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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Luke 1:46-55 Magnifying the Lord

Observation: Today is the festival of Mary, Mother of our Lord. Many Protestants are leary of exalting Mary above the level of any other faithful person, as the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions have done. Still, even for us, it's hard to hear Mary open up and sing this extraordinary song of praise--this brilliant piece of theology that connects the God Israel has always known with the amazing thing about to happen in Jesus--and not believe that this was a truly extraordinary young woman.

Application: Mary's opening line, "My soul magnifies the Lord," is a powerful mission statement. If all people of faith focused on was simply finding what God is already doing, and telling people about it--loudly--we would have a tremendous impact on the world around us. But Mary's ability to see God's work in her life was not necessarily innate. As a faithful Jew, she had been trained for her whole life, in the stories of God saving and providing for her people, to have her eyes open for what God would do next and to know it when she saw it.

And from Mary's witness (and the Bible she herself knew, which formed that witness), we know this: God is not in the business of making the strong stronger or the rich richer. God lifts up the lowly. God speaks for those who don't already have the loudest voice at this world's table. God feeds those who otherwise would go without. As for those who have enjoyed privilege, and up to now have never have much of a problem caring for themselves, now is not our moment: if we, too, want to magnify the Lord, we should look for how God is caring for those our society has ignored.

Prayer: God, help me look beyond myself. Let me look for you in those with no power in our world, and magnify your work there. Amen. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Psalm 81: I Gave Them Over

Observation: this is a festival song, which was used for temple worship in Jerusalem. It recounts a story of how God freed the Israelites from slavery, but the people still didn't listen to or obey God. So God "gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsel."

Application: I don't believe God ''punishes" people in a direct way in their day to day lives. You shouldn't expect a lightning bolt after misbehaving, as though God were some glowering Zeus, frowning down at us from the sky.

What God does do, on occasion, is allow us to get what we want. We want to run our own show and be our own boss. We want to rely on our own strength and look out for ourselves, and that never, ever works out well for us. But sometimes, we need to learn that lesson first-hand... maybe a few times.

God doesn't force us to do what's best for us. But neither does God ever completely, permanently abandon us to the consequences of our choices. There's always mercy and grace.

Prayer: God, thank you for the lessons--even the hard ones. Amen. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Deuteronomy 8: Don't You Forget About Me

Observation: God has led the Israelites the long way through the wilderness for 40 years, "in order to humble them" and teach them a lesson. This sounds a little like a long detention to me. But the lesson God wants them to learn is to be grateful for all they are about to possess in the Promised Land, and never forget this too comes from God, just as the manna from heaven did. When you're finally out of the wilderness, never forget the friend you made here. 

Application: To be honest, as I read this I'm thinking of our own family finances, and those of many families in our community. I know beyond a doubt that we are right where God wants us, doing what we need to do. But I also know that we have been working hard for a long time, and it's hard not to believe we should have more security and fewer bills to show for it. That said, I am taking the lesson of Deuteronomy to heart. There will always be leaner seasons and seasons of prosperity. But in both, we depend on God for all we have, and we give thanks. The lean seasons are there to teach us that God provides, always. 

Prayer: God, I have so much to be thankful for. Help me remember you, both when times are hard and when they get easier. Amen. 

Friday, August 3, 2018

Psalm 78:23-29 Food and Faithlessness

Observation: This is part of a historical psalm, which retells events told elsewhere in the Old Testament. This section tells about how God provided manna, "the bread of Angels", for the recently liberated people of Israel to eat in the dessert. An ongoing theme in the wilderness (like any family road trip, I'd say) is that God continues to provide and people continue to complain.

Application: Maybe it's human nature, but in a situation over which I have little direct control, I tend to get fussy. I get vocal about what's getting on my nerves. I tend to focus on what's going wrong instead of what's going right. I'm not proud of it. I would like to be different. But I often find myself fighting the urge to complain.

What's amazing to me is that God keeps right on doing good things in my life, whether I complain or I give thanks. Just like manna in the wilderness, God's blessings are abundant every day. Every day this month, I'm trying to lift up three different things I'm thankful for. I've done this before, and it really does a lot to change your perception of what life is like.

Another benefit of finding things to be thankful for is it helps you shift the stage of your life, and invite God into a more significant role. I've noticed that God will provide for me all the time, but I have a choice: I can ignore it, and treat God like a stage hand, moving set pieces around behind the scenes so I can star in my epic play about moping and feeling slighted. OR, I can invite God to have a supporting, or--dare I say it--a starring role in my life, in a play about the most wonderful love story of all time: the story of God's extravagant, life-giving love for the world. Either way, God will keep the show going. But let's be real: I think God would make a better lead than me.

Prayer: God, please play the lead role in my life. Let me notice and lift up all the ways you care for me and for this world. Amen.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

1 Corinthians 11:17-22 "When You Come Together"

Observation: Paul has harsh words for the Corinthian Christians. He is leading up to 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, on which our "words of institution" at the table are based ("In the night in which he was betrayed, Our Lord Jesus took bread..."). But rather than berating the Corinthians for an improper understanding of the nature of Communion (something Christians in the last 500 years have had such fun fighting about) Paul is tackling another problem entirely: the lack of community and compassion at the table. 

It seems in Paul's time, Christian worship was not just a symbolic meal, but an real one: families would essentially bring a "picnic dinner" to eat together with the church as part of the worship service. The problem was that the families with more food (and time) to spare would agree to get together earlier, and share their plentiful resources among themselves, so that when the poor church members got there, the food was gone and some of the wealthy folks had already overindulged with alcohol. The meal had become just a meal, subject to the same rigid class and culture rules as any other meal, instead of a meal in the name and presence of the Lord, who fed all comers until they were satisfied. Where Jesus had intended unity, there was only division and injustice. 

Application: Sometimes we forget that the Lord's Supper is not just a meal of reconciliation and unity with God, but with our neighbors as well. Jesus doesn't set one table for Catholics, another for Orthodox and a third for Protestants. Jesus doesn't set one table for conservatives and another for liberals. He doesn't set one table for the rich and another for the poor, nor one table for Christians of European descent and another for everyone else. Jesus sets one table. You can show up to it, or you can stay home, but if you choose to eat with him, you eat with the family. 

To me, this understanding is so much more important than any metaphysical hair-splitting about how and when Jesus is really present in the bread and wine. There's no such thing as a meal of connection to Christ, which does not also connect us to all those who call him Lord--even those from whom we are estranged. You can't come halfway to the table, any more than Jesus could halfway die for you. You are welcome; you are invited; Jesus longs deeply for your presence here. But whether you're in a country chapel or St Peter's Basilica, nowhere in this wide creation will you find private dining with the Lord. Jesus has promised to be present--each and every time--but he's bringing the family. We'd best get used to the idea. 

Prayer: Jesus, thank you for your invitation to the table. The next time I come there, remind me of the width, the breadth and the depth of the reconciliation that happens there. Remind me of the person I'd least want to have there, and help me see them as you do. Amen.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Colossians 1:9-14 Knowledge of God's Will

Observation: Paul prays for many blessings for the Christians in Colossae. What's interesting about Paul's prayer is that it has nothing to do with changing the Colossians' situation and everything to do with their perception. He prays not for God to grant all their desires, but that they may know God's will. He prays not that their lives would be easy, but that they would have strength and patience.

Application: God doesn't answer all our prayers. At least not the way we expect. That doesn't mean God doesn't hear or care about us. God wants to hear exactly where our hearts and minds are, and telling God what we want and need is not wrong. Jesus says God will grant us what we ask in Jesus' name. But anything we ask in Jesus' name is not for our purposes, but for God's, and the answer won't always look like we picture.

In my experience, however, a prayer that often does come through much the way we ask, is a prayer for a new mindset. I guarantee, if you are consistent in praying to know God's will, your eyes will be opened. If you pray for patience and strength, you'll get it. If you pray for wisdom, over time, it'll come. It's harder to ask God to change us than to change our situation, because change in us requires openness and hard work. But when we ourselves are changed, a lot about our world can change too.

Prayer: Change my heart, my mind and my spirit, God. Help me be ready when you answer. Amen 

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Zechariah 9:14-10:2 Warriors and Rain

Observation: The prophet Zechariah promises a divine warrior figure will one day establish peace by conquering the invading Greek armies. The image of "waging war for the sake of peace" is all too familiar from human history, and even though this warrior comes from God, it's hard to accept a violent message as entirely good news.

Then, beginning a new section, the prophet urges listeners to ask The Lord, rather than any household gods, for rain.

Application: Whew. I'm always tempted to skip over violent texts like this, but I think it's important to stick here a minute and remind myself: Not every Bible text, on any given day of the week, will inspire and motivate you, just because it's the Bible. It's okay to be confused, or even disgusted, by some passages that really don't match up with our ethics and values today. It doesn't make you a ''bad Christian" to read a Bible text and say, "Boy, that really doesn't sound like something Jesus would say/do." Actually (and forgive me for stating the obvious) lifting up the life of Jesus as your standard is actually what makes you a Christian.

Which is to say, I didn't get much from today's text. I know the Holy Spirit inspired it for some reason, and it may have produced faith, hope and love in other believers at other times. That's good for them. I appreciate the part about relying on God for rain, because we've had the first bit of summer rain over the last three days or so in quite some time, and the earth is grateful. That's what I've got today. And Jesus is still Lord.

Prayer: God, thanks for the gift of scripture to inspire faith in your son Jesus. Help us to believe in and follow him above all else.