In the Office: The Long “Yes”

In the schedule of readings that I use for these daily reflections, today is highlighted as the feast day of Saint Joseph — a day to commemorate the earthly father of Jesus, who took Mary to be his wife, even though her unexpected pregnancy must have been a source of scandal and embarrassment. Not surprisingly, the gospel lesson for the day is Matthew 1:18-25, which tells the story of the angel visitor who convinced Joseph to accept this challenging path. And while reading the text at this point in the year seems a little “out of sync” (since we’re most accustomed to hearing it in the Christmas season), encountering it now does provide an important bit of perspective.

In the OfficeSometimes, I think, we read the elements of the Christmas story in a way that makes it seem like all the joy, fear, and wonder of the incarnation were crammed into one intense, brief, and glorious window of drama. But when you stop and think about it, that’s not the way it was. Joseph’s “yes” to becoming in the father of Jesus (to say nothing of Mary’s “yes” to becoming the mother of Jesus) was just the beginning of many months in which he probably had to handle the suspicion of friends and family, the gossip of neighbors, and his own uncertainty about whether he was doing the right thing. And even though he did have a heavenly message to provide some sense of assurance — Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Mt. 1:20-21) — this doesn’t change the fact that he still had to walk the long road of obedience, which is always a part of saying “yes” to God.

What are the journeys to which God is calling us to say “yes” today? And are we ready for the “long obedience in the same direction” (Eugene Peterson’s phrase) that leads us to the “new birth” that Jesus wants to bring to us and through us? May the Lord grant us the kind of trust in Him that enables us to commit to the long “yes.”


In the Office: Music Alone Shall Live

I attended a concert last night that featured the choirs and concert band of my city’s middle and high schools. The event was part of a month-long emphasis on the importance of music education; and I, for one, can testify to music’s power to sharpen the mind, inspire the spirit, and create community. All of the pieces performed by the ensembles were well done. But the one that touched me the most was the final song of the evening: a simple round that was sung by all the musicians — both vocal and instrumental — whose words went like this:

All things shall perish from under the sky
Music alone shall live
Music alone shall live
Music alone shall live
Never to die

To be honest, I was almost a little choked-up by the time the song was completed — largely because I wonder at times if we as a society have “lost” our music. We seem to be so incapable of “getting on the same page” and “finding the harmony” that allows us to express our hopes and fears in a way that makes us an “ensemble” rather than a random assortment of self-seeking soloists.

As the song was being sung, I was reminded of the opening paragraphs of The Silmarillion, the “prequel” to J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. For in those paragraphs, Tolkien reimagines the Bible’s account of Creation, making “music” rather than “matter” the expression of God’s loving and creative impulse:

There was Elohim, The One, who in our tongue is called God. And he made first the angels, the Holy Ones, who were the offspring of his thought. And they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before Him, and he was glad. But for a long while, they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest listened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of God from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony.

And it came to pass that God called together all the angels and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed; and the glory of its beginning and the splendor of its end amazed the angels, so that they bowed before God and were silent.

Then God said to them, “Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices. And I will sit and listen, and be glad that through you great beauty has been awakened into song.

Then the voices of the angels, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and strings and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing, began to fashion the theme of God into a great music. And a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing and into the depths and into the heights…and the places of the dwelling of God were filled to over-flowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the void, and it was not void.

May we be faithful singers of The Song. And may The Music live, never to die.

In the Office: Wounds that Bless

Today’s Old Testament lesson (Genesis 50:15-26) brings us to the end of Joseph’s story; and thankfully, it’s a good ending. Joseph has been reconciled to his brothers and has lived a long life. He has lived to see his grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and great great grandchildren. And he has foreseen the day when his people will return to the land that the Lord God promised them.

But it’s important to remember that this “happy ending” came at a great cost. Joseph was cut off from his father. He was accused of crimes that he didn’t commit. He endured painful years of isolation and deprivation in prison before he rose to a position of prominence. No wonder his brothers feared that he might seek revenge for their original act of betrayal, which had set into motion the whole miserable journey (see Gen. 37:12ff. and 50:15).

In the OfficeBut if we’ve been following Joseph’s story closely, we’ve heard this repeated refrain: “The LORD was with Joseph” (Gen. 39:2, et. al.). And so — in words that have become deeply meaningful to me personally — Joseph is able to respond in the end: “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:19-20). Joseph affirms that God can use even painful experiences and undeserved suffering to bring about blessing, both for himself and for others.

Let’s face it. All of us will be wounded at one point or another. Some of those wounds will come from the misfortunes that befall every life: illnesses, accidents and so on. But some will come at the hands of people we trust: neighbors, coworkers, friends, and even family members who hurt us in ways that we don’t deserve. But God is able to use even these wounds to produce blessing. As the New Testament later affirms, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).

Naturally, I pray that any wounds you suffer today will be few and not too deep. But even in our suffering, may we become “wounded healers” (to borrow Henri Nouwen’s terminology), whose trust in God’s faithfulness allows us to face even the darkness with confidence that “the Light shines in the the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

In the Office: The Gathering

As I left home and headed for this office this morning, an ambulance was parked outside my neighbor’s house. Now, my neighbor happens to be an elderly gentleman, whose wife passed away several months ago. And while I know that his children have been doing an excellent job of caring for him, I have little doubt that his life has been radically altered by the absence of the woman with whom he shared more than 60 years — and that his heart has been yearning for the reunion that they will one day share.

In the OfficeI do not yet know whether that reunion came today. The early hour and the presence of paramedics made this morning an awkward time to drop in and see what was happening. But upon arriving in the office, I was greeted by an Old Testament reading (Genesis 49:29 to 50:14) that relates the story of the death of Jacob; and in so doing, it offers one of those wonderful phrases that invites us to think in a new way. Jacob, the scripture tells us, “drew his feet up into the bed, breathed his last and was gathered to his people” (49:33; emphasis added).

We conceive of death in so many ways: as an enemy…as an end…as an absence…as a departure. But what if — in the deepest places of our hearts — we truly believed it to be a “gathering to our people”? What if we anticipated the kind of homecoming and reunion that points to the deep togetherness for which we were created? After all, isn’t this what Jesus must have meant when he said that he was “going to prepare a place” — not for “you” as an isolated individual — but for “ya’ll” (all the “you’s” in John 14:1-4 are plural) — for the family of people into which we’ve been adopted through the cross and resurrection of Jesus?

Like most pastors, I’ve got any number of people in my church who are facing the reality of death — in the death of friends, the death of family members, even the impending death of themselves. And I pray for them. I pray for their strength and healing. I pray for their comfort and endurance. But along with these things, perhaps I need to pray more for their (and our) “joyful anticipation.” Because a day will come when each of us will be “gathered to our people.” And “what a day, glorious day, that will be.”

May you love and be loved by your people today. And may every gathering simply whet your appetite for The Gathering yet to come.

In the Office: Monday Reminders

I’m not generally the kind of person who has a problem with Monday morning. Coming into the office, taking stock of Sunday’s ministry, and looking forward to the week ahead tend to invigorate me more than drain me. But there are exceptions.

This Monday morning, for example, is cold and rainy — with predictions of sleet and snow as we move through the day. Add to this the lingering effects of the time change that took place this weekend, and the thought of “seizing the day” and diving into the opportunities and responsibilities of a new week hasn’t exactly been a source of positive motivation.

But then, I open up the scriptures and the Old Testament lesson for today (Psalm 89:1-18) offers me this reminder:

I will sing of the LORD’s great love forever;
with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations.
I will declare that your love stands firm forever,
that you have established your faithfulness in heaven itself.” (verses 1-2)

MondayEven on the most miserable of Mondays, the love of the LORD stands firm, and His faithfulness is established. There is nothing we will face today that can place us beyond the reach of His presence and care. And so, we have every reason to embrace the call of today’s New Testament reading: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

May your Monday be blessed, my friends. And may the love and faithfulness of God uphold you through whatever the week may bring.

In the Office: Training vs. Trying

“Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.
They do it to get a crown that will not last,

but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”
(1 Corinthians 9:25)

I’ve tended to be reasonably capable of maintaining self-discipline. (Of course, my decision to skip the last two days of reflection-writing shows that I, too, face days when being disciplined is just a little too much). But especially when it comes to the spiritual life, today’s New Testament lesson (1 Corinthians 9:19-27) reminds me that there can be a big difference between the discipline of training hard — and the discipline of trying hard. As Pastor John Ortberg suggests in The Life You’ve Always Wanted, his excellent book on spiritual discipline:

Right now, you cannot run a marathon. (Blogger’s note: Unless, of course, you’re a marathon runner.) More to the point, you cannot run a marathon even if you try really hard. Trying hard can only accomplish so much. If you are serious about this, you will have to enter into a life of training. You must arrange your life around certain practices that will enable you to do what you cannot do now by willpower alone.

The Life You’ve Always Wanted, Zondervan (1997), p. 46.

Naturally, this raises the question of how we figure out which “practices” — or which “disciplines” — need to become part of our training. And Ortberg goes on to offer some excellent guidance:

  • “First, we must understand clearly what it means to live in the kingdom of God. Jesus spent much of his time helping people see what true spirituality looks like.” (As an aside, I will note that today’s New Testament lesson reminds us that ‘true spirituality’ is focused not just on ourselves but on others.)
  • “Second, we must learn what particular barriers keep us from living this kind of life.”
  • “Third, we must discover what particular practices, experiences, or relationships can help us overcome these barriers.”

To show this process at work, Ortberg offers the following example: “For instance, we know that we are called to be loving. One thing I discovered when I spent a day trying to live in a loving fashion is that love requires an enormous amount of energy. And I was just too tired to give it. So I realized that–as unspiritual as it sounds–if I was serious about becoming a more loving person, I was going to have to get more sleep.” (There! Aren’t you glad to know that ‘sleeping’ can be a spiritual discipline?!)

Of course, Ortberg notes that even our well-intentioned efforts can run aground when we allow our “training” to be determined by what we think we “ought” to do based on somebody else’s life — rather than what we “need” to do based on the Spirit’s work in our life. Wise training, he suggests, will respect our unique temperament and gifts, will take into account our season of life, and will respect the inevitability of troughs and peaks.

But perhaps most of all, wise training will always begin with a clear decision. As another writer reminds us, “We do not slip into discipleship.”

What kind of training do you need to do in order to pursue that crown that lasts forever?

May God grant us a compelling vision of the life that we’re promised in Christ, so that we can “win the prize” for which God has called us heavenward in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:14).

In the Office: Kingdom Internship

Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits. These were his instructions: 

“Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”

They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.

In today’s gospel lesson (Mark 6:1-13), we get a little reminder that the life of a disciple isn’t just about learning the right truths, or avoiding the right sins, or cultivating the right habits of personal piety. The life of a disciple includes embracing the kingdom mission that Jesus himself embraced (see John 20:21). And so, Jesus sends his disciples out — he gives them a “kingdom internship,” if you will — through which they get an opportunity to practice the gospel-sharing, other-serving life to which all of his teaching points.

In the OfficeI struggle at times with the feeling that we too often neglect this “lab experience” element of discipleship. We might do a reasonably good job of helping each other grow in our prayer life, our practice of worship, and our biblical understanding (then again…we might not). But do we then get intentional about putting ourselves into situations where all that prayer, worship, and understanding genuinely get put to the test — and where we discover the joys (and challenges) of seeing God’s kingdom expand through us?

Of course, there are all kinds of reasons (a.k.a. “excuses”) for why we can’t do that in this day and age (although the Mormons find a way to provide many of their young people an extended “internship” in mission and ministry). But in the end, I suspect most of those reasons have to do with the way that “practicing the kingdom” would stretch us, inconvenience us, and push us beyond our comfort zones. As G. K. Chesterton once put it: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

Having said that, I’m not sure that I’m calling for most of us to drop everything in our lives so that we can head out on an extended missionary journey (although — that would probably do many of us a lot of good — and — the fact that I’m not calling for this probably betrays my lack of boldness). But what would it look like for us to incorporate more “mini-kingdom-internships” into our daily living? What if we walked around our neighborhood one evening, asking people how we could pray for them? What if we grabbed a friend or two and set out for a community park to hand out water and chat with passersby? What if (and this is an idea I’m “borrowing” from others) we took our Sunday School class, Bible study group, or circle of believing friends down to a business district and went business-to-business, asking if we could serve them by cleaning their bathrooms?

Opportunities to practice following Jesus are all around us. So, let’s be doers of the word, and not hearers only. And may God’s kingdom come wherever we go.