Archive for November, 2015

Daniel 7:13-14

November 30, 2015

As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. Daniel 7:13-14

Yesterday was the 1st Sunday in Advent. It was New Year’s Day in the Christian liturgical calendar. We are now in Year C which means that we will be hearing mostly from the Gospel according to Luke through the year to come. Luke, arguably the most socially conscious, the most subtly political, of the gospels. In that, it is the most challenging of the gospels.

The timing is impeccable.

I love the poetry and the imagery of Jesus “coming with the clouds of heaven.” It carries a sense of being rescued, of the cavalry coming to save the day. There is an unveiling sense to it, like the tearing of the temple veil. Here God comes out of hiding again!

But there is a dark side to this that has largely passed me by over the years. That dark side has to do with our expectations of the Messiah.

It strikes me this year in particular because I am haunted by a single sentence that I read recently. I don’t even remember where it was. But the gist of it was something along the lines of “Jesus came to us in humility but next time he is bringing a heavenly army with him.” And I thought, “Well, here we go again.”

That was the all too human mistake of the 1st century. Expecting a warrior Messiah, the crowds were disappointed by Jesus. “Crucify him” easily replaced “Crown him with many crowns.” Who needs a king who isn’t willing to kick some bad guy tail?

We do. Hasn’t the course of human history proven that?

“Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” Jesus didn’t offer that as a pre-game warmup. It was his strategy for living. The hard way, the narrow way, the loving way, the patient way, the godly way.

Let’s pray: Dear Lord, we are always on the lookout for short-cuts, for easy ways out, for rescue from ourselves. Help us see through your eyes today. Help us see where our vision is obscured by magical thinking, that we might be free to do the daily work on living in love in all areas of our lives. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Luke 17:11-19

November 27, 2015

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Luke 17:11-19

In the early years of my time as a pastor Thanksgiving was an annual opportunity for the congregations in our social ministry network to get together for worship. The pastors would meet together to plan the service. We would take turns hosting. It was a great honor to preach. Our choirs would have a joint rehearsal.

We would worship on the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving. At first, it was a big deal with lots of people there. IF we had a joint choir. The host congregation provided cookies and refreshments after. It was a nice.

In my second congregation the tradition was to gather with a local Episcopalian congregation. Usually 30 people of that year’s “home” congregation would show up with 10 or so from the visiting congregation. Unless we had a choir, that always draws the folks who sing and their families. It always felt like gathering with the one leper who came back to say thanks.

Then we didn’t do the service one year. No one really noticed. No one complained. We never did it again.

EVERY time the Christian community gathers for worship we do so to say thank you to God. Every Sunday is a Great Thanksgiving…which is that point in the liturgy when we are reminded of Jesus’ words, “Do this to remember me.” Do this is an imperative. It is a command. It is like my Mom calling us to the table. You don’t ask questions, you show up. On time.

Worship is the only uniquely Christian thing that happens on the campus of Faith Lutheran Church and every other Christian congregation. All of the other good stuff happens in lots of other ways all over the place. But only worship happens in worship. And Jesus commands that we be there.

To be the one who returns to say thank you.

Sure, give thanks on that special Thursday each year – and be there every time your congregation gathers around the table to which Jesus has invited you.

Let us pray: For all of your gifts, for life itself, for all that is good and for your love and support through all that is hard, we give you thanks, O Lord. For broken places and broken people, for places marred by fear and violence, we pray for peace, for healing, for justice. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Judges 18:1-6

November 16, 2015

In those days there was no king in Israel. And in those days the tribe of the Danites was seeking for itself a territory to live in; for until then no territory among the tribes of Israel had been allotted to them. So the Danites sent five valiant men from the whole number of their clan, from Zorah and from Eshtaol, to spy out the land and to explore it; and they said to them, “Go, explore the land.”

When they came to the hill country of Ephraim, to the house of Micah, they stayed there. While they were at Micah’s house, they recognized the voice of the young Levite; so they went over and asked him, “Who brought you here? What are you doing in this place? What is your business here?” He said to them, “Micah did such and such for me, and he hired me, and I have become his priest.”

Then they said to him, “Inquire of God that we may know whether the mission we are undertaking will succeed.” The priest replied, “Go in peace. The mission you are on is under the eye of the Lord.” Judges 18:1-6

Road trips are important in the Bible. From the time Abraham and Sarah set forth out of Ur, God’s people have always been on the move. I love road trips.

When I was a little kid there was nothing more exciting than when Mom packed the four of us into the car to head across North Dakota to visit my aunt and uncle out near Williston. I loved everything about it – seeing the countryside, imagining the lives of the people who lived in other places, the adventures that might happen along the way, and then finally getting there. Road trips became a part of who I am.

Later life brought other occasions for road trips. My first long motorcycle trip happened in college when I rode my 1973 Honda 750 out to Mount Vernon, WA, by way of Salt Lake City and Portland. Living in Texas with family up north pretty much guaranteed lots of trips through the years.

When I re-started writing devotions again I had several thoughts in my mind. I would trust God to provide the words. I would write from a first person, “how this text hits me” perspective with the hope that others could hitch a ride on my journey. I wouldn’t try to answer every email. And I wouldn’t always write if I was out of town.

Having said that, I’m writing today to let everyone know that I am going to head out of town for a few days. Yes, I will be on my motorcycle. I need to run a little errand out to northern California. I’ll be back before Thanksgiving. If you are interested, you can read more about this little hobby of mine by clicking here. I won’t be writing devotions every day but I might update that blog.

Go in peace. The mission you are on is under the eye of the Lord.”

Let us pray: Dear Lord, may all the journeys of our lives be under your watchful care. Guide, direct, and protect us, wherever the roads take us and, at the last, may our final journey lead to you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Psalm 103:19-22

November 13, 2015

The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.

Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, obedient to his spoken word.

Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his ministers that do his will.

Bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless the Lord, O my soul. Psalm 103:19-22

Back when I was in college I loved driving out to spend weekends or holidays with my Grandma Nelson. I used to love to sit at the kitchen table and listen to her stories. Sometimes I would ask her about the old days, about her growing up years, about her years as a wife, mother, and teacher. Other times I would listen to her filling me in about my cousins’ live. And then there would be the times when she would tell me about the going’s on with some of the other families in her little community.

I particularly remember the times she would say, in her Norwegian accent, “Oh but ya’ know he’s on drugs” or “well, he goes down to the bar.” It was clear to me that that put people at the lowest rung of the ladder of life. Right above pond scum.

I remember how those moments hurt – given that my parents (including her son) were recovering alcoholics. Even then I understood at a very deep level that public shame was only the tip of the iceberg of pain that flowed through the lives of addicts and the people who love them.

My Grandma was a deeply committed and passionately engaged Christian woman. She was a pillar of the church, and that in a very good way. And, without her realizing it, it was precisely people like her – well meaning, loving, Christian people – who make “church” a very unsafe place for people who are “on drugs” or “like to go to the bar.”

Such shame is powerful. Powerful enough to keep people away from the public expressions of the church, but even more, the internal fire of shame burns away their spirituality and cuts them off from the awareness of God’s presence. Too painful to bear, the only answer becomes whatever feeling-numbing chemical or behavior works. Even in a small town.

Enter the Psalmist with his affirmation of God’s presence everywhere, all the time, evoking songs of celebration and gratitude from the angels and ministers (even us) who have been named, claimed, and set apart to live in and invite others into a loving relationship with this everywhere God.

My Grandma found that God in church. My parents found that God in AA. Wherever you find God, God works if you work it.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, you are everywhere, all the time, in all things. We hear that, we believe that, but sometimes it just feels like you are hiding. Like you are playing hide and seek, toying with us. Blast through our resistance, catch us when we fall, use us as you will, that we might live in that broken community that shouts your praise to the rooftops. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Psalm 103:15-18

November 12, 2015

As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.

But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments. Psalm 103:15-18

This last birthday hit me like a ton of bricks. I do realize that my teenage years are far behind me (although I still wear basketball shoes and jeans to work more often than not.) My children graduating from high school, and my daughter from college, finally brought my mental age up at least to theirs. Having three grandchildren pushed me toward my upper 30’s. But now that I’m 55 I have little choice but realize that I have arrived at the dreaded middle-ages.

If my mind can’t wrap itself around this reality, the constant pain in my knees is always ready to help. Yes, Mr. Psalmist, you nailed it. As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.

If I live as long as my parents did, I have about 12 years left. Personally I’d like to extend that streak a bit. But the real question that this psalm poses is not “how many years will we live?” but “what will we do with the years we have?”

None of us can change the past. Yesterday is gone forever. Memories linger, consequences for good or ill linger, but we can’t change the past. Thus we do well not to try to live there.

The odds are very good that tomorrow will come. The sun will rise and the clock will tick. But there is nothing we can do today that will hasten its arrival or speed up its ticking. If you want to parent a 10 year old then it will take you 10 years to do it.

Which means that all we really have is now. Just now. How will we do our lives now?

The psalmist assures us once again of the steadfast, never ending, love of God. We can count on that. But will we rely on that? Will we content ourselves to know about God and pose our hypothetical questions about the future or will we KNOW God now, right now?

To know God is to respect God, to obey God, to live in relationship with God. Here’s what I know about that – whenever I slow my personal mental clock down to this very moment, let go of the regrets of the past, let go of my fears for the future, and focus instead of God’s presence with me in this moment, then respecting, obeying, and living in relationship with God and others is actually possible.

Really, actually, and wonderfully possible!

Let us pray: Before you read this prayer, take just a moment to slow down. Close your eyes and breathe. Be still and quiet. Then pray:

For every moment of my life, I give you thanks O Lord. You sustain me through the horrible times, fill me with joy in the best of times, and stand with me even as I ignore you and reject your ways. In this moment, I surrender my life and my will to your care and keeping. Help me do the next right thing. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Psalm 103:11-14

November 11, 2015

For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;

as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.

As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.

For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust. Psalm 103:11-14

What does it mean to fear God?

For much of my life, fearing God simply meant being afraid of God. God was all about authority which meant God was all about anger and usually that anger was directed toward me.

The very idea of God conjured up images of being sent to the principal’s office (as I was, on more than one occasion); being terrified of my Mom’s moods and behaviors (as our parents are, for better or worse, god-like figures in our lives); or wondering why God was so far away (like the Dad I didn’t meet until I was 15.)

Christian people, especially hard-core Christian people, freaked me out. Like a friend of mine’s mother who baked both white and dark angel’s food cake because she wouldn’t use the word “devil.”

I thought church services were boring. BORING! And I was afraid that God, who knew I felt that way, would even hold my going to church against me.

Add all of that into the things that I did, and kept on doing, and even liked doing, that I knew were not good or right – my growing sense of sin and shame – and it only makes sense that God turned my stomach with fear long before God turned my life around.

But God kept coming after me. And then it happened. God was no longer the principal enforcing the rules, or the troubled mother, or the absent father, or the moralistic and fear-based neighbor. Suddenly I realized that God was loving, forgiving, patient, and present. Even for me.

Today fearing God means demonstrating the same kind of respectful admiration and devotion that I would show anyone who saved my life and then stuck around to walk with me through the rest of it.

Let us pray: God you ARE a very present help in time of trouble. You are gracious and merciful. You forgive and you forget. You heal and bind up the wounds of the broken. You are a light and a lamp. You see us without rejection or judgment. You are a prayer away. You are a compassionate parent. For this and more, we bless and praise you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Psalm 103:6-10

November 10, 2015

The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.

He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel.

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever.

He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. Psalm 103:6-10

Many times we will preface certain statements with the line, “Back in the day…” As in, “Back in the day when the Bible was written it was commonly understand that wealth and high social status were signs of God’s blessings while poverty, physical disabilities, or childlessness were understood to be God’s punishment or God’s curse.”

But I won’t waste the ink to preface that same statement today because I believe, deep down inside, we still believe stuff like this.

Intellectually we might not actually think that a physical disability is a sign of God’s punishment… but in the still of the night or in the midst of a crisis, our hearts still cry out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Enter the Bible and the realization that God works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed…who are enslaved…who are living “under the thumb of another.” Maybe God does “take sides” but not in the ways that we normally think.

Maybe God’s intervention on behalf of Moses and the lowly Israeli slaves wasn’t about how special they were but about God responding to the plight of the desperate. Like God coming to us in our own desperation.

The psalmist tells us that God is not cruel, harsh, punitive, uncaring, or absent. We might think that at times…we can even find Bible verses…lots of them…that make the case that God really is all those unloving things. But not here.

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

The Lord does not kick us when we are down. Even when we are down due to our own sin and selfishness. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever.

He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.

What do we do with a God like that?

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart, and we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed. We have been both oppressor and oppressed, even by our own thoughts and actions. Forgive us, redeem us, use us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Psalm 103:1-5

November 9, 2015

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits—

who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,

who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. Psalm 103:1-5

Psalm 103 made its way into my sermon this past weekend so I thought it might be a good idea to chew on it all week long. It is a psalm of thanksgiving. A song of celebration of life, health, and forgiveness. It reminds me of one of my favorite praise songs. Click here to hear it.

So what does it mean to “bless the Lord”? Isn’t there something backwards about that? I mean, aren’t we the ones who are always asking God to bless US? What does it mean for us to “bless the Lord”?

I ask the question and suddenly I’m reminded of the story in Luke 17 when Jesus heals ten lepers. He tells them to go show themselves to the priest. “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.”

Maybe that story is all we need know about blessing God.

Look at the verbs all connected to God in these opening verses – God forgives, heals, redeems, crowns, satisfies, renews…

Isn’t that enough to turn us around and head back to give thanks?

Let us pray: To know we are loved, to know we are forgiven, to know you are working healing in us, to know that you rescue us from the Pit of our brokeness – for all of this, we thank you O God. Plant firmly in our minds today the benefits, the blessings, that you work in our lives each day. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

John 14:25-27

November 6, 2015

”I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” John 14:25-27

What does it mean to experience the kind of peace that Jesus promised to give his disciples? What is this peace, this other-worldly yet in this world, peace?

We have all heard the line “Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of justice (or the presence of love.)” I’m not sure who said it first but I am sure that the inner tension in this line is a direct descendant of Jesus’ words to his friends.

It is this tension – between the now and the not yet, between the way things are and the ways we hope/want/know they ought to be – that makes peace so illusive.

Often people misunderstand this promised peace. They take the quick and easy route of emotional or even physical detachment from whatever is troubling their hearts. “I don’t care.” “It doesn’t matter anyway.” But that won’t work because they DO care and it DOES matter or it wouldn’t trouble their hearts in the first place. True peace is not pretending.

I actually used to think that the only way I could know the peace that Jesus promises here is through a kind of spiritual/emotional act of “sucking it up” as coaches and teammates used to say. In the face of whatever happened to be troubling in life, I could know peace by gritting my teeth, or grinning and bearing it. I could just hold on until it got better and that was as close to peace as I could expect to know in this world.

Recovery folks call such holding on “white knuckling it.” Whatever that is, it isn’t peace.

Over the years, I have come to see this peace quite differently. I notice now more than ever that Jesus prefaces his promise of peace with the assurance of the coming Advocate, the Holy Spirit, sent to teach and to assure the disciples. Thus the peace that Jesus gives is rooted in connectedness, in relationship, that precedes and endures through the circumstances of life.

It is God’s voice whispering in our ear “You are not alone.”

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we pray that you guide us into your peace. There is much that troubles our hearts and we often feel alone. Give us your peace. Teach us that peace which is less about holding on and more about letting go, less about feeling better and more about being better, less about success and more about surrender. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

John 15:9-11

November 5, 2015

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. John 15:9-11

The 15th chapter of John lies within an extended conversation that Jesus has with the disciples. It is his last will and testament to his friends. Just as we cling to the last words spoken by a loved one, the Christian church has clung to these words since they were gathered up in writing and passed down through the ages.

Jesus commands his friends to love one another and to love others as he himself loves others. It is a command, an imperative, an order. It isn’t a suggestion, offered up as a “good idea”. A command to live a lifestyle of love, to approach the world around us from a place of love. On our own, we can’t do that.

It costs us too much. To love others means we can’t be picky and choosy. We can’t love some. We can’t pick favorites. We are called to love those with whom we seriously disagree. To love people who otherwise disgust us. Jesus isn’t messing around with this stuff. He means it. And he knows full well that we can’t do it on our own.

Thus the promise and the logic of the above passage. The love to which we are called doesn’t begin in us, it begins in God. The silken rope of God’s love passes through Jesus to us. We love because God loved us. And we don’t just love in word but in deed. This is a commandment keeping kind of love – the command to love. And there is a pay off to all of this. The payoff is joy.

Jesus felt joy. Even in the face of what was just around the corner. In the face of rejection, of false arrest, of public humiliation, of excruciating crucifixion, nothing could steal Jesus’ joy. It was the joy of a connection deeper than life itself, deeper than any outward circumstances. A joy that was immune to fear.

I love much of Rick Warren’s definition of joy: “Joy is the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be alright, and the determined choice to praise God in every situation.”

The only thing I would change is the inclusion of the word “control.” I don’t think that God is a control freak, I think God is a love freak, and love means giving us the freedom to fail and God’s own willingness to be vulnerable to being rejected. God, in my mind, embraces both. So I would rather edit that first phrase to read “God is in the midst of all the details of my life” and let it go at that. It says enough to give birth to joy.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, in the face of all of the obstacles that we will confront today, fill us with joy. Fill us with the settled assurance that you are in the midst of all of the details of our lives and give us the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be alright. In Jesus’ name. Amen.