Archive for February, 2009

Friday, February 13th

February 13, 2009

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”  Romans 5:1-5


All this week we have been playing around with the idea of change.  Changes for the better are welcome, changes for the worse are less welcome and change for change sake is probably just a distraction.  Change itself is inevitable.


I remember an old Bill Murray movie, probably “Meatballs” or some other sophisticated title.  Bill was playing the camp director of a summer camp full of misfits.  The night before a big competition against the other camp where the kids all wore matching uniforms, Bill led the “team” in a rousing chorus of “It just doesn’t matter.  It just doesn’t matter.  It just doesn’t matter.”


Well, the truth is, many of the changes that we worry so much about, that we try so hard to manage, really don’t really matter.  But some DO matter.


I heard this week from a woman still sorting through having left her husband of many years after finally admitting that the physical and mental abuse she and her children endured from him just weren’t going to end.  He wasn’t going to change.  Another woman asked for prayers for her son’s addiction – she is praying he will.


Do we welcome a relationship or seek to leave one?  Do we walk away from an unsatisfying job or stay for the check?  When life closes in, do we change scenery or seek to change ourselves?  All of these matter. 


Paul seeks to encourage us in Romans 5.  He uses words that immediately bring mental pictures to each of our minds – suffering, endurance, character and hope.  We each know what these words are communicating to us, right now, wherever we are in life.  We all have different stories.  We all can claim the promise that, by faith, God’s love is being poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.  God will help us sort it all out.


Reinhold Niebuhr is credited with writing the prayer that we will use to close this week although that is still much debated.  He might have gotten it from somewhere else.  He might have used slightly different words.  But this prayer has become an important piece in the change process for those who seek to leave their painful pasts behind them.  It is a prayer of profound hope, personal humility, and the courage that faith brings to our lives.


Let us pray:  God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.


Thursday, January 12th

February 12, 2009

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.”  The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”  But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel…”  Acts 9:10-15


Sometimes, in the natural world, change comes quickly, explosively.  I was in Washington state the day that Mount St. Helens erupted.  I remember well the pictures of an entire mountainside changing forever in a matter of minutes.


Sometimes, in the natural world, change comes ever so slowly.  Anyone standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon marvels at the power of water and wind to sculpt such an immense path.  One molecule of water, one grain of sand, at a time.


Nevertheless, whether slowly or quickly, change is inevitable.


So we move now to the story of Paul.  God changed him in the wink of an eye.  One minute he’s a proud young religious hotshot off to make a name for himself by rounding up some heretical so-called Christians.  The next he is driven to his knees by a blinding light.  Three days later he is baptized and becomes the perfect champion of the faith as it moves into the Gentile world.


Ananias was right to be skeptical.  Some say that people never change.  Practical wisdom says that lasting change for people only comes with diligent effort over a long period of time.  We are all skeptical when someone tells us they have changed overnight.  We are all skeptical of whirlwind romances and “get rich quick” career changes.  Real change, we believe, takes time.


Or do we even believe that real change is possible?


For the rest of his life, as Paul traveled as missionary teacher and apologist for the faith, he told his story.  Over and over, to crowds in sanctuaries and before Roman authorities, he told the same story of how God changed his life.  Like the blind man in John 9, Paul didn’t and couldn’t explain the “how”, he could only bear witness to the “what.”  I once was blind but now I see!


We all have things we would like to see change in our lives.  We get frustrated by the slow pace of change even when we are working diligently to see such changes come.  And we get terrified when life shifts under our feet and our “landscape” is changed in the blink of an eye.  Faith tells us that change is possible, that God can do all things.  So we trust, and we act and we pray for the best.


Let us pray: Dear Lord, you changed Paul on the road to Damascus.  You shaped him over a lifetime of service and struggle.  May we embrace the changes that you bring our way.  The internal changes of growth and the external changes of life.  Mold us, shape us, sculpt us into the people you have created us to be.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Wednesday, February 11th

February 11, 2009

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.  And you know the way to the place where I am going.”  Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”  Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  John 14:1-6


One of the most painful realities of life is that people leave.  Children cry when their parents leave the room, when their parents put them to bed for the night, when their parents head off to work.  Behind their tears is the fear that their parents won’t come back.  The sad truth is, sometimes their parents don’t come back.


Fear of separation.  Fear of abandonment.  These basic fears come back each time we face major changes in our lives.  Will we be OK?  Will we be able to handle a new reality?


Jesus warned them three times.  “We’re going to Jerusalem.  I will be rejected, arrested, humiliated and crucified.  But on the third day, I’ll be back.”  Each time the disciples met those words with misunderstanding and fear.  They didn’t want anything bad to happen to him.  They didn’t want anything bad to happen to themselves.  They didn’t want to be left alone.


So Jesus promises them both that he would always be with them and that he would prepare a place for them, so that where he went, they could come also.


Maybe that is all we need.  The simple reassurance that all will be OK.


Few changes in our lives are as painful or as life altering as people leaving us.  Death.  Divorce.  Distance.  Each time it happens, the pain reaches down to those basic levels of our primordial fears.  Each time it happens, somewhere deep inside we swear that we will never let it happen again.   And a little door to someplace special inside of us slams shut.


But there is a deeper truth. The deeper truth is that we really will be OK.  The disciples would never have been the people God needed them to be had Jesus not left them with his presence even as he left them with his promises.  The deeper truth is that the journey from separation to attachment is how we learn to trust that which is truly trustworthy.


The deeper truth is that faith trumps fear.  That closing one door always opens another.  That life under God always lies on the other side of death.


Let us pray: Gentle Lord, come to us in our deepest fears and bring us consolation and courage.  Come to us when life turns upside down and hold us tight.  Come to us in the face of fearsome change and instill in us awesome faith, that we might know that we’ll be OK.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Tuesday, February 10th

February 10, 2009

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  John 3:5-8


Jesus challenges Nicodemus with the prospect of change.  But this is more than a simple change in his thinking.  Jesus is challenging Nicodemus with the prospect of complete transformation.


Change and transformation are not the same thing.  You can paint a nice brown brick wall a vibrant bright orange.  But you still have a wall.  A hideous wall, but still a wall.


Much of the time, when we sense that we need a change in our lives, what we really need is a transformation.  But that is too hard.  So we settle for a change.  We buy new clothes.  Get a different hairstyle.  Move to a different job.  Get nipped and tucked.  Find a new partner.  We might think we’re moving on but really we’re just treading water.  It feels like movement but we aren’t really getting anywhere.


One of the changes that Jesus presents to Nicodemus is the challenge of letting go of control.  It is the realization that Nicodemus – although he is well respected, educated and probably wealthy – cannot work the needed changes in his own life on his own.  He must be born again, born from above.  He must understand that he is but clay in the Potter’s hand.


The transformation that Jesus is talking about is a gift of God’s grace, it is the movement of God’s hands upon our lives.  It is the Spirit, urging Nicodemus to a night time meeting with Jesus.  The Spirit, ever reminding him of what Jesus said to him.  The Spirit, there when Nicodemus shows up again in John 19 with spices for Jesus’ burial.  The Spirit that transforms Nicodemus from halting seeker to bold follower.


There is nothing wrong with rearranging the furniture of our lives.  New haircuts, new clothes, new jobs.  Such changes bring variety and excitement.  But often they are not what we really need.  What we really need is transformation – and that is not self generated change.  That is something only God can do.  Dare we ask him for such change?


Let us pray: Gracious Lord, you know us.  You know our lives.  You know every hair on our heads.  You know where we need a little change here and there.  And you know where we need to start all over, fresh and from the beginning.  Help us see where we need to be transformed and, by the power of your Spirit, work that miracle in us.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Monday, February 9th

February 9, 2009

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”  Psalm 46:1-3


The only sure things in life .well, death and taxes certainly make the list but wouldn’t you also add CHANGE?


Change is a constant in life.  Nothing stays the same.  Everything is in process.  Now what do we do with that?  Is change a good thing or not?


Do we resist change or do we embrace it?  Do we see change as a threat or as the promise of something new?  I guess that depends, doesn’t it?


When we are ill, we long for the change of restored health.  Yet when we are healthy, don’t we dread the change that potential illness could bring our way?


When we are young, we long to grow older old enough, at least, to do what we can’t do while young. 


The truth is that we wrestle constantly with change.  The changes of our lives bend over backwards to remind us that we are not nearly as in control of life as we think we are, or think we ought to be.  Changes keep coming.  And try as we might to stem the tide, the tsunami of change overwhelms us.


So what do we do with this change?  What do we do with any change?  The word for Monday is we realize that while God is our sure foundation and we can trust that God’s presence and love will never change, everything else in life is up for grabs!


Let us pray:  Lord, sometimes we flee from change as our enemy and sometimes we embrace it as our friend.  But this we know when the earth is moving under our feet we seek solid ground.  Ground us in you!  Be our Rock and our Redeemer amid that the chances and changes of life.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Friday, February 6th

February 6, 2009

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village. As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”  Luke 9:51-62


Football players call it their “game face.”  Children (or spouses) know something is up when their parent (or partner) gets “that look on their face.”  It is the look of fierce determination, singleness of purpose, the refusal to lose, back down or quit.  That is the look on Jesus’ face as he “set his face toward Jerusalem.”


When I imagine these scenes with Jesus I’m not seeing the friendly smiling Jesus.  I am seeing a resolute Jesus with a quick temper and a quick tongue.  He walks right on past the Samaritans who don’t want to get involved.  He rebukes his disciples who are more than willing for God to do the dirty work of divine retribution (which allows them to sit back and watch rather than stand up for something themselves.)  He snaps at a would be follower, knowing there was a vast difference between the glory of being a follower of Jesus and the pain of actually following Jesus.


In this passage Jesus puts first things first.  He is going to take care of business.  Sometimes we have to do the same thing.


Certainly we choose our battles wisely.  And certainly we don’t fight just for the sake of fighting, nor do we stand up for things not worth standing on.  But there are times when the only lesson to be learned from the voices of criticism that are raised is that those voices are misguided, they have nothing of value to offer, and then it is time to put our game face on and plunge ahead in doing what is right.


That might cost us something.  It might cost us something if we stand up to our boss at work and refuse to cheat our customers even if such cheating seems built into the very nature of the work we are doing.  It might be painful if we befriend a new kid at school even if it costs us learning that our other friends aren’t so terribly friendly.  We might not get elected next time if we refuse to vote for a bill that we are philosophically opposed to and convinced would make things worse rather than better.


There are times when we just have to do what we have to do.  Times when our integrity and all that we believe is on the line.  There are times when following Jesus means putting on our game face, even though it means that we might be rejected by a government which is supposed to protect us, religious people who are supposed to know better, fickle crowds with a six minute attention span, or fair weather friends who follow 150 feet behind us.  There are times when we have to put first things first and go for it.


Let us pray:  Gracious Lord, we’ve prayed all week for wisdom and discernment in the face of constructive and destructive criticism.  We’ve prayed for the openness to learn the lessons of life along the way.  But today we pray for something else – we pray for the kind of courage of conviction, the resolute spirit, that marked your life.  Walk with us through the gathering storms and sustain us as we walk in the right direction.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Thursday, February 5th

February 5, 2009

“My child, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves the one he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.”  Proverbs 2:11-12


George didn’t like it when he left his supervisor’s office after his annual performance review.  He didn’t like to hear about the times when he had fudged on keeping his office hours, the times he had been late in producing the work for which he was responsible or the reminder that his chronic complaints about working conditions was undermining his relationships with his co-workers.  Few people enjoy hearing criticism.  But for some reason, that day, George hadn’t reacted defensively or negatively.  For some reason, that day, George was open-minded enough to hear the ring of truth.


Behind some destructive criticism there is a kernel of truth.  Behind all constructive criticism there is love.


The clearest indicator of constructive criticism is mission-motivated truth.  When someone takes the time to call us to account, to offer constructive criticism aimed at improving our ability to “deliver the goods of our mission” – to grow as a person, as an employee, as a friend, as a Christian – we need to develop the ability to listen and truly hear.


This begins with an expectation, an openness, to growth.  We are not there yet.  For now, we see reality in a mirror dimly.  Life is a journey; God uses those with whom we walk this journey as catalysts for growth. Every other person in our life can potentially be our teachers.


If we quickly dismiss anything we hear that we don’t like to hear, we lose the opportunity to grow.  We get stuck in our thinking.  We lose perspective on the infinite number of possibilities before us.  We put false limitations on what God can do with us and through us.


When criticism comes, ask yourself these questions: “Is there any portion of truth in it?”  “Is there any lesson here that God wants me to learn?”  If you satisfy yourself that there is no truth to a criticism, shake the dust from your feet and move on.  But if there is a lesson to be learned, learn it.  Our critics can sometimes be our best sources of insight into our blind spots.


Let us pray: Dear Lord, you will never give up on us.  May we always be open to the discipline you send our way, knowing always that you seek nothing but our growth.  We pray especially for the wisdom to discern the lessons you would have us learn through the constructive criticism of those who care about us.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Wednesday, January 4th

February 4, 2009

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”  Luke 23:34


The powerful love and forgiving power of God is breathtaking.  Who else but Jesus, beaten, humiliated, hung on a cross, could nonetheless speak words of understanding and forgiveness for the very ones who crucified him?  And Jesus was right – they didn’t know what they were doing. They had missed the point of his ministry.  They had seen Jesus only as a threat without seeing the promise of his love. They didn’t have all the information.


Often the unjust, destructive criticism that we hear from others is based on misunderstanding or misinformation.  The criticism we hear from others, or the criticism we find ourselves voicing, can be totally off base because of the limited perspective we have on what is really true.  So what do we do with that?


We remember what we have heard the past few days and decide that the answer is not to engage in a battle to clear up a misunderstanding by forcing someone else to see things from our point of view.  The answer isn’t to change the other, but to maintain a focus on our part.  Just as someone else might not know the whole truth, neither do we.


Rather than fighting to change another’s point of view, why not take some time to try to see what is happening from that person’s point of view.  What happens when we place ourselves in the other person’s shoes?  Does that change our way of looking at things?  Does that make it possible for us to be forgiving and understanding in a way that simply isn’t possible if we only stubbornly hold to our own view?


Can we look behind the words and see the person?


Jesus looked down from the cross and saw broken people, lashing out against the enemy that really lived only in themselves.  Jesus met hate with love.  Always with love.


Let us pray: Gracious Lord, you are the source of understanding and forgiveness.  You are able to see beneath the hard surfaces of our projected images to the wounded reality within.  May we see those around us with the same eyes, opening our hearts to new possibilities of forgiveness, understanding and love.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Tuesday, February 3rd

February 3, 2009

“Again Jesus entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand.  They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him.”  Mark 3:1-2


One of the most important gifts of the Spirit is the gift of discernment – the ability to not only see reality, but to sort through what you see until you see the truth.  Discernment requires experience, wisdom, courage and humility.  Discernment also requires love.


Discernment is an important skill in hearing and responding to criticism.  It enables us to tell the difference between constructive and destructive criticism.  Both types of criticism invite a response – but they are two very different types of responses.


Jesus certainly is a guide for us in dealing with destructive criticism.  He faced a lot of it.  The Pharisees were always on guard to catch Jesus in an inconsistency or an error.  Their efforts were motivated by self protection, power and jealousy.  The Pharisees made a mockery of God’s call to love the neighbor.  The Pharisees turned the law of love upside down in their blind devotion to their own carefully crafted religious system.


One of the ways that Jesus dealt with the destructive criticism of the Pharisees was to ignore them.  Motivated by his inner compass of love, Jesus responded to the needs of the people around him, regardless of the reactions of the Pharisees.  He ate with sinners and tax collectors, he healed people on the Sabbath, he allowed his disciples to dispense with dietary customs and prohibitions against mixing with the “wrong” people.


A first step in responding to criticism is to ask: Is the source of the criticism I am hearing motivated by love for all, especially love for the unlovely?  Or, is the source motivated by self protection or self serving?  Am I motivated, in my actions, by love or by self?


Let us pray: Lord Jesus, you know the struggle to forge ahead in life in the face of opposition and criticism.  Help us to discern the truth when confronted with voices which question and challenge us.  Guide us, by the power of your Spirit working in us, in making love for our neighbor our primary motivation in life.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.


Monday, February 2nd

February 2, 2009

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God‑‑what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:1-2


Sometimes I tend to get stuck in my thinking.  It happens to me on many levels.  There are times when I get an idea in my head and I quickly develop tunnel vision – I can’t see any other alternatives.


There are other times when I find myself reacting based on a particular mind-set that I can’t seem to shake; there too, try as I might, I can’t seem to step away from my own peculiar habitual responses.


And so, when I read in Romans of Paul’s admonition to be “transformed by the renewing of your minds”, it sounds pretty good to me.  I would love to have my mind renewed, to have a new set of ideas and assumptions about the world around me, a new set of attitudes, some new alternative ways of thinking, being, feeling.


One area where I could use some help from God in the “renewing of my mind” is how to handle the criticism that I often hear from others.  How to respond creatively and PROactively, rather than defensively and REactively, to words that sound, in my ears at least, as criticism.


The fact of the matter is that, as fallen human beings, fallible creatures, living in relationship with other fallible creatures, there will come times when everyone doesn’t agree.  And there will come times when we specifically disagree with one another.  Life is like that – we not only don’t always get our way, we also have to admit that our way is not always the right, and certainly never, the only way.


To be open to the “renewing of our minds” is where I need to begin.  I need to begin by admitting that, if I already had the resources at my disposal to handle difficult communications with grace and ease, I would already be doing it.  Since I don’t, I need to be open to some new information which might help.  And since this specific issue goes to the heart of many kinds of interpersonal relationships, there is more at stake than simply getting better at “winning friends and influencing people.”  Spirituality is at stake; our relationship with God often is affected by our relationships with others.


If we are not adept at hearing criticism from others, we run the risk of similarly closing ourselves off to the constructive criticism which the Spirit of God might be trying to bring into our lives.


Let us pray: Gracious Lord, your love has the power to transform our lives.  I ask for your guidance this week as I seek to learn from your Word how to grow in the ability to hear what I might perceive to be criticism.  I pray that you might join me, and all who will share in these devotions this week, in the search for transformation into a new openness to all kinds of communications, even those hard to hear.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.