Web Devotions from Pastor Steve
Welcome! The devotions below are short pieces I'm writing each Monday through Friday. We'll keep up the last five days at a time, so if you miss a day, you will always be able to see the last several devotions and get caught up to re-enter the conversation. Over time, we will engage voices within Scripture and within the Christian community from the past and present--theologians, saints, mystics, and holy fools. See below for a description of the current series of devotions, or jump right in here for today's devotion. I invite you to read these just as one more conversation partner in your own reflection about faith, life, and the Reign of God who grasps us in Jesus. I would invite your own contributions to that conversation, too. I would invite your e-mails at email@example.com.
Seamless: Becoming Disciples with Our Whole Selves
Starting in February 2013, we are walking together on an adventure we are calling Seamless, that is focused on three basic ideas:
Jesus is in the business of making us whole, and wholly his.
Christians are disciples of Jesus, not merely spectators or club members.
Everything in the Christian life is about everything else.
So, to explore how Jesus makes us disciples with our fullest selves as seamless wholes, we are going to spend most of 2013 delving into seven basic Christian practices that have shaped the followers of Jesus for 2,000 years, and the Scriptural roots fo each of those practices: prayer, worship, witness, hospitality, forgiveness, simplicity, and sabbath. Come along with us for this journey, and see how it transforms you. You are invited to follow along here on this website, or if you would like to receive these devotions via email, to write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and ask to be added to the list.
The House of God Forever—Tuesday, June 18, 2013
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” (Psalm 23:6)
Tell me if this sounds familiar: you are ok with talking about God in church, but outside the walls and stained glass windows, away from other “church people,” you clam up.
A lot of us have this tic: we can talk about God when it is safe… and it is “safe,” we figure, only when we are in God’s house. Get out from underneath a steeple, or outside of the circle of other Christians at a Bible study, and we had better keep our mouths shut, we think.
But here’s the thing: you are never not in God’s house.
This is one of those obvious facts I should never have forgotten, but it took a reading of Dallas Willard’s classic The Divine Conspiracy to bring it back to my mind: the whole universe is under the reign and rule of God, and the whole universe is filled with the immediate presence of God, too. The universe is God’s house, not just the brick building with the pointy bell-tower where you go on Sundays.
That’s not even to say that the universe itself actually encompasses or could contain God, so much as it is to say that the whole universe is fair game for naming the name of God, not just the circles where people already believe, and not just the building where believers-in-God already gather. You never leave God’s house—it’s all God’s, and it’s all God’s “turf.”
Of course, good old Psalm 23 has been saying this to us all along, in its final words. “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” (or “all my days,” or literally in the Hebrew, “length of days,” or just a good old-fashioned, “always,”). The psalm is attributed to King David—what does David have in mind when he talks about dwelling in the house of the Lord forever? Well, not that he is going to lock himself in the Temple, that’s for sure. Not that he will stay inside a church building all of his life. David has come to realize that everywhere is the house of God, because God both owns and resides everywhere. You can’t not be in “the house of the Lord.” The question is whether you will recognize it, and the follow-up question is whether you will live in that house like a beloved member of the household, or whether we will act like strangers in it, like people in a waiting room awkwardly paging through magazines, or like thick-headed conquistadors thinking they are “discovering” a land that someone else already lives on. “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” (Gen. 28:16) says old Jacob, before naming the spot where he lay “Beth-el,” which means, “the house of God.” He was more right than he knew.
So, if we are going to be people who recognize that we are constantly, inescapably, unchangeably, already in “the house of the Lord,” then we are always in the right place to pray, to name the name of Jesus, and to talk and act like members of the household. If we are uncomfortable or afraid of speaking up as someone who believe in Jesus, then here is a reminder of something that we should never have forgotten: we are already in the house of Jesus. All the time. Every day. Always.
What were we afraid of saying before? What did we think we had to be “in God’s house” in order to say safely? Why were we sheepish about mentioning the One to whom we belong when we are out on the street or talking with a family member or listening to a friend? Why, in other words, did we used to think we have to be inside a church building or insulated by other Christians to talk about Christ?
Today, let’s start the day aware of our full address. As Thornton Wilder puts it in that famous passage of Our Town, where the letter is addressed, “Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God,” we are never not in the dwelling place of God.
We might as well say so. We might as well act like it.
Who knows—that might just grab the attention of someone else nearby you who didn’t realize where we already are. They might want to find out more about the God whose house they have been dwelling in.
Lord God, here we are in your universe, in this world you have made. Let us rejoice and recognize where we are, and give us the boldness to say so to the other tenants of your house whom you will send to cross our paths today.
Some Familiar Words—Monday, June 17, 2013
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)
Funny how some words can be tired out from overuse, and others can be known by heart or recited from memory without becoming cliché.
People tire of hackneyed expressions. Most people in the business world that I know would be happy if they never had to hear the phrase, “Think outside the box” again, for example. Or we might all lament the way an old, majestic word like “awesome” was watered-down by pop culture so that a word we used to use for things like the Grand Canyon or a snow-covered landscape under a clear blue sky is not used to describe pizza or someone’s tennis shoes. Words like “outsource,” “downsize,” “win-win situation,” “paradigm-shift,” or “game-changer,” have all become so tired that people’s eyes start to roll when they see or hear them. They are words and expressions that have been emptied of their meaning because they have been overused.
So… what can we say about verses like John 3:16-17? Are they so well-known that they have become cliché? Or are they so essential to putting the Christian Good News into words that they are worth learning by heart? The world around us clamors only for what is “new” and “novel,” but aren’t there some things that are so essential, so basic, that they are worth coming back to? After all, everybody inhales the “same old oxygen” every day, but nobody thinks that breathing is cliché or overrated.
Could we zero in on these familiar words from John’s gospel in the same way? Could we take them like oxygen? Could we hear them and for a moment bracket out all the ways these verses have been pushed to the brink of banality? Could we forget for a moment the rainbow-wig-clad sports fans just holding up the Bible reference “John 3:16” at games but who never actually gave us the words? Could we set aside the fact that many in our culture know the phrase “John 3:16” without knowing the words to which it refers? And instead, could we hear these verses again as a pretty good starting point for putting the Gospel into a few sentences?
Because really, for a lot of us, that’s the real hang-up. We know, at least intellectually, that we are supposed to share our faith and make disciples and spread the Word. But… we have trouble figuring out what we are supposed to say. Where do we begin? How do we make sure we don’t lose the forest in all those trees with names like Ephesians and Romans and Ecclesiastes and Lamentations?
Well, we start by learning, or better yet, internalizing, those words that have stood the test of time as expressions of the Gospel’s good news (and remember, the word “Gospel” just means “good news,” so if your understanding of the gospel leaves you feeling empty or disappointed or afraid rather than full, joyful, and free, you had better revisit just what the gospel is). We start with places like the well-known John 3:16-17 and just let them hit us in all their force.
It really is an amazing claim, isn’t it, that the Creator of the universe—a universe that is so mind-bogglingly big and complex and beautiful that we can only take in a small sliver of it with our best tools and technology—actually cares about the inhabitants of one small blue-green-brown planet around a middle-sized yellow sun? Isn’t it the kind of statement that should stop us in our tracks cold? The infinite, almighty, all-knowing Maker and Source of all things, loves us. And not just “us” good (self-proclaimed, right?), well-behaved religious people, but “the world”! As in the same “the world” that keeps rejecting God; as in the same “the world” that has already turned away from God! God loves “the world” and has sent Christ into that “the world,” not to condemn us all to hell, but in order to redeem, to restore, to rescue, to save.
That by itself is worth spending some time on, because sometimes we don’t even get that part of the verse right. Jesus doesn’t say, “For God so loved the already-existing list of dues-paying members-in-good-standing that he gave…” but rather that God loves the world in all its messiness, in all its rejection of God, in all its bitterly persistent habit of making other idols to worship. That is news that is worth telling someone! That is worth learning by heart!
The next time you find yourself in a conversation with someone who “doesn’t bother with religion” or who can’t get beyond pews and candles or southern-drawled TV preachers in expensive suits, maybe this is a place to start, even if the other person thinks they have heard this all before. You will be the one to tell them of a love so wide it embraces all of us, even when we were the enemies of God. You will be the one to tell them of a love so committed and deep that it didn’t just beam down a list of rules for good behavior, but came into our world in a human life. You will be the one to tell them of a love so long and enduring that it lasts even through the grip of death—not only Jesus’ death, but ours as well—and brings us to life without end.
You will be the one to tell them, if you are willing to start in the well-worn places like this one: God so loved (loved so widely, so deeply, so long) the whole world that God sent Jesus to save the whole creation, not to condemn it. Sounds like something both refreshingly new and good.
Lord Jesus, let us hear the old familiar words with all their time-tested vibrancy and power, and give us the words to say when we have the opportunity to tell others about you.
Meeting Jesus—Friday, June 14, 2013
“When [Jesus] was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized [Jesus]; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” (Luke 24:30-35)
You know, there really is a reason to invite someone else to worship with you sometime: you meet Jesus there.
Sometimes we get very confused, frankly, about why we would ever bring someone along with us for a Sunday morning service. We can get caught up in wanting to just have a bigger congregation because we want to see the lines and bar-graphs on charts going in the right direction. We can be tempted into wanting to turn the church into a club for my like-minded friends and me. We can do it out of a sense of earning “prizes” from God one day for all the people we brought to church or souls we have “won” (as if it were really us, and not Christ on the cross, who does the winning of anything or anybody).
Or, on the other hand, we can get very confused by a list of reasons why we wouldn’t invite someone else to worship. What if they don’t like our style of music? What if they don’t like the way the musicians play the hymns? What if they are put off by the standing up and sitting down (okay, Lutherans get that a lot more than maybe other traditions might)? What if the sermon is a dud—or the preacher in general? What if the person doesn’t “get anything,” like a helpful tidbit of life advice, or a warm fuzzy feeling, out of the service on the day that they come?
Like a lot of things, it seems like we could talk ourselves into or out of—or both back and forth—inviting someone to worship, and still not take into consideration the real question: Will we meet Jesus there?
The answer to that question is delightfully unrelated to matters of musical-style, length of sermons, number of times you stand up or sit down, or the attendance trends over the last six months. The answer to that question is entirely up to Jesus himself, and where he has promised to show himself.
For the earliest followers of Jesus—all the way back to that first Easter evening in the Jerusalem suburb of Emmaus—the place they kept meeting Jesus was at the table. The stranger takes the bread, blesses the bread, breaks the bread, and gives the bread… and what do you know, but the two others at the table realize that it is Jesus who has been there all along in their midst! Something like that has been happening among disciples of Jesus for 2,000 years now. In whatever form it takes, whether spoken or sung, with big, puffy bread or flat, crackery stuff, with a common cup or little cups or a morsel of bread dipped in the wine, the followers of Jesus have been meeting Jesus where he showed himself to those two heartbroken and hopeless disciples at the Emmaus dinner table. We find Jesus is among us when we come to the table.
That is true whether or not anybody “got” anything from the sermon on any given Sunday. That is true regardless of whether an organ or a guitar or a piano played the music. That is true whether the house is full or the pews are half-empty… or three-quarters… or more.
In fact, the one thing you can really count on, that is more dependable than any of those variables in preacher, accompanist, and attendance, is that Jesus will be there at the table, revealed to us “in the breaking of the bread.”
So, why invite someone to worship? How about for the one reason that can’t be commandeered or turned into our accomplishment—namely, that Jesus has promised to show himself at the table? How about with the promise that our hearts will burn within us, regardless of whatever else does or doesn’t go right on a Sunday? Meeting Jesus sure sounds like enough of a reason to me.
Lord Jesus, be present where you have promised, and give us the eyes to recognize your presence among us in the breaking of the bread.
The Courage to Stay—Thursday, June 13, 2013
“But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams”’.” (Acts 2:14-17)
He could have just laid low, you know. Or safer yet, he could have run.
Peter could have just walked away, or kept his head down, or—to use a tactic he had some experience with—just denied even knowing the other disciples and ducked into a doorway somewhere until the fuss was over.
After all, it had to be a little bit embarrassing, and more than a little bit risky, to speak up on behalf of his fellow apostles to an agitated crowd. Less than two months before, they had lynched Jesus in a similar scene. And public opinion about the whole scene on that Pentecost Day was dangerously mixed: some just stared in befuddlement saying, “What does this mean?” and some were as sure as anything that the disciples of Jesus were just drunk. Tough crowd to play to, eh?
So there are lots of reasons Peter could have just said, “I’m not going to speak up this time—I always get myself in hot water when I open my trap, so this time I’m going to learn my lesson and keep silent.” Peter could have just said to himself, “Look, there’s no reasoning with these people, so I had better save my breath, not stick my neck out, and just quietly go on my way.” But he doesn’t. The difference, of course, is that the Spirit is the one driving him, and his fellow disciples, out into the world to tell the news of Jesus with as many people as they can find. It is the Spirit who gives Peter courage—and, appropriately, that is exactly what Peter says back to the crowd: “This is the Spirit of God you are witnessing! The Spirit is being poured out everywhere today—and this is what it looks like!” Peter could have slipped back into his old ways of running and hiding when things got hairy, but the Spirit gave him the courage to stay and tell the news.
All right, so courage is key for us if we are going to share our faith with people, too. Some of the details are different between us in the twenty-first century and Peter in the first, but in a lot of ways, our lives and culture feel very much the same. It can be a little bit embarrassing, can’t it, to be the one to speak up about our faith. It can be more than a little risky to name the name of Jesus. So many people only have a picture of Christianity from the religious charlatans on television and radio, that we are afraid of getting lumped in with them… the ones who seem to slick and oily to be really in touch with the living God who gives good things away for free by grace. So many people are afraid of getting pegged as “the religious person” at their workplace, or of saying something that will put their job in jeopardy, or will alienate a friend or a coworker. We need courage.
More to the point, then, we need the Spirit.
Well, good news! The same Holy Spirit, the same living Breath of God that gave life to us in the beginning, is, in fact, within us. And that same Spirit does drive us outward with the courage to tell people about the God we have come to know in Jesus. Now, the bad news: we are darned good at talking ourselves out of what the Spirit leads us into. We fight against the courage-giving, faith-strengthening presence of the Spirit.
So let’s ask ourselves one more question: what might help lead us away from drowning out the Spirit’s voice at our year? What might help us hold onto the courage the Spirit is willing to give us?
How about love? You have surely seen in your own life that love gives us courage to do all kinds of things beyond our comfort zones. Love leads new parents to risk having their lives turned upside down for the sake of a child. Love leads children to take care of their parents when the roles from their youth are reversed and care-givers become care-receivers, and everyone trembles at the newness of the terrain. Love leads people to follow someone else across country. Love leads you or to show up for a friend across town in a crisis. Love is not the same thing as courage, but it certainly can be the engine that drives courage, the spark that kindles our bravery when we could have been chickens comfortably staying back and keeping our heads down. Love—the Love we have heard call us by name in the voice of Jesus—gives us the courage to take on all those risks, and to take them on joyfully.
You have to think it’s the same with Peter. Love is what leads him to stick around, when you know a part of him was screaming to run away. At one level, that’s Peter’s love for Jesus… but even more than that, it is Jesus’ love for Peter that gave him the courage to tell other people about that very love on Pentecost.
Today, where might the Love named Jesus give us the courage to speak up and tell someone about the God we have met in Christ? Who might you finally have the nerve to talk to about the difference Jesus has made in your life? What could you and I do not to stifle the courage-giving power of the Spirit on a Thursday morning in June? How will we let love ground us into bravery?
Love does that, you know. Love has a way of giving you the courage to stay, and to speak.
O living Christ, give us the Spirit’s courage and love so that we will not chicken out this day but can be bold enough to share your love and hope with someone else today.
The Courage of Vision—Wednesday, June 12, 2013
“Agrippa said to Paul, ‘You have permission to speak for yourself.’ Then Paul stretched out his hand and began to defend himself: ‘I consider myself fortunate that it is before you, King Agrippa, I am to make my defense today against all the accusations of the Jews, because you are especially familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews; therefore I beg of you to listen to me patiently…. To this day I have had help from God, and so I stand here, testifying to both small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would take place: that the Messiah must suffer, and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.” (Acts 26:1-3, 22-23)
It takes courage to tell stories about God’s work in your life. It takes courage even to put your finger on an event in your life and say, “Yes, here, this was God’s presence in my life.”
After all, we worry, what if we’re wrong about it? What if I say, “God did this in my life,” and then it turns out later that I was wrong about what God was doing in my life at the time? How do I really know that God was really behind it? How do I muster up the courage to say, “I recognize God in this episode from my life-story!”? Where do we get that kind of boldness?
You probably have heard the famous remark of Associate Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart about obscenity that he didn’t have a precise definition for what counted as “obscene” in a movie, “…but I know it when I see it.” Sometimes it feels like that with our ability to recognize God in our lives. We can’t quite put into words a single “litmus-test” for how to tell if God is behind the scenes in this or that moment of our lives… but we just know it when we see it. There are times when we can’t help but recognize divine fingerprints on our lives—even if it is only in retrospect and with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.
So, yes, it takes courage to tell someone else about where God has been working in your life, because it takes courage first even just to see God in your life and say so out loud. There are always those nagging voices around you or in the back of your mind that will say, “Nah… it’s just inkblots. You’re making up whatever you see of God’s hand in your life.”
It’s that courage I want us to see, and to seek after, in the stories of Paul’s defense in Acts. In the later chapters of this book, Paul gets trial after trial, and in those situations, he uses his time on the stand to tell the story of how God rescued him and turned him around to draw him to Christ. And that takes courage, not only because Paul knows his life hangs in the balance, but also because aside from his supernatural Damascus road experience with the flash of light and the voice from heaven, most of the time God’s hand in Paul’s life has been a lot less obvious. Paul is able to tell King Agrippa that God has been leading him, not only in the flash of light on the road, but all along and ever since. That takes courage.
“To this day I have had help from God,” Paul says. And even if Paul doesn’t then offer a formula for proving that it has been God and not just luck or fate or random chance, Paul dares to say it boldly. “I know it has been God who has guided me. I know it has been God who has led and supported and held me. I know it when I see it.”
Today, maybe the biggest challenge for us in sharing our faith is working up the nerve to learn to recognize God’s presence in our lives. Dare to do it. Stretch your faithful imagination to see where those divine fingerprints are. Dare to say it out loud to someone else—“There may not be a lot I am sure of in this life, but I have seen and known the presence of God here… and here… and here.”
Sometimes, after all, it’s only when you have to say it out loud to someone else that you realize just where you have been seeing God. Life is like that: sometimes you have to say the truth out loud for you to realize that it is the truth.
So today, let’s work up the nerve to tell someone else where you have seen God directing and holding you, blessing and preserving you, rescuing you and making you new.
Let’s find the courage to speak and the courage to see.
Lord God, train our eyes to see you, and give us the confidence to name where we have met you.
Seamless Continues: Witness and Welcome
“Evangelism is one beggar telling another where to find bread.” —D.T. Niles
During these summer months, we are not taking a nap or a vacation or a tired shrug on the Kingdom life. We are digging deeper into the life of faith together with Seamless, and in these two months we are looking at witness and hospitality as two essentials of what it means to follow Jesus. Here’s the scoop, and here’s how you can get on board:
June-”Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…” (Witness)
Being a witness is living your life in such a way that we reflect the light of the God we have met in Jesus. We do it by telling the News of Jesus, sharing our own faith-stories, and by showing people what God’s Kingdom is like in actions that make people scratch their heads in wonder, and in our day to day routines.
In June, I am making a special invitation/request of you. On Sunday mornings, there will be an insert in your bulletin with a blank back and a question about your faith-life. This is not a test. This is about stretching our muscles to be able to share our faith with other people. The questions will be simple and basic, things like, What is a favorite Bible story of yours and why? Or What was a time that you saw God show up in your life? Or Why are you a follower of Jesus? Or How do you know that you are loved forever by God? Take a minute, either on Sunday, or during the week later, and put down a sentence or a paragraph (if you are feeling up for it) and turn the page in, so that we can compile a set of people’s responses into a booklet of faith-stories as we all learn how to share our faith better and more freely with other people. What do you say… will you give it a try with me?
July-”Give us today our daily bread...” (Hospitality)
You want to know how to grow in love for someone? Share a meal with them, sitting across a table. Christians practice hospitality (literally “love of strangers”) because we know what it is to have been received as honored guests by Jesus, and because we have the sneaking suspicion that Christ might just show up at the door when we let others into our lives.
Our focus in July on hospitality will be put into practice as all from our two congregations are invited to share a meal up at New Life while it hosts guests through Family Promise. We will discover that when we sit at the same table with friends, with fellow Christians, and with new faces, the divisions that our society places between people melt and we find Christ in our midst at the table. I dare you to join us for that meal (July 28)… and then to look at how you can open your life to the needs of others around you, and maybe even your table, too. It’s all about sharing bread, right?
Come be a part of this ongoing adventure called Seamless this summer.
—Christ’s Peace, Pastor Steve