In the Office: You are the Beloved

Today’s gospel reading (Matthew 3:13-17) describes the baptism of Jesus in which our Lord comes up out of the water and hears a voice that says, ““This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (v. 17) For many years now, I have not been able to read this passage without thinking of Henri Nouwen and what it means for us to understand ourselves as the “beloved” of God:

Let me start by telling you that many of the people that I live with hear voices that tell them that they are no good, that they are a problem, that they are a burden, that they are a failure. They hear a voice that keeps saying, “If you want to be loved, you had better prove that you are worth loving. You must show it.”

But what I would like to say is that the spiritual life is a life in which you gradually learn to listen to a voice that says something else, that says, “You are the beloved and on you my favor rests.”

You are the beloved and on you my favor rests.

Jesus heard that voice. He heard that voice when He came out of the Jordan River. I want you to hear that voice, too. It is a very important voice that says, “You are my beloved son; you are my beloved daughter. I love you with an everlasting love. I have molded you together in the depths of the earth. I have knitted you in your mother’s womb. I’ve written your name in the palm of my hand and I hold you safe in the shade of my embrace. I hold you. You belong to Me and I belong to you. You are safe where I am. Don’t be afraid. Trust that you are the beloved. That is who you truly are.”


I want you to hear that voice. It is not a very loud voice because it is an intimate voice. It comes from a very deep place. It is soft and gentle. I want you to gradually hear that voice. We both have to hear that voice and to claim for ourselves that that voice speaks the truth, our truth. It tells us who we are. That is where the spiritual life starts — by claiming the voice that calls us the beloved.

Henri Nouwen, The Life of the Beloved

May we hear that voice today. And through us, may others come to know that they’re beloved, too.

In the Office: A Bad Day for God’s People

The readings in today’s Daily Office paint a rather unflattering picture of God’s people. The psalm (Psalm 78:1-39) recounts the way that they “continued to sin against God, rebelling in the wilderness against the Most High,” even though they had seen God’s grace and power demonstrated in the Exodus. The Old Testament lesson (2 Kings 5:19-27) tells the tale of Elisha’s servant secretly (and selfishly) accepting gifts that Elisha had turned down. The gospel lesson (Mark 5:27-37) warns that our sinfulness extends beyond our external actions to include the thoughts and intents of our hearts. And finally, the New Testament lesson (1 Corinthians 5:1-8) features Paul lamenting the fact that there’s serious sin being committed by the members of the Corinthians church, and nobody seems to care.

In the OfficeOf course, Paul, at least, offers a “corrective response” to the wickedness he sees: “Hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.” (1 Cor. 5:5) He’s describing the practice of “church discipline,” in which members of the Body are expelled in the hope that it will awaken them to their fault and lead them to repentance. And I know many people who remember the use of church discipline — days when members were “kicked out” because of adultery or drunkenness or some other sin.

But who would we “discipline” today? We seem so hopelessly divided that we can’t even agree on what our problems are, let alone what we should do to solve them. And in our eagerness to prove ourselves “right,” we too often speak ill of brothers and sisters for whom Christ died, and we too often participate in the cycle of “gotcha” accusations the exacerbate our differences rather than seeking to overcome them.

Sadly, I have no wisdom that offers a way beyond our present impasses. And there are some days that I almost despair of the Church’s ability to be the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world,” as Jesus has indicated we are. But most days I cling to this: “Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed for us.” (1 Cor. 5:7) Not a one of us deserves the grace and love and fellowship into which we have been received. And in the end, the future of this fellowship depends not on us, but on the Lamb of God, who takes away our sins and teaches us what it means to love one another.

May we listen to Him today, rather than the voices that urge us to look to our own interests rather than the interests of others. And may our awareness of the price that He paid for our forgiveness lead us to turn from our sin and brokenness to embrace holiness and healing.

In the Office: “Wherefore Art Thou, O Truth?”

Where do you turn to get the truth? Who do you turn to when you need godly discernment that you can trust, even when the message might be one you don’t want to hear?

Today’s Old Testament lesson (1 Kings 22:1-28) offers up a story, which — in spite of its ancient setting — is as relevant as our current debates about “fake news” and the “echo chambers” in which many of us form our opinions.

King Ahab wants to go to war. So, he calls his friend Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, and invites him to get in on the action. Jehoshaphat seems eager to sign up; but he does have this one request: “First seek the counsel of the LORD.” So Ahab calls together his 400-member team of prophetic “yes-men,” and they tell him exactly what he wants to hear: “Go to war, for the LORD will give you victory.”

Jehoshaphat, however, seems to sense that these so-called prophets might not be speaking the truth; and so he asks: “Is there no longer a prophet of the LORD here of whom we can inquire?” Ahab confesses that there is such a prophet — a man named Micaiah. But Ahab’s not too fond of him, because “he never prophesies anything good about me.”

Still, Micaiah is summoned and is asked whether battled is advisable; and he, too, tells the king exactly what he wants to hear: “Attack and be victorious, for the LORD will give the enemy into your hand.” But this time, Ahab himself realizes that truth isn’t being spoken; so he insists: “How many times must I make you swear to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the LORD?” And yet, when Micaiah offers truth — “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd” — Ahab tells Jehoshaphat: “See? What did I tell you? He never prophesies anything good about me.”

john832Two key questions emerge for me. On the one side: How often, I wonder, are we like Ahab? We claim to want the truth; and sometimes, we even sense that what we’re hearing isn’t it! And yet, when someone speaks truth to us, we dismiss it because it doesn’t fit the narrative we’ve already constructed in our head. What will it take to make us heed the voice that speaks truth, even when it’s uncomfortable?

But on the other side: Do we have the faith and character to be like Micaiah? Can we cling to and speak truth, even when there are many voices around us that are speaking something else — and even when truth-telling is likely to get us more heartache than applause?

Fortunately, of course, refusing to hear and/or speak the truth tends to be “their” problem, not ours…right? Or could it be that we all could use a dose of Truth these days?

May Jesus truly be our Way, our Truth, and our Life today; and may we be both courageous enough to speak truth in love — and humble enough to hear it.

In the Office: Spirit Moves

The story of the New Testament church is a story of the Spirit’s power and guidance. And yet, the apparent drama and pervasiveness of this divine activity can easily lead us to wonder: Are we missing something? Why doesn’t the Spirit act now in the way He did then?

Take, for example, today’s New Testament lesson from Acts 16. Paul and his companions are on a missionary journey and are traveling through the region of Galatia — because, the Bible says, they were “kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia” (v.6). Moving on, they try to enter a region called Bithynia, “but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to” (v. 7).

So, how exactly did the Spirit offer this guidance? Was there a bright light and an audible voice from heaven? Were Paul and his companions seized by spiritual ecstasy, from which they emerged with a clear understanding of what the Spirit wanted? Or is what’s going on here far more mundane? Could it be that they were “kept from preaching the word in Asia” — not by a direct heavenly message — but by the lack of transportation? When the Spirit “would not allow them” to enter Bithynia, did He block their way with a flaming sword, or with a cantankerous border guard?

Please understand; I am not trying to “make light” of the Spirit’s guidance. But I wonder sometimes if our assumptions about the work of the Spirit inadvertently deprive us of access to the Spirit’s power, because they remove the Spirit from the flow of our “normal” experience. Could it be that the Spirit is at work within and around us far more than we appreciate, but we miss it because we’re looking for Him in the extraordinary rather than the ordinary?

In a book about the Spirit, pastor J. D. Greear reflects on this episode in Acts and writes:

Paul thought of his whole ministry as led by the Spirit. Evidently, however, Paul’s means for following the Spirit did not entail getting up each day and waiting on a message to spell itself out in the foam of his cappuccino.

The disciples had clear, general commands given by Jesus in the Great Commission to obey. But as they did so, they had no choice but to look to the Spirit for power and guidance in pursuing those commands.

Yet, even in this extreme dependence, they never reduced the Spirit’s activity in their lives to some formula. They grounded themselves in the Word, obeyed Jesus’ general commands, and looked to the Spirit to lead them — watching for him, but assuming he was leading even if they couldn’t see or feel him.

Jesus, Continued… by J. D. Greear

Let’s trust that the Spirit will be active in our lives today — not necessarily because we see (or don’t see) spectacular signs and wonders — but because Jesus has promised that He will be. And trusting that the Spirit is at work, let’s look for Him and join Him; so that through us, God’s Kingdom may come a little closer to those who need it most.

In the Office

In the Office: Truth Handlers

In the last few days, I’ve been preparing a memorial service for a man in my church named Tom. Among other things, Tom was a devoted student of scripture, who applied himself to understanding God’s Word, living by its precepts, and teaching it to others. As a result, he had a deep and abiding impact on his family, and on the classes and churches that he served.

In the last few days, I have also been participating in this training event for Logos Bible software (www.logos.com). Among other things, I’ve been reminded how blessed we are to be the beneficiaries of women and men down through the ages who have copied and preserved and translated and researched and innovated so that we could have access to the scriptures – AND – so that we would have the opportunity to study them and be enriched by them and be changed by them so that we can more perfectly reflect the Light of Christ.

In today’s readings from the Daily Office, the Apostle offers this admonition to his protege: 

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)

Now, not all of us may ever be preachers or teachers or Bible scholars. But all of us have the opportunity (and the responsibility) to “handle the word of truth” in such a way that it’s transforming impact can work through us to bring blessing to others.

Who are the people who have shared the riches of God’s Word with you? And what could you do today to “correctly handle the word of truth” so that you can share its bounty with others?

May God give us grace to be doers of His Word- and not hearers only.

In the Office: Strong/Strengthened in Grace

I’m actually “out of the office” this week, receiving some training in a biblical software package that I’ve owned for a long time but have never fully utilized. And in my readings for this morning, I’ve run across an example of why the use of such tools makes a difference. 

In the NIV, Paul writes to his protege Timothy: “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” That phrase has always caught my attention. Grace – as we typically understand it – is “unmerited favor.” So how is one to “be strong” in grace? “Being strong,” it seems to me, implies effort and achievement on our part. And so – in some way – fulfilling this admonition would  undermine the very grace that we seek to be strong in.

A quick look at the underlying Greek text, however, reveals that the verb translated “be strong” by the NIV is actually a passive verb, which means that the translators of the ESV are probably more accurate when they render this verse: “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” The goal is not to “be strong” in grace – as if we had to train and struggle in order to appropriate the grace that is freely offered in Christ (although I must confess that this remains an intriguing image). No, the goal is to be strengthened by grace: to allow the unmerited favor of God to give us freedom from out anxieties, confidence in our hope, and an ability to rest in the love that holds our lives today (and every day).

Of course, this doesn’t mean, therefore, that we are left with nothing to “do” or “strive for.” Paul then goes on to encourage Timothy to pursue a way of life that his characterized by intense effort. He talks in terms of soldiers and athletes and hard-working farmers who are eager to please their commanders, to win the victor’s crown, and to receive their share of the crop. But the difference, I think, is that these efforts are made in response to grace and not in an effort to earn it. As Paul says in one of this other letters, we do “work out our salvation in fear and trembling,” but we do so because “God is the one who is at work in us, enabling us to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).

Of course, all of that remains just an exercise of the mind until it transforms our hearts. Will we allow ourselves to “be strengthened in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” today? Will we accept that we don’t have to strive anxiously to prove and defend ourselves, because we are already loved with an everlasting love? And then, secure in that love, will we invest ourselves fully in whatever opportunities our Lord might bring our way?

In the Office: A Verse to Remember

For much of this week, I’ll be participating in a training event that will put some significant limits on the amount of time that I’m able to devote to my daily “In the Office” reflection. However, insofar as I’m able, I do hope to post a few words; and today’s thoughts are rooted in a verse that became important to me many years ago.

In today’s Daily Office from the Book of Common Prayer, the Apostle Paul speaks to his protege Timothy and offers these words of encouragement:

So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. (1 Timothy 1:8-9)

I first encountered these words in a meaningful way when I was a high school student taking a discipleship class with several men in my church. At the time, I was moved by the challenge of these verses to “live boldly for Christ”: to shun the timidity that might keep me from sharing the gospel and to embrace even suffering if that what it took to be faithful. And that’s a reminder that I still need to hear. I can’t think of many occasions when I feel “ashamed of the testimony about our Lord,” but there are times when it’s easier to remain silent than to speak out; and these words remind me that I was made for more than that.

As I have aged, however, it is the second half of this passage that has grabbed by heart. “He has saved us and called us to a holy life” – God’s purposes are not just to rescue us for heaven, but to make us the kind of people who are fit for heaven – and this life-saving and life-changing gift is given “not because of anything that we have done, but because of His own purpose and grace.”

I hope that we all can rest today in what God has done for us. And – acknowledging that – I pray that we can live boldly, embracing everything that comes our way with the confidence that God’s power will sustain us.

In the Office: Be Still

In today’s Daily Office from the Book of Common Prayer, the psalmist offers these words:

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging. (Psalm 46:1-3)

This is one of those promises of God’s Word to which I return frequently, especially in times of transition and conflict like the ones in which we find ourselves. And yet, while I have no difficulty grasping and affirming this affirmation at an intellectual level – there are days when it’s hard to embrace this promise at an emotive and spiritual level. Is God truly my strength and my “ever-present help”? Or does the “roaring” of my to-do list and the “quaking” of cultural turmoil leave me yearning for refuge and seeking a strength that seems just beyond reach?

Of course, this difficulty is one of my own making; and thankfully, this same psalm suggests a remedy…

He (the LORD) says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth. (Psalm 46:10)

be-stillSometimes, I need to step back from life’s fast pace and the world’s upheaval in order to reconnect with the deeper reality that undergirds it all. In moments of stillness, I’m reminded of (and invited to experience the reality of) God’s presence and care, which renews my confidence in the ultimate triumph of the gracious and sacrificial way of Christ.

May God grant you some opportunities to “be still” and “know Him” today. And may the LORD be exalted in our hearts, in our lives, and in our world.

 

Snacking on Jesus

My devotional reading as of late has invited me to meditate on Jesus’ “Bread of Life” discourse in John Chapter 6. Today’s reading included these words from verse 57

“The one who feeds on me will live…”

What came next could have something to do with the fact that I was snacking on a couple doughnuts while I did my devotional reading; but I found myself wondering: Can I truly say that I’m “feeding” on Jesus? Is he the source of “soul-deep nourishment” that sustains me and for which I hunger? Or would it be more accurate to say that I’m “snacking” on Jesus? Do I reach out for a little “Jesus sugar rush” when the mood strikes or when the opportunity presents itself while allowing the bulk of my spiritual nutrition to come from far less beneficial sources?

Oddly enough, I don’t think that this question has cropped up because I’ve been lacking in spiritual rigor. If anything, the demands of ministry and the needs of my own heart have been drawing me to Christ with even greater strength in recent days. However, I am captured by the notion that the Lord desires to give me (and to give us) a feast that’s far more satisfying than most of us have dared to dream – if only we will allow him to become THE Bread that feeds our souls. Perhaps this prayer of A. W. Tozer says it best:

“O God, I have tasted Thy goodness, and it has both satisfied me and made me thirsty for more. I am painfully conscious of my need for further grace. I am ashamed of my lack of desire. O God, the Triune God, I want to want Thee; I long to be filled with longing; I thirst to be made more thirsty still.”

Gracious Lord, thank you for being the Bread of Life and for offering yourself so freely to us. May I and all those with whom I share the journey hunger for you and you alone today; and may our feasting upon you fill us with overflowing life.

Kyrie Eleison

Many years ago, when I made the transition from being a campus minister to being a local church pastor, I realized that my “new parish environment” would be presenting me with a whole new set of pastoral needs. Instead of dating dilemmas, exam anxieties and other challenges of young adulthood; I’d be presented with life-changing illnesses, career derailments and heart-breaking losses. True to my expectations, this is what life as a pastor has brought me. And even though it has stretched me in a lot of ways, I wouldn’t go back on the growth that I’ve experienced as a person and as a minister, nor would I trade an easier journey for the demonstrations of God’s faithfulness that I’ve seen along the way.

Having said that, there are days when the difficulties confronting the people among whom I serve seem to be exceptionally numerous and unusually heart-rending. Just this afternoon, I found out…

  • A woman in my church who has battled numerous health problems in recent years was diagnosed with a lung infection that it may be difficult for her to fight off.
  • A woman who recently underwent a double mastectomy discovered that her cancer has impacted some surrounding tissue and now will be contemplating several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.
  • A woman who just completed a series of chemo treatments for breast cancer and who hoped that this might bring an end to her fight was told by her doctor that he recommends radiation, too.
  • A woman whose elderly mother is already dealing with dementia was told – that in all likelihood – her mother also has a form of blood cancer and now must decide what kind of treatment, if any, to pursue.
  • A man who is in his prime and has a son in high school suffered a stroke.
  • A woman in a former church of mine who was very dear to me is approaching death, and the family would like for me to say a few words at her funeral when the time comes.

There are other issues out there: people dealing with loss and illness and marital discord and more. And please understand; I’m not complaining. I consider it to be an honor to serve these individuals…and an even greater privilege to pray for them and to seek to be a faithful reminder of God’s presence in the midst of their trials.

But on days like this, “praying” and “trying to communicate God’s presence” can seem like mighty small and less-than-adequate things to do. Don’t get me wrong. I believe in prayer. And without those reminders that God is with us…well…how could we muddle through. But still, there are those times when it feels like a “magic pastor wand” that offers up some form of more visible assistance should have come with my seminary degree.

In the end, all I can do is to offer the prayer that believers down through the ages have offered: “Kyrie, Eleison.” Lord, have mercy. And that prayer I DO offer…along with the humble recognition that it has never been about the kind of assistance that I can offer. It is the Father alone who is our help in ages past; our hope for years to come.

So Lord, please do pour out your mercy on all these I’ve mentioned, along with all those others in whose lives you’ve allowed me to have a part. And please have mercy on me, too. May I serve your purposes in them, and in me, and in the broken but wonderful Body of Christ, which continues to embody your grace in the world.