Welcome to the October 2010 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
    You are welcome to use these writings or pass them on. All we ask is that in all things you remember the Author and give Him the glory, and remember this vessel which He has used to bring them to you. Peggy Hoppes























A WORD FOR TODAY, October 2010

October 1, 2010

"Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may run and be glorified, even as also it is with you; and that we may be delivered from unreasonable and evil men; for all have not faith. But the Lord is faithful, who shall establish you, and guard you from the evil one. And we have confidence in the Lord touching you, that ye both do and will do the things which we command. And the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God, and into the patience of Christ." 2 Thessalonians 3:1-5, ASV

I was reading a blogger who collects postcards and I was fascinated by some of his collection and his thoughts about the postcards he displayed. One postcard had a brief note and a request for the recipient to keep it hidden. The blogger's thoughts about this postcard were directed toward modern communication through social media like Facebook. He pointed out the risk of sending a postcard: everything written is open for the world to see. That's true also with Facebook, and we are constantly reminded that the words we post to the Internet can't be removed and can be used against us. I'm not sure why the writer wanted her postcard hidden, but she obviously wanted some privacy despite the open format of the postcard.

In another message, the blogger on the postcard site showed two different postcards from the same event, sent on the same day to two different people. The event was a major fire in his town. When we think about the way it was a hundred years ago, we can't imagine that they would have been able to send postcards about such an event in a timely enough manner. By the time the photo could be developed and the cards printed, it would have seemed pointless. Yet, it happened much faster than I would have expected. The fire was on February 1st, and the two different postcards were postmarked on February 18th. This may not seem inconceivable to us in our instant world, but it is pretty amazing in a world that didn't have computers and a Kinko's on every corner. The sender had choices available to him quickly, and he was able to send the news to others in weeks.

We are used to instant communication. Even before the Internet we had telephones, which made it possible for us to call someone and give them the news immediately. Live television made it possible to get the news on a daily basis, rather than the weekly news reports received at the movie theaters. As for the mail, we can get packages in just days because Federal Express can get it to you overnight. We don't have to wait for much, anymore, nothing like they did a century ago. We can print photos immediately or even send them from our phones. There's no need to wait.

Whether it takes weeks or days, whether the message is given immediately or over time, we are brought into Christian fellowship for a purpose: to share a message. Paul knew the work was not going to be easy, and he often sought the help of his brothers and sisters in Christ. "Pray for us" is a request he often makes. In today's scripture, he asks that they pray that the message will be delivered to those who will hear and believe. The New International Version translates part of the first verse this way: "Pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored."

We rarely use postcards anymore, even when we go on a vacation, because we can post our own pictures and messages on Facebook and Twitter much faster than the Post Office can deliver a card. But the postcard site made me think about the way we communicate the Gospel. Do we use every opportunity? Do we risk the repercussions of public words and post them for the world to see or do we ask that they be hidden? Do we present the Word of God in a timely, a daily, manner? Who have you shared the love of Christ with today?


October 4, 2010

"Putting away therefore all wickedness, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings, as newborn babes, long for the spiritual milk which is without guile, that ye may grow thereby unto salvation; if ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious: unto whom coming, a living stone, rejected indeed of men, but with God elect, precious, ye also, as living stones, are built up a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." 1 Peter 2:1-5, ASV

They say necessity is the mother of invention. It is also an interesting fact that science fiction has inspired inventors to really produce the things that have been created for entertainment. Can you imagine the how the readers of early science fiction would react if you told them that one day man would fly and would be able to live under the sea? They would probably have laughed at the ridiculousness of it all. Yet, look at us just a hundred years later. Not only are we flying, but we are also walking on the moon and living in a city two hundred or so miles above the earth! We have portable wireless communication that is able to send information around the world in seconds. We have microwaves that cook food in seconds.

Science fiction recently inspired the work of an inventor named Blake Bevin. She was watching the "Back to the Future" Trilogy, starring Michael J. Fox, when she realized that his power laced shoes, seen in the second video, were exactly what her grandmother needed. Blake's grandmother has Parkinson's disease, which makes tying shoes very difficult. So, Blake set out to invent a pair of shoes her grandmother can use. She is currently seeking investors to fund her business and is hoping to have shoes available for purchase very soon.

The irony of this story is overwhelming, considering that "Back to the Future" just recently celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. The segment of the second movie when Marty McFly dons the power lace sneakers is from 2015, just a few years away. Michael J. Fox, the star of the movies, also has Parkinson's disease. So, the very shoes that he was so excited to wear in the movie could actually serve him in his life today.

I wonder what the first disciples thought the Church would become after they were gone. Do you think they knew it would last for thousands of years and reach to the very ends of the earth? Do you think they expected it to become so diverse, meeting the needs of so many different types of people? Do you think those disciples would recognize the buildings we have built or the music we have created? Or, do you think that they might not have expected the incredible growth and development that the Church has experienced in the past two thousand years?

I don't know if the irony in the story about the power laces is coincidence, but it seems too incredible for it to have come about by chance. Was God's hand in the mix? I'm sure He was. The same is true of the Church, even if it doesn't look quite like the first disciples might have expected. Yet, even if we have buildings and music they wouldn't recognize, we can see in the scriptures that the Church is a gathering of those who believe in Jesus, the foundation is still Jesus Christ. We are forgiven, with faith implanted by God's Word. They seemed to have known the struggles we would face. But then, they were facing them, too. So now, two thousand years later, they continue to encourage us to become everything God has created and called us to be. We might not be quite what they expected, but we are God's. He'll make something good out of our foolishness in a way we might never have expected. We might just find that His hand was in it all along.


October 5, 2010

"And we know and have believed the love which God hath in us. God is love; and he that abideth in love abideth in God, and God abideth in him. Herein is love made perfect with us, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as he is, even so are we in this world. There is no fear in love: but perfect love casteth out fear, because fear hath punishment; and he that feareth is not made perfect in love. We love, because he first loved us. If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, cannot love God whom he hath not seen. And this commandment have we from him, that he who loveth God love his brother also." 1 John 4:16-21, ASV

The weather guy on the morning news I watch is constantly sent out into the field to report about local places and events while he's giving the weather report. He usually attends the pep rallies of local high schools on game day and he has gone to some of my favorite parks and restaurants. He interviews workers and visitors, points out the highlights and gets involved in the activities. I've learned about new activities and restaurants from his travels.

This morning he visited a local Halloween tradition, a haunted house that has been a popular hotspot in October. The house was staffed with scary characters in costume, giving the weatherman a true experience during the show. During one segment, an evil nurse tried to take his pulse with a bloody cleaver! It is all in good fun, but can certainly be a frightening experience, especially when the house is long established and well designed.

The segment reminded me of a time I visited a haunted house when I was just a teenager. A group of friends went to the coast in New Jersey and one of our activities during the day was to visit the haunted house on the pier. This particular house is open year round, so it was very professionally produced. The characters seemed very real, and the rooms were realistic. I liked to go to the local charity haunted houses around Halloween, so I was very confident that I couldn't be frightened when we walked into this house. I even boasted a bit as I walked through the door, something I quickly learned is not a good idea when visiting a place like this.

Even as I was saying, "They can't scare me," an evil looking being flew out of a dark corner and backed me against the wall. She never touched me, but she had me in a corner and I slowly slid down the wall into a crouch as she came closer and closer. It certainly seemed real, and it was particularly frightening to some of my companions. This first encounter sent us all on a run through the house, so fast we barely saw the rooms. I could almost hear the actors laughing at us! We ran so fast that one of my friends lost a flip flop in the house and refused to go back to get it. We had to go buy her a new pair at one of the souvenir shops nearby.

Halloween can be a fun time of year. The haunted houses are usually created as some fundraising event for good organizations, and though as Christians we must be careful about playing with evil, they are a great way to share the holiday fun of Halloween. The fear created in the experience is not real and it is not lasting. Our emotional response to the actions of the actors lasts only as long as the experience, and quickly falls away when we leave laughing at our foolishness.

But there is real fear in our world. We are not the first generation of people to be afraid of the evil that pervades our world; our fears might be about different things, but they are the same fears that we have experienced as human beings from the beginning of time. We are afraid of our enemies. We are afraid of what might happen tomorrow. We are afraid of the things that can harm us physically, mentally, emotionally, materially and spiritually. This is why God was sure to include the encouragement "do not fear" in the scriptures.

As a matter of fact, it is said that the words "do not fear" appear in the scriptures 365 times, one for every day of the year (and some suggest that there is a 366th.) I haven't counted, and I'm not sure it matters that there are exactly that many instances of the phrase. What matters is that God knows all about our fear and He speaks to it. He reminds us that even when it seems like we can't be saved, He is there to guard and protect us. Even when the difficulties we face are overwhelming, God will get us through. We may suffer, but as we live in the love of God, He will provide all we need to stand strong.


October 6, 2010

Scriptures for Sunday, October 10, 2010, Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 28: 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c; Psalm 111; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

"Faithful is the saying: For if we died with him, we shall also live with him: if we endure, we shall also reign with him: if we shall deny him, he also will deny us: if we are faithless, he abideth faithful; for he cannot deny himself." 2 Timothy 2:11-13, ASV

The famed photojournalist Harry Benson visited Texas Lutheran University in Seguin, Texas last night and shared a slide show of his photos. He has had an amazing career, invited into the inner sanctums of some of the most private and famous people. He has photographed every president since Eisenhower, and was with them at some of the most important moments of their lives. He was just a few feet away from Robert Kennedy the night he was killed. He has photographed the powerful and famous in the intimate settings of their homes as well as at official functions.

A cover photograph of Ronald and Nancy Reagan saved Vanity Fair magazine, which was slated for closure the month before it was published. An editor convinced the owner to try one more month because she was certain the cover would make it a bestseller. It did, and the magazine was saved. He was invited to photograph personal moments like Caroline Kennedy's wedding and Elizabeth Taylor's recovery after brain surgery. After sixty very successful years in the business, it is no wonder that photojournalists and photographers would want to know his secrets.

After the speech, Mr. Benson took questions from the audience. He was asked about his favorite camera, whether he'd gone digital, who was his favorite subject? There were questions very specific to some of the photographs, such as the most frightening experiences of his career or if the subject knew what he was doing.

Several would-be photographers asked for advice. The first young man asked, "What advice would you give to someone who wants a successful career?" His answer, "Buy a guitar." Another student asked if it was necessary to have a college education to be successful. I'm not sure the college officials appreciated his answer. "No." He did not even bother to continue his answer with the expected qualifier, "But it can never hurt to have a degree."

Several students asked related questions about how to follow in Mr. Benson's footsteps. They saw his as one worthy to emulate and wanted a piece of his action. He was honest with them, not because he saw their ambition as a threat to his own career, but because he knew the reality. His joke, "Buy a guitar" was based on the truth that things are different today than they were sixty years ago. Today, with the advent of digital cameras and the development of high quality images through those cameras, anyone can take a good photo. Why pay a photojournalist when a hundred people in a crowd can take the same photo with their cell phone?

The best advice he gave the crowd was "Take photos of what you see." Then the next best was, "Get paid for your photos." I suppose that the second advice would have been far more helpful if he had given some ways to get paid for those photos. As a photographer, and a pretty good one if you ask me, I've often wondered whether I could make a career out of it. Yet, I see the writing on the wall, just like Mr. Benson. He was lucky because he got his start long before technology has made it possible for everyone to take, or make, a great picture. He said, "Unfortunately, there is no longer a magazine like 'Life.'" He seemed melancholy about the idea that an age has past. I think he's right.

Despite the authority of Harry Benson, I'm sure most of those photography students in the audience still have stars in their eyes. I can hear them thinking, "If he did it, why can't I?" They won't go buy the guitar (not that a guitar can get you very far in this world, either) and they'll pursue a career that might not exist in a few years. They won't heed the advice of the professional, and they'll probably end up working in a photo studio taking pictures of high school seniors.

Will anyone in their life be like Naaman's servant? "If the professional says… perhaps you should heed the word?" And will they listen? Or will they be like Naaman, thinking that they know better?

Naaman was a man of power and authority, but he suffered from a skin disease. It appears that the disease did not physically hinder Naaman, because his army was victorious. He was respected by the king for his victory. It seems that the leprosy was not a problem until a young Israelite girl came into the household. She came from a world where leprosy sent the sufferer into isolation. She may have been concerned about her own health and cleanliness when she made the suggestion, but it appears that she was concerned about her master. She approached Naaman's wife and suggested that he could be healed by a prophet of Israel.

Naaman went to Elisha and didn't like his answer. Elisha told him to wash in the River Jordan. This did not seem like a proper cure. I am sure that Naaman kept clean, that his disease was not from filthy living. He was a powerful and high ranking leader. He would have had access to the best care, the finest clothes, and the most expensive perfumes. He never thought that he would be sent to a dirty river to wash. He expected that the prophet would touch him or say prayers over him. He expected that the prophet would provide medicinal herbs or offer sacrifices to the gods for his sake. Elisha did not even meet him. He sent word that he should go wash in the Jordan and he would be healed.

Naaman’s world view demanded a different response and he wanted to reject the cure. However, his servants made him think about it again. “My father, if the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? how much rather then, when he saith to thee, Wash, and be clean?” When Naaman went to the river to wash, his leprosy disappeared and he was made clean. Naaman went back to Elisha and presented himself to the prophet. “Behold now, I know that there is no God in all the earth, but in Israel.” God's grace achieved what it was meant to achieve: God was glorified to the world.

Naaman was ready to ignore the advice of the prophet, but recognized the reality and suggested that Naaman at least try. Naaman took the advice and found it to be right.

Last week we heard Paul encourage Timothy to believe the word he spoke and to continue to follow it. Paul had to justify himself over and over again, first as a converted Pharisee, then as a man who was constantly persecuted for his work for the Gospel of Christ. He was in prison when he wrote this letter, and it would have been natural for his adversaries to use his suffering as proof that he was not a reliable apostle of Christ. In today's passage, Paul takes his encouragement a step further, reminding Timothy that suffering does not mean that God's Word is not true. Though Paul suffers, God's salvation is real. So, Paul charges Timothy to take the message to the people, the message that Christ is faithful even when we are faithless.

We see unfaithfulness in the Gospel lesson, at least from nine of the lepers. All ten lepers approached Jesus when he was passing through their village. They asked Jesus for mercy. Obviously, all ten recognized Jesus as a healer because they went to Him for help. The difference in their faith, however, is seen in the way they respond to the gift. Jesus told the ten lepers to go show themselves to the priest. They weren't healed when they left Jesus' presence. They were healed along the way. The nine did exactly what Jesus told them to do: they went to the priests and showed themselves. The one, the Samaritan, turned to give thanks and praise to God at the foot of Jesus. Ten obeyed the Law, and one recognized the Lawgiver.

We are quick to dismiss the nine because they didn't go back and say "Thank you" to Jesus, but they did what they thought they were supposed to do. In being obedient to the word, they missed the reality of God. I wonder how many of us do the same. We stick so literally to the words on the page that we miss the intent by which they were spoken. We miss seeing God's grace in the midst of the stories, trying to understand things that just don't fit our world view. How many times do we get caught up in the bible stories, wondering how a loving God could possibly allow those things to happen? I think this is probably truer in the Old Testament. But we see it also in the New Testament. How could God allow His servant Paul to be beaten and put in prison? Where is the grace in that?

This story is not give for us to reject the ten that did not say "Thank you" but to remind us that there is more to living the faith than to follow all the rules. They did what was right, but did they do enough? Was it enough to show the priests that they'd been healed, or does God expect more? The nine took their praise to the temple, to the place they knew to go, but they missed seeing the Temple that stood before them, the Savior that had been sent by God for their sake. Naaman confessed the reality of God, but did he believe? The nine believed in God, but they did not have faith in Christ. It isn't enough to confess that there is a God if one denies Jesus.

The one leper who returned to Jesus received far more from Him than just healing. He was made well. His faith was life-changing. The lessons Paul wanted Timothy to teach to the people of Ephesus were life-changing. The healing of Naaman was life-changing. But were they changed? Have you been changed by the Gospel? Do you continue after your own personal desires or do you listen to the Word of the Master?

Harry Benson had the credentials to offer the right advice to those students seeking his wisdom. He told them to carry their camera everywhere and to photograph what they see. He might be right that there is no future in the business because it has become so easy for everyone to take a picture, but it can't hurt to do the thing you love. Perhaps it will pay off in the end, especially if they work at becoming the best photographer they can be. He has proven himself and is trustworthy.

God is trustworthy. His Word is true and He is faithful. He is worthy of our praise. Do we live lives that have been changed by His Word? Do we confess that He is God or do we go beyond that and have faith in our Savior, Jesus Christ? How do we live that faith? Do we believe His Word or do we chase after our own ideas.

Are we like Naaman, confessing God but not being changed by His Word? Are we like the nine lepers who did their duty at the Temple or do we live as if we've seen the Savior? Do we just receive God’s grace or do we make it our own? Do we respond to God’s grace with a word of thanksgiving before going on to our normal lives or are we changed forever by what God has done? That was the difference between the nine lepers and the Samaritan. He was changed. He was made new. He believed not only that God had the power to heal, but that the power was found in Jesus Christ. He turned to Christ and was made well forever.

Paul writes to Timothy, "Faithful is the saying: For if we died with him, we shall also live with him: if we endure, we shall also reign with him: if we shall deny him, he also will deny us: if we are faithless, he abideth faithful; for he cannot deny himself." The life God calls us to live is not necessarily the life we want for ourselves. We might have to suffer. We might even be put in prison like Paul. But we are called to live the best life we can live, unashamed of the troubles that come from speaking the truth of Christ to the world. When we do, when live in awestruck faith in the God who has done great works, we will endure and receive the salvation of Jesus Christ that leads to eternal glory with Him.


October 7, 2010

"Like as a father pitieth his children, So Jehovah pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; He remembereth that we are dust. As for man, his days are as grass; As a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; And the place thereof shall know it no more. But the lovingkindness of Jehovah is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, And his righteousness unto children's children; To such as keep his covenant, And to those that remember his precepts to do them." Psalm 103:13-18, ASV

I like to wander through old cemeteries. Last March, when the wildflowers were in full bloom, I ended up in a cemetery in a town down the road. The grounds were covered in color: red, purple, yellow, white and blue. There was something poignant and beautiful about the new flowers growing among the old gravestones. It was especially touching in those weeks before Easter, when we see new life rise out of the death of Jesus Christ.

On another occasion, when I was just a teenager, I was attending a retreat at a camp. A bunch of us went for a walk and ended up at a very old cemetery. The gravestones were old and faded from wear; the graves were sunken from the weather. Some areas of the cemetery were covered in overgrowth from the nearby forest. I wandered to the back of the cemetery, amazed as I read gravestone carvings that went back to the eighteenth century. These were the people who first settled the area, and it was fascinating to think of their lives so long ago.

I saw one particularly lonely grave, far in the corner of the cemetery, obviously worn for lack of care. The stone was in a sinkhole, a little askew and overgrown with grass. It was early morning, so the grass was still wet with due. I walked around the hole, trying to read the engraving and I noticed, hiding behind the stone, a tiny fawn. It looked barely old enough to walk. His mother must have settled him in the one place she thought was safe, far from the dangers of the forest and the rest of the world. I left him alone, not wanting to harm him in any way, but was amazed to have been so close to new life in that barren place.

Now, gravestones usually have important information, but they don't make exciting reading. They record the names and dates of those who are buried beneath. Sometimes the engraving includes a favorite quote or a bible verse. Others will record some detail about their life, such as infant son, loving husband, or special teacher. Sometimes you'll find carvings of symbols or numbers representing organizations to which they belonged. Those stones remind future generations of their lives and their work.

Sometimes the stones tell more of the story, and many of them do it in a humorous way. I found a website with some excellent quotes. For a dentist, "John Brown is filling his last cavity." Somewhere in England, "Sir John Strange; Here lies an honest lawyer, And that is Strange." A poet created this tombstone in Massachusetts, "Under the sod and under the trees, Lies the body of Jonathan Pease. He is not here, there's only the pod; Pease shelled out and went to God." Someone thought to play on the reality of a Georgia man's life with this statement, "I told you that I was sick!"

Henry Melchoir Muhlenberg was a pastor brought to Pennsylvania in 1742 by the German settlers to help establish the Lutheran church in the New World. One of his greatest accomplishments was a liturgy written for the new American church that is still the basis for the liturgies we use today. He died on this day in 1787 and was buried in Trappe, Pennsylvania. His tombstone reads in Latin, "Who and what he was, future ages will know without a stone."

We build cemeteries and engrave gravestones so that we'll remember those we love. Sadly, as generations pass away, our ancestors are often left in those cemeteries alone and long forgotten. The graves sink and the stones fade away. Henry Muhlenberg's family knew that it wasn't enough to engrave in stone the facts of his life, but they also knew that he'd be remembered for his accomplishments. We might not have done something so long lasting, but we'll be remembered for our own lives by those we love. Most of all, we are remembered by our Creator, who does not leave us alone in the grave, but raises those who love Him into eternal life. We can certainly have something funny written on our tomb, but the real joy will come in the days we will spend worshipping God forever.


October 8, 2010

"I charge thee in the sight of God, and of Christ Jesus, who shall judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be urgent in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure the sound doctrine; but, having itching ears, will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside unto fables. But be thou sober in all things, suffer hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil thy ministry." 2 Timothy 4:1-5, ASV

A daughter was suing her father on one of those daytime court television shows. He had cashed an insurance check meant to pay for some medical work and left her with the bills. The judge begins the case with the question, "What brought us here today?" That opens the door for the litigants to tell their stories. Their stories are often long, convoluted and colorful. More often than not, the judge has to ask, "What does this have to do with the case?" I think they could hear about twice as many cases in a show if the litigants were limited in their time to speak. But then, the shows would not be nearly so interesting.

In the case with the girl and her father, the girl told the judge that she had a great relationship with her dad until his fiancé came into their lives. Since then, she's been like the wicked stepmother, cruel to the children and demanding on their father. The judge repeatedly asked her, "How was she cruel." She replied, "She talked down on us." When the judge pressed, it was difficult for the girl to be specific about how the woman talked down on her. "She said this about my sister." Or, "She said this about my brother." Whenever the judge asked her to explain, her answers were ambiguous.

He was certain that her impression of the woman's interaction was self-serving, so the judge got more specific. He asked "Were the comments talking down or talking up?" He went on to explain that what she thought was talking down, judgmental, or insulting might have been spoken with the intent of helping the children become better people. The judge suggested that a comment like "You should get off the couch and get a job" is not necessarily a put down, but is spoken out of a wish for the kids to succeed. You can't be successful if you sit on the couch all day!

It is easy to assume that all negative comments are talking us down, but the judge was calling the girl's attention to the reality that those comments that she disliked were actually talking her up. When I suggest my son comb his hair, I'm not saying he's ugly, I just think he'd be do better in this world if he looked clean and well groomed. Sometimes it is necessary to tell a truth that doesn't sound encouraging so that those we love can be lifted up. We don't always do this very well. Sometimes the way we say things are heard by others as mean or nasty or judgmental.

Paul writes to Timothy that he should preach according to God's Word even if it is not pleasing to the ears of his hearers. We must be reproved, rebuked and corrected so that we can overcome our own sinfulness. However, we have become a people who do not accept anything that seems negative, crying foul and accusing those who want to help as being mean-spirited and talking us down. If we are the speakers, it is up to us to speak the words in a manner that will be understood as patient and encouraging. But if we are the receiver of those words, let us look for goodness in those who must speak those words, listening to their encouragement even when it sounds harsh on our ears. We may just discover that they are trying to talk us up, rather than down, and we'll become better people for it.


October 12, 2010

"Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are diversities of ministrations, and the same Lord. And there are diversities of workings, but the same God, who worketh all things in all. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit to profit withal. For to one is given through the Spirit the word of wisdom; and to another the word of knowledge, according to the same Spirit: to another faith, in the same Spirit; and to another gifts of healings, in the one Spirit; and to another workings of miracles; and to another prophecy; and to another discernings of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; and to another the interpretation of tongues: but all these worketh the one and the same Spirit, dividing to each one severally even as he will." 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, ASV

I'm currently reading the book "Julie and Julia" by Julie Powell, the story of a woman in New York City who decided to cook every recipe in Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." Every time she tried something new, she posted a story on an Internet blog. I'm not very far into the book and the story is about far more than just the cooking and the blog. It is about her chaotic life, her family and her job, all of which has often gotten in the way of her cooking.

She originally planned to do something new every day, but she quickly learned that it was an impossible goal. Her husband and her were in the middle of moving to a new home, a move that was disastrous, and trying to keep up with the cooking and blogging became overwhelming and frustrating. She didn't want to disappoint her readers, but she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The lesson we can learn from this is that though we need to keep our promises, we need to be careful about the kinds of promises we make. I know how she felt: I'm always concerned about those days (like yesterday) when I can't post because I'm busy with life. But I've learned that you understand.

I'm looking forward to reading about the other lessons she learned while she continued her quest. The stories about her experiences are often humorous, sometimes heartbreaking, and always relevant to our lives. One lesson that makes a lot of sense came out of her story about working with marrow. She had a great deal of trouble finding a place where she could get a gone. After weeks of searching, her husband, brother and best friend managed to get one. When they got it home, Julie realized that she didn't have a cleaver to break into the bone. So, she had to figure out a way to get at the marrow. After a great deal of work, she managed to dig just enough out. In the end, it was worth the trouble, the sauce with the marrow was really good. As she describes it, "What it really tastes like is life, well-lived."

I wonder if she'll ever make it again, though. Even if she can get another bone, will she go to the trouble of digging the marrow out of the bone? Will she go out and buy a cleaver, which would probably make the process a little simpler? The lesson we learn can be seen from two different perspectives. First of all, we should be sure we have all the tools we need to do the work we want to do. The other lesson is that we should do the work for which we have the tools.

We have each been given gifts to use for the glory of God and the building of Christ's church in the world. If we learn the lessons Julie is learning from her Julia Child cooking quest, then we will be prepared with the tools to do the work we have been called to do and to do work that fits the gifts we have been given. In other words, as Christians, it is up to us to stay in prayer and Bible study, to be prepared with His Word when it is needed. But, we should not try to do work that we do not have the gifts to do. God has created a perfect machine, the Church, and He has provided people with every gift necessary to do His work in the world. So, let us join together with others who are living out God's purpose for them, working together prepared with the right tools, so that God will be glorified in the world.


October 13, 2010

Scriptures for Sunday, October 17, 2010, Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 29: Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

"Jehovah will keep thy going out and thy coming in From this time forth and for evermore." Psalm 121:8, ASV

On August 5th, 700,000 tons of rock fell on a mine where thirty-three men were mining copper. It took seventeen days for rescuers to dig a hole twenty-five hundred feet into the ground to discover the fate of the missing men. All were still alive, sustained by rationing the two days' worth of food they had with them in the mine. The rescuers sent food, phones and other necessities as they were able to the men, who appeared amazingly upbeat in the first pictures that were sent out to the world. For two months, that hole was a lifeline to the men, a connection to the outside world and the one place they could look for their salvation.

Last night the first man was rescued. At this writing, they are still slowly but carefully bringing the men out of the mine, on at a time, in a capsule designed by NASA for this very purpose, designed in the past two months to save these men from what might have been a much different ending. I don't know what circumstances made this rescue possible, but there is now hope whenever there is a mine collapse because they know this method works and they have the equipment to do it. Every reunion has been tearful, joyful celebrations for the men and their families, who sixty-nine days ago never expected to see one another again.

Can you imagine having to look at a twenty-eight inch hole, twenty-five hundred feet long for your salvation? It doesn't seem possible that anyone could get out of that situation. The men hadn't seen the sun in over two months. They hadn't smelled fresh air. They hadn't kissed their wives or hugged their children. They had food and water, each other and the hope for rescue, but the courage of those men had to be overwhelming to believe that they could be rescued through such a small place.

Where do you look for salvation? You most certainly have not been trapped so far underground, but we've all faced situations that required rescuing. When your car failed on that rainy night, who did you call for help? When your best friend was killed in that car accident, who did you turn to? When your mother discovered she was sick, where did you find hope? When you failed that test, or lost that job, or hurt your spouse, where did you look for help?

The psalmist sings, "I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains: From whence shall my help come?" Imagine what it must have been like in the days of the psalmist. The people of Israel gathered together at the Temple during the feasts and festivals, to do their duty and offer their sacrifices. During the days of the festival, they were gathered together from the far reaches of civilization, worshipping with family and friends among God's people. The experience was surely uplifting and it must have been difficult to leave at the end of the festival, especially since they then had to go back into the world to travel dangerous highways to their homes far from their God.

This psalm was apparently part of the closing liturgy of worship in the Temple. Pilgrims would come from great distances to worship and offer sacrifice in Jerusalem. The roads were harsh and dangerous. No one knew if they would make it home alive, particularly through the hills that surrounded the city. Robbers and murderers hid in the rocky crevices of those hills waiting for travelers. The conditions of the hills and deserts were unwelcoming to the pilgrim. Who would save the pilgrims from the hardships of the road? He answered his own question, “My help cometh from Jehovah, Who made heaven and earth.”

The priest answered with a benediction. “He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: He that keepeth thee will not slumber. Behold, he that keepeth Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. Jehovah is thy keeper: Jehovah is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night. Jehovah will keep thee from all evil; He will keep thy soul.” In these words the pilgrim is assured that God will go with him on the road and will guard every aspect of his life, including his soul.

Having God along for the ride does not make the journey easy. Jacob was in the wilderness preparing to meet his brother after a long estrangement. He knew what it was like to struggle. He had struggled with his brother Esau over the blessing of Isaac and the inheritance. He had struggled with Laban over the woman he loved. He had struggled with those woman and their children. Jacob was struggling with the future: what would happen when he met his brother again? He sent his wives, children and all they owned to the other side of the stream and he went back to spend the night alone.

God was with Jacob, and this story shows the struggle Jacob faced when being confronted by his God: a man wrestled with Jacob until the early hour of the morning. The man said, "Let me go, for the day breaketh." But Jacob would not let him go until he received a blessing. Jacob must have known the wrestler was someone greater, because a lesser could not bless someone greater. The man asked, “What is thy name?” Jacob answered and the man said, “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.”

Jacob struggled and prevailed. His name was changed to Israel, and he became the father of the entire nation. He was the first, but would not be the last because the nation would constantly strive against God and man. Jacob, Israel, was not always faithful or righteous. On this very occasion, Jacob was obeying God's word by returning to meet with Esau, but even then he did not completely trust God. Jacob heard that Esau was approaching with four hundred men. He divided his possessions, and sent some ahead, sending the rest into the safety of hiding. Then he cried out to God, "You sent me back here to meet Esau and now he is preparing to attack me. I do not deserve your kindness but you have promised to make me prosper. Save me from the hand of my brother." Did he trust God? Did he believe that God would remain with him? He wrestled with his faith and his uncertainty. Despite his failure, he received the blessing of God.

Jacob named the place Peniel because it was there he saw the Lord face to face. God directly confronted Jacob’s uncertainty and showed him that no matter how successful Jacob appears to be in flesh, it is God who has ultimate control of the situation. The Lord had sent Jacob back to his people, the Lord would ensure Jacob’s success and safety. After wrestling with God, Jacob was left with a new name and a limp to remind him that the Lord God Almighty is in control of his life. He went to meet Esau with his family leading the way, trusting that God would take care of his needs. Do we go forth without fear, knowing that God is with us? Or do we wrestle between faith and uncertainty?

We probably relate better to the widow in today's Gospel lesson. We experience unfairness, perhaps even injustice, as we go through out lives. The unfairness and injustice may not be to the extreme of the widow, but that doesn't diminish our experiences. Did you ever face a bully? Or did you have a teacher who graded more harshly than you deserved? Did you ever lose a job for all the wrong reasons? Have you lost a friendship over a misunderstanding? Have you experienced the consequences of a sin that you did not do? Have you ever cried out to God with the question, "WHY ME?"

The gospel lesson begins with the word "then," so it is helpful to consider what brought Jesus to this story. In the second half of the previous chapter, Jesus was confronted with a question from the Pharisees. "When will the Kingdom of God come?" Jesus told them that they would not be able to see the kingdom of God when it arrives, because it is within them. The kingdom of God is not going to be a nation or a people, which can be seen by the world, but it dwells within the hearts of believers. Then He warned the disciples to beware of those who will claim to see the Kingdom coming. He encouraged them with the reality that when the time has come, it will be obvious. Meanwhile, there is no need to worry, for God dwells within them. He is in control. He will be faithful.

So, he follows this warning with the story of the widow. She was dealt an unknown injustice. Perhaps her husband died and someone stole everything from her. Perhaps someone owed a debt to her and refused to repay because she had no husband. Perhaps her husband was killed by someone, but never charged because the murderer was a strong and powerful person in the community. It appears that the judge was willing to be bribed, that he was willing to give "justice" according to his pocketbook.

We probably do identify with the widow because we've seen the same thing in our world. The person with the power or the money or the position is the one who wins, whether it is in government, business or even in our personal lives. At least that's how it seems sometimes. It is no wonder we are afraid to go forward in trust and faith. Like Jacob, we don't want to face any circumstances without knowing who is in control. So, we hide that which we value and hope that God will save the rest. If He doesn't, we're still safe. But in doing this, we wrestle with God, only half-heartedly believing the promises. Half-hearted faith is no faith at all.

While we do identify with the widow, are we as persistent? Are we as willing as she to pester God endlessly? Are we willing to humble ourselves to the point of ridiculous in the faith that God will grant our plea? Are we willing, like those trapped miners, to believe that someone, somewhere is able to make everything better, to save them from a life of living like a mole? These men, trapped underground for sixty-nine days are coming out with smiles on their faces, as they should. But have you seen the pictures from underground? They smiled there, too, knowing that salvation was just outside that twenty-five hundred foot, twenty-eight inch hole. Have you experienced anything more ridiculous than that?

We struggle. We struggle with the people in our lives. We struggle with the financial difficulties we face. We struggle with illness and we struggle with death. We struggle with the government and the legal systems of our nations. Even in our churches we struggle against one another over the issues of the day. As we struggle against men, we also struggle against God, because it is tough to believe that He is coming when we are trapped in a hole. But God reminds us, sometimes in ways that are not so pleasant, that He is right there in the midst of it all, in control. We limp away in faith, trusting that God will answer our cry.

Paul’s letter to Timothy was written to encourage a young preacher to be bold with his faith and the preaching of God’s Word. In this passage, Paul talks about doctrine. “But abide thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them. And that from a babe thou hast known the sacred writings which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” Paul knew that Timothy had a firm foundation of God's Word. He had learned it from the time he was a baby from his mother and grandmother. And he had learned it from Paul.

Paul also writes, “Every scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness. That the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work.” Timothy also learned sound doctrine from the scriptures and from God by the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul urges Timothy to preach boldly and properly despite the struggles he will face in this world. It won't be easy. People are easily swayed by false doctrine, and there have always been those who have preached their own interpretation of the Gospel. But Timothy is encouraged to stand firmly on the foundation that was laid, to do the work he was called to do, even if it seemed impossible. The most ridiculous circumstances are the ones in which God is hardest at work. Whether it is a brother facing an angry brother, or a widow facing a corrupt judge, God is ultimately in control. Trust and faith, rather than uncertainty, will help us through.

Paul concludes this passage with these words, “But be thou sober in all things, suffer hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil thy ministry.” Despite the struggles we will face, the people and issues we will wrestle, let us always remember the source of our strength and the foundation of our faith. When we don't know where to turn, when we don't know how to escape, we need only look up, for God is with us and He is faithful. He is our helper, our Savior, our LORD. He will keep our coming out and going in now and forevermore.


October 14, 2010

"Who is wise and understanding among you? let him show by his good life his works in meekness of wisdom. But if ye have bitter jealousy and faction in your heart, glory not and lie not against the truth. This wisdom is not a wisdom that cometh down from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where jealousy and faction are, there is confusion and every vile deed. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without variance, without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for them that make peace." James 3:13-18, ASV

A lot of people are making a lot of money from Facebook. The application designers are making money by selling virtual merchandise for real money. We can buy farm equipment for our farms, habitats for our pets and buildings for our cities. We can even buy bonuses that help us get better scores at the games we play to waste time.

Throughout our Facebook pages, advertisers tease us with ways to use our time and our resources. The program that runs Facebook ads are able to tap into your life and the lives of your friends to choose ads that are appropriate and interesting to you. They don't want to waste the ads: there's no point in places ads that I won't even consider clicking into. They want to tempt me with ads that I am likely to pursue. Some recent examples include ads for ministry or teaching degrees, Lutheran stuff, publishers and art supplies. They know, from the words I post and the links I click that I might be interested in those things.

They don't always get it right. For example, I'm not sure why I have been seeing an ad calling for musicians. Though I may like some music sites and I've written about music, I am not a musician in any sense of the word. I've seen ads for home buying and mortgages, though I don't think anything I've written has indicated that I'm in the market. I'm not sure how the ad program decided I should be a school administrator or why it thinks I'm interested in anything Wiccan. It would be interesting to see which keywords they use to match those ads to a person like me.

This practice is not new. Businesses have used companies that study the demographics of an area to pinpoint the neighborhoods that might produce the greatest number of visits. It is pointless to send ads for boat sales to a neighborhood where the majority of people are barely scraping by. Residents of apartment complexes do not need lawn care. Advertisers are likely to focus on certain ethnic areas that would be interested in their food or other products. They don't always get it right. I often find ads in my mailbox that are of no interest to me, but they might fit a majority of my neighborhood.

Advertisers have to make judgments every day. They have to decide whether or not a large number of people in a zip code will be interested in their product. It is likely that within that area there will be those who are not interested. Some may even be offended. Every time I get an advertisement for a church, I automatically throw it in the recycle bin because we are already active at another church. What about the non-Christians in those neighborhoods? How do they feel in the weeks before Christmas and Easter when they are bombarded by ads for Christian worship? We get at least a dozen different ads, all of which are a waste of resources.

Facebook and the snail mail advertisers are trying to find ways to target the right people for their ads, but it is almost impossible to get every one right. We judge people based on the words they say or the places they live, sometimes misinterpreting what it means to them. A family might choose to live in an ethnic neighborhood without being of that ethnicity. A writer may post a statement that can be taken out of context and misunderstood. That's why we need to consider every judgment, because we never know when we might be getting it wrong. That's why we are called to be wise according to God's standards, not our own, with grace and mercy in every judgment. If we do so, we might just find peace in this world that seems so chaotic and confused.


October 15, 2010

"I rejoice greatly that I have found certain of thy children walking in truth, even as we received commandment from the Father. And now I beseech thee, lady, not as though I wrote to thee a new commandment, but that which we had from the beginning, that we love one another. And this is love, that we should walk after his commandments. This is the commandment, even as ye heard from the beginning, that ye should walk in it. For many deceivers are gone forth into the world, even they that confess not that Jesus Christ cometh in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. Look to yourselves, that ye lose not the things which we have wrought, but that ye receive a full reward. Whosoever goeth onward and abideth not in the teaching of Christ, hath not God: he that abideth in the teaching, the same hath both the Father and the Son. If any one cometh unto you, and bringeth not this teaching, receive him not into your house, and give him no greeting: for he that giveth him greeting partaketh in his evil works." 2 John 1:4-11, ASV

When I was young, I was staying at a hotel with my parents. I was in the pool when several other girls a little older than me approached and spoke in an odd sounding language. I thought they must be from another country, so I tried to communicate as best I could. It didn't take long for me to realize that the girls were just joking with me. They were making up the language; they were just pretending to be foreigners. In the end, I was disappointed and hurt by the experience, because they laughed and called me names. They didn't do it to have fun, but out of malice.

Most jokes or hoaxes are harmless, and yet they all have the potential of disappointing or hurting someone. Even those email hoaxes can have a negative effect on people. How many emails have we received about missing children that are not really missing? When we put all our energy into a story that is not true, we can potentially miss the story that is true, and someone may get hurt. I'm not sure we can add up the number of police hours that have been wasted chasing after criminals that did not exist. Just recently we heard the story of a woman who was supposedly attacked by a black woman that threw acid on her face. She was lying, but it took weeks for the truth to come out. In the meantime, many people sent donations because they felt sorry for her. She will be prosecuted, but how will this affect the good Samaritans who gave her cash to get through her troubles? They'll be less likely to believe the next person in need.

Yet, we keep falling for these hoaxes. Today is the one year anniversary of the "Balloon Boy" hoax. A family claimed their young son was carried away in a weather balloon. For hours we watched as the family paced and the police tried to save the child from harm. In reality, the child was hiding in a box in his attic, afraid of what his parents would do if he let everyone in on the secret. The secret was that the family, which formerly appeared on a reality show, was trying to get a new gig. They wanted the publicity, so they called the police and the news, crying for help. We believed them.

When these types of stories are over, we think that we'll never be taken again, but then we discover a reporter has made up facts to get a front page by-line or a woman has run away from a wedding rather than been kidnapped by a carjacker. We glue ourselves to the television, praying for the safety of the latest victim, only to discover that we are the victims of another hoax. How many does it take for us to learn? Even worse: how many does it take before we become so cynical that we stop caring?

There are many in the world who want to preach a gospel that is neither the truth, nor helpful. It might seem like their preaching is harmless, but it can be a disappointment and hurtful to those who believe. It may just cause them to stop believing anything they hear, knowing only the experience of falsehood. So, let's watch carefully as we listen, discerning truth from falsehood, checking every word against God's Word. Let us join together to share the message of grace, standing firmly in the teaching we have received from the days of the apostles to the great cloud of witnesses that have continued to share Christ's gospel today so that our neighbors will see God's grace in its truth and fullness.


October 18, 2010

"But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to councils, and in theirs synagogues they will scourge you; yea and before governors and kings shall ye be brought for my sake, for a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, be not anxious how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that hour what ye shall speak." Matthew 10:17-19, ASV

Some stories in the Bible are especially challenging. Take, for instance, the story of Jonah. God called him to preach repentance for the salvation of his enemies. When Jonah refused, God sent a storm that nearly killed a boatful of people. He allowed Jonah to be thrown overboard, sacrificed for the sake of a ship of pagans. Then he was swallowed by a fish, and lived there for three days. Now, this might seem miraculous, but can you imagine what it must have been like living inside a fish for three days? Even if Jonah didn't get swallowed into the stomach, but just hung out around the mouth of the fish, it is still a pretty gross thought. After three days the fish spit him out, and he had to go do what God called him to do, even though it was the last thing he wanted to do. Is this the way God treats those He loves and calls to His service?

The end of Jonah's story is hard to understand. We have sympathy for Jonah and his disappointment that his enemies have been saved from God's wrath. We know that feeling. I think we can identify with the picture of Jonah lamenting over their salvation; after all, these were people who had warred against Israel, killed some of Jonah's relatives and taken his people into slavery. Could we approach our enemies with grace? I don't think I have ever prayed for the destruction of those enemies, but I am surely not praying for God to bless them.

Poor Paul suffered at the hands of many for the work he was doing. The book of Acts is filled with stories of Paul's beatings and imprisonment. He was eventually martyred for his faith. In his letters Paul writes of his suffering, and he begs God to free him from some 'thorn in the flesh' that we haven't been able to identify. Paul was a man of great faith who willingly went into the unknown and did incredible work for God and Christ's church. If anyone deserved a blessed life, it was Paul, and yet his story is far from comfortable. He may have been captive in a house prison at one point, but he also was locked away in a dungeon. He was well fed at times, but starved at others. He knew pain and rejection.

We can't read any of the prophets and not see how God put them in a bad place. Jesus even cries over Jerusalem, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that killeth the prophets, and stoneth them that are sent unto her! how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!" (Matthew 23:37, ASV) They were chased and threatened and killed over the words God put in their mouths. It is a wonder anyone chooses to follow God's call, instead of running away like Jonah.

I have to admit that I'm afraid to write this devotional on some days, unsure of how the readers will receive the message. I wonder if what I've written is offensive to someone, especially if someone removes their name from my mailing list that day. I pray constantly that what I write is what God would have me say, rather than following some preconceived human agenda. Sometimes I sit down at the computer with an issue or a pet peeve on the tip of my tongue (or my fingers) with the intent of using this writing as a soapbox or a way to vent. I find it very difficult to write on those days, unable to put the words together as I want them to go.

Oh, I'm sure I win on some days, just as God allowed Jonah to get on that ship to Tarshish. I'm sure my agenda gets through once in awhile. But when I try to take control, to avoid saying the things that God would want me to say, I end up in my own big fish, soon to be spit out to go do or say the very thing I have been trying to avoid. It isn't always pleasant to obey God's call. Sometimes we have to say and do the hard things. Sometimes we have to make the people who are listening uncomfortable. Sometimes we have to be held captive because of that word.

But we know from the stories of Paul that the blessedness that comes with obedience is not necessarily roses and ice cream. We are confronted by a world that does not want to hear what we have to say. We have to tackle the fears that come when we know we are about to offend someone with a message that challenges their way of thinking. Paul may have suffered, but he was also greatly blessed. He lived with a sense of complete trust in God, a faith that had him constantly looking forward to the day when he wouldn't have to preach the hard things anymore. It was that faith that gave him the courage and the strength to say what needed to be said. May God grant me that kind of faith, especially on those days when I don't want to go to the Ninevites to share a word of God's grace.


October 19, 2010

"Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy: but I say unto you, love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you; that ye may be sons of your Father who is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust. For if ye love them that love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the Gentiles the same? Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Matthew 5:43-48, ASV

I like snow, but I hate dealing with snow. I think it is absolutely beautiful, but it gets pretty ugly after I've had to shovel a sidewalk or dig my car out of a drift. I don't like being cold or wet, two feelings that usually come with a snow storm. I've always said that I wouldn't mind living in a place where it snows if only God would make the snow fall only on the grass and trees. If the snow would deliberately avoid the sidewalks and roads, I'd be happy. That's not going to happen, so I'm happy to live in Texas where it rarely snows.

It is pretty obvious wherever you live in the United States that we are getting close to an election. The streets are covered in cardboard signs begging voters to choose one candidate over another. Radio and television programs are interrupted repeatedly by political ads which are even more intrusive than the signs. During the ads, the candidates give the voters plenty of reason to vote against their opponent, and little reason for voting for them. We see and hear the same ads over and over again until their words are imbedded into our heads.

I early voted yesterday. There's nothing any candidate can do to change my mind because it is too late. I made my choices, so I no longer need to hear or see the ads. Not that I let those brief glimpses into the lives of the candidates make my choice for me. They are all filled with half truths and manipulative words. I hate this time of year for this very reason: the campaigns seem to begin earlier and earlier these days, and I tire quickly of the talk. I like to early vote because I can tune it out, although it is very difficult to tune out something that saturates your world.

When I left the voting place, I turned to a couple that was also leaving and said, "Does this mean that they can stop playing all those political ads on my television?" The man shook his head and answered, "Unfortunately, no." Though these ads are meaningless for us, the candidates and pundits need to continue to reach out to the voters who have not yet gone to vote and convince them to choose their way. Meanwhile, unless we turn off the television (it doesn't matter what you watch, the political ads are everywhere) we'll just have to listen.

Sometimes we can't avoid the things we don't like. We have to walk in the snow because it will always land wherever it falls. We have to listen to the political ads because they have become such an important part of the campaigns of the candidates. We can't avoid the things that make us uncomfortable or are inconvenient. Sometimes those things even make us angry or frustrated.

But we can't avoid everything, and we can't hope that our enemies will miss out on the good things of life. The final verse of this passage is somewhat hard for us to deal with because none of us are able to be perfect. But, we assume perfection means never making a mistake or failing at what we try to do. Yet, this statement comes in conjunction not with a statement about the Law, but about love. Sure, God is perfect in his actions and his words. He doesn't make a mistake. He doesn't fail. But, that's not the kind of perfection Jesus is calling us to. We are to live in the love of God, knowing that the snow will fall on the sidewalks and the political ads will play whether we want them to. So, too, the sun will rise and the rain will fall on everyone. Good will happen; bad will happen. It has nothing to do with our righteousness or lack of it. So, God wants us to remember this and to share His love with everyone. There we will find perfection, even when the circumstances we face are less than perfect.


October 20, 2010

Scriptures for Sunday, October 24, Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 30: Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22 or Sirach 35:12-17; Psalm 84:1-6; 2 Timothy4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

"Blessed are they that dwell in thy house: They will be still praising thee." Psalm 84:4, ASV

One of my favorite places to visit when I lived in England was Ely Cathedral. Ely is located about fifteen miles from where we lived, and was a lovely town with a good fresh food market and several shops I liked to visit. The cathedral is beautiful, and was the site of many events for the local American community, including an annual Thanksgiving Eve service. I attended several special worships, heard amazing choirs and visited the cathedral with people who came to visit us in England.

A question on the website for Ely Cathedral asks, "Why was such a large church built in such a small town?" The reality is that the cathedral was there long before the town. It was originally built as a monastery by St. Etheldreda, a Christian woman who was queen of Northumbria until she gave up he power and position to become a nun. Her abbey lasted for two hundred years until it was destroyed by the invading Danes, and then when it was rebuilt as a Benedictine monastery, it was second only to Glastonbury in wealth. The wealth is obvious when we wander through the building, with incredible stone carving and state of the art building techniques. Unfortunately, the reformation in England manifested as a destructive force, and most of the statues and windows were destroyed. But the beauty of Ely is still apparent, and it is still known as "The Gateway to Heaven."

Ely was built in the middle of a fen, which is a grassland covered in water with high mineral and nutrient content. The cathedral was built on a hill in the middle of the fen, on solid ground that was like an island in the middle of a grassy sea. It is still called "The Ship in the Fen" though the fen has long been drained to take advantage of the rich soil for farming. In the early days of the cathedral, the looming presence of the building was a comfort and source for hope for those who were traveling in the harsh countryside. Today, Ely is still a source of hope in the region.

There were several roads I could take when driving to Ely. My favorite, though less convenient, path took me on a circuitous route to the city. The cathedral appears throughout the drive as the car reaches a rise in the land or turns a curve toward the city. Almost as soon as it appears, the curve turns back or we drive through a village. As you drive the route, you find yourself watching for it to appear. "There it is!" we would cry. It was one of the most beautiful drives in a country that is beautiful everywhere. It became more difficult to see the cathedral as you drove through the city, but then you knew that it was close. Since the market was close to the cathedral, I always managed to stand in the shadow of this magnificent building, and I always found it a comforting experience.

Can you imagine what it must have been like for those travelers who couldn't drive there in fifteen minutes or who didn't have to work their way through the busy city streets to get to the door? They would be able to gaze on the structure as they drew closer, trying to stay on the high ground, out of the water, and trying to avoid the pitfalls of the road. Imagine then, what it must have been like to finally reach the door of this place that would provide a hot meal and a warm bed, along with a word of hope and a prayer.

The traveler may have sung today's Psalm. "How amiable are thy tabernacles, O Jehovah of hosts! 2 My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of Jehovah; My heart and my flesh cry out unto the living God." After a long journey, the Israeli pilgrim finally reaches the gates of the Temple, the closest they might come to the gates of heaven in this world. Imagine standing in front of that impressive structure after making a hard and dangerous journey. It is truly a place of hope, especially as they probably caught glimpses of the Temple along the path.

It is thought that the psalm was written by someone who had been cast out of the Temple, perhaps a priest that was exiled or even David when he was in hiding. There is something very special about the dwelling place of God. Though I have never visited the site of the Temple, and I certainly can't experience God's presence in that place, I have had that type of experiences elsewhere, like in Ely. I remember visiting the cathedral on the day that a choir of students from Cambridge University was performing in the Lady Chapel, a perfectly designed acoustic marvel. Though there were only a couple dozen singers, it sounded as if the room were filled with all the angels of heaven. God is truly in all places, but there are special places where His presence is felt and experienced in a totally different way. To the psalmist, the Temple was that place. The singer has a deep longing to be there, to experience that presence, to know God in that intimate manner that comes with worship in God's house.

Our Gospel lesson is preceded by the question, "Nevertheless, when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?" This leads into the parable in today's Gospel lesson about two men: one man, a Pharisee, and the other, a tax collector. Each man approaches the altar of God, desirous of being in the presence of the Most High. They approach with very different attitudes. The first, the Pharisee, thinks he belongs there. He thinks he deserves the grace of God. The second, the tax collector, approaches God with a humble, repentant heart. He knows that he does not deserve God's forgiveness, but he asks in faith knowing that God is merciful.

The tax collector was a man who was reviled not only for his vocation but also for his religious impurity. He was a sinner and as a sinner he had no right to stand in the presence of God. He was not even good enough to be in the presence of the righteous Pharisee. Jesus tells them, “This man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” It was the sinner that humbled himself before God that was found to have faith. It was he that was granted forgiveness and was justified before God.

God is not fooled. He knows the heart. He knew the heart of the people in Jeremiah's day. Jeremiah lived at a difficult time for the people of Judah. They felt secure. Who would think that security is a bad thing? The problem is that the people were comfortable in their circumstances and were not able to see the reality of their future. They believed the false prophets that preached peace and ignored the word of warning sent through Jeremiah.

The message of Jeremiah was unpopular because he preached doom and gloom. He constantly warned that Judah and Jerusalem would fall. This was hard for the people to believe because they knew the promises of God that had been given to their forefathers and passed down through the generations. However, they had allowed the foreign gods to become a part of their lives. Jeremiah preached that God would not protect them because they had come to rely on the false gods. He left them in the care of gods that could not do anything to save them. They thought they deserved God's grace, but God did not protect them because they turned their backs on Him.

It was a time of political and military unrest. Babylon was right around the corner. The prophecies of Jeremiah could very well have happened at any moment. The people of Judah thought they had no need to worry, but they were apostate. They no longer relied on God. Jeremiah warned them that their apostasy would be their undoing. God would allow Babylon to destroy Judah. Though Jeremiah’s message included a promise for restoration, he preached about the need for repentance and humility before their God. God would be faithful, but the hope would only come after the destruction. This message made life very difficult for Jeremiah. He was hated and threatened. He was ignored and rejected. The people listened to the words of the false prophets and they refused to believe that Jeremiah was the true prophet.

In today’s passage we hear Jeremiah crying out to God for the sake of the people. He was begging for mercy for Judah, reminding God of His grace. I can understand Jeremiah’s case before God. What good will it do to have Judah destroyed? He reminds God that the destruction of Judah will dishonor Himself, because the destruction of Judah would mean breaking a covenant. In the verses we do not read for this day, God tells Jeremiah not to weep for Judah, that they will receive the just reward for believing the false prophets and worshipping the false gods. The Jews thought they had a special wealth as the chosen people of God. They thought they were guaranteed protection and prosperity based on their ancestry, but they had turned their backs on God. Though they still claimed to believe, they also worshipped false gods and believed the false prophets. They would soon learn that the Lord God Almighty is the only God and that it is only in Him that they will have peace.

Can you imagine hearing God say, "Don't pray for those people"? We learn that we should pray for everyone, the people we love and our enemies. And we shouldn't pray an agenda: when we pray for our enemies, we should pray blessings upon them. Yet, God says, "Don't pray for those people." The people of Judah and Israel had to know the loss of God's blessing before they could turn back to Him. They had to know without a doubt that God was not going to continue to take care of them if they were not going to worship Him and Him alone. It was tough love to the extreme. God is merciful, and He hears the prayers of the faithful. And so, He asks Jeremiah not to pray for the people or else He might have to relent and turn back the Babylonians.

In the second half of today's Old Testament passage, the nobles who were speaking confess that they have failed God. Or do they? Is their confession real, or is it more slick talk with a hard heart? Will they really abandon their false gods? God knew that exile was the only way for His people to realize their sinfulness. They had to suffer the consequences of turning away from Him.

It is easy for us to fall into the trap of believing that God is blessing us for something we've done or something we are. The Israelites and Judeans believed that God blessed them because of their history. The Pharisee believed that God blessed him because he did all the right things. Many in the church today believe that there are those in our society that will receive God's grace just because of the circumstances into which they have fallen. Will a poor man be blessed just because he is poor? This is as poor an assumption as the first two.

The lectionary gives us the option of using text from the book of Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus, a book of wisdom. Today's passage is a message about generosity, remembering that God has given everything we have and we don't deserve His grace because we are so generous. The writer says, "Give to the Most High as he has given to you, and as generously as you can afford." This means that the call for generosity is for all people, whether they are wealthy and can give vast amounts away or if they are poor and can only share a few pennies. Sometimes we think that the poor are blessed just because they are poor, but they are called to live the life that trusts in God along with those of us who are wealthier. The writer says, "He will not show partiality to the poor…"

Now, the sentence continues, "…but he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged." In other words, justice is not about spreading the wealth around, it is about making everything right. Some people, especially widows and orphans, are poor not because they have done anything wrong but because they have been cheated by someone more powerful. Is it just to take the house away from a hard working person who has earned it to give it to a lazy bum who has done nothing with his life? No, certainly not. But it is just for a judge to order a dishonest salesman to refund the money lost by someone who believed a false sales pitch.

God looks at the heart. He gives justice and forgiveness to those who humble themselves before Him and admit that they deserve nothing He has to give. When we do, when we admit our sinfulness and accept His judgment, we'll find that though we may suffer the consequences of our sin, we'll be blessed in the end. The nobles in Jeremiah's day confessed their sinfulness, but expected God to protect them without any real repentance. The Pharisee thought he was righteous and expected God to see how much better he was than the tax collector.

Paul was at the end of his life when he wrote the second letter to Timothy. He knew it was time to pass the baton to the next racer. He felt abandoned in the end, by all his friends and co-workers. Despite all his hard work for the Gospel and his generosity to his Christian friends, they left him to face the end alone. Of all the people who deserved to be given the respect of the community of believers, Paul was left to face it without them.

Yet, even then Paul knew he had not been totally abandoned. God was with him. God gave him the strength to go from grace to grace, to preach the Word even when it was dangerous. Paul was like the pilgrim going from spring to spring as he traveled through dangerous territory to get to the Temple, anxiously awaiting the chance to see it again and to worship God in His house. He gave the glory to God, never taking credit for the good that he did.

Will we approach our God with the same awe I felt when driving toward the cathedral in Ely? Will we pray with true humility, seeking God's grace despite our sinfulness? Will we give to God what is God's? Will we remember that we are not blessed because of anything we are or do? Do we long to dwell in the presence of God with such a desire that we would travel a dangerous path just to see it? Will we trust in ourselves or will we trust that God will stand by us through everything, giving Him the glory for ever and ever?


October 21, 2010

"But now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, unless I speak to you either by way of revelation, or of knowledge, or of prophesying, or of teaching? Even things without life, giving a voice, whether pipe or harp, if they give not a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped? For if the trumpet give an uncertain voice, who shall prepare himself for war? So also ye, unless ye utter by the tongue speech easy to understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye will be speaking into the air. There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and no kind is without signification. If then I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be to him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh will be a barbarian unto me. So also ye, since ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may abound unto the edifying of the church." 1 Corinthians 14:6-12, ASV

When I take Zack to golf on Saturday, I sometimes spend the waiting time in my car catching up on my reading or some craft project. I try to park in the shade and open the car windows; even on a hot day there can be a lovely breeze that keeps me comfortable. It is generally quiet and I'm able to focus on my book or project. I could go into the club house, but there is not much seating and there are always kids noisily running around.

I didn't get my usual parking spot the other week, and I was much closer to the road. The traffic wasn't too noisy, but I was also close to the park train that makes the rounds every twenty minutes or so past the club house. A small train crossing gate blocks the driveway each time the train goes by. I could hear the engineer talking about the First Tee program, encouraging the parents to consider it for their sons and daughters. Then, after the train passed, the arms went back up and it got quiet for a few more minutes. I don't mind the train because it is fun to wave at the families as they putter by.

The noise made by the crossing gate as they went up was bothersome, though. At first I couldn't find the source of the noise. I thought it was a screaming child. I looked around the parking lot and I couldn't see anyone around. The noise stopped and I went back to my reading. It happened again, and again I couldn't find a source. As the train passed the third time, I realized that it was not a screaming child, but the squeaky crossing gate going up after the train. I heard the noise a few times, and even after knowing the source, I still thought it was a screaming child. For that brief moment, each time the train passed, I heard a baby's cry, even though it was not a baby crying.

We constantly hear noise all around us. Besides the natural noises and the noises of civilization, we hear the voices of those talking to and at us. I think it is especially true at this time of year in the United States, when candidates are trying to convince us to vote for them. We cannot escape their words because even if we turn off the television, radio and computer, their posters are popping up on every street corner. A friend asked yesterday, "Can nobody speak eloquently about his/her own gifts without tearing down the opponent?" It is hard to know who is worth our vote, especially since they all spin the truth to their advantage. The best we can do is to follow those who build up others. Are there any politicians who do that? I don't know.

Unfortunately, we have the same problem in the Church. We spin the scriptures to fit our agendas, pick and choose the texts we want to use. We ignore the things the Bible says that don't fit into our ideology. We explain away the words that make us uncomfortable. It is difficult to tell the difference between those who are spouting interpretation and those who are speaking for God. We may not have many people speaking in tongues these days, but I don't think we have many people speaking prophecy, either. In this day (in every age) it is up to faithful, committed Christians to find and develop their spiritual gifts, to follow the call of God to build up the Church in the world. We need to learn to discern between the voices. We must be careful to listen to the voices that speak God's Word and not follow those who are speaking in tongues that can not be understood according to the Word of God.


October 22, 2010

"And the king spake unto Ashpenaz the master of his eunuchs, that he should bring in certain of the children of Israel, even of the seed royal and of the nobles; youths in whom was no blemish, but well-favored, and skilful in all wisdom, and endued with knowledge, and understanding science, and such as had ability to stand in the king's palace; and that he should teach them the learning and the tongue of the Chaldeans. And the king appointed for them a daily portion of the king's dainties, and of the wine which he drank, and that they should be nourished three years; that at the end thereof they should stand before the king." Daniel 1:3-5

I occasionally go read the classified ads, just to see if there are any jobs that might be suitable for me. I'm not really looking for a job, but I might enjoy going back to work if I could find the perfect job. I doubt I'll ever find the perfect job in the newspaper, since most businesses use the Internet to fill positions, but it can never hurt to look. When I find something that looks interesting, I use the information in the ad to find the company through a search engine on my computer. A page on the company's website usually lists job openings with more detailed information, like job descriptions and requirements.

It doesn't matter whether the job is for a top position or is entry level, the job posting is written as if it is the most important position in the world. They are looking for good candidates, and in a market where there are so many people searching for the right job, the companies can be picky. Since most experienced workers would rather not take an entry level position, the company makes even the low level jobs sound worthwhile. They also promise quick advancement. Though they have the upper hand in the job market right now, they also want to ensure that they are receiving resumes from the best candidates.

Besides looking for people with appropriate experience in these job positions, there are a few key attributes that are almost always listed in the requirements. They want people who have strong communications skills, who know how to use the computer (what job doesn't require a computer these days?) They are looking for self-starters, independent workers, team players. They want people with customer service skills. Some jobs require a driver's license or special certification. Others require the ability to do certain tasks like lift heavy boxes or stand on your feet for a long time. They are looking for people who are organized and who can multi-task. I'm not sure how they can test for some of these job requirements, but I suppose that just listing these things will weed out some of the candidates.

Suppose you were a king, or a CEO, getting ready to hire someone to work for you. What sort of qualifications would you include in your job posting? I don't think we would ever see the scripture for today listed on monster.com as requirements for any position. The king wanted perfect young men from good families, intelligent and well-educated. The king wanted smart, good looking men to serve in his court. But are those the most important characteristics for a position of authority in a kingdom, or a company? I'm not even sure the requirements posted on the Internet are even the characteristics that are most desirable in a new hire.

I was taken aback when I read this passage because it is so different than what God seeks in the people who do His work. He looks to the heart, not to the outer appearances. He doesn't call the wise, but the humble. He doesn't require experience, or special abilities or certifications because He provides all we need to do His work. It might be important to have special skills or appearance for certain jobs, but as we try to find the work that we are meant to do in this world, let us always remember that God does not have a list of job requirements. He's looking for humble and joyful hearts and a willingness to share His grace. Now that's the kind of job I enjoy!


October 25, 2010

"The horseleach hath two daughters, crying, Give, give. There are three things that are never satisfied, Yea, four that say not, Enough: Sheol; and the barren womb; The earth that is not satisfied with water; And the fire that saith not, Enough." Proverbs 30:15-16, ASV

Do you remember the game they used to play (perhaps they still do) on Sesame Street with four objects? They showed the children four objects and then sang a song that went something like this: "One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn't belong. Can you tell which thing is not like the others by the time I finish my song?" The viewer looks at the four pictures and picks the one thing that is different.

Now, the items are often alike in some way. In one episode, the pictures were of balls: three were basketballs and one was a football. It is obvious that the football is different, and yet it was still the same because it was a ball. In another, the four items were all fruit, but three of the fruits were yellow. The fourth fruit was red apples. In that one, the yellow fruits were apple, pear and banana. Now, the red apples are the obvious choice, and yet the viewer can also see that the banana is much different than the other three fruits because it is long rather than round. It might be more confusing, especially to a growing mind, to see two different types of apples, after all, how can they be different since they are so much the same?

The book of proverbs has many one or two line bits of wisdom to help the faithful live well. The book also includes longer oracles or parables. The word translated "proverb" can also mean "taunt." So, the book gives us more than just a list of proverbs. Our text today is just one of many "numerical proverbs" that open with a statement about a number of things and then continues with another number of things, usually three and four. These sayings include three things and four things that are the same. One talks of things amazing to the writer. Another talks of things that tremble. Yet another talks of things that are both small and wise.

In today's passage three things are not satisfied, four that never say "enough." The choices are interesting to consider, especially in light of how they are not satisfied. The grave, the barren womb, the land and fire are meant to be seen in a negative light, as if they are destructive in some way. The proverb tells us that the leech has two daughters constantly demanding things. The same is true of the four things listed. The grave demands bodies, the barren womb a seed, the land water and fire more to burn.

Yet, one of these things is not like the others. Three of these things consume what they demand. The grave consumes the bodies, the land consumes the water and the fire consumes everything it touches. But the womb does not consume the seed; it bears the seed until the day it is born into the world. The womb feeds the seed, nurtures the seed, grows the seed until it becomes a living human being. The grave cries out for more bodies though it has already had many. The land cries out for more water even when it has had enough to grow a crop. Fire cries out for more to burn even though it has destroyed whole forests. But the barren womb is not satisfied because it has not been given the opportunity to do what it was created to do.

We can find ways that these things are the same, and ways that these things are different. So what lesson can we learn from this proverb? One thing is this: be satisfied, enough is enough, there is always hope. The grave will continue to seek bodies because that is our fate in this current age, but we do not need to drag people into death. We can share the word of life so that the grave can not hold them. The barren womb may not produce an heir, but the woman need not feel desolate or desperate, God has not forgotten her, but perhaps has a different plan. The land may seem parched, but the rain will fall again in God's time. Fire may consume the forest, but new life will come. There is always hope even when there seems to be none.


October 26, 2010

"There are four things which are little upon the earth, But they are exceeding wise: the ants are a people not strong, Yet they provide their food in the summer; the conies are but a feeble folk, Yet make they their houses in the rocks; the locusts have no king, yet go they forth all of them by bands; the lizard taketh hold with her hands, Yet is she in kings' palaces." Proverbs 30:24-28, ASV

One of my favorite bible stories is that of David, when he is chosen to be king. Samuel went to Jesse's house and watched as Jesse's powerful sons walked by, thinking each one would make a fine king. But God had another plan: He chose David, the youngest and smallest of the sons, the one with a heart for God. Though he didn't fit the expectation of strength and authority, he had true wisdom because he looked to God. In the story of David and Goliath, we see a young boy stand up to a giant who could destroy him with one hand tied behind his back. But David was wise. He didn't try to fight fire with fire. He fought fire with a slingshot and stone.

Bigger is not always better. Wisdom matters. Today's proverb helps us to look at the problems of the world from the point of view of the powerless. How do you deal with the problems of life when you don't have power or authority or strength?

The ants, we are told, are not strong, but they provide food for summer. Ants, we know, are actually very strong for their size, able to carry many times their weight. Yet, they often must carry that food a great distance. How long would it take to gather enough food to last a summer if you had to travel hundreds of miles with every trip? But the ant is wise because he constantly works with the other ants to gather food. They aren't lazy, they are hardworking, and because they are hardworking they will always have enough. That seems pretty wise to me.

The conies, which are either rabbits or badgers that live in the rocks, are wise because they have found a place to go when they are in danger. My kitty Delilah is like a coney whenever she is being chased by one of the boy kitties. She has a hiding place where she can go to get away from their horseplay. She is safe when she is there, not because they can't reach her but because they can't harm her when she is there. Though the homes in rocks might not seem very safe, the conies have found a way to hide from the danger in the rocks. That seems pretty wise to me.

I don't like locusts, but we can learn a valuable lesson from them. We think that nothing will be accomplished unless there is a leader, someone to control everything. Yet somehow the locusts are able to move forward by following each other. They gather together into bands or groups and then work together for a common purpose. They don't need executive committees to make decisions; they follow the vision and do the work. We can learn that groups can work together without a hierarchy or a king as long as they have a common vision and work toward that purpose. That seems pretty wise to me.

The lizard is smart because she dwells in the shadow of the king. She is easy prey, especially those tiny lizards like the ones we have hanging out around our house. Snakes, birds of prey and large mammals eat lizards. I have seen cats catch and eat lizards without any trouble. Yet, while a king may allow a lizard into his abode, it is unlikely that he would allow snakes or wild birds into his house. So, the lizard finds a place of safety in the house of the king and the king most likely will not harm the lizard because she does not attack the things he values and she eats the other pests in the house. She has no power or authority, but she lives peacefully among those with wealth and position, doing what she can do and demanding nothing in return. That seems pretty wise to me.

Our circumstances may not always call for this type of wisdom, after all there are times when we have to stop and rest, times when a rock dwelling is not enough, times when we have to follow a leader and times when we have to get out from the shadow of another. But, wisdom means discerning the right time for strength and the right time for humility. The wise person is the one who knows when to be bold and when to recognize that they are small and weak. Discernment means choosing the right opportunities to work together, to hide, to follow and to dwell in the house of the king. There may be a time to be big and strong, but it is always right to be wise no matter what our size, to find a way through the problems of life when it seems that you don't have the power or authority or strength to do so.


October 27, 2010

Since Sunday is actually Reformation Day, I'm going to stick with the Reformation texts in today's devotional. You can check out Midweek Oasis from previous years at 2007 or 2004.

Sunday, October 31, 2010, Reformation Day: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 46; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36 or Lectionary 31: Isaiah 1:1-10; Psalm 32:1-8; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-14, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10

"If therefore the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed." John 8:36, ASV

My brother loves to fix cars. For as long as I can remember, he's had grease up to his elbows and car parts strewn around the garage. My first few cars were vehicles that he picked out of the junkyard and fixed for me. One of my favorites was a red Volkswagen Rabbit that he found that had been totaled by the insurance company. I paid $50 plus $600 for parts, and I had a great car.

My brother has a real passion for auto mechanics, so much so he was thrilled when he got a job teaching shop class at the local Vo-Tech school. He was excited to be able to share his knowledge with the next generation of mechanics, to mentor young people in the job he loves. He's old enough to know it is time to pass the baton, and he was looking forward to taking his passion into the classroom.

Then he got into the classroom. Now, the Vo-Tech school is a wonderful opportunity for those students who want to pursue careers in technical and skilled professions. Not everyone is cut out to go to college, and many have much more successful careers by pursuing the training needed for professions like automobile mechanic. When I was in high school, I considered taking the commercial advertising program that was offered. Unfortunately, the Vo-Tech has (or at least had, when I was in school) a reputation of being a place where the unmanageable students are sent. They aren't succeeding in regular classes, and the teachers are tired of dealing with them, so the kids are sent off to Vo-Tech to get them out of their hair. So, my guidance counselor recommended that I stay in college prep classes and plan to go on to higher education. If I still wanted to pursue commercial advertising, I could do it at college. I've often wondered if we made the right choice.

Things are not much better at the Vo-Tech. The slackers are still sent there to pass the time, and though there are a few students who really want to learn, most of them are just passing the time until they are set free into the world, unprepared and expecting little more than that minimum wage job and a trailer park lifestyle. Ok, that might be a little extreme, but my brother has discovered that there are few students who really even want to learn how to turn a screwdriver. They want to get out of school as fast as possible with as little work as is necessary. He's finding that his job is not one of mentoring the next generation, but of babysitting.

The first nine weeks of school are spent in temporary classrooms, as each student is given the opportunity to try three different programs. They get to experience each for just three weeks, and at the end of the time they school a direction of study that they want to continue. A majority of students have no desire to be mechanics, so they barely even listen to him during those first nine weeks. Even when they do choose the class, most of them are motivated by reasons other than a passion for the job. Some of the girls choose it because it is a great place to meet guys, but they don't want to get their hands dirty or break their nails, so they refuse to do much in the class. The guys think it will be an easy class.

Have you ever tried to teach a kid who doesn't want to learn? My own kids, who are terrific, are absolutely stubborn about doing things they don’t want to do. If I ask them to do something, like clean their room, they avoid it like the plague. It takes threats or bribes to eventually get the job done, but even then it is not really complete. When I check on their work, I'm bound to find a pile of garbage that they think they've hidden in the corner or a closet overflowing with junk.

But, when they want to do something, it becomes an all consuming passion. I have a friend who is an art teacher. She runs into much the same trouble as my brother: there are always students in her class that are there because they have to be, not because they want to be. There is no heart in the work; it takes all her energy just to drag something out of them with each project. But she is renewed when she finds a student with passion. They do the work with enthusiasm. That's the difference between outward and inward calling. When an outside being is forcing the commitment, it is half hearted and they are likely to disobey. When the calling is from the inside, from the heart, a herd of wild buffaloes wouldn't keep them away.

That's the difference between the Old and New Covenants. The Old Covenant was attached to a list of laws that were required for righteousness. Leaders demanded obedience, and they made threats or bribes to keep the people in line. The leaders laid heavy burdens on the people, so the people failed. They couldn't do it, and they didn't have the heart to do it. The trouble with commands is that people tend to disobey. But when the there is desire in the heart, the commands are easy. That's why God made a New Covenant, one that does not require you to do something, but instead gives the believer the faith to do something.

The New Covenant gives us a new attitude, changes how we look at God's Law and God's Word. Faith makes us respond to the will and call of God. That's the promise we hear in the lesson from Jeremiah, that the Old Covenant, which comes from outside, will be replaced with a covenant that comes from inside. God's Word is placed in the heart; faith is given so that the believer can respond out of love rather than fear or greed. The Law still has a purpose, in that it helps us to see that we are in need of a Savior. We are no longer burdened by that Law, but we are set free by faith to live out God's Word in the world.

Jesus told those listening that the truth would set them free, but the Jewish leaders didn't understand what he was talking about. "We are Abraham's seed, and have never yet been in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, ye shall be made free?" Ever since the days of Moses, the Jews have not had to live as slaves. Yet, they are not truly free because they are bound by their attachment to this world. They rely on their heritage; they rely on Abraham and Moses for their salvation. But since they can not keep the Law perfectly, they will always fail to live up to the expectations of that Law.

Jesus says that whenever you sin, no matter how small or insignificant, you are a slave to sin. When you rely on your own righteousness, you will fail. You will never really be free. Freedom comes from God, faith is the gift that is planted in our hearts and that changes our attitude. Faith distinguishes the slaves from the children of God. By faith you become a son or daughter of the Most High.

We are burdened by the social, political and religious structures in our world. The Jews were burdened by their reliance on their heritage and works righteousness. In Martin Luther's day, the people were burdened by the indulgences that were determined by the Church to be the way to freedom.

He saw that the Church, which was meant to be a place of refuge and strength, had become no different than the religious faith of those Jews in Jesus' day. The Church was laying heavy burdens on the shoulders of the people, making it impossible for them to be faithful. Martin Luther realized that something was wrong. It was too much for Luther to bear, so he sought God’s word in the Bible. He found the answer in this passage. “We reckon therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” Freedom in Christ comes from the knowledge that we are not able to justify ourselves. We do not have to work for God’s love, but we receive it in faith so that we might live it in the world.

He wrote today's Psalm as a song of praise and confidence in God's presence. The strength and refuge is not found in the Church, but is found in God. Throughout history, God's people have allowed a few to stand in the way of their relationship with Him. In Moses' day, the people were afraid to hear God's voice for themselves and so they relied on Moses to speak for Him. In one story, some men in the camp received the Holy Spirit and prophesied apart from Moses. Joshua was jealous for Moses, but Moses was not upset by this. "I would prefer that all God's people were prophets!" He wanted everyone to have the same intimate, son-like relationship with God that he had.

In Jesus' day, the people relied on the priests and the temple leaders to do the work of the temple, having them make offerings and prayers for their sake. Those leaders did not think the people were worthy of standing in God's presence, they were not righteous enough. Jesus encouraged the people to renew their relationship with God, to call on Him personally, to call Him Father. He showed the people that they could live in faith, free to do what is right not required to do what is right to be free.

I don't think things are much different today. The Church often still burdens her people with unrealistic expectations and makes them slaves to ideology and works. I once listened as a church leader, who was giving a message about stewardship, told the congregation about loyalty. He demanded that every member should be loyal to that church, to the building and to the ministry within. He missed the mark in that speech, and in doing so laid a heavy burden on the congregation. Our loyalty is not now, nor should it ever be, to a building or a pastor or even a particular group of people. Our loyalty is meant to be for God. When we give our offerings, do our good works, provide the resources for ministry, we are not doing it for anything earthbound, but for God. When our loyalty gets turned around, we have lost touch with God and we are once again a slave to sin.

The churches we attend, the pastors we follow, the congregations we love will fail. The church is not indestructible. But God is. When we turn our attitude and live in that faith He has given, not relying on anything human, we'll find that the work we do will not be a burden and it will not fail, for God will make it succeed.

Martin Luther lived in uncertain times. It must have been dreadfully disappointing to see the church he loved to be so misguided. He was not perfect himself, but he understood what it meant to be forgiven. He knew that his future was not dependent on doing what the church said he had to do. His future, his salvation, was dependent on what Christ had already done. He believed God's word above the word of the Church, and he spoke that word to God's people. He simply wanted God's people to be free to know Him, to live in faith and to serve one another.

Unfortunately, the church is still that imperfect institution that makes demands on her people that God does not require. Our issues may be different today, but we are still burdened by the expectations of people. Is it any wonder that we have a difficult time getting people to do the work necessary to keep a church vital? After all, though we might be older and more mature, we aren't much different than those teenagers in my brother and my friend's classes. We don't want to do the things we are forced to do any more than they do. The churches that are most successful are those that encourage the people to trust in God and to live out that faith that they have been given.

When we receive that faith and are transformed into a son or daughter of God, we also receive gifts to be used along side that new attitude. We will be drawn into the worship and service of God by the Spirit that dwells within, urging us into the work that will glorify God in the world. We'll never be able to serve God if we are forced to do so. That's why God looks to the hearts of His servants, searching out those who have the passion and drive to do what needs to be done. The church that realizes this, that teaches that we aren't justified by any act of our own but by the grace of God, will find that the people will be free to do what God is calling them to do. And they will see God in the midst of it all.

The turning point for Luther’s faith was a discovery in scripture that was seemingly lost in the teaching of the church of that day. He realized that there was nothing he could do to make himself right with God. He was a sinner in need of a Savior, and only Jesus Christ could bring justification and sanctification to his life. This knowledge made Luther free. It makes us free, too, to live and love and work according to God's righteousness, following the passions of our heart which by faith will be in line with God's will in this world. He calls us from the inside, through the gift of faith we receive as we believe in Jesus. The new attitude we have in the New Covenant will make us long to be actively involved in God's creative and redemptive work. We need not be forced to do anything to be righteous, for God has made us righteous and in that righteousness we'll do what is right. He has set us free.


October 28, 2010

"Bow down thine ear, O Jehovah, and answer me; For I am poor and needy. Preserve my soul; for I am godly: O thou my God, save thy servant that trusteth in thee. Be merciful unto me, O Lord; For unto thee do I cry all the day long. Rejoice the soul of thy servant; For unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul. For thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive, And abundant in lovingkindness unto all them that call upon thee. Give ear, O Jehovah, unto my prayer; And hearken unto the voice of my supplications. In the day of my trouble I will call upon thee; For thou wilt answer me. There is none like unto thee among the gods, O Lord; Neither are there any works like unto thy works. All nations whom thou hast made shall come and worship before thee, O Lord; And they shall glorify thy name. For thou art great, and doest wondrous things: Thou art God alone. Teach me thy way, O Jehovah; I will walk in thy truth: Unite my heart to fear thy name. I will praise thee, O Lord my God, with my whole heart; And I will glorify thy name for evermore. For great is thy lovingkindness toward me; And thou hast delivered my soul from the lowest Sheol." Psalm 86:1-13, ASV

What does your prayer life look like?

A Pew Research Center study on prayer suggests that sixty percent of Americans pray at least once a day. The number is lower than I expected, and yet the study becomes more clear when you look at the graphs that delineate between religious traditions. Though there are also differences in age, gender and income, the greatest differences are found in the affiliations of those who were surveyed. For example, 89% of Jehovah's Witnesses surveyed claimed to pray daily compared to just 26% of Jewish respondents. The only group less likely to pray than the Jewish population is the unaffiliated. The rest fell as follows: 82% (Mormons) ,Historically Black Protestant (80%), Evangelical Protestant (78%), Hindu (61%), Orthodox Christian (60%), Catholic (58%), Mainline Protestant (53%), and 45% (Buddist).

We are more likely to pray as we get older, with 18-29 year olds at 48% and those over 65 at 68%. Women (66%) are more likely to pray daily than men (49%). Daily prayer goes down with wealth, with those making less than $30,000 a year likely to pray daily 64% of the time and those making over $100,000 only 48%. Pew Forum, Prayer in America

These are interesting facts, but I'm more interested in knowing that that prayer life looks like. The Muslim respondents are likely to follow the prescribed ritual of prayer five times a day, kneeling on a prayer rug facing Mecca. Catholic prayer often comes with a rosary. Buddhists meditate. Hindus and Jews follow certain ceremonies and recite specific prayers. Sikhs have a specific prayer they say before or after completing and important task.

I think it is less certain what you might find at prayer time in a Protestant household. Many of my friends, myself included, claim daily prayer includes a constant connection to God, with quick-as-needed prayers sent when specific needs are known. I like to pray when I'm doing dishes, perhaps because there is something mindless about the task. I let my mind wander as I'm scrubbing dried food off the dinner plates, and that wandering often ends up in prayer. I also pray while I'm driving, sometimes for safety, but also for those who come to mind while I'm focused on the road ahead. I pray when I'm at the computer, too, particularly when I'm preparing to write this devotion. We pray whenever we gather around the dinner table, to thank God for His blessings, but like any modern family, those times are not nearly often enough.

I have to admit, however, to not being very good at setting aside time specifically for prayer. I rarely get down on my knees, or even fold my hands and close my eyes. I don't think those postures are necessary for communion with the divine, but I do know my quick-as-needed prayers are less than satisfying for myself and for my God.

I was thinking about it last night, and I realized those prayers are like the quick wave and hello yelled to our neighbors from our driveways as we are arriving home in the evening. I know all my neighbors by name, and I've had conversations with all of them, and yet I don't really know them. I trust that they are looking out for us, just as we are looking out for them. I know that if I needed anything, they'd be there to help. But I don't really know them. I haven't taken the time to sit down and hear about their dreams and their joys. I don't know their sorrows about which I could pray. And they don't know mine.

Prayer is like that, but it is God with whom we are having the conversation. When our prayer life is one of quick-as-needed prayers or prayers said while distracted by the tasks we have to do, then we aren't taking time to have a conversation with Him. We aren't taking the time to listen. We aren't sharing with God our deepest dreams and joys. Though He knows everything about us, to the very depths of our souls, He wants to hear what we have to say. He's willing to listen when we are afraid and is ready to cry with us as we share our sorrows. He wants to be part of our happiness. He wants to have a relationship with us, but all too often we treat Him simply as a receiver for cries of need.

So, what does your prayer life look like? Do you take the time to follow a ritual that will put you into a focused state of mind, dedicating specific time and space to the conversation? Do you use prayer tools or have a specific posture of kneeling or bowed head? Do you pray whenever there is a need, reaching out to God for help and comfort? Do you pray at dinner? Do you accompany prayer time with scripture reading and study? Do you talk through it, or do you stop to listen?

However you pray, remember that it is a conversation with a friend, the greatest friend you can have. Don't treat Him with just a wave and a holler, give him yourself. Do not pray simply as a duty or daily ritual, but enjoy your time with Him. Bask in His presence, accept His encouragement, and be comforted by His grace.


October 29, 2010

"For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not found vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. Whether then it be I or they, so we preach, and so ye believed." 1 Corinthians 15:9-11, ASV

I'm nearly finished with the book "Julie and Julia" in which writer Julie Powell tells the story of her blog. On a whim, or out of desperation to find some significance to her life, she decided to cook her way through Julia Child's book "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." She promised that she'd do it in a year and that she'd blog about all her successes and failures. It didn't take long before she had a faithful readership. She felt that this was at the same time encouraging and creepy.

Life got in the way early in the project and she missed some days of cooking and posting. When she returned, one of her bleaders (as she calls her blog readers) posted a comment about how much she was missed and how the bleader was worried. She didn't want Julie to go away again. On the one hand, it was nice to know that people cared. On the other hand, it was a bit creepy to have a total stranger a thousand miles away worrying about her. On another occasion, Julie complained on the blog that the project was getting a little expense. Someone found her address and mailed her a gift to get her through the tough times. Again, nice that people care but creepy that strangers would go to so much trouble to send her something.

Then came the fame. She started receiving calls from magazines, television networks and even the New York Times. With each new report or article, she became more well-known. Someone recognized her as she waited for a ferry, and they talked about the blog and the food Julie was learning to make. Others were interested in the conversation, impressed that she was someone of some celebrity. Julie thought it was cool, but… perhaps just a little creepy to have so many people want to know who she was. One thing she did like was how the people in her favorite shops were getting more business based on the foods she was cooking. They were selling those unusual ingredients like offal (animal organs), which no one had the stomach or knowledge to cook. And they thanked her for it. As she says, "That was fun."

The climax of the whole experience for Julie came when she was interviewed by Amanda Hesser of the New York Times. She was a food writer, known for her restaurant critiques and for Julie it was a big deal. Of all the people she had to impress with her cooking during that year (at least as far into the book I've read), this was the most important. As I read the story of their meeting, I had to ask myself, "How does one get from being a nobody to cooking for the food writer of the New York Times? How does something who was a secretary drone for a government agency get their picture in magazines and a four minute story on the nightly news? How does someone throw together a blog of ridiculous antics and French cooking for a year and become famous?

I have a confession to make. I sometimes wish that my rantings would become more popular and that I could be the one to get that phone call to talk about my devotional on a television show. I admit that I harbor a bit of the green eyed devil called envy when I hear about some stupid video that has gone viral and has had a million hits in a day. Or when that family puts out a website asking for help that draws the attention of the nation. I wonder why, after eleven years, I haven't found even a fraction of the fame. But I know even the thought of strangers searching for my address to send unsolicited gifts or desperately pleading with me to never miss another day of posting is really creepy.

And, whenever I get those feelings of envy over someone who has this sudden fame, I realize that God is in control. If fame was what he intended for this message, fame is what would have come from it. I know that it would be wonderful to have a million people read the messages of grace and peace and hope, but God has His own plan. When we are jealous of the experiences of others, we show our ungratefulness and dissatisfaction with God's intention for us. And so, let us always be satisfied with the work we are called to do and thank God for those who have other journeys to travel.