Archive for November, 2014

Proverbs 11:23-28

November 26, 2014

The desire of the righteous ends only in good; the expectation of the wicked in wrath.


Some give freely, yet grow all the richer; 
others withhold what is due, and only suffer want. A generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water. 
The people curse those who hold back grain,
but a blessing is on the head of those who sell it.

Whoever diligently seeks good seeks favor, but evil comes to the one who searches for it.
 Those who trust in their riches will wither, but the righteous will flourish like green leaves.
 Proverbs 11:23-28

I don’t know how it is in your life but here is how things have worked out thus far for me. I always, always, always, have a list. The list is comprised of “what would I do with a bunch of money that suddenly grew on the limbs of the tree in my backyard?”

If that turned out to be lottery-sized money (which is quite unlikely to happen because I never purchase a ticket), I would pay off the mortgage on our church. Just so we don’t have to worry about it anymore.

But if it was normal-sized money, I would check the list of the stuff I want to buy or the places I want to take Kelley or things that would help our kids. (I just did it. I put my selfishness right out there on display. I got to be first on the list and the church didn’t show up on that one at all. This isn’t good and I’m not proud to say it.)

Here’s what else I know. No matter what shows up on my list of what I want to buy next, even if it is the sort of thing that comes with “if I only get this, I will never want another thing for the rest of my life”, once I get it, I check it off and the next thing moves right to the top of the list.

Honesty, I do consider myself a generous person. Frankly, most people do. Seldom have I sat with a family preparing a funeral without someone saying that the deceased would “give the shirt off his back to someone in need.” That ranks right up there with “he really loved to hunt and fish.” (Which is always more romantic than my list. He really loved to read and watch TV.)

My problem isn’t a lack of generosity. My problem is wishful, magical, thinking around money and possessions. I don’t care much about money so I am careless with my money. I know wanting another “thing” creates anxiety, getting another “thing” provides only momentary pleasure, and life isn’t about “things” in the first place.

Some give freely, yet grow all the richer; 
others withhold what is due, and only suffer want. A generous person will be enriched, and one who gives water will get water.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. T. Carlos Anderson calls it “Black Friday Eve.” It is a crazy season for all of us, all the more crazy the farther our focus drifts from giving to getting, from gratitude to great deals, from holy days to holidays.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, giving Lord, gifting Lord, open our eyes as we open our wallets. Help us see the realities of our lives, what matters and what doesn’t. Give us wisdom, discernment, discretion, and compassion as we move into this next season of our lives. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Romans 12:13-21

November 25, 2014

Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:13-21

This past weekend I had the privilege of attending an Eagle Scout Court of Honor as two young men, including a member of my congregation, received their Eagle Scout badges. The culmination of years of faithful participation, a modicum of parental badgering, a bit of procrastination, and lots of hard work brought them to the point of joining a select group of men who have shared very similar journeys. The high point of the event for me was shared between watching the boys give a special pin to their mothers and witnessing all the Eagle Scouts in the room stand together.

He is such a Boy Scout!

There was a time when that felt much more like a compliment than it does today. Today, if anyone is so characterized, it almost feels like a put down. That is tragic.

To read the list of behaviors that Paul includes here in Romans 12 is to be reminded of the very virtues and actions that make for a great life, a hospitable community, and a refuge of safety in a broken world that is spinning out of control. Generosity, hospitality, compassion, and restraint are the glue that holds us together.

The foundation of Boy Scouts is much more than the adventure of camping in the rain, tying knots, and wearing a patch covered shirt. It is rooted in values like honesty, integrity, courage, faith, service, and leadership.

But, of course, there is a dark side. There always is. I quit scouting precisely at the point where – back in my day – fathers were required to attend events with their sons. I doubt that my parents gave much thought about one of the after affects of their divorce and my father’s disappearance would be the shame I would later feel to miss the fishing trip because I didn’t have a Dad to go with me. But I didn’t. I missed the trip and never went back. Thank God that scouting is so much more inclusive today.

Scouting continues to struggle with their definition of family and who is acceptable as leaders and role models. It is a struggle well worth waging. Because the values that they espouse are universal values, rooted in reality, not in the secret handshakes and time worn rituals and distinctive dress of a private club.

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Let us pray: Lord, you made it very simple for us. You call us to love others as we love ourselves, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. From the smallest personal interactions to grand national policies, and everything in between, may we continue to learn and to practice what love looks like in real life. Thank you for all who model that for us, and for those who lead the way. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Acts 4:32-35

November 24, 2014

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Acts 4:32-35

I’m going to come right out and say it. I am suspicious about this text. There are two things that cause this suspicion. I am worried that it is hyperbole. Selective memory. Another example of “Back in my day, things were really great…” And I’m worried because it is the sort of thing that might actually work if people had the guts to try it.

This little paragraph is a snapshot example of an entire community, so deeply committed to their common purpose of carrying the good news of Jesus into the world, that they literally were willing to sell their own land and homes to support the lives of others. They did so as an act of faith and love, without consulting their financial advisors or even considering the tax implications of such a generous charitable contribution.

Now, it isn’t that this kind of behavior is impossible. I’ve known people who sold vacation homes, farmland, or other valuable assets in order to make significant leading gifts for the sake of the church or other charities. People do things like that when buildings are being built or foundations established. But this is about sharing a common life. Supporting the daily needs of others. Literally depending on God and one another for the very basics of life.

I’ve heard of congregations that have decided to tackle one another’s debt burdens. Several families decide to team up to attack debt. They take turns all pitching in, based on their ability to contribute, until every family is debt free. That too could work if people were committed to working together selflessly and honestly.

When is the last time that you were asked to make a significant sacrifice of your own time, talents or treasures for a cause greater than yourself? If asked, are you willing to go there?

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, we read this account of a community that was truly a community and it both attracts and frightens us. We long for that kind of connectedness in our lives but we so seldom see or experience it. Selfishness, competitiveness, and fear seem such strong forces within and around us that we can’t imagine such willingness to sacrifice and risk for the sake of others. But today, you show us once again that what seems impossible to us is always possible for you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

1 Corinthians 12:7-11

November 20, 2014

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. 1 Corinthians 12:7-11

A few years ago I was playing golf with an old friend of mine, Tim Anderson, pastor of St. John’s/San Juan Lutheran Church in Austin, TX, when he told me that he was working on a book. He said that it wasn’t a book about religion or spirituality, it was about economics. I was impressed.

“Just A Little Bit More”, written under the name T. Carlos Anderson, is now available on Amazon in print or via Kindle. It is an absolute must read. Read it yourself or get a group and read it together. It will open your eyes to how the power of the shifting sands of commerce, materialism, and consumerism have come to define our lives.

I thought of that book immediately when reading the opening sentence in our text for today: To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

Central to Anderson’s concern is the idea of “the common good.” At one point he says something I have never heard nor thought of before. Reflecting on his own work as a pastor, he says that “I don’t work as a pastor to ‘save souls’ and help populate heaven. That type of thinking hit its high water mark (within recent context) for American Christianity in the 1950’s and is no longer persuasive in the twenty-first century. The reason I work as a pastor is to promote the common good…”

Paul tells the Corinthians that they have been given gifts of the Spirit for the sake of the common good. What does he mean by that? Is he just locating the “common good” in that particular community, among that small group of people alone, or does his call to the common good reach far beyond that little group to the world at large?

Given God’s love for the whole world, I think a more expansive view is more appropriate. Selfishness asks “What’s in it for me?” Group identity asks “What’s in it for us?” Christianity asks, “What’s in it for the world?”

How often do we think of our lives, our daily work, our own gifts, not only as gifts to us from the Spirit of God, but also as a means to promote the common good? Doesn’t such a perspective bring much more purpose and meaning into our lives than just working for a paycheck in order to buy a new flatscreen for the guest bedroom?

Let us pray: Dear Lord, you have gifted us with all we need to make a positive difference in the world today. You have placed us within communities, occupations, and relationships which hold the potential for either good or evil, for fulfillment or futility. May we use your gifts this day to work toward the common good. May we see the implications of our lives far beyond what we can see. May we do our part. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Romans 12:4-8

November 19, 2014

For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. Romans 12:4-8

The Houston Texans started a new quarterback on Sunday and ended up winning the game. As much as I believe that sports are overblown in our country, there is still many life lessons that playing games can teach us.

The new quarterback played well enough for the team to win. But he didn’t win the game himself. It took the whole team.

Paul uses a few sports analogies in talking about the Christian faith but his favorite analogy is the human body. Our bodies, comprised of interdependent parts and systems, reflect our connectedness and relationship with the world around us. But not only that, our physical bodies reflect our connectedness and relationship to Jesus in that, together, we are the body of Christ in the world.

We all know that. We have all heard that before. There is no surprise in being reminded that we all have been given different sets of gifts, each of which has an invaluable contribution to make the wider common good of all. We aren’t even surprised to read the list of gifts.

Prophecy is the insight to tell the truth about the way life really is. Ministry is caring for and loving others. Teaching is helping others learn. Exhortation is offering encouragement to others. Giving is being generous with all that we have. Leadership is influencing others toward a desired outcome. Compassion is connecting with the pain of others and reconnecting them to hope.

None of that surprises us. We recognize those gifts as essential to the team, to the work of the body of Christ in the world.

But what does surprise us is the statement that “individually we are members one of another.” This, in a culture that prides itself on individualism and “it’s OK if nobody gets hurt”, cuts deeply. It means quite literally that we belong to one another and therefore we are accountable to one another. It means we can’t divide humanity into competing teams without paying a personal price.

This is the statement that holds together so many of the paradoxes of our lives – we receive by giving away, we win by surrendering, we show up for the sake of others, we welcome others and, in that, we find ourselves at home.

We are connected to each other. Keep that in mind as you move through this day. How different does the world look when we see all that moves around us as parts of a whole rather than disconnected pieces.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, give us a glimpse today, just a quick glimpse, of the connectedness within which we live. Help us see ourselves and others as members of the same body, reflections of your presence in the world. Help us see how our gifts contribute to the common good of all. May we find the joy of being a part of life as we do our part in our lives. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

1 Peter 4:7-11

November 18, 2014

The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen. 1 Peter 4:7-11

“Therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers…”

This past Sunday, on my way home from church, I stopped at a gas station about a block from our house. When I got to the counter, there were three little girls behind it. The two oldest had the chairs and the youngest was sitting on the floor. I put the things I would going to buy on the counter when the oldest girl told me that the person who could help me would be right back.

A couple of minutes later the man who normally runs things came out and began to ring my purchases up. I asked the man if he was their father and he proudly said yes. So I said to the girls, “So you have to spend your Sunday afternoons at work with your Dad? How boring is that?” They giggled.

But then their father said, “They only stopped by for a few minutes so I could say my prayers.”

Wow.

There are certain behaviors that clearly are communicated within Christian families. From today’s reading, loving others, being hospitable to others, serving others, speaking carefully to others, all of that fits neatly into the basket of what Christian parents communicate and pass on to their children. But being disciplined in prayer? How often do we model that in the lives of our children?

We realize that we ought never eat without thanking God for our food. Most of us pray around the table when we eat. But how often does that really happen? When our children are young, we say bedtime prayers with them. But at what age does that stop? Do we teach children that prayer is the last thing we do, or the first thing we do, as we move through our lives?

How often do our children see us pray? What difference might that make in their appreciation of the role that faith plays in our lives?

Let us pray: Dear Lord, far too often, turning to you in prayer is the last thing that crosses our minds as we move through our lives. By the power of your Spirit, inspire us to pray first in all things. Not out of self righteousness but as a sign of our dependence and trust in you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Luke 19:20-26

November 17, 2014

Then the other came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your pound. I wrapped it up in a piece of cloth, for I was afraid of you, because you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’ He said to him, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked slave! You knew, did you, that I was a harsh man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? Why then did you not put my money into the bank? Then when I returned, I could have collected it with interest.’ He said to the bystanders, ‘Take the pound from him and give it to the one who has ten pounds.’ (And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten pounds!’) ‘I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  Luke 19:20-26

In Jesus’ day, no one who was as rich as the master in this parable got that way honestly, legally, or ethically. The master in this parable is a crook, a robber baron, a Bernie Madoff. The only way anyone could accumulate that kind of wealth was by paying off the Romans, making loans to farmers at impossible interest rates, foreclosing on loans, and taking their land.

And the only way that those first two servants could have doubled their money would have been to do stuff that was just as unethical as their boss.

When the third slave tells his master, “I was afraid of you, because you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.” he is simply telling the truth. He is courageously standing up against the corruption and oppression of a world that is controlled by those who see to it that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

At the end of the parable, the third slave looks like a loser, suffering for telling the truth, standing up to the powers that be, sacrificing himself by refusing to benefit from the under-handed ways that made his own master rich. Standing with the poor instead of the powerful.

The third slave looks like Jesus.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, open our eyes to all the ways in which our value system, our sense of right and wrong, our sense of purpose in living, has been knocked askew by our own personal and cultural misconceptions. Shape us, guide our imaginations, use us as you will. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Luke 21:29-36

November 13, 2014

Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Luke 21:29-36

Jesus refers to “that day” which might “catch you unexpectedly”. What do we do with that?

We could think about “that day” somewhere out in front of us. We could think of “that day” as something that will happen “someday”. Such thoughts might baffle us, confuse us, or scare us. But, like a warning that we will get cavities if we don’t brush our teeth or heart disease if we don’t give up fatty meat for supper every night, thinking about “that day” happening “someday” probably won’t motivate us.

We’ll just tuck that information back in the corners of our minds. We’ll forget about it, deny it, pretend it away.

And deep inside we know, if our preparations for “that day” have anything to do with our abilities to remain alert, or our inner resources of strength, then we’re probably already toast. There is probably already too much “dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life” weighing us down.

Someday is a weight we can’t bear. It is out of our reach.

But what if we think of “that day” simply as “today”?

I don’t know about “someday”, but I do know that today we give our dissipation to God, we can ask God for the gift of sobriety, and we can turn our worries of this life over to God to take care of.  I know that God can protect, care for, provide for, forgive, guide, and love us today. And I know we can realize that, depend on it, stake our lives on it. And it will work. For today.

Frankly, that is what I think Jesus is looking to give us. It is why, in the prayer he taught us, we pray “Give us THIS day our daily bread” instead of “give us someday our daily bread.”

All we have is today. That is all we need. And if, by God’s grace, we string enough todays together to reach someday, we’ll be in good shape.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we pray for the grace to entrust our lives to your care and keeping for today. Help us face today with the confidence born of knowing that nothing can separate us from your love, the freedom that gives us to be ourselves, and the peace that it gives us to live honestly, uprightly, joyfully, and soberly. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Deuteronomy 4:5-9

November 11, 2014

See, just as the Lord my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?

But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children… Deuteronomy 4:5-9

On October 30th I wrote a devotion that played with the idea of God’s plans. A pastor friend of mine didn’t hesitate to dash off an email in response. He wrote to tell me that “of course God has a plan, Deuteronomy 6:4-9.”

God teaches us and we in turn teach our children. That’s God’s plan.

Far be it from me to take issue with a colleague who is both older and wiser than me…but, if it were that simple, how is it that we have wound up in 2014 with several competing branches of Judaism and 41,000 Christian denominations in the world? All of whom I expect are teaching slightly different things.

Thus, while I think that parents teaching children is not only God’s plan but it is also the way things actually work, there remains the issue of just what it is that parents are teaching.

We could, for example, teach our children that “our God is much better than all of their gods.” Deuteronomy says “For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him?” We then position ourselves as competing with others in a religiously diverse world, arguing the merits of our local “god franchise” over against all of the others out there.

Does such “religious competition” make the world a better place? Is winning the hearts and minds of people, so that everybody else believes in the same god in the same way as us, really job one in what we teach our children?

Far better than looking out at the world we want to conquer, I think, is to look inward at the work that God wants to be doing in our lives and then passing that down to our children. Not just in our words but in our actions.

Jesus kept it simple. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. And you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.

It seems to me that there is a lifetime of teaching ahead of us in that alone.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we have all internalized messages that we have been taught along the way. Some of what we have been taught has been and continues to be helpful in our lives. Some we need to discard. Grant us grace to tell the difference. And, by the power of your Spirit in our midst, guide us as we pass the faith which you have given us, to those who will follow after us. May we live in love for the good of the world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 24:36-44

November 10, 2014

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.

 

Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Matthew 24:36-44

Hypervigilance is a burden that far too many people carry through their lives. It is most often born in trauma. Whether from growing up in an abusive home or living with the memories of service in a war zone, those who suffer from hypervigilance are constantly scanning their surroundings, taking the emotional temperature of their environment, always waiting for the shoe to fall. It is an exhausting way to live. It disconnects and damages relationships.

Is this the life that Jesus envisions for us? Always worried that the thief is going to come and get us or that the Son of Man will show up at the airport while we’re waiting for our ship to come in?

Hypervigilance is born in fear. It is an acquired trait, a learned response. And it is powerful in the way that fear is always powerful. Especially in the lies that fear tells us which rob us of our confidence, leaving us feeling powerless in the face of threats that could very well be nothing more than figments of our imagination.

Is that what Jesus is doing to us with this text? With his warning to be “ready” is Jesus inviting us into lives of fear? Is he trying to scare us into the kingdom?

Unfortunately, far too many of us who sincerely believe we are serving Jesus’ cause are guilty of using fear to motivate compliance. We might think we are preaching the Gospel when in fact all we are doing is treating Jesus like a scary bogeyman out to get the stubborn, to flush the “lost” once and for all. No good comes of that. I know. I’ve been on the receiving end of such proclamation.

I rest instead in the mystery that no one knows where life is ultimately taking us but we do know that the hands in which we will ultimately end up have nail scars at the wrist.

What helps people who suffer from hypervigilance is community and love. Patient, caring, conversation. Time in the community of a group of people who are all suffering from the same thing. Trust eventually swallowing up fear. Little steps in the right direction with occasional relapses.

That sounds to me like the church.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, we trust our lives to you. We trust you in the face of anything and everything that would drive us into fear. We trust that you come into our lives through people who stand with us and for us. We trust that you won’t leave anyone behind. In Jesus’ name. Amen.