God Alone

The recent images coming from the new James Webb Space Telescope are absolutely breathtaking. Image after image reveals new stars, planetary systems, and galaxies that we never knew existed. Having this new lens into the possibilities of our multiverse is yet another indication of the majesty of God’s creation. NASA references the “Big Bang theory” in its explanation of what we are seeing and how all of it was formed. I believe that … I believe that God said, “BANG!” and it was so! With one word from God, all of creation came into being.

In our scripture today, Nehemiah wrote a liturgical prayer that expresses how God’s Big Bang was understood by people who didn’t even have a rudimentary telescope to look through. (The word “liturgical” relates to any part of a public worship experience.) With the naked eye, Nehemiah perceived not just heaven, but the heaven of heavens, and the heavenly forces. When I look at the picture below from the James Webb Telescope, I think Nehemiah’s description was amazingly accurate:

Nehemiah 9 (Common English Bible)

You alone are the Lord.
        You alone made heaven, even the heaven of heavens, with all their forces.
        You made the earth and all that is on it, and the seas and all that is in them.
            You preserve them all, and the heavenly forces worship you.

Having ascribed the wonder of creation to the Creator, Nehemiah goes on to tell the story of God’s interaction with his people. Covenants, promises, signs, wonders, and God’s deliverance are part of Nehemiah’s liturgy of praise:

Lord God, you are the one who chose Abram.
        You brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham.
        You found him to be faithful before you,
            and you made a covenant with him.
You promised to give to his descendants the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites,
        the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, and the Girgashites.
And you have kept your promise because you are righteous.

You saw the affliction of our ancestors in Egypt
        and heard their cry at the Reed Sea.
10 You performed signs and wonders against Pharaoh,
        all his servants, and the people of his land.
    You knew that they had acted arrogantly against our ancestors.
        You made a name for yourself, a name that is famous even today.
11 You divided the sea before them so that they went through it on dry land.
        But you cast their pursuers into the depths,
            as a stone into the mighty waters.
12 With a pillar of cloud you led them by day
        and with a column of lightning by night;
            they lit the way in which the people should go.

Any good praise liturgy includes the importance of the law and the commandments:
13 You came down upon Mount Sinai and spoke with them from heaven.
        You gave them proper judgments and true Instruction,
            good statutes and commandments.

And let us not forget the importance of the sabbath. This is a place to pause today and ask if we honor the sabbath as we have been instructed. Do you take time out of your crazy week to worship? Do you stop to rest? Do you sit in God’s presence? I fear many of us do not allow ourselves this prescribed respite from the overly busy tempo of our lives. God created the sabbath for us! Are you neglecting this gift?

14         You made known to them your holy Sabbath,
            and gave them commandments, statutes, and Instruction through your servant Moses.

God created all things for the blessing and benefit of his children. He provides bread, water, land, stars, planets, and everything we need … including his only son for our salvation.

15 When they were hungry, you gave them bread from heaven;
        when they were thirsty, you brought water out of the rock for them.
You told them to go in to possess the land that you had sworn to give them.

Tonight, when it gets dark, go outside and look up. God alone made all of this for you. May all creation rise up and say, “Amen!”

James Webb Space Telescope photo by NASA via Facebook

Get Out of Jail Free

When my daughters were teenagers, I came up with a crazy idea. I have always thought that kids get themselves into worse situations because they are afraid to tell their parents when they made a mistake. The fear of punishment or damaging the relationship prevents them from being honest. I was afraid that one of them would find themselves in a compromising situation and not want to call me for help, so I developed a “Get Out of Jail Free” strategy.

You may remember that in the game of Monopoly, there is a card that can be used when you land in jail that enables you to get out without paying the $200 fine. So, my “Get Out of Jail Free” offer worked like this: if they ever got into a predicament and needed a rescue, they could call me and “play” this card. That meant that I would not ask questions or mete out any punishment. I would simply come immediately and get them, no questions asked. So, any party that got out of control, any situation with peers that became too intense, anytime a boyfriend was pushing for something they didn’t want to do, etc., Mama would come with one simple phone call. Neither one of them ever used this, but there were many times when this idea of a guaranteed non-judgmental response from me was referenced when we were having conversations about things going on in their lives. They remembered my promise to be a place of safety and reminded me of it from time to time.

Everybody needs a lifeline at some point in their lives. Everybody needs one person to whom they can pour out their heart without fear of condemnation or judgment. Everybody needs a safe space.

In our scripture today, King Solomon is praying before the gathered assembly as they dedicate the temple in Jerusalem. He is reaching out to God to be a lifeline for the Israelites, reminding God of his promises to deliver the nation:

1 Kings 8 (Common English Bible)

22 Solomon stood before the Lord’s altar in front of the entire Israelite assembly and, spreading out his hands toward the sky, 23 he said:

Lord God of Israel, there’s no god like you in heaven above or on earth below. You keep the covenant and show loyalty to your servants who walk before you with all their heart. 24 This is the covenant you kept with your servant David, my father, which you promised him. Today, you have fulfilled what you promised. 25 So now, Lord, Israel’s God, keep what you promised my father David, your servant, when you said to him, “You will never fail to have a successor sitting on Israel’s throne as long as your descendants carefully walk before me just as you walked before me.”26 So now, God of Israel, may your promise to your servant David, my father, come true.

Solomon articulated his theology in this prayer. He is confirming things that the people know about God, and what God knows about the people. God keeps the covenant. God fulfills what he promises. God is loyal to his servants. The people walk before God with all their heart. There is no god like God.

Notice how many times Solomon calls upon God to listen. Is there someone in your life who simply needs you listen to them?

27 But how could God possibly live on earth? If heaven, even the highest heaven, can’t contain you, how can this temple that I’ve built contain you?28 Lord my God, LISTEN to your servant’s prayer and request, and hear the cry and prayer that your servant prays to you today. 29 Constantly watch over this temple, the place about which you said, “My name will be there,” and LISTEN to the prayer that your servant is praying toward this place.30 LISTEN to the request of your servant and your people Israel when they pray toward this place. LISTEN from your heavenly dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.

We won’t read the entire prayer today due to its length but look for indications of Israel’s understanding of God’s nature in the next two paragraphs. They knew God created and controlled the rain. They knew that God offered forgiveness of sins. They knew God had instructed them to care for the immigrants in their midst. They knew God would listen from heaven.

35 When the sky holds back its rain because Israel has sinned against you, but they then pray toward this place, give thanks to your name, and turn away from their sin because you have punished them for it, 36 then LISTEN from heaven and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel. Teach them the best way for them to follow, and send rain on your land that you gave to your people as an inheritance.

41 LISTEN also to the immigrant who isn’t from your people Israel but who comes from a distant country because of your reputation— 42 because they will hear of your great reputation, your great power, and your outstretched arm. When the immigrant comes and prays toward this temple, 43 then LISTEN from heaven, where you live, and do everything the immigrant asks. Do this so that all the people of the earth may know your reputation and revere you, as your people Israel do, and recognize that this temple I have built bears your name.

Is God calling you to be a safe space for someone? Is there a teenager in your life who needs a “Get Out of Jail Free Card”? Can you be a non-judgmental rescuer for someone? Do you need to listen better?

This is what God offers us. Shouldn’t we offer it to others in his name?

52 Open your eyes to your servant’s request and to the request of your people Israel. Hear them whenever they cry out to you. 53 You set them apart from all the earth’s peoples as your own inheritance, Lord, just as you promised through your servant Moses when you brought our ancestors out of Egypt.

LISTEN by Michelle Robertson

Despair Prayers

Last week I spoke with a new widow in my congregation. Her husband of over 70 years passed away a month ago and it was her first time back in church. She described what many people experience with grief: she can’t stop crying, she is overwhelmed, she is depressed and lonely, and it took her a tremendous amount of effort just to come to church. I could feel the despair oozing out of her as she talked, and my heart was broken for her. I assured her that grieving like this is normal, and eventually she will learn new ways to live with her loss. I know this to be true, but the words sounded hollow and empty in the face of her suffering. She looked at me with trusting eyes and pulled herself together.

If I could invent a tonic for despair and bottle it up, I would give this woman cases of it. Her pain was etched into her face, her voice, and even the way she moved her hands as she spoke.

Pastoral care involves being with people in some of the worst moments of their lives. We visit in the hospitals, in hospice centers, in prisons, and in homes when someone’s life has just fallen apart, or a great loss has occurred. We sit in our offices as people come and describe the indescribable. When this happens, I think about the scriptures that assure us of Jesus’ promise of his presence, his salvation, his redemption, and the hope that he brings.

But sometimes I think about Job.

Job is a story of despair. Nobody in the Old Testament had it quite as bad as Job. Job lost his home, his hundreds of sheep and cows, his wife, all of his sons and daughters, and even his health. In the midst of all of his undeserved suffering, he prayed this prayer of despair:

Job 3 (Common English Bible)

3 Afterward, Job spoke up and cursed the day he was born.

Job said:
Perish the day I was born,
    the night someone said,
    “A boy has been conceived.”
That day—let it be darkness;
    may God above ignore it,
    and light not shine on it.
May deepest darkness claim it
    and a cloud linger over it;
    may all that darkens the day terrify it.
May gloom seize that night;
    may it not be counted in the days of a year;
    may it not appear in the months.
May that night be childless;
    may no happy singing come in it.
May those who curse the day curse it,
    those with enough skill to awaken Leviathan.
May its evening stars stay dark;
    may it wait in vain for light;
    may it not see dawn’s gleam,
10     because it didn’t close the doors of my mother’s womb,
    didn’t hide trouble from my eyes.

This is despair at a very deep level. To wish you had never been born is an indication of a profound loss of hope and debilitating depression. Have you ever felt that way?

11 Why didn’t I die at birth,
    come forth from the womb and die?
12 Why did knees receive me
    and breasts let me nurse?
13 For now I would be lying down quietly;
    I’d sleep; rest would be mine
14         with kings and earth’s advisors,
        who rebuild ruins for themselves,
15         or with princes who have gold,
        who fill their houses with silver.
16 Or why wasn’t I like a buried miscarried infant,
    like babies who never see light?
17 There the wicked rage no more;
    there the weak rest.
18 Prisoners are entirely at ease;
    they don’t hear a boss’s voice.
19 Both small and great are there;
    a servant is free from his masters.

Job’s despair goes from hopelessness to anguish. He longs for the blackness of death over the light of life:

20 Why is light given to the hard worker,
    life to those bitter of soul,
21     those waiting in vain for death,
        who search for it more than for treasure,
22     who rejoice excitedly,
        who are thrilled when they find a grave?
23 Why is light given to the person whose way is hidden,
    whom God has fenced in?

In this next section, we read words that many of us have felt in the darkest moments of our lives. We dreaded something and it came. Our groans become our daily bread, and our roars for rescue pour out like water. In the 26th verse, Job echoes what many people feel in moments of defeat. We have no ease. We have no quiet. We can find no rest.

24 My groans become my bread;
    my roars pour out like water.
25 Because I was afraid of something awful,
    and it arrived;
    what I dreaded came to me.
26 I had no ease, quiet, or rest,
    and trembling came.

And so, to the list of everything Job lost, we can add more things. Job lost his peace of mind and his ability to rest. But do you know what Job didn’t lose?

His faith.

At the end of his story, Job’s life was restored to him because he didn’t lose his faith. This brings us comfort in our misery, knowing that God’s presence is never gone from us in times of trouble. We can expect that in some measure, life will return after a siege. “New normals” replace old normals and God helps us pick ourselves up and get on with things. No, my new widow’s husband won’t ever come back to her. But in due time, she will indeed learn to live with her grief and find comfort in happy memories of their life together.

We do recover.

So, if you find yourself in a season of despair right now, remember Job. Don’t lose your faith, and don’t give up your hope. God is with you.

Always.

Reflections of a New Day by Michelle Robertson

Negotiations

Some people do very well in negotiations. Lawyers, car salespeople, toddlers … these types of people are gifted in the give-and-take, quid pro quo world of negotiating. My husband is an expert negotiator. My daughter and I accompanied him a few years ago when he negotiated the price of a new car. He was so good at it that she and I got up and found the free popcorn and coffee bar at the other side of the dealership and spent the rest of the time cringing in the corner. Neither of us like to barter, so the entire exchange made us very uncomfortable. Kudos to him, though! He got the price he wanted.

Can we ever negotiate with God?

We have been taught since birth to pray for God’s will to be done. This idea is so important, it is even part of the Lord’s Prayer, telling us that Jesus thought it was a seminal part of our relationship with God. Indeed, it is what he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion. Yielding to God’s will is what is best for us, knowing that only God knows the right and righteous path we should take.

So, what is happening here between Abraham and God?

Genesis 18 (Common English Bible)

16 The men got up from there and went over to look down on Sodom. Abraham was walking along with them to send them off 17 when the Lord said, “Will I keep from Abraham what I’m about to do? 18 Abraham will certainly become a great populous nation, and all the earth’s nations will be blessed because of him. 19 I have formed a relationship with him so that he will instruct his children and his household after him. And they will keep to the Lord’s path, being moral and just so that the Lord can do for Abraham everything he said he would.” 20 Then the Lord said, “The cries of injustice from Sodom and Gomorrah are countless, and their sin is very serious! 21 I will go down now to examine the cries of injustice that have reached me. Have they really done all this? If not, I want to know.”

Notice that verse 19 gives us a clue about what is about to transpire. “I have formed a relationship with him” lets us know that God’s love and concern for Abraham is grounded in mutual respect and trust. God had chosen Abraham to be the patriarch of many nations. Abraham is about to become the founder of the people of God. It was a big ask. With big asks come big rewards. In this case, the reward was the relationship that God offered Abraham.

22 The men turned away and walked toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing in front of the Lord. 23 Abraham approached and said, “Will you really sweep away the innocent with the guilty?24 What if there are fifty innocent people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not save the place for the sake of the fifty innocent people in it? 25 It’s not like you to do this, killing the innocent with the guilty as if there were no difference. It’s not like you! Will the judge of all the earth not act justly?”

And so, Abraham began the negotiation process, pleading for the innocent people. Notice how he framed his “ask” each time:

26 The Lord said, “If I find fifty innocent people in the city of Sodom, I will save it because of them.”

27 Abraham responded, “Since I’ve already decided to speak with my Lord, even though I’m just soil and ash, 28 what if there are five fewer innocent people than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city over just five?”

The Lord said, “If I find forty-five there, I won’t destroy it.”

29 Once again Abraham spoke, “What if forty are there?”

The Lord said, “For the sake of forty, I will do nothing.”

30 He said, “Don’t be angry with me, my Lord, but let me speak. What if thirty are there?”

The Lord said, “I won’t do it if I find thirty there.”

31 Abraham said, “Since I’ve already decided to speak with my Lord, what if twenty are there?”

The Lord said, “I won’t do it, for the sake of twenty.”

32 Abraham said, “Don’t be angry with me, my Lord, but let me speak just once more. What if there are ten?”

And the Lord said, “I will not destroy it because of those ten.” 33 When the Lord finished speaking with Abraham, he left; but Abraham stayed there in that place.

Abraham reminded God of just how much he revered God. His voice took on a pleading tone: “Don’t be angry with me” and “Even though I’m just soil and ash” etc. He prefaced each request with a statement that let God know that he felt unworthy of God’s consideration but trusted that God loved him enough that asking again is permissible in the context of their relationship.

This is how we feel when our three-year-old keeps asking for a cookie or our teenage daughter persists in making a case for why she should be allowed to go to the party we have already forbidden. Their understanding of our love for them emboldens them to keep asking. As annoying as that can be, it is also a good thing.

How is your relationship with God? Do you trust him? Do you speak to him often enough that when you need to ask for something, you feel comfortable knowing that he will hear you?

God taught Abraham about intercessory prayer in this exchange. He also taught him about having compassion for others. This story reminds us that effective prayer reminds both us and God that we know who God is, and we understand how God works in a situation. Effective prayer doesn’t position us as passive observers in what God does. Indeed, effective prayer proceeds as if it might actually remind God of his saving nature and perhaps affect an outcome.

As it turns out, there weren’t even ten innocent people in Sodom, and so the city was destroyed. But Abraham learned how to effectively love and pray for others, which was an important lesson for the father of all nations.

May our prayers of intercession for others be filled with such wisdom and compassion as well.

Stand Tall by Roni Helford

Come to the Table

Several decades ago, I had an interesting conversation with an older gentleman who was leaving my church. I respected the fact that he set an appointment with me to give his reasons. I wasn’t prepared for the answer, though.

A young couple had joined the church the Sunday prior. As was our custom, we printed their names and address in the bulletin for people to add them to their church directories. This gentleman was leaving because we allowed them to join. He said that the fact that they had two different last names and one address was an indication that they were “living in sin” and he was shocked that the church allowed them to join. He saw that as the downfall of the church, the denomination, and Western civilization as we know it.

I carefully explained that the church did not have a policy that prevented anyone from joining. I mentioned that everyone who joins comes with some measure of sin, as “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” I even tried joking with him that “you have to catch the fish before you clean the fish” and assured him that every member has come to church to be cleansed of their sins and grow closer in their understanding of God.

As I expected, my explanations fell on deaf ears and he and his wife left the church.

Jesus’ teaching is very clear that there is no hierarchy of sin and that the mission of the church is to make disciples of everyone. He had to explain this to the Pharisees at one point:

Matthew 9 (Common English Bible)

10 As Jesus sat down to eat in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners joined Jesus and his disciples at the table.

11 But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

12 When Jesus heard it, he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. 13 Go and learn what this means: I want mercy and not sacrifice. I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.”

The Pharisees were well known for making the public sacrifices that their religious rituals called for, but for harboring hate toward others in their heart. Jesus was radicalizing a new idea here: drop the meaningless rituals and offer mercy toward your fellow man instead.

They couldn’t do it.

Can we?

Look around. There are people in your community who live on the margins who need to be invited to Christ’s table, and maybe even to yours. Christ welcomes all to his table: the immigrants, the homeless, the kings, the addicts, the LGBTQ community, the prostitutes, the CEOs, the unwed mothers, the prisoners … he would not turn a single one of them away.

Neither should we.

Come by Alice Rogers

Pie Eating

A long time ago, a friend decided that she wanted to learn more about the subject of piety. She enrolled in a class at the Candler School of Theology, the Methodist seminary at Emory University, to study the subject. Her interest was strictly personal, and she had no intention of pursuing a Master of Divinity degree. At the end of the semester, she knew her days of seminary were over. The systematic, academic approach to the subject was not to her liking, as she had hoped for something that would result more in personal transformation rather than academic preparation for a vocation. She liked to joke that she made a mistake when she enrolled, thinking the class would be about “pie-eating.”

This is why people who have survived the pressures of seminary work so hard to offer personal transformation through bible study and preaching. We understand that people come to church and bible study classes because they are hungry for a spiritual change … and apparently pie. (Have you ever been to a church potluck supper? I rest my case.)

Jesus didn’t have much to say about pie eating, but he taught a lot about piety.

Our Scripture from the book of Matthew today deals with piety head-on. But first, let’s set a base line definition of the word. According to Dictionary.com, piety refers to reverence for God or devout fulfillment of religious obligations: devotion to God.

Now let’s see what Jesus had to say:

Matthew 6 (Common English Bible)

 “Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

Rule One: don’t draw attention to your piety.

“Whenever you give to the poor, don’t blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may get praise from people. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that you may give to the poor in secret. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.

Rule Two: don’t draw attention to your piety.

Showy prayer

“When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.

Rule Three: don’t draw attention to your piety.

Proper prayer

“When you pray, don’t pour out a flood of empty words, as the Gentiles do. They think that by saying many words they’ll be heard. Don’t be like them, because your Father knows what you need before you ask.

Rule Four: pray like you mean it, using as few words as possible.

Jesus addressed the Pharisees in this passage, who loved to make a big show of their religious practices. But in some ways, he is addressing us as well. If you are driving around in a Lexus with an ichthus sticker on your bumper while cutting people off and flipping them the bird, you might need to re-think your piety. If you are making a show of attending church in your loveliest finery on Sunday and then refusing to help the poor in your community on Monday, you might need to re-think your piety. If you harbor a grudge against a relative, talk down to your spouse, cheat on your taxes, or neglect to give in proportion to your income, you might need to re-think your piety.

Piety is a 24/7 thing for Jesus. May it be the same for us as well.

Reverence by Emily Dixon

A Life of Freedom

I have a strange way of memorizing things. When I took my first Bible introductory survey course in seminary, I developed little tricks for remembering the themes of all 66 books. For Hebrews, I created the phrase “HE (is) B(ett)ER (than the)RESt, which roughly spells out HEBREWS, if you misspell it. Hebrews describes the superiority of Christ over angels, Old Testament prophets, kings, etc. So, he is better than the rest!

For Galatians, I tapped into my love of science fiction. One of my favorites is Battlestar Galactica. What was their mission? To free humanity from the evil robot Cylons. Thus, Galatians is about freedom.

Laugh if you will, but I got an A!

Let us see what Galatians has to say about freedom as we celebrate freedom today:

Galatians 5:16-18 (The Message)

My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. These two ways of life are antithetical, so that you cannot live at times one way and at times another way according to how you feel on any given day. Why don’t you choose to be led by the Spirit and so escape the erratic compulsions of a law-dominated existence?

19-21 It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.

This isn’t the first time I have warned you, you know. If you use your freedom this way, you will not inherit God’s kingdom.

The writer of Hebrews contrasts freedom with self-interest. “There is a root of self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit.” That is pure genius. Think of all the places in life where people imprison themselves. These situations can be the result of some selfish, self-absorbed, self-interested behavior. Addictions are triggered when we indulge in a dangerous behavior. Adultery starts with the need for the adrenaline rush of someone’s flattering interest. Family disputes happen when one family member feels entitled to what the all the rest should receive. Arguments ensue when we think our opinion is more valuable, right, or superior to someone else’s opinion. Betrayals happen when self-absorbed desires assert themselves over the common good. Basically, nothing good comes from selfishness.

In contrast, Christ offers a life of freedom. He came to set us free from sin, from death, and mostly from ourselves. We are encouraged to pursue a life lived fully in the Spirit, which offers affection for others, exuberance for life, and SERENITY.

22-23 But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

23-24 Legalism is helpless in bringing this about; it only gets in the way. Among those who belong to Christ, everything connected with getting our own way and mindlessly responding to what everyone else calls necessities is killed off for good—crucified.

25-26 Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives. That means we will not compare ourselves with each other as if one of us were better and another worse. We have far more interesting things to do with our lives. Each of us is an original.

So, before the parade-watching, flag-waving, fireworks extravaganza begins, ask yourself this: where do I lack freedom in my life? I bet that if you trace that back, there will be selfishness at the root … either yours, or somebody else’s.

The cross and the flag are both symbols of our freedom. As we lift one high today, let us lift the other higher.

Happy Fourth by Michelle Robertson

Peer Pressure

I have a beautiful friend who does jail ministry. She visits women who have been incarcerated for many different reasons. My friend listens patiently and without judgment as the women pour out their hearts to her. These relationships last for years, as she serves as an email “pen pal” while they go in and out of the system and hopefully home.

Regardless of the charges against these prisoners, they all seem to have one thing in common: at some point in their lives they succumbed to peer pressure that led them to make poor decisions. Some were influenced by bad boyfriends and became trapped in a criminal lifestyle. Some got involved in a drug culture that led them to get caught buying and selling illegal substances. Some succumbed to the violence advocated by their gang buddies. Some were desperate to feed their children and stole things. Feeling helpless and without options, none of them stood alone and refused to participate in activities that others around them were doing. And then they got caught.

Today’s passage from Jeremiah highlights the importance of standing alone and not letting the crowd influence you. This is a hard path to take, but the end result is righteousness:

Jeremiah 15 (Common English Bible)

You understand, Lord!
    Remember me and act on my behalf.
Bring judgment on those who torment me.
    In your mercy, spare my life.
    Consider how I’m insulted on your account.
16 When your words turned up, I feasted on them;
    and they became my joy, the delight of my heart,
        because I belong to you,
        Lord God of heavenly forces.
17 I didn’t join the festive occasions;
    I took no delight in them.
    I sat alone
        because your hand was upon me
        and you had filled me with curses.

“I sat alone.” There may have been times in your life where your faith made you the object of ridicule. This happened to me in middle school when my new conversion and decision to wear a cross to school resulted in being mocked and called “holy.” It was meant as a put-down, but I later learned that the definition of the word “holy” is “set apart.”

I’ll take it.

18 Why am I always in pain?
    Why is my wound incurable,
        so far beyond healing?
You have become for me as unreliable
    as a spring gone dry!

19 Therefore, the Lord proclaims:
If you return to me, I will take you back
    and let you stand before me.
If you utter what is worthwhile,
        not what is worthless,
    you will be my spokesman.
They will turn to you,
    not you to them!

Proclaiming our faith can eventually result in others turning to us when they encounter hardships. When I got to high school, I met a few new friends who were curious about my faith, noticing that something about me was different. That opened up doors for me to share my story.

20 I will make you a sturdy bronze wall
    against these people.
They will attack you,
        but they won’t triumph,
    because I am with you
        to protect and rescue you,
            declares the Lord.
21 I will rescue you from the hand of the wicked;
    I will redeem you from the grasp of the violent.

You might be struggling with co-workers, family, or friends who mock your faith. Never mind. God is here to protect and rescue you and assures you that when you are attacked for his sake, your attackers won’t triumph. You are a sturdy bronze wall!

Stand tall.

Standing Tall by Wende Pritchard (Wright Brothers Memorial)

Spring Rains

Do you believe God causes injury to those who love him? This is an excruciatingly hard question for believers. If you shouted “no,” please indulge me by continuing to read.

What if I said, “Do you believe God will do anything to stop us when we are going the wrong direction?” I bet you would say “yes” to that. Or how about, “Do you believe hurt can result when God redirects our path for our own good?” Phrased in this manner, perhaps the subject might seem a little more palatable.

I’m sure we all understand that God will do extreme things to stop us from sinning and spending eternity away from his presence. In fact, he sent his only Son for that very reason. The cross is evidence of God’s desire to put us on a righteous path no matter the cost, pain, harm, or suffering.

In our passage today, the nation of Israel had strayed far away from God. They had separated into two nations and had fallen into great apostasy, idolatry, and rejection of the Law. Hosea came along as a prophet in this fractured time, and God described what is happening in Israel as “adultery.” And so, God acts to discipline and correct the nations that he loves. His correction is painful, as it sometimes is with us. But see what Hosea says to the people:

Hosea 6:1-6

“Come, let’s return to the Lord;
        for it is he who has injured us and will heal us;
        he has struck us down, but he will bind us up.

The One who has hurt you will heal you. Every parent who has had to correct or discipline a child understands this dichotomy. What happens for our own good can sometimes hurt a great deal.

I experienced this many years ago when a new pastor arrived at the large church I was serving and proposed a new staffing structure that eliminated all of the Associate Pastor positions. In a few months I was gone from the church and the people I had loved for 16 years. As I lay wounded, a lovely friend came and gave me the most startling news: God was the agent of my pain. It wasn’t the new pastor, or the restaffing plan, or the committee, or the church. God had done this for reasons beyond my understanding, but I was to trust in him.

Gotta be honest here; it took a while … about two years.

But I landed on this beautiful island and a year later, a position suddenly opened up for me in a wonderful church. Twelve years later I can say with assurance that God absolutely allowed me to have great pain in order to get me to a place where I needed to be. God indeed caused this to happen for my own good. I am thankful for his intervention in my life every day.

As you read this next part, notice the beautiful foreshadowing of the resurrection:

After two days he will revive us;
        on the third day he will raise us up,
            so that we may live before him.

And that’s the good news. If God has you in a hurt locker right now, he also has plans to bring you out of it.

Let’s know, let’s press on to know the Lord;
        whose appearing is as certain as the dawn;
        who will come to us like the showers,
        like the spring rains that give drink to the earth.”

Like the spring rains that give drink to the earth, God will quench your thirst and restore you to joy if you return to him.

Hosea leaves us with the same warning he delivered to Israel. God desires faithful love. He is not interested in your faux acts of piety, your token offerings, or your shallow appearances at church for the sake of being seen there. No, indeed. We are called to give him our all with a love that is as steadfast as his love is for us.

    Ephraim, what will I do with you?
            Judah, what will I do with you?
    Your love is like a morning cloud,
            like the dew that vanishes quickly.
    Therefore, I have attacked them by the prophets,
            I have killed them by the words of my mouth,
                and my judgment goes forth like a light.
    I desire faithful love and not sacrifice,
            the knowledge of God instead of entirely burned offerings.

Can God cause you pain? Only when you really need it. So come back to him with the offering of yourself and he will heal you.

Summer Beauty by Becca Ziegler

Have Mercy

One of my favorite children’s songs is “I Just Wanna Be a Sheep.” This, of course, was before sheep were politicized.

The lyrics go like this:

Chorus
I just wanna be a sheep
Baa, baa, baa, baa
I just wanna be a sheep
Baa, baa, baa, baa
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
I just wanna be a sheep
Baa, baa, baa, baa

The premise is that we are the sheep in God’s pasture, following the Great Shepherd Jesus. Sounds like a great life to me. But the brilliant part of the song is that it teaches kids about the nature of the Pharisees and the Sadducees in a memorable way.

Verse 3
Don’t wanna be a Pharisee
Don’t wanna be a Pharisee
‘Cause they’re not fair you see
Don’t wanna be a Pharisee

Verse 4
Don’t wanna be a Sadducee
Don’t wanna be a Sadducee
‘Cause they’re so sad you see
Don’t wanna be a Sadducee

The Pharisees weren’t fair because they were unkind and judgmental toward others. They condemned anyone who was not like them, and they hoarded their resources for themselves. They weren’t fair, you see. Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection, so they were so sad, you see.

Isn’t that clever?

Our Scripture today addresses the unfair Pharisees. Jesus really had a time with them, didn’t he? They criticized the starving disciples for picking and eating wheat on the Sabbath. See what Jesus does with that:

Matthew 12 (Common English Bible)

1 At that time Jesus went through the wheat fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, so they were picking heads of wheat and eating them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are breaking the Sabbath law.”

But he said to them, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and those with him were hungry? He went into God’s house and broke the law by eating the bread of the presence, which only the priests were allowed to eat. Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple treat the Sabbath as any other day and are still innocent? But I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what this means, I want mercy and not sacrifice, you wouldn’t have condemned the innocent.

The piety of the Pharisees led them to condemn the innocent actions of others. They were so concerned with the outward appearances of themselves and others, they neglected the human need right before them. Ritual practices do not equate to the heartfelt worship of God. We are reminded that God looks upon the heart, not the appearance. So, all of the pious activities of these men meant nothing if mercy was not extended to God’s people in need.

This causes us to step back and consider our own piety. Do you make a show of attending church for the sake of being seen there? Do you read your Scriptures religiously and then go out and judge or condemn others? Are you practicing mercy toward God’s people in need in your community?

God wants sheep who will follow his Son seven days a week, not just Sundays. Where is he calling you to offer someone mercy?

Mercy Me! by Becca Ziegler