment, picked the boys up early from school, and showed up at the Post Office at the appointed time. We were taken back behind the place with which I was familiar - P.O. Boxes, mail slots, and the front counter personnel.
"Why do we have to get a passport?" the boys wanted to know.
"Well, you are going to need it when go on our mission trip this summer" I responded. I tried to explain that this little blue book with an eagle on the front, a picture inside, and a computer embedded in its cover were the proof of our citizenship. It told the government that we belong to this country and gave us permission to come back into our country once we returned from our trip. I tried to keep it simple, but they still didn't understand. They half-smiled for their picture, we paid our money, and then we waited. A few weeks later, the package arrived in the mail and it was official, our boys can travel out of the country with their shiny new passport and they can return home, assured that they have a place here because of their citizenship.
As I read today's passage, I thought about this. Paul, in his letter to the church at Philippi, clearly states a truth that I think we pay lip-service to but don't think through its implications. "But our citizenship is in heaven," Paul writes. Yes, we live currently in this world, but our true place of belonging, our true home is not here, but with God. This is not the only time the New Testament writers expound on this theme. "We are ambassadors for Christ," Paul writes to the church at Corinth. In 1 Peter we read, "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation," (emphasis added) and later, "I urge you as aliens and strangers in the land . . ." (1 Peter 2:9, 11). The message seems pretty clear: this world is not our home.
One of the key messages of Jesus during his ministry was the announcement of a new kingdom that was coming to pass. In fact, his first sermon (as recorded in Matthew) echoed the message of John the Baptist, who said, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." The Sermon on the Mount could be seen as a description of what this kingdom would look like and the kind of community Jesus was calling its citizens to be. For with a new kingdom comes a new king. Membership in the kingdom means allegiance to Jesus as the only rightful king. Is it any wonder, then that the power structures of Jesus' day felt threatened by him? Is it any wonder that they drummed up false charges and hung him on a cross? We feel confident that there was more to the cross than this, but it was definitely not less than this.
Which brings me to my point today - if we are called to be citizens of a new kingdom in which Jesus is the only rightful king, what is our passport? What is the sign that shows that we belong? What papers identify us with this crucified king? We must take on the cross of Jesus.
As Paul puts it, there are many who are enemies of the cross - they live life on their terms, their bellies are their gods, they have their mind set on the things of the earth (power, possessions, success, etc.).
Citizens of this other kingdom don't live that way. They have their mind set on the things of the Spirit, they lay down their life, they die to this old way of life, they are born again, and they are obedient to Christ. Christ is their only king and their allegiance goes to him and him alone. Though they are present in this world, their true citizenship is elsewhere.
So let us glory in the cross - the cross of our King, the cross of our salvation, the cross of our citizenship - and let us carry our passport boldly, with humility and grace.
Prayer: God, thank for the cross. Though it be the source pain and death, let me find in it your glory and my citizenship as a member of your kingdom. Amen.
Today's Scripture focus: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
In my final semester in seminary, I had to take a class called the Capstone Seminar. In this class, we were supposed to integrate all that we had been learning in classes with the reality of ministry in churches, hospitals, and other organizations. Our class was given the responsibility of leading one of the school's weekly chapel services, doing everything from music to scripture to preaching (in front of our professors, no less). After quite a bit of discussion of the things that stuck out to us, we finally honed in on our topic - dealing with the tension of doubt and faith.
In my sermon, I remember making this statement: "The quality I value most from my time in divinity school is something I call 'doubt aptitude.' It’s the capacity of one’s faith to embrace the tension of doubt without becoming completely incapacitated by it." You see, through my study, I had been exposed to new voices that spoke so powerfully about faith, but also about the reality of doubt. Voices like St. John of the Cross, Mother Theresa, Barbara Brown Taylor, Frederich Beuchner, and Henri Nouwen to name a few. All of these writers faced what John of the Cross called the "Dark Night of the Soul" but it did not cause them to lose faith. In fact, for some, it caused them to enter more deeply into the life of faith. I remember closing my sermon with this: "Doubt is not the opposite of faith, apathy is. Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!"
I have to wonder if this is what is going on with Abram in today's passage. In the previous chapter, Abram had chased the army that took his kinsmen captive and defeated them decisively. As he returns, he offers a tithe of their plunders (10%) to Melchizedek, the King of Salem, who throws a party for Abram and his men. He offers to let Abram keep the goods that he has brought, but Abram refuses, saying that he wants to be sure everyone knows that victory was from God alone. He is on a spiritual high.
Today's passage, just verses later, opens this way: "After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” (Genesis 15:1 ESV) Of course it will. Abram said so himself, he wouldn't take the king's treasure because he was waiting for true treasure from the King. But instead of responding with thanksgiving, he responds with doubts.
God promises to bless him and Abram says, "But God, I don't have any children."
"Trust me Abram, you will."
"But God, as it stands right now, my servant will inherit everything."
"I've got it under control, Abram."
"But God, how can I know that you are going to help us take the land?"
This is just like us, isn't it? God has been faithful time and time again. God has been true to God's promises. God has been steadfast. And yet we respond, "But God . . ." Therefore, God does something really special for Abram. God says, "Let's make a covenant." Tradition dictated that a covenant would be made between two parties. They would each sacrifice animals, cut them in half, and dig a trench between the halves, where the blood of the animals would run. Then the two parties would walk through the trench of blood, their robe dipping into the blood. In this way, they were making a statement to all the world - the blood on my robe stands as a testimony to the commitment we have made to one another. It is binding.
Abram is preparing for this type of covenant ceremony, when the sun begins to set and Abram falls into a deep sleep. While sleeping, He seems to have this vision of something (or someone) passing through the sacrificed animals. He sees a smoking pot and a flaming torch. Both of these are images/representatives of the person of God. Maybe the connection is the pilar of smoke and fire will lead the people out of Egypt. Maybe it's the connection to the brazen altar in the temple where sacrifices are burned. The specifics are not so important. The point, however, is that Abraham is not one of the parties walking through the sacrificed animals. God is making this covenant with the only person who is sure to uphold it for all eternity: God.
This is a place we can rest our cap - a place we can rest our hope. Even in the midst of our faithlessness, God is faithful. In the midst of our doubt, God is certain. When we can't hold up our end of the covenant, God holds it up for us. In these days of Lent, as we continue to meditate on the countless ways we've failed to keep covenant, surely this is a word of hope that we need.
Prayer: God, in my life I've demonstrated that I am either unable or unwilling to keep the covenant you established with your people. Thank you that it doesn't depend on me. Thank you for taking that role upon yourself. Thank you for holding me long after I've let go of you. Thank you for the kind of doubt that leads to a deeper kind of faith. Amen.
Today's Scripture focus: John 3:1-17
It was one of the eeriest nights of my life. Michelle and I were on a camping trip throughout the state of Tennessee. We started out at Frozen Head State Park in middle Tennessee. We spent two nights in the “rustic tent” area with our little campsite right next to a running stream. It was peaceful, relaxing, cozy even. Why we left - I don’t know.
The next stop was Big South Fork National River and Recreation area. We arrived close to dusk, so we knew we had to hurry to find a site and get our tent set up before nightfall. We picked a little spot with a nice view down to the nearby lake and Michelle set up the tent while I went looking for firewood.
When the sun went down, it got dark - real dark - and as we lay down for the night, an eerie reality set in. We couldn’t hear anything. Nothing. Nada. Complete silence. No bugs. No tree frogs. No stream flowing. No wind rustling the leaves. Nothing. So, add these two together - no light and no sound - and we were pretty freaked out. When some animal crunched a few leaves near the tent and we both about jumped clear out of our skin, we decided that we would be moving on at first light.
Throughout the Gospel of John, there is this interplay between light and dark. John’s gospel starts with this description of Jesus: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5) And yet, Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of night. He comes to him in secret. He comes when everyone else is zipped up tight within their tents, waiting for the light to return.
As one commentator put it, “He is not the first in the church nor the last to follow Jesus from afar” (George W. Stroup, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2). This is definitely a temptation isn’t it? I can remember a skit that I read some years back that had something to do with this. You know, that kind of skit that you think is pretty funny when you are in youth ministry, but you cringe years later when you think about how trivial it made the gospel sound? While I don’t remember all the details of the skit, I remember that it was something about being undercover Christians - about sneaking into places and just trying to blend in so that you could have a subtle influence over time. The point of the skit was to not do this - to be bold in living out our faith.
Now, I don’t always like to admit it, but I do this. When first meeting someone, I usually hold off on telling people my occupation until we’ve had a chance to get to know each other a little. Dropping the whole, “I’m a pastor” bomb usually spells the end of normal conversation when you’ve just met. People start being guarded and apologizing for things that they would never apologize for. It’s like an instant case of the “guilties” sets in. For this reason, I like to follow Jesus from afar at times.
We all do this, though. We don’t want others to see us stopping and praying at meals. Maybe we don’t want to risk losing our jobs by being outspoken about following Jesus. Maybe we don’t want to hear our friends give us a hard time about it. Maybe we’re forbidden to bring religion into our workplace. Maybe we just don’t want to the conversation to get weird. The reality is that we all have the temptation to follow Jesus from afar, just as Nicodemus does.
This passage in John’s gospel ends with one of the most famous verses in all of Scripture: “For God so loved the world . . .” (you know it). Believing in Jesus is about much more than intellectual assent, though. To believe is to orient our lives around his teaching and to live it out daily. As the passage says in verse 21, “whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
For John, there is no way to separate believing and doing. The same should be said for us as well. If we say we follow Jesus, we must turn from our sin. We must leave the darkness and step into the light of his love. This is what Lent is about for me - stepping out of the shadows of my own sin and into the light of Christ’s love and forgiveness. What about you? Are you up close and personal or following at a distance?
Prayer: God, I admit that it is a lot easier to follow you at a distance. Give me the strength to see the truth of my sin and darkness. Help me to have the courage to step into Your light. Let me never be ashamed to be called Your child. Amen.
Today's Scripture focus: Luke 13:22-35
I can still hear the words even today: "God is doing something powerful in the cities of our world. You don't have to travel halfway around the globe to reach it, for God has brought the world to our doorstep. Where is God leading you?" I was a student at the University of Southern Mississippi and we were attending a mission conference in Dallas Texas, whose emphasis was on urban missions around the world. The speaker that night was the pastor of a multi-ethnic church in the metro Los Angeles area. My girlfriend sat next to me that night (it wouldn't be long before she would become my wife). It was the first time that we felt the call together. We didn't know where God was calling, what kind of ministry it would be, or any of the details, but we knew we were being called.
Jesus, too, was called to a profound ministry. Likewise, he was called to a specific city as well. I mean, sure we all know that Jesus came to save the world, but read Luke's gospel and you get this real sense that there is something about Jerusalem that is calling out to Jesus. There is something there that is beckoning him and drawing him like a tractor beam. As one scholar noted, there are 90 references to Jerusalem in the Gospel of Luke while there are only 49 references in the other three gospels combined. It's the place where Luke's Gospel begins (the angel appearing to Zechariah while he served in the temple) and the place where his gospel ends (Jesus appearing to the disciples following the resurrection).
In our passage today, we hear this passion for Jerusalem, as Jesus says, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" As I hear this passion and look out over the city to which I have been called, I can imagine Jesus saying, "O Asheville, Asheville (or enter your city name here)! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" Later in Luke's Gospel, we read, "And when he drew near and saw [Jerusalem], he wept over it. . ." (Luke 19:41). When was the last time I wept over my city like that? When was the last time that I became so broken hearted over the rejection of God that it brought me to tears - that is crushed me? When was the last time I wept over my own sin and shortcoming like that?
Jesus does an interesting thing in this passage. He likens himself to a mother hen. Now, I will freely admit that this would not have been my first choice of animals. While we don't have chickens or hens at my house, I remember mission trips in some impoverished rural areas and the crazy hens that tried to attack us on a daily basis. I remember summer vacations and my family's farms in Mississippi. Really, Jesus? A mother hen? You were called the lion of Judah. But a mother hen? In Hosea you were called a stealthy leopard or a bear who has been robbed of her cubs. But a mother hen? In Exodus, you referred to yourself as an eagle, carrying the people out of Egypt. But a mother hen? Really?
Ad Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us, though, this is Jesus' way. This is the way of the one who says, "The first will be last and the last will be first." This is the one who says, "you will save your life by losing it." There are two options in this story: you can be the fox or the mother hen. Taylor puts it this way:
You can live by licking your chops or you can die protecting the chicks. Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first.
Which he does, as it turns out. He slides up on her one night in the yard while all the babies are asleep. When her cry wakens them, they scatter. She dies the next day where both foxes and chickens can see her -- wings spread, breast exposed -- without a single chick beneath her feathers. It breaks her heart, but it does not change a thing. If you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.
This is where we find our shelter - under the wing of the crucified one. And this is where we make our stand - with our own wings spread wide, exposed, vulnerable, willing to lay down our life for those under our care. For our community. For our city. O Asheville, Asheville! How often would He have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.
Prayer: God, break my heart for my city. Break my heart for the sin and suffering of those inside its borders. Break my heart for my own sin. Show me how to lay down my life that others may have life. . . that others may know you. Amen.
Ecclesia Writer's Consortium
We are blessed at Ecclesia to have a number of gifted writers and teachers. Here, you'll find devotions, meditations, and musings from a sample of those writers.