Archive for the ‘devotional’ Category

Stop, Listen, Remember

I love the site Pray As You Go.  Off and on for ten years I’ve enjoyed their presentations of Scripture, reflection, and world music.

A recent episode asked listeners to meditate on Romans 4.3:
For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’  I thought about how simple that sounds.

After all, Abraham’s spiritual practice was pretty simple.  Most of his practice (described in the book of Genesis) consisted of two things:  listening to God, and building altars at places where he heard God’s voice.

Paul doesn’t mention it here, but Hagar also takes on a straightforward spiritual practice.  (She was a woman held in slavery in Abraham’s household.)  In her sadness and subjugation, God speaks to her.  In response, Hagar is the first person in Scripture to give God a name.  She calls God El-Roi (God who listened to me), and the place of the encounter is known thereafter as a place where God was present. (Genesis 16)

Neither Hagar, nor Abraham, nor anyone else in the household, worshiped in an organized or institutional fashion.  They had no temple with priests, choirs, and attendants.  They had no written set of instructions.  All they had were their direct, unmediated interactions with the God of the universe.

I am also amazed at Hagar’s and Abraham’s courage.  Who could listen directly to God and have the courage not only to stick around, but to speak?

I’m not sure about my level of courage right now, but I am learning from Hagar and Abraham.  Stop.  Listen.  Remember.  Repeat.  Amen.

Bench at Lake Susan

Lake Susan at Montreat: a place where many people stop to listen and pray.

Skittles

In the supermarket checkout line, a small boy surveys the candy options.  He selects a bag of Skittles and places them on the conveyor belt.  The cashier checks with the boy’s dad, who nods his approval.  The boy runs off to look at the flashing lights of the supermarket lotto machine.

As checkout is happening, the boy briefly returns to make sure his candy is still at the register.  Then he’s off again, until the purchase is completed.  He digs through the bags to find his prize, and skips off in victory.

Dad reminds the boy to save the candy for later.  Walking backwards, the boy smirks at his dad and grabs the bag as if to tear it open.  At this point dad hustles son out of the store.  The conclusion to this drama happens elsewhere.

***

I giggled as I saw the boy check on his candy.  I might have raised my eyebrows a bit as I saw how he dared his dad to catch him opening it.  As a parent, I’ve certainly put in my time in these negotiations (I’d love to see seasoned diplomats try to work with a three-year-old.)

Movies and books are full of characters chasing a prize, much like this little boy.  However, in movies/books, we often find the one with the prize changing for the worse once it is won.  Observe the character Gollum in The Lord of the Rings:  having acquired his “precious” the ring, he finds himself worse off than if he’d never touched it in the first place.  It was amazing to see how the acquisition of candy quickly changed the little boy from a cute bouncy kid into an imp.  Dad did not find the boy’s antics amusing!

Jesus said, where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  (Matthew 6:21) Often we think of treasure in terms of money or things (candy, clothes, cars.)  What if our “treasure” is not the item itself, but rather the energizing feeling of possessing something?  And by extension, what if our heart simply yearns for the power of possession?

I don’t think it’s a bad thing to like cars or clothes or candy.  Personally, I enjoy seeing a well-kept vintage automobile cruising the highway.  I fell in love with some maple candies a colleague brought me from Canada.

However, the pride of possessing something can overwhelm the owner and turn personal relationships sour (think of the expensive and beloved car in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.)  The spark of love can, if not managed, become a raging fire of possessiveness and jealousy for one partner, and a slow burn of resentment for the other.  Sadly, the pride of possessing a treasure (car, relationship, anything really) can become a disease that hardens our heart.

It happens so quickly … we get our hands on something and the experience changes us for the worse.  Perhaps that’s why Jesus warned us to be careful of what we treasure, and  to watch what is happening to our hearts.

What is your most precious possession?  Does having it empower you to be a better person, or has the experience changed you for the worse?

Ministry in Summer

Sometimes I don’t know what to do with summer in the church.  One would think it would be easy living:  no Christmas or Easter preparations, committee meetings taking a summer break, and so on.  Just relaxing and waiting for September.  Yet if one is wise (and I’m unwise more often than I would like to admit), one will spend the summer days preparing for the next Christmas and Easter and the other busy seasons.

And then there’s the task of holding people’s interest (sorry to be so blunt about it) over Sunday after Sunday with no Christmas carols, no special decorations, no children’s choir … just plodding through sermons as sunshine beckons outside.  Maybe holding my own interest is an issue!

Perhaps there’s more to waiting than plodding, or doing nothing … perhaps waiting is a work in and of itself.  R.S. Thomas, a priest in the Church of England, wrote about the priest’s summer as a time of waiting.

Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God
To speak; the air a staircase
For silence; the sun’s light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great rôle. And the audiences
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.

Read the whole poem and some commentary at http://sites.nd.edu/oblation/2015/11/18/the-meaning-is-in-the-waiting/

Summer isn’t calm for everyone.  Our church owns a summer camp, and we are also close to a number of farms.  For the vine grower, the farmer, the orchardist, summer is a time of waiting, but also a time of bearing fruit.  At the camp, summer can be very fruitful in the spiritual/personal development of the campers as well as staff.  I wonder what fruit we, who are addicted to being busy, can bear during long summer days?

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Path in the Woods

For some reason I like pictures of paths and roads in the woods.  In high school my art teacher taught us that since Western languages read left to right, any image that seems to “flow” right to left will have an off, or negative, or even menacing feel.  She showed us a Russian artist’s depiction of a 17th century woman being arrested for her beliefs.  The villagers mourn for her as she is dragged away, moving right to left.

So, I often take this particular path through the woods on walks.  Because the path curves a wee bit to the right and then to the left, it always catches my eye.  It just looks like I’m getting ready to walk into some far-off place, not knowing if it’s a good or bad “flow.”

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Sometimes we go down a foreboding path because we have to.  As in the case with this path, it leads me on the rest of my walk, so I know it serves a good purpose.  Sometimes we have to go down a worrisome path, because we have become ill, or because we experience a significant loss.

When the path goes right to left, or when we can’t see the end of it, it’s important to know we’re not alone.  Several of the Psalms mention God’s leadership on the path:

Psalm 23.3:  He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

Psalm 119.105:  Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.

Psalm 139.3: You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.

May we be aware of, and thankful for, God’s presence on the path.

Lent: To Be

This morning, I saw that many of my Facebook friends have given up something for Lent:  soda, carbohydrates, sweets.  One of my online friends wondered what to give up (he hadn’t decided yet.)

I pray that each of these people will find their Lenten sacrifices to be a good work.  As for me, I’m not giving up a thing.  Remembering to avoid eating something is just one more item for my to-do list:  a list that’s impossible enough as it is.

It’s a woman thing.

To Do

Here’s what I mean:  in today’s America, being a woman means sacrificing all the time.  It means cutting important meetings short so you can get to your kid’s dance recital… and then scooting out of the dance recital so you can cook dinner.  It means worrying obsessively over the foods that enter your mouth.  It means a to-do list that looks something like this:

getgroceries-takecupcakestodaycare-getprescriptions-walkdog-buynewmakeup-putonmakeup-makepresentationformeeting-typenotesfrommeeting-callBobBillandSally-return20emailsbynoon-paybills-vaccum-dolaundry-packforbusinesstrip-mop-cleanuptoys-checkfacebook-getorganized.

Even if you have a great husband like mine who does tons of things around the house, there is always the feeling that you’re sacrificing something important, and that you need to do more.

Organizing helps to some extent, but it can become an obsession in itself.  I have good days (and lots of bad days) with organizing, and overall it holds very little spiritual meaning for me.

So my Lenten discipline is To Be.  To be a Type B, you could say.  Someone who is fully present in the moment, not someone who is ticking off “what’s next” while pretending to listen.

I will let Jesus be the Doer.  After all, he was best at it!  Even on my best days I can’t feed five thousand people from a few loaves and fishes.

I do want Jesus to teach me how to become a “Be-er” (not a beer!) instead of a Doer.  He was really good at being too.

The to-do list stretches on into eternity.  Yet the moments of being and presence are fleeting.

I AM, teach me how to be.  Amen.

Noah

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Today my devotional Bible gave me the story of Noah. It’s interesting reading about the flood when I’m in Montreat, with below-freezing temperatures. I felt sorry for this little plant outside our house.

A few things strike me about this reading.

First, note that no children boarded the ark. The humans & animals only had their mates. Children would have died in the flood (a horrible thought– why do we tell this story so often to kids?) Yet on the ark, there was only the potential of a future generation, only the possibility of new life. A “winter,” if you will.

Second, in Genesis 8:1, the text reads, “God remembered Noah”. I would hope so, after everything that God put Noah and all of creation through! Anyway, that one word — remember — emphasizes that everything we have comes from God’s hand.

Finally, I’m interested in the new rules God gives Noah in Genesis 9, and the blessings and curses Noah pronounces on his sons. Somewhere I read that God is always recreating, revising, making provisions for his troublesome children to have a rich and full life. I think we would do well to be open to God’s revisions. Creation is not perfect anymore, but it is good, because God makes it so.

Prayer for Christmas Eve

This evening I had the great honor of preaching for a wonderful church that supports our campus ministry program.  But the greater honor was being able to lead worship alongside two incredible women, one of whom is a Commissioned Lay Pastor, and one of whom is applying to seminary.  I couldn’t help but smile as we all three stood in the chancel!

As a devotion for tonight, I’ll share the Lord’s Supper prayer I wrote (minus the actual prayer over the elements, which was a standard prayer out of our Presbyterian worship book.)

This is the night for which we have waited.

Here in the long nights of early winter, we watch, dear God.  We listen, and long for your presence among us.

And here you are, living, breathing, radiant with newborn warmth.

This night was foretold by prophets, anticipated by your appointed rulers, and hoped for by your people.

This night brings a chorus of angels and a mesmerized band of lowly shepherds.

And this night brings peace.

Even as we celebrate, we know that your peace is not cheap, O God.

Your precious Son grew up among us, lived among us, healed our bodies and restored our souls … yet we still sent him to the cross.

Through his death and resurrection we are born into new life. 

 So this night, as we gaze upon the Lamb of God, nestled among the humble animals, make us new. 

Re-create us, so that we might live in the abundance of faith, hope, and love.

 Re-awaken us, so that we might sing of your Good News and live out a vision of your peace.

Refresh us, so that we might help you share the Bread of Heaven and the Water of Life with a hungry and thirsty world.

Merry Christmas!

Advent Week 4: Temples

Are you the one to build me a house to live in? (2 Samuel 7:5)

I was talking with a pastor a while back about his church building.  He is the pastor of a thriving church, but every year, the building becomes more and more of a burden.  It’s moldy, outdated, and just hard to maintain.  I won’t go into all the details, but the church’s options are very limited, and yet they love their dear old building.

Lots of churches are stuck in this position, or an even worse one.  My heart goes out to churches in places that have been de-populated in recent years (due to industry moving away, et cetera) and are wondering how to keep the lights on.

In many ways, a building is helpful for Christ’s ministry today.  Lots of folks preach on street corners, but it would be hard to pay attention and learn in that environment, even from the best preacher.

In other ways, our churches’ buildings have become temples.

This particular Old Testament reading from 2 Samuel appears this week, in part (I believe) to drive home the point that God’s temple is anywhere his people go.  He doesn’t need a building.  People get the idea in their head to construct a magnificent structure to honor God, but we don’t stop to ask first if God really wants us to do that.

And after we build these temples, they can actually get in the way.  What do we do with them then?

As we approach Christmas and get ready to celebrate the birth of One born far away from any temple or other “officially” holy place, it may be useful for us to reflect on temples.  Consider how you have built unneeded temples in other areas of life.  Not buildings necessarily, but foundations and patterns that become overbearing and burdensome.

For example, you may be stuck in the ever-growing temple of Christmas gifts (if you gave someone a room-size TV in 2010, can you top that in 2011?)  Perhaps you are like the character of the father in Little Miss Sunshine who has built a temple out of the idea that someday he’ll make it big, and forces his family to carve out space for themselves around this idea.  Or maybe you have constructed a temple to your own opinions, and you’re finding that the temple is empty.

God appoints a place for God’s people.  Does it really matter what that place looks like, or where it is?

Advent Week 3: Uneasy Journey

When I was a pastor in a rural area, some folks participated in a low-key mission project called “Dental Transportation,” for lack of a more exciting term. Every once in a while, volunteers would get a call notifying them that a family needed to visit the only dentist in the area who accepted Medicaid and provided pediatric services. His office was at least 30 minutes from our town, which meant that many of these families had been putting off the dental care for a long time. (Thank goodness it was only half an hour! I know many people have a much longer drive.)

I went along on one of these trips, to attempt to translate for a Spanish-speaking family. (Languages get rusty if you don’t practice!) On that trip I learned more than I ever wanted to know about childhood tooth decay.

Until today, that is.

This morning, my family was the family bringing in the baby with a mouth full of decaying teeth. We are still not sure how this happened — we have tried lots of things, and the only thing we have left to try is “brush more.”

But I’m not writing this to tell you a sob story. I’m writing because the episode has taught me about Christmas.

You see, I felt absolutely ashamed bringing my daughter in there. There is a stereotype of children with poor oral health: that their parents don’t take good care of them, that they can’t afford a toothbrush, et cetera. Many parents, myself included, also carry around a wishful-thinking stereotype of a well-educated suburban family with gleaming teeth. I thought I wasn’t a person who bought into to stereotypes. I’m above all that, I thought. Yet the stereotypes hit me with full force this morning, and I was ashamed. Afraid too.

After she got her fillings, and after we had received another reminder about brushing, we collected our precious doll and went home. As we left, I started thinking about Mary and Joseph.

What were they thinking as they traveled to Bethlehem? Did they wonder, “How did this happen to me?” Were they hoping that they wouldn’t run into anyone they knew? Did they give evasive answers to people as they asked around for lodging? (“Yes, she is my … uh … wife.”) Were they ashamed? Were they afraid?

I hope they felt full of confidence as they traveled that road. After all, how many couples do you meet that have received two visitations from angels, and who are about to be the caretakers of the Son of God? But it would be OK with me if I found out that the journey was emotionally trying for them. Nothing good is ever easy.

If Christmas means anything to us, it ought to mean that we sympathize with Mary and Joseph. They were tired, poor, outcast, and potentially in big trouble. And yet they brought forth a gift for all of us.

So, if we sympathize with Mary and Joseph, what is holding us back from having mercy on people in similar circumstances? Judgment? Fear of becoming like them? Shame?

If you can only give one gift this year, make it a gift to someone who is vulnerable and worried. A little comfort and joy go a long way on an uneasy journey.

a student surveying the journey ahead, New Mexico 2010

 

 

Advent 3: Ladies’ Night

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior… (Luke 1:46-47)

Well, it’s Saturday night, and it’s ladies’ night! Sort of. I’m sitting here letting the kitchen floor dry, and I realized that I haven’t written anything about the Magnificat (the song of Mary), which was the Gospel reading on Sunday. And I’m laughing at how much life changes … A Saturday night with a new mop is big excitement around here.

Sometimes I’m shocked that so much real estate in Scripture is given to Mary, a humble, otherwise unremarkable woman. We don’t know much about her, except that she was a young unwed mother, and that later on was devoted to her son.

The grumpy side of me asks, why would a woman living two thousand years ago, in circumstances like hers, sing such a song of praise? She was taking a huge risk with the out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and even bigger risks with pregnancy itself. Childbirth was scary in those days!

How did she gain such a sense of complete trust? I know many faithful people who would have trouble doing what Mary did.

I wonder if the main energy behind her faith came from the promise made to her as a woman. In those days a woman was nothing without a son. God gave her the gift of being legitimate and recognized. Those are gifts you can’t understand until you have been without them. Indeed, God looked upon her with favor.

May God grant his favor to all who are place-less, faceless, or nameless.