Friday, January 1, 2021

“Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” —1 Peter 3:8

Today’s readings remind us of the attitudes and behaviors God wants from us, specifically in how we interact with each other. 1 Peter 3:8 holds Christ-followers to a high standard: we are called to have unity of spirit, love for each other, tender hearts, and humble minds. These aren’t actions we can check off a to-do list; these require total transformation. It’s not just about doing the things we’re called to do; it’s about being who we’re called to be.

How do we begin to pursue this kind of transformation?

Do you desire this kind of transformation? Honestly, sometimes I do; but at other times, my motivation feels flat and lacking. Sometimes, if I’m honest with myself, I just don’t want what God wants. It’s discouraging to try to live as God’s disciples when our will isn’t aligned with his.

In the book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster says something that I need to be reminded of regularly. He makes this statement about the spiritual discipline of meditation: “Anyone who imagines he can simply begin meditating without praying for the desire and the grace to do so, will soon give up.” What I love about this statement is the idea that I can pray for the desire to do something. 

When we don’t feel like treating people with compassion or showing humility, we can pray to change; but we can also ask God to help us want to change. We can ask to want our hearts and attitudes to be transformed. When we are feeling bitter or jaded or resistant, when we are lacking energy or motivation, we can ask God to help us want what he wants. 

This means I can go beyond praying, “God help me to trust you” by asking, “God, help me to want to trust you.” I can say, “God help me to want to pray for my enemies” when it doesn’t come easily. When I feel like holding tightly to what I have, I can say, “God help me to want to be generous.” I can ask to want unity, sympathy, love, tender-heartedness, and humility. We can ask for these things boldly, because God invites us to come to him with our every need. Nothing is off limits.

There is no part of our lives that we have to attend to on our own. God is part of all of it. Wherever you struggle to follow Christ, may you turn to God in prayer for what you need.

Gracious God, help align my will to yours. Help me to want what you want, to see things as you see them, to love as you love. Wherever I am tempted to give up, help me to turn to you to keep going. Amen.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Your Kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Matthew 6:10

Each Christmas I imagine Mary and Joseph looking down at baby Jesus wondering what he will look like as he ages, what will he be interested in, how God will use him. But it doesn’t stop there. I inevitably fast forward to 33 years later when that baby has become a man and willingly walks toward his own execution so that I and everyone else who believes in him can live. It’s just so much weight being placed on the shoulders of a child. So for me, Christmas is always a little bittersweet.

What helps me is to remember who we are praying to when we recite the Lord’s prayer. When we pray this part of the Lord’s prayer we are looking toward the day when God’s reign and rule will be fully expressed on Earth. We are praying to the living God, the resurrected Jesus. The God who came into this world as baby, lived for 33 years, willingly died, and was resurrected so that we might have life.


Monday, December 28, 2020

“We may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.” —2 Corinthians 1:4

As wonderful as the truth of Christmas is, and as fun and beautiful as our holiday celebrations can be, for many of us, this season can also be painful. Christmas in the present tends to remind of Christmases in the past, not just the first and most important one (when Jesus was born) but also our own Christmases with family and friends. When we’re so aware of specific dates on the calendar, we almost can’t help but think of when that date has come around before.

And in many ways, for most of us, that’s good! We cherish these memories. But we also have less pleasant memories—times we’ve been hurt, times we’ve been disappointed, times we’ve lost something or someone important to us. And sometimes even the best memories remind us of better times, or of times when someone we’ve lost was still around. Sometimes, when we’re really not doing well at all (and we all have those times), the wonderful good news of Christmas just reminds us how much we’re struggling, how alone we are, how lost we are.

The good news of God-with-us in Jesus Christ doesn’t immediately remove us from these hard times. To believe in Jesus is not to deny that hard times and pain and loss are real. But God’s consolation does promise two things: (1) God is not far from us when things are bad. (2) Hard times and pain and loss are real, but they won’t have the final word.

One role of our fellow believers is to share comfort and consolation with us when we are afflicted by the pains of life. This doesn’t mean denying the reality of suffering. Rather, it means being present, being compassionate, and living with a quiet, humble, strong hope.

When times are good, may we be consolers who share the consolation we’ve all received in Jesus Christ. And when times are bad, may we know the strong love of our Heavenly Father who draws near in our hurt and pain and brokenness, our good God of consolation, mercy, and grace.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Today’s reflection is by Deacon Karen Katamay.

“Happy are the people whose God is the Lord.” —Psalm 144:15

“See—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” —Luke 2:10-11

Today is Christmas Day! As we get wrapped up in our holiday traditions and gift giving frenzy, the verses today help to remind us that this day is really about God’s greatest gift to us, the birth of his son, Jesus. We are reminded that today is all about great joy, even as we spend the holiday this year separated from our closest friends and loved ones. We are reminded that true happiness comes not from what’s under the tree, but from our relationship with the Lord.

As I write this devotion I have Christmas carols playing in the background and they help to give me a sense of joy and peace that can only come from the message of Christmas. I feel some tears well up in my eyes as I think about how God loves me so much that he sent his only son into the world to die for me and for all people to save us from our sins. I wasn’t even born yet when Christ came to our world, but his life, death, and resurrection was still for me and for all people throughout the ages!

True love. Unconditional love. Yes, this Christmas will be different because of pandemic restrictions, but it also will be the same because it is about Jesus.  And that little baby that lay in a manger so many years ago, our Savior, still brings us the joy and peace that pass all understanding. Amen.

Have a most blessed Christmas!

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

I lie down and sleep; I wake again, for the Lord sustains me.  Psalm 3:5

Growing up I was told I had “exercise induced asthma.” I don’t know if that is/was really a thing. To me it always sounded like a doctor’s kind way of saying, “you’re out of shape.” What I will say is that when I would run, I found it really hard to breathe.

If you’ve ever had asthma or just had the wind knocked out of you, you know what a panicky feeling it is to not be able to breathe. So when I read today’s verse I can’t help but think about the picture of creation in Genesis where God breathes life into Adam.

Our first breath from God produced life and is a gift from God. That breath (God’s sustaining presence) is precisely what keeps us alive each day. However, the day to day struggle of life, the sin we carry, the forces that work against God, want to choke it out of us.

So, whether you are struggling in your relationship with God right now or things are going well and you can just use a reminder, don’t let it get choked out.

Prayer, Scripture, and your fellow believers are precisely what you need to open up the airways and feel that sustaining breath of God.

“God formed Man out of dirt from the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life. The Man came alive—a living soul!”  —Genesis 2:7 (MSG translation)

Monday, December 21, 2020

“These people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote.” —Isaiah 29:13

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus shares a beautiful teaching about how we should speak. At the heart of Jesus’ teaching are the virtues of integrity and honesty. Jesus says not to pile up oaths and promises, swearing that this time (perhaps unlike all the other times) we really are telling the truth. Some Jesus-followers take this teaching literally and refuse, for example, to swear to tell the truth with a hand placed on the Bible. The idea here is of course not that we shouldn’t tell the truth. Rather, our word should be reliable enough that a simple “yes” or “no” is all we need to say in order to be believed.

Jesus tells another story about a son who says he’ll help his father with some work, but doesn’t end up showing up to help. The willingness to say he would help was worthless divorced from the act of actually helping.

In today’s verse, the Lord speaks through the prophet Isaiah, describing his people as having a sharp disconnect between their external words and their internal reality. Words alone are cheap, worse than useless, in fact, if all they do is demonstrate a lack of integrity.

The implications aren’t difficult to figure out: God is not fooled by empty words. (Nor, it should be said, are other people, at least most of the time.) When we find ourselves saying things we don’t really mean, it’s time for some self-examination. Where’s the disconnect? What do I need to stop saying? Or what do I need to start doing in order to better line up my lips and my heart?

There’s good news here. In the verse immediately following today’s, just after God has laid bare the brokenness of his people, he follows with his plan: “So I will again do amazing things with this people, shocking and amazing” (Isaiah 29:14). Reading along, we expect God to say he’s giving up, but that’s not the kind of God we have. Given the starting point, these “amazing things” God is going to do may not be easy, but they will be good. God hasn’t given up on his chosen people. And he hasn’t given up on you or me either. So we can come to him honestly, vulnerably, acknowledging the gap between our words and our actions, between our lips and our hearts, and we can ask God to heal us, to make us whole, to give us integrity through his mercy and life-giving power.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Today’s reflection is by Deacon Karen Katamay.

“Hear the word of the Lord, because the Lord has a charge to bring against you who live in the land: ‘There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land.’” —Hosea 4:1

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” —Matthew 3:2

As we celebrate Advent and look forward to Christmas and the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the second verse today, from Matthew, is a good reminder that when Jesus came into the world, he brought the kingdom of heaven with him. These are the words of John the Baptist, whose task was to prepare people for the coming of Jesus: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It is a reminder that we are unworthy on our own of being saved and we must repent of our sins, but through God’s loving grace we are forgiven and saved and drawn nearer to God. 

God really has a unique way of doing things, doesn’t he? He brought the kingdom of heaven to earth in the form of a tiny baby. That baby then grew up to demonstrate God’s love and grace by teaching and healing others. He challenged the people of his time to be more kind and loving and to do God’s will in the world. And then he died and rose again for us, saving us from our sins and from the wrath of God that we see in the first verse today, from the prophet Hosea.

Christmas will be different this year with the pandemic, as many of us forgo or shrink our family gatherings and stay home. So that gives us more time to reflect on the meaning of Christmas and how we can still be loving and generous while staying safe from the virus. Whenever we give of our time, talents, and money to further God’s will in the world, we are helping to bring a little of God’s kingdom near for others. And the prophet Hosea’s warning then can serve as a reminder for us that God wants us to be faithful, he wants us to love, and he wants us to remember him. What better way to do that than to show our love for God and for others? Amen.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

“To his saints God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Colossians 1:26-27

This text hits on what we heard in the message on Sunday. “Christ in you,” the Holy Spirit was sent into this world, filling believers then and now with the same Spirit that raised Jesus to resurrection life.

When Paul talks about “the riches of the glory of this mystery,” he is pointing out that no one expected this to happen. No one dreamed that God’s plan was going to involve changing or eliminating the markers that had been used to determine who was one of God’s chosen people. This was a mystery that only God knew. But now, “the hope of Glory,” the promise of experiencing relationship with God, receiving the blessings that come from knowing and relying on God, experiencing a resurrection life in the presence of the glory of God for eternity, is available to everyone. 

May the promise of “Christ in you” give you…

courage to let go of what God wants you to let go of…

the strength to leave it behind…

the confidence that comes from forgiveness…

and the hope that comes from the new life God promises.

Monday, December 14, 2020

“When your judgments come upon the earth, the people of the world learn righteousness.” —Isaiah 26:9

Do you remember the feeling of getting a bad grade on a school assignment? (Assuming this is something you’ve experienced.) I sure do. Sometimes these bad grades were completely expected; I’d done poor work and I knew it. Other times, bad grades came as a surprise. It turned out that my instructor was less impressed with the quality of my work than I was. Of course, in these moments I’m sure I questioned the wisdom of the instructor: “Maybe he doesn’t know this subject as well as I thought!” “Did she even bother to read this?” But in the long run, these times when I’d done poorly and been told I’d done poorly served as opportunities for reevaluation, for recommitment, for growth.

As I’ve gotten older, I’m not sure I’ve gotten much better at handling negative evaluations. As a kid, you get used to a daily stream of grades. As an adult, direct evaluations seem to come less frequently, and sometimes less welcomely. It’s one thing for a teacher to deliver judgment on a student’s work, quite another for a fellow adult to let you know you’re falling short of the mark (especially if they don’t really know the whole situation).

It’s not surprising that we tend to react negatively to judgment. But this verse from the book of Isaiah paints judgment in a much more positive light. When God’s judgments are present, people learn how to live rightly.

This makes sense, of course. Learning happens when our attempts are evaluated and improved. If we didn’t have God’s judgments, we would be blind to how he expects us to live.

Sometimes we think of Jesus as being about grace as opposed to judgment. In fact, the death Jesus took upon himself was itself an act of judgment, a real life painting in bold colors revealing how lost humanity was and is. The human race killed the one through whom it had been created. If that’s not a negative evaluation, I don’t know what is.

But, of course, the fact that Jesus took this death upon himself also reveals God’s righteousness and allows us to learn about right living. Right living is humble, not arrogant. Right living is repentant, not prideful. Right living is self-giving, not selfish. Right living is merciful, not vindictive.

God’s judgment allows us to glimpse God’s view of the world, and of us. And while that rightly fills us with awe and trembling, it is also a very, very good thing.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Today’s reflection is written by Deacon Karen Katamay.

“He is the living God, enduring forever. His kingdom shall never be destroyed.” —Daniel 6:26

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” —Hebrews 13:8

The first verse for today comes from the story of Daniel and the lion’s den. King Darius had been tricked by some people who were jealous that the king favored Daniel over them, and they got the king to issue an edict that anyone who worshipped a god or human other than the king would be cast into the lion’s den. Of course, Daniel did not obey the rule and continued to worship the true God. The king loved Daniel and did not want to hurt him, but he could not go against his own edict, so Daniel was cast into the lion’s den. God watched out for Daniel, though, and kept him safe throughout the night. When morning came, King Darius hurried to the den and was amazed that Daniel was untouched by the lions. He had Daniel removed from the lion’s den and then issued a new edict for all near and far praising the God of Daniel and recognizing Him as the living God. The verse for today was part of the praise by King Darius. 

We may think that our faith has little effect on those around us, but people do notice when we are steadfast in our faith, especially when it carries us through difficult times. One of my favorite sayings is “Speak the Gospel and, when necessary, use words.” When people see us putting our faith into action, it shows how our faith can change lives. And when we share the Gospel message with others, we let our faith shine so that it lights a path for others to follow Christ. We may not have to face lions like Daniel did, but we can face our lives with confidence in our living Lord and Savior, and that makes all the difference in the world! Amen.