Wednesday, March 31, 2021

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” —Luke 23:34

I’d like to think that I’m pretty good at forgiving people. Even when I’ve been really hurt by someone, with a little bit of time and distance, I find that I can let go. I just don’t like holding grudges. I think some of it has to do with my commitment to following Jesus, but when I look at how Jesus talks about forgiveness (for example: Matthew 18:21-22) and how he lives out forgiveness in the verse above, I can’t help but see that I have a long way to go before I’m really living like Jesus.

See, while I need time and distance to be able to forgive those who really hurt me, Jesus is ready to do it before he’s even suffered the full extent of what is to come. Remember, it’s after this prayer to his Heavenly Father that the people and soldiers mock him and it will be hours more before he takes his final breath. Jesus is extending forgiveness before he has even experienced the full brunt of humiliation and pain to come (a prayer of forgiveness that extended from that moment all the way out to today and until he comes again!).

Lord, may we embrace the forgiveness you offer so that so that we can give glory to you, by becoming more forgiving. Amen.

Monday, March 29, 2021

His servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.

—Revelation 22:3-4

In Exodus 3, when Moses hears God calling to him from a burning bush, Moses instinctively hides his face, afraid to look directly at God. Many chapters later, after Moses encounters God on Mount Sinai, he descends from the mountain “radiant”—to a degree, in fact, that the people of Israel are afraid to come near him. And at the opposite end of your Bible, in the book of Acts, when Saul encounters the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, he receives temporary blindness and a permanent new purpose and name. As we read in today’s text from Revelation, the author John proclaims, “[God’s] servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.”

I wonder what would have happened to Moses had he not averted his eyes; what would he have seen? I wonder what exactly it was about Moses’ incandescence, as he returned from the mountaintop, that caused the Israelites to keep a safe distance. What did the light that Paul saw look like, and what precisely did John see on the foreheads of those who served God?

There’s a mystery and a sort of “you had to be there” element in all of these accounts. But one theme is prominent: there’s something about encountering God that leaves us both utterly awestruck and indelibly changed.

I have not heard God’s audible voice and I have never yet had anyone tell me I have that just-saw-Jesus glow about me. Perhaps you have had dramatic and pivotal moments of encountering God; or perhaps, like me, you’ve acquired a lifetime of experiences, each of which revealed more and more of God’s awe-inspiring face. Either way, those encounters have shaped who we are and continue to transform us.

What’s interesting to me is that in each of these biblical accounts about seeing God’s face or God’s glory, the change is outwardly discernible. Those who encounter God don’t just feel different; they look different. (And, in Moses’ case, it was the reaction of others that alerted him to his own transformation.)

This common thread causes me to question my own “appearance”: do the people I meet see God’s brilliance reflected in me? How might I open myself up to let other people observe God’s transformative power in my life? How might I glow with God’s astonishing glory, goodness, and love in ways that are unmistakable to everyone I meet? How might God’s glory radiate from me not just in what I say, but in who I am and how I live?

Wonderful God, may I approach you with awe and humility fitting to who you are. Continue to reveal your face to me so that I might more boldly reflect you in the world.


Friday, March 26, 2021

“Yet I planted you as a choice vine, from the purest stock. How then did you turn degenerate and become a wild vine?” —Jeremiah 2:21

Today’s devotion was written by Deacon Karen Katamay

One of my favorite places to shop is a garden center. I love strolling through the wide variety of flowers and other plants available and imagining them in my garden. Many of the plants have been bred to display favorable characteristics, or a vine with a favorable fruit may be grafted on to a hardier rootstock.

The specialized breeding can be desirable when first planted, but sometimes seeds from plants that have been genetically altered will revert back to the characteristics of the base plant over time. Or a cultivated vine may eventually become a wild vine if it is not properly tended.

The Bible uses a lot of natural images to help people understand God’s message to us. In this particular passage, the prophet Jeremiah is sending a warning to the people of Israel about letting themselves become corrupted by other cultures around them. They were God’s chosen people, his own special cultivar, his own pure stock. But when they intermingled with other kingdoms and cultures, they began to drift away from God and follow the religious customs of the other nations. They became like a wild vine in God’s garden, seeking their own way.

Today we do the same thing when we allow the things of this world to distract us and keep us from a close relationship with God. We know what God expects of us and the people he wants us to be, and yet we drift away and do what we want instead. We become like that wild vine, seeking our own path.

So how do we get back to being that choice vine in God’s garden? By going back to our root which is God, and nurturing our growth with the living water of Christ. God wants us to grow and flourish and we can best do that when we center ourselves in Christ and follow in his ways. And when we do that, we will be the fruitful vine that God wants us to be! Amen.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

God blessed them, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” —Genesis 1:28

I recently watched a comedy news program that discussed plastic waste and how surprisingly little of it can actually be recycled. A couple of not-so-comedic points stuck with me. First, I learned that in the Pacific Ocean, there’s a garbage patch full of plastics that is larger than the combined area of France, Germany, and Spain; and it’s still growing. I also learned that by 2050, the ocean is expected to hold more plastics than fish.

Humanity has done an abysmal job at carrying out God’s instructions to hold authority over creation. 

Hearing facts and projections like the ones above leaves me feeling angry (how could the people in charge allow this to get so out of hand?), guilty (I use and dispose of plastics every day!), and overwhelmed (when the problem is this huge and this rampant, what hope do we have to turn anything around?).

While we are always called to lives of introspection, confession, and repentance, Lent is a season when we are especially mindful of these behaviors. At this time of year, we reflect differently on our desperation for a savior. While I tend to reflect and seek forgiveness individually, when I consider the abuse we have done to God’s perfect creation, I am reminded to ask for mercy and forgiveness for humanity collectively. I am keenly aware of our need for redemption when I see where sin is so tightly woven into our daily lives that we can’t imagine how possibly to free ourselves from it. Together, we commit large-scale sins that have global and irreversible consequences. When we confess, we can confess both our own sins and the sins of humanity.

Feeling overwhelmed at the scale of a problem like plastic waste can cause me to throw my hands in the air and give up any sense of personal responsibility. After all, the problem is so large that we need powerful leaders and industries to fix these things, not me. And it’s true—problems this large cannot be solved by only individual efforts. But, in today’s Scripture reading, we remember that God gave large-scale instructions for the care of the planet to two individuals: Adam and Eve. He charged just two people with what would ripple into a global responsibility. God speaks the same instructions to me and you. I cannot, by myself, remove plastics from the ocean, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do anything. That doesn’t mean I don’t have the ability to influence those who hold power. That doesn’t mean I ignore God’s instruction to steward Creation to the best of my ability. You and I, as Adam and Eve, bear God’s image. God is a creator who breathes life into God’s creation, and we are made to imitate these creative and life-giving qualities.

Our individual behaviors, however small, do matter. Individual behaviors, collectively, change outcomes. Individual behaviors, collectively, change societal norms. 

Lord, have mercy on us. May we take more seriously our individual and collective obligations to your creation. Amen.

Monday, March 22, 2021

“This poor man cried, and was heard by the LORD, and was saved from every trouble.” —Psalm 34:6

Abner Mikva told a story about trying to get involved in Illinois Democratic Party politics in the 1940s. When he went to the party office in his Chicago ward, he was asked who had sent him there. When he said nobody had sent him, the ward committeeman said, “We don’t want nobody that nobody sent.” This oft-repeated story illustrates the insular world of machine politics: it was all about who you knew.

There are lots of areas of life in which access is predicated on some kind of status. Jeff Bezos is probably more likely to be able to get 10 minutes on the phone with Jay Inslee than I am with J. B. Pritzker. That’s the way of the world.

But it’s not the way of the kingdom of God. In today’s verse, David the psalmist describes how he cried out to God when he was in great danger, on the run from King Saul. David would become a great king, but he recalled a time when he was a poor man, unjustly persecuted by the king he’d faithfully served, facing threats all around. As a “poor man” he cried out to God, and God heard him.

God does not reserve access for the elites of society, or the wealthy or beautiful or smart. There’s no need to put on airs with God. There’s no need to get references from higher-placed friends. In fact, these pretensions only serve to alienate us from God.

God is our Father. He wants us to talk with him, to cry out to him in our times of need. So today, whatever you face or whatever you need, bring it to your Heavenly Father.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Today’s reflection is written by Deacon Karen Katamay.

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” —Matthew 7:24

I remember first learning about the wise man/foolish man story in Sunday School a long time ago, and to this day I still remember most of the song we learned along with the story. Songs are such a fun way to learn stories, aren’t they? And a great way to help you remember. In the song for this story, the first verse teaches us that the wise man built his house upon the rock and when the rains came down and the floods came up, the house on the rock stood still. The second verse teaches us that the foolish man built his house upon the sand and when the rains came down and the floods came up the house on the sand fell down. But the third verse is my favorite.  It tells us that when we build our lives on the Lord, Jesus Christ, the blessings will come down as the prayers go up. Building our lives on the Lord fills our lives with blessings and gives us a firm foundation for those stormy times in our lives so we don’t come crashing down. 

I’m not sure if they still teach this song and others like it in Sunday School, but I hope they do. From the wise man/foolish man story to this little gospel light of mine, the words of Jesus (and the songs based on them) still teach us today how to live and love and care for others. And as Jesus reminds us in Matthew 18:3, when we become like children, with open minds and hearts, eager to learn, we will begin to truly see the kingdom of heaven! Amen.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

You are the God who sees me. — Genesis 16:13

Well before COVID-19 forced us into isolation and reminded us how much we are made to be in community, loneliness was being talked about as a public health crisis. In 2019 the American Psychological Association reported that the toll loneliness can take on a person is more detrimental than obesity and can heighten health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or extreme alcohol use. There are plenty of stories from the Old Testament where you can imagine that loneliness was felt (Joseph when his brothers sold him into slavery, Sampson after being weakened and imprisoned, etc.) but for me, the story that cuts the deepest is that of Hagar.

When God promises Abraham and Sara that they will have children, it takes a while for God to make good on that promise. Abraham and Sara get tired of waiting and take it upon themselves to try and expedite God’s timing. They decide that Abraham will marry Hagar, one of Sara’s slaves, so they can have a child. Unsurprisingly, their marriage gets more complicated because Abraham is now married to two women. Ultimately Hagar gets mistreated so badly that she decides to run away. Imagine that—Hagar was already enslaved when she is forced into a marriage to produce an heir; and then, when things go according to Abraham and Sara’s plan, Hagar is further mistreated by the very people who put her in this situation.

Hagar runs away and is at the precipice of traveling by herself through the dangerous wilderness to find her way to Egypt, when God intervenes. God sends a messenger who promises that, should she return to Abraham and Sara, God will work so that some good will come from the suffering she’s endured. Hagar was certain that she was completely alone until God shows her that she has never really been alone. God has seen what she’s been through and God has pursued her so she doesn’t just disappear from this story. God sees her and pursues her so she won’t be forgotten. It’s in that moment that Hagar names God, El-roi or “the God who sees me.” Hagar’s story shows us that when we feel overwhelmed by loneliness, God sees us and is pursuing us.

Monday, March 15, 2021

“If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” —Daniel 3:17-18

Math was never my favorite subject in school. I always gravitated to history and literature, to stories about people. The layers of human character and identity fascinated me. Learning about interactions between people and groups was endlessly compelling. (I never got far enough along in math to encounter the wonder and creativity that I’m sure exists in that subject, too.)

And yet despite those preferences there’s a part of me that wants God to be more like a math equation and less like a person, less like a character with agency and freedom. I want to know with certainty that if X happens, God will do Y. But that’s not how it works.

When the nation of Israel was conquered and many of its people taken into exile in Babylon, individual men and women with agency and freedom were forced to make choices within new constraints and in the face of new threats. The king of Babylon set up a golden image—an idol—and commanded that all people worship it. Three faithful Jews—members of the nation of Israel—refused to do so, knowing that their God had commanded them not to worship “other gods.” These three had been given significant responsibilities in the Babylonian Empire, but this did not exempt them from the king’s order. When they persisted in refusing to disobey God, the king ordered that they be burned to death.

Their response—today’s verses—is a model of faith in God. They believe that God will rescue them. But they also recognize that God is not a math equation. We can be sure of God’s faithfulness, but not sure how that faithfulness will play out in a specific situation. There are times when people of faith aren’t given what they want, and times when God doesn’t seem to come through. But those who have a relationship with God trust him even when they do not get what they want—or even get what it seems obvious that they need. Commitment to God means committing to his true way even when we can’t see the immediate payoff in our own lives. Faith is proved when we follow him into the darkness even when we can’t see the light on the other side.

These three faithful men were rescued from the fire. But even if they had not been, they would have rested secure in their trust in God’s way. This is faith in the living God.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Today’s reflection is written by Deacon Karen Katamay.

“Since my mother bore me you have been my God.” —Psalm 22:10

God is the one who created us and loves us, even when we are unaware of him. I have been fortunate to grow up in a Christian family so I can say with confidence that God has been there for me from Day One. But what if that is not the case for you? Or what if your life has been filled with hardships and it is hard to believe that a loving and ever-present God exists amidst all your suffering or the suffering in the world?

God does not exist to protect us from all suffering. Indeed, he allowed his own son to suffer and die on the cross for us. Instead, what we can learn from the example of Jesus is that God is always with us, when times are good and when we are suffering. “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). And better yet, God promises us a time when there will be no more suffering and we will be with him: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain…” (Revelation 21:4).

So wherever you are on your spiritual journey, whether you are just learning about God, or are close to God, or even have doubts about God, you can take comfort in knowing that God is always there for you, from Day One until eternity!

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. — 1 John 4:16

God’s greatest demonstration of love is seen through Jesus’ death on the cross. But even when we understand and acknowledge just how costly that was for Jesus, we are always susceptible to taking it for granted or making it a purely intellectual experience: giving thanks for what was done through Jesus’ death and resurrection, repenting, and asking for forgiveness becomes just another thing on the list of items to take care of each day.

John is calling us to take this more seriously than that. “Abide” means to “dwell,” “remain,” or “make one’s home.” John is pointing out that God’s love can’t remain a purely intellectual experience because this love is close and personal. This love is expressed first through Jesus and then through Jesus’ followers. Theologian Gary Burge suggests that when we exhibit love to others we step into God’s presence and this causes “the reality of God [to press] itself into our lives.”

Today, let’s seek out opportunities to show love and then reflect on God’s presence in those moments.