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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Luke 1:46-55 Mary the Rebel

(Coming to this a day late, sorry)
Yesterday was the festival of Mary, Mother of Our Lord. 

Observation: after learning that she will become mother of a Savior, and that her cousin Elizabeth, too, will also give birth to a prophet (John the Baptist), Mary sings a fiery song about God who lifts up the lowly and tears down the powerful, who feeds the hungry and sends the rich away empty. 

Application: Pictured above is one of my favorite blankets, which I won at a white elephant Christmas party. But I worry that many Christians see Jesus' mother as a soft, gentle "security blanket." Too much Christian art depicts Mary as God's doormat, whose single job in life was to listen to an angel's pitch and say, "Okay." 

That's not the Mary I know from Luke's Gospel. The Mary I know from Luke's Gospel is far from timid or submissive. Her faith is a bold, unflinching trust in a God who shows up for those whom the world forgets, who rolls up God's sleeves when it seems the strong, the careless and the ruthless have had the last word. This is the type of woman who could raise a Savior who would let nothing--not even a cross--stand in the way of reconciling the world to God and to itself. 

Prayer: Lord Jesus, your mom is awesome. Thank you for her witness, and the witness of other fearless, faithful women, who see the world not as it is, but as God wants it. Amen. 

Friday, August 11, 2017

Acts 18:14-28 And the Fun of "Powerfully Refuting"

Observation: We really, really need to remember when we read the Book of Acts--or any New Testament book, for that matter--that it is written in a First century Jewish context. Jesus was Jewish. So were his disciples, the scribes, pharisees and chief priests. Not all Jesus' fellow Jews understood or accepted his ministry. Not all accepted that he had been raised from the dead, or that he was the long-awaited Messiah. The arguments got heated. But for the first generation or so, this was a heated argument within one family: the family of Israel. We all know how ugly family fights can get. So as we hear about Apollos, who is also Jewish, powerfully refuting  "the Jews" in public, we need to step back and make sure we understand the context. Not to do so might put us in danger of continuing a long, tragic history of Christian anti-Judaism and antisemitism. Both go against the very core of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

You can probably guess from that introduction how uncomfortable this text (and others like it) makes me. Apollos, a natural leader and communicator, uses his scriptural knowledge and gift for rhetoric to make "the case for Christ" to his fellow Jews. When Priscilla and Aquila hear him, they teach him some more about Jesus, loading him up with more ammo to do theological battle with anyone who would dare suggest Jesus is not the Messiah.

Application: In our current context, communication is instant, anonymous and usually devoid of much accountability. You can say just about anything to anyone without having to look in their eye and acknowledge they are a human being, made in God's image. Arguments get heated quickly, and even if they get started with the best of intentions, it's alarming how fast they devolve into blanket denunciation and name-calling. Nobody convinces anyone of anything, except what they already believed--and, based on their recent experience, that those who disagree are a bunch of ignorant jerks. 

It makes me wonder: if Jesus had died and been raised in the last ten years or so, how would his apostles engage online? How would Mary Magdalene have made it "Facebook Official" that she had seen the Lord? What would Paul's Twitter account look like? What Facebook groups would Peter be part of? And how might Apollos have engaged in online debate about his core belief that Jesus is the Messiah? 

It's hard to say, honestly. That first generation of apostles was a pretty tough bunch. They pulled no punches, and they spoke with a tremendous passion and urgency that both attracted many and repelled many others. My guess is for better or for worse, you'd know for sure pretty quick whether you were on Apollos' "friends" list.

I don't think Christians should shy away from debate. I think, like Apollos, we can get to know scripture, learn from others and accept correction wherever we can, and speak up to challenge false notions about who Jesus is and what he does.

But the hard truth is, even in Apollos' case, the mission he accomplished in all this debate was to "help those...who had become believers." He wasn't there to argue his detractors into submission. He was there to show support for his fellow believers, and let them know they aren't alone. There's a place for that, I think, as long as we are still treating the "other team" with love and respect.

Prayer: God, give us brave hearts. Make us outspoken in sharing your grace and love with the world. Amen. 


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Exodus 16:2-15, 31-35 The Tyranny of Comfort

Observation: The Israelites are grumbling against Moses in the wilderness, because they are used to the rich and plentiful food of Egypt. They seem to have forgotten one minor detail: in Egypt they were slaves. In the wilderness, they are less comfortable. They're in a new situation, facing new dangers, forced to rely on God for daily manna. But they are free.

Application: Times are changing. They always have been. It's not unusual to yearn for a time we thought of as simpler, when we thought we had the world figured out. For as long as I've been alive, I've heard various folks say life was simpler in the post-war economic boom of the 1950's and 1960's. The suburbs were expanding, America was "on top", and the churches and Sunday Schools were full. For mainline Protestants, life was pretty good.

Two important observations about this: first, I think that if it were possible to bring back that world, somebody certainly would've done it. It's a pretty popular notion. And second, the "good old days" were not nearly as good as we remember for anybody who wasn't a white, straight, Protestant male. And as a white, straight, Protestant male, let me say: I wouldn't rather go back either!

Yes, things are more complicated, and folks have to continue learning throughout their lives. Yes, racism and sexism are getting called out more, and we find ourselves having to pay more attention to how we think and what we say, so as not to cause harm to our brothers and sisters. Yes, after centuries of privilege, guys like me are being asked to spend more time with our ears and minds open, and our mouths shut. Yes, we are going to have to rely on God's guidance when before we felt like we could pretty much figure it out for ourselves.

But would we rather go back to Egypt? Would we rather go back to the mental and spiritual slavery of believing only white men should ever be in charge? Do we prefer the spiritual slavery of more than half of us being told we are "less than"? Not me. I believe God made all humankind in God's image, male and female, every race and ethnicity. And if acknowledging that fact makes life more complicated, so be it. I'd rather be in the wilderness leaning on God, than in the comfort of slavery.

Prayer: God, open our hearts and minds, and lead us through the wilderness. Amen.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Psalm 78:1-8, 17-29 We Will Not Hide Them From Our Children

Observation: This psalm's purpose is to teach the history of Israel to the next generation. The singer promises to utter "things we have heard and known, things our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their children..."

Application: It still blows me away that I'm a father of three. That God has given me the blessing--and the profound responsibility--of guiding these little people through the world, is almost beyond my comprehension. Laura and I, typical of our generation, do stress often about whether we're doing the right thing by them: what to feed them and when, how much (if any) screen time is too much, who are good role models to introduce them to, what issues so they need to hear about from us and when, the list goes on and on. It's never been easy, but in this age of constant information flow, both for kids and parents, it's getting tougher.
But one thing about which I don't lose even a minute of sleep is teaching my children the story of our faith, early and often. I do not buy the argument that parents should hold off talking to their kids about faith until they're old enough to decide for themselves. You don't do that with anything else that's important to you. Not with eating their veggies, not with putting on their seatbelt, not with learning addition, subtraction or tying their shoes. To me, waiting to share my faith with my kids is tantamount to saying it isn't important to me. And it is. So I introduce them to the God I have come to know and love: a God who provides for us when we're weary, who guides us when we're lost, who delivers us when we think we're beyond help. I teach them in a way I think they can understand. I don't give them everything all at once. But I give them all I have, and I lead them to the One who has infinitely more.

Prayer: God, I thank you for the gift and mission of introducing my kids to you. Help me learn from you all my life, and ask forgiveness when I fall short, to better model discipleship for them. Amen. 

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21 God Provides

Observation: The psalm puts forth an idea that's very common in the Bible, but which doesn't always get attention: animals have their own relationship with God apart from humans. God provides for them, not because they may someday be useful to humans, but because God loves them as they are.
Application: It's not always easy to take the lesson from nature, that God provides. God opens God's hand, and we are fed. Partly, that's because when creation is out of balance, this is not the case. If someone doesn't have enough, it's not because God's hand is closed to them. It may be because their neighbor's is. If we are wise stewards of the earth and its resources, and we are generous in sharing what God has given us to look after, we will realize the truth: God has given us more than enough.
Prayer: God, make us wise stewards and generous sharers. Open your hand, both to us and the creation. Teach us how to do the same. Amen.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Proverbs 1:1-7, 22-33

Observation: in the book of Proverbs, "Wisdom" is personified as a woman who teaches and corrects the wise. But to those who refuse to listen, she can't help when calamity strikes.

Application: I have to be honest. I am truly frightened by our culture's inability to listen and learn from each other today. Facts and evidence are cherry-picked to support what we already believe. Sadly, we as people of faith have contributed more than our share to this climate of misunderstanding. Too often, from Galileo on, we have placed ourselves firmly on the wrong side of scientific discovery, when we could have learned more about the world God made. 

God's wisdom is calling us back. We need to have open ears and open minds. We need to be teaching one another that God gave us the ability to think critically for a good reason. We need to be asking if there are things we can learn from people in other corners of the world or other corners of the radio dial, even if their viewpoints seem to contradict our beliefs. God's wisdom can only help us if we have ears to hear it. 

Prayer: God, open our hearts and minds to your wisdom, even if it comes from unexpected places. Amen. 

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

1 Kings 4:29-34 Divine Inspiration

Observation: with God's help, Solomon becomes the wisest ruler of his time, world renowned for composing over three thousand proverbs and a thousand songs. 

Application: As a teenager, I had a deep appreciation for singer songwriters. The example par excellence for me was Bob Dylan, who wrote hundreds of songs that defined a generation, yet seemed to call from a place beyond. It was hard for me to believe that a normal person could write lyrics that spoke so powerfully to the human experience. Many of them seemed "inspired": breathed into life by an other-worldly wisdom. 

As I began to sing and write a few songs of my own, I noticed that with some, I felt like I had to fight for every line, but some seemed to come to me faster than I could write them down. They really seemed to come from somewhere beyond myself. 

Inspiration happens to all of us at some point: that great idea that just "happens." It's great when you've got it, and maddening when you need it. Frankly, as far as songwriting goes, I sometimes feel those moments are fewer and further between these days. Still, I'm grateful when inspiration strikes. I believe part of being made in God's image is having the ability to imagine and create. It's a divine gift. 

Art and music are gifts from God to make life worth living. While I don't think God literally "inspires" all our creativity, I do believe that if it speaks truth to our hearts, yet challenges us to see things differently, it is precious in God's sight. 

Prayer: Thank you, God, for inspiration. Help me be patient, open, and ready when it strikes. Amen.