February 12, 2018-Visit the House of Mourning- Ecclesiastes 7:2-4, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Matthew 22:36-40

house of mourning

It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart. Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure. It is better to heed the rebuke of a wise person than to listen to the song of fools. -Ecclesiastes 7:2-4 (NIV)

On Ash Wednesday most of the liturgical Christian traditions begin the season of Lent. Traditionally Ash Wednesday is a day in which we remember that we come from dust and are returned to dust.  This life is a limited time offer.  What are we doing with it?  Are our lives being lived in response to the grace and glory of God?

The only caveat to going to a house of mourning- or being in that place of reflecting on our own mortality- is that while it is good and sometimes needful to visit, don’t stay there. Reflection upon the end of this life is meant to bring us to appreciate and live fully the life that we have. The season of Lent is just that- a season- in which we focus upon what is truly essential. Hopefully along the way we discover what is not essential, and that which would be better for us to give up. More importantly, hopefully, along the way we also discover that part of following Jesus is taking up our own crosses.

In our times of loss and sadness we learn what is really important and what is really lasting. Our social status doesn’t mean anything.  Neither do our possessions or our accomplishments have any lasting value, save the ones we give in the service of God. No one regrets not having spent enough time at the office on his or her death bed.

In our times of loss and sorrow we should cling first of all to Jesus. He is always there for us even in our most profound loss, our deepest sorrow and our most cutting and agonizing pain.

Sorrow and pain do not last forever, but the love and care of God is constant. His understanding transcends the confines of this world as well as our ability to express it.

We learn much about priorities when we go to a funeral or a visitation to honor the dead. We learn about who and what the deceased cared about.  We learn about the family dynamics of the deceased- sometimes for good, and sometimes for ill.  Most of all we learn that life is short and fleeting, and as Solomon, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes points out, “chasing after wind.”

During the season of Lent we will spend much time on the theme of spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are not punishments, but good exercises to take up. There are many practices that can be considered spiritual disciplines, but in our Lenten studies we will concentrate on seven of them: worship, prayer, fasting, meditation, study, service and surrender.  These disciplines do overlap at times, and that is OK. Some things we do to grow closer to the heart of God may combine worship and service, or prayer and fasting.  That is perfectly fine.  Spiritual disciplines are simply things we do to connect with God, to invite Him to transform our hearts and minds, and to live according to His purpose.

As God’s people are commanded in the Shema from the Old Testament:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts.  Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.   Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (NIV)

Jesus expanded on this theme:

 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:36-40 (NIV)

Spiritual disciplines- worship, prayer, fasting, meditation, study, service and surrender– are all ways to love God and our neighbor with our minds, hearts, souls and strength.   Some of the disciplines are easier to practice than others depending on our strengths and weaknesses, but all of them serve to bring us closer to the heart of God.  As we journey through the season of Lent, and from time to time visit the house of mourning, we can also explore the spiritual disciplines and discover what they reveal to us about loving God- and the love that God has first and always had for us.

 

 

 

 

September 25, 2017- The Power of Prayer- Matthew 18:18-20, Matthew 6:7-15

max lucado on prayer

(Jesus said): “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Matthew 18:18-20 (NRSV)

Sometimes we get it in our heads that prayer is an option- that we aren’t holy enough to pray, or that we don’t really have to do it- or that prayer is a last resort, or that prayer is a way of earning brownie points if we keep repeating the words enough. Martin Luther had much to say on the value of prayer in his Large Catechism in his explanation of the Lord’s Prayer.

Jesus taught us to pray:

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

 “Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,  Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done,  on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Matthew 6:7-15 (NRSV)

The Lord’s Prayer, that we learn as children as a rote prayer, is actually a template for prayer.

There is a saying that there are no atheists in foxholes, but crisis is not the time to learn to pray. Prayer should already be natural to us and written on our hearts well before we are in desperation mode. Rote prayers, the Psalms and all of the encouragement offered in Scripture are given to us to study and pray and commit to memory so that we know how to pray, in good times and in bad. Then when we are in crisis and can’t find the words to pray, the words are already written on our hearts and minds.

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us the prayers that God wants to hear from us. Prayer is God’s way of calling us closer to Him.

Have we come to God in prayer today? Have we agreed in prayer with another Jesus follower today?

Have we taken the time to listen to God’s response to us?

August 7, 2017- The Truth Doesn’t Make Us Popular- Acts 17:10-15

truth

That very night the believers sent Paul and Silas off to Berea; and when they arrived, they went to the Jewish synagogue.  These Jews were more receptive than those in Thessalonica, for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, including not a few Greek women and men of high standing.  But when the Jews of Thessalonica learned that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Berea as well, they came there too, to stir up and incite the crowds. Then the believers immediately sent Paul away to the coast, but Silas and Timothy remained behind. Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens; and after receiving instructions to have Silas and Timothy join him as soon as possible, they left him. – Acts 17:10-15 (NRSV)

The apostle Paul commended the Bereans for examining the Scriptures and not just blindly believing the message he brought to them. The Russian people have a proverb: “Trust, but verify.” People of faith should ask questions. An informed faith is a strong faith and a valid faith.  Jesus taught that we should build our house on a solid foundation and not on sand. Our faith has a solid foundation- Jesus Himself. We learn of Him all throughout the Bible, and we encounter Him in the world and through other people as we go out and do what He taught. This is the reason why worship and prayer and study and service all go together- our faith is not intended to be a blind faith, but a practical, dynamic and growing faith.

The difficult thing about telling the truth is that telling the truth doesn’t always make one popular. Usually truth telling has quite the opposite effect.  Throughout Scripture God’s prophets were treated rather nastily for telling the truth.  Jeremiah was consigned to a dirty cistern (Jeremiah 37:11-16) as a prison.  Daniel was thrown in the lion’s den to be eaten by lions (Daniel 6:10-20) for refusing to pray to an earthly king.  John the Baptist ended up with his head on a platter as a gift for Herod.  Going against the current ruler or saying bad things about the king wasn’t an activity to engage in, if you valued your hide.  Telling the truth and speaking out for what is right is not always a safe thing to do, even today.  Anyone who doubts that can test the theory. Agree with a woman when she comments that she has put on a few pounds, and watch the sparks fly.

Paul was no less popular to the old school Jews and Pharisees, who did not understand and did not want to believe Who Jesus was. They didn’t want to be told He is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophets and of the Law.  The Pharisees and other old school Jews were looking for a grand military style king like David who would defeat the Romans and restore the Jewish state as their Messiah, not the Suffering Servant that Isaiah had foretold.

Paul himself had once been the Pharisee Saul, who was behind the persecution and killing of Christians until Jesus paid him a visit on the Damascus road. So it was likely that the Pharisees were even more incensed with Paul because they saw him not just as a heretic, but also as a traitor.

The truth is a threat to those in power, especially if their power is built on sustaining a lie. To admit that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah meant that there was no longer any reason to submit to the religious authorities.  To admit that Jesus was God Himself and that God had revealed Himself to the whole of humanity and not just the Jewish people, was more than the Jewish leaders of the day could stand.

The Jewish leaders of Paul’s time couldn’t stand the thought of the truth that God is God of all- and that because of Jesus they could no longer assert an exclusive claim on God. God’s people were not just the direct descendants of Abraham, but all people are God’s people- the door had been opened.

Perhaps we have to face some unpopular truths today. Sometimes the truth revealed in Scripture can be hard to take, such as when we are called to forgive, or we are called to take a path we know is difficult and that we would rather not be on.

What parts of God’s truth are hard for us to accept? That He loves the unlovable?  That He calls us to sacrifice?  That sometimes the answer to our prayers is no?

God is Lord of all. No matter how we may be challenged, or how we might suffer, Jesus is walking with us.  He knows our disappointment, our pain, and our sorrows as well as our love and our joy.  In Him we can be confident when we tell the truth, even when it doesn’t contribute to our popularity.

August 1, 2017 “Just Me-n-Jesus?” Philippians 4:10-15

me n jesus

I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.

You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone.  Philippians 4:10-15 (NRSV)

I can do all things in Him (Jesus) who strengthens me. (verse 13)

Verse 13 of the above passage from Philippians is often picked out and quoted on its own. Yes it is true that Jesus is our Strength, but that shouldn’t make us infer that the journey of following Jesus is just a “me-n-Jesus” sort of proposition.

In our country we have been conditioned to prize our independence, which is not always a bad thing. No one wants to be a mindless lemming that just goes along with the group without thinking about what the group is doing. Many people are also wired to be introverted, which means a little socialization goes a long way, as introverts primarily recharge their batteries by getting away from people and being alone.  Jesus Himself did this at times.  He went off to pray and fast by Himself quite often.  Taking times of solitude- in moderation- can be a healthy discipline.

It can be unwise to think we are too independent though. Not only do we move and breathe and have our strength because those things all come from God, we were created to live and operate in community.  Not just “me-n-Jesus,” but “me-n-Jesus AND the greater community,” is how it’s supposed to work.

This means we are supposed to engage in dialogue. We are supposed to contribute to the life and the well being of our families and communities.  We are, like the apostle Paul did, supposed to accept help from others when we need it.  We are called to the drama and the messiness of belonging to a community and participating in the life of the community.

We do encounter Jesus in the solitude of prayer and study, and those disciplines are important to our growth in understanding and faith. Yet there are some who will say things such as, “nature is my church,” and who claim to not need the fellowship and the encouragement of a Christian community.  Unfortunately when we miss out on being part of a community, we miss out on a vital way of connecting with God, and we miss out on sharing the strength and encouragement of others.

How can we live out our lives as Jesus followers and rely on His strength both one-on-one with Him in solitude, study, contemplation and prayer, AND in community, alongside fellow believers?