In (and Out) of the Office: Selah

In many of the Old Testament psalms, one comes across the word, “Selah.” While scholars disagree about the precise meaning and implication of the term, there seems to be general agreement that it indicates a pause of some kind — perhaps so that a musical interlude can be played, or so that worshipers can pause for reflection. In so doing, “Selah” teaches the valuable lesson that even the most sacred rhythms of prayer and worship can benefit from a pause now and then — a time in which we quiet ourselves before the Lord and focus more on listening rather than speaking.

Selah

I am feeling the need for such a pause in my own rhythms of prayer and reflection. It has proven to be very meaningful for me to take some time each weekday, reading the passages of the Daily Office and composing a few thoughts. But as some significant transitions take place in my life (my daughter graduates from high school this week) — and as I join with some close friends to begin discerning prayerfully the directions in which God is calling my church family — I’ve come to believe that I need to focus more listening and less on writing.

And so, I’m going to take a break — a “Selah” — from these “In the Office” reflections. I fully intend to take up the discipline again. And I may post the occasional paragraph or two when the fruits of my reading and prayer seem worthy of sharing. But as I do pause, I would be grateful for your prayers — with a quiet, grateful, and discerning heart being among the chief requests. And I would leave you for today with these words from one of today’s psalms — Psalm 52:

I trust in God’s unfailing love
    for ever and ever.
For what you have done I will always praise you
    in the presence of your faithful people.
And I will hope in your name,
    for your name is good. (Verses 8b-9)

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In the Office: Justice Is Served?

In the OfficeIn the Baptist family of which I am a part, much of the latest news has focused on Paige Patterson — one of the architects of the denomination’s “conservative resurgence” and, until recently, the president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary — a position from which he was recently fired for mishandling allegations of abuse, and for earlier statements on women, abuse, and divorce. For today, I have no desire to debate the merits (or lack thereof) of the aforementioned “resurgence” — nor am I attempting to weigh-in on the issues that have led to Dr. Patterson’s dismissal. Instead, I share humbly this morning my discomfort with the reactions of some of my friends — many of whom have been wounded deeply by events in the Southern Baptist Convention over the last 30-plus years — and who are now rejoicing that “Justice has been served.”

It’s timely, perhaps, that in today’s Daily Office, there are two psalms proscribed: Psalm 31 for the morning, and Psalm 35 for the evening: Both are prayers in which the psalmist cries out, asking God to provide justice and to vindicate him over those who have persecuted him. And it’s worth noting— as my preparation for an upcoming sermon series on the Book of Revelation has reminded me — that one of the great promises of our faith is that God will, in fact, set the world to rights and provide justice for those who have been denied it.

But until God brings this day of reckoning, I’m reminded, too, that justice is often “in the eye of the beholder.” Our conceptions of justice are just that: our conceptions. And so, if you look at the two psalms assigned for today, you can imagine them being prayed by those who feel they were treated unfairly by Patterson’s comments and denominational machinations — or by Patterson himself. In the end, we all stand guilty in the eyes of the Righteous Judge; and therefore, perhaps we would do well not to rejoice that someone has been “served justice” — but to rejoice that there’s One who can and will provide justice (and with a degree of wisdom and grace far beyond that of which we ourselves are capable).

What’s more, when situations like this arise (and especially when they involve disagreements and disputes within the Body of Christ) I feel more and more aware of how we can feel like we’re scoring points in our denominational and theological skirmishes — when what’s really happening is that we’re demonstrating to the world yet again how poorly we display the transformation that we claim our Lord and Savior can give.

I grieve the pain and division that have plagued my Baptist family. And I grieve the attitudes and treatment under which many of my Baptist sisters have suffered. And to the extent that Dr. Patterson has been involved in either or both of these situations, I trust that God will judge with the wisdom and grace of which only He is capable. But perhaps most of all, I grieve the fact — that in a world so desperately in need of healing — there is so much brokenness: in the world itself…in my Baptist family…in Dr. Patterson…and in me.

“Look,” Jesus says, “I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done” (Revelation 22:12).

“Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen” (Revelation 22:20-21).

In the Office: What “Therefore” Is There For

One of the principles that was emphasized repeatedly during my seminary education was the importance of context. So often, when we read the scriptures, we don’t take time to get our bearings and develop even a rudimentary understanding of the setting in which our passage appears. We don’t clarify its cultural and historical roots. We don’t place it within the broader arc of God’s Story. Sometimes, we don’t even  place it within the flow of the specific biblical book in which it appears; and as a result, we miss out on the fuller picture that the passage could paint for us.

Let-us-fix-our-eyes-on-Jesus

Today’s New Testament reading (Hebrews 3:1-6) is a case in point. Sticking to the “assigned verses,” we read: “Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we acknowledge as our apostle and high priest” (verse 1). Of course, the reminder that we should “fix our thoughts on Jesus” is a helpful one — and one that might encourage us, regardless of how well we contextualize it. But as a preacher I once knew used to say: “Whenever you see a ‘Therefore‘ in the Bible, you should stop to see what it’s ‘there for.'” And if we back up just a few verses, we find the reason that we should fix our thoughts on Jesus:

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (2:14-18)

It is my sincere desire that all of us would fix our thoughts on Jesus today. But not just because He is worthy of our attention. No, I pray that we can fix our thoughts on Jesus because He has broken the powers of sin and death that enslave us. In a world that is all too familiar with darkness, He is able to make us light. And no matter what trials and temptations we might be facing, He has embraced and experienced our condition — and is therefore able to help us.

May you fix your eyes on Jesus today; and in so doing, may you discover that His face is turned toward you to grant you faith, hope, and victory.

In the Office: All in the Family

While I am certainly no scholar of social customs in the biblical era, I get the impression that few things were as important as family. One’s place of residence, one’s trade, one’s prospects for marriage, and so much more were largely determined by the family into which one was born and the strength of one’s family connections. And therefore, it must have come as something of a surprise to those who heard the teaching of Jesus when he “relativized” family by defining it in an unexpected way.

As today’s gospel lesson (Matthew 12:43-50) tells it, Jesus was teaching inside a house when he was notified that his mother and brothers were outside, wanting to speak with him. But Jesus pointed to his disciples and said, ““Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (verses 49-50).

In the OfficeFor better or worse, I’m not sure that family provides the same kind of “organizing center” in our day that it did back in first century Palestine. This, of course, is not to say that family no longer matters; just that increased mobility, changing norms, an a host of other pressures have made it less determinative of our formation and our future. Then, too, we have often replaced or supplemented family with other groupings and networks that define us. Race, class, political affiliation, church membership and other social networks frequently serve to give us a sense of identity — often to our benefit — but sometimes in ways that close our eyes to the broader things that God is doing in us and in the world.

And yet, doesn’t the word of Jesus still invite us to examine the connections on which our lives are based and from which we draw meaning? “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my family,” he says. And whether we’re talking about the members of our local church or the members of God’s global Church, we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to have our lives shaped by the only family that we’re promised will endure.

I’m grateful today for family: my “nuclear” and “extended” family, my local church family, and the worldwide family of faith. None of my families are perfect; and yet, at their best, they have taught me (and continue to teach me) what it means “to do the will of my Father in heaven.” And I can only pray that I am helping my mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles to learn the same lessons.

What “families” have shaped and are shaping you today? And how does your adoption into THE Family change your outlook on what life’s about?

May we love and serve “The Family” today. And may our will become our Father’s will, as we expand His kingdom embrace in our hearts, in our lives, and in our world.

In the Office: What to Say When I Can’t Be Silent

In the OfficeI had an “episode” last night that gets repeated all too frequently these days. While browsing social media, I came across a captioned photo that had been posted by a Christian friend of mine. The photo itself seemed to be the obvious result of a rather poor Photoshop editing job; and the political message of the post — while not exactly one that I would embrace — discouraged me less because of its politics and more because of its mean-spirited and divisive nature. It was as if this friend, who I generally find to be a devoted and caring person, derived satisfaction from tearing down those of a different perspective. I thought about sending a private message — not to “correct” this friend (since I don’t necessarily feel like I’m in a position to say what’s “correct” in this situation) — but to share the way I perceived the post, in the hope that this might encourage more “gracious tact” in the future. But in the end, I wimped out. We live in a harshly-divided time; and sometimes, the “pseudo-peace” that is maintained by silence seems preferable to the conflict that might come from naming and working through our differences.

Of course, it could be argued that by failing to speak out I’m simply enabling the kind of unhealthy culture I lament. But I don’t imagine I’m the only one who runs across expressions with which I disagree and who is left wondering what, if anything, I should say. And that, perhaps, is why I find a timely and helpful bit of guidance in one of today’s readings from the Book of Psalms (Psalm 39). As the psalm begins, the poet seems to be in a situation not all that different from the one that I’ve described:

I said, “I will watch my ways
    and keep my tongue from sin;
I will put a muzzle on my mouth
    while in the presence of the wicked.”
So I remained utterly silent,
    not even saying anything good.
But my anguish increased;
     my heart grew hot within me.
While I meditated, the fire burned;
    then I spoke with my tongue: 

Verses 1 to 3

The psalmist sees behavior that he knows to be wicked. But rather than inflame the situation, he chooses to remain silent, “not even saying anything good,” until the conviction that he feels becomes so powerful that he has to speak. And what does he say? Well, here there is a somewhat unexpected twist:

Show me, Lord, my life’s end
    and the number of my days;
    let me know how fleeting my life is.

Verse 4

Rather than berating the wicked for their sins and shortcomings, the psalmist speaks to God about his own limitations. He seeks the perspective that can only come from remembering his own mortality and the “Audience of One” before whom he will be held accountable.

Does this solve the riddle of how and when to “speak truth” in the midst of a divided world? Sadly, no. But if I can remember (and if more of my brothers and sisters in Christ can remember) that “judgment begins with the house of God” — and if we can live with the awareness that we’re responsible not only for “putting off” sin but also “putting on” the spirit of Christ — perhaps, when we speak, our words will help to heal divisions rather than inflame them.

May we be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” today (James 1:19). And may both our silence and our speaking promote the spirit of mutual understanding that befits the servants of God.

In the Office: The Fruit We Can’t Hide

Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:33-37)

In his book, The Me I Want to Be, Pastor John Ortberg suggests that all of us are constantly juggling a variety of “selves.” There’s “The Me I Pretend to Be” and “The Me I Think I Should Be.” There’s “The Me Other People Want Me to Be” and “The Me I’m Afraid God Wants Me to Be.” There’s “The Me that Fails to Be” and “The Me I Am Meant to Be.” But understanding and working through all these “alternate versions” of our self begins with an honest assessment of “The Me that Is.” And as Jesus’ words from today’s gospel lesson (Matthew 12:22-37) remind us, “The Me that Is” has a funny way of slipping out.

Bear_Good_Fruit“The mouth speaks what the heart is full of,” Jesus tells us. “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.” Naturally, we’d like to evaluate “what comes out of us” on the basis of our best moments — the moments in which we’re prayed-up, well-rested, unstressed, and ready to deal with life. But perhaps a more accurate picture emerges when we’re at our worst. How do we respond to people when we’re tired and in a hurry? What do we say and do when we think no one is paying attention? What comes out of us when our heart brings forth what’s really there, rather than what we’d like to be there?

The Apostle Paul hardly strikes us as a rowdy hellion. And yet, in today’s New Testament lesson he says, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” (1 Timothy 1:15) And herein, perhaps, lies the “secret” to bearing good fruit — the secret of becoming “The Me I Am Meant to Be.” It is only when we can acknowledge the lack of good fruit in us that we can truly “abide in” and “rely upon” the Vine, who promises us: “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

May we truly abide in Him today. And may everything that we produce be “good fruit,” indeed.

In the Office: The Waiting

Recent days have been challenging for my church family. There have been a number of deaths —  some of close relatives, and others of close friends. We have several members recovering from significant surgery — and a number of others getting ready to undergoing challenging rounds of treatment. Of course, none of this makes us unique. Look deeply enough into almost any group of people and you’ll find grief and anxiety and challenges of various kinds. And if we’re honest, that can be hard to take. One of today’s psalms (Psalm 13) gives voice, I think, to a sentiment that can be all-too-familiar:

Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever?
    How long will you look the other way?
How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,
    with sorrow in my heart every day? (Psalm 13:1-2)

But one of the gifts of being a part of a church family is that, even in our struggles, we know that we’ve got brothers and sisters who are praying for us. And even more, we know that we can rely on the faithfulness of God, who is able to lead us even through the valley of the shadow without fear. As today’s psalm goes on to put it:

But I trust in your unfailing love.
    I will rejoice because you have rescued me.
I will sing to the Lord
    because he is good to me. (Psalm 13:5-6)

So, to those who find themselves stuck in “The Waiting” today — both those who are known to me and those who aren’t — please know that you’re in my prayers. And know, too, that our Lord is faithful. And He is more than able (as a Celtic evening prayer puts it):

“to make His peace go with you wherever He may send you;
to guide you through the wilderness and protect you from the storm;
and to bring you home rejoicing at the wonders He has shown you.”

May we sing to the Lord today because of His unending goodness to us.