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.

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In the Office: Love Is Enough

Today’s New Testament lesson (1 John 4:7-21) offers an extended meditation on love. We’re reminded that “everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God” (verse 7) and that “if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (verse 12). We’re reminded that “God is love” (verse 16) and that “there is no fear in love; but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment” (verse 18). 

1jn410These are all beautiful and inspirational sentiments, of course. But they do create the danger that we’ll end up celebrating some warm, fuzzy, and all-too-vague notion of love rather than the other-directed and self-giving virtue that the scriptures extol. After all, preachers and teachers far wiser than me have noted that “love” is a term that gets tossed around rather lightly in our culture. We “love” our spouse and our kids; but we also “love” pizza and the latest Avengers movie. And a term that can be applied so loosely seems a far cry from what the Bible is describing when it tells us, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (verses 10-11).

At the same time, of all the biblical concepts upon which our attention could be focused, I think I prefer this one over most of the others — even if we don’t “do justice” to the costly and demanding love that we’ve received and are called to emulate. Occasionally, I’ve come across references to a legend from the early church, which says — that when the Apostle John was near the end of his life — he had to be carried to the church in the arms of his disciples.  At these meetings, he would usually say no more than, “Little children, love one another!”  And after a time, the disciples — who were tired of hearing the same thing over and over — said, “Master, why do you always say this?” And he replied, “It is the Lord’s command. And if this alone be done, it is enough!”

May love be enough for us today, as we both receive the love of God and share the love with others.

In the Office: Someone Else?

I’m reminded today of a tired, old, preacher’s joke (and at this point, I’m not sure if it’s the joke or the preacher that’s old and tired) that still conveys a valuable bit of insight. I’m sure that you’ve heard it, too. A man falls off a steep cliff and is hanging onto a branch for dear life. “God, please help me!” he shouts. And God answers, “Have faith, my son, and I will protect you. Let go of the branch.” The man ponders this for a moment and then cries out, “Is there someone else up there?”

In the OfficeSometimes, the way that God chooses to act in our lives and in the world doesn’t really mesh with the our expectations. So it was for the man hanging from the branch, and so it was for John the Baptist in today’s gospel lesson (Matthew 11:1-6). John eagerly announced the coming of Messiah. He baptized Jesus and saw the heavens open and the Spirit of God descend in the form of a dove. But then he got thrown in prison, from where he couldn’t help but notice that the ministry of this newly-anointed Messiah looked a whole lot different than he thought it would. And so he sent some of his followers to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Mt. 11:3)

And Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” (Mt. 11:4-6)

What are our expectations about the way that God’s activity “ought” to look? And how do those expectations shape our activity as those who follow God’s anointed? Especially in a world that seems overwhelmed by so many enormous challenges, are we still trusting in and emulating the “humble kingdom way” of our Savior, who brings good news to the sick, the poor and the ostracized? Or are we looking for someone else?

If we’re honest, it’s easy to wonder how the gracious and serving way of Jesus can make much difference in a world of intractable conflicts, partisan bickering, and school shootings. But as today’s New Testament lesson reminds us: “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” (1 John 4:1-6)

We don’t need to look for someone else, because we know the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. May we love Him, and trust Him, and look for Him today.

In the Office: The End of Mission

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
    “when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel.

“I will put my law in their minds
    and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor,
    or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
    and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31, 33-34)

It’s always nice to make it to Friday. If I’m lucky (which this week I am), I can look back on a week in which meaningful visits were shared, key administrative duties were accomplished, and a message for Sunday was written — all of which leaves me grateful and relaxed and looking forward to worship and family time during the weekend.

However, I have to confess that there can be a bit of a “treadmill” quality to my pastoral routine. Almost as soon as Sunday’s sermon is delivered, it will be time to get started on the next one. Monday morning will bring new visits to make and new projects to tackle. And while I love my work and find it hard to imagine “doing life” in any other way, it’s easy to wonder sometimes: Am I really making a difference? Are we, together, accomplishing the mission for which God so graciously saved and empowered us? Or are we stuck in a rut of “holy hustle”?

In the OfficeAnd so, I’m grateful for passages like the one we find in today’s Old Testament lesson (Jeremiah 31:27-34). Here, we’re reminded that “the days are coming” when all of our teaching and discipleship ministries will finally bear their intended fruit, because God will put His law in our minds and write it on our hearts. Eventually, all of our evangelistic and missionary efforts to help people “Know the Lord” will cease to be necessary, because all will know Him, from the least to the greatest. And perhaps most important of all, we’re reminded that God is the One who will do this. “I will make a new covenant,” the Lord says; “will put my law in their minds…I will be their God…I will forgive.” The mission is in good hands. And though it proceeds slowly and imperceptibly at times, proceed it does. And it is this promise of what God will do (rather than what we are doing) in which our true hope lies.

I hope that you, too, are happy to make it to Friday. And even if there are “loose ends” left hanging, and projects left undone, and heartaches not yet healed, remember this: “It is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill His good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). May His grace sustain you as the mission continues…

In the Office: The Unread Part

In the OfficeThe reading from the Psalms in today’s Daily Office is Psalm 109. Notably, however, the suggested reading does not encompass the entire psalm. It recommends, instead, the first five verses and the last ten verses, while conveniently omitting verses 6 to 20 in the middle. The result is a prayer that opens by calling on God to defend the author against “people who are wicked and deceitful” (verse 2) and who “repay me evil for good” (verse 5) — and then ends with the confident affirmation that “With my mouth I will greatly extol the Lordin the great throng of worshipers I will praise him; for he stands at the right hand of the needy, to save their lives from those who would condemn them.” (verses 30-31).

What gets left out, for better or worse, is an extensive tirade in which the psalmist asks God to visit terrible judgments not only upon the wicked person who has been tormenting him, but upon his family as well. “May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow,” (verse 9) the psalmist prays. “May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor” (verse 11). “May their sins always remain before the Lordthat he may blot out their name from the earth” (verse 20).

Of course, if you take a moment to contemplate this “unread part,” you can easily understand why it was omitted from the suggested lesson. After all, it doesn’t exactly provide an encouraging sentiment with which to start the day. On the other hand, I think that difficult verses like these can offer us at least two significant gifts.

First, they can give us the gift of knowing that it’s okay to bring our “true selves” before the Lord. Let’s face it, all of us occasionally have feelings that aren’t exactly worthy of our faith. We get angry and bitter, frustrated and vengeful. And the last thing we really want to do is to remember the grace that we’ve been given — and then ask God to help us extend that same grace to others. But God, I think, understands this. And by including these “unread parts” in His Word, He reminds us that we can lay even these “unsavory” impulses of our hearts before His throne.

And that leads directly to the second gift these “unread parts” can give. They can remind us that “before His throne” is THE place — and the ONLY place — that these sentiments belong. If we’re not careful, we can easily allow yearnings for our enemy to be punished to become actions that seek to get the punishment started. Naturally, we might not resort to physical harm; we’re far too upstanding for that. But we might use unkind words, cruel gossip, and other passive-aggressive behaviors — all the while ignoring the clear teaching of scripture that vengeance belongs to the Lord. We are commanded “not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). And so, having brought our vendettas into the light of God’s presence, we leave them there. We trust that our Father is wholly righteous, and we go about following Christ, secure in the knowledge that in His time and in His way, God will make everything right.

So, if you’re in a hurry this morning, by all means skip “the unread part.” The passages of scripture that we do read offer nourishing truth aplenty. But don’t forget that “all Scripture is God-breathed — and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). And even the parts we’re tempted to skip over have something to teach us — if we’re willing to humble ourselves and listen.

In the Office: What Does the Lord See?

“The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

In the OfficeIn today’s Old Testament reading (1 Samuel 16:1-13), the LORD — who has rejected Saul as king over Israel — sends His prophet Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint a new king from among the sons of Jesse. And when Samuel takes one look at the eldest son, Eliab, he thinks to himself, “Surely, this is the Lord’s anointed!” (verse 6) But the LORD cautions Samuel, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (verse 7)

The story reminds me of how willingly I base my assessments of others on nothing more than external appearance. Although both experience and God’s Word have given me reason to know better, I often form opinions based on little more than a person’s clothes and hairstyle, or on their tattoos and piercings (or lack thereof). And who knows how many meaningful encounters I’ve missed, simply because I’ve forgotten that God has a way of showing up in people and places that we might not expect to see Him?

Then again, I’m not able to look beyond appearance and to see the heart of others in the way that the Lord can. Some days, I can barely see the truth of what’s going on in my own heart. And perhaps that’s why this story invites me to ask what might be the more important question: When the Lord looks at my heart, what does He see? Does He see a child who trusts Him? A servant who obeys Him? A worshiper who rejoices in Him? A disciple who’s eager to follow Him and become more like Him?

Today, Lord, help me not to look at others through the lens of my all-too-limited biases and judgments; but instead, to leave such evaluations to you, who alone can see the heart. And when you look at my heart, please grant that you will see a reflection of your own heart; so that I, too, can by anointed with your Spirit to serve your purposes, both in me and in the world.

 

In the Office: Receiving the Promise

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)

Yesterday, my congregation and I started a new message series that I’m calling “Almost Bible.” In it, we’ll be looking at a few of the “encouraging slogans” that we often use in Christian circles, which — upon closer examination — turn out to be promises that the Bible doesn’t make, or that we misappropriate by applying them to situations quite different from the circumstances in which they originated.

josh19I’ve wondered from time to time whether this powerful promise given to Joshua in today’s Old Testament lesson (Joshua 1:1-9) might be one of those passages that we’re tempted to misappropriate. Don’t get me wrong, I think the Bible’s story of God’s redemptive purpose gives us plenty of reason to be “strong and courageous.” And there are numerous places in scripture that God’s faithful presence is promised to us. But at the same time, this particular promise comes amid a unique set of historical circumstances. Moses has just died; new leadership is emerging; and all of this is happening as God’s people begin the intimidating process of entering the Promised Land. What’s more, the promise comes in the context of certain expectations. In this passage, the Lord also says to Joshua: “Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you…Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful” (verses 7-8).

So, what am I saying? That we shouldn’t “be strong and courageous,” or that we shouldn’t trust that “the Lord our God will be with us wherever we go”? Absolutely not. But at the very least, perhaps we could remember that the promise is given to people who are “on the journey” of participating in God’s mission and who are guided by His law on the way.

What steps will we take to be “on mission” with God this week? And what will we do to keep God’s law on our lips, to meditate on it day and night, and to do everything written in it? May we enter God’s story in such a way that we, too, may receive the promise. And may we discover that God’s presence gives us strength and courage to handle any challenge we face.