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Friday, October 20, 2017

1 Peter 5:1-5 Lead Willingly (Not Under Compulsion)



Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it—not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away. In the same way, you who are younger must accept the authority of the elders.And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for
‘God opposes the proud,
but gives grace to the humble.’
1 Peter 5:1-5

Observation: Peter tells fellow elders to "tend the flock of God". Even the word "pastor" relates to shepherding. The metaphor of a leader as a "shepherd" and the people as "sheep" goes all the way back to the Old Testament, in which a king is often described as "Shepherd" of the people. As Peter points out, though, the "chief shepherd"--the only true king--is Jesus, and those of us who he tasks to temporarily look after his sheep, following his standing orders, are asked to do so willingly. No one should be made a leader under compulsion.

Application: When I think about "compulsion," I am reminded of the classic 1980's movie, Goonies, which we showed our kids for the first time last week. I'm thinking of the scene when "Chunk" (my gosh, I'd forgotten how insensitive this movie was) is forced by criminals, under threat of losing a few fingers, to "spill his guts" about where his friends are--but once he gets going, he goes ahead and confesses to every single bad thing he's ever done. In that scene, compulsion works all too well.

But in my experience, compulsion almost never works with leadership. It's been an ongoing theme in my ministry that you absolutely can not attract effective leaders, planners, givers, and invested disciples by compulsion. Being Chicken Little and proclaiming "the sky will fall" if we don't get you on Council, or teaching Sunday School, or heading up this committee we're convinced we need to have, will get unenthusiastic leaders who will burn out very quickly indeed, because they don't feel called to the role. Willing leaders, on the other hand--the folks who come with good ideas and are willing to make them happen, the folks who have special gifts and know what they are--will bring energy into a ministry, even as they work harder than they would on something they feel less passionate about. Desperate, need-based pleas are a recipe for burn-out. Listening to folks, getting to know what they love to do, and helping them do it, creates committed leaders. 

And here's where I get to the "be examples for the flock" part. Part of what convicts me in this scripture is that I tend to do a lot of parts of Christian leadership out of a sense of obligation, rather than because I'm excited about and gifted in those areas. Part of that just comes with the territory of being a full-time, professional church leader. We just sometimes have to do the stuff nobody else wants to do. But if I'm taking on leadership work that someone else in the congregation might love to do, if I had the foresight to ask them ahead of time, then I'm setting a horrible example. And even in the stuff that I love to do, and gives me a lot of energy, if I'm not discipling somebody else who loves to do it as well, the question of whether I'm doing this for "personal gain", getting your kicks by keeping a job to yourself that others might love to learn, comes up. It's a struggle. I'm nowhere near where I want to be (and where I feel called to be) on any of this. 

Prayer: Lord, lead us by your example, and help us to lead others--not because we feel obligated, but because we feel called, equipped and empowered. Amen.        

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Luke 1:1-4 An Orderly Account


Observation: Since today is the feast of St. Luke the Evangelist, the daily lectionary text is from the beginning of Luke's Gospel. Traditional belief holds that Luke was a physician. That makes sense, because the beginning of this Gospel seems almost scientific in nature. Both Luke's purpose for writing--to write an "orderly account"--and his method, of carefully investigating the word of eyewitnesses, seem similar to modern journalistic methods. It's not an academic medical journal or objective news report by any stretch, but it does lay out from the start that it's crafted with the highest regard for the witness of people who were actually there.

Application: Because Luke was supposedly a doctor, this feast day is often a day for healing. It's not uncommon for churches to have special prayers for healing on this date or one close to it. In the midst of an overwhelming social media tidal wave of "Me Too's", in which many women (and a few men as well) have attested that they, too, have been a victim of sexual harassment or assault, I can't help but make the connection between healing and believing the story of survivors. Healing begins when we listen, as St. Luke did, even to the most difficult stories. No good doctor would interrupt a patient midstream to challenge their account, or say it must not have been all that bad, or that clearly their ailment must be all in their head. To be able to do anything about a patient's problem, a doctor has to first listen carefully, and believe that there is no one more qualified to speak on the patient's experience than the patient herself.

The followers of Jesus have failed far too many victims of sexual harassment, assault and abuse, by failing to do what we should know best--listening to and believing the stories of eyewitnesses. We have to repent and do better. If we take St. Luke's story seriously, and the stories of those he faithfully listened to, then we know Jesus has conquered death. There is no suffering in our lives, no matter how disturbing, that is foreign to him, nor beyond his ability to draw to himself for healing. If we can trust in that witness, we can and should be open to hearing the story of any victim. Jesus is a healer. He wants us to speak.

Prayer: Jesus, thank you for the faithful witness of your friends and family, and the faithful hearing and proclamation of Luke the Evangelist. Following his example, let us listen--let us truly hear--and let us resolve to be changed, and be part of the healing of all those victimized by the sin of this world. Amen.


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Amos 9:5-15 Rebuilding, Regrowing, Regrouping




Observation: The Prophet Amos shares an interesting agricultural image that, not having grown up on a farm, I had to read a couple of times to get straight. God promises a time in Israel when ruins will be rebuilt and vineyards replanted. Not only this, but the harvests will come in so quickly and abundantly that "the one who plows will overtake the one who reaps, and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed." Now, like I said, I'm no farmer, but I know you don't usually plow for a new crop until you're done bringing in the one you've got, and you don't tread grapes in a wine press until you've already planted the seeds and grown the vines. In short, this blur of activity defies normal linear time: God will provide so much for God's people, that it will feel like all the seasons flow together into one great harvest.  

Application: As I think about rebuilding, my heart aches for a lot of places in God's world right now. Northern California, the Pacific Northwest, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Houston, as well as India and Sierra Leone, who also experienced catastrophic flooding while we were focused on the problems of the Western Hemisphere. In some of these places, rebuilding is the farthest thing from peoples' minds: first, simply ending the crisis, getting roofs over people's heads and food and supplies for survival has to take priority. Although it's not a very romantic or "personal" solution, what is needed right now for all these folks, for the foreseeable future, is cash. My go-to for domestic situations has been Lutheran Disaster Response. One day, hopefully soon, the conversation will turn to rebuilding. 

In my own life, I know I've also faced crises: thankfully, nothing as extreme as suddenly losing a home or loved one in a natural disaster, but things that dominated my heart and mind at the time. And whether it's with a relationship, or a career, or simply a day that went completely the opposite direction from how you hoped, it may feel like the end of the world. But it's not. As long as there's a tomorrow, there will always be a chance to rebuild. That rebuilding won't begin, though, until something much more basic and less tangible happens: first, God needs to plant a seed in your spirit. God needs to give you the vision that whatever ruin it is you're standing in can be rebuilt. That tomorrow can be better. And that the effort of doing that work, and investing your heart and soul into something, is truly worth it, even if--and this is a really hard one--even if disaster were to strike again. Without the Holy Spirit's help, that would be too much of a hurdle for us to get over. We might physically be able to do the work, or financially afford to recoup whatever we lost. But spiritually, without God, we would not be able to hope again. 

Those are the seeds I'm praying God will plant for all who are grieving today. The seeds of hope, and a vision for rebuilt lives, and the conviction that our lives are worth rebuilding, because they belong to God, and God is a God of resurrection. 

Prayer: God, when our hearts break down, rebuild them. When our lives break down, rebuild them. And most importantly, when our hope runs dry and seems to barren to support a vision for the future again, plant seeds deep in our souls. Let them take root, water them, nourish them, so we can not only see there will be a tomorrow, but it's a tomorrow worth living in. Amen.  


Friday, October 13, 2017

James 4:4-10 Humble Yourself




Observation: James draws a pretty hard line between "friendship with the world" and "friendship with God." If you're friends with "the world," you're enemies with God. I don't interpret the use of "the world" to mean literally the sum of all material things all around us. We're not supposed to hate everything around us. Instead, the Greek word for "the world" used here, Kosmos, means the inhabited world--our civilization as we currently know it. If we are perfectly happy with the way our society is ordered now, what counts for power now, the way people treat each other now, then we are no friends of God's. But if we long for something more, if we see earthly fame and the praise of our current world for what it is--temporary, and empty--then we are ready to befriend God. 

Application: Everybody likes positive affirmation. We crave it. We want the world to see something in us. We want to be known and celebrated, to have our "15 minutes of fame": maybe more if we can manage it. But the thing is, the world doesn't really know you. Not the way God does. The world can only see the outside. What the world may or may not celebrate about you is only the tip of the iceberg compared to what God sees. And more often than not it's not even the part of the iceberg that's truly worth celebrating anyway. 

Humbling ourselves doesn't mean pretending we are worse than we are, or that our gifts and our personality don't count. God made us this way on purpose, and every aspect of ourselves--even the aspects we're not especially proud of--can be used to God's glory, and for God's loving purpose for this world. Humbling ourselves simply means not making our lives about "us", not doing what we do to gain praise but because it's the right thing to do. It means relying God, who knows us best, to give us worth. It means doing our best, and knowing it still isn't perfect, but that God can use it anyway. 

 Prayer: God, thank you for putting me together in a unique way. Thanks for making me who I am. Take my life. Take me--the real me--and make of me what you will. Help my life not be about me, but about you. Amen.   

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Psalm 23: Where Do We Dwell?



Observation: I've read this psalm thousands of times, but today, what occurs to me first is the  wildly different locations: Green pastures, still waters, the darkest valley, the table, the house of the Lord. If this psalm is a journey, we're putting an awful lot of miles on for six short verses. 

Application: It's strange to me that the psalmist, on the one hand, talks about walking through dark valleys, and on the other hand, says he will "dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long." Maybe the sense is God's house--in those days, the Jerusalem temple, but today, any sacred space where we gather for worship and spiritual nourishment--is our home base, from which we launch our journeys elsewhere.  Like, I "dwell" in a house in the woods these days, but after I'm done writing this I'm going to change out of my sweat pants and venture out. Hopefully, the love, rest and relaxation I got while I was here has prepared me for the day. 

I think the idea of God's mercy following us--or even chasing us down--all the days of our life, and the idea of "dwelling in God's house" go hand in hand. When your base camp is God's word, and the Good News you get from a faith-filled community, the faith and trust you learn there will chase you down through the rest of your crazy, chaotic, convoluted, and sometimes insanely hard days. 

Sometimes you won't even want that goodness and mercy following you around. There will be days when you wish you could just handle your business like the rest of the world does, and your faith didn't apply. That would make a lot of your life easier. But when God's word and God's people are your home base, compartmentalizing and being a different person from Sunday to Monday is just not an option. To quote another song, "one way or another, I'm gonna find ya, I'm gonna get ya, I'm gonna get ya get ya get ya get ya..."

Prayer: God, thanks (I guess) for your relentless goodness and mercy that chase me down. Help me not run so fast. Help me keep your house, your Word and your people as my home base. Amen.   


(Photo found at https://sinate.deviantart.com/art/Landscape-Fantasy-Dark-Valley-389341575)

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Song Of Solomon 8:5-14 Yes, the Bible Just Said That.




Observation: There's some very romantic stuff in the Song of Solomon, also known as "Song of Songs." And there's also some stuff that's downright steamy. In typical fashion, the medieval Church assumed this was metaphorical language for how much the Church was in love with Christ...you know, um, spiritually...but it's plain from the text that this is a love song between a woman and a man. Interestingly for an ancient document, both the woman and the man get to sing their own perspective, in their own words.

Application: Like many Americans, I have always been a little uptight about sex. We didn't talk about it much as I was growing up. But romantic love, that was fair game. From a young age, I thought of myself as a writer, and love is what a writer writes about. In my teen years, as I started dating girls, I began to see a conflict between my faith, which told me to love God with all my "heart, soul, mind and strength," and my raging hormones, which wouldn't let my mind stray far from whichever girl I was infatuated with at the time. My spirit and my heart didn't match up...or at least I didn't think they did. 

When Laura and I started dating, we had already been friends for six years. We already knew that we shared a lot of values, beliefs, interests, and a sense of humor. We had fun together. But what I learned along the way, and have been learning ever since, is that God and romantic love are not polar opposites. God doesn't "compete" with our partner or spouse for attention...at least that's not how it should work. Instead, God shines through our relationships. We can learn about God through the way we experience love with a significant other. God uses these powerful bonds to teach us about things like compromise, forgiveness, joy, perseverance and grace. Sex is a gift of God, too. God made us, and God delights in the way we were made, including the powerful intimacy we can form with others when we truly commit ourselves to their good. Even when/if  our relationships end, God can still use the heartbreak to remind us that healing is possible, that there's more to you than just who you were as part of a couple, and that God's mercies are new every morning. 

I'm grateful to God for Laura, my partner in life, for life. I'm grateful for the chance to be a better spouse to her, and by doing so, be a better disciple of Jesus. 

Prayer: God, thank you for the gift of love and intimacy. Help us to use these strong bonds to build one another up, and heal the world. Amen.   

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Psalm 144

Psalm 144:12, 15 by Eluminora
By Hannah Walker, find the original at https://eluminora.deviantart.com/art/Psalm-144-12-15-372383162
Observation: This song really seems to capture the bombastic, confident character of King David. It says God "trains my hands for war", and asks God for victory in battle, rescue from enemies, and blessings on the land, including strong sons and daughters.

Application: I'm pretty sure I expected being a parent to be hard even before I was one. What I didn't expect would be the kind of hard it would be: or rather, a hundred different kinds of hard, and new ones constantly being introduced, depending on the day. 

I have a daughter and two sons. My daughter is nine and my sons are six and nineteen months. I'm not sure what it would mean for them to be "in their youth like plants full grown," or "like corner pillars for the structures of a palace." I think it's unlikely they'll get there physically--we come from short stock--but spiritually, I'd love for this to happen. I'd love for them to spring up in their understanding, to be constantly sprouting new leaves of trust, and love, and compassion. I'd love for their faith that God is good and God is in control to be every bit as sturdy as a castle's pillar. 

But I'm not seeing it every day. In fact I'm not seeing it  most days. I'd say it's a pretty good day when we only have one raging, screaming tantrum, and it's even better if that one comes from the one of us who's not yet verbal. But the thing I've learned, more than anything, is that we can't control our kids' behavior, or their personalities, or what will make them anxious or angry, or how they will grieve what they lose, or greet what is new. We can control how we react. We can control how we structure our days, to allow for grace and forgiveness and freedom to mess up and grow. Laura and I can control what kind of example we'll set for them, in how we treat each other. And most importantly, we can control how we deal with all that which we can't control, which is almost all of life. We can choose to lift it up to God. 

Prayer: God, bless my kids. Help them grow in their spirits. Help them want to be like you, and give them role models who also want to be like you. Help Laura and me. Help us want to be like you, and extend what grace you give us to these wonderful creatures you have given us to raise up in your way. Amen.