Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Twenty-Three

dsc03528

1 Samuel 2:1-10
Genesis 7:15-22
Galatians 4:8-20

1 Samuel 2:1-10

Hannah prayed and said,

“My heart exults in the Lord;
my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies,
because I rejoice in my victory.

“There is no Holy One like the Lord,
no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them he has set the world.

“He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;
for not by might does one prevail.
The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered;
the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
he will give strength to his king,
and exalt the power of his anointed.”

My goodness, but today’s readings were an interesting set! I chose this psalm as the ‘easiest’ of the three to reflect upon, but somehow, it’s not all that easy! There are parts of this song that are hard to read, hard to hear. I don’t like reading lines like, “The Lord kills . . . he brings down to Sheol. . . ” No, I don’t like it.

But there they are – so – now what?

Well, I will take them in, wonder about their meaning, lay them alongside a bunch of other words that might seem to say otherwise, and prayerfully leave it up to the Spirit to decipher and use them as the Spirit sees fit. I believe I can do that in good confidence that God will use even the difficult words to teach and to shape me and others. 

How do you wrestle with the words of scripture that are tough for you? It’s at times like this that I am grateful for the dedicated work of Bible scholars over the ages. It is at times like this that I remember that the church in the sense of THE CHURCH, has not always agreed on interpretation of certain ideas/passages. In fact, the church in that sense has re-interpreted things lots of times over the past two thousand years. I believe that is the ongoing work of the Spirit, the ongoing revelation of God. No, words are not added to Scripture. Nor are words taken away. But they are read in differing lights, using all the truth that is revealed by history/science/psychology. All truth is God’s truth, right? 

So, I will take from this psalm the power and truth of the overall teaching it contains — that God is sovereign, that God hears and answers prayers like Hannah’s (although, not always in the same way), that God is holy and that God is ultimately victorious over evil. And that God is even now at work bringing those powers down. And that sometimes God might choose to do that by working through the likes of you or me. 

Gulp.

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Twenty-Two

dsc03527

Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

Romans 1:1-7

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Every Sunday as he moved to the pulpit to preach, our former pastor spoke that last line to us. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” I cannot tell you how important those words became to many of us over the eleven years he was with us. They spoke to us of steadiness, of core truth, of centeredness, of hope . . . and, of course, of grace and peace.

This opening to the letter to the believers in Rome is so lovely, isn’t it? It distills the entire gospel into a few succinct words — something Paul was both good at and lousy at, depending on the letter! Not that his words are every ‘lousy,’ but sometimes they can be far from succinct! 

Here, however, he nails it. Read it out loud, if you can. Listen to each word. Let them roll around in your mouth and in your heart. There it is — this faith that we claim. Neat, simple, clear. Past, present, future — the work of the gospel! Oh, I thank God for Paul. And for these words!

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Twenty-One

img_1249

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
2 Samuel 7:23-29
John 3:31-26

2 Samuel 7:23-29

Who is like your people, like Israel? Is there another nation on earth whose God went to redeem it as a people, and to make a name for himself, doing great and awesome things for them, by driving out before his people nations and their gods? And you established your people Israel for yourself to be your people forever; and you, O Lord, became their God. And now, O Lord God, as for the word that you have spoken concerning your servant and concerning his house, confirm it forever; do as you have promised. Thus your name will be magnified forever in the saying, ‘The Lord of hosts is God over Israel’; and the house of your servant David will be established before you. For you, O Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, have made this revelation to your servant, saying, ‘I will build you a house’; therefore your servant has found courage to pray this prayer to you. And now, O Lord God, you are God, and your words are true, and you have promised this good thing to your servant; now therefore may it please you to bless the house of your servant, so that it may continue forever before you; for you, O Lord God, have spoken, and with your blessing shall the house of your servant be blessed forever.”

Today’s passage is the closing part of a conversation that David the King had with God, through God’s chosen intermediary, the prophet Nathan. I encourage you to read the whole chapter. David wanted to build the temple and God said, ‘No.’ This is David’s response to that ‘no.’

Even though David’s character was far from spotless, there was much in him to admire, even to emulate. And this lovely passage illustrates that point well. It’s part of prayerful answer to God’s clear ‘no,’ and there isn’t one whisper of complaint, is there? God said ‘no’ to the temple, but God also said a resounding ‘yes’ to the ‘house’ — the lineage of David. And it is that very lineage that we celebrate one week from tomorrow. The Ultimate King comes through the line of David, fulfilling ancient prophecies and hopes. David could not dream of what that fulfillment would look like, but he chose to believe it anyhow.

Help me, Lord, to believe your word, even when I cannot imagine what that word might look like in the future that is unknown to me. Help me to lean into trust, to remember my history with you, even as David remembered the history of his people and his own personal journey with you. Help me to find center in those memories, those stories, that truth.

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Twenty

dsc03529

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
2 Samuel 7:18-22
Galatians 4:1-7

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
    before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
and come to save us!

Restore us, O God;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

O Lord God of hosts,
how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
our enemies laugh among themselves.
Restore us, O God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
the one whom you made strong for yourself.
Then we will never turn back from you;
give us life, and we will call on your name.

Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

This psalm is a fitting follow-up to yesterday’s glory, don’t you think? It’s a sober reminder that we’re not ‘there’ yet, are we? There is work to be done, there are divisions to be erased, there is gospel truth to be spilled out in gift and gratitude.

And as I noted yesterday, it is never easy to do that.

Thank God for the psalms of Lament! There are days — seasons, years, decades! — when we need them desperately. “How long, O Lord!” “Restore us, O God!” “Give ear!” “Stir up your might and come to save us!”

Yes! Yes! Come and save us . . . from ourselves, from those who would distort, even pervert, your truth, from the rigors of suffering and death all around us. Thank you, God, for giving us words to use when we feel overwhelmed and weary. Thank you for lament.

And now, let ‘your face shine, that we may be saved.’ Yea and amen!

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Nineteen

img_1298

Psalm 80:1-7
2 Samuel 7:1-17
Galatians 3:23-29

Galatians 3:23-29

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Ah, yes! One of the sweetest passages of all! Paul does such amazing work in these few verses, honing down the gospel truth to this powerful statement. The law was necessary, Paul says — it served as a guard for us, a ‘prison’ of sorts, putting parameters around our behavior. But the law was imperfect. Until the Perfect came and lived among us.

The coming of Jesus brings a special kind of freedom to those who choose to pay attention. “In Christ Jesus, you ARE ALL children of God through faith.” There it is, plain and simple.

But never easy.

Taking in this truth is a lifelong process, learning to believe that we are now ‘clothed with Christ,’ that we are all one, that we belong. Do you catch the cataclysmic shift in thinking/behavior/worldview/attitude/disposition/rule of life that such thinking requires? 

So as I read these words today, in the second half of the second decade of the twenty-first century, I still have to ask the Spirit of God to help me make the transition from the discipline/guardedness of the Law to the remarkable freedom/unity/equality found by living the life of faith in Christ Jesus. 

This is revolutionary stuff, my friends. And if we believe it, if we live it, everything changes. Everything. We can no longer tolerate abusive and disparaging language about any group — any race, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin, religious persuasion. If those of us who believe in Christ are one, then every other person on this planet has the potential to be one with us in Him. Period. There is no room for racism/sexism/classism/xenophobia/snobbery/prejudice of any kind. None.

I don’t think we’re there yet. Do you? But I have hope! And I count on the power of the Holy Spirit and the prayers of God’s people to help us move toward this picture painted by Paul’s words in the glorious epistle to the Galatians!

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Eighteen

img_1293

Psalm 42
Zechariah 8:1-17
Matthew 8:14-17

Matthew 8:14-17

When Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever; he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she got up and began to serve him. That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”

I love seeing the references to Isaiah in the New Testament. There are some glorious sections in the Isaiah collection of that are among the most lyrical words in the entire Bible — words of hope and promise mingled with the more usual prophetic words of despair and disdain. The entire large chunk known as the Songs of the Suffering Servant (chapter 49-53) can be found laced throughout the stories of Jesus in our gospels and is implicit in the apologetics and systematic theology of the apostles Paul and Peter and John. 

The reference in our passage for today — from Isaiah 53:5 — is one of the earliest ones in the New Testament, only eight chapters into the first gospel, and is an interesting way to apply that line in Isaiah. Most often, we tend to think of Jesus ‘taking our infirmities and bearing our diseases’ as he was dying on the cross. But here we have a strong, clear reminder that it was not only Jesus’s death that fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies, but his life. His life.

Which is exactly why we celebrate this holiday every year. Jesus is God come to earth, to live a human life. Yes, he was God. But he was also a man. The Man. The Human Ideal. And that is a key piece, a crucial ingredient in our own journey of salvation and healing.

Jesus came not just to save us from our sins, as wonderful and life-changing as that is. He came to teach us about living as well as about dying. To show us how to ‘bear with’ one another, to bring hope where hope is hard to find, to move forward in peace and kindness, to restore us to our most whole selves so that we can be about the business that is ours to do.

Peter’s mother-in-law was restored to her work, did you catch that? She was a gracious host, welcoming a gaggle of strangers to her small home — a place many scholars believe became a kind of  ‘headquarters’ for Jesus and his gang of twelve. And she was one of a long list of women who cared for that gang, who provided food, shelter, clothing and funds and all the while, drank in the teachings of the rabbi. Then, when the time came for the church to be born, they were all ready to go: a trained set of teachers, leaders, hosts and hostesses, bearers of the Good News to a world that needed it desperately.

Are you ready to be one like her? Has Jesus borne your diseases and taken your infirmities? Perhaps not literally (although maybe that is true, too), but metaphorically? What is the work to which you have been called at this point in your own journey? Do you need a season of restoration before you can more fully enter in? If so, take the time to ask Jesus to ‘touch your hand’ today.

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Seventeen

dsc03523

Psalm 42
Ezekiel 47:1-12
Jude 17-25

Jude 17-25

But you, beloved, must remember the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ; for they said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, indulging their own ungodly lusts.” It is these worldly people, devoid of the Spirit, who are causing divisions. But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on some who are wavering; save others by snatching them out of the fire; and have mercy on still others with fear, hating even the tunic defiled by their bodies.

Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

So how is it that some of the most glorious words in the entire New Testament — that closing blessing in the last paragraph — should be preceded by the weird words of the first paragraph?

Well, I remind myself, these early Christians really believed that Christ’s return was imminent, so they gave warnings to one another. “Get ready!” “Be blameless!” “Watch out for the bad guys!” 

And whoever the writer of this tiny letter may have been, he/she did want to pass along those words of caution! But sliced right into the middle are some pretty good suggestions for how to live well in a time of uncertainty, don’t you think? ‘Build ourselves up on your most holy faith,’ ‘pray in the Spirit,’ ‘keep ourselves in the love of God,’ ‘look forward to the mercy of Jesus Christ,’ — the mercy that leads to eternal life.

Oh, yes, I’d say that list is a humdinger! 

So, I’ll take the warnings to heart, but not too deeply. I actually haven’t a clue in the world what that last one means — ‘have mercy on still others with fear, hating even the tunic defiled by their bodies.’ Youch! What I’ll take from that strange statement is the idea of mercy, I think. Mercy even for those who frighten us, those who are different, whose lifestyles seem highly questionable. Even those.

After all, if we’re doing the things on that great list, there should be no room for hatred or judgment, should there? Yes, care should be taken . . . always. But, mercy wins in the end.

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Sixteen

img_1303

Psalm 42
Isaiah 29:17-24
Acts 5:12-16

Psalm 42

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”

These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.

My soul is cast down within me;
therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep
at the thunder of your cataracts;
all your waves and your billows
have gone over me.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.

I say to God, my rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
because the enemy oppresses me?”
As with a deadly wound in my body,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.

If I had to pick a favorite psalm, this would be very near the top of the list. The beauty of the words, the images, the rhythm, the admission of uncertainty, the questioning of God’s presence and action, and then the gentle acceptance of whatever it might be that God would will for the singer. 

Have you ever been thirsty for God? It’s been a while, but I have. And this psalm was my go-to resource during those seasons. I’m sure there will be others, times when I will wonder where God has got off to, when my own soul will feel ‘cast down.’ 

How I hope that I will remember to ask that soul of mine, ‘why?’ ‘Why are you cast down? Don’t you know that God is the rock, that God has been right there with you through every previous difficulty in your life? ‘

Yes, I want to come back to that.

And it seems to start with two things: remembering and singing. Only this time, the remembering part falls on the psalmist . . . and the singing is God’s. Did you catch that? Right after those glorious words, ‘deep calls to deep,’ comes this beauty:

By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me. . .

‘His song is with me!’ If I listen very carefully, and if I do my part by remembering, then I can just catch the faintest glimpse of a melody, wafting by on the evening breeze. The Lord’s song is with me!

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Fifteen

Because I chose to focus on Sunday’s readings for yesterday’s essay at SheLoves, the readings for Saturday will be listed here. Don’t want you to miss any of them!

img_1285

Psalm 146:5-10
1 Samuel 2:1-8
Luke 3:1-18

Luke 3:1-18

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Again, with the Baptizer!

But this time, I’m getting a deeper glimpse into why he was so appealing to the people who followed after him in droves. Read what he says very carefully and to whom he says it. Now think about that for a minute.

Here is a very odd man, wandering in from the desert, clothed fur, skinny as a rail, speaking words that are alternately harsh and life-giving. And all kinds of people are attracted to him, including tax-collectors and Roman soldiers. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed that before, have you?

And he gives every group a very specific response. And every response consists of a proposed action, doesn’t it? To the tax collectors, he says, “Be just! Collect only what is required.” To the soldiers, he says, “Do not practice extortion or intimidation, do not charge innocent people with wrongdoing, be content with what you’ve got already.” To everyone, he says, “Share whatever you’ve got with those who don’t have as much.”

Sounds a whole lot like social justice to me, doesn’t it? Do what is right, look out for the less fortunate, be generous. I wonder why I’ve never seen all of that before. Generally, I remember the image of that ‘winnowing fork’ above all else. And of course, the never-ending cry to ‘REPENT!’

But here’s the real deal about John — he knows that that verb means. It means to turn around, to change direction. And that is exactly what his advice boils down to. Let your life show the change inside you — turn and face into what is right and good and just and kind.

Sounds a whole lot more like Jesus than I ever realized.

Cool!

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Fourteen

This is my scheduled day to write for SheLoves Magazine, and the theme for the month of December is, “Pause.” So you can start today’s reflection (which is in a very different format than usual, and is longer!) right here and then follow the link to finish it over there. Thanks for being flexible.

img_1245

Tomorrow is the third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of joy. All of the assigned readings for the day reflect that spirit, that ineffable whatever-it-is, that deep-down sense that all is right with the world, even when things may not be objectively right in any way.

I can’t think of a better Sunday to take a . . . pause. A deep breath in and a deep breath out; a re-setting of the old internal clock/barometer/gut-sense/compass; a deliberate step away from the noise, the hustle and bustle of shopping, decorating, baking, planning.

So I offer you today a few small Advent gifts — a brief reflection on rejoicing, in response to the scripture readings for the day; a list of appropriate hymns and songs for this week of the liturgical year; and a few suggestions for small intentions or actions that you might incorporate into your day. All of it is designed to help us learn more about living in joy, even when the craziness of the season, or the frustrations and worries of our everyday life, conspire to push us in the opposite direction.

The readings for this day include a beautiful song from the prophet Isaiah (35:1-10), Mary’s Song from the gospel of Luke (1:46b-55), some encouraging words on how to live well as a Jesus-follower in James (5:7-10), and the powerful words of Jesus when questioned by an imprisoned John the Baptist in the gospel of Matthew (11:2-11).

 

Please join us over at SheLoves to read the reflection, see the song list and try out one of the practices suggested. Just click here.