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Friday, November 30, 2018

Advent Message: The Way We're Supposed to Feel

Text: Lamentations 3:1-24, 31-33

“I think there’s something wrong with me, Linus.  
Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy.
I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.”

That opening line from Charlie Brown rings just as true today as fifty-three years ago,
if not more so.

“I think there’s something wrong with me.
I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.”

There are plenty of other times of year when you can get away with feeling miserable and people won’t notice. But at the holidays, the pressure’s on. 

Be thankful! Be joyful! Be generous! Put on a happy face!

“I think there’s something wrong with me. 
I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.”

Weird that so many people can feel that way, yet each feel like we’re the only one.
It’s enough to keep Lucy’s five-cent psychiatric booth going full time. 

“Wow, great way to start off Advent, Pastor Tim! Nothing says 'Christian hope' like reading from Lamentations and talking about seasonal depression! 
We feel better already!”

But I think Charlie Brown is working with a bad assumption, 
when he talks about how he’s “supposed to” feel. 
There are some seasons in our lives, 
when we’re actually supposed to hurt.
When we’re supposed to feel tired.
When we’re supposed to feel sad.
When we’re supposed to feel
 like we have a piece missing.
There are some times in our lives, when there’s nothing wrong with you if you feel that way, and there might just be something wrong if you didn’t!

Tradition holds that the prophet Jeremiah wrote Lamentations right after Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians. Thousands from the city got carted off to Babylon, hundreds of miles from home. Who wouldn’t be hurting at a time like that?
But Jeremiah feels this national tragedy, in a deeply personal way. 
God hasn’t just attacked Judah. God has attacked me.
God didn’t just do this to my country.
God did this to me.

And as a theologian, I pull back a bit when I read this: “Hold up hold up, God loves everyone, God doesn’t punish people like that. We live in a fallen world. Sin runs wild and causes some bad things to happen to good people, but God never wanted this for us, God didn’t directly do this.” And intellectually, I believe that’s true. 
But emotionally, when we’re grieving, like Jeremiah,
sometimes we feel like God did do this.

In times of grief, loneliness, emptiness, sometimes it’s hard not to point our finger at God and say, “Why? Why are you allowing this? Why aren’t you fixing this?”

And if we believe God is good all the time, we stop and think, 
“wait wait wait,this isn’t how we’re supposed to feel.”
When we worry, we’re supposed to feel calm because God has it handled, right?
When fail at something, we’re supposed to feel hopeful 
because God has something even better planned, right?
When we lose a loved one, we’re supposed to be happy they’re with Jesus, right?
We’re getting ready to celebrate the Christ Child! Happy is how Christians are supposed to feel, because everything will work out in the end, and if it hasn’t worked out, it’s not the end…right?

So what happens when Christians don’t feel
the way we’re “supposed” to feel?
We crack open Lamentations,
And see we’re not alone.
We see that sometimes, even the most faith-filled people say things like, 
“gone is my glory and all that I had hoped from the Lord.”
Believe it or not, sometimes,
Even people of faith are supposed to hurt.
Even the one with the strongest faith you can imagine, still said, 
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Sometimes it’s only natural to say to God,
“why did you do this to me?”
Again, I don’t think God does these awful things to us, 
but sometimes we feel like God did.
And sometimes it even helps to say it out loud,
Because we can’t hide it from God, anyway.

I think we do a lot of harm to fellow believers, 
when we talk about how a Christian is supposed to feel. 
Because if Jesus wept, then we can, too.

You want to know why the Advent season is my favorite? 
Because it’s a safe place to be in pain.
It’s a shelter from the big, bright, glitzy onslaught of manufactured happiness 
we see everywhere else.
It’s a little dark corner, under God’s wing,
Where we can rest from pretending to feel how we’re supposed to feel, 
and feel how we actually feel.

Advent is a time to wait, to not be fully satisfied, to grieve, to long for what will be.
To feel incomplete.
To know that until Jesus returns,
There’s a little piece of every person that’s missing. 
Why would we be perfectly, completely content, 
when God’s kingdom hasn’t fully come?
Why would we be completely at home,
In a world that still isn’t finished?
Advent reminds us that we’re not supposed to feel complete, 
until the world is completely the place it’s supposed to be!   

So we say “Come, Lord Jesus!”
And we trust that God’s steadfast love never ceases, 
and God’s mercies never end.
They’re new every morning.
Even on the mornings, and the evenings,
And the long, long nights,
Where we don’t feel
how we’re supposed to feel. 


Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Revelation 11:15-19 The Kingdom of Our Lord and His Messiah

Observation: At the blowing of the last of seven trumpets, voices in heaven sing a song of praise to God, "The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah." This union of earth and heaven is both the goal and the driving force moving the Book of Revelation forward. In fact, if you're looking for one central theme running through Jesus' ministry, and even scripture as a whole, you can do a whole lot worse than the Reign of God--God's will done on earth as in heaven.

Application: When I read this verse, my mind always goes to Handel's Messiah, which many associate with the holiday season. "The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever." In fact, seriously, if your time is limited, just watch this video of the Opera Company of Philadelphia in 2010, taking Macy's shopping center by storm with a dozen local choirs, singing this song in praise to God, in the midst of the buzz of commercialism. I can hardly think of a better way to envision the God's coming among us to reign, than ordinary people singing out God's praises.

The other reason I'm directing you there this morning is because honestly, I'm having a hard time coming up with much to offer today. As we get ready for Advent to begin, I know I'm running on fumes. I'm going on parental leave a week from tomorrow (that is if, by God's grace, this baby follows our plans and doesn't come early). I've still got a to-do list as long as my arm, leading right up to Christmas Eve, and it all has to get done this week. I've got that old familiar feeling of being a student near exam time, with two or three ten-page papers and half a dozen tests to study for, and it's getting to be too much.

So what I'm clinging to as I read these words about God's kingdom is the assurance that, as Revelation attests, we are not responsible for making it happen, nor can we. God does that. We pray, "Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as in heaven." That's what Jesus taught us to long for--not an escape from this world, or our lives as we know them, but for God's full presence within it, and when the time comes, God's reign over all that is. Martin Luther said, "In fact, God's kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us." That's what I'm praying and longing for this Advent season. I can't make anything of real significance happen on my own, and believe me, I've tried. So my prayer this Advent, as an exhausted, stressed, anxious pastor and dad is, "Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth, and in my life, as in heaven. And soon, please?"

Prayer: God, I can't make this happen by myself. I'm completely overwhelmed. Even the simple, little things I know I can do to help me feel connected to you, that stuff is hit-or-miss right now. But I'm praying that your kingdom will come, right here, in my life, today, because I desperately need it, and so does my family, and so does your world. Amen, Come Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Daniel 8:15-27 Don't Make it All About You.

Observation: Daniel is a Jew in exile in the kingdom of Babylon. He has a relatively cushy job as a servant in the king's court, but he keeps having these bizarre visions. In this vision, which the angel Gabriel says is "for the time of the end," he sees a ram with two horns that represent the kings of Media and Persia. The Goat itself stands for the king of Greece. After these kings play their part, the vision describes "a king of bold countenance, skilled in intrigue." More on this king: "By his cunning he shall make deceit prosper under his hand, and in his own mind he shall be great." 

Application. "He shall make deceit prosper under his hand, and in his own mind he shall be great." 

Yikes. I mean...Yikes. 

Look, I'm not sure what you want me to say here. Well no, actually, I know exactly what roughly half of you want me to say. And still, I'm not sure it's the best idea to say it. 

A lot of us probably read this verse, written down thousands of years ago, and want to apply it directly to our time and place, our country, our culture, this specific year, this specific election cycle. So yes, many people of faith reading this would say our current president, Donald Trump, has said a whole lot of things that turned out not to be true, and he seems either not to know or not to care that he is spreading false information. And yes, I'm one of those people. If you disagree, I can and will still joyfully love you and serve with you. I mean that. 

THAT BEING SAID. What I preached on Sunday about reading apocalyptic language is also true of this text. It is a huge mistake for modern people to make the Bible "all about us," as though every apocalyptic vision applies directly to our time and place. For instance, with this text, we'd have to throw out a whole lot of it--the whole piece about the kings of Media, Persia, and Greece, which, by the way, applied directly to Daniel's time and place--in order to shoe-horn the text into fitting our situation. 

So what do we do when part of an apocalypse seems to speak directly to our time? We pray about it. We talk about it. We do our homework and learn more about where it came from. And we remember the bottom line of all apocalyptic literature, laid out perfectly in today's text: "he shall be broken, and not by human hands." The future is God's problem. Faithfulness in the present is our problem. 

In my non-scientific Biblical survey, in precisely 0.0% of cases does God expect the faithful to go out and defeat the forces of evil and deception on their own. In precisely 100.0% of cases, we are expected to stay faithful, keep right on doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly, and let God handle the big picture. Many scholars of this kind of literature would say that, indeed, is its whole message to the original audience: "The Babylonian Empire is not your problem. It's God's, and God is handling it. In the meantime, hang in there, and don't bow down to any idols. I've got your back." 

So, yeah. My application today is to be careful about Biblical application, because most of the time it's not just about me. 

Prayer: God, thank you for visions, for dreamers, for those to whom you reveal truths. Help us to not make that truth about us, but about you. Always. Amen.  


Friday, November 16, 2018

Colossians 2:6-15 I Know What It's Like to Be Dead

Observation: Paul uses the strongest language possible to communicate life before and after a relationship with Christ: "When you were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh,  God made you alive together with Christ, when he forgave us all our trespasses..."

Application: This text reminds me that connection to Christ isn't just a lifestyle change, where you get up earlier on Sundays, watch your language or switch up your reading material. According to this, connection to Christ is a matter of death and life, and we have about as much control over it as someone who has died has over their state of being.

A really scary thing about death is the nothingness. Your body just stops. Your breath stops. your heart stops. You don't say anything or do anything, or as far as we know, think anything. All that is finished, and when that happens, there's nothing you or any person can do to restore you back to life.

Maybe it seems extreme to compare isolation from God to "death." I know I've had moments when I felt very far from God, but I still was able to "go through the motions," and maybe even have some moments of happiness or meaning in the midst of it. In that sense, it's not really like being "dead", as far as I know.

But again, the point of this passage is not about what the emotional experience of estrangement from God is like. It's about who is in control. Death is the ultimate example of having lost agency and control. And we know there's no coming back from that, at least that we can accomplish. But if God can raise a man from the dead, God can raise us, too. There is no sin, no trespass, no estrangement that God can't overcome, no chasm that God can't reach across and bring us back again. Death is final for us, because it's the definitive end of our power. But for God, who is the source of our lives, it's only the beginning.

As we enter this winter season, I know that seasonal depression can be a very real thing. And that can often be accompanied by feelings of loneliness or isolation from God. If you are someone who struggles from this, I know it can be awful. It can be like having died. Wanting so badly to get up, get out, get moving, get connected, or wanting to want to, but just not having that power within yourself. If this describes you, please know I am here for you, as a listener, as a prayer partner, as a listener, and as someone who can help refer you to professional hep if needed. And please also know this word from God: when we were dead in our trespasses--not sick, not down in the dumps, but dead, with no way to recover--God made us alive again, with Christ. This promise is for you, for me, for all, for always.

Prayer: God, thank your for raising us with Christ. Thank your for reaching out to us when we couldn't reach out to you. Thank you for life. Amen.  

Thursday, November 15, 2018

1 Timothy 6:11-21, The Good Confession

The Theological Declaration of Barmen, Germany, 1934

Observation: At the end of this letter, Paul tells Timothy, a young pastor, to "fight the good fight of faith, and take hold of eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses." Paul repeats this language of "good confession" again, and ends his letter by saying, "guard what has been entrusted to you." If Christians today feel as though we're in a theological free-for-all, it's nothing compared to the cacophony of ideas that was the first century. Every congregation's beliefs was slightly different, and there were dozens of movements, all claiming Jesus as their inspiration, with very different beliefs. In this context, it was all the more important for Timothy to hang onto the faith which he was taught.

Application: As I reflect on this "good confession," my mind goes to the Confessing Church of Germany in the 1930's, which arose as a dissenting movement against the "German Christians" who conflated Christian ideals with those of the Nazi party. Reading the words of the Barmen Declaration of 1934, I'm struck by how uncontroversial they are--or at least should be--for Christians in any modern society. Only Jesus is Lord. The Church has no earthly leader. The Word of God alone guides the doctrines of the Church, not current political ideas. The Church should not be subordinate to or ruled by the state. These seem like such basic ideas to us today. But he writers of this statement were considered quite doctrinaire and inflexible by many of their contemporaries.

Sadly, we often don't know the value of holding to the "good confession"--of knowing the basic non-negotiables of our faith--until we see in hindsight when they were lost. In the twenty-first century, just as in the twentieth, just as in the first, we need to practice placing Jesus above all other things in our lives, whether it's simple things like how we spend our time, or big things like how we think and talk about our political convictions. Like any other muscle, our ability to confess the faith can atrophy with disuse. And unfortunately, the time when we most need it, when the stakes are higher than we could have imagined, will often show up without warning.

Prayer: God, keep us steadfast in your word. Curb those who by deceit or sword, would wrest the kingdom from your Son, and bring to naught all he has done. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Ruth 4:7-22 Happy Ending, Kind Of

Observation: It's hard to get past the patriarchal nature of this "happy ending" for Ruth. Boaz takes off his sandal, in front of everybody, and claims his right of redemption as the closest living relative to Ruth's deceased husband who is willing to take her in. He attests in front of these witnesses that he has "acquired" Ruth. Like she's some side table at a public auction. It's disturbing, but that was the world they lived in, and for Ruth it was genuinely the happiest ending she could have imagined. It reminds me of a lot of the "fairy tale endings" we still unwittingly hold up for too many of our daughters: that happiness is being "acquired" by some strong, rich Prince Charming, rather than pursuing a meaningful vocation of their own. Again, we lift up this story as an "ideal" at our peril. 

What's also worthy of note, though, is that the women of Bethlehem have a very different interpretation. This happy ending still revolves around fertility, which is a sore subject in itself, but they praise God on Naomi's behalf because "your daughter-in-law, who is more than seven sons to you,  has borne" an heir. This baby, by the way, is Obed, also known as King David's Granddad. So Ruth, the Moabite, a foreigner from a traditional enemy of Israel, by staying faithful to Naomi and Naomi's God, even against Naomi's own advice, becomes the great-grandmother of the most renowned king in Israel's history. 

Application: I have a daughter and two (soon to be three) sons, and I'm glad to be a dad in 2018. I say this without hesitation, knowing full well that times are tough, and the world is dangerous, and our democracy is in crisis, and we have a very short time to turn the course of environmental degradation. 

And yet, reading this text, I'm once again glad to be raising a daughter and sons in 2018. There was a time--in fact, most of history--when Ruth's "happy ending" was the best happy ending any woman could hope for: to "be acquired." And though Ruth shows immense courage, faithfulness and cunning in pursuing that goal, it's clear there was no "Plan B" in her world. For my daughter, the possibilities are limitless. 

And reading this text, I'm glad for my boys, too, because they don't have to be Boaz. They don't have to pursue wealth and power over others, and "acquiring" a partner, as the only way to a full life. They can learn from Boaz's compassion, his diligence in doing right by Ruth, yet not feel they have to see material wealth as the be-all and end-all of success. 

I'm glad to be a dad in 2018, because my kids have options. They may not have the same level of material success as their great grandparents. But with God's help, their minds are free. 

Prayer: God, thank you for feminism. Thank you for the possibilities available to my daughter and my sons. Help us to continue creating a world of possibility for all. Amen.  

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Ruth 3:14-4:6 Ruth and Boaz...So Many Questions...

Observation: I'll save some of the euphemistic and poetic language for another day. The plain, indisputable facts of the story are that Ruth has spent the night with Boaz, prior to their being married, on the threshing floor where women don't normally go. What, if anything, happened between the two of them other than sleep is a matter of interpretation. I guess. But...yeah. What is notable is, firstly, that Ruth initiates this relationship, and secondly, that after this point Boaz goes through a fairly complex legal to-do list in order to make Ruth his wife.

Application: As a model for love and intimacy, this story leaves me with more questions than answers. I really don't have time to write a long reflection or theological treatise on Biblical notions of marriage and sex, and how they apply to modern life. Which is a good thing, because that's not what this devotional blog should be, nor am I really qualified to speak as an expert either on the Book of Ruth or modern dating (I got married long before Tinder was a thing).

What I will say is this: when a passage like this comes up, I'm reminded that many Christians in the twenty-first century assume that all the notions of marriage and sex we have had in the last hundred years or so are mirrored exactly in what the Bible says. In fact, the Bible says a whole lot of things about marriage and sex and not all of it is supportive of what we consider traditional today.

But if there is anything that's internally consistent from Genesis through Revelation, it's that God is faithful to God's people, all the time. As a model of that faithfulness, God asks us to be faithful to one another, to honor our commitments, and in all of our relationships, to love the other as ourselves. It's not an iron-clad list of statutes about what is and isn't okay in terms of intimacy and sex. In fact, given the opportunity to throw a stone at a woman caught in the act of adultery, which is right there in the Ten Commandments, Jesus declines and says only the sinless should throw stones.

Modern relationships are complicated. Marriage is complicated too. And there's lots we can gain from the Bible, from the witness of saints like Ruth and Boaz. But if we're looking for one cookie-cutter approach to all relationships, so we don't have to rely on God's guidance, the Bible isn't really for that and you won't find what you need unless you ignore a whole ton of other stuff. That's the reality. But in Ruth and Boaz's story, we do get a wonderful example of faithfulness, or taking risks in the name of love, and of care for one's partner beyond simple legal obligations. It may not be a perfect gift-wrapped morality tale for eighth grade confirmation class, but it's a reminder that God is faithful and gives us the power to be faithful too.

God, help us to be faithful in our relationships, for the sake of our partners, for our own sake, and for the sake of all who will come after us. In Jesus' name, Amen.