In the Office: The Priest

When I was a young boy — back in first grade, if I remember correctly — my parents sent me to a Catholic school. (My father worked for an educational publisher at the time; and this was the only local school that used their curriculum.) For the most part, all the teaching duties at the school were handled by nuns, most of whom — in my experience — were very kind and nurturing (no rulers and stern gazes that I can recall). But the priest was a different story. We saw him only on rare occasions. And even then, he was far-removed from us children and dressed in garments, which — for this Protestant child, at least — made him a figure of fear and fascination. He might as well have been a space alien.

priestThankfully, of course, life has taught me that not all priests are like that (just as — thankfully — life has taught me that not all Baptist preachers wear polyester suits and white patent-leather shoes). But how much more reassuring and hopeful is the description of our True Priest that is found in today’s Daily Office:

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)

No matter what we face — fear, loneliness, pain, rejection — Jesus understands, because Jesus has faced these hardships, too. And through Him, we experience in the most direct and profound way what it means to have a Heavenly Father who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love.

Of course, in the Baptist tradition of which I’m a part, we tend not to talk much about priests, emphasizing instead “the priesthood of all believers.” And while there certainly is valid biblical reason for this emphasis, I wonder if it inclines us to forget sometimes how much we need a “go-between” — not in the sense that we are unable to “approach God directly” — but in the sense that we can only do so because we have a Priest who teaches God’s truth to us and brings our needs before God.

And what’s more, I wonder if our avoidance of priestly language obscures our responsibility to be “Priests to Each Other” (to borrow a phrase from Carlyle Marney). We need to be and are called to be “holy officiants,” who are constantly setting the needs of our brothers and sisters before God – and setting His grace and forgiveness before them.

May we approach God’s throne confidently today, knowing that we have a Priest – and that we are priests. Through Jesus, may God’s grace be mediated to us. And through us, may God’s grace be mediated to a broken and grace-starved world.

In the Office: What Kind of King?

Although the Baptist tribe of which I am a part tends not to make much of it, today is Ascension Day: the day falling 40 days after Easter when Christians down through the ages have reflected on the departure of the resurrected Jesus and his enthronement at the right hand of the Father. Not surprisingly, therefore, the readings from today’s Daily Office invite us to honor the Lord as King. Psalm 47 is a good example…

God has ascended amid shouts of joy,
the LORD amid the sounding of trumpets.
Sing praises to God, sing praises;
sing praises to our King, sing praises.
For God is the King of all the earth;
sing to him a psalm of praise. (Psalm 47:5-7)

Now I’d guess that all of us who are taking a moment to mess with this blog have “enthroned Jesus” as the King of our hearts. We trust Him. We want to honor Him. And therefore, we do make an effort (albeit a humble one, at times) to live in obedience to His kingly rule. However, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if — in our most honest moments —we struggle with what His kingship means. Especially in a week like this one, in which we are still coming to grips with the loss of life in a recent terrorist bombing, the world we see before us often looks like a rather shabby kingdom.

But here’s where it’s so important to remember that the King and the Kingdom that command our loyalty as Christ followers express their reign in ways that are radically different from most of the kingdoms to which we’re accustomed. In our King’s Kingdom, greatness is defined by servanthood; the meek and the humble are exalted rather than the movers and the shakers; and power is expressed not through shows of force – but through the sacrifice of self-giving love.

Perhaps that’s why one of the other readings for today highlights the very unusual approach to “kingdom management” that our King has taken:

In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. (Hebrews 2:10)

Sadly, we do inhabit a kingdom in which so many things appear to be broken. But our King, rather than remaining comfortable and aloof in a royal castle, condescends to share our suffering and our brokenness with us. In this way, He provides healing and He offers hope – that one day – the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ, and He will reign forever.

May the King reign in us today. And because of the way that we love and serve others, may His Kingdom come wherever we go.

Today’s Bonus Thought:

In writing this reflection, I’ve been remembering a song titled “How Many Kings” that is sung by the Christian band “Downhere.” Although it’s a Christmas song, it’s chorus fits well, I think, with these Ascension musings:

How many kings step down from their thrones?
How many lords have abandoned their homes?
How many greats have become the least for me?
And how many gods have poured out their hearts
To romance a world that is torn all apart
How many fathers gave up their sons for me?
Only One did that for me

If you’d like to check out the tune, here’s a link:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zF952rzG3Yk

In the Office: Praying in Faith Together

A member of my church came to see me yesterday. She came because she’s agonizing in prayer—seeking from the Lord an answer to a request that’s not for herself, but someone else; that she’s been praying over faithfully for quite some time; and that’s grounded in a deep awareness of who God is, and what prayer is, and what prayer is not. But as “persevering” as her prayers have been — and as deeply devoted to Christ as she is — an answer has not yet come.

At this point, I should probably rush to say that she knows all about the potential and very legitimate “reasons” that her request has not been granted. Perhaps the answer is “not yet.” Maybe God is using this time of prayer and waiting to cultivate some important quality in her life or in the life of the person for whom she’s praying. Perhaps the “open doors” about which she’s been praying would turn out to be the “wrong doors,” if she could see them from God’s loving and all-knowing perspective.

But that doesn’t change the fact that prayer is hard, especially when the incredible promises of scripture don’t seem to align with our experience. In fact, today’s Daily Office features one of those promises:

“Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” (James 5:13-16)

Can I explain how we’re supposed to make sense of those occasions when prayer doesn’t “work” the way we hoped it would? No, I cannot. I wonder sometimes if part of the problem is that make prayer all about the “answer” that we’re seeking, while it’s really about the relationship with God and with each other that we experience in the course of our seeking. But with that very thought in mind, I do know these things:

  • I know that my friend is being obedient. There’s trouble; so she’s praying. And she’s doing that not just for the sake of getting some “reward” or “answer” at the end. She’s doing that because she loves the Lord; she trusts Him; and she wants to see Him glorified in the life of the person for whom she’s praying.
  • I know that God is faithful. He keeps His promises; and He neither abandons nor forsakes us. He might not always “answer” in the way or at the time that we thought was best. But in all things, He is working for the good of those who love Him and have been called according to His purpose.
  • And finally, I know – that in the midst of our praying with and for each other – there was healing, just as the Bible said there would be. There was the healing that comes from tears that acknowledge our brokenness and our longing. There was the healing that comes from moments that demonstrate our bond in Christ. There was the healing that comes from the reminder – that even in our incompleteness – God’s Spirit is interceding for us with sighs too deep for words. And maybe, just maybe, “connecting” with those sighs – “resting” in the arms of a Father who longs for us and in us and through us – is the greatest answer of all.

In the Office: A Psalm for Manchester

My heart is wounded this morning by news of yet another terrorist attack, this time in Manchester, England. I can’t imagine the grief of parents whose children have been killed and injured in such tragic circumstances; and I have no insight as to what will turn the tide toward peace in a world that seems so hell-bent on hatred, division and violence. All I can do is to add my prayers to the many that are being offered today—prayers that God will comfort those who are dealing with loss, prayers that God will show us a better way forward, and prayers that God will help us to repent of the hatred prejudice in our own hearts that only fuels this kind of brokenness.

Although Psalm 10 is not a selection in today’s Daily Office, I pray that these words might be fitting for the day.

Arise, LORD! Lift up your hand, O God.
Do not forget the helpless.
Why does the wicked man revile God?
Why does he say to himself,
“He won’t call me to account”?
But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted;
you consider their grief and take it in hand.
The victims commit themselves to you;
you are the helper of the fatherless.
Break the arm of the wicked man;
call the evildoer to account for his wickedness
that would not otherwise be found out.

The LORD is King for ever and ever;
the nations will perish from his land.
You, LORD, hear the desire of the afflicted;
you encourage them, and you listen to their cry,
defending the fatherless and the oppressed,
so that mere earthly mortals
will never again strike terror.

(Psalm 10:12–18)

In the Office: Easy Maturity?

I have the incredible honor and blessing of serving a wonderful church family. The spirit shared among our members is good. We regularly welcome guests into the life of our congregation. Good ministry is taking place, and finances are stable. I’d even like to believe that people are being nurtured with sound biblical teaching that invites them to ground their lives in the good news of the kingdom that Jesus came to inaugurate.

And yet, there is a certain “fire” that seems lacking some days. Not that I think our faithfulness and fruitfulness can always be measured in emotional expressions of passion. But in a world there are so many factors—both obvious and subtle—that pull us away from grace and community and holiness, I do wonder how we can help each other see this shared adventure of faith as a priority that’s worthy of our heart, soul, mind and strength.

Perhaps, we have it too easy? In the epistle lesson from today’s Daily Office, James writes:

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4)

I am certainly no spiritual masochist. But spiritual guides far wiser than I have observed that there are some qualities of character that are nurtured by trials and challenges in a way that nothing else can. How are we to learn reliance on God’s Word until we find ourselves in situations in which the hope of God’s Word is all to which we can cling? How will we develop trust in one another without walking through times when our need for one another is great? How will we experience the true power of resurrection unless we’re willing to walk  the way of the cross?

So, am I praying that God will send a few trials to me or my church family? Well, no. But I am praying that we’ll understand how testing leads to perseverance, which leads to maturity, so that we can “consider it all joy” if trials should come. And perhaps even more, I’m praying that we’ll be led into a deeper awareness of (and gratitude for) the goodness and grace of God, so that even in the absence of trials we’ll be motivated to “seek first the kingdom” of the One who loves us and gave Himself for us.

May His Spirit be “finishing His work” in us today; and may we “consider it all joy” that one day we will be like Him.

In the Office: TGIG!

Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good;
His love endures forever. (Psalm 106:1)

This refrain, which opens the psalm in today’s Daily Office, is among the most frequently repeated lines in the psalter. (Look at Psalm 136, where it’s repeated so often that it becomes almost monotonous!) And yet, as familiar as these words are—and as true as many of us will acknowledge them to be—are we able to rest in them? Have they become the reality that permeates our consciousness and that shapes our response to whatever the day brings?

When the political establishment in turmoil,
is He good, and does His love endure forever?

When our budget doesn’t fill our desires and sometimes can’t meet our needs,
is He good, and does His love endure forever?

When we’re tired of being tired,
and people we love (or even we ourselves) are battling illness,
is He good, and does His love endure forever?

When we fail Him,
and we know that we have no legitimate claim on His mercy
(just read the rest of Psalm 106 as a primer)
is He good, and does His love endure forever?

Life changes, I think, when we allow God’s goodness and love to become the air we breathe. This is not to say that we no longer face stresses and pains. But we do come to trust that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. We start to discover that there is a peace from God, which passes all understanding. We become more able to face even difficulty with the underlying assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In my sermon writing this week, I was reminded of a line from A. W. Tozer: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”

May we rest in the Goodness and Love of God today. And on this Friday, may we “Thank God It’s God!”

In the Office: Don’t Follow

To those of us who spent some time in Sunday School growing up, today’s gospel lesson from the Daily Office (Luke 8:26-39) is probably familiar. Jesus and his disciples sail across the lake from Galilee, and when they disembark they’re met by a demon-possessed man. The demons inhabiting the man recognize Jesus and his healing intentions; so they beg not to be sent into the Abyss but to be cast into a nearby herd of pigs instead. Jesus allows this, at which point the pigs promptly run down a steep bank into the lake and are drowned. Not surprisingly, the men tending the pigs are somewhat spooked by this, so they go off to spread the news. And when others reach the scene, they find the formerly possessed man dressed and sitting at Jesus’ feet. Fearing this unusual display of power, they ask Jesus to leave.

But here’s where things get interesting. Luke tells us that “the man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with Jesus” (v. 38). In other words, he asks to become a follower. And isn’t this exactly what we’re supposed to do: “to deny ourselves, to take up our cross daily, and follow”? But Jesus, the gospel reports, sent him away and told him, “Return home and tell how much God has done for you” (v. 39).

Now, this could be a case in which Jesus is seeking to provide not only physical and spiritual healing but relational healing as well. After all, the story reports that as a result of this demon possession, this man had often been chained hand and foot and kept under guard – and that the demon had driven him into solitary places. Perhaps Jesus recognizes that this man – now that he’s free – needs to be reconnected with family, friends and community in order for his healing to be complete.

But then again, perhaps we should take this as evidence that the call of Christ in each life is unique. In recent years, there have been any number of books that have suggested – both subtly and not-so-subtly – that if we truly love Jesus, we’ll do something “radical” and walk away from all that’s familiar in order to follow Him. And while there can be value in such dramatic steps, the real issue, it seems, is not how radical we can be – but how faithful we can be to what Jesus commands.

Will we listen to the unique call of Christ in our lives? And as it becomes clear, will we eagerly rush to do His will?

It’s interesting that the Daily Office pairs this gospel story with a reading from Romans that says this:

Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. (Romans 14:1-4)

Today, may we resist the urge to judge the call of another – and choose instead to listen intently for the way in which our Master is calling us.