Monday, June 29, 2020

“My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me, because I was found innocent in his sight.” —Daniel 6:22

Several hundred years before the birth of Jesus, God’s chosen people suffered a traumatic experience. For many generations, the nation of Israel, and later the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah, had been struggling in a variety of ways with antagonistic nations and empires beyond their borders. As large empires rose, the political independence of God’s people was threatened. Eventually, the northern kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrian Empire. Later, the ascendant Babylonian Empire defeated the southern kingdom and took God’s people into exile.

The Jews in exile in Babylon were faced with the complicated and heart-wrenching decision of how to respond to this exile. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God called the people to work for the good of the city of Babylon. Even though they were in exile, in the capital city of their conquerors, the people responded by working for the well-being of those they might consider enemies, trusting God that the good of their neighbors/enemies (or “neighnemies”) would work out for their own good as well.

In this context, Daniel prospered as he worked with diligence and integrity for the Babylonian Empire. He ended up in a position of great authority and power. But this did not exempt him from the difficulty of being a Jew living in a foreign empire. Jealous enemies of Daniel set him up and sold him out. Daniel had continued to worship the one true God, even after a law was put into place outlawing such worship. Despite his service to the empire and the king, Daniel was sentenced to spend a night in a lions’ den.

What was intended to be a death sentence instead ended up pointing to the power and faithfulness of God. The plots of Daniel’s enemies were no match for the power and faithfulness of Daniel’s God.

Our faithful God calls each of us to faithfulness. We’re called, like Daniel, to be diligent. We’re called to have integrity. We’re called to work for the good of the places we live and the people we live alongside. We’re called to have single-hearted devotion to our God.

And God promises to make a way for us through all the schemes of the enemy. God promises to make a way through the wickedness of the human heart. God promises to make a way and to remain faithful even when our own faithfulness falters.

To be sure, we cannot always see the way through when we’re on this side of the grave. Many of God’s faithful people have lost their lives, martyred for their faithfulness and devotion to the Lord. But in Christ we know that even then—even in the very worst this world can throw at us—we are not beyond the scope of God’s faithfulness. And so we, like Daniel, rejoice because our God has claimed us, has led us, has protected us, and has made a way for us.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Blessed are those who act justly, who always do what is right. — Psalm 106:3

The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever. — 1 John 2:17

One time, when I got the flu as a kid, we rented The Music Man on VHS and I watched it over and over and over…and over. In middle school, I spent a summer in the cast of a community theater production of the same show. And a few years after that, it was my high school’s spring musical. This play followed me around in my youth, and it sort of weaves its way into my thoughts now and again. Today, something called “The Think System” is on my mind.

In The Music Man, The Think System is the phony band director’s fraudulent approach to teaching kids how to play instruments. The idea is if you just think enough about playing a tuba or a trumpet, then you’ll be able to. Of course, you don’t have to be a skilled musician to know that the way to learn an instrument isn’t only to think about playing it, it’s to do it.

I believe I sometimes approach my own discipleship in a manner akin to The Think System…as if growing as a disciple is simply a matter of doing the right interior work. But a life of a discipleship isn’t only thinking about how to love God and neighbor, it’s doing it.

Today’s passages each share that common verb: do. God cares about our behaviors. God calls us to be active and participatory. These particular passages remind us that disciples act in ways that promote justice and the will of God.

Why might action be such an important attribute of the life of a disciple?

  1. First off, the world benefits from our actions. A musical instrument that’s never played doesn’t do anyone any good; it doesn’t bring any enjoyment to a listener. Likewise, a person who has all the knowledge of how to love God and neighbor, but doesn’t act on that knowledge, doesn’t do anyone any good. God invites us to work with God in building God’s kingdom. When we get out of our heads and do the things God calls us to do, the world is better for it.
  2. Secondly, we grow by doing. Learning is both an intellectual and experiential process. There’s a reason field work, internships, and apprenticeships are a part of most professional training programs. Our learning is reliant on being able to try, apply, assess, reroute, reflect, repeat. The life of a disciple needs to be one of action, because it’s through experience that we grow.

None of this is to say that our interior life is irrelevant. As Christians, we’re most certainly called to attend to our thoughts—to study, ponder, ruminate, meditate. The life of our minds and hearts is important…but it’s one side of a coin. We’re also called to serve, act, behave, demonstrate, and give—that is, to do this life of discipleship. 

When it comes to your life as a disciple of Jesus, do you lean more heavily toward thinking or doing? Trusting that both of these things are an essential, what might God be calling you to incorporate more of in your life in order to grow and to benefit the world?

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

For as the earth brings forth its shoots,…so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise spring up before all the nations. – Isaiah 61:11

One of my favorite parts of the Bible is in Luke 4. Shortly after Jesus’ baptism and time spent in the wilderness, he returns to his home town of Nazareth and Luke reports that the following happened… 

…on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

– Luke 4:16b-21

The passage that Jesus reads from Isaiah is a description of the Messiah that the Jewish people have been waiting for. So right in the middle of his hometown, in front of a bunch of people who know who he is, Jesus reads the description of the Messiah and says…the wait is over, this is talking about me. 

I always imagine Jesus’ sat at the optimal distance from where he read so his walk back to his seat would elicit the perfect amount of tension before the “today this scripture…” bit.  

So…why am I talking about Isaiah 61:1-2 by way of Luke 4, when today’s verse is from Isaiah 61:11? Good question! 

Between the description of the Messiah in Isaiah 61:1-2 and Isaiah 61:11 (today’s verse), is a description of what God’s people will be able to do because of the Messiah. There is language of rebuilding, freedom, and transformation. The Messiah will make God’s people into who they cannot be on their own. 

We see what Jesus came to do in Isaiah 61:1-2, let’s respond to that with what Isaiah promises God’s people will be able to do in response. Let’s allow Jesus to uproot the sin in our lives so that the goodness God has planted within each one of us is able to grow. Let’s embrace our place as God’s true children, resembling our heavenly Father, giving praise to God, and inviting each person we encounter to take their place within this family. 

Monday, June 22, 2020

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” —James 1:17-18

The God of the Bible—the Father of the Son, Jesus Christ—is a gift-giving Father. The motivating attribute of God that we see throughout the scriptures is that God desires for human beings and all of creation to thrive. In God’s view of the world, things are good when life is marked by health, joy, peace, justice, and love.

It’s worth remembering that God is free. We have no inherent standing to demand anything of God. God is free to create and design and order and interact with the world in any way he chooses. We cannot bind God’s freedom in any way.

So it is in absolute freedom that God chooses to be the God he is. God chooses to long for human thriving. God chooses to be with us in our suffering, to motivate us toward compassion and justice, to give us everything we need.

God in Christ, in absolute freedom, even chose to personally suffer for us to accomplish for us what we could not accomplish for ourselves. God chose to bind himself to humanity, giving us the gift of his very self.

It is when we in turn act with generosity, using the gifts we’ve been given to give good gifts to others, that we truly reflect the image of God to one another. God entrusts us with gifts and gives us freedom to use them (or not use them) as we please. But when we fail to use our gifts for the sake of others’ well-being, we destroy the image of God within ourselves. When we see what we’ve been given as gifts to grasp and hoard, rather than as gifts to be given away, we are alienated from ourselves.

The good news is that it is not all that complicated to be a part of God’s family. Our Father’s family is marked by receiving what he has given and in turn being generous givers to others. And these others, at the same time, are receiving gifts from our Father and being generous givers to others (which includes us). This is our family work. When we bear fruit in this way, we are a manifestation of God’s good creation. It’s simple good news that you can put to use, right now!

Friday, June 19, 2020

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
    I will counsel you with my loving eye on you. —Psalm 32:8

Several months ago, Dan introduced me to a website called Skillshare, which I only checked out in earnest once we all had to stay at home. Skillshare is an online learning community where artists offer classes on whatever creative thing they’re equipped to teach. I’ve always liked dabbling artistically, but in adulthood, I’ve felt mostly ill-equipped, under-developed, and uncertain how to grow, so I’ve entered into these courses with both eagerness and trepidation. A week ago, I did a beginners’ course on how to use Procreate, a digital illustration app. Beyond my expectations, this course was pure enjoyment. It was one of those rare and wonderful occasions where you just want to soak up all there is to learn, where hours pass in an instant. I’m far from being an expert (really, really far!), but it feels good to know how to do some things I didn’t know how to do a couple of weeks ago. What made this a powerful learning experience mostly came down to the instructor: 1) she understood my position as a beginner, and 2) she invited me to learn by imitating what she did.

These verses from Psalm 32 are about God’s instruction. They remind us of God’s teaching style:

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
    I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
    which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
    or they will not come to you. (Psalm 32:8-9)

Look at that stark and beautiful contrast! God’s instruction isn’t forceful, controlling, or manipulative; God’s instruction guides, counsels, and watches over. God works with us patiently, leading us through an ongoing process that leaves us changed.

And because of Jesus, we have a teacher who 1) understands our position as humans, and 2) invites us to learn through imitation. When we observe our teacher and try doing what he did, we are changed for the better. As time passes, we can say we know some things we didn’t know before.

Paul captures it well in Ephesians 5:1. He encourages us to learn through imitation when he says, “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” 

Today, may you have the humility of a beginner who’s ready to learn from a good instructor who guides, counsels, and watches over you. May you observe how Jesus loves, and learn through imitation of him. May you take joy in your process of growth, trusting that your Heavenly Father does, too!

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing – Psalm 100:2

I really enjoy going to see bands play live and I especially enjoy it when it’s a band I really like. There is a direct correlation between the amount I like a band and the percentage of lyrics I have memorized and I am able to sing along with. So depending on who I’m going to see, there could be anywhere between a few hundred to few thousand other people singing along at the same time. It’s just a really joyful experience to hear a bunch of people connecting over the same words, same tune, same thing.

So, when I was looking at today’s verse I just locked on to the word “singing.” Because for me, I think that one of the more disappointing things about not being able to worship in the same room on Sunday morning is not singing together. Being around all of you is an encouragement to me. Getting to add my voice to a larger group of much better voices during worship, is a highlight in my week.

As I did some reading about this verse, I found the way the word “worship” is used to be interesting. The Hebrew word that we define in English as “worship” would be best understood as some blurred combination of “worship” and “service.”

You could think about it this way…

Because God is GOD (and I’m not), my worship is an act of service to God. But also, the service I do for God (think Jesus in Matthew 25 saying “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me”) is an act of worship.

While this doesn’t replace the joy or gladness I experience when singing with all of you, it does remind me that there is a whole other component of worship that I can still be engaging with even when we are not together. That to “worship with gladness” is to wake up each day turning from the failings of yesterday and taking steps to bring my actions into alignment with my words (whether they are spoken or sung).

May each one of us embrace today as an opportunity to worship with gladness as we patiently await the day we can again hear one another’s voices as we come into God’s presence with singing.

Monday, June 15, 2020

“But your dead will live, Lord;
their bodies will rise—
let those who dwell in the dust
wake up and shout for joy—
your dew is like the dew of the morning;
the earth will give birth to her dead.”
—Isaiah 26:19

For whatever reasons, I’m prone to all-or-nothing thinking. I don’t know what mix of nature and nurture has created this. I know that it’s tied to a sense of idealism (which is mostly good, I think), but I also know that it has the tendency to distort my view of the world, because the world is rarely all-or-nothing. And so through counseling and contemplation and conversation, I’ve learned some tools that help me to catch this thinking before it really takes root and sends me off course.

But this is still something that requires vigilance. I’m still always in danger of being demoralized when things aren’t perfect, when I’m not perfect, when things are messy. Sometimes I want life to be more like a video game, where if you mess up, you can just go back to the start of the level and try again, as if the previous failed attempt never happened.

But life isn’t like a video game. We can never truly restart from the very beginning. Our communities have histories. Even at a person’s moment of birth, he or she exists in a family system, in a specific social location, within cultural constructs that have taken many centuries to build. The question before us is never really what we would do if we could start over; the question is always where we go from here.

The Israelite prophet Isaiah preached to his people in specific moments. Throughout his long ministry, he spoke words of judgment and doom and words of hope and restoration. He spoke to a nation that, like our own, had long-lived, deeply embedded sins that threatened its very identity from within. He spoke to a nation that was under threat from forces outside its borders. He spoke to a nation on the brink of destruction. He was unsparing in his truth-telling.

And Isaiah was just as adamant in proclaiming God’s words of hope to a frightened and wayward people. Isaiah could see that on the other side of decay and defeat lay restoration. Isaiah could see that God’s faithfulness was the one thing that no internal strife and no invading army could ever destroy.

The words of Isaiah pointed ultimately to Jesus of Nazareth, who suffered on behalf of Israel, who suffered and was judged on behalf of the whole world. The words of Isaiah remind us today that God remains with his people in the midst of suffering, that God remains faithful to his people even when we actively work against his vision for the world. The words of Isaiah remind us that, on the other side of death (both literal and figurative) lie renewal and new life.

As we wrestle with our long history of death-dealing, as we wrestle with new challenges and anxieties and threats, may we be participants in new life. May we be redeemed and restored through the work of the God who is always faithful.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Yet you know me, Lord;
    you see me and test my thoughts about you.
Jeremiah 12:3

Physics and Economics. Those were the two classes in high school that I have no clue how I passed. The day-to-day memories are fuzzy now, but what I recall about each of these classes is how embarrassingly in-the-dark I felt most of the time. I always felt steps behind, like I’d missed an essential memo or something, but had to forge ahead anyway. I somehow got by, but always with fingers crossed. 

If I could give my 17-year-old self one piece of academic advice, it would be this: ask the teacher to help you understand. Come in before or after school and ask questions! It seems so obvious now, but at the time, that option never even occurred to me. Something within me felt embarrassed that I didn’t understand. And I simply didn’t see the student-teacher relationship in those terms. But asking for help would have made all the difference for me. 

When it comes to talking with God, do you ever forget you can ask questions? Like…real questions? Do you ever feel like you shouldn’t have questions in the first place? 

The prophet Jeremiah faced massive confusion. The world around him was falling apart. He was uncertain of his purpose. He felt betrayed by the people closest to him. Tough times were ahead. In Chapter 12, Jeremiah  brings his confusion, his questions, even his complaints, directly to God. Take a look at the first three verses of this chapter. Jeremiah says…

You are always righteous, Lord,
    when I bring a case before you.
Yet I would speak with you about your justice:
    Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
    Why do all the faithless live at ease?
You have planted them, and they have taken root;
    they grow and bear fruit.
You are always on their lips
    but far from their hearts.
Yet you know me, Lord;
    you see me and test my thoughts about you.

I appreciate the earnesty with which Jeremiah addresses God. He’s saying, “Lord, I know you’re good, and that’s why I’m so bewildered at what’s going on.  What I know about you and what I see around me don’t add up. Why do things work this way? Make sense of it for me. You know my thoughts. Make me understand.”

Sometimes I forget that my interaction with God is a dialogue. But Jeremiah shows us what it means to really, truly talk with God. He lays it all out there. He asks why. He says, I understand some things about you, but other things go right over my head. 

A life of obeying God is not free of confusion. But Jeremiah reminds us that we can bring our confusion—even our confusion about God—directly to God. When we feel confused, we ask the Teacher to help us understand.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied. – Mark 6:41-42

This story shows up in each of the gospels and it’s definitely in my list of the top 5 greatest moments of Jesus’ ministry (also on that list is Jesus calling Nathaniel by saying he saw him under a fig tree and Jesus rising from the dead). 

This huge crowd had gathered and Jesus was teaching them late into the day. Seeing the time passing by, the disciples realize these people are going to be hungry and they don’t have enough food to feed them. So the disciples come to Jesus with their plan: Jesus needs to dismiss the crowd so they can head off to nearby villages and buy something to eat. 

But instead of doing what the disciples suggest, Jesus enlists them to be part of the solution. He tells them to collect what food they have and bring it to him. Then he blesses what they put before him and turns it into more than enough. Each person is able to eat until they are satisfied.

What I appreciate about this passage is that it really is a window into what a life in relationship with God looks like. We take our meager resources, or what may seem like our small and seemingly insignificant abilities, and trust that God will do something with them. God is deeply interested in using what we bring. 

This quote from theologian NT Wright sums it up well…

“This is how it works whenever someone is close enough to Jesus to catch a glimpse of what he’s doing and how they could help. We blunder in with our ideas. We offer, uncomprehending, what little we have. Jesus takes ideas, loaves and fishes, money, a sense of humor, time, energy, talents, love, artistic gifts, skill with words, quickness of eye or fingers, whatever we have to offer. He holds them before his father with prayer and blessing. Then, breaking them so they are ready for use, he gives them back to us to give to those who need them.” 

God values each one of us so much that God wants to use us to help set things right, so much that God will take whatever we have to offer and use it for his good. As we go into this day, may we be attentive to and respond to the people around us in need of the satisfaction that only comes from knowing God. 

Monday, June 8, 2020

“The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” —Romans 8:21

We humans are part of creation. We are part of God’s creation. We are God’s image bearers in creation.

We are just a part of God’s massive creation. Anyone who has contemplated the scale of the universe is familiar with the humbling awareness of how small our little speck of a planet is. Within our little planet, we are just one species. And each one of us is just one organism of this one species on this one planet in this one solar system in this one galaxy.

And yet, in some mysterious and ennobling sense, we humans are distinctly important in this creation. In his letter to Christians in Rome, the apostle Paul wrote that our own liberation from sin has creation-wide implications. All of creation suffers when we fail to be the image bearers of God we were made to be. And all of creation rejoices at our liberation.

A lot of this is cloaked in mystery. How exactly is human sin implicated in seemingly random suffering like a child’s cancer diagnosis or a fatal freak accident or a (pre-human) mass extinction event? I don’t really know how to talk about those connections (to the extent that they exist) in any intelligible and loving and truthful way.

But there are also elements that we can see pretty clearly. The current mass extinction event has a lot to do with our arrogant destruction of creation. The spread of a novel coronavirus and the suffering that’s gone along with it have in some cases been made worse by pre-existing sinful neglect of poor and under-resourced communities and by leadership around the world more focused on self-preservation than on servanthood. The frequency and severity of extreme weather events have been increased by our sinful and short-sighted delay in adopting renewable energy sources.

Thankfully, the remedy stands before us, not as an abstract idea or principle, but as a person. On the cross, Jesus liberated us from bondage to sin and death. He liberated all of us. Creation longs for us to realize that we’re free and to start living like the redeemed. Creation longs for us to give up our addictions to pride and myopia and become addicted to compassion and wisdom. Creation longs for us to remember that we bear the very image of our Creator, that we are claimed as children of the one true King of creation, that we have been set free for freedom. Creation is looking to us to be who we are.