In the Office: The Waiting Time

Is there anything for which you’re waiting these days? Waiting for healing? Waiting for comfort or direction? Waiting for answers to prayer and for some clear sign that God is present and active?

One of the readings from today’s Daily Office was written by a person who was waiting. Psalm 80 recounts the anguish of one of God’s people, who looks out at a nation whose glory lies in ruins and who cries out:

How long, LORD God Almighty,
will your anger smolder
against the prayers of your people? (Psalm 80:4)

Of course, waiting can be hard…so much so that we can be tempted to forsake our hope. That’s what happened in the passage on which I’ll be preaching this Sunday from 2 Peter Chapter 1. Some believers had grown so tired of suffering and so tired of waiting for God’s promises to come true that they accused Peter of “making up” all of his talk about Christ’s return and a glorious resurrection future. But Peter offered two “foundations” upon which we can anchor our hope.

First, there are the faith stories – both ours and those of others – that bear witness to God’s faithful activity in the past and the present. (“We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” 2 Peter 1:16)

In addition, there are the promises – inspired by the Holy Spirit and recorded in God’s Word – that reveal God’s character and God’s intentions and that restore our confidence in the future. (“We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable…” 2 Peter 1:19)

Part of what this means – as I will attempt to say in my message – is that we have the opportunity (and perhaps the responsibility) to be constantly sharing with each other our faith stories and the promises of God’s Word  so that we can sustain hope – both within ourselves and others. In this way, we point each other toward the light of Christ, which comforts, guides and sustains us – even in the darkness of waiting.

What stories could you be telling of how God has walked with you in the past and continues to reveal Himself in the present? What passages of scripture always seem to encourage you? And most important, with whom could you share these treasures in the days ahead, so that all of us together can pass through our times of waiting and reach the point when the Lord’s face shines again? (See Psalm 80:3, 7, 19)

In the Office: Unveiled

It’s a foggy morning here in my hometown…one of those mornings that makes it hard to get motivated…one of those mornings when it feels like forward progress will come only at the cost of great effort…if at all. And yet, I’m confident that the fog will lift. The light will return, and the day will move forward – bringing with it energy and productivity and joy.

I wonder if our walk with Christ is like that sometimes. We encounter those moments when our hearts are “veiled” – shrouded in the fog of worry or weariness or distraction – and at such times it can feel like forward progress and transformation will come only with great effort…if at all. But then the fog lifts, and we are reminded that the light of Christ has been there all along – warming us, guiding us, and providing the energy that remakes us one small change at a time.

In one of today’s readings from the Daily Office, the apostle Paul writes:

“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate a the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Cor. 3:18)

We are “being transformed,” Paul says. The forward progress that Christ desires for us is God’s project, not ours. And so we can trust that “He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it.” (Phil. 1:6) And even though the changes might come gradually (“with ever-increasing glory” as the NIV says – or “from one degree of glory to another” in the ESV) – they will come. And one day, “we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” (1 John 3:2)

Is there anything veiling your heart today? May the Lord make His face to shine upon you. And may His Spirit keep producing the small but meaningful transformations that will remake you in His image.

In the Office: The Foreigner

      Ruth asked him, “Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you notice me—a foreigner?”
Boaz replied, “I’ve been told all about what you have done…how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. May the LORD repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” (Ruth 2:10-12)

The news this week is filled with reports about new guidelines that will toughen enforcement of policies related to immigrants. It is at least somewhat ironic, therefore, that most of the Old Testament readings in the Daily Office this week are taken from the Book of Ruth, which many scholars believe was written to promote an inclusive attitude toward foreigners and to remind God’s people that foreigners, too, are part of God’s purpose.

In pointing that out, of course, it’s not my intent spur heated debate about our nation’s immigration policies. The world of ancient Israel was quite different from the world of contemporary America, and in our context there may be good reason to exercise certain kinds of control over our nation’s borders. But since God’s Law contains repeated admonitions about the proper treatment of “foreigners” among us – and since many stories in the Bible (including Ruth) reveal a God whose loving purpose reaches out to include the very people that we are tempted to exclude – it does seem to me (if we’re going to be Christian about it) that our approach ought to be tempered by a healthy dose of compassion.

In his first epistle, the Apostle Peter urged his brothers and sisters in Christ to “live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear.” (1 Peter 1:17) After all, “our citizenship is in heaven; and we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:20) May God give us grace today to understand that no person with whom we come in contact – regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or country of origin – is beyond the reach of His mercy and His plan; and may we live as people for whom “the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14) has been set aside in Christ.

In the Office: Ascending to Servanthood

Today’s Daily Office serves up several psalms from a “collection” called the “Songs of Ascents” (Psalms 120 to 134), which scholars suggest were sung by ancient Jewish pilgrims as they made their way to Jerusalem for major religious feasts. My favorite commentary on this collection can be found in a book by Pastor Eugene Peterson titled, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (which – for my money – is still one of the most thought-provoking titles I’ve ever come across), and he offers a memorable reflection on these words from Psalm 123:

I lift up my eyes to you,
to you who sit enthroned in heaven.
As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a female slave look to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the LORD our God,
till he shows us his mercy. (Psalm 123:1-2)

Now, even though these words are set in the context of worship (which, unfortunately, tempts us to “spiritualize” them and to overlook the implications of what they’re saying), it’s important to note that they are commending to us a form of slavery. The psalmist recognizes that God is the master – a good and merciful master, to be sure – but still: the One whose authority is unquestioned and whose command must be anticipated and obeyed.

If we’re honest, of course, I’m not always sure that this is a truth we’re eager to embrace. Oh sure, we’re willing to give lip-service to the notion of God’s Lordship over our lives. But in a culture that values and celebrates personal freedom as much as ours does, I think we’re often secretly convinced that we have a right to “cut some corners” on God’s instructions – or at the very least – we have a right to expect leniency when we decide that God’s expectations are asking too much of us.

But for all of our supposed liberty, are we truly free? As Peterson points out, even our declared love for freedom leaves us surprisingly discontented by all the obstacles that still prevent us from obtaining what we think we desire – and surprisingly addicted to all the powers (work, success, lust, comfort, substances…the list goes on an on) that still compel us to pursue things that ultimately fail to satisfy. As Peterson says: “We trade masters; we stay enslaved.”

But here is where Peterson offers a valuable reminder:

“The Christian is a person who recognizes that our real problem is not in achieving freedom, but in learning service under a better master.” (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, p. 65)

Isn’t this the same dynamic that the Apostle Paul is pointing to when he writes to the church in Galatia?

“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another (and the more accurate translation would be “be slaves to one another”) humbly in love.” (Galatians 5:13)

As a great philosopher (I think it was Bob Dylan) once said: “You gotta serve somebody.” So, who will we serve today?

May our eyes look to the hand of the LORD our God, just as the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master. And may we discover in our servitude that we have been given the freedom that truly makes us free.

In the Office: More than You Can Handle

There’s no telling how often I’ve heard the phrase. I’ll be visiting with someone who’s dealing with a difficult set of circumstances – the death of a loved one, an illness or impending surgery, a career setback – and a friend or well-wisher will say: “Well, at least you know that God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

more-than-i-can-handleAt their best, of course, these words are offered as encouragement – an expression of confidence in God and God’s ability to sustain us, even in our most difficult moments. At their worst, however, they promote a way of looking at life that might actually keep us from receiving the comfort and strength that God has promised. What exactly can we handle? And how does God fit into that?

The verse that folks are often thinking of when they make this statement comes from 1st Corinthians:

“No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” (1 Cor. 10:13)

Now granted, this passage does say that God won’t let things get to a point “beyond what you can bear.” But Paul is dealing with temptation here, not with suffering in general. In one of the readings from today’s Daily Office, he has something very different to say about suffering:

“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure (emphasis mine), so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” (2 Cor. 1:8-9)

It appears – in 2nd Corinthians, at least – that hardships can reach a point beyond what we can bear. So what are we to make of our original statement?

Well, I’ll note in passing that we probably need to think deeply about the first part of the statement: “God won’t give you….” Inherent in these words is the idea that everything that happens to us – all the illnesses and accidents and tragic losses – are the direct result of God’s action. And while some people do believe that (and while we can’t sort it out in this blog post) – I think there’s a big difference between saying that some heartache befell us and that God “gave us” that heartache. Jesus said that the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike; we live in a world where “stuff happens.” And while God may allow this stuff, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he sends or causes this stuff.

More to the point, however, there’s a way to phrase our original statement that is, perhaps, both more accurate and more biblical. As Pastor Adam Hamilton points out:

“It’s not that God won’t give you more than you can handle, but that God will help you handle all that you’ve been given.” (Adam Hamilton, Half Truths)

When we’re going through hard times, it is perfectly acceptable to acknowledge that can’t handle life and that we need some help. In fact, according to Paul’s words from Second  Corinthians, that’s exactly what God desires, because that’s when we start to rely “not on ourselves, but on God, who raises the dead.”

Thankfully, I don’t find myself facing circumstances today that are stretching the boundaries of what I can handle – and I hope you can say the same. But even if you are facing challenges that seem more than you can bear, know that God is with you. And rest assured – that even when you can’t handle life – He can.

In the Office: Hidden No More

The news this week should provide a ready reminder that the truth of who we are and what we do won’t remain hidden forever. On the positive side, it was reported that a recently-deceased, Detroit-area business tycoon had been paying Rosa Parks’ rent for years so that she would have a safe place to live. On the negative side, it was alleged that one of the President’s advisors had inappropriate contact with a foreign government and then failed to tell the truth about it. Two secrets. Two revelations. Two different perceptions of the underlying character of the persons involved.

What of our “hidden truths”? In today’s readings from the Daily Office, the Apostle Paul tells his protege Timothy:

“The sins of some are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them. In the same way, good deeds are obvious, and even those that are not obvious cannot remain hidden forever.” (1 Timothy 5:24-25)

These sentiments, of course, echo many other passages that remind us of our ultimate accountability:

  • “What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.” (Luke 12:3)
  • “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…I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.” (Matthew 12:33-36)
  • “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” (2 Corinthians 5:10)

Are we frightened by the prospect of having our deepest secrets revealed? We probably should be. Hence the Bible’s repeated admonitions to “put off the old self” and “put on the new self”…to “walk in the light, as He is in the light”…and so on.

But at the same time, we are given the assurance that the One who knows us best – the One who is fully aware of every hidden thought and deed – is also the One who loves us most. “While we were sinners, Christ died for us,” the Bible says. And as a result, when we are “in Christ” – not even our deepest, darkest secrets can separate us from the love of God.

In a world that is as quick to point out faults and weaknesses as our world is, it can be a scary thing to live in the open. But may our families and churches become the kind of places in which “perfect love casts out fear.” And may we be so transformed by God’s Spirit and God’s Word that we can live with nothing to hide.

In the Office: Their Story (and Ours)

What has the Lord been up to in your life? And who are you telling about it?

In today’s readings from the Book of Common Prayer, the psalmist calls us to be the kind of people who readily declare God’s goodness:

Give praise to the LORD, proclaim his name;
make known among the nations what he has done.
Sing to him, sing praise to him;
tell of all his wonderful acts. (Psalm 105:1-2)

What’s interesting, however, is that the psalmist doesn’t then proceed to rattle off a list of all the blessings that he or she has received from the Lord: the prayers answered, the provision offered, or the protection given. Instead, the psalmist  goes back and recounts the sacred story that forms the bedrock of faith: the story of Abraham and Joseph…the story of Moses and the Exodus…the story of events that took place long ago, but which continue to define who God is and how the psalmist is meant to live as a result.

ps105And perhaps there’s an important lesson in there for us. Yes, we declare God’s goodness as it has been revealed in the specific events of this day: in the sunrise that took our breath away…in the words from a friend that lifted our spirit…in the sense of peace that allowed us to keep going in the face of bad news. But we also declare God’s goodness as it has been revealed in the grand story of God’s redemptive purpose: in the story of Adam and Moses and David…in the story of Jesus and Peter and Paul…in the story of countless women and men from scripture and history who have sought God’s face and have allowed His Spirit to guide them. Because their story is our story, too! As author John Eldredge puts it:

What if?
What if all the great stories that have ever moved you, brought you joy or tears–what if they are telling you something about the true Story into which you were born, the Epic into which you have been cast?

(Epic: The Story God Is Telling and the Role That Is Yours to Play, p. 15)

Today, may you know deep within your heart that you are part of that epic tale that God is still writing in the world and in your life. And may you readily declare the goodness of the Lord who promises that there will be a “happily ever after.”