In the Office: Yet, I Will Rejoice in the Lord

In the OfficeToday’s Old Testament lesson (Habakkuk 3:1-18) encourages me on a day like today, especially when placed in its historical context. Habakkuk prophesied in the days leading up to Judah’s destruction by the invading armies of Babylon; and at the heart of his message is his struggle to understand the brokenness of the world around him. His writings begin with the timely question: “How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.” (Hab. 1:1-2)

Many of us are asking similar questions. In the wake of yet another mass shooting event — this one at a school in Parkland, Florida — we struggle to understand why tragedies like this keep occurring (or perhaps more accurately: we have a pretty good idea why they occur, and so we struggle to understand why we seem to be so unable or unwilling to do something about it). We, too, wonder how long it will be before God acts? We have offered “thoughts and prayers” for what feels like too long, and we yearn for the LORD to listen and save.

But God answers Habakkuk, just as I believe He will answer us. Of course, the answer isn’t exactly what Habakkuk wants to hear. In his case, the LORD reveals that Babylon — an enemy of Israel and an unrighteous nation — will become the instrument of His justice. Of course, this creates questions of its own. But in the midst of addressing even those questions, the LORD makes this much clear: “The righteous person will live by his faithfulness.” (Hab. 2:4)

In response, Habakkuk offers both a prayer and an affirmation of faith. The prayer? “LORD, have heard about your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds. Renew them in our day. In our time, make them known; in wrath remember mercy.” (Hab. 3:2) And the affirmation? Even if the worst may come, “Yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will be joyful in God my Savior.” (Hab. 3:18)

May we, too, rejoice in the LORD — even in the wake of tragedy. And may we understand that “living by faithfulness” calls us to pray and act in ways that expand God’s kingdom embrace; so that God’s kingdom will come — and God’s will be done — on earth as it is in heaven.

How long, O LORD?

Renew your deeds in us, God. In our time, make them known.

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In the Office: Ash Wednesday People in a News Cycle World

Today is Ash Wednesday — the first day of Lent and the beginning of a season in which followers of Jesus are encouraged to prepare their hearts for Easter “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (to quote the Book of Common Prayer). However, I find myself more aware than usual this year of how challenging it is to embrace the penitent spirit that’s meant to characterize the next 40 days. After all, we live in a culture in which our attention is eagerly directed to the latest examples of outrageous behavior: the abuse of women and children, self-serving actions of some elected officials, cowardly attacks upon officers of the law, hateful prejudices, and so much more. And while these behaviors are rightly condemned, I fear that our constant exposure to them can make it a little too easy for us to convince ourselves of our own moral superiority. It becomes a little too easy to say: “Well, at least I’m not like those people…”

Ash Wednesday

In today’s gospel lesson (Luke 18:9-14), Jesus tells a well-known story that’s directed “to some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else” (verse 9). Two men go to the Temple to pray: one a Pharisee and one a tax collector. The Pharisee says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” But the tax collector stands at a distance, beats his chest and won’t even look up to heaven as he prays, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And Jesus says that the second attitude is the one that brings justification: “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (verse 14).

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” May we recognize that line within ourselves on this Ash Wednesday. And may we observe a holy Lent, in which true humility and repentance draw us closer to the Savior who suffered so that we could be forgiven.

In the Office: Knowing Christ (the Fine Print)

As a younger man, I was very “achievement oriented.” Regardless of the activity in which I was involved — school, Scouting, music, and even church — I wanted to excel. And maybe that’s why I’ve come to identify with Paul’s words in today’s New Testament lesson (Philippians 3:1-11). Paul, too, had spent a chunk of his life developing an impressive list of accomplishments. But after his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road, he was able to say: “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (verses 7-8).

Knowing Christ. Isn’t that what those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus desire? But as Paul will go on to say, knowing Christ comes with some fine print that might give us pause: “I want to know Christ — yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death (emphasis added), and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (verses 10-11).

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Yes, I want to know Jesus — especially when that means knowing the power of his resurrection. But do I want to participate in his sufferings and become like him in his death? Well, perhaps the answer to that question depends upon my understanding of what it was for which Jesus suffered and died. And while more books have been written on that subject than I could possibly summarize here, my heart tells me this…

Jesus suffered and died because he dared to proclaim that God’s grace was available to all and not just the folks who thought they were righteous enough to deserve it. He suffered and died because he dared to suggest that God’s kingdom was breaking into life and that in God’s kingdom loving people (especially the poor and the outcast) was more powerful than hating them, serving people was more desirable than controlling them, and giving ourselves away for the sake of others was a wiser investment than amassing stuff for ourselves. And of course, he suffered and died because he had the audacity to say that it was only in Himself — through a living and growing relationship with Him —that any of this was possible.

Of course, embracing that relationship and the life that comes with it isn’t any more likely to score points in today’s world than it was in the world of Paul’s day. But maybe that’s the point. Knowing Christ is its own reward; and letting go of the “accomplishments” by which we tend to keep score is part of the process of becoming more like Him.

I’m still not a big fan of suffering and death…especially when it might be my own. But I pray that “being found in Him” (see verse 9) will be worth even that…and that knowing Him will be my heart’s desire.

In the Office: Got Hunger?

Today’s Old Testament lesson (Proverbs 27:1-12) takes us to the Book of Proverbs; which, I must confess, is not among my favorite parts of the Bible. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the concise and “free-floating” nuggets of wisdom; it’s just that I prefer the context and “rootedness” that comes in narratives and letters and other types of literature. Having said that, there are times when a proverb reaches out and grabs my attention, and this morning is one of those times. Among the observations offered today, we find this:

One who is full loathes honey from the comb,
    but to the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet. (27:7)

Now, the meaning of this statement is clear enough. When you’ve already eaten your fill, even a delicious dessert has little appeal. But when you’re genuinely hungry, even a less desirable dish can seem like a feast fit for a king.

In the OfficeBut suppose we put this lesson in a specifically spiritual context. Isn’t it often true that if our hearts are already stuffed (and too often with all the wrong things — with worries and distractions and misplaced desires), even God’s richest blessings can be taken for granted (at best) and spurned (at worst); but if our souls are desperate for God’s presence, even life’s challenges can become occasions in which we encounter His goodness?

Jesus famously said: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6) May we so hunger today that even our hardships become fresh opportunities to “taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8).

In the Office: I Owe, I Owe, So Off to Love I Go

The readings from today’s Daily Office provide an embarrassment of riches.

  • Psalm 88, while unique in the way that it ends in a cry of abandonment rather than an expression of trust, offers an opportunity to reflect on the way that we can take even our most bitter and negative feelings and place them before the Lord in prayer.
  • Genesis 27:46 – 28:22, which tells the story of Jacob’s dream at Bethel (“Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”), invites us to consider all the unexpected ways that God reveals Himself in our lives.
  • Romans 13:1-14, which tells us that we should “be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established,” and that “consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted,” practically begs us to make comparisons with other biblical teachings, like the place where Peter says, “We must obey God rather than human beings” (Acts 5:29).

But despite having all these attractive options for reflection, I think I’ll settle on a single verse, which packs less theological heft but more personal meaning. The verse is Romans 13:8, and it says simply: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.”

Of course, we can note in passing that this brief instruction comes in the context of Paul’s aforementioned discussion about submission to the governing authorities. It’s because the authorities are instituted by God for the common good that we should pay our taxes (a biblical principle that many of us might not want to hear at this time of year). In fact, Paul continues, we should give to everyone what we owe them: “If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor” (v. 7).

i-o-u-loveBut then come those words that have been so influential in my life: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” There was a time in my life, you see, when I learned the hard way how quickly “outstanding debts” can pile up. I was in college…it was my first credit card…there were so many CD’s and so much pizza to buy…you can imagine the rest. Thankfully, my mother bailed me out (at great personal cost to herself, I might add). And I became keenly aware of the “spiritual and emotional downside” of allowing poor money management to make a wreck of one’s life.

So, I took up the practice of carrying this verse around in my wallet so that I’d be reminded of this valuable principle whenever I was tempted to overspend. Did it instantly prevent me from making unwarranted purchases? Sadly, no. But over time, it did plant this idea in my heart: The only debts that I want to carry are the ones that I gladly embrace: my debt to the people whose love and encouragement have made me who I am; and my debt to the Savior who gave His life for me so that I could share my life with Him.

May we embrace our “holy indebtedness”; and may we give love freely – as we have freely received.

In the Office: The Challenging Way of Transforming Love

In yesterday’s New Testament lesson (Romans 12:1-8), we encountered Paul’s admonition to be transformed by God’s renewing grace rather than conformed to the pattern of the world. And in today’s lesson (Romans 12:9-21), we receive a more detailed picture of what this transformation looks like. But what a challenging picture it is! It starts out simply and safely enough: “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love.” (vs. 9-10) But before too long, the Apostle is calling us to a path that fundamentally challenges that values around with much of our personal and corporate life is organized: “Honor one another above yourselves” (v. 10); “Bless those who persecute you” (v. 14); “Be willing to associate with people of low position” (v. 16); “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…but on the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink'” (vs. 17; 20).

In the OfficeOf course, all of this is really just an expression of the Way of Jesus, who taught us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:34); and who, “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Phil. 2:6-7). But how many of us are able to embrace this challenging way in our lives as individuals? And how often does one hear these admonitions being championed when talk turns to the “Christian values” upon which our nation is supposedly built?

In one of his other letters, the Apostle Paul counseled: “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling…” (Phil. 2:12). It is a sacred thing to be invited into the Way of Christ, and we would do well to take with the utmost seriousness the challenge of “working out” that Way in the ebb and flow of our daily lives. But lest we despair because we assume that we can never meet the challenge — or lest we take this hopeful path of peace, joy, and freedom and turn it into a legalistic set of rules — Paul goes on to remind us: “for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill His good purpose” (Phil. 2:13). Even when we are powerless to transform ourselves, God’s Spirit enables us to be transformed. As Jesus puts it in today’s gospel lesson: “If you hold to my teaching…you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).

May our love be sincere today — because it springs from Transforming Love, who alone has the power to renew His image within us.

In the Office: The Trouble with a Living Sacrifice

Today’s New Testament lesson (Romans 12:1-8) is among my favorite passages in the Bible. Having spent the bulk of his epistle laying out his understanding of God’s grace and its ability to overcome both our sin and our division, the Apostle Paul now begins to sketch the practical implications of the gospel, and he begins with words that have come to shape my faith journey in profound ways:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2)

feb7-18So many of my questions, struggles and passions over the years have been spurred by wrestling with the gap between “conforming” and “being transformed.” Like so many other key passages that address the nature of the Christian life, this one highlights the necessary balance between “what we can do” and “what God alone can do.” On the one hand, we are called “to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice.” Our response to God’s mercy compels us to use all that we are and all that we have in ways that serve His purpose (see, for example, the instructions of Romans 12:3-8). But on the other hand, even our best efforts in this regard are incapable of producing within us the Christ-likeness that we seek. We must be transformed. And only as we keep laying our “life offering” before the Father can His Spirit produce the fruit that we were created to bear.

Of course, let’s be honest. It’s no easy thing to keep offering our lives in this way—to keep serving and giving and waiting for God to do the work in us that we so desperately long to have completed. We get tired. We get distracted. And sometimes, we become afraid that God is doing to change our lives in ways far different from what we had planned.

On a student mission team of which I was a part many years ago, we used to ask the question: “Do you know the problem with a ‘living sacrifice’?” 

And the answer? “It keeps crawling away from the altar.”

May we find ourselves willing to stay on the altar today. May we (to borrow Eugene Peterson’s translation of this passage) “Take our everyday, ordinary life—our sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for us is the best thing we can do for him.” (The Message)