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Thursday, February 22, 2018

Romans 3:28 Made Right

Observation: Paul is writing to Roman Christians, whom he has never met. One key element of his theology, which he lays out here, is that we are made right with God (or "justified") not by following religious laws, but by faith in Jesus, who sacrificed himself for us. Everyone sins, but by God's grace, all can be put into a right relationship with God. 

Application: It's hard for me to read this text today without thinking of Billy Graham, who died at age 99 the day before yesterday. Both to his credit and, some would say, to his detriment, Graham made proclaiming the gospel of salvation by God's grace through faith his sole mission. On the plus side, this gave him the opportunity to preach to millions, and lead millions to what he considered a saving "decision for Jesus Christ". I believe that even our faith in Christ is a gift of the Holy Spirit, so I never saw eye to eye with the focus on a "personal decision", but according to those who believed as he did, he had the opportunity to lead millions from eternal death to eternal life. 

On the other hand, if you make the "decision for Jesus" (or justification more broadly) your one and only concern, you may find yourself neglecting other matters that were important to Jesus: for instance, justice and equality here on earth. Consequently, some criticized Graham for being less connected to the cause of civil rights than other leaders (including Martin Luther King) would have liked, and more sympathetic and connected to people in power than perhaps would have been useful in proclaiming God's justice to American society. In the 21st century, many who are LGBTQ have expressed feeling a great deal of judgment and condemnation, if not by Graham's own ministry, then by the social policies of those who have continued to carry his torch. 

I don't mean to disparage or take away from what by any measure was a remarkable ministry of the Gospel, and a man who, while he had faults like all of us, remained faithful to his calling throughout his life. In this era of "heroes with clay feet", when scandal after scandal seems to plague those we admire, you can't help but marvel that publicly and privately, Billy Graham was exactly what and who he said he was throughout his life: a minister of the Gospel. 

But as I reflect on Paul's word about "Justification by Grace through faith", also a mainstay of Lutheran theology, I find myself reflecting that justification is only the beginning. I've heard it said that our lives in Christ are not just about what we're freed from (sin and death), but much more about what we're freed for (serving God and our neighbor in Jesus' name). If you were suddenly reconciled to a family member after a years-long feud, but continued to never see them or talk to them, I'd have to wonder whether that reconciliation really was as meaningful as you say it was. In the same way, if we focus only on being "made right with God" through faith, and never look at all the doors that new relationship opens for change in our lives, I have to wonder...what's the point? 

Prayer: God, thank you for saving me by your own grace as a gift. Help me to trust in and proclaim that grace, as so many have done before me, including Billy Graham. But help that grace also to change my life, that I may care for those Jesus would care for in our suffering world. Amen.  

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Psalm 77 I Will Remember

Scripture: Psalm 77
To the leader: according to Jeduthun. Of Asaph. A Psalm.
I cry aloud to God,
aloud to God, that he may hear me.
In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;
in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;
my soul refuses to be comforted.
I think of God, and I moan;
I meditate, and my spirit faints.

You keep my eyelids from closing;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
I consider the days of old,
and remember the years of long ago.
I commune with my heart in the night;
I meditate and search my spirit:
‘Will the Lord spurn for ever,
and never again be favourable?
Has his steadfast love ceased for ever?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?’
And I say, ‘It is my grief
that the right hand of the Most High has changed.’

I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord;
I will remember your wonders of old.
I will meditate on all your work,
and muse on your mighty deeds.
Your way, O God, is holy.
What god is so great as our God?
You are the God who works wonders;
you have displayed your might among the peoples.
With your strong arm you redeemed your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.

When the waters saw you, O God,
when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
the very deep trembled.
The clouds poured out water;
the skies thundered;
your arrows flashed on every side.
The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
your lightnings lit up the world;
the earth trembled and shook.
Your way was through the sea,
your path, through the mighty waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

Observation: The psalmist is suffering from a problem I know all too well...insomnia. She/he is sitting up, reflecting on worries and concerns, and wondering if God has just forgotten to be gracious and compassionate. The only antidote the psalmist can think of is to reflect on God's mighty acts in days past.

Application: I too have been known to stay up with my worries. For some reason, the way it works for me is I will get to sleep okay, but then it's as if my worries wake me up. When I remember to do it, this can be a time of prayer.

Like the psalmist, I also believe that stories can heal. This is a common belief in many faith traditions. Knowing God has been faithful in the past can allow us to let go of that which we can't control, and trust that God will be faithful again.

The whole reason people of faith gather and tell stories to one another is because they heal. They strengthen. They give courage to the faint-hearted, and hope to the despairing. They can remind us that others have faced similar situations, or worse, and God has gotten them through it.

Something Neil Gaiman said about fairy tales is also true of faith stories.

"Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."

I don't believe the stories of our faith are "fairy tales" in the sense that they're made up and have no referent in history. But I do believe they share this same quality: they are true not just because they happened, but because they continue to happen. It is of very little relevance to my life, if I really think about it, that a certain tomb in Palestine is empty. But the truth that the former occupant of that tomb leads us through little deaths and resurrections every single day, is nothing less than the words of eternal life.

Prayer: Jesus, help me remember when sleep is not my friend, that it's a good time to talk. Amen.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Daniel 9:15-25a On the Ground of Your Great Mercies

Observation: The book of Daniel takes place during the exile in Babylon, a time when the Babylonian empire took over Judah and forced most of Jerusalem's people to live hundreds of miles from home. This went on for almost two generations. Daniel sees this as a result of sin. He prays that God would forgive the people, not because they deserve it, but because of God's mercy.

Application: It's hard for me to remember sometimes that God forgives our sins not because we've earned it or done something to make up for it, but because God is good. We talk a lot in Lutheran theology about making good choices and helping others, as "a response to God's grace," that we are "free to serve." We say all the right words about how God gives us better than we deserve. But in our world where nothing is free, we still need constant reminders that forgiveness is not, in fact, a paycheck for services rendered, but what God does for us simply because that's who God is. And it's even harder to grant forgiveness to others in the same way--not because they deserve it, but because we belong to a merciful God.

Prayer: Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,
I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee:
Think on thy pity, and thy love unswerving,
Not my deserving.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

1 John 1:3-10 We Deceive Ourselves

Observation: Right off the bat, this letter opens with a witness to what members of John's community know to be true: God is light, meaning that God exposes truth. If we pretend we have no sin--that all is right in our lives and the world--we are walking in darkness and lying to ourselves. Worse, we are calling God a liar. In the old "green book" many Lutherans grew up with, this started off any confession of sin at the beginning of worship.

Application: Something is wrong. The world, our lives, our hearts are not as they should be. We owned up to this truth yesterday, which was Ash Wednesday. And yesterday afternoon, seventeen people were shot dead in a Florida high school.

This is sin. Not just the sin of one disturbed individual, but the sin of a society and a culture. And we have been ignoring it. We have been telling ourselves--maybe not with our words, but our actions--that it's alright. That nothing is wrong. We deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

I'm a pastor. I'm not an expert in constitutional law, a judge, a law enforcement officer or a legislator. I know no more than an average person about gun policy in our country. I may know a little less than the average person (especially here in Northern Michigan) about guns themselves.

What I do know about is sin. I know how we humans react when we have been accused of sin. We do anything we can to cover it up. We distract, by pointing out the sin of others. We minimize our involvement in it. We tell half-truths and outright lies, not just to others or to God, but first and foremost, to ourselves.

As we begin this season of Lent, I would like to invite you to pray with me, and examine your own conscience just as I'm examining mine. Let's look not to some hypothetical pundit or lobbyist or group of people who might make a good punching bag, but rather in the mirror, and ask the following:

Is it possible that something I have done, or failed to do, has contributed to an atmosphere where these violent events continue to happen?

Have I been avoiding the topic of what I, myself, can do to stop gun violence from happening? 

Have I been blaming others, without looking inward?

Have I been lifting up my own sense of comfort and freedom above the safety of my neighbors?

Have I been offering up prayers for victims, without listening for God's Spirit to answer me?

Is there something I can do, but am not doing, to love my neighbor as myself in this violent world?

I'll be open in saying that I already don't like the answers God's Spirit is giving me when I ask myself these questions. Maybe you don't either. We're in this together, and it's uncomfortable. Let's ask God's forgiveness together. Let's repent together. Let's be better together, for the sake of the world God loves.

Prayer: Most merciful God,
We confess that we are in bondage to sin, and cannot free ourselves.

We have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

For the sake of your son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us.

Forgive us, renew us, and lead us,
so that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your holy name.


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

1 Timothy 3:14-16 In the Household of God

Observation: Paul has been writing some advice about who is qualified to be bishops and deacons, and how they should conduct themselves. Then he reminds Timothy of the reason these roles exist: because we belong to the household of God, and the mystery of Christ who was "revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed by Gentiles, taken up in glory."

Application: Churches are not clubs. Churches are not clubs. Churches are not clubs, churches are not clubs, churches are not clubs, churches are not clubs, churches are not clubs. This is God's house, not ours.

Okay. So now that I got that off my chest....

Some of what they call the "Pastoral Epistles" (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus) seem to be more concerned with church order and rules than other New Testament writings. They were probably written later, as churches were getting more organized. They even reaffirm some Greco-Roman gender roles in a way I find less than helpful. Frankly I have had a difficult relationship with these letters after which I'm named.

But as rule-based as it seems to be, it's a helpful reminder that the rules aren't the bylaws of a club. We're not just together to have fun and hang out. There are plenty of places to do that. We're here because we're mutually grasped by a great mystery: God made flesh in Christ. That should clue us into the importance of what we do as church, and of doing it very well, but also it should remind us of the limits of human structures for holding up in the face of such earth-shaking truths.

Prayer: God, help us be more than a club. For real, Lord. We need your help with this. A lot. In Jesus' name, Amen.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

2 Corinthians 2:12-17 The Aroma of Christ

Observation: Paul writes to the church in Corinth, with whom he has a difficult history. He has just explained why he doesn't want to make another "painful visit", and affirmed his hope that forgiveness can happen. Then he uses a beautiful image: that through the presence of believers, God spreads the "fragrance that comes from knowing" Christ. Those who know Christ are "the aroma of Christ."

Application: Smell is a powerful memory-maker. There are smells I miss in the winter. A big one is the smell of a good campfire. Even if you only spend just a few minutes out by the fire, your clothes will end up smelling like it--which for me is perfectly okay, because it reminds me the next morning how much I love the smell, and even more, the memory of warmth and community around the fire. 

Similarly, I think if we spend time with Jesus, we begin to have a spiritual "aroma" that those around us notice. If we make time for prayer, for daily study of the Bible, for works of service to others, and for spiritual community and support, people will notice it in the way we carry ourselves when we're not doing those things. We won't need to beat people over the head with it. If we spend time in Jesus' presence, my belief is folks will notice, the way you notice a cologne or a perfume--or maybe just good old campfire smoke. They'll appreciate the smell of God's love that we bring. 

This isn't about being "holier than thou," and it goes without saying that this is a lifelong work-in-progress. Nobody's perfect. But we all have room to grow. As Lent approaches, I'm praying for you that you find some small change you can make--maybe something that will last even after Easter--that will help you be the "aroma of Christ" for the world. 

Prayer: Jesus, draw us near to you. Help our time in your presence change us, in a way that we and others will notice and celebrate. Amen.  

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Job 6:1-13 When You Can't Go On

Observation: After losing his property, his family and his health, Job responds to his friends' platitudes--that he must have done something wrong to deserve all this--by basically asking to be put out of his misery. His pain is too great and he can't go on.

Application: I talked with a local nursing student yesterday about what our community, and specifically our congregation, can do about suicide prevention. It's a pretty daunting problem, especially in a rural area where it takes some doing to get connected with mental health resources. Once thing I shared was that worshiping communities can be a place where folks can get to know one another, and check in when we haven't seen someone in a while, or they haven't been acting themselves lately. 

There are a lot of Biblical examples of people suffering from severe depression. Job, King Saul, Elijah, Jonah and many others at some point felt the pain of life was too much to bear. Knowing that others have struggled with the same thing we're struggling with can be helpful, and possibly help us feel less isolated. Still, at the end of the day, depression is a disease. You wouldn't tell someone to "think positive" to cure a broken arm, or "just go on a hike" to cure diabetes, and yet people often minimize the effects of depression, rather than really listen to those who suffer from it, and support whatever steps they need to take to get better. 

What I'm taking away from this Job text today is that there is some pain you can't think, pray, or "believe" your way out of. It doesn't mean you're weak. It doesn't mean you're not a good, faithful person. It means you nede some help, like we all do in different ways. You are a beloved child of God, even when you can't feel it. I pray that wherever this post finds you, that you can find someone to remind you of that: to listen and pray with you, and help you get connected with the right resources. If you have my contact information or we are connected on Facebook, I am more than willing to be that person. 
If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 800 273 8255.

Prayer: God, today, I pray for those, like Job, who are feeling unable to go on with life. Send them the people and resources they need. Support them in the midst of this tough time. And remind them always of your love which endures forever. Amen.