Today's Scripture focus: Isaiah 53
I’ve always had this fantasy of being invisible. Maybe it stems from watching Star Trek - I always loved the great Klingon weapon of war: the cloaking device. I remember wishing that I had a cloaking device. I wished that I could hide in plain sight and that no one would even notice that I was there.
The reality is that there are people in our world that effectively have a cloaking device on their lives. There are people that get walked by every day and no one seems to notice. I’m thinking about DJ, a young man that lives on the streets of Asheville. He has been in and out of the county jail because there is no room in a hospital detox ward. His 8x8 cell serves as a detox chamber as his body writhes from the heroin that it is craving. Meanwhile his girlfriend and daughter are trying to get enough food to eat and a bed to sleep in while they wait the forty days until his release.
I’m thinking of a single mother from Mexico, who is an undocumented worker here in the United States. She came here with her husband, whom she left because of the danger he posed to her and her children. Because she here without papers, her employers constantly take advantage of her. She works seven days a week, with almost no days off whatsoever. She is underpaid and not given credit for the ample amount of overtime she puts in. She is trying her hardest to provide for her children, but is up against obstacle after obstacle. You’ve probably never noticed her because she feels she has to “fly under the radar” or risk being caught by those that deport her and potentially separate her from her children.
I’m thinking about a young man who recently gave this country’s continued race problem a name and a face when he was gunned down by a person doing the neighborhood watch program. While all the details are unclear at this point, it seems that he was walking home in an exclusive neighborhood in which his family lived. According to some reports, he was shot because he looked like he might be a threat or up to no good. The fact that we know his name and have seen his face on the news are the exception rather than the rule for this ongoing struggle in our nation’s identity.
These are the people that this passage is about. Sure, it is a prophecy that points to the sacrificial death of Jesus, but it is about them as well. It is about those that suffer in silence and obscurity while the rest of us don’t even pay attention. It is about those who, like the scapegoat in Jewish thought, bear the sin of society on their shoulders. They are the ones who suffer so that the rest of us don’t have to. They are some of the victims of a society that would rather sweep them under the rug than reach out and “love our neighbor as ourself.”
In Isaiah, the servant doesn’t fight back, but enters into this suffering, injustice, and exploitation with a refusal to fight violence with violence. Instead, the servant fights with an expected weapon: vulnerability. Walter Brueggemann describes the scene in this way:
This is a life given for the life of others - no satisfaction of anger, no victory over the power of death, but only a gentle surrogate in punishment. It is as though the vicious cycles must be broken. but they cannot be broken by force, by power, by assertion, for such vigorous assertion only escalates and evokes more from the other side. The servant, this nobody with no resources, breaks the cycles of death and hurt precisely by a life of vulnerability, goes into the violence, and ends its tyranny.
Maybe part of our task this Lent is to acknowledge our complicity in the exploitation and violence done against these invisible servants. Now, while I don’t necessarily mean physical violence in every case, it is true that violence is being done in each of these situations. Biblical scholar Raymond Brown has defined violence as “whatever violates another, in the sense of infringing upon or disregarding or abusing or denying that other, whether physical harm is involved or not, can be understood as an act of violence. The basic definition of violence would then become violation of personhood.” From this definition, we can at least acknowledge that we have allowed violence to occur. And for that, we repent. We have allowed people to be invisible. And for that, we repent. We have been blind to their need and deaf to their cries. And for that, we repent. We have profited from their exploitation. And for that, we repent.
Let us open our eyes and look for the suffering servants in our midst. Let us look for the new life that God can bring through their sacrifice. Let us reach out and love our neighbor as we love ourself.
Prayer: God, open my eyes to the victims of this world’s violence. Help me to see, hear, smell, and touch the servants all around me. They are a picture of Christ, a picture of you. Use them to teach me and make me more like you. Amen.
Today's Scripture focus: John 3:14-21
Sometimes it feels as if life is nothing more than a journey from one crisis to the next. There have definitely been times when this statement has rung true in my extended family. Between financial issues, medical issues, relational struggles, work stress, spiritual dryness, family issues, and so on, the crises had threatened to overwhelm me and made me feel as though I were going under. I tend to be the kind of person that retreats into myself in those times of crises. I want to pull the covers back up over my head. I want to retreat away from the world and from people. I want to hide out in my head until the storm blows over.
Spiritual crises seem to be a common theme among many of the great spiritual teachers that I resonate with as well. I can’t help but think of some of the passages from St. John of the Cross in his masterpiece, The Dark Night of the Soul. I think of writings from St. Francis of Assisi, Thomas Merton, Mother Theresa’s recently released letters, Frederich Buechner, Henri Nouwen, etc. All of these writers seem to have had times in their lives where they stared into the deep pit of despair, doubt, loneliness, isolation, and sheer nothingness, hearing only the echo of their own voice reverberate back as they called out for a sign that someone was there. All of these writers, at some point in their journey, reached a place of crisis. They reached a line in the sand where they had to decide if they were going to continue forward or stop journeying all together.
This is where Nicodemus finds himself in today’s passage. Literally, these are the words that come from Jesus’ mouth. “haute de estin he krisis,” it says. Which means, “this is the judgement.” The word translated “judgment” is the word krisis, from which we get the English word crisis. Nicodemus has come to Jesus in search of answer. The answer he gets, however, leads to a crisis of faith. Jesus, the light, has come into the world. As the light, he has exposed the darkness of the world. He has unmasked the powers that had hidden behind attractive veils and convincing disguises. He has pulled back the curtain on the seemingly powerful wizard and exposed him for the fraud he really is.
The problem is this - people like the wizard. They like to make-believe. They like the darkness. They like to hide and pretend that things really aren’t as bad as everyone is making them out to be. They like to believe that they aren’t really hurting anyone.
Nicodemus finds what many of us find: Jesus brings about a crisis. Jesus demands a decision. You’re either in or out. You either follow or walk away. You either step into the light or hide out in the darkness. There is just no room to be neutral when it comes to Jesus. Even no decision is really a decision.
Lent has a way of bringing that point of crisis to the forefront. For forty days, we walk in the footsteps of Jesus’ journey in the wilderness and temptation. For forty days, we recall the forty years that the Israelites spent wandering in the desert of their own sin and rebellion. For forty days, we face our own demons as we make our way to the cross. For forty days, the crisis of Jesus calls to us to make a decision - light or darkness?
There is good news couched in this language of crisis, however. “For God did not send his Son into world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” While the coming of Jesus does bring about a sort of judgment, his purpose is not to come as prosecutor or judge. Rather, his purpose is to come as pardoner - to come as the bringer of forgiveness and the agent of reconciliation. He has come to stand in the gap, repairing the breach, paving the way for us to make our way to the Father. He has come to be our light - our beacon, our lighthouse, so that we can find our way back home.
Prayer: God, I know that I am at a crossroads. I can choose to move closer to you or to run away. I can choose surrender or rebellion. I can choose life or death. I can choose light or darkness. Help me to choose you, regardless of the path down which that decision may lead me. Jesus, I choose you. Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief. Amen.
Today's Scripture focus: Ephesians 2:1-10
While I’m quite certain that the use of affirmations did not start with 12-Step groups, they have become a powerful tool in fighting addiction. At its most basic level, an affirmation is a declaration that something is true. In dealing with addiction, one of the greatest battles is to distinguish between truth and lie. The inner addict is so powerful in convincing a person to believe the lies of their addiction - lies like, “you can stop anytime you want,” “this will be the last time,” “you deserve a little something for yourself,” or “you’re not hurting anyone else with this behavior.” Addicts have a way of convincing themselves of just about anything and everything.
Affirmation are statement that a person knows to be true, regardless of how they feel on any particular day. It is the sober mind putting in writing the truth that an addict wants to remind him/herself when the lies of the addiction are threatening to lead them to compromise. It helps to look in the mirror and say the affirmations to oneself. Hearing them out loud helps to let those truths sink in to one’s life.
I have found affirmations to be a powerful tool in my own battle with sin and the “old self.” Jesus said that our enemy is the “father of lies” (John 8:44), seeking to convince us that those lies are truth. A few years ago, my wife compiled a list of affirmations straight from scripture about who God says that I am. While there are many days that I don’t necessarily feel that these are true about me, I try to remind myself that if God has said that they are true, they must be. Since then, I have shared this list with many people struggling with understanding their identity in Christ.
I thought of this list as I read today’s passage. It reads very much like an affirmation of our true identity in Jesus Christ. “We were dead in our trespasses,” it tells us. I don’t feel dead, my mind tells me. I’m pretty sure that I’m still breathing, my heart says. I’m still pumping, my heart chimes in. All true, but the reality is that I am dead. Sin is a living, breathing death and I’m a victim of its vile venom. In reality, I don’t have to work really hard to believe this one. I know myself. I know just how many times I blow it each and every day. I realize, as the common prayer of confession used by many different Christian denominations states, that I “have sinned by [my] own fault in thought, word, and deed; by what [I] have done, and by what [I] have left undone.” I know just how bad I’ve screwed things up. This whole Lent process has continually pointed that out to me as well.
But it doesn’t end here. “Even when we were dead . . . [God] made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved.” Even when we were dead . . . Even when we had nothing that we could offer . . . Even when we were still enemies . . . Even when all hope seemed lost . . . Even when all others had turned their back on us . . . Even when God should have left us to wallow around in the massive mess we made for ourselves, Christ reached in and pulled us out. No, more than that. Christ took our place. We are already raised up to new life with him. It’s a done deal. It is a fact. New life begins today.
And there’s still more. “God . . . raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” Not only are we raised to new life, but it is a fact that we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places. It’s as though he wants to be sure that we are sure to get it - it’s not just new life, you are royalty in Christ Jesus. In those days that you look in the mirror and can only see your sin and failure staring back at you, remember that you are a prince/princess. You are a child of the king. You are seated in the place of honor among the royal court. It is a fact.
This is an affirmation, if ever I heard one! This is something we need to be reminded. This is not a future hope, but a present reality. This is not something we’ve earned, it is a gift. And should you ask why? Why has God met you in Jesus at the lowest point of your life? Why has God breathed new life into your bones? Why has God seated you among the royal court in the heavenly places? “We are his workmanship, created in christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” This is your identity. This is your life purpose. Go live it.
Prayer: God, that you for the reality of who I am in you. Thank you for new life. Thank you for forgiveness. Thank you for adopting me. Thank you for making me an heir to the throne. Thank you for giving me a purpose. Help me to live into this reality and reject the multitude of lies this world would have me believe. Amen.
Today's Scripture focus: Luke 15:11-32
It is always dangerous when we come across passages in the Bible with which we are extremely familiar. The so-called “Parable of the Prodigal Son” is just one such passage. The prodigal son has become somewhat of a folk-hero in our culture. We’ve all heard the stories of the young son or daughter who sets out on their own to “sow their wild oats,” only to come home later all grown up and having finally made something of themselves. Or maybe it doesn’t turn out quite so neatly and they come home after hitting rock bottom and having nowhere left to turn. It is a story that it told over and over again in our cultural conscience.
A couple of years ago, I spent a lot of time studying, meditating, and teaching through this famous parable of Jesus. I came to the conclusion that calling this a parable of “the prodigal” was probably an accurate moniker. However, just which prodigal are we talking about? It seems to me that there are multiple candidates to carry this title. A quick dictionary definition of the term prodigal lends the following results:
1. Rashly or wastefully extravagant
2. Giving or given in abundance; lavish or profuse
With that in mind, let me tell you a little about a family I call “The Prodigals.”
The Younger Prodigal. This seems to be the most obvious choice to wear the label. You can’t really get around the fact that this is a real jerk. When he comes to his father to ask for his share of the inheritance, he is essentially saying to his dad, “I wish you were already dead.” Surprisingly, the father gives it to him and he takes his inheritance and wastes it in “reckless living.” Things get so bad that the young man ends up tending the pigs of a Gentile - a double no, no (working for a Gentile and touching such an unclean animal). He is at rock bottom when he comes to himself. He has squandered everything that his family has worked hard to earn and has essentially flushed it down the drain.
The Prodigal Father. Let me say that if one of my sons came to me and said essentially, “Dad, I wish you were dead. Give me my money now,” I don’t think I would have had the same reaction as this father. I think it would have been something more along the lines of, “You ungrateful little . . . How dare you come to me and ask for your inheritance now!” But he does. And when that son hits the bottom and drags himself home, I’m not so sure that I would be pulling out a new robe, a new ring, and throwing a party for him. How is that going to teach him the consequences of his actions? Yes, this father is prodigal in his love for his son, going way over the top time and time again.
The Older Prodigal. In reality, this is the one I identify with the most. The responsible child who does what he is supposed to do. He works hard, keeps the family business going, works the fields, and doesn’t cause his father any trouble. I wonder about this brother’s reaction to his brother’s request. Did he object? Did he try to talk his father out of it? And when his brother comes home, having wasted all that he had worked so hard to earn, the older brother is furious. “You’re throwing him a party? A robe, ring, and calf? I’ve never even gotten a goat to have a party with my friends!” This elder brother has been just as prodigal with his father’s love as his brother has, but in a different way. Instead of wasting it on reckless living, he has wasted it on resentful living. He has wasted his fathers love thinking that he has to earn it, to slave away at doing the right thing, the expected thing. He has become a slave instead of a son.
The Prodigal God. The deeper reality of this story is that it is a story of God and God’s chosen people. In this simple story, Jesus is essentially retelling the story of the Israelites, a people who have continually wandered away from God and wasted the rich blessings God has given them. The history of the Israelite people is a history of exile and return - of running away from God, hitting rock bottom, and returning once again. It is a story of a God who has been prodigal with his love towards this chosen people - a God who will be true to the covenant God has made. The New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright put it this way:
“Exile, as some of the greatest prophets had seen, was itself part of the strange covenant purposes of Israel’s father-god. Israel could be allowed to sin, to follow pagan idolatry, even to end up feeding the pigs for a pagan master, but Israel could not fall out of the covenant purposes of her god. She could say to her god, ‘I wish you were dead’, but this god would not respond in kind. When, therefore, Israel comes to her senses, and returns with all her heart, there is an astonishing, prodigal, lavish welcome waiting for her.”
(N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, p.129)
You see, this is a story about God, who is lavish in loves towards us. So, regardless of where we find ourself in the story - the younger prodigal who has run away from home and wasted the father’s love in wild living, the older prodigal who has stayed home and wasted the father’s love in resentful, or you are the father who has given over and over again (only to be taken advantage), there is good news: God is faithful. Healing is available. Come home now, the banquet is just getting started.
Prayer: God, I am a member of The Prodigals. I know that I most closely identify with the (younger/older/father). I need to feel your covenant love surrounding me and beginning the work of healing in my life. May your prodigal love always surround me. Amen.
Today's Scripture focus: John 6:22-59
Sometimes a pastor needs a place where he/she can go that he/she is not always “on.” For the most part, there is no place that I go on a regular basis that I’m not expected to be a “pastor,” with all the baggage that comes with that. On a certain level, I understand that and embrace that calling, but I have to admit that there are days that I’m weary and in need of a sanctuary - a space where no one is looking to me to minister to needs, a space where someone else can minister to my needs.
Most recently, I have found just such a place on Wednesday mornings at a local Episcopalian Congregation in town. In fact, the Wednesday morning mass has become the “ecumenical pastors” mass as half of the congregants are pastors of other congregations - none of them Episcopalian (it sounds better to say “half” rather than 3-4, but since that really is half of the small group, I guess it’s not stretching the truth or trying to be misleading).
I come from a United Methodist upbringing and serve in a Baptist church, so the chance to enter into a sacramental tradition once a week is very refreshing. Whereas the centerpiece of the services at my congregation is the sermon, sacramental traditions emphasize the sharing of the eucharist (Communion or Lord’s Supper) as the centerpiece of corporate worship. The highlight of the 30-minute service on Wednesday mornings is all of us gathering around the altar on our knees and hearing the priest say, “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven. The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.”
It is interesting that the Gospel of John is the only Gospel that doesn’t include what is commonly known as the “Last Supper.” While it does talk of a meal, the emphasis is placed on Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, not in the meal that they share together. Instead, today’s passage is the closest thing we get in John’s Gospel to some form form of description of the Eucharist.
It is clear from the passage that many of Jesus’ hearers found this teaching to be very difficult to accept. While we take all of this talk metaphorically, it is likely that those first hearers took Jesus very literally. You can imagine the conversations that must have taken place among those in the crowd. “Did he say that he wants us to eat his flesh and drink his blood? Gross! We know that is against the law.”
I can’t help but think about those times that I gather with a community of believers around the table to partake of this holy meal. The amazing thing about that meal is that it is a great equalizer. It doesn’t matter what your status in life - rich, poor, CEO, jobless, gated community, or homeless - you are welcome at God’s table. The features that seem to define you in a social context in the world don’t apply here - race, gender, body type or shape, ability or disability - you are welcome at this meal. We gather because Jesus has called us together into this rich, diverse counter-cultural community of faith. We gather, knowing that we are all sinners in need of grace and nourishment from the broken body and shed blood of Jesus.
This is what draws me into this wonderful mystery. This is what makes remembering the Eucharist so life-giving. First, it is Jesus who is giving this meal. Jesus s the host who has called us to join him at the table. Jesus is the one who has prepared a place for us. Second, it is Jesus who is given in this meal. It is from Jesus that we receive nourishment. It is Jesus that gives life. We are drawn into a deeper, more intimate relationship with Jesus through this remembrance.
If we have any hope for any true healing this Lenten season, it will come only as we deepen on connection to, and dependence on Jesus, the Christ who nourishes us with his body and blood.
Prayer: God, I accept your invitation to the table. I find my nourishment in you. Draw me closer to your heart and bring me healing through your sacrifice and the radical, inclusive community that is formed and nourished as a result.
Today's Scripture focus: John 9:1-38
One of the earliest fears that I clearly remember was the fear of thunderstorms. It wasn’t the wind or rain, or even the lightening really. It was the thunder that sent me diving under the covers and burying my head under the pillow, though. Every single time that I saw the lightening flash, I would curl up into a ball, every muscle in my body would tense, and I would wait for the sound that would rattle my windows and threaten to crash everything in my little world - or so I thought. It’s funny because now I love thunder storms.
On the surface, it is true that this is a passage about healing - about a man who had spent his whole life unable to see the beauty of the world God created and how he gained his sight. It is about Jesus being glorified through this man’s healing. Isn’t this the hope of Lent? Isn’t this the best-case-scenario for our forty days of fasting, confession, and repentance? Out hope and prayer is that these practices will lead to the center of God’s heart where we can find healing. Maybe it’s healing of the body, but maybe not. It couldn’t be healing of the mind, of the emotions, of the guilt and shame that weighs us down on our daily journey.
However, fear seems to play a prominent role in today’s scripture passage as well. I am convinced that fear is the primary reason that many people don’t experience the healing that God wants to give. The people of the community struggled to share in the man’s healing because they weren’t even sure it’s him. “Is this the guy who who used to sit at the gate and beg?” Too often, we define others by their differences from us. For this guy, they seem to not be able to recognize him without the blindness that had defined him his whole life. they weren’t able to share in the joy of his healing because they hadn’t gotten past physical difference to really get to know him on a deeper level.
Even the disciples wanted to define the man, not exactly by the blindness, but the sin that must have obvious caused it. Jesus plainly tells them, “You’re missing the point altogether. This man is the way he is, not due to sin, but so that God’s glory may be revealed in him. He is created in the image of God and God will shine through him so that all the world may see” (my paraphrase).
It’s even possible that the man could only define himself by means of his blindness. We need look no further than the story of the beside the pool at Bethesda in John 5. “Do you want to be healed?” Jesus asks the man. I know many people who have become so enmeshed with life as they know it, that they have defined themselves by their illness, their circumstances, their addictions, or their sin. they cannot imagine an existence different from the one that stares them in the mirror each morning. “Do you really want to get well?” Jesus asks them. But often, fear keeps them from being healed or experiences another’s healing.
The same goes for the religious leaders in today’s passage. They cannot experience the joy of this man’s healing because it threatens their ability to control the story of God. They cannot believe this man’s story because it contradicts the story they are trying to tell. This Jesus cannot be from God because he breaks the law by healing on the Sabbath. This man is not a hero, he is a sinner. They see their power and their authority at stake and seek to remain in control of the religious goods and services of the community.
Even the man’s parents struggle with fear in the face of their son’s healing. They pass the buck, refusing to testify in their son’s defense because, as the scripture says, “they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already said that if anyone should confess Jesus to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue.” They cannot enter into the joy of their son’s healing because of fear.
As we continue in this journey through Lent, we need to be reminded that fasting, denial, ashes, confession, repentance, and so on are not the goal. Rather, they are a means to an end. The goal of Lent is to enter into Jesus’ death, so that we might experience Jesus’ life. The goal is healing. We need to stop, however, and ask ourselves a long, hard question: “Do you want to be healed?” Are we afraid of healing? Are we afraid of what it might mean for our lives to die to that old self, to leave behind the sins and addictions and illnesses that once defined us? While it seems like it should be, it’s not an easy decision. We have to let go of the very things that used to define to take on our new identity as children of God, followers of the Christ, those that have died and have been born again, those that have been healed. “Do you really want to be healed?”
Prayer: God, help me to see to see the healing that you alone offer. Help me to find my identity in who you say that I am rather than through the imperfections, struggles, addictions, and circumstances of my present life. Help me to lay it all down to follow you. Amen.
Today's Scripture focus: Revelation 2:1-7
My wife and I have been married for over ten years now, but I remember what it was like to be newly in love. I can remember staying up until all hours of the night just talking on the phone. I can remember hurrying across campus to meet her after class. I remember dates where we couldn't really afford to go out so we would but a tub of ice cream and sit out by the fountain and talk or sit on the hood of my 1979 Ford LTD and stare at the stars. I remember daydreaming about her during classes, thinking about her while at work, writing sappy love songs and poetry for her, looking for a little something to do or say or buy that would express just a little how much I loved her and wanted to be with her. One summer, while I was in summer school in Mississippi and she was a lifeguard at the Texas Lions Camp west of San Antonio, I got a crazy idea. After class got out on Friday, I got into that '79 Ford LTD and drove across Mississippi, Louisiana, and half of Texas (13 hours all the way through the night) just so that I could surprise her on Saturday (her day off) and spend the day with her. Love will make you do some crazy things.
Twelve years later, I have to be very careful not to take this wonderful, beautiful, intelligent, talented, gifted woman for granted. She's there every day when I wakeup and there every day when I go to bed. While we share household responsibilities, she admittedly carries the brunt of the work. We stopped being on our best behavior with one another a long time ago. We've seen each others warts and wrinkles. We've kissed each other when our breath was less than minty fresh. We've cleaned up after one another when the stomach bug runs rampant through the family. It's easy to forget just how amazing this woman is. It's easy to get in the rut of being married so long that you forget what it's like to date one another. You forget what's it like to pine for each other throughout the day. You forget that there are still so many things that you don't know about each other and that you have to continually delve deeper into their heart and life. You forget that we are not static creatures, but dynamic - always changing and growing. Sometimes, we get so caught up in the day-to-day routine - picking up the house, making lunches for the kids, taking out the trash, loading/unloading the dish washer, cooking dinner, getting the kids showered, and on and on and on - that we forget about that first love that drew us together.
The same thing can happen in our spiritual life as well. I remember being on a summer mission trip one year in college. I remember a guy who came to faith during that year because of our ministry. He was in college as well and had a truly life-changing encounter with Jesus that shook him to his core. He was so excited about this new relationship with Jesus that he wanted to tell all his friends about it. Now, while his heart had truly changed, some of the rest of him hadn't caught up just yet. Her would go around telling people, "You won't f***ing believe what happen to me! I've got to tell you about this f***ing Jesus! He is f***ing amazing!" Now, he may have been sending a few mixed signals, but you could not deny this guy's passion. He was in love . . . and he wanted everyone in all the world to know about it.
While in college, I had a roommate for a semester that shared my duplex apartment. He had just graduated and was working for Campus Crusade on our college campus. I had met him at my church where he attended from time to time. He played violin and would often play in the orchestra (I think he confided in me that one of the reasons was that he could get a free meal on Wednesdays for coming to rehearsal, but that didn't matter, he loved playing). At one particular Sunday night service, I remember the worship leader bringing us to quiet, reflective place in our music. I believe that he invited the congregation to be seated and to really focus in on God. He began to lead us in this love song for God. I remember this guy (who would later become my roommate) standing up and singing with all his might. He was crying out to Lord a song of praise. His hands were outstretched, as though he expected God to scoop him up in an embrace any minute. He was singing from such a deep, physical place inside of him that the veins in his neck and head were popping and tears were streaming down his face. So what did I do? I wish I could say that I joined him in his passionate praise. Instead, I sat there and thought in my heart, "Would you please just sit down and shut up? Would you stop trying to make yourself the center of attention?"
A few years later, I was serving at one of my first church staff positions. There was a guy in the band who was about as ADD as they come. He was the stereotypical musician, too. He was excited and passionate about his new relationship with Jesus and was not ashamed to tell anyone and everyone about it. God had led him out of a life of playing music in bars and clubs and now he wanted to use his talents to play for the Lord in our church. While some people loved it, there were others that complained that some his music was inappropriate. Some his music was too loud. Some of that excitement was distracting. He just didn't fit in to the way church was supposed to be.
I think this is what John is saying to the church at Ephesus. "Remember your first love," he is saying. Remember when you first encountered Jesus. Remember how excited you were. Remember how you wanted to tell everyone you knew about what God had done in your life. Remember how you didn't care what other people thought because you were basking in the love and forgiveness of the One who stretched his arms on Calvary for you.
During Lent, we have the tendency to focus on the many sins that we have committed. Rarely do you we take the time to really look at the way(s) we've forsaken that first love for God. Rarely do we honestly acknowledge that we have become more in love with church than with Jesus. Rarely will we say that we are more connected to the institution and the religion than we are truly in a relationship with Jesus. For this, we must repent. We must stop taking God for granted. We must stop focusing on the day-to-day routine of services to be planned, nursery schedules to be made, Sunday School Lessons to prepare, and chairs to be set up so that we can focus on this beautiful, amazing, glorious Christ who calls us into relationship with himself. So let us repent . . . and let us fall in love all over again.
Prayer: God, I confess that I have taken you for granted. I confess that I've fallen more in love with your church than I have with you. Restore me to the joy of my first love and help me to fall head-over-heals for you all over again. Amen.
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.
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.