Friday, January 29, 2021

The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. —Romans 6:23

I have a terrible sense of direction. Before smartphones and GPS were the norm, I would got lost a lot. Sometimes I’d make a wrong turn and recognize it right away. Other times I’d make a wrong turn and it would take a while for me to realize I had no clue where I was. Either way, I faced the same choice: turn around or keep going.

Obviously, I always chose to turn around. Why wouldn’t I? If I didn’t turn around I wouldn’t end up at the destination I had set out to reach. If taken to an extreme end, if I just kept going and didn’t stop, sooner or later I’d run out of gas, or money, or both, and I’d be in serious trouble. It’d just be foolish to keep heading the wrong way.

This verse from Romans is trying to highlight the destructive nature of sin. Sin when taken to its logical end never ends well. Think of something you’re struggling with right now. What do you see happening if you were to give yourself over to it? How would it affect your relationships? The way you think about others? The way you think about yourself?

Now ask yourself the same questions as you picture a life where you have turned from what you’re struggling with. The choice is obvious: it’s time to turn around.

God’s free gift of grace is waiting for each one of us every time we recognize that we have lost our way. May you feel God’s encouragement and trust in God’s forgiveness as you do the difficult work of heading back in the right direction.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. —James 1:5

When I read today’s verse I was reminded of something that made news during the early stages of the pandemic. Actor John Krasinski put out a call on Twitter asking for people to send him stories over the past week that made them feel good or smile. A few days later he posted the first episode of his series, “Some Good News,” on YouTube.

The show was described in the following way: “his roughly 15-minute [show] included ways the world has celebrated the heroism of the health-care community fighting the coronavirus on the front lines, as well as the incredible ways that people have continued to connect—while staying six feet apart.” The first episode concluded with Krasinski saying, “no matter how tough life can get, there’s always good in the world.”

So what does this have to do with lacking wisdom?

Life will always have challenges. James encourages those who follow Jesus to remember that the end of the story has already been written. Without Jesus, one could look at the challenges of life as evidence of a God who is punitive, or worse yet a God who doesn’t care about us at all.

However, we do have faith in Jesus and that gives us access to a “heavenly wisdom.” Wisdom that reminds us that “no matter how tough life can get, there is always good in the world.” That because the end has already been written, we can face challenges as an opportunity for growth, and perhaps more importantly, we can trust that God is active even when it looks like God isn’t (like when one is living through a pandemic).

So then, may each of us turn to God today and asking for heavenly wisdom that will draw us closer to Him.

Monday, January 25, 2021

“But of you I will not make an end. I will chastise you in just measure, and I will by no means leave you unpunished.” —Jeremiah 30:11

Like a lot of people, I’m in worse physical shape than I should be. I eat too much of the wrong stuff, and I don’t move as much as I need to. So I’m always on the search for a workout habit that will really stick. And that means that I’m pretty often trying new routines and exercises I haven’t done much of lately. And, at my age, that means that I inevitably end up quite sore or, more troublingly, a little bit injured. Which, in turn, makes me not want to stick to the routine, even if I know the soreness and injuries will resolve themselves quickly and the exercise routine would have important long-lasting benefits.

I do want to get healthier, but I don’t want to experience the consequences of being out of shape now.

Much of the prophetic writing in the Old Testament is basically God saying to Israel, “There are real consequences to how unhealthy you’ve gotten. I’m never giving up on you, but it’s going to hurt a lot getting from where you are right now to where you need to be.” The words spoken through Jeremiah in today’s text are an example of this. God is saying, “I’m not going to destroy you, but that doesn’t mean you will go unpunished.”

It’s hard for me to persevere through the sore muscles and joints to move toward health. And it’s hard for us to remember that God disciplines us because he cares about us. Sometimes we want to b transformed, but we don’t want the journey from here to there.

The good news is that God walks alongside us throughout that journey, even carrying us if need be. The promise never to give up on us—just as he’s never given up on his people Israel—means we have nothing, ultimately, to fear. God will bring us through the pain caused by our own lack of health and wholeness, all the way to real, full, eternal, abundant life.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Today’s reflection is written by Deacon Karen Katamay.

“It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” —Philippians 2:13

The verses that proceed today’s verse from Philippians are a good lead-in to this verse, as they are about encouraging us to imitate Christ’s humility. Christ was God in human form, yet he did not laud it over people and expect to be waited on, but rather came to model God’s will for the world as a servant—helping, healing, forgiving, and showing love, compassion, and mercy. God worked through Jesus to do his will in the world. In a similar way, God works through us to do the same thing. Every time we show kindness, compassion, and caring, we are doing God’s will in the world. Every time we work from a place of love and love one another, God is working through us. 

I will be one of the first to admit that this can be difficult sometimes, especially if the person you are being asked to love and care about has hurt you or someone close to you. In a case like this, you may need to ask for God’s help so he can enable you to love them. God is there to support us and work through us and enable us when we need it. We only need to ask! Amen.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 2 Corinthians 3:17

Wash, rinse, repeat. There are times in our life of faith that feel so predictable it is exhausting. There are periods of days/months/years where we are in a cycle of doing a certain thing we shouldn’t do or not doing that certain thing we know we should. It’s in times like these that being trapped in the bondage of sin really hits home. We feel trapped. It seems hopeless. Freedom seems impossible.

Yet it isn’t. When trapped in a sin loop it is easy to have tunnel vision and ignore (or forget) all the areas of our lives that have experienced freedom, the habits and attitudes that you have slowly but surely (or maybe even overnight) shed by experiencing the love and grace of God.

As followers of Jesus, the Spirit of the Lord is within us. That Spirit is working on us right now, remaking us, moment by moment refining us, breaking the chains of sin and encouraging us to embrace the freedom that has been extended to us. Today, remember those times when God has given you freedom before and ask God to help you trust as God leads you to freedom again.


Monday, January 18, 2021

“From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever.” —Romans 11:36

My days tend to go much better when I take a little time to write down what I have to do and think about when I’m going to do it. Breaking responsibilities down into manageable chunks and being honest about how much time those chunks will take is a helpful practice that makes it more likely that I’ll (at least somewhat) successfully meet those responsibilities.

Following Jesus faithfully requires a similar approach. Being a disciple is a real thing, made up of real behaviors and actions and thoughts and habits and words. The rubber has to actually hit the road. Abstract Christian-sounding platitudes don’t get the job done.

And yet, at least for me, there’s also the danger that breaking discipleship down into “manageable chunks” makes me lose sight of the fact that this is, ultimately, not about me and my words and actions and behaviors. I mean, it is about those things in part—God cares about how I live.

But this world is not about me. It’s about God.

In today’s verse from the apostle Paul’s letter to Christians in Rome, he encapsulates this so powerfully. As theology professor James Edwards writes, God “is at once creator, sustainer, and goal of creation.” He alone is to be worshiped and glorified. The amazing thing, for us, is that this “creator, sustainer, and goal of creation” gives us a role to play in his creative work.

So may our rubber-hits-the-road lives honor and glorify the One who has given us life in the first place.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Today’s reflection is written by Deacon Karen Katamay.

“The woman took of the fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.” —Genesis 3:6

“Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit?” —Luke 6:39

I find the passages today to be a really interesting pairing. The first passage is from the story of Adam and Eve and their fall from God’s grace into sin. Yet I can’t help but wonder—if God would have already given them the knowledge of good and evil, might Eve have recognized the serpent was evil and not have listened to him? Don’t parents try to teach their children right vs. wrong, good vs. bad? True, Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil when they were told not to, and God was right to punish them. But might they have been better able to resist if they had recognized the serpent as evil?

Yet evil is not always as clear as it is in the story of Adam and Eve. And indeed, many times we are tempted to put what we want to do ahead of what God wants us to do. Many times we are also tempted to follow others who are doing wrong. In cases like this, we are the blind following the blind, falling into the pit of trouble, instead of following the guide who sees and guides us on the right path—Jesus Christ.

Evil will always be tempting us to follow it blindly, so we need to follow Christ instead. Christ will give us the strength to resist evil and lead us in better ways. As we pray in the Lord’s prayer, we should be asking every day for God to lead us away from temptation and deliver us from evil. And if we do that, our true guide, Jesus, will be there to lead us in the ways that are good! Amen.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

A son honors his father. If then I am a father, where is the honor due me? says the Lord. —Malachi 1:6

A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. —Matthew 21:28-29

Today’s readings, among so many others in Scripture, portray God as a parent. In Malachi, the Lord describes himself in such terms, and in Matthew, Jesus uses a parable of fathers and sons to raise questions about humanity’s interactions with God.

How do you feel when you think of God as your heavenly parent?

From what I’ve gathered, the image seems to land differently with each of us. For good or ill, our experiences with our own parents, the examples of parenting we’ve observed, and being parents ourselves, all influence what we feel when we address God as “Father” or “Mother.”

If interactions between parents and children in your life have been marked by warmth, listening, understanding, patience, and forgiveness, thinking of God as your parent may give you deeper insight into God’s goodness. On the other hand, trusting in God’s goodness may be harder for you if these interactions have been marked by coldness, absence, neglect, estrangement, grudges, shame, or abandonment. 

Here are a few ways thinking of God as my heavenly parent is helpful for me:

  1. God is personal. God is not a distant being or some inaccessible force. Like a parent, God is present with us. God hears us and speaks to us. God is one with whom you and I can have a relationship. What’s more, like a good parent, God wants that relationship.
  2. God is the one I rely on. A child needs care. A good parent provides safety, nourishment, guidance, wisdom, and all the other things a child needs to survive and thrive. When I think of God as a parent, I am reminded of where to turn for the things I need most.
  3. God has authority over me. When I remember that I am the child in this relationship, I am humbled. I remember that my best choice is to be obedient. God is not a dictator or a tyrant; God is a loving parent who knows what’s best for me, and whether I understand fully or not, following God’s instructions is my best choice.
  4. God loves me because I am God’s. God takes joy in who I am because God made me. God enjoys seeing me grow and develop and make good choices. God’s love is unconditional.

Take a moment to think of an example of what you’d consider bad parenting. Now, just toss that image out the window when you think of God as “Father” or “Mother.” It’s not helpful. Now, take a moment to think of the best parent you know. Then consider this: God’s parenting is a zillion times better than that. God is more loving, more patient, more invested, more capable, wiser, kinder, a better provider, and a better teacher than the best parent you can imagine. 

Ultimately, no single image—even a really powerful one—can capture the fullness of who God is. Because God is bigger than anything we can comprehend, our ways of describing and conceiving of God will always have limits. While these images help us, we have to remember that God is always better, fuller, bigger, deeper, and just more than anything we have experienced or can imagine.  

Even the best people will let us down. We will let people down. God never will. Remember this: before you are anyone else’s, you are God’s child. That’s your first identity. Nothing can change that God wants you to know him, rely on him, and trust his authority. God takes joy in who you are and in who you’re becoming as you seek to follow him.

Monday, January 11, 2021

“…God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” —1 Timothy 2:3-4

I enjoy watching basketball and, like most fans, I have a favorite team. If the Chicago Bulls are in the game, I root for them to win, no matter what. But I also like watching the NBA Playoffs and, in recent years, the Bulls have been participants in very few playoff games. When I watch games that don’t include my team, I still tend to root for someone. But I’m not from any of those other cities, so how do I choose who to root for?

This decision involves a complex series of calculations—in theory. In reality, most of the time I just pick which player or team I really don’t want to see victorious, and I root for the other team. It’s not so much that I’m rooting for someone as it is that I’m rooting against someone else.

There’s more of this in life than we usually care to admit. In recent years, social science research has suggested the strong influence of negative partisanship in Americans’ political views. That is, we’re often driven at least as much by disliking the other side as we are by liking our own. In all sorts of areas, our minds incorrectly default to zero sum thinking, the idea that anything another person gets is by definition something taken from me. Even though the whole value of free markets is that they’re positive-sum, we have trouble remembering that others don’t need to fail in order for us to succeed.

It’s important, then, to pause and notice how different this is from the way God views the world. God’s very act of creation was positive-sum: God created out of nothing something that previously didn’t exist. In pure, overflowing love, God created all that there is.

In the act of salvation, God again gave out of his pure, overflowing love. His gift of himself was more than enough. And it was done precisely so that those of us who were far off from God might be included. God acted in order to draw his enemies close to him, to forgive them, to give them new life—to give us new life.

We have a God whose heart longs for every person to experience real, true, overflowing, eternal life. May we, as God’s beloved children, reflect the heart of our Father in Heaven. Amen.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Today’s reflection is written by Deacon Karen Katamay.

“God alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.” —Psalm 62:6

“Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet.” —Hebrews 12:12-13

There are several passages in the Bible about God being our strength. In addition to today’s verses, I am also reminded of the first verse of Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Many times we want to believe that if we have faith in God, he will protect us from all hardships and struggles, and life will be easy. But instead, the Bible is filled with examples of those who had great faith and also great suffering. Take the apostles, for example. They were beaten and stoned and scorned, and yet they never lost their faith, instead drawing strength from it to endure their hardships.

As I get older, the physical labor I used with do with ease when I was younger becomes more difficult now. I do have drooping hands and weak knees at the end of the day when I am doing manual labor, but somehow God gets me through it. Lifting boxes at the food pantry, packing up groceries for refugee families, cutting my grass, raking leaves, shoveling snow, cleaning my house, and other activities can leave me drained at the end of the day. But then I remember how blessed I am that I can still do these things and thank God that he gives me the strength to do them. God also gives me strength when my spirit is weak or I am emotionally drained. 

Yes, God is my rock and my salvation, my refuge and my strength. And for that, I am eternally grateful! Amen.