Thursday, June 30, 2011

God and Traffic Cops

Scripture Passage that Caught my attention today: Amos 8:4-6 Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
5 saying, “When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practice deceit with false balances,
6 buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”

Human nature really loves trying to get away with things and serving themselves.

As I was bringing our youngest child to swimming lessons this morning I passed a city police officer sitting in a car in a somewhat hidden position. Why? Because it gave him an excellent view of traffic in a 25 mph zone that tends to feel more like a 35 mph zone. I have little doubt that the officer will catch somebody driving too fast. In that area, with a somewhat steep hill to boot, it’s quite easy to end up going 35 or even 40 mph without even realizing it. But the officer didn’t catch me! Having seen him I was especially careful to keep my foot on the brake so that my car wouldn’t coast its way to a speed worthy of a ticket.

But what if I knew that there was no officer in the area? Would I then have been so careful to watch my speed? Probably not. Many of us who consider ourselves to be law-abiding citizens are really just people who endeavor not to get caught doing something wrong. On the highway some of us will drive 4 or 5 miles over the speed limit assuming that an officer probably won’t pull us over unless we are going faster than that. When filling out tax forms some will not report income that they received in cash, feeling that it’s unlikely that the IRS will be able to trace that income. The list goes on and on with the specifics simply varying from person to person.

In Amos’ day the people were giving lip service to honoring God but, in reality, they just wanted to offer the bare minimum to God and then get on with their self-serving lives. They didn’t want to get ‘caught’ not honoring God but, in reality, they weren’t really honoring God at all. Even worse, they essentially dishonored God by taking advantage of their fellow human beings—the very ones that God sought to protect.

God and traffic cops actually have a lot in common. They are each often understood to be wanting to catch us doing something wrong. Indeed they do. But they also want to help us to do what is right because what is right is ultimately that which is most beneficial to ourselves and others. Officers, after all, are primarily concerned with the public good. So is God. Perhaps we should be too. Maybe then we wouldn’t spend so much time and energy trying to get away with things and instead would focus on how much we might be able to improve the world as our offering of thanksgiving to God.

Prayer: Lord, help us all to see the world as your gift to us and our care of the world as our gift back to you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

(Readings today included: Amos 7-9, Psalm 104, Titus 2)

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

For the little bit of Cow in all of us.

Scripture Verse that Caught my attention today: Amos 4:1 Hear this word, you cows of Bashan
who are on Mount Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
who say to their husbands, “Bring something to drink!”

Observation: Gotta love the directness.

Application: Personally, this is not the kind of language/tone that I would normally use. It’s also not the kind of tone that I would recommend that others use. It’s the kind of sentiment that, when heard in the political realm, almost instantly turns me off. It sounds like pointing the finger. And as most of us learned when we were young, when we point one finger at another, there are three more fingers pointing back at us!

Still, since God chose Amos to be a prophet, I guess we can cut him a little slack. He speaks a harsh word to be sure, but he does so in order to bring people back, to turn them around. And his cause, his passion, is that the poor and needy might no longer be so poor and needy. Amos takes direct aim at those who he believes have built their wealth on the backs of the poor and needy and/or completely ignored them. Going through the motions of sacrifice impresses neither Amos nor the Almighty. Instead pure hearts are desired…and compassion…and justice.

With all due respect to cows, sometimes they do not pay a whole lot of attention in regard to where they are going or who they crush against a wall in the process. According to Amos, God is not impressed if we try to emulate them.

Prayer: Lord, sometimes we don’t see that adverse affect we have on others by our words, our actions, or even our economic dealings. If we are those to whom Amos might speak in this age, help us to take his message to heart. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

(readings today included: Amos 4-6, Psalm 86, Titus 1)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Through All Of Life's Experiences

Scripture verses that caught my attention today: 2 Kings 13:20-21 So Elisha died, and they buried him. Now bands of Moabites used to invade the land in the spring of the year. 21 As a man was being buried, a marauding band was seen and the man was thrown into the grave of Elisha; as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he came to life and stood on his feet.

Observation: Why don’t we hear more about this?

Application: There are several instances in the Scriptures where a person is brought back to life. The example above is one that hadn’t really jumped out at me before, though I’m sure I’ve read this passage several times over the last dozen years or so. What’s striking is that, although the Scripture writer makes note of the event, the writer doesn’t go and on about it. It happened, but many other things happened as well, and so the writer goes on.

In life there are these big events that we experience. They consume our time and attention for a season, but then they reach an end and, like the people of old, we also must move on. The wedding, the graduation, the retirement, the death, the empty nest, or even the new birth are momentous occasions to be sure. Nevertheless, the next day comes and we can’t spend the rest of our lives just saying, “now what?” Instead we roll up our sleeves and either pick up where we left off before or perhaps embark on a new path. We might be forever changed, but we are not to be frozen in time. We can take a cue from the Old Testament writer and realize that, however the grand the occasion, there is still more to be written or more to be done. In short, there are more life and faith experiences yet to share.

Prayer: Lord, I thank you for the momentous occasions. But I also thank you for the plain old day-to-day experiences as well, one right after the other. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

(Readings today included: 2 Kings 13-14, 2 Chronicles 25, 2 Timothy 3)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Our Violent Past

Scripture passage that caught my attention today: 2 Kings 10:6-7 Then he [Jehu] wrote them a second letter, saying, “If you are on my side, and if you are ready to obey me, take the heads of your master’s sons and come to me at Jezreel tomorrow at this time.” Now the king’s sons, seventy persons, were with the leaders of the city, who were charged with their upbringing. 7 When the letter reached them, they took the king’s sons and killed them, seventy persons; they put their heads in baskets and sent them to him at Jezreel.

Observation: this was a brutal time in ancient history, including those who acted in the name of God.

Application: Scripturally, Jehu was known as one who helped cleanse the land of those who worshipped Baal. But it’s still hard to read this while humming the song, “and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Granted, the song (and even Christianity itself) is based largely on the New Testament witness. Still, some of the brutality in some of these Old Testament passages cause a person to wince more than once.

Thankfully we’re, generally speaking, far less brutal today—at least physically. Certainly there are exceptions. But for the most part we deal with those of different allegiances in non-violent ways. Even so, I’m still forced to wonder how often the things that are done in God’s name are really the kinds of things for which our God would really want to be associated.

Prayer: Lord, as we endeavor to follow you, help us to more authentically do so, rather than simply going our own way and claiming to do so in your name. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

(Readings today included: 2 Kings 10, 2 Chronicles 22-23, 1 Timothy 5)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sometimes a sign is enough.

Scripture Verse that Caught my attention today: 2 Kings 8:1 Now Elisha had said to the woman whose son he had restored to life, “Get up and go with your household, and settle wherever you can; for the LORD has called for a famine, and it will come on the land for seven years.”

Observation: The woman received fair warning, but it was up to her to figure out how best to respond…and later we read that she apparently chose wisely.

Application: Wouldn’t it be nice if God just told us what to do all the time! Then we wouldn’t have to worry about whether or not we were doing the right thing in any given situation! Yeah, it sounds nice at first, but over time we wouldn’t like that either. I’ve noticed over the years that hardly anyone really likes to consistently be told what to do! It might be nice for a while, but eventually we long to do our own thing, make our own decisions, even live with our own consequences.

Better, I think, to be attune to one’s circumstances and then use whatever gifts we have been given to respond in ways that express our own measures of prudence, wisdom, faithfulness and trust in God’s ability to work through us for the greater scheme of things.

The woman in this passage was able to secure provision for herself and her son. Later she was able to return to her own land. Things don’t always work out so smoothly for people. But then again, sometimes they do.

Lord, help me to use the gifts that you have given in response to the challenges you place before me. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

(readings included: 2 Kings 8-9, 2 Chronicles 21 and 1 Timothy 4)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Apparently God Cares When We Don't Have an Ax to Grind!

Scripture passage that caught my attention today: 2 Kings 6:1-7 Now the company of prophets said to Elisha, “As you see, the place where we live under your charge is too small for us. 2 Let us go to the Jordan, and let us collect logs there, one for each of us, and build a place there for us to live.” He answered, “Do so.” 3 Then one of them said, “Please come with your servants.” And he answered, “I will.” 4 So he went with them. When they came to the Jordan, they cut down trees. 5 But as one was felling a log, his ax head fell into the water; he cried out, “Alas, master! It was borrowed.” 6 Then the man of God said, “Where did it fall?” When he showed him the place, he cut off a stick, and threw it in there, and made the iron float. 7 He said, “Pick it up.” So he reached out his hand and took it.

Just an odd little interesting story. Not quite sure what to make of it. Sometimes a ‘company of prophets’ is bad. Sometimes, perhaps in this case, it is good. And an odd little miracle too.

Application: When we think of miracles in the Bible we usually think of the big stuff—healings, parting of the sea, rain out of no-where, etc. Saving a borrowed ax head seems like a rather small miracle to take up space in Scripture. Yet here it is within the experiences of the ‘company’ of prophets.’ Among other things, perhaps this story can serve as a reminder that people of high and low estate alike still have mundane issues that concern them. Hence our own mundane issues may be worthy of consideration as well. We may or may not get a related miracle. But at least we can trust that our everyday experiences matter as well.

Prayer: Lord, thank again for another little story that helps us think in new ways about who we are and how much we matter in the midst of your kingdom. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

(Readings today included: 2 Kings 6-7, 2 Chronicles 20, 1 Timothy 3)

Monday, June 20, 2011

Inspired writings with mixed messages.

Scripture Passage that Caught my attention today: 1 Timothy 2:8-15 I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; 9 also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, 10 but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. 11 Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. 12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

Observation: The writer uses a little selective memory in terms of the Scriptures when writing this passage.

Application: Yesterday’s Old Testament reading in church was Genesis 1:1-2:4a. It’s the first account of creation in the Bible, familiar to many as the story where God says, “Let there be ____, and it was so” throughout the course of six days. I explained during my message that there is also a second/alternative story of creation found in Genesis 2:4b to the end of the chapter. It is popularly known as the story of the creation of Adam and Eve, but it is really another story of creation. If one draws a line down the middle of a piece of paper and compares the order between the two creation stories, the order is quite different between the two.

I find it interesting that even in Scripture there is an effort to use the second story of creation as a way to restrict the role of women in the world and attribute the sentiment to divine providence. Modern scholarship would say, ‘not so fast…a close examination of that second Genesis story reveals a more equal partnership than originally meets the eye.’ But such analysis was lost on the writer of 1 Timothy (which most modern scholars believe was actually someone other than Paul, due in part to significant differences in writing style, theology, and engagement with the world). Whether out of fear of the expanding role of women in the early church or simply because of his understanding of Scripture and/or culture as a whole, one has to admit that the author of 1 Timothy does not envision a world where men and women are equal but differently-gifted partners. Interestingly enough, in 2nd Timothy we’ll read that “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” I agree. But sometimes figuring out exactly ‘how’ it’s useful is a more complicated matter.

Prayer: Lord, I am so very grateful for the Scriptures and also so very perplexed by many of the passages that I encounter from year to year and day to day. Still, I trust that you do indeed speak through them, even if, at times, to show us that even the writers of Scripture themselves—even when inspired by you!—did not always see eye to eye. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

(Readings today included: 1 Kings 4-5, Psalm 83, and 1 Timothy 2)

Friday, June 17, 2011

An Encouraging Word for Discouraged People

Scripture Passage that Caught my attention today: Colossian 3:1-4 So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

Observation: It’s an important reminder.

Application: It’s very natural to worry. Things happen on this earth and we wonder how it will all work out. Sometimes we fear things will not work out to our liking. We see various forms of writing on the wall. The economy, interpersonal relationships, medical conditions and the like can put some pretty hefty dents into our optimism for the future.

The writer of Colossians is not immune to such realities. Nevertheless, he prompts us to take to heart what has been done for us through Christ. We have been raised!

Sure, the earthly circumstances we face are real, but they are not permanent nor are they ultimately defining. This is why the biblical witness beacons us to set our minds on the things that are above.

This is not to say that our tasks on earth do not matter. Quite the contrary. Later in this chapter the writer says, “Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, 24 since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ.” In context, the sentence is actually addressed to ancient slaves. But in a very real way we are all called to be slaves/servants of Christ. And so we do everything we do as if we were doing it for the Lord. Why? Because ultimately we are called to serve our Lord.

Lord, let any who are discouraged be encouraged by what you have done and by what you continue to do. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

(Readings today included: 1 Kings 20-21, 2 Chronicles 17, and Colossians 3)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

When Have You Done Enough?

Scripture Passage that caught my attention today: Colossians 2:23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.

Observation: people who propose the ‘shoulds’ are often misguided.

Application: An interesting part of church leadership sometimes includes the question of what qualifies a person to appropriately be called an ‘active’ and ‘voting’ member of a church? In many Lutheran churches an active and voting member is simply someone who has worshipped, received communion, and made a financial contribution of record at least once in the last year or two. Somehow that doesn’t seem to be a very high standard to meet!

On the other hand, some churches go to the other extreme, indicating such things as being in worship a certain percentage of the time, giving a certain percentage of their income, being involved in one or more small groups, serving in a particular ministry and the like.

Granted, these ‘requirements’ are not really about salvation but, rather, about what is required for a person to be considered an active part of a particular Christian community. Still, the question remains, are we just making up things that have the appearance of testing one’s level of commitment but ultimately “are of no value in checking self-indulgence?”

Scripturally it seems that when we strive to achieve the minimum level of commitment, Jesus demands more (The parable of the rich young ruler comes to mind where he said he had done everything Jesus said, so Jesus said all he ‘lacked’ was to give away his possessions, which, of course, he didn’t want to do.) and when people (or the law) demand more, Jesus requires less (the stories of the various ‘outcasts’ with whom Jesus associated come to mind).

There ought to be a better way of figuring out something more appropriate for churches to consider, but, alas, I’m short on ideas as well. I just know that no system is perfect.

Prayer: Lord, help us to value those who trust in you and challenge others to trust you more. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

(Readings today included: 1 Kings 17-19 and Colossians 2)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What are we known for?

Scripture Verse that caught my attention today: 1 Kings 16:14 Now the rest of the acts of Elah, and all that he did, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel?

Observation: This chapter, like many chapters, is full of names we’ve never or seldom heard of, even though they were leaders of one sort or another.

Application: It’s so easy to think that the world revolves around us, to think that if we don’t do it, no-one will—and the world will come crashing down. The fact of the matter is that, for most of us, even if we are well-known among our peers and in our particular era in life, years and years from now most people will have never heard of most of us. Our names will seem no more familiar than Elah is to me.

This is not sufficient reason for despair. There is in fact meaningful work for us to do…and our presence alone is of significant value to those who love us. Nevertheless, I appreciated the following tweet from Len Sweet this morning: “when Robert E. Speer was asked if he planned to write his memoirs, he said: ‘if the Lord will hide my sins, I shall not parade my virtues.’”

Lord, thank for the reminders that your work goes on and is accomplished not only through us, but also through many others.

(Readings today included: 1 Kings 16, 2 Chronicles 15-16, Colossians 1)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Of One Mind

Scripture verses that caught my attention today: Philippians 4:2-3 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

These are often overlooked verses in this very popular chapter in the Bible. They also express one of Paul’s few admonitions in this book.

Application: For as long as there has ever been two or more people in the same place, a common observation has come to mind; “why can’t they just get along?” Human beings are a interesting lot. Our propensity for sin is often most evident in our struggle to offer mutual respect and put aside petty differences, even among the faithful. Competition and resentment are often two sides of the same coin. Even Euodia and Syntyche were not immune to such things, so it’s no surprise that similar issues are rampant today. Still, Paul prayed that things might be different, and so can we.

Prayer: Lord, you once prayed that we might all be one as you and the Father are one. We long for the day when it is so. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

(Readings today included: 1 Kings 15, 2 Chronicles 13-14, Philippians 4)

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Honest Look at Ourselves

Scripture Verse that Caught my attention today: Philippians 3:21 He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

It’s a God thing.

Application: At a recent “boundaries” seminar for clergy we were reminded by our bishop that, whether we are willing to admit it or not, each of us has the capacity for evil. Although it might be tempting (perhaps especially when reading the news headlines of any given day) to delude ourselves into thinking that we would never do ‘that,’ in reality, given the right (or would it be ‘wrong?’) circumstances, any of us could respond in a very unhealthy way. The purpose of the boundaries seminar was to encourage us to do the kinds of things that help us maintain good physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual health so that we are less likely to do the various kinds of things that are destructive not only to our respective relationships and congregations, and also to us personally. Healthy people realize that it doesn’t take much for any of us to become, as Paul termed it, the ‘body of our humiliation.’

By the same token, the Apostle Paul reminds us that through Jesus we have the promise that the ‘body of our humiliation’ will “be conformed to the body of his glory.” That’s true for us as individuals (whether we are clergy or lay) and also for congregations as a whole. God does what we in and of ourselves cannot do. It’s a God thing…and it’s a Good thing.

Prayer: Lord, thanks for the ultimate boundary that we have in you. Helps us to respond to such good news with the grace to maintain other healthy boundaries as well. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

(Readings today included: 1 Kings 13-14, 2 Chronicles 12, and Philippians 3)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

In Defense of Suffering

Scripture passage that caught my attention today: Philippians 1:29-30. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— 30 since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

Observation: Suffering for Christ can be a privilege.

Application: I was thinking this early this morning that I would really be upset (as in angry) if were to get prostate cancer. (Generally speaking I’m at low risk for this disease, but I’m not far from the age where I’ll need to have the dreaded examination.) I know full that I deserve just as much suffering as anyone else in the world but, dang it, like a hot potato, I don’t want it!

However, Paul had a different view. He saw suffering as an opportunity to bear witness to Christ and, furthermore, compared to what Christ suffered, Paul saw his own suffering as paling in comparison.

Personally, I’m not quite to that frame of mind yet. But at least in Paul I have a model of faith upon which to focus. And hopefully that will be of significant help in whatever forms of ‘suffering’ come my way. That way at least something good can come out of it.

Prayer: Lord, the less we concentrate on self and the more we concentrate on you, the better. Help me to keep such things in mind. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

(Readings today included: Song of Solomon 5-8 and Philippians 1)

Friday, June 10, 2011

With Appreciation or Not

Scripture verse that caught my attention today: Ephesians 6:7 Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women,

Observation: there is joy/satisfaction in service regardless of whether or not anyone else seems to appreciate it.

Application: Sometimes we claim to be doing something for the Lord when, in fact, we are either doing it because we want/expect some form of recognition or appreciation to be offered. While it’s true that almost all of us like to be appreciated for what we do, there are some forms of service that may not be appreciated or even noticed. One of the real tests of servanthood is whether a person doing such tasks can find joy in the work even when it’s not even noticed by others. And whether or not one passes such a test is often dependent on whether or not the person realizes to whom the service is ultimately being rendered. This is true for clergy and laity alike.

Prayer: Lord, help us all to find joy in ultimately serving you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

(Scripture readings included: Song of Songs 1-4 and Ephesians 6)

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Best Life

Scripture passage that caught my attention today: Ecclesiastes 2:24-25 There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?

Observation: This passage comes shortly before the famous “there is a time for everything” chapter in Ecclesiastes. It also comes after the writer bemoans the fact that both the wise and the foolish experience the same fate.

Application: So often in life we strive in order to get. What we ‘get’ often varies. It might be recognition or prestige or a legacy or a position of ‘influence’ or any number of different things. Yet what happens to any of it upon our death or other form of detachment is completely beyond our control. The author of Ecclesiastes realizes such things and hits the nail on the head when he remarks that that best way to live is simply to find enjoyment in our toil. He sees such toil, in fact, as a gift from God.

Neither Ecclesiastes nor I would limit the definition of “toil” to official employment, though at times that could indeed be the case. Rather, Ecclesiastes, once confronted with the fact that the fate of the wise and foolish is not all that different, advocates a spirit of thanksgiving no matter what. Such an attitude can make for a fine start to most any day.

Prayer: Lord, thanks for the abundant opportunities that you provide and for the reminder that, when one enjoys them, there is “nothing better.” In Jesus’ name. Amen.

(readings today included: Ecclesiastes 1-3, Psalm 45, Ephesians 2)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Who lends to who?

Scripture Passage: Proverbs 19:17 Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD,
and will be repaid in full.

Observation: Very ironic imagery.

Application: Is it possible to “lend” to the Lord if we believe that everything that we have is from the Lord to begin with? It would seem more proper to recognize that what we have and even life itself is on loan from the Lord, not the other way around. But then again there is the reminder of Jesus in Matthew 25 that whenever we do something to ‘the least of these’ it is as if we do it unto the Lord. So God’s connection with people runs incredibly deep. And God seems to be especially connected to those who are down-trodden in any way. No wonder God is especially pleased when the more material blessed members of humanity offer kindness to those who are in need.

Prayer: Lord, thanks for the connection you have formed with your people. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

(Scripture readings today included: Proverbs 19-21 and Romans 13)