Why Lent?

During the next 45 days, the church enters the season of Lent. If you’re like my husband, you may have grown up in a protestant denomination that doesn’t observe Lent and only think of it as a ‘catholic thing’. But Lent is also part of the protestant tradition and is observed by protestant denominations such as the Methodists, Lutherans, and many more; like my own denomination the United Church of Christ. If you haven’t observed Lent before, this post will highly encourage that you try it. And if you have observed Lent before, this post will still be valuable because it is a reminder of what Lent is, why we do it, and how we do it. When done properly, Lent can be an invaluable season for spiritual growth and deepening of your relationship with Christ and with his people.

What is it?

Just as Advent is the season leading up to the birth of Christ which we celebrate on Christmas, Lent is the season which leads up to the death and resurrection of Jesus which we celebrate on Easter. Lent, like Advent, is meant to prepare our hearts and minds for those holy days. Lent is a time to recommit ourselves to Jesus Christ.

Lent lasts 40 days, excluding Sundays (Sundays are meant to be “mini-Easters), starting Ash Wednesday and ending the Saturday before Easter. This is supposed to represent the 40 days Jesus spent fasting and enduring temptation in the desert. 40 is a significant number in the Bible and precedes many important events; the rain before the end of the flood (Genesis 7:4); Moses’ time on Mount Sinai before receiving the Law from God (Deuteronomy 9); the entering into the promised land after wandering in the desert (Numbers 13); Goliath’s challenging of the Israelites before David defeats him (Samuel 17); and many more. The 40 seems to separate two distinct periods of time. If you see the number 40 crop up in the Bible, pay attention, something big is about to happen or change. In the case of Jesus, it was the transition between his family life and the start of his ministry which would end in his death and resurrection.

Why do we do it?

Similarly, the 40 days of Lent are meant to be a transition in the life of the believer from whatever they were doing before, into a recommitment to following Jesus. During Lent, we are meant to spend these 40 days focusing on God in three different ways: through devotion, through self-control, and through giving. Typically when outsiders think of Lent, they only see the second aspect of it: self-control. This is often represented by fasting or abstaining from certain foods. For instance, Catholics traditionally abstain from meat during Lent except for specific days. However, many traditions do this differently.

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, where Christians are anointed with a cross on either their head or hand. These ashes are usually the burnt palm leaves from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. The ashen cross is supposed to remind us of our sins which were paid for on the cross and bring us into repentance before Jesus. Ash Wednesday is meant to be a solemn time of inner reflection in which we confess our sins. Ashes also have a significant role in the Bible and are used to show one’s sorrow and repentance. Ash Wednesday reminds us of our lowly state, that we were brought from dust and to dust we shall return.

Now you might be thinking, well this is morbid, why would I want to take part in something that sounds so dreadful? Remember, Lent is about getting your heart right to accept the sacrifice of Jesus and to then celebrate the joy and hope of his victory on Easter. It is a time to remember that without Jesus we are only dust, but, because of what he did Easter Sunday, we are now children of God who look forward to the resurrection of our own bodies and life after death.

How do we do it?

As mentioned earlier, during Lent we are supposed to be focusing on God in three different ways: devotion, self-control, and giving. This is what each category means for Lent and why we do it:

Devotion is something we do for God during Lent that focuses on our relationship with Him. This is often accomplished by reading scripture or praying.

Self-control is something we do during Lent that helps us practice controlling our worldly impulses. This is also a way of training to control sinful desires. Often this is done through fasting or abstaining from certain foods throughout Lent.

Giving is something we do during Lent that helps us better understand the loving and giving heart of Jesus. By giving during Lent, we are growing closer to God by doing his work and loving his creation and creatures. This can be done by tithing, increasing our donations, or volunteering our time in or out of church.

Lent is a “holy season”. What this means is that Lent is a season that we set aside from our day-to-day lives and give to God. Accordingly, the three ways we focus on God during Lent should be something different than we usually do either in quality or in quantity. For instance, if you already tithe, then saying your tithe is what you’re giving for Lent isn’t any different than how you normally live. Or if you’re a vegetarian, giving up meat for Lent isn’t any more of a practice in self control. Each of the three categories requires both sacrifice and sustainability.

What I mean by sacrifice is that it should be something that takes effort on our part and disrupts how we would normally live. We are setting aside time, effort, and resources to God that we don’t normally give him. It isn’t a sacrifice to give up chocolate for Lent if you hate chocolate. However, these sacrifices have to be sustainable because you are supposed to do it over 40 days. Don’t decide to read the entire Bible in 40 days if that isn’t something you can realistically do. So for each category (devotion, self-control, and giving) try to find something that will take effort on your part but that, with God’s grace, you can continue to do for 40 days. Ecclesiastes warns us about promising something to God and not following through with it: “If you make a promise to God, keep your promise. Don’t be slow to do what you promised. God is not happy with fools. Give God what you promised to give him.”

So let these 40 days be a time of transition in your life, just as it was for Noah, Moses, the Israelites, David, and Jesus. If you missed Ash Wednesday, don’t worry, it’s the heart that matters not the ceremony. Take time now to pray to God about what you should devote to him, give up for him, and give to others for him. Pick things that you can do but that will take effort to accomplish. Remember that every time you decide to do something for God, the enemy and your own sinful nature will immediately set about trying to get you to stop doing it. You’ll start thinking that your commitments aren’t really important to God and don’t really matter, or that it’s too much effort and God expects too much. Stand firm and persevere through Lent so that on Easter Sunday you can celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ with a renewed heart and mind, going forth with a deeper understanding of and commitment to our Lord and Savior.

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The Great Multiplier

Reading: Matthew 14:13-21

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13 When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

15 As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

16 Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

17 “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.

18 “Bring them here to me,” he said. 19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. 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 the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Reflection:

It’s amazing how stories that seem pointless or without meaning can suddenly be revealed to be so relevant when the Holy Spirit gets involved. That has been my recent experience with this passage. I often find “miraculous” stories to be challenging for me. I read them and believe that Jesus did do them, and yay for those people who experienced them, but I don’t expect bread to suddenly rain on me from heaven. I take these stories at face value and struggle to get any meaning out of them. I much prefer the parables and encounters Jesus has with people; they seem so much more down to earth…. And that is my own limitation that I place both on myself and on God. Fortunately God is the Limitless and the one who sets His own boundaries and, at times, breaks them. The Holy Spirit broke my mental boundary with this story and I’d like to share my new understanding with you.

This story begins with Jesus seeking solitude after he had heard “what had happened”. Placed in context, we learn that Jesus has just been told of John the Baptist’s execution at the hands of Herod. John, we must remember, is intimately tied to Jesus in two ways: both familially and spiritually. John is Jesus’ cousin and also the one preordained by God to prepare Jesus’ way by announcing his arrival on earth. John’s death is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own and the event likely left Jesus grieved and shaken as he immediately wishes for solitude. Jesus’ only wish at this moment is to be alone. He is not having a good day.

Yet when Jesus lands, he sees an enormous crowd: the exact opposite of what he wanted. Jesus has every right to get angry; to tell them to go away; to beret them for being insensitive and irritating. Instead, we are told the Jesus had compassion on them and proceeded to heal their sick and to spend a full day teaching them. The Greek word used here for compassion is splagchnizomai (σπλαγχνίζομαι). Splagchnizomai is a very strong word and gives the image of a literal “gut-wrenching” feeling of compassion. (And I mean literally, the root word splagchnon means the inner organs: specifically the gut). Have you ever felt something so strongly that your insides feel like they’re being yanked around? That’s the kind of love Jesus experienced for these people. Instead of being angry, overwhelmed, or annoyed, Jesus experienced a gut-wrenching feeling of compassion for this group of people.

This is significant: we can never come to Jesus at a bad time. We can be the most irritating, anger-deserving, least-desirable individual in existence and Jesus will always greet us with compassion when we come before him. No situation, no past action, can separate us from the compassionate love of Jesus when we choose to come to him.

The second important part of this point is that, when we come to Jesus there will immediately be those who try to get us to leave him. If you remember nothing else, remember this: the very best place you can be is with Jesus, even if it doesn’t seem like it.

When Peter walked on water to go out to Jesus and he started to sink, Peter was right where Jesus could grab him and pull him up. When we’re standing with Jesus, no matter what is going on around us, he can pull us up whenever we start sinking. But as soon as we start coming to Jesus, people, situations, temptations, and the enemy are all going to try to convince us that we should be somewhere else. The wind and the rain and the waves are going to howl and scream “Peter, get back in the boat. That’s where it’s safe.” Other followers of Christ will even say you need to go get your spiritual food from this-or-that source before you can be in the presence of Christ. They’ll say “you need to get your heart right” before going to the only one who can make your heart right. That “you need to eat your own bread” before being filled by the Living Bread. Do not listen. Do not be sent away from Jesus, no matter how logical the argument sounds: “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.” No! You stay right where you are: in the presence and power of Jesus Christ. Even if all you have to offer him are five loaves and two fishes in the face of 5,000 hungry people.

I have read this passage so many times and have tried to figure out what it’s saying about me when I should have been trying to understand what it was telling me about Jesus. This is what I was missing: Jesus is the Great Multiplier. Whatever we give to Jesus, he is going to multiply in ways and to amounts we could never imagine. Give him a mustard seed of faith and he will use it to move mountains. Give him two cents and he is going to throw you a party because of it. Give him the smallest amount of surrender and before you know it, the entirety of yourself will be surrendered to the God of the universe.

I remember sitting in a pew at church at sixteen years old during a Christmas service. I had not been to church for three years and did not believe in God. And something for some reason moved me to say “okay God, if you’re there, I’ll give you a chance”. Upon leaving, I promptly forgot about this and continued ignoring Him. Within three months I had given my life to Jesus Christ and accepted him as the Lord of my life and my salvation.

What we have to give Jesus may look entirely worthless to our eyes, but he is going to take it and multiply it into something worthwhile. Trying to forgive someone? Take whatever amount of forgiveness you can muster and give it to Jesus. For everything you give him, he is going to give you more. What we cannot do is bury what little we have in a hole and expect it to multiply itself. You cannot expect miracles to happen in your life if you don’t sit at Jesus’ feet and entrust him with whatever you have, however little, at the time. We are not supposed to turn our offering into something we can be proud of before giving it to him. We are supposed to give him our weakness and he will make it his strength. And this isn’t a one time event. We have to keep giving our small offerings to Jesus every day. What Jesus multiplies, give right back to him and let him keep on multiplying it. The verse “ask and it shall be given you, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7) should more appropriately be translated: ask and keep on asking… seek and keep on seeking… knock and keep on knocking….

The last point I want to make today, is that Jesus isn’t going to multiply what you give him until you have barely enough. Jesus is going to multiply what you surrender to him until you are satisfied and there will still be more leftover. Our passage says they ate and were “satisfied”. It doesn’t say that they ate and were still hungry, they did not each have a crumb and a scale to eat, they ate and were satisfied. Not only were they satisfied, but they had an excess. They ate their fill and still had more than they began with. They had enough leftover to feed even more people! Take the excess that God has given you from what you have surrendered and give it to other people. If this is time, talent, treasure, keep giving the gift of Jesus to those who need that gift. Don’t hoard your excess, share it and be a source of Jesus’ multiplying miracle in someone else’s life.

Request:

Hear us, O Lord, hear the cry of us sinners. Holy Spirit guide us to give what little we can to Jesus. If it’s forgiveness, love, patience, faith, gentleness, whatever it might be, help us give all we have–no matter how little that seems to us–to the Great Multiplier. Keep us coming to Jesus and help us remain in his presence no matter what life or people or demons try to do or say to us. We know that we can always come to you, Jesus, with assurance of love and compassion. You will never forsake us, and we can never disappoint you. Help us to open up a way for you to work in our lives by offering you anything we can and to keep offering it to you every day. We know we have a Father who has a purpose and plan for us. Let us trust in that. Amen.

Revere:

Broken Vessels (Amazing Grace) – Hillsong Worship

The Spirit is Willing, but…

Reading: Matthew 26:36-44

36 Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

43 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.

Reflection:

The past few days, I have been reading a wonderful collection of thoughts by the late Maltbie D. Babcock. Dr. Babcock was a pastor of a church in the late 1800’s, and after his death, snippets of his various writings were collected into Thoughts for Every-Day Living. (I highly recommend reading this book, it can be done in a daily devotional style or simply opened at random and perused. Additionally, you can read the online version for free with the ForgottenBooks app.) Over these past few days, I find myself returning to something he said:

“the victory of Calvary was won in Gethsemane.”

Take a minute to really read and think about that. If you are unfamiliar with some of the terms, Calvary is the latin name for the place where Jesus was crucified, and Gethsemane is the garden where Jesus was betrayed by Judas and where he spent hours praying to God before his betrayal. What Dr. Babcock is saying here, isn’t that Christ took away the sins of the world in Gethsemane, but that Jesus made the decision to follow the Father’s will rather than his own in Gethsemane. Without Jesus’ choice in Gethsemane, Calvary may never have happened at all.

While we think of the ‘passion of Christ’ primarily as the crucifixion, it is possible that his darkest hour was truly in the garden of Gethsemane. It was where he was most tempted to follow his own will rather than the Father’s. Nowhere else in the Gospels do we see Jesus described with such strong language as troubled, sorrowful, and overwhelmed “to the point of death”. Not even during the crucifixion. Jesus secured his later victory on the cross by conquering his temptation in advance through prayer. Jesus knew what was going to happen to him, but he didn’t wait until he was going through it to pray to God for help. We only get a short snippet of his prayer, but we know he was praying at least for an hour that he would not fall into temptation. He describes this experience as “keeping watch”. While we may imagine that he was ‘keeping watch’ for Judas, it is more likely that Jesus meant keeping watch against sin and temptation in this critical moment.

This is contrasted sharply by the disciples who, rather than pray, fall asleep. The disciples, too, knew what was going to happen, because Jesus had been telling them for weeks or even months. Rather than being watchful against the sin and temptation that is about to come, they sleep during the hours they are not being tempted…. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Thinking that the willingness of their spirit is enough, the disciples do not turn to God for strength and deliverance from temptation.

If we do not see ourselves reflected back at us in this picture of the disciples, we may need more self-honesty. While we may not always know when large temptations are coming in our lives, we are told by Jesus to be “on watch” against them. Instead, all too often, when things are going well, we are happy to sleep spiritually. Then when temptations come our way, we are unprepared and fall into sin. And this cycle continues over, and over, and over again.

How do we break this cycle? How do we, like Jesus, win the victory over sin? To begin, we must acknowledge that we will never be 100% successful or free of sin until the recreation of our earthly bodies. We are bent towards sin and should expect that there will be times, no matter how far along in our journey we go, that we will succumb to sin and temptation. This is not meant to minimize the offense of sin. Sin in our lives is always something we should be torn over and work to correct. But it does mean that we place our entire hope in the only one who has overcome all sin, both yours and mine: Jesus Christ. And it means that when we do sin, rather than curling up in shame and hiding ourselves from God, we know that Jesus has already paid the price, won the victory, and there is nothing we can do to jeopardize that. With that in mind, I do have some suggestions, based on the life and teaching of Jesus for how we might walk more faithfully with God now. We can’t just banish our sins from our lives, we have to fill ourselves with goodness or the sins will only return tenfold.

1) Habit.

If you take the time to read the Gospels, and I highly recommend it, you will be amazed at the amount of time Jesus spends in prayer. You’d think the Son of God wouldn’t have to set aside specific time to pray, but, no, we find Jesus praying constantly. I’ve heard a lot of people, regarding prayer, say something along the lines of “I pray to God throughout the day” or “I’m always praying”. I too have been guilty of this mindset. What we mean when we say this is, throughout the day we’ll thank God for something or say sorry for a sin or whatever else is on our mind. This kind of prayer is so common because it doesn’t cost us anything to do; we can work it into our lives without changing anything. If this is you, the following statement is very important: if the Son of God, who had a closer relationship with the Father than anyone else, set aside time to pray, then you need to too. Prayer is an opportunity to come before God and be honest with ourselves and Him about who we are and where we’re at. It’s also a time for Him to speak to you. We don’t get that kind of connection by sending brief “prayer-texts” throughout the day. We need to sit down and spend time with our God. Jesus needed to, and so do you.

So start building a habit of prayer, and start out with a goal that is accomplishable. Don’t say, I’m going to wake up at 3am and pray for 4 hours every day. But maybe, I’ll get up 15 minutes earlier and pray for that amount of time. Mark it on your calendar, do it first thing, make it the priority of your day. Don’t leave it until 11:00pm and half-ass it. And that means praying even when you don’t know what to say or don’t feel close to God. Don’t break your habit. Personally, on days I feel this way, I will recite the Lord’s Prayer and really focus on what each part of it is saying and on meaning every word. Or I will ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to me what I should be praying about (this is a good idea even if you think you know what to pray about already)

2. Get specific.

Taking another cue from Dr. Babcock, really define what it is you are praying about. When you ask for forgiveness from sin, try being specific about what sins you mean: drunkenness, pornography, gossiping, etc. Being honest with ourselves is invaluable. If we keep our sins vague, how will we ever conquer them? An unknown enemy is always more dangerous than the one right in front of our face. While I do think it’s healthy to say ‘forgive me the sins I don’t remember and committed unknowingly’, if we never know our sins, then do we really know what goodness looks like? The closer we are to Jesus, the more sharply our own sin is contrasted against him and the more aware we are of our own failings in the face of perfection.

3. Be on watch.

Don’t just ask for forgiveness for sins; ask for the strength to overcome them. After becoming familiar with the sins that you regularly fall into (by being specific in prayer), ask that God give you victory over them. Take yourself out of situations, relationships, or jobs that are poisoning your relationship with God and leading you into these sins. you know you will be going into a situation where you will be tempted, pray for victory in advance, don’t wait until you are facing the situation. Ask God to strengthen you against specific sins, and ask God to teach you virtues instead. When quitting one habit, it’s easiest to replace it with something else. So also with sin. Practice patience, perseverance, kindness, gentleness, self control, and love.

4. The little things.

Don’t let any situation be too small to be beneath your notice. It is by being faithful through small temptations that we get strong enough to stand up to the big ones. Jesus was faithful throughout his life and was able to stand up to the crucifixion. Not practicing faithfulness in the little things is like going into the gym the first time and expecting to be able to squat 400lbs. It’s not going to happen. Jesus tells us that those who are faithful in the little things will be trusted with much. Never underestimate the small opportunities God gives us every day to help strengthen us. Get in your spiritual exercise.

We will find ourselves more able to recognize these smaller temptations the more we spend time with God in prayer and the more we name specific sins. The world has made so many temptations seem like a casual part of daily life and when we stop focusing on God, we get used to them and think these are normal things. With our focus fixed firmly on God we will not make these mistakes.

Don’t forget that we are called to be on watch by Jesus himself. We are not only to ask for forgiveness from sins, but to be on guard against them. This starts by going to God in prayer because sin isn’t something we have any hope of conquering apart from Jesus. But by making prayer a central habit, getting specific, praying for victory, and staying faithful in the small things, we may find our sins turning into victories. Take time to celebrate each victory before God; giving thanks and praise at the change He works in your life.

Request:

Hear us, O Lord, hear the cry of us sinners. We spend so much time going through our lives focused on our own concerns and our own goals instead of yours. Father, help us follow you and submit to your will just as Jesus did. May we fix you firmly as the Lord of our lives. Jesus, teach us to always be on watch against the temptations and evil that seek us out and let this start with the same habit of prayer you practiced in your life. Holy Spirit, motivate your church to prayer and guide us along your path. Keep us from straying but always bring us back if we do. God, you have given us the Victory over sin through Jesus Christ. Give us also the victory over our sins in our daily lives, and may we always look forward to the day our Lord returns and we are freed completely from the sinful nature of our flesh. Amen.

Revere:

O Come to the Altar – Elevation Worship

God the King

Reading: 1 Samuel 8:1-20

1When Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons as Israel’s judges. 2 The name of his firstborn was Joel and the name of his second was Abijah, and they served at Beersheba. 3 But his sons did not follow his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice. 4 So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. 5 They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”

6 But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. 7And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. 8 As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. 9 Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”

10 Samuel told all the words of the Lordto the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. 20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”

Reflection:

A very common way to read the Bible–that even the most skilled theologian may fall into from time to time–is to read a passage and attempt to either: A) imitate it in our daily life, or B) avoid doing it. This may best be seen by the familiar acronym WWJD (what would Jesus do). Unfortunately, the Bible isn’t a list of right and wrong moralistic tidbits that we are supposed to copy (or not) that will eventually transform us into perfect people. The Bible is a narrative about God bringing about his kingdom through the person and work of Jesus Christ. I am not saying we shouldn’t imitate Christ, but I am saying that if we assume a list of do’s and don’ts is all the Bible is teaching us, then we will miss the more important points it is making.

Upon first reading this passage, it is easy to reduce it into a simple moralistic proverb: don’t do what the Israelites did. Or to shake our heads and say “there go those faithless Israelites again, ignoring God and doing what they want”. However, if we better understand this chapter in its context in the book of Samuel and in the story of the Bible, we may find a more profound message and warning in this text than a simple DDWTID (don’t do what the Israelites did).

We enter our reading today at a critical time in the life of the Israelites: the transition from judges to kings. Up until now, the Israelites were ruled by a succession of judges who were guided by God and lead Israel through crises of war and spirit. God was firmly placed in the role of king, and prophets and judges would interpret His will and carry it out. Samuel is currently the last judge over Israel and he freed them from 20 years of rule by the Philistines and acted as their judge and leader afterward. Now their strong military figure is old and ready to turn his role over to someone else. To understand the reaction of the Israelites, we have to look at what happened in the first 7 chapters of 1 Samuel that caused them to be under Philistine rule in the first place.

The judge before Samuel was a man named Eli. When Eli became old, he turned his rule over to his two sons. His sons were corrupt and did not acknowledge God as their king. Because of this, we are told, God allowed them to be killed in battle, the Ark of the Covenant to be captured by the Philistines, and Israel to be ruled by them for 20 years. The beginning of this story is sounding eerily familiar at this point. Samuel, a great judge, is now old and has appointed his two sons to rule after him. They are corrupt and do not follow God’s laws. Is it possible that the Israelites did in fact learn their lesson the last time this happened with Eli and are attempting to prevent invoking God’s wrath? Perhaps they are looking at Samuel and saying: “not this again”.

And this is truly an understandable and even admirable thing to do. Who wants to be ruled over and oppressed by another nation? Who wants the God of the universe to be angry with them? The Israelites can see the problem happening all over again and are trying to prevent another tragedy from happening. Isn’t this something we are told to do? We are supposed to guard ourselves against sin and to keep ourselves from people and situations that will cause us to fall into sin. So what’s the problem? Why does God get angry? Is it possible, that even with the best of intentions, the Israelites have done something drastically wrong?

The problem, isn’t with their intentions, but with the solution they came up with:

We want a king over us. 20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.

The Israelites are trying to safeguard against another 20, 40, 100 years of oppression by another nation. And having lived under Philistine rule for two decades, they know how effective a king can be. ‘A king will surely prevent God’s wrath because Samuel’s sons will not be in charge, and a king will keep us safe from any future hostilities’. But being the king of Israel is God’s job. In their worry about what might happen and their haste to prevent it, the Israelites have fallen into an even greater sin that will lead to more intense suffering and drive them even farther from God. Israel has forgotten their own identity as the Holy nation of God. Holy, in its literal sense means to be ‘set apart’. Israel is forgetting that it isn’t supposed to be like other nations; it is supposed to be different because it was set apart by God to be His chosen people. Throughout the Old Testament we find God saying that he will lead Israel and go before them. The Ark of the Covenant that represents God and his kingship over Israel would literally ‘go before’ their armies during battle. The Israelites, in their fear over their future, are replacing their trust in God with trust in a human king. They have forgotten who they are and who God is.

Maybe you have heard the quote: “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”. This is as true for us today as it was for the Israelites. We, all too often, are so worried about what is happening right in front of our nose that we lose sight of the bigger picture. This story isn’t about not doing what the Israelites did, it is a picture of ourselves every day rejecting God as the king of our lives. When we are faced with a problem we look around to find the best solution and, even before going to God about it, try to solve it on our own. Sometimes we even copy the ways of those who don’t believe in God in order to get through our current worry or problem in life. Like the Israelites, we forget that we are children of the Most High God and that we have been set apart by him. We forget who the King is and replace Him with a king.

And at the end of the day, don’t we often congratulate ourselves? ‘Look at how clever we were to come up with that solution all by ourselves’. Like a child who sweeps the dust under a rug and thinks of how proud their parents will be now that the house is clean. God let Israel have their king, and eventually he gave them a true King in Jesus Christ. But we will never know what might have happened, how much more glorious it could have been, if Israel had continued to acknowledge God as King. And every time we confront our sins with our own solution instead of The Solution, we are hiding ourselves from God’s plan and purpose. Our fear and our solutions enslave us, only God in His rightful place as the King of our lives sets us free.

Request:

Hear us, O Lord, hear the cry of us sinners. How often we hide our brokenness from you in the hopes that we can fix ourselves. How often we let the fears and worries of this life cause us to run from the safety of your arms into the illusion of a quick fix that only hurts us more. Father, may we always remember that you are our King. That in Jesus Christ you claimed the victory and that we are now and always subjects of your kingdom. Jesus, rule over our lives and our hearts forever. Holy Spirit, move us closer to you when we feel only distance. Keep hold of us in your loving arms when we would run away. May we come to you, not for a solution but for The Solution, and may we wait with patience as your will comes to pass in our lives. May your kingdom come and your will be done in our lives and on this earth. Amen.

Revere:

He’s Working it Out – Shirley Caesar

Life: A Cat’s Perspective

I recently did a post called “Life with God: a Dog’s Perspective”. In it, I shared some of the ways my dog has taught me a little about God and life. Afterwards, I started thinking about our cat Lyla and if she has any similar insights to share. So I’ve been watching her carefully for a week now and this is what I’ve come up with:
Some days you’ll be feeling really great and secure and happy. Then life will come and knock you off the table for no reason.

Life will get your attention if it wants it. Otherwise it’s best to just go about your business.

Just because life is sitting on your lap purring, it doesn’t mean life has suddenly decided to start being nice to you.

Life enjoys making messes. Especially after you just swept up all the litter.

Someone will always love you no matter how much of a jerk you are. 

Life will always throw up hairballs in the most inconvenient places.

You will never find life’s hairballs at a good time to clean them up.

Just because you’re tired and want to sleep doesn’t mean life won’t come and sit on your face.

Life probably wants to kill you.

If life starts twitching its tail you should immediately stop what you’re doing and proceed with caution.

The ways you got through life yesterday probably won’t work today. New strategies are required.

Some days life will bring you unexpected gifts. Be grateful for what you get (even if it’s a dead mouse).

Life is the one in charge, not you and definitely not the dog.

Life requires routine. For instance, if you feed life everyday at 7am it will expect to be fed tomorrow at the same time even on the weekends.

In life, it’s easy to get fat. Even if you run laps around the house every night at 3 in the morning.

Life is chaotic, but also cute and fluffy.

Grabbing life by its tail is always a bad idea. Who came up with that saying? 

When life meows at you, you’d better listen.

In life, you’ll find yourself in unexpected places. Like on the top of the bookshelf.

If you act like you’re the boss for long enough, everyone will eventually agree with you.

You can never be too cautious in life. When confronted with new situations, hiding under the couch is always a good start.

Don’t go to the bathroom alone, it can be dangerous. Always remember to bring a friend who can sit on your lap and keep watch.

Red dots are always the enemy. Eliminate immediately.

Bite others before they can bite you. Even if they’re just scratching your ears.

Life always enjoys head rubs. Until it doesn’t.

Life can be confusing, but it’s best to just go with it.

Drinking water out of a container is never as much fun as splashing it all over the floor first.

If someone tells you not to go somewhere, that’s the first place you should go.

Life will always find a way to sneak through your boundaries regardless of how fat life is.

Sometimes the law of gravity just needs a little help.

When falling, it’s best to land on your feet.

Repeatedly kneading someone’s belly fat is a great way to make friends.

When someone displease you, rather than talking it out, be sure to screech at the top of your lungs.

You are God’s perfect gift to the world, don’t forget it.

If someone has closed the door, it doesn’t mean they want privacy. Be sure to meow and put your hands under the door until they let you in.

Dirty laundry is surprisingly comfortable.
So is clean laundry, but be sure to shed extra hair in this batch.

Life is kind of an asshole.

If someone is about to feed you, be sure to hit their hand with your head so they spill your food everywhere.

If you scratch life’s belly, it will kill you.

A Place to Rest

Reading:

12 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (John 12:1-3)

Reflection:

Many beautiful sermons have arisen from the story of the anointing of Jesus. While I hope to dive into some of the other lessons this passage of scripture has to offer, today I mainly want to focus on this question: what was Jesus doing here? We are told it’s six days before the Passover; six days before Jesus dies on a cross. It’s getting to be crunch time. We know that Jesus is aware of what will happen to him once he enters Jerusalem. With that in mind, why has he come to Bethany; to the house of Lazarus and Martha and Mary? Is that really the best thing he could be doing at this time? He could be teaching his disciples some more important lessons or speaking to the crowds or healing the blind, the lame, the sick. Instead we find Jesus here. At a feast given in his honor, being anointed with expensive perfume. Is Jesus being just a little selfish? This isn’t even a safe hideout ahead of time. The pharisees are also looking for an excuse to kill Lazarus (John 12:10). Wouldn’t having Jesus and Lazarus together make a tempting target?

Earlier in the gospel of John, we are told that Jesus loves Lazarus, Martha, and Mary (John 11:5). And when the Bible says that Jesus loves someone, we should take note of it, because it doesn’t happen often. Jesus is six days out from his torture and death, and he has surrounded himself by people he loves. He didn’t come to their home to teach or to perform a miracle. Jesus came to have dinner with them. It really looks as if Jesus was taking a break before the difficult week that was to come. He was taking his last real opportunity to rest, surrounded by people he loved and whom he felt safe with.

Now you might be thinking, ‘that can’t be right, Jesus is the son of God. He doesn’t need to rest.’ But we frequently see Jesus going off on his own to pray and spend time with God: to rest. The part of this particular story that is so unique is that Jesus doesn’t just seek out God’s company to rest this time, but the company of human friends and companions. I wonder, if when people were spitting in his face, cursing and beating him less than a week later, that Jesus was holding tightly to this memory. If maybe he was remembering the love of Lazarus and Martha and Mary and if that helped him endure his trial and crucifixion.

Of course this is just speculation, but some of it rings true. At the very least we know this easy to forget truth: even Jesus needed a place to rest. Especially when life was getting really really hard. And if that’s true for the son of God, how much more true must it be for us? Yet we continue to insist that everything’s fine, that we can do this on our own, that we don’t need anyone else. Much of this is a cultural byproduct; a message we have been taught that if we can’t handle it ourselves then we aren’t good enough. But that isn’t what the Bible teaches and that isn’t what Jesus teaches. One of Jesus’ most potent calls is: ‘come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I shall give you rest.’

We are actually called to rest. How cool is that? If you’re like me, you might be thinking, ‘no, that isn’t cool. I don’t have time to rest, I have so much I have to do and you don’t understand-‘ Hush, quiet down for a moment. You have been so tired for so long and Jesus is waiting with open arms for you to find your rest in him. Because that is the first place we should seek our rest: in the God of peace.

But that’s the other cool thing about God: he has given us other places we can find rest in. Namely, he has given us the Church. Rest isn’t a one on one relationship between ourselves and God, even if it starts out that way. We also find rest in the community God has surrounded us with: the body of Christ. This might be the last straw for a lot of you: ‘not the Church, anything but that. It’s messy and judgemental and the only rest I get there is sleeping through sermons on Sunday mornings’. But we are called into this messy place that God is somehow using for his purpose. You cannot be a Christian and not be part of the Church because being a Christian is defined as membership in the body of Christ.

So there are two things to take from this. The first is that the church is meant to be a place of rest. It is a place where we suffer with those who suffer and rejoice with those who rejoice. If people are coming to our church and cannot find in it individuals like Lazarus, Martha, and Mary; people who love them and whom they would seek out at the darkest times in their lives, then that is a failing on our part. If we cannot provide a place of rest for a weary world, then we are not doing our job. And we can only be a place of rest for others if we are resting in God ourselves. Key point: we never do any of this on our own. We have to seek out God for rest and we also have to seek rest in the Church, not just snub our nose at it and try to rest on our own.

The second thing to take from this is on the individual level. It’s a challenge to ask yourself and to consider deeply and prayerfully: am I a place of rest to others? Do people come to me when they are weary with their own burdens? Am I someone who loves so deeply that when others come to me they leave feeling refreshed and lightened? Am I so focused on my own problems that I don’t notice my brothers and sisters that could use my love and companionship right now? Am I so focused on giving advice and fixing the problems of the world that others feel I am unable to listen and really hear them?

Am I a place of rest?

Request:

Hear us Lord, hear the cry of us sinners. We give praise to you, O God, that you came to give rest and peace to a weary and burdened world. We look around at the chaos, the legitimate fears and worries, the pain and darkness of this world and are overwhelmed. Holy Spirit, guide our way, shine light in this darkness and remind us to look to Jesus: our resting place. Shine out from us, that we may be places of rest for our brothers and sisters. Teach us how to love those who are struggling and reaching out in the blackest days of their lives. Teach us how to act as your body and to be led by your Spirit. Amen.

Revere:

All Sons and Daughters – Rest in You

Living as God’s Chosen People

Reading:

​12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through Psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:12-17)

Reflection:

Today, the Western Church is facing a crisis. For the first time in centuries, Christianity is no longer growing in the West. What used to be the spiritual center of Christianity is now on the fringes of the modern Christian world. Today, more than 60% of Christians live outside of the West and that number continues to increase. But, for those of us living in western countries, that doesn’t mean Christianity is dying. No, Christianity is thriving in fact. Its center is simply moving south and east. Countries in Africa, South America, and Asia are experiencing incredible church growth. The Gospel is being spread and celebrated, but not in the West.

More and more people continue to leave the church in Europe and North America. Young people look at Christianity and simply aren’t attracted to it anymore. And that isn’t because there’s something wrong with the current generation, and it isn’t because there’s something wrong with Christ. No, people see the church and they see the world reflected back at them. There’s nothing different there. People in the church are just as hypocritical and unloving as people outside of it–if not more so. And I think, in the West, we’ve simply forgotten how to be a church: the living body of Christ.

So let’s get back to the basics and talk about what a church is supposed to look like today. If you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll know that Christians are messy, sinful people just like everyone else, and the church is meant to be the home for all of us no matter how many times we mess up. However, in between the times we’re messing up and even during those times, we are given some goals to strive towards. No church, this side of the new creation, will ever look exactly the way we’re going to talk about today, but God is great and merciful and if we spend enough time at the feet of Jesus, the Holy Spirit may just help shape us to look a little more like the Kingdom of God. And I think this passage in Colossians is one of the best to look at when trying to get a better grasp on what a church is.

We have to begin this talk about church exactly at the beginning of this passage. Everything we read and try to do is because we are “God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved.” If you forget everything else in this post, remember this part. It is only because God chose us as his people and loves us, that we are able to attempt any of this. And it is only out of being God’s chosen people and from his love that we are able to attempt any of this.

A lot of people get tripped up here by the word ‘holy’ and think this means they were chosen based on how good they were or that they have to be perfectly good now that they have been chosen. Don’t panic. Being a holy people simply means we have been ‘set apart’ by God. We are holy because he set us apart to be his people and we will continue to be holy because of his choice, not our actions. And he set us apart, not because of the good deeds we had done (we hadn’t any), but because he deeply deeply loves us and he came and died on the cross as Jesus Christ to save us. That is our identity as a church, it’s what allows us to be a church, and as soon as we forget that, we aren’t a church anymore. We’re just a bunch of people in a fancy building.

Now, out of God’s love for us we can take a stab at this next part:

clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

I love Paul’s use of the word “clothe” here. If you need an example of what a master wordsmith Paul is, this is it. Almost the first thing we do in the morning is put on clothes. We wouldn’t imagine going out and starting our daily activities without them. And it is something we have to do every day, not an act we do just once and never come back to. At first, as children we’re not very good at getting dressed, we put our shirt on backwards and forget to tie our shoes. But over time we learn and getting dressed becomes second nature to us. Putting these virtues on is just like getting dressed in the morning. Even if we’re tired or running late, these are things we cannot do without: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and love. Seeing Christians walking around without these things is like seeing a man or woman running around naked.

Have you had that dream where you’re doing something important and then look down and realize your pants are missing? You feel deeply ashamed and embarrassed and your deepest desire is to quickly go put your pants on. This is what forgetting to be compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, patient, forgiving, or loving should feel like to us who follow Christ. And when we forget those things, because there will be days we will, we have to go back to our Father and ask him to show us how to tie our shoes again because we’ve forgotten how.

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through Psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.

What is the peace of Christ? While Paul is using the Greek word ‘eirene’ here, he is certainly thinking of the Hebraic ‘shalom’. In Hebrew, peace is more than just a lack of conflict, it is universal flourishing and harmony. That is what peace is supposed to look like in Christ and in the church that is his living body. And we are called to flourishing peace through sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, teaching and admonishing one another in wisdom, and worshiping God in gratitude. And we must remember to do all these things, especially the admonishing part, in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and love.

17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. 

What if, every time we did or said something we did it in the name of Jesus Christ? Would we curse a brother or sister in the name of Jesus? Would we gossip and spread lies and rumors in the name of Jesus? Would we hold a grudge against our spiritual siblings in the name of Jesus? May it never be so. This is the real kicker when it comes to being a church: that when we realize we are doing every act in Christ’s name and in his presence, we are much more likely to treat our neighbors the way he treated us. Because we know that he loved us when we were unlovable and forgave our sins when we had nothing to offer. So, if we can only start doing and saying in Jesus’ name, we might start looking more like a living church than an empty building.

Request:

Hear us Lord, hear the cry of us sinners. Father, we praise you that the Good News of Jesus Christ continues to spread throughout the world. We are excited by the growing diversity and beauty of your people and the new ways of worship and thought this diversity brings to your Church. Help us to always remember what it means to be your chosen people. Holy Spirit, fill us with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and love. Bring a flourishing peace to your church that people look at and are attracted to like a moth to the light on a dark cold night. Jesus, may we do every act and speak every word in your name and with an awareness of your presence. Let us remember that as a church we are part of your living body and that our lives are not our own. Amen. 

Life with God: a Dog’s Perspective

Today’s post will be a little different from my previous ones. I plan on returning to that format, but have been thinking about doing this post for a bit and have felt prompted to write it during prayer. So here it goes.

The first thing you have to understand is my husband and I have the best dog in the entire world. I know you thought you had that one, but you were mistaken. We adopted Shiro a year and a half ago from a pitbull rescue agency. Yes, the picture is actually her; what a cutie!! While I thought we were only rescuing a dog, I discovered that God was also putting someone in my life to reveal some important truths to me. Below are some of them.

In Training

Because Shiro was a rescue, she needed to be trained all over again from the start even though she’s almost three years old. While she’s become much better at listening, she tends to forget her training when we go to new places. Lately, we’ve been bringing her to my parent’s house, and I know that as soon as she gets out of my sight she will poop on the floor or get in the trash. When she wanders off I call to her to come back. Most of the time she does, although usually after a couple calls in a stern voice. And whenever she comes back on her own, even if I’m annoyed by how long it’s taken, I always praise her. You have to do that with dogs or they won’t come back to you when you call them. She’s gotten a lot better at listening, but sometimes she still wanders off and I have to go find her. I always remind myself that she’s still in training, that she’s learning to trust me and listen to my voice.

It’s easy to get distracted from God when we find ourselves in new situations. Sometimes these situations can be scary or fun or just make us curious. Sometimes when we hear God calling to us to return, we ignore him in order to explore new places or because we’re afraid he’ll be mad at us when we come back. But even if we’ve pooped on the floor or torn the trash open, God is still calling us to come home. God doesn’t give up on us just because we’ve rolled around in a mud puddle. And when we come back to him on our own, we don’t have to fear that he will rebuke us and condemn us. God is filled with joy every time we choose to return to him. And even during times in our lives that we don’t come back, God will come and find us, clean up our mess, and keep on loving us.

We have to remember that we’re still in training. Some of us have just started, and some of us have been in it for a long time. Either way, there will still be times we mess up or wander off or don’t trust our master. And that’s okay. We aren’t supposed to be perfect yet, we’re still in training. And God doesn’t expect us to be perfect, he knows we’re in training and he loves us and he isn’t angry at us when we mess up, he just wants us to come back again.

A Lap Dog

Shiro is a lap dog, and I don’t mean she’s a dog who will sit in your lap when you call them and then get down after a few minutes. And she’s not a dog who just sits next to you and puts her head in your lap. No, my fourty pound pitbull is a lap dog. Her favorite place to be is right in the middle of your lap, curled up in a circle or trying to bathe your face with her kisses. She’s been sleeping on my lap while I’ve been writing this (which adds a whole new challenge to blogging). One of the reasons she needs to be in someone’s lap is because she has separation anxiety, and I mean she’s had to be on anti-anxiety medication before for it. My lap is where she feels safe and secure and loved. She knows she’s protected here and that I’m not going to leave her. When she starts feeling brave again she’ll go off and explore our yard or run around with my mom’s dog Merlin. But she always knows where to come back to when she starts feeling worried or scared.

I wish we knew that God’s lap is the safest and best place for us to be. Unlike Shiro, wandering off can be dangerous and scary. But we like our independence, we like to think we can do this ourselves, so we start getting brave and get out of God’s lap. And hopefully, like Shiro, we always run back to God and jump in his lap again. Mary knew that sitting at the feet of Jesus was the best place she could be. It’s a place we are safe and secure and loved. When we are there we can listen to God, build a relationship with him, and learn to trust him more.

Baggage

Shiro has a lot of baggage coming from a rescue agency. We don’t know the full story, but she was an owner surrender, looks like she may have had puppies at a very young age, may have had her rib broken in the past, and was returned four days after being adopted by the previous family. As previously mentioned, this has manifested in severe separation anxiety. When we first got her and didn’t have a cage she tore up the linoleum in our bathroom and almost burrowed through the door when we left her alone for half an hour. She has escaped from regular cages, the kind you get at Petco, covering herself in cuts and bruises in the process. She has a perpetual bruise on her leg from repeatedly licking herself when we’re gone. I cannot even describe how much better she’s doing a year and a half into a stable home.

Shiro has baggage, and so do we. We don’t come before God squeaky clean, and accepting Christ as our saviour doesn’t magically remove our baggage. We all act out of our experiences and we have fears and anxieties because of our past and the way we’ve been treated. And God knows that. He was with us then and he will be with us every day going forward. Being with Jesus means that we finally have a safe home and a place where we can start working through all of the baggage we have to become more and more free. And we don’t have to work through it alone. 

Annoying Little Sister

My family dog, Merlin, is my baby, despite being eight years old. When I would come home from college he would sleep in my room. I run him around the yard and he snuggles in my lap. So he is quite confused and dismayed by this new, young, overly-energetic creature I keep bringing into his domain. Sure, Merlin enjoys running around the yard with Shiro, but after that he wants her to leave. He gets jealous when she gets the attention, and annoyed that she has so much energy. He frequently tries to get away from her so he can have some peace and quiet. I call it the ‘only child syndrome’. He hates sharing my love and attention.

Believe it or not, many of us in the church have the only child syndrome. We’ve been attending for a long time, we know the ropes, this is our church home, and we have this God and Jesus thing pretty much figured out. Then these new people start coming in, they’re different and overly-energetic, they take up the attention and start doing things in new and wrong ways. They have dirt under their fingernails and ask questions that clearly show that they don’t know what they’re doing or what they’re talking about. It would be much better if they would quiet down and chill out or better yet, just leave and let things go back to the way they’ve always been.

But this is not our house. It is God’s house. And God has brought these people in just like he brought us. God loves them, just as he loves us, and he has given us new little siblings to love. They are here to receive God’s love with us, to learn with us, and also to teach us. Our job is not to parent them, correct or scold what we see as new and offensive. But instead we are to live together as one family in Christ; as one body.


Nothing
to Fear but Fear Itself

Shiro is a fearless dog. She tries to chase geese that would certainly attack her and she certainly tries to eat any big fuzzy bumble-bees flying by. She doesn’t realize these things will hurt her, she just thinks they’re fun. Likewise, she isn’t afraid of a lot of things other dogs get freaked out by. She’ll follow me around while I vacuum and thinks my hair dryer is a game she’s supposed to play.

So it was interesting when, after being around my family dog Merlin while I was vacuuming, she started acting afraid of the vacuum. Merlin will tuck his tail and go in another room as soon as he sees me take the vacuum out. Suddenly, Shiro started copying him. She had learned from Merlin that vacuums were things to be wary and to steer clear of.

Just like dogs, we have a skewed understanding of what is bad and what is good for us. Because of our sin, many of the things we should fear and avoid seem attractive to us. We chase after pursuits and act in ways that can bring us deep and lasting harm. Likewise, the things that are harmless or even beneficial, are things we avoid out of worry or fear. And frequently, we learn how to differentiate between the good and bad by watching and listening to others just as sinful and just as confused as we are.

As Christians, we learn that we discover the right and wrong through God. That’s why it’s so imperative that we keep coming back to him, his word, and his community. When we try to discern between right and wrong on our own, we tend to be irresistibly drawn in the wrong direction. Even when we look to others we admire and respect, who have more experience than us, there’s no guarantee they’re in the right either. All of us have to learn these things from God and trust him when he tells us to avoid something and listen when he says to do something.

Request

Hear us Lord, hear the cry of us sinners. Thank you for using the weak things, the foolish things, to shame the strong and instruct the wise. May we always be open to the teachings of the Holy Spirit in our lives and continue to return to your word to discern their truth. Father, help us to trust you and love you and keep coming back to you. We praise you for sending your son Jesus to rescue us and bring us to a new and safe home where we can begin to learn and grow. May we continue in our training throughout our lives as we spend every moment at your side. And when we wander may we always come back to the God who loves us and has given us a home and a family. Amen.

Being Humble… do I have to?

Reading:

“7 When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: 8 “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. 9 If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. 10 But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. 11 For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:7-11)

Reflection:

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be humble lately. Enough that I can tell God is putting it on my mind intentionally. Which really sucks for me because I do not like the subject of humility at all. I like myself quite a bit, I’m pretty much the coolest person out there, and of course I’m always right, thank you very much. You might be picking up on why God’s been nudging me with the topic of humility. However, while I know I have a pride problem (and I can assure you that God’s working on it), that’s not really what I want to talk about. Instead, I would like to discuss a growing trend regarding how Christians are talking about humility and, if we’re lucky, get back to a more biblical and Christ-centered understanding of it.

First of all, it’s very hard to say anything new when it comes to Christian theology. Far greater minds have been saying an awful lot on that subject for the past 2,000 years. So it isn’t surprising that when one person says something we haven’t heard reiterated a hundred times we tend to nod along and go ‘ooooh, what a cool point’. In this way we tend to accept new ideas in theology faster than we should and with less skepticism than we ought. Remember, new is not always better, after all Jesus is pretty old.

The specific ‘new’ trend in how we talk about humility has been going on for the past couple decades. And it goes something like this:

‘We’ve gotten this whole understanding of humility wrong. Being humble doesn’t mean lowering yourself or puffing yourself up. It means having an accurate understanding of your worth and living in a way that reflects that.’

I have heard this in sermons and in theology classes. It certainly sounds like a much nicer option than beating yourself with ropes to remind you of just how worthless you are (yes, that was a thing). And that’s the part of this ‘humility’ that is a positive move. We are saying as a church that self-deprecation, self-loathing, and self-mutilation are not ways to achieve humility. As someone who has delt with all three of those problems, I can applaud and agree with this move. There will always be times when we loathe ourselves and see how truly filthy we are. These are times to turn to God in repentance for healing so that he can begin shaping us into the true humanity we are meant to be. These are not times that we should dwell in and try to cultivate in order to make ourselves humble.

So what is the problem? Well there are a couple things, the first is that God is the one who gives us worth, not us. As such, much of this attempt at humility becomes a one-sided conversation where we compare ourselves with others to try to get a better understanding of our worth. Since we can all think of at least one person we know we’re better than (I have a list), we tend to wind up with a still skewed understanding of our own worth. Instead of finding our value in God, we are finding it in appearing to be better than other people. But we are all sinners and without the blood of Christ we are inherently worthless. When our value depends on ‘appearing to be better than’, we cannot come to God or our fellow sinners in honest confession. We can never lay our hearts bare before Christ, because our humility and self-image relies on keeping those faults hidden.

Secondly, living in a way that reflects our (now distorted) understanding of self-worth is not biblical at all. And I’ll tell you another thing, even if we could accurately understand our value, even if we were precious perfect gems outside of the need of God’s mercy and grace, we still should not try to live in a way that reflects that. Not if we are hoping to (by the grace of God) be humble. And here’s why: we are told to be humble because Jesus is humble. Jesus describes himself as humble and gentle. If humility were about living in a way that reflected your value, Jesus would have stayed put in heaven as the God of the universe because that is who he is. Instead, we are told that, after leaving his glory in heaven and becoming a man, “he humbled himself to being obedient to death, even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8)

So can we please put this trendy, feel-good-about-yourself understanding of humility to rest. The next time I hear a well-meaning individual begin talking about humility like this I may scream. We can keep the part about humility not being self-loathing, self-depricating, or self-mutilating. Other than that, this understanding of humility is inherently damaging, unbiblical, and unChrist-like.

Dont worry, I’m not leaving you here. If we’re going to scrap one idea, it’s important to replace it with another. So let’s talk about what being humble does mean in a biblical and Christ-centered way. A lot of the time when we think of humility we just come up with ‘don’t be proud’. Then we sit in a dark corner repeatedly smashing our head into the wall trying to cultivate a feeling of ‘not-pride’. This will always be unhelpful. The reason being is that humility isn’t a feeling: it’s an action. It can also only be done in relationship to others. We can’t be humble alone.

How do we act humble? According to Jesus, it’s really quite simple. Rather than rewarding ourselves with the honors we think we deserve, we should always take the least honorable seat. Even if we know our value, we do not grasp at it, but like Jesus, take the option of service to others. Even if we know we deserve better than them. This type of ‘lowering’ (because the Greek word for humility is literally lowliness of mind) is not a self hatred, but a love for other people. Paul describes what this humility looks like in Philippians 2:

“But in humility, esteem one another as more important than yourself. Not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

Being humble means not esteeming ourselves, not taking the seat of honor at a banquet we think we’re owed. Instead, we intentionally act in ways that place others above us. Not because we hate ourselves, but because we love them. Like Jesus, we love them, even if they don’t deserve it, because Jesus loved us when we didn’t deserve it. We focus on their needs above our own. This is an intensely self-emptying act, a kind of self-death. And it will only work if we keep coming back to God, the God of love and life and resurrection, to keep getting filled back up again.

Humility is a scary thing, and there’s a reason it’s a virtue that only people of faith uphold; you have to have faith that God will take care of your needs for humility to work. It’s easy to worry that while we’re busy putting others needs ahead of our own that none of our own needs will ever be met. And your needs matter, they are important, and they do deserve consideration. So here’s the coolest thing about humility: if we all get humble together, there will always be someone who makes your needs their top priority.

Request:

Hear us Lord, hear the cry of us sinners. Father we confess our obsession with finding our worth through depreciating others; you have given us infinite value as your children through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Jesus, may we learn your humility, that you placed our needs above your own. You came and took the least position and were exalted above all others. Holy Spirit fill us daily with the love of God and with faith that our needs will be met. May we continuously return to you in order that we can go out into the world and be humble. May we esteem others above ourselves and care for their needs before our own. And may we do this out of love; a love you have taught us. Amen.

Why Can’t I Get Better?

Reading:

11 When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles.But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.(Galatians 2:11-13)

Reflection:

Although I grew up in the church, I did not accept Christ as my saviour until I was sixteen years old. I remember the complete joy of that moment, my readiness to follow Christ. I would have sold all I had and followed him if he had asked me. And not only was I full of joy and excitement, but I crowded my mind with expectations of what my new life in Christ would look like. When I looked into my own future I saw my perfect, sinless self that God had sanctified doing amazing things for Jesus. I would follow Christ faithfully and be a light to those who stumbled. Every day I would be made holier and holier until I at last reached perfect Christ-likeness.

Many years later and I am still far from this goal, far more sinful and broken than I had imagined myself this far along in my faith journey. I look back at times years ago when I was far better at being good than I am right now. And for a long time this was a problem for me, and I have heard it over and over again from other Christians. We are surrounded by language about becoming perfect, doing good, becoming ‘sanctified’, and we look down at our still blemished selves and a sense of hopelessness wells up in our chest. ‘What is wrong with me? Why can’t I just figure this thing out? Why am I still not good enough?’ And the worst part about this is that many Christians turn away at this point, thinking they aren’t good enough to follow Christ.

This is a tragedy.

Before I tell you why, I want to talk about Peter in our reading. Yes, this Peter is the same apostle who followed Jesus around for three years, who spent the rest of his life dedicated to building the church, and was finally crucified as a martyr upside down because he didn’t think himself worthy to die in the same way Jesus did. The letter to the Galatians, in which our reading is contained, was written somewhere between 50 and 60 AD, making Peter in his fourties or fifties: near the end of his life. If anyone was going to reach spiritual perfection, we would expect Peter to do so. After all, he was described by Christ in Matthew 16:18 as the rock upon which Jesus would build his church.

And yet, in Paul’s account, he describes Peter as one who needed to be rebuked; as one who stood condemned! Peter!? What are you doing?! Why are you still sinning, still messing up, still not good enough? Some read this passage and look down their nose at Peter, thinking the moral of the story is to just be Paul instead. I know I’ve thought that way. People read accounts of Peter and shake their head at him. We don’t understand why God uses this thick-headed man who keeps messing up.

But what if we’re all Peter? What if we never ‘get better’? (Stay with me for a minute before you smash me over the head with the Bible.)

In 2 Corinthians, Paul says: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'” But none of us ever really believes that do we? We say, ‘yeah, yeah God, but imagine what your power could do with my strength?’ Like Peter, we are afraid and draw back. In Galatians, Peter is drawing back into religious legalism represented by the “circumcision group”. This group is telling people that in order for God to love them, in order to receive God’s grace, they have to do something to deserve it. They have to be made better and be justified by the works of their hands. They are the same people who tell us we need to be better today if we’re serious about being Christians. And we are them when we walk away from God because we’re ‘not good enough’. But this isn’t what God tells us we have to do.

He says his grace is sufficient. And grace is all about getting what we do not deserve. We are living under grace all of our lives because we are weak. And God is not here to make us stronger. God is here to be strong despite our weakness and in our weakness. When we walk away from God because we are not strong enough, or when we are convinced we have to be better, we are saying God’s strength isn’t enough for us; that his grace is not sufficient.

I think I know why Jesus loved Peter so much and trusted him with his church. It’s because Peter never walked away, no matter how many times he messed up or how imperfect he was. Peter is rebuked by Jesus over and over again. Peter denies Jesus three times, in Luke we are told that immediately after Peter denied Jesus the third time: “The Lord turned and looked at Peter… and he [Peter] went out and wept bitterly”. And yet, the very next time Peter sees Jesus, after he has denied him, after Jesus has died on the cross, Peter dives into the water one hundred yards from shore and swims to Jesus. (John 21)

Peter doesn’t hide in the back of the boat, trying to make himself better after denying Christ. Peter is overwhelmed with joy at seeing him, and I think with sadness and guilt too. I can imagine Peter swimming thinking Lord I love you and I messed up and I’m so sorry and I love you, please let me stay right by your side. We know from the story of Mary and Martha that sitting at the feet of Jesus is the very best place we can be. And Peter knew that too.

Peter, an apostle of God, kept messing up his whole life and kept coming back to Jesus. And that’s because he understood something we often forget: the church is full of sinners, and that’s the best place we sinners can be. I can promise you that there will be times when you will do better than you are doing now, and there will be times you do worse than you are doing now.

We need to start teaching each other that being weak is the best thing we can be. Because when we are weak, God is our strength. Paul tells us to boast in our weakness! So don’t hide your mistakes, don’t try to make the church out to be something it isn’t. We should be crying out that we are sinners, but God loves us anyways. We need to sit at the feet of Jesus and dive into the water and weep and crawl up onto shore at his feet regardless of how good or bad we are doing. And we have to do this every day of our lives. Because when we do that, we are boasting in the indomitable strength of Jesus Christ.

Request:

Hear us Lord, hear the cry of us sinners. Father, we are weak beyond our own understanding, and we praise you because you use the weak to shame the strong. Jesus, may we always sit at your feet and run back to you, just as Peter did, no matter how many times we go astray. Help us to remember that in our sin, being at your feet in your church is the best place we can be. Keep us from the snares of religious legalism that would trick us into thinking we are something we aren’t and capable of making ourselves good. Holy Spirit, fill us with your strength and teach us to rely on it and boast in our weakness that the power of Christ may rest on us. Amen.