February 16, 2018- The Wait- Psalm 25:15-21

Be-rescued

My eyes are ever on the Lord, for only he will release my feet from the snare. Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. Relieve the troubles of my heart and free me from my anguish. Look on my affliction and my distress and take away all my sins. See how numerous are my enemies, and how fiercely they hate me!

Guard my life and rescue me; do not let me be put to shame, for I take refuge in you. May integrity and uprightness protect me, because my hope, Lord, is in you. Psalm 25:15-21 (NIV)

There are times in which we seem to be “stuck in the wait”- living in a place of uncertainty and longing for a breakthrough of some sort. Whether it be living with illness, or being in need of a change in life’s circumstances, or in enduring a trial, there are times when the wait seems endless and interminable.

The psalmist keeps on pointing us to the Lord and His sovereignty and strength throughout Psalm 25. God is the only One who can get us out of the predicaments we find ourselves in.

It’s easy to get ourselves into challenging situations. Sometimes we land in challenging situations through our own ignorance or error.  Other times we are put in these situations through no fault or negligence of our own.

Regardless of how we found ourselves “stuck in the wait,” the answer is the same. We are told throughout Scripture to trust God and know that He is our refuge. Time and time again throughout the Psalms we are reminded that God is our refuge.  Sometimes all we can do, when we are at the end of ourselves and we have no other alternative but to wait and to endure, is rest in God our refuge.

Meditation is the spiritual discipline in which we fix our minds on God. When we are lingering and “stuck in the wait” there is no better time to meditate on the truth of God’s love and provision for us.

There should also an element of surrender in our meditation. We know that God is true to His promises and that He has created us for His purpose. We can trust the good news and comfort we find in the Scriptures.

The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him. Nahum 1:1 (NIV)

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)

February 14, 2018 – Ash Wednesday-Remember God NOW- Ecclesiastes 12:6-7, Matthew 12:43-45

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Remember him—before the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Ecclesiastes 12:6-7 (NIV)

Today Lent begins. Traditionally Lent is a season of examination, repentance, sacrifice, and getting our priorities straight. If we accept the challenge, Lent can be a time of great spiritual growth for us. This Lent begins a journey- a journey with Jesus to the Cross.

It is interesting that Solomon, the Teacher, implores us to remember God NOW. Surrendering to God and getting closer to Him is not something to be checked off the bucket list at the last minute, but something to do NOW, before the bucket list comes into play.

Ash Wednesday is an opportunity for us to reflect not only on our mortality and our sins and all the ways we fall short of God’s expectations for us, but it is also a time to reflect on how we “do life.” Yes, we should confess and repent (repent means: to turn away from) of our sins.  As we reflect upon our sins and repent, we should also be mindful that turning from sin and those things that fail to glorify God has another essential component.

When we give up something harmful, what beneficial, God-honoring thing do we take up?  There is a great deal of truth to Grandma’s old saying, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”  If we aren’t intentionally pursuing the things that God intends for us, we will occupy ourselves with any old thing, and given human nature, many of those idle things do not bring glory to God.

Jesus put it this way: “When a defiling evil spirit is expelled from someone, it drifts along through the desert looking for an oasis, some unsuspecting soul it can bedevil. When it doesn’t find anyone, it says, ‘I’ll go back to my old haunt.’ On return it finds the person spotlessly clean, but vacant. It then runs out and rounds up seven other spirits more evil than itself and they all move in, whooping it up. That person ends up far worse off than if he’d never gotten cleaned up in the first place.

“That’s what this generation is like: You may think you have cleaned out the junk from your lives and gotten ready for God, but you weren’t hospitable to my kingdom message, and now all the devils are moving back in.” Matthew 12:43-45 (MSG)

There’s no sense in cleaning house and cleaning up our lives unless we surrender our lives to God to put them to good use. The discipline of surrender is simply inviting Jesus to clean us up, and then inviting Him to move on in.  He’s the one at work here, not us. Grace, love, and joy happen when we let go and let Him in. He actively brings about God’s kingdom through us here on earth.

How are we responding to the grace of God NOW? Are we honestly praying the most difficult petition of the Lord’s Prayer- “Thy will be done?”  Are we listening to the Holy Spirit when He responds?

There is nothing wrong with the tradition of “giving something up for Lent.” Sacrifice is a beneficial discipline for Jesus followers.  Yet along with giving up harmful things, and/or getting rid of the clutter, we are called to take up our own cross and live surrendered and sacrificially as we follow Jesus.  We are called to live the God-life NOW, not as something to check off our bucket list, but as something to embrace NOW, because our time here is fleeting and not at all guaranteed.

Life on this earth is a limited time offer. We are called to get out there- NOW- and live it in response to God Who has given it to us.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

January 26, 2018 – Praying With Humility, and Authenticity- James 4:1-10, Philippians 2:12

kingdom power glory

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.  Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:

“God opposes the proud, but shows favor to the humble.” (Proverbs 3:34)

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.  James 4:1-10 (NIV)

Sometimes the book of James gets a bad rap. We as Lutherans are uncomfortable with James sometimes because he is all about putting the rubber to the road. James makes us think about the squirmy things that cause us to examine our consciences, which we should do before we pray.

Early in Martin Luther’s ministry, Luther called the book of James an “epistle of straw.” At first glance one could take James’ point of view as supporting a system of works-righteousness. Later in his life, Luther grew to appreciate the book and James’ perspective.

James is not subscribing to a works-righteousness relationship with God at all. God still loves us and names us and claims us in spite of our sinful nature and all the things we screw up on a regular basis. God’s grace abounds, and none of us would be able to live a life that honors God apart from His grace. Yet liberty is not license.  We may not be bound by the Law, but we were not set free in Christ to live lawless, hedonistic lives and think only of ourselves.  We are called to examine our hearts and ask ourselves if we are truly surrendering ourselves to God and allowing Him to transform us.

When we pray we should be bold. We should pray with shameless audacity, and with authenticity.  We shouldn’t pray for leftovers.  We should know that God has a good plan for our lives and He wants the best for His children. We shouldn’t be afraid to ask God for anything.  However, James is calling us to examine our motive when we pray.  Sometimes God’s answer is no, because we ask for the wrong things for the wrong reasons.  He has a better plan for us than we can imagine.

Are we affirming God’s will when we pray? As much as it would be great to win millions in the lottery, perhaps God has a different plan for us than to give us earthly riches. Perhaps it is more congruent with God’s will if we pray to trust Him for our daily bread and for the ability to share with others?

When we follow Jesus we are called to take up our crosses and follow Him. It’s not always easy to do that. Sometimes sacrifice just plain sucks. We don’t have any kind of satisfactory answers for the existence and the prevalence of evil or of suffering. It’s not always easy to eat humble pie and admit that we don’t always know best, that sometimes our motives are completely wrong, and that we fall short of the glory of God every single day.

Following Jesus means putting the rubber to the road. It means as the apostle Paul said, to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling”- Philippians 2:12 (NIV)

This doesn’t mean that our salvation is contingent upon what we do (it isn’t, it is contingent only on the merit of Jesus alone) but that salvation is a process. We are called to ask, seek and knock. Jesus tells us to pray with shameless audacity- with the confidence that God is infinitely able to answer our prayers. We are called to listen, to open our hearts and minds, and to let God transform us.

July 10, 2017 Rest for the Weary- Matthew 11:28-30

JesusRest(Jesus said): “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

This world is a weary world. The news is mostly depressing.  Infrastructures and buildings are continually deteriorating and we see evidence of entropy (the natural cycle of things going back to their original state, or, “from dust you came, to dust you shall return”) everywhere.  We live in a constant paradox, with one foot in each kingdom- the earthly kingdom of “right now” and the heavenly kingdom of “not yet.”

When we look around at the state of the world and we see everything that is in need of healing, when we see so much that is left undone or incomplete, or that is actively being torn down, it’s hard not to be weary.

The problem is we can’t fix everything that needs fixing. We can’t heal everything that needs healing. We can’t make every wrong right, no matter how much we want to, or how much we try.

The good news in this reality is that God didn’t intend for one person to do it all. He has a plan for each of His people, but in the end it’s all about God’s project.  He is the One Who calls the shots. He equips us for the tasks He set aside for us to do.  If God intends for us to do anything, He is the One Who provides the means for us to do it.

Sometimes it’s difficult to know what God has planned for us to do. So many causes and unfinished works touch our hearts, but we are finite and limited creatures.  There are times when we simply have to come to God as we are and let Him show us His way.  There are times when we try to carry things that weren’t meant for us to carry, and in those times we have to surrender them over and let God carry them.

How often do we drag things around that we were never intended to carry? Whether it be guilt, insecurity, grief or a sense of not being/doing good enough, those are burdens we need to surrender to God.

Jesus promised us that He would be rest for our souls. In Him we have purpose, and our lives are productive and complete.

 

 

May 25, 2017- The Blessings of Surrender- Genesis 22:15-19

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The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba. Genesis 22:15-19 (NRSV)

Do we truly seek God’s will and are we open to the work of the Holy Spirit? Even as we ask this question, in the back of our minds we should understand that we are not the Lone Ranger.  God provides the Lamb.  He equips us to fulfill the missions He gives us, spiritually, emotionally, physically and materially. He sends us people to walk with us and to be part of our purpose as well.  He works the impossible with the ordinary, and He can make everything out of nothing.

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God does ask of us both obedience and surrender, even when we fail miserably at it. Do we have a willingness to do what God asks of us, even when it is difficult or painful, or it involves the sacrifice of something priceless and irreplaceable to us?

There are rewards inherent to obeying God and being willing to surrender to Him, even if we don’t see it immediately, or the world makes it look like no good deed goes unpunished.

Jesus taught us to store up our rewards in Heaven- to live for what really matters- instead of chasing what’s temporary. Abraham didn’t live on this earth to see his legacy fulfilled, but his obedience was rewarded.  He would not keep back any of his gifts from God, including his precious only son.

It’s a countercultural message to go against the tide of instant gratification and the “me, me, me” mentality.

Sometimes we have to sacrifice in great ways and we don’t necessarily see results. Sometimes we are called to keep working on a difficult relationship, or to walk with a person in crisis instead of following pop culture and leaving the scene as soon as the skies turn dark.  Society doesn’t necessarily reward doing the right thing, especially when the right thing is hard or costly and it doesn’t bring forth an appreciable immediate benefit.

There is blessing in obeying God. We might not see it right away, but God notices.  God cares.  God provides.

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May 22, 2017 – Surrender? Genesis 22:1-2, Psalm 139:8-12

Abraham_and_Isaac

“Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he (Abraham) replied.

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”- Genesis 22:1-2 (NRSV)

This is one of those passages in Scripture that should make people squirmy. It sounds like just the opposite of what God would ask of us.  God saying to Abraham, “Take your only son –the one you prayed for and hoped to have for so many years- and sacrifice him as a burnt offering,” just doesn’t make sense.

That is more than just a little strange coming from God. That sounds completely crazy.  What if God asked me to hand over my only son as a burnt offering?  I think it would be reasonable, at least today, to seek psychiatric help at that point.

Is this the same God Who would later hand down the commandment, “Thou shalt not murder?”

Where is God going with this?

The first thing God was trying to accomplish with His request was to test Abraham’s trust in Him. How far was Abraham willing to go to be obedient to God?  It’s easy to sing praise to God and say He’s great when times are good and we get what we want, but sooner or later the times of testing come.  Are we willing to do what God asks of us even when it seems too heartbreaking, too hard, too hopeless, too much to endure?  Are we willing to have the same kind of obedience that Abraham had, trusting that God will provide- even to the same point as Abraham when he was asked to give his greatest gift back to God?

The good news in this is even when it seems God is asking way too much of us, He provides what we need to do His will and be obedient to Him. God wasn’t going to let Abraham go through with the killing, but the fact that Abraham was prepared to do what God told him to do even to such an extreme as killing his own beloved son makes us wonder.  Could we do the same thing in Abraham’s place?  Do we have that kind of trust in God’s provision?

There is a saying that is popular with some in the Christian community- “If God brings you to it, He will bring you through it.” That sounds simplistic and even cruel if we think of people who have lost loved ones in tragic circumstances, or when we have to endure painful losses, illnesses or other dire suffering. This saying could be taken to imply that God enjoys our suffering or that He is imposing suffering upon us at his whim or caprice. However, even in its simplicity, and with what may seem to be callousness, this saying is true. God does go with us no matter where or in what circumstance, but it might not be the best consolation for someone who is in the fresh, raw pain of grief or loss. Theologians and scholars have debated the purpose of suffering and death and evil for countless centuries.  Nobody really has a straight answer.  It’s one of those “trust God” issues, at least in this fallen world, for now.

It’s easy to take a dualistic approach and say that God is nothing but good and that evil and/or Satan are the anti-God, but in truth, God is the author of ALL things. Evil could very well be defined as creation rebelling against God, and creation’s rebellion against God is woven into all creation.  The theological concept of original sin (or, the total depravity of man, to borrow a petal from John Calvin’s TULIP,) is explained in the allegorical narrative of the Fall in Genesis 3. It could be said that the root of all sin and evil is pride, when we think we know better than God, or worse, we have the hubris to put ourselves in His place.  Sometimes being obedient to God is counterintuitive and doesn’t make sense at all to us, and it may never make sense to us, because we aren’t God.  We can’t see everything. There is where trust- and surrender- to God enter in.

If we take God on His word and trust that He is omnipotent (all powerful,) omniscient (all knowing,) and omnipresent (in all places, at all times, all the time,) then we have to trust that He is in control even when He asks the impossible from us, and even when the impossible and unbearable happen to us.  We have to know that He has already entered into our circumstances even before we can acknowledge Him, and even if we refuse to acknowledge Him.

“Where can I go from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence?  If I go up to the heavens, You are there; if I make my bed in the depths, You are there.  If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there Your hand will guide me, Your right hand will hold me fast.  If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to You.”- Psalm 139:8-12 (NRSV)

God provides even when we can’t possibly see how. What are we willing to surrender to Him?  Are we willing to trust in His provision?

March 22, 2017- Bring the Children- Luke 18:16-17

 

jesus_w_children_600But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Luke 18:16-17 (NRSV)

Children are bold and trusting by nature, until they spend some time out in the real world where hurts and betrayals happen. Parents and caregivers constantly give cautions to trusting young children because young children haven’t learned the difference between when it’s OK to trust, and when it’s dangerous to trust.

As part of the process of living and growing up most children end up with a healthy dose of cynicism and reticence toward the world before reaching adulthood. We become too distrustful and jaded for our own good.  In many ways that distrust and cynicism is warranted, as the world isn’t always a very safe place and life can be hard at times.  Friends and family fall short of their promises.  Disappointments and hurts happen.  There are many instances in which it is downright dangerous to trust others.

As we come of age we lose that childlike innocence and we pick up all kinds of inhibitions and doubts- even if they come from legitimate efforts to stay safe- that make it harder for us to simply trust.

Jesus says that we need to come to Him with that childlike innocence and hard-wired trust that only children have. He welcomes us to Him in perfect love and safety.

That’s not easy to do. Especially for adults with jaded and cynical minds and the emotional and spiritual scars that come along with living life.

This is why the Holy Spirit intervenes on our behalf to help us surrender the things that would keep us away from God and bring us to Jesus- the Way, the Truth and the Life. He wants us to surrender our burdens, our fears, our pain, our sins- everything.

(Jesus said): “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28 (NRSV)

We can trust Jesus with everything we are- without reservations, without fear, and without limits. And we have the Holy Spirit always available to help us do that.