Sunday, October 31, 2010

Staying awake


Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 70

Read: Matthew 16:1-26:56

Verse that stood out:
"Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?" he asked Peter. "Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak" Matthew 26:40-41.

In my office hangs this painting from the Chinese artist He Qi. I like it for a number of reasons. One, it reminds me of my fecklessness. I realize that's a weird thing to want to be reminded of, but we're all so good at self deception. My job makes it easy for me to pretend like I'm focused on the things of the kingdom. When it comes down to it, though, most of my day is spent in a self-centered stupor. I struggle to live out the kingdom's mandates in the simplest of tasks. I have trouble staying awake - to the person next to me, to what God is doing in me, to what God might want from me. I'm asleep more often than I care to admit.

But He Qi's work also reminds me of Christ's faithfulness in the middle of my faithlessness. My inattentiveness stands in contrast to his attentiveness. My selfishness stands in contrast to his selflessness. I want to stay awake but can't, my flesh is so weak. He wants to give up the cup that is his, but won't, his love is so strong.

In the painting, Christ's eyes are focused upon the heavens. His thoughts centered not on his own will, but on the will of the Father. When I finally awake, my eyes find his, and are redirected, off of myself, and once more on the task at hand. I join his prayer, "Not my will, Lord, but thine, be done."

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Saturday Night Sermon

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 69

Read: Matthew 5:1-15:39

Verse that stood out:
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

OK, this isn't really blogging, but a full day of family fun means I'm out of time to blog. So here's a sermon from my pre-Southland days from Matthew 13. One of my favorites. I realize it's a little long for a blog post. So no hurt feelings on my part if you don't read it.


Believe it or not, one of my favorite shows on all of television is (and this is hard to admit) the Antique Road Show. For those of you who have never heard of this show, because you are obviously cooler than me, let me explain its basic premise. This show sets up shop in convention centers around the nation and invites people to bring their stuff. People show up in droves bringing with them grandma’s old desk or an old lamp they found in the attic. The premise is simple. Appraisers pick out some of the junk and tell us how it’s not really junk at all, but really priceless treasures. Basically, it’s reality TV, antique shop style. Now, in order to redeem my self-image a little, I would never set foot in an antique store, so why in the world would I enjoy this show? I’m rarely interested in the stuff people show up with, but there is this one part in the show that catches me every time. Inevitably, after the appraiser tells us about the piece, he asks the owner, “So, do you have any idea what its worth?” Sometimes they’re brave enough to tell what they paid for it, most of the time they simply shrug their shoulders and say “I have no idea.” It really doesn’t matter, because all of America is waiting to hear, not what the owner thinks about it, but what the appraiser has to say.

For instance, I was watching one time when this couple brought in a rather plain looking blanket. It was large, pretty worn, with broad navy and pink stripes. The appraiser was ecstatic. He was almost in tears as he explained that this was a Navajo chief’s robe. He described the way it was made, the materials that were used, and all sorts of other information that I don’t remember. What I remember is the question, “How much do you think this blanket is worth?” The old couple, well into their 70’s said they thought it was probably worth a couple of thousand dollars. The appraiser smiled as he told them that their blanket, which they used in the winter as an extra layer on their own bed, was worth between $350,000 to $500,000. Furthermore, it was of such quality and rarity that it was indeed a national treasure. At that point, it was the most valuable piece ever shown on the show.

Now, that is captivating television, whether is makes me a nerd or not. I love a good treasure hunt. The idea that an old couple could be sleeping under an old blanket that they don’t even really like but is worth half a million dollars – you just can’t beat that. From movies about pirates’ buried treasure to antique shopping, we love to discover things, especially things of value. Jesus touched on this desire when teaching the disciples privately one day saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

Treasure stories have been around along time, and Jesus had his disciples sitting on edge, “Don’t you see, it’s right in front of you – the treasure – the finest pearl – the kingdom is here for the taking.” It’s easy in our busy lives to miss this treasure. Can you remember the last time that God’s kingdom aroused in you the type of nervous anxiousness that comes with a great find? When I watch the Road Show, my pulse picks up as I wait to hear what this civil war commemorative vase might be worth, and yet our bumping into the kingdom all day long draws little or no excitement from our souls. In life’s hectic scurrying, we feel rushed to figure it all out, tired of all the meetings, and bored with the same old routine.

Maybe we aren’t seeing the treasure – it is after all a treasure hidden in a field. It’s an old blanket at the foot of the bed, always there, but rarely noticed. The gospels are full of references to the hiddeness of the kingdom. Jesus came declaring that the Kingdom of God is at hand, but then spent so much of his ministry explaining its hidden nature. The kingdom is to be found with those who mourn, those who are poor, those who are meek, those who are persecuted. The first end up last, and the last, first. The kingdom is hidden in prayers for enemies, cups of water for the thirsty, and visits to prisoners. Treasure is forever linked with poverty, life forever connected with death. Like I said, it’s a hidden kingdom.

Even in his ragtag group of followers, Jesus clearly is trying to explain how his kingdom is not where you would expect to find it. Tax collectors and prostitutes have found it easy to follow him as well as fishermen and not a few gentiles. However, those who would seem to be prime candidates for the kingdom don’t make the cut. Most of the religious leaders never even recognize the treasure in front of them. Those who catch glimpses, find it hard to sell all and take possession. A Pharisee once had an evening encounter with Jesus that must have been amazing, but couldn’t bring himself to go public with his find. A rich young man, full of outward signs of righteousness did seem to see in Jesus something of a treasure, but when it came time to sell all he had in order to gain that treasure, he went away sad. Jesus’ kingdom just didn’t fit their ideas of where treasure would be located. Maybe we lack excitement, or joy thereof, because we are looking for the kingdom in all the wrong places. We keep looking for the kingdom in programs and in projects, in big buildings and even bigger budgets, all the while, the kingdom is there, Jesus says, as we come to know him and make him known.

The apostle Paul, who himself had considered all things loss for the sake of knowing Jesus and making him known, put it this way, “I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness— the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Knowing Jesus and making him known, that is the treasure we are presented with.

Most of us who’ve been attempting to follow Jesus for a while know that – at least in our heads. Occasionally, as we’ve gone on a mission trip or reached out to a person in need sharing the good news of Jesus, we’ve run across the kingdom occasionally. But what do we do when we find it? Jesus leaves little room for diversity of response. Both the men in our story sell everything they own. These are short parables and hardly give us any details. Did they have to weigh their options, evaluate their gain, before making the decision? It doesn’t appear so. Apparently the treasure and the pearl were so captivating that the response to forsake all for the objects’ sake seemed to follow naturally. The parable of the treasure does hint at a motivation – the NIV says “that in his joy” while the NASB translates it “from joy over it”. Both are accurate and convey the idea that the joy is both inward and outward. It is not only for his own joy, but also for the sheer sake of the treasure, that he becomes possessed. It makes me think once again to the Navajo blanket. The appraiser, recognizing what he had, was beside himself – indeed he gushed, “Imagine the most important thing that exists in a field. This is it. It’s absolutely the Holy Grail of Navajo blankets.” His gushing on and on about this national treasure revealed that his joy was solely for the object – he would receive no financial gain from the blanket. The idea is the same in the parables – yes both men would benefit from their discoveries, but their joy was rooted not in self interest, but in true appreciation of what they had found.

So it is when we discover God’s hidden kingdom. In this world of dog eat dog, we can be overcome by the sheer absurdity, the magnificent beauty of this alternative kingdom where needs are met by the mere asking, where value is placed on the very fact that we bear the image of God regardless of how broken and bruised we now find ourselves. Our discovery ought to prompt us to shout in sheer joy – “We’ve found it.” This happens every time we truly see it. When we see grace offered instead of condemnation, hope instead of despair. We bump into the kingdom in times of true fellowship with other people, a rarity in today’s electronic communities. We think to ourselves, “This is the way it is supposed to be.” The good news that life is more than stuff stirs in us the same anxious feelings of any great find – Can this really be true? Is this the real thing? Is it for the taking? We are almost sure that if we turn our heads for a moment it will be gone – and so it may.

The man in the first story takes no chances and re-hides the treasure. It sounds crazy to us, but the image is a person who has already sold everything. He’s hanging on, he’s cashing in, he’s convinced. This treasure is not just an interesting walk in the field, it can be his, and he has decided to do everything possible to obtain it. The second man also has an immediacy of action. He too departs with all in order to obtain his prize. We look at these stories and shake our heads – surely Jesus is not telling us to sell all we have? We are the young ruler of Matthew 19 who also could not fathom the cost. Our man in the parable cannot fathom the deal – his focus is not on what he has just sold, but rather what he has just gained. I imagine he paid a fair price for the field, I imagine he got quite a deal on the treasure.

When’s the last time you were so enraptured by something that regardless the cost you had to obtain it? For me, I can really only think of one time. It happened ten years ago. I gave up my ability to buy things whenever I wanted, I gave up my right to plan my days activities solely around what I wanted to do, I gave up the ability to do all sorts of things. But ten years ago, I wasn’t thinking at all about what I was giving up, no I was thinking all about, incessantly about, what I was gaining – a beautiful wife, a partner in life. And it is still the same. My single friends have much more flexible lifestyles than I do, they tend to go where they want, when they want, and yet I don’t for a second wish I had what they had, what I have gained far outweighs what I have given up.

That is the crux of the parables – the kingdom is more valuable than anything we could ever give up to obtain it. A missionary who eventually gave his life for the kingdom once wrote, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot loose” (Jim Elliot). It is a crazy idea at first glance. The world’s values are so different than the kingdom’s. The world says that success is measured in the amount of cars you have in the driveway and the number of bedrooms you have under your roof. Worth is determined by how many zeroes are in front of the decimal point and value by how many people know your name. Yet God’s kingdom, this hidden kingdom, says that power comes through service and love, love comes simply from being a part of God’s family.

Who would really trade houses and cars and comfort for the uncertainty, discomfort, and danger of God’s kingdom? Only the person who recognizes that by giving up what the world offers she is gaining the keys to a kingdom that is immeasurably more real, more valuable, more lasting. We ask ourselves so often, “Can’t we give up only part? Do we really have to sell everything?” Our questions betray our lack of trust. It is as if you were reading your Wall Street Journal and you came across a nothing little stock that nevertheless caught your attention. You did a little research only to discover that this company was on the verge of a major breakthrough. You got so excited, not only at the prospect of making a profit, but at the very idea of being a part of history. You truly believed that this was the equivalent of getting in on Coca-cola or Microsoft form the very beginning. You went and against the advice of your stock broker, your family, everyone you sold all you had and bought all the shares that you could. Every one warned you about not having all your eggs in one basket, they told you to diversify your portfolio. “Just sell some of your stuff – Maybe give up only part.” But you would have none of it. Why invest in anything else, this was it – To borrow from our appraiser – this is the Holy Grail of stocks. You only appear the fool until it pays off – then your face is the face on Forbes while everyone else wishes they were you.

So too the kingdom of heaven – To truly grab hold of the kingdom for all its worth, really for what it is worthy of – there can be no other investments. There is no diversifying among kingdoms, no hedging of our bets – it’s one or the other. Will you appear foolish? Of course, but only for a while. We’ve all been there I think – in the field, eyeing the treasure. Our heart races as we anticipate all that it means. Could I really sell all? What if I’m wrong? Then we look again. Is it an old blanket or a national treasure? An unknown stock or the beginning of history? A foolish investment or a path to glory? Maybe you’ve heard the call to the kingdom and are afraid to answer. Could I really travel around the world for the sake of his gospel? Could I really sell all and live a life in stark contrast to my culture? Could I really live in a way that my major investments are in cups of water and prayers for peace instead of stocks and bonds?

The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure, a blanket, a stock, a call – and for the sheer joy of it, they went and sold all they had and bought it – That my friends, doesn’t just make for captivating television, that makes for a captivating life.

Friday, October 29, 2010

I thought we just finished the OT

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 68

Read Zechariah 11:1-14:21; Malachi; Matthew 1:1-4:25

Verse that stood out:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them - Matthew 5:17

Around my church, excitement has been really building for this day, the day our reading moves from the Old Testament into the New Testament. Relief. Joy. A sense of homecoming. All of these and more are probably being experienced today. It's not that most of my church members disliked the OT. They liked it, or at least, respected it. But without a doubt, much of the OT appears bizarre to modern men and women. There are large sections of the prophets or the history books that are so foreign to modern life that they can be difficult to read through, much less find a significant word from the Lord in them. This is mostly our own fault, being so out of practice when it comes to reading these parts of the Bible. Our devotional life tends to focus on only a few of our favorite passages in either Testament.

A fair warning, though. The OT isn't going anywhere even though we're turning our attention to the New. We've just read four chapters of Matthew and already references have been made to Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hosea. The New Testament doesn't replace the Old, but builds upon it. One cannot fully understand the story of Jesus and the church without understanding the story of Israel. Jesus said as plainly as he could, "I've not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them." The hopes of Israel, the desires of the prophets, the demands of the Law, they are met in Jesus Christ.

His words, when we pay attention to them, sound much more like the prophets than they do of the self-help preaching that so dominates modern, western Christianity. In Jesus' teaching we find no "Three steps to a better life" kind of message. His main sermon? Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Tomorrow is a New Day

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 67

Read: Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah 1:1-10:12

Verse that stood out:
“This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of another” Zechariah 7:8.

Sixty-seven days. That’s how long we’ve been reading through the Old Testament. Tomorrow, we’ll begin the New. For those of you who are behind, or who never started on this journey, tomorrow may be a great day to begin anew with the stories of Jesus. “Read the Bible through in 90 Days” is about to become “Read the New Testament through in 21 Days.” I realize the math doesn’t add up. The reading plan is actually only eighty-eight days. I guess that didn’t sound as catchy to the editors of the program. Whatever the number, would you consider picking up your copy of the Scripture for the next three weeks and reading the New Testament? It could change your life.

Before we get there, let’s not rush through the final pages of the Old Testament. For all the strangeness in some of the Old Testament books, I’ve noticed that there is plenty of consistency between the messages of the two testaments. What does God want from us? He wants us to worship him alone and he wants us to love others as he loves us. Jesus says the law can be boiled down to these two commands: Love God, Love Others. The first should lead to the second. Just listen to the words of Zechariah given to a people who have proclaimed their love of God, “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of another” (7:8). If you love God, love others. Sounds like it could have come from one of the gospels or from the book of James, doesn’t it?

Such words challenge me to ponder not simply my participation in worship each Sunday, but also my participation in the world each week. It’s not enough to just worship God on Sunday and attempt to avoid evil the rest of the week. I do need to worship God on Sunday, but that worship must be followed up with doing good throughout the rest of the week. I must administer justice and show compassion just as much as I must avoid thinking evil thoughts and oppressing others. Too often I settle for less. I settle for neutrality. I don’t do evil. But then again, I don’t do much good either. But if God is alive in me, my life should be a proactive force for his ways in this world. Jesus will say as much in a few pages, “You are the light of the world. . . . so let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Why we need judgment

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 66

Read: Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum

Verse that stood out:
The LORD is slow to anger and great in power; the LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished - Nahum 1:3

I'm an underliner when it comes to reading through my Bible. That is, I like to mark the verses that stand out to me. If you were to glance through the pages of the prophets in my Bible, you would see plenty underlined. Usually those few verses of promise or hope that sparkle against the dark background of God's judgment found in the rest of the book.

If I'm not careful, I can begin to think of the Bible only in terms of the underlined verses forgetting that the rest of the words in the book have meaning, as well. This is especially true concerning the words of judgment. We may not like such words, but we need judgment. We need to be judged. It is the only way to know the right. It is the only way to be set right.

The late Richard John Neuhaus illustrated this truth in his book Death on a Friday Afternoon:

"Recall when you were a little child and somebody - maybe you - did something very bad. Maybe a lie was told, some money was stolen or the cookie jar lay shattered on the kitchen floor. The bad thing has been found out, and now something must happen, something must be done about it. The fear of punishment is terrible, but not as terrible as the thought that nothing will happen, that bad things don't matter. if bad things don't matter, then good things don't matter, and then nothing matters and the meaning of everything lies shattered like the cookie jar on the kitchen floor."

Judgment reminds us that what we do matters. Judgment reminds us that we matter. Most important of all, judgment paves the way for forgiveness. Before we can ever bask in Christ's words, "Father, forgive them" we must be aware that we need forgiving. We must be judged.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The (not so) Minor Prophets

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 65

Read: Hosea 13:7-Amos 9:10

Verse that stood out:
But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! Amos 5:24

OK. This is probably cheating on the blog something everyday effort, but I'm posting something I've done before: a guide to the Minor Prophets. Today's reading was in Amos. I could easily have posted something from there, Amos is a powerful book. But Sunday's sermon is from this book and sometimes you have to save the good stuff for later.

Hope this short guide helps as you read through these ancient/modern books. You can click on the image to make it larger.



Monday, October 25, 2010

Mixing your metaphors

Through the Bible in 90 days: Day 64

Read: Daniel 9:1-Hosea 13:6

Verse that stood out:
When God raoars, his children will come trembling from the west. They will come trembling like birds from Egypt, like doves from Assyria. "I will settle them in their homes," declares the Lord.

Hosea is a tough book to sort out. The chronology of the book is all messed up. The names of people and countries change about as frequently as the names of streets in San Angelo. The premise is absurd. God commands Hosea, the prophet, to marry a prostitute so he can show the world what it's like to love an unfaithful spouse. This is to serve as a living metaphor of God's love for his people. Add to that, the fact that Hosea loves to mix up his metaphors, and you get a book that's full of imagery and confusion. God gets compared to a hiker, a doctor, a moth, a lion, even dry rot. Israel makes an appearance as a stubborn heifer, as a vein old man, as a half-baked cake, and a foolish, little dove.

For all the confusion, there is one truth that stands out. God loves his people, passionately. Their actions affect God. They cause God to grieve, to become angry, to fret. Like a parent getting ready to discipline a child, God knows Israel needs to be punished for her own good, but he has trouble bringing himself to carry that punishment out (see 11:8-9). He remains faithful to his people even as they are faithless. When their deeds lead to their destruction, he holds out hope for a resurrection and a future season of restoration (see 1:10).

Just like the pleas of a concerned parent or a spurned lover, Hosea doesn't always make complete sense, but it gets its basic message across loud and clear, "I love you; I forgive you; I want you to come home."

Sunday, October 24, 2010

When faith gets you into trouble

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 63

Read: Ezekiel 47:13-Daniel 8:27

Verse that stood out:
then Nebuchadnezzar was furious with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and his attitude toward them changed. He ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual - Daniel 3:19

One of my favorite verse in the Bible is Romans 12:18, "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." I like it when people get along. I like to build consensus more than I like to win a debate. I think Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity sounds like an excellent idea as I find most political squabbling in our country beyond the pale. All of this is to say, I often need to be reminded that faith doesn't always bring peace with others, sometimes it brings division. It doesn't always appease, sometimes it angers. It doesn't always keep you out of trouble, sometimes faith is the very thing that gets into it. Yes, seek peace always, but don't be surprised if your good will is met with something different in return.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Only God knows

Through the Bible in 90 days: Day 62

Read: Ezekiel 36:1-47:12

Verse that stood out:
He asked me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" I said, "O Sovereign LORD, you alone know" Ezekiel 37:3


Every life has them – apparent dead ends. Days when doors shut and no proverbial window opens. When we find ourselves in an apparent dead end and someone asks us what comes next and we scratch our heads and wonder, “Who knows?” If they’re spiritual, they’ll baptize their answer a little “Only God knows.” Ever been there? At that place, where the next step isn’t only difficult to take imagine, it’s impossible to even imagine. After the doctor tells you that there’s nothing more he can do, where do you go from there? Only God knows. After the job falls through and the bank accounts bottom out and the creditors are lining up, what do you do next? Only God knows. After the funeral service is over and the guests have all gone home, what does tomorrow hold? Only God knows. After famines hit and children starve, and mothers ask, “where shall we get our next meal?” Only God knows. After peace talks fall apart and the bombs reign down again, where do we turn for peace and protection? Only God knows. After thousands are murdered at a dictator’s whim, where do we find away forward? Only God knows.

Only God knows can be statement of faith, if we are saying it in the sense that we really do believe that God knows. But it can also be simply a polite way of saying, I don’t know and I’m not sure anyone does, including God. It’s difficult to know which way Ezekiel meant it on that day the Lord took him by the hand in the middle of a valley of dry bones. The Bible doesn’t allow us to know the tone of his voice. As we know, there’s as much in how you say something as in what you say.

“Can these bones live?” God asked.

“O Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Faith or frustration? Depends on Ezekiel's tone of voice, which the Bible does not supply. Either way, the good news is that Ezekiel's answer is not what's most important. God really does know. He knows even death, itself, is no match for the very breath of God.

Are you facing a dead end today? Can the dry bones of your life get up and live again? You may not think so, but God knows - with his help, they can.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Getting a good look

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 61

Read: Ezekiel 23:40-35:15

Verse that stood out:
My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to listen to your words, but they do not put them into practice. With their mouths they express devotion, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice - Ezekiel 33:31-32

It's difficult to believe that people would actually come and listen to the prophet Ezekiel just for fun. It's not like he's the most seeker-sensitive of prophets. I could see people coming to see him in the way people go to see the freak shows at the fair, but I'd hardly describe him as one who "sings love songs with a beautiful voice." Maybe people liked the sermons in which he declared God's judgment on Israel's enemies. That kind of talk always gets plenty of amens.

Or maybe, they liked the twinge of guilt they felt when he blasted Israel's sins. Paul told us that there is a sorrow that leads to repentance which seems to indicate there is also a sorrow that doesn't. Some sorrows only lead to feeling spiritual without compelling us to actually live spiritually. Such a sorrow lets off just enough guilty steam that we can keep on living in sin without being too bothered by our actions.

Or maybe it was just the nostalgia of it all. A prophet, especially an eccentric guy like Ezekiel, reminded them of home. Of course, back home they never actually did what the prophet said so why should life in exile be any different?

Whatever the reason, the result was the same, they came, they listened, they even delighted in God's word, but they did not obey. The book of James says of such folks, they're like people who walked up to a mirror, got a good look at themselves, and then as soon as they turned around forgot what they looked like. Perhaps they assumed the prophet's words were like the mirrors in the house of glass - mirrors that exaggerate and stretch our appearances and need not be taken seriously. God says, it's their self-image that's distorted.

If we're not careful, we do the same thing as the ancient Israelites. For sixty-one days we've been listening to God's word, now. Have you enjoyed it? Many have told me that they have. A better question, perhaps, have you obeyed? Have you changed? Have you put God's word into practice in your life today?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Large and Startling Images

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 60

Read: Ezekiel 12:21-23:39

Verse that stood out:
Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live! - Ezekiel 18:31

The Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor once wrote of the challenges a novelist faces when writing to what she called a hostile audience: “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling figures." What’s true for the novelist is perhaps doubly true for the prophet.

Startling barely begins to describe the vision experienced by the Prophet Ezekiel. He wrote to a people who, puffed up by the messages of false prophets, assumed that everything in their lives was copacetic. They believed that any dangers they faced from foreign powers would be short lived and that life would return to normal quickly. Ezekiel paints them a picture in the most shocking of colors. Far from being faithful, God’s people have been faithless. They’re like a prostitute. No, worse than a prostitute. Instead of getting paid for their unfaithfulness, they’ve paid others for these illicit pleasures. The prophet warns that their unfaithfulness will result only in their shame. In the end, the very ones to whom they’ve run will consume them. These “lovers” will strip them naked, take all their belongings, and leave them for dead.

So graphic are the prophet’s words (some of them border on an NC-17 rating), we often miss the purpose behind the prophet’s speeches. Ezekiel is attempting to get the people’s attention. He’s attempting to make them aware of true danger in their lives. He’s attempting to turn them towards righteousness. Buried deep in his shouting is this plea from the Almighty, “’But if a wicked man turns away from all the sins he has committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die. None of the offenses he has committed will be remembered against him. Because of the righteous things he has done, he will live. Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?’ declares the Sovereign LORD” (18:21-22). The answer, given later in verse thirty-one, is "No, God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked." That’s ultimately what all the strange and startling pictures in the book of Ezekiel are about. A warning, a wake-up call, a wish for God’s people to awaken to their true condition, repent from their sins, and return to their God.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A heart can be broken, but it keeps beating just the same

Through the Bible in 90 days: Day 59

Read: Lamentations 2:1-Ezekiel 12:20

Verse that stood out:
Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness - Lamentations 3:22-23.

That the book of Lamentations even makes it into the Bible seems to give credibility to the fact that in God’s loving-kindness, God gives us room to grieve. Just a surface reading of the book lets us know that for God’s children, it’s ok to cry. Mourning the fall of Jerusalem and the death of many loved ones, the poet writes on tear soaked pages, “My eyes overflow with tears” (1:16) . . . “Bitterly [I] weep at night; tears are upon [my] cheeks” (1:2) . . . “My groans are many and my heart is faint.” Grief and pain pour off his pen. The aching is tangible. At one point he wonders of both himself and his fallen city, “Your wound is as deep as the sea. Who can heal you?” (2:13).

But it’s not just tears we find in this book of lament. In Lamentation's five chapters, the poet goes through the broad range of emotions surrounding grief. He gets angry at others producing a scorching diatribe against their sins. He gets angry with God saying “the Lord is like an enemy.” He expresses doubt, wondering out loud if God has abandoned his people forever. The poet is sure that the “Lord has given full vent to his wrath” and his response is to give full vent to his grief.

Amazingly, God takes it.

God doesn’t take it because he is weak, or incompetent, or absent, but God gives us room to grieve because of his loving-kindness. Far from being afraid of grief and mourning, God invites us into the middle of our pain. He knows (because he made us) that our healing can never come from evading our hurts, but that we must face our pain in the presence of the One who can heal. Isolating our pain only makes things worse, but giving voice to our grief and our sorrow connects us to the one who shares our suffering. Emboldened by the loving-kindness of God, we voice the thing which we once dared not speak and discover, “we are not consumed.”

God’s love gives us room to grieve, because it is only in grieving that we discover God’s love is bigger than the pain. In the movie, Fried Green Tomatoes, Jessica Tandy’s character recounts the lesson she learned after having grieved the loss of an older brother, “A heart can be broken, but it keeps beating just the same.” So many people avoid bringing their burdens to God because ultimately they fear their burdens will over take them, that their hearts will stop beating. But it’s only in laying our burdens at the feet of Christ’s love that we keep from being consumed by our burdens. It’s only there, in God’s presence that we discover, our broken hearts can find the strength to continue loving in the midst of our pain.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How do you choose? Part II

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 58

Read: Jeremiah 48:1-Lamentations 1:22

Verse that stood out:
"See, I am against you, O arrogant one," declares the Lord, the LORD Almighty, "for your day has come, the time for you to be punished" - Jeremiah 50:31

OK, to follow up on yesterday's blog. Most people who believe the Bible is inspired by God believe it is important to read all and even memorize parts of the scripture. Now none of us memorize all the Bible. If we're honest, most of us don't read all the Bible, or at least don't read all of it the same way. Some parts we consider more applicable to our lives than others. I'm going to go out on a limb and say, that's ok. But we should be a little bit suspicious of how we go about deciding what parts we emphasize. Do we only emphasize the parts we like? That certainly doesn't seem to be the best way to go about it. Wisdom tells us that we all need to hear some things about ourselves and about the world that we don't necessarily enjoy hearing. How then do we decide?

One, it's ok to be inspired by a verse and want to commit it to memory. But we should always try to keep those verses in context. Try memorizing a section of verses or, for you favorites, go back and reread the context from time to time. This keeps us from just making the Bible say what we want it to. Try focusing on passages that support the overall themes of the Bible rather than obscure verses that support your own particular view of the world.

Two, Keep things in context by consistently reading through all of the Bible. This is important because it keeps our favorite verses in check with all the other verses of the Bible. And it's important because we never know what part of the Bible the Spirit might use in our life at any given moment. That doesn't mean we have to always read through the Bible straight through like we're doing at Southland right now. There are lots of good reading plans out there that allow you to systematically cover the scriptures in a year, two years, three years by alternately reading a little of the Old Testament and little of the New Testament at the time.

Three, when reading sections of the Bible that don't seem to be that relevant to today's life, attempt to read them from a new perspective. Instead of trying to "bring the Bible forward" try to take yourself "backward." Take the book of Jeremiah for instance. What would it be like to hear his words as a person being carted off to Babylon? As one of the "poor" left in Israel because Babylon didn't think you were worth the effort? As a Babylonian? Sometimes by putting yourself into the text you might discover a new truth that is very relevant to life today.

Finally, remember that the Bible is a big book, not everything in it is meant to be relevant to each and every situation we face. Remember, the Bible wasn't even written with verses in mind. Those were added later to help people find passages easier. The Bible was given to us in books, letters, poems, so that we might immerse ourselves in God's story to the point that it becomes our story. Not just in bits and pieces, but in its grand overarching themes. So that when we face each new day we're able to live it in light of not just one or two of our favorite passages, but in light of the overall history of God's people.

Monday, October 18, 2010

How do you choose?

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 57

Read: Jeremiah 33:23-47:7


Verse that stood out: "We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the LORD! - Jeremiah 44:16

To be honest, today's reading was a little tough. Mostly bad news for the people of Judah. Either surrender to Babylon or be killed. Not the best options. No wonder the people were tempted to just put their fingers in their ears and ignore the bad news (or throw Jeremiah in a pit. You know, whatever worked at the time!). Ignoring bad news is a fairly common human response. Most of the time, we'd rather just be ignorant. Engine light comes on? Ignore it - it's probably just the light that's malfunctioned anyway. Go to the doctor? No way, he might find something that's wrong. Pray? And be convicted of my sins? No thank you.

Jeremiah is full of bad news. Which has me wondering, how are we any different than the people of Jeremiah's day. Most believers, people who say they believe the Bible, couldn't quote anything from this book with perhaps the exception being the ever popular 29:11. Why do they know that verse? Because it's upbeat. Because it's encouraging. But why just apply that verse to our lives today? Why not the other 1366 verses in this ancient book? Are we saying those have no application to our lives simply because they might contain bad news?

Which leads to perhaps a better question - how do we decide what verses are important for us today and which are not? How do we decide which ones speak to us anew and which ones don't? Which ones are worth memorizing and which are not? I want to know, how do you decide?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

I guess it was a buyers' market?

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 56

Read: Jeremiah 23:9-33:22

Verse that stood out: Once more fields will be bought in this land of which you say, 'It is a desolate waste' - Jeremiah 32:43

Many Christians know Jeremiah 29:11 by heart, "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'" Far fewer know the context. The city of Jerusalem was under siege by the Babylonians. It was about to fall (despite all the empty promises of false prophets). Jeremiah, having a true word from the Lord had said as much. This great promise of a future found in verse eleven is what Jeremiah assures will happen after seventy years in exile. Far from being a verse to comfort us with the thought of quickly turning fortunes, this is a verse that encourages us to be faithful for the long haul. God's people are to be a people of hope in the midst of tragedy, not because we expect things to change tomorrow, but because we trust that God is ultimately in control.

Jeremiah proves he believes what he preaches by buying a field from a cousin moments before Jerusalem falls. This is perhaps the worst real estate deal in history, certainly in the Bible. Property values are plummeting. Tomorrow they'll be worth even less. But one this purchase was, nonetheless, a bold statement of hope. Jeremiah was saying to all who were watching, "I know things are about to get really, really, bad, but they will be good again. Just you watch. I'm carrying this deed with me to Babylon, sometime, it will be valuable again."

We can learn from Jeremiah. We, too, believe, that no matter how bad things get, nor for how long they stay that way, God has good things in store for those who trust in his name. But what are we doing to put feet to our beliefs? What are we investing in? In the things of Babylon or in the things of God's kingdom? If we truly believe, we'll be buying land in the kingdom come.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Running with Horses

Through the Bible in 90 days: Day 55

Read: Jeremiah 10:14-23:4

Verse that stood out:
If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out,how can you compete with horses? If you stumble in safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan? - Jeremiah 12:5

This week a friend gave me Eugene Peterson's book, Running with Horses. I haven't started it yet, but did come across the title's reference in today's reading. Chapter 12 starts off with Jeremiah asking a fairly sensible question about God's idea of justice and timing. God's answer, which begins with verse five, seems a little un-pastoral. God basically says, "Jeremiah, you're already questioning me? We haven't even gotten started yet. Let me tell you something, being a prophet isn't easy. If you're having doubts right now, just wait. You’re going to get thrown in a pit, put in stocks. People, your people, are going to wish you were dead. Why wouldn't they? You have to deliver the worst of news. Yes, ultimately, I'm going to show compassion, but only on the other side of discipline. You’ve got to decide, are you with me or are you not?"

Even if you're not a prophet, following God is rarely easy. Not if you actually follow him. Forgiving others, being generous, turning the other cheek - these things are nearly impossible sometimes. There's a common Christian cliche that tries to assure us that God never gives us more than we can handle. I'm pretty sure that's hogwash. The truth is probably closer to "God doesn't give us any more than he can handle."

Just look at what God said to Jeremiah, "If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out,how can you compete with horses?" Jeremiah might rightfully reply, "Um, I can't run with horses. That's impossible." To which God might respond, "True. For you that's impossible. But not for a man on whom my Spirit rests. Remember, Elijah, he outran the chariots of Ahab. The same Spirit that called him, now calls you."

The same Spirit now dwells in all who call on the name of Christ. Are you facing an obstacle that seems insurmountable? Have you grown weary even though you know there's still a long journey ahead? According to the Lord, it may be time to toughen up a little and remember, even though life's journey may be ridiculously tough sometimes, we don't run alone.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Trusting in the blessings more than in the One who blesses

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 54

Read: Isaiah 66:19-Jeremiah 10:13

Verse that stood out: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, "This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!" - Jeremiah 7:4

Jeremiah was a prophet to Judah, the southern half of ancient Israel. The northern half, which kept the name Israel, had already fallen to the Assyrians. Jeremiah spends his time warning that the same fate awaits Judah unless they mend their ways. The problem for Jeremiah (as for most prophets) is that nobody in Judah was listening to him. They assumed that because they had the temple in Jerusalem, nothing bad could happen to them even if they were behaving badly. God, after all, wouldn't let anyone come and knock down his house, would he?

It's easy in life to shift our trust from being a trust in God to being a trust in the things of God. This is perhaps the most dangerous form of idolatry because it is one of the most subtle forms. It's not always easy to tell the difference between a trust in the One who blesses and a trust in the blessings. Do I trust in the One who gives me health or in health itself? Do I trust in the One who has blessed me with a family or have I put my trust in my actual family? Do I trust the One who provides me with a job or do I trust my ability to make money at that job?

One kind of trust leads to presumption - when we begin to identify God with the blessings God gives we begin to assume God will never allow those blessings to be taken from us. Otherwise, the thinking goes, God would be removing his presence from us. This is essentially the mistake that Jews of Jeremiah's day made. The other kind of trust, the trust placed in God alone, is able to say, no matter what comes my way, I trust that God is with me. Jeremiah's contemporaries would learn this truth, but it would come only after losing everything else they held dear.

Let's pray we don't have to learn this lesson in the same way. Take an inventory of your life today. Are you trusting in the blessings or in the One who blesses? What do you think are some ways to keep that distinction clear in your life?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Pointing fingers or a Helping Hand?

Through the Bible in 90 days: Day 53

Read: Isaiah 52:13-66:18

Verse that stood out:
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday” (58:9-10)

Every Tuesday morning, I get together with a handful of friends to drink coffee, shoot the bull, and generally solve the problems of the world. Well to be honest, we generally only attempt to solve the problems of the sports world. We leave politics to the group of men who sit a few tables away. At our table, we lament that latest loss, critique the coach’s decisions, propose the moves that we would make if we were in charge, and generally sit amazed at the fact that those in charge can’t figure out what is so obvious to us. I’m pretty sure, the conversation at the other table is about the same as ours. You just have to substitute the names of politicians for those of athletes. All in all, both tables have a grand old time.

My guess is sitting around and criticizing others has always been a lot of fun. Ancient leaders probably received as much Monday morning quarterbacking from their followers as ours do (although the Internet has taken all criticisms to a strange new level!). Criticism, or better yet, critics do have a place in every society. None of us want to live in a totalitarian regime in which criticism is forbidden (think North Korea). If the emperor has no clothes on we want to be able to say it out loud. And yet, we have to remember, the role of the critic is always of secondary importance. The one who counts is the one who does.

Theodore Roosevelt, in an address similar to his famous “Man in the Arena” speech, put it this way, “Criticism is necessary and useful; it is often indispensable; but it can never take the place of action, or be even a poor substitute for it. The function of the mere critic is of very subordinate usefulness. It is the doer of deeds who actually counts in the battle for life, and not the man who looks on and says how the fight ought to be fought, without himself sharing the stress and the danger.”

Long before that, the prophet Isaiah promised “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday” (58:9-10) In other words, those that will matter most in the Kingdom of God, those whose lives will shine in the darkness, won’t be the ones who most accurately point the finger of blame, but rather those who most consistently keep their hands busy with God’s work. Another prophet put it succinctly, “What does the Lord require of you? Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Day got away from me.

Through the Bible in 90 days: Day 52

Read: Read 41:19-52:12

Verse that stood out: Those who hope in me will not be disappointed - Isaiah 49:23

I did my reading early this morning but then the day got away from me on the blogging front. Lots of good stuff in these chapters. What I perhaps noticed the most, however, was that when I looked at my Bible, I could definitely tell I'd crossed the half-way point. Seeing fewer pages to the right than to the left felt really good. As with most projects, it's great to be able to see the end (Obviously, I won't stop reading my Bible after these 90 days, I will probably stop reading 12 pages a day!).

In the largest of projects, life itself, we know the end is coming, but we can never be totally sure of when it will come. Some of us can be confident we've crossed the halfway point. All of us can safely assume we are closer to the end today than we were yesterday. As believers, we can trust that while we may not know all the details of how tomorrow will play itself out, we can trust Isaiah's vision. The day is coming when God will usher in his Kingdom of peace and provision and justice once and for all. If we'll put our trust in him, the end of the story will not disappoint.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Like old love letters that are ever new

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 51

Read: Isaiah 29:1-41:18

Verse that stood out: "To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?" says the Holy One. Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing - Isaiah 40:25-26

When we read the Bible, God's Spirit speaks to us on many levels. There are the words on the page - what they mean in the context of that particular passage. This is always primary, but it's hardly the only way God speaks to us. Take for instance the connections one passage makes with other parts of the scriptures. One can't read Isaiah without thinking of Christ. He is the son Immanuel, the Light that has dawned, the King that rules in righteousness. We read from one page, but God speaks from the totality of the book.

But sometimes, God speaks from beyond even the book itself. He speaks from our ongoing relationship with his Word. Take for instance Isaiah 40. A great passage that speaks of God's majesty and his mercy. Taken at face value it is a passage that's easy to connect to our own lives of worship and faith. And yet for me, there's added significance. It was one of the first passages I ever preached from. I was probably in the ninth or tenth grade. The short sermon was for the Speakers' Tournament portion of Bible Drill (Some of you Baptists will know what I'm talking about). I don't really remember what I said in the sermon. I do remember that while most of my friends wrote their sermons and moved on - more interested in the trip we got to go on than the actual sermons they'd prepared - I couldn't move on. I'd fallen in love. Not with a girl, but with preaching itself.

Call it a calling. Call it God's hand. Call it what you will, I can't read Isaiah 40 without automatically remembering how God employed this passage in my life in the past. That past informs every new reading of the passage. So that when I question my calling or my effectiveness in ministry or any other number of things that normal people question, I hear words that have spoken before into my life - words of majesty and mercy. Words for Israel. Words for the church. Words for me. Words spoken in the past that still speak today.

I'd love to hear what passages have been meaningful in your life that have resurfaced in new ways?

Monday, October 11, 2010

I'm glad I'm not a prophet

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 50

Read: Isaiah 14:1-28:29

Verse that stood out: At that time the LORD spoke through Isaiah son of Amoz. He said to him, "Take off the sackcloth from your body and the sandals from your feet." And he did so, going around stripped and barefoot - Isaiah 20:2

I've heard of imagining your audience in their underwear as a way to ease nerves before speaking to a large crowd. My guess is stripping down naked yourself has the opposite effect. And yet, that's exactly what God asked Isaiah to do as an acted out parable before the Israelites. In the same way that the prophet stripped bare, God would strip the mighty Egyptians bare by the hand of the Assyrians. Crazy stuff, no doubt. And a little difficult to figure out how this passage might apply to us today.

This naked prophet episode reminds us, however, that the prophet's main job was to speak to his day. Yes, his words live on in the pages of the scripture, but his main concern was to speak those words to his contemporaries. We so often think of prophecy as that which tells the future. But prophecy was as much about forthtelling as it was about foretelling. If we only look at the words of Isaiah in light of what he was predicting, we miss most of the message. Most of his words had to do with God's will and purpose for God's people in that day. Only a handful of the verses of this long book spoke of what God was going to do in the future. Even then, Isaiah spoke of the future so that his audience might know how to live today in light of that future time.

The Bible speaks in much the same way to us today. Yes, it tells us much about our futures, but it does so in order that we might live rightly today. We are to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God today, even if doing so gets us into a lot of trouble. We can have the courage to risk such actions not because we know exactly what will happen in the future, but because we trust that in the end, God will have the last say.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Isaiah

Through the Bible in 90 days: Day 49

Read: Isaiah 1:1-13:22

Verse that stood out:
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned - Isaiah 9:2

Isaiah is a pendulum of messages. One moment doom and gloom, the next, the promise of a deliverer. So quickly does it bounce from one to the other it's difficult to keep track with what's going on. It doesn't help with following the plot of Isaiah that the prophet doesn't always seem concerned with chronology or that we tend to pull out texts that we associate with the New Testament and leave the rest. Nevertheless, a few things I did stick out in this reading:
  • Isaiah's call (chapter 6) is not to mission, as we so often interpret that passage, so much as it is to go and deliver a message of doom (even if it would later be followed by a message of light).
  • The prophecies we associate with Christ are fully immersed in passages about other things. While I still think they are about Christ, I'd like to learn more about how one should read these ancient texts in a way that just looks for what shows up in the New Testament (Maybe I'll explore this in another post this week).
  • One of the main points of Isaiah is Yahweh's sovereignty. I was struck by chapter 10, and the prophet's assertion that while Assyria may think that she is in charge, but she's not. Reminds us all that our day to day activities (no matter how powerful we may be) often unwittingly serve the Lord's plans.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Sex and Questions about Life, all in a days Bible reading

Through the Bible in 90 Days: 48

Read: Ecclesiastes 3:1-Song of Songs 8:14

Verse that stood out:
Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few - Ecclesiastes 5:2

Today’s reading left me at first depressed and then embarrassed. In the book of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher looks over the far reaches of human existence and declares, “Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” Then a book later, the writer of the Song of Songs pens lyrics that would rival anything in the erotica section of the local bookstore. I made the mistake of doing today’s reading in a coffee shop from my laptop. My red cheeks probably made it seem to others as if I looking at something inappropriate on the web. Nope, only reading the Bible.

These two books have often been considered inappropriate by different church leaders. Certain rabbis forbid anyone under the age of thirty from reading from the Song of Songs. The two major schools of Jewish Rabbis argued over whether or not Ecclesiastes should even be included in the canon. And yet, there they both are, right in the Bible next to Moses and Paul and Jesus, himself.

Despite my embarrassment, I’m glad these books are in there. They remind us that two things the church has often looked down upon are actually sanctioned by God – sex and thinking. Ecclesiastes asks some fairly profound questions and wonders aloud about the meaning of life in a way that resists easy answers. Song of Songs reminds us that the Creator’s declaration of the goodness of creation clearly applies to sex as well. When we belittle either one of these two activities, we do so against the Scriptures.

Friday, October 8, 2010

More precious than your pocketbook


Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 47

Read: Proverbs 20:22-Ecclesiasties 2:26

Verse that stood out:
The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man’s inmost parts - Proverbs 26:22

In a devotional book I've owned for years, a woman named Constance Cameron tells a story from her childhood of a time she was playing outside of an open window. Inside, a lady named Mrs. Brown was confiding a personal problem to Constance’s mother. She listened attentively even though deep down she knew she should not. She simply could not pull herself away. After Mrs. Brown had left, the mother, realizing her daughter had heard the conversation, called her daughter to her side. She asked, “If Mrs. Brown had left her purse here today, would we give it to anyone else?”

“Of course not,” Constance replied.

Her mother continued, “Mrs. Brown left something more precious than her pocketbook today. She left a story that could make many people unhappy. That story is not ours to give to anyone. It is still hers, even though she left it here. So we shall not give it to anyone. Do you understand?”

Constance writes that she did understand, and from that day on, whenever she heard a piece of news or even gossip, she considered that word to be the property of the other person and not hers to give to anyone else.

Constance’s mother obviously knew what the writer of the book of Proverbs tries so hard to convey. Words have mighty power to heal or to hurt. Yes, all of our ears stand up when we hear a piece of juicy news. The teacher writes, “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man’s inmost parts” (26:22). But the tastiness of gossip only masks its danger to cause harm, even to harm close friends: “A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends” (16:28). Gossip and slander can be like a great fire that’s hard to stop once it starts, but the writer of Proverbs reminds us, “Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down” (26:20). How many of our fights and quarrels would simply cease to be if we just kept our mouths shut?

Today, ask God to help you practice some self-control with your tongue. Your family, your friends, even the body of Christ will be the better for it.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Proverbs (reprised)

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 46

Read: Proverbs 7:1 - 20:21

Verse that stood out:
How much better to get wisdom than gold, to choose understanding rather than silver! – Proverbs 16:16

Full disclosure – this is a "classic" post from a few years ago (in other words, a rerun!). It fits well with today’s reading, though, so I hope it will minister to you once more.

A simple glance through the book of Proverbs will quickly reveal that it is unlike anything else in the Bible. Outside of the first few chapters and the last, most of the book is a rather loosely connected collection of sayings.

Some have worked there way into popular Christian thought:
  • The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (9:10).
  • There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death (16:25).
  • As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another (27:17).

Some stand out for their vividness:

  • The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out (20:5).
  • A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver (25:11).
  • As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly (26:11).

Others seem like they should have come from something other than the Bible:

  • A bribe is a charm to the one who gives it; wherever he turns, he succeeds. (17:8).
  • Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more (31:6-7).

What does one make of this great variety? What is one to do with the proverbs that seem, well…anything but good advice? The first key to interpreting the book of Proverbs is recognizing what type of book it is. It’s obviously not a historical book like Kings or Chronicles or even the gospels. It isn’t a book of law like Leviticus. It is instead considered a book of wisdom (along with both Job and Ecclesiastes).

Most likely collected during the reign of Hezekiah, the book of Proverbs is a collection of wisdom sayings from many different sources and sayings. Its purpose was to train young boys in the King’s court in the way of wisdom. This wasn’t just some theoretical training, but rather practical training on how to make choices that would lead to the desired results in life. Proverbs assumes an ordered universe, one governed by truth and justice. It does not have much room for mystery or suffering. It assumes that if one works hard and does what is right, one will succeed. Of course, the other two examples of wisdom literature (Job and Ecclesiastes) challenge this assumption.

What then are we to make of the book of Proverbs? First, the book speaks of what is generally (but not always) true in life. Take Proverbs 13:21 for instance: “Misfortune pursues the sinner, but prosperity is the reward of the righteous.” True, most of the time hard, honest work usually does pay off while sin most often leads to trouble. This is good advice. But we must always keep the book of Proverbs in the context of the rest of scripture. The rest of scripture highlights that there are times when the wicked prevail at the expense of the righteous, and that suffering is sometimes a sign of faithfulness not folly (just look at the example of Jesus). However, if we’ll exercise these cautions, the book of Proverbs will provide us with some true gems of godly wisdom.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

When virtue becomes "Second Nature"

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 45 (Halfway there!)

Read: Psalm 135:1-Proverbs 6:35

Verse that stood out:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline - Proverbs 1:7

In his excellent book, After you Believe, N. T. Wright recounts the story of Captain "Sully" Sullenberger. You remember the story. Captain Sullenberger is the pilot who successfully landed his powerless Airbus A320 upon the Hudson river. Most people called the event a miracle. Wright concedes they may have been correct, but adds, "The full explanation is, if anything, even more interesting and exciting [than simply calling it a miracle]" (page 18).

The fuller version of events includes all the details of those chaotic moments, details Captain Sullenberger carried out with precision, in almost a second-nature kind of way. How was he able to keep his calm, make key decisions in a timely manner, and then execute those decisions without hesitation? Because he had practiced his practice for decades. He'd trained and trained and trained and flew and flew and flew until the skills and decision making required for such a moment became for him, "second nature."

Wright says that you could call this "the power off right habits" or "character." The book of Proverbs calls it wisdom. Wright settles on the word "virtue." His definition is insightful

"Virtue, in this strict sense, is what happens when someone has made a thousand small choices, requiring effort and concentration, to do something which is good and right but which doesn't 'come naturally' - and then, on the thousand and first time, when it really matters, they find that they do what's required 'automatically,' as we say. On that thousand and first occasion, it does indeed look as if it 'just happens'; but reflection tells us that it doesn't 'just happen' as easy as that" (page 20-21).

Virtue is what the writers of Proverbs are after. They call it wisdom, but the life described in the Proverbs is almost exactly the same as the life Wright labels virtuous. In each case, the life described, one that not only knows what is right, but does it without fail, takes effort, discipline, and commitment. Righteousness doesn't come naturally but can become 'second nature' for those who trust in the Lord and daily practice walking in his ways. Most of us want that kind of life, but when we look at the end result of virtuous life, we're intimidated. Looking at the end of the journey, we're tempted to think, "That could never be me, I have so far to go." And yet, we should remember, Captain Sullenberger's first flying lesson didn't start with emergency river landings, but probably something closer to, "Welcome to class, this is an airplane . . ."

Wisdom can't be obtained in one day, but any day can be the day we start down wisdom's path.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

May his children be wandering beggars

Through the Bible in 90 days: Day 44

Read: Psalm 109:1-134:3

Verse that stood out:
May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes - Psalm 109:10

OK, yesterday, I received some great comments about the Psalms. Despite their reputation as a source of inspiration, reading them straight through as we've been doing can leave one with a little disappointment and not a few questions.

My friend Stan put it well:

"I've got to say honestly that reading straight through Psalms (the first half, at least) has been a disappointment. 25% of it is beautiful and inspiring, well worth memorizing. 75% is repetitive doggerel, rehashing the same themes (praise God, God is amazing, God please squash my enemies, how miserable I am). It gives me some sympathy for the Thomas Jefferson approach to scripture."

Here is my response:

Whether we admit it or not, all of us have a canon within the canon even if we don’t actually cut things out like Jefferson. Most of us leave out the majority of the Psalms from day to day use. We have our favorites, and for the most part, those are the only ones we read during devotionals or in worship. Even among our favorite Psalms, we have a tendency to cut out verses that make us squirm. I've read Psalm 139 in many a service, usually without reading vv. 19-22 which don't seem to fit at all with the rest of the poem.

As for the repetitiveness, it's helpful to remember that the Psalms aren’t meant to be read straight through as we’re doing. They really demand a slower reading. That’s not to say some of them won’t still sound atrocious during a more reflective reading. The imprecatory psalms, those that call for vengeance upon enemies, sound incredibly harsh to modern ears. Especially, when we consider Christ’s commands to turn the other cheek and to pray for ones enemies (by which we are pretty sure he doesn’t mean pray for their children to be wandering beggars!).

It helps to remember that these are prayers. Just because we pray something (even in the Bible), doesn't make it something we should pray for or that God will grant. We can at least say, that the Psalmist is bringing his prayers honestly to God and then leaving the working out of those prayers in God's hands. Vengeance, after all, is the LORD's and not ours. That doesn't mean we can't ask the Lord to make a move on our behalf, but we must leave it in God's hands and not take up the task of vengeance on our own.

And while it’s easy to think these prayers should have been more polite, I have to remember that I don’t really live with violent enemies camped outside my door. My prayers might change if I did (even as I still knew I should be trying to love those very same enemies). Also, it helps to remember that the psalmists for the most part, identified God’s kingdom with the welfare of the nation of Israel. Therefore, if the nation was threatened, if God’s people were threatened, God’s very reputation was at stake. These are prayers that, however strangely, attempt to defend God’s honor.

Does that mean we should pray imprecatory prayers? Prayers that curse? Probably not. Especially not in the fashion of these Psalms. We should remember, thought, that Jesus does his own share of cursing others – usually the self-righteous, rich folks who oppress the poor (not to mention one poor fig tree). Like Jesus, we should have a healthy anger towards injustice, towards hatred, towards evil. That anger might cause us to pray some fairly impolite prayers. In light of Jesus’ life and ministry, however, we must take our angry prayers in a new direction. We can’t pray just for our enemies to be defeated, we must also pray for their salvation.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Sing a new song

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 43

Read: Psalm 89:14-108:13

Verse that stood out:
Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth - Psalm 96:1

Have you sung a new song to the Lord today? I don't necessarily mean a song you've never heard before. I'm not even sure that's what the Psalmist means either. I mean, have you sung to the Lord anew, today? Has praise ushered forth from your lips in a fresh way? That may involve singing a song for the very first time. It may simply mean singing an old hymn with sincerity. For every fresh singing is in some way, a new song.

God, in his splendor is worthy of more than rehashed, recycled praise. God grants us his mercies new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23), surely our worship should remain fresh as well. No leaning on yesterday's songs. That's a sure path to dead worship. Just think of the husband who decides that he's told his wife he loved her in the past so that there's now no need to waste his breath repeating the same three words over and over again. Not the best way to keep the relationship alive. For his sake and his wife's he needs to keep saying those simple words with fresh sincerity. And it wouldn't hurt, if he found some other words with which to convey the same ideas in creative ways.

The same is true for our relationship with God. Each day our worship must start anew, even if it borrows from ancient sources. We really can sing the same song everyday and have it be new, if each singing comes from a fresh experience of God's presence. There are times, though, when finding a new song, as in a song we've never heard before, can indeed help us communicate anew our love for God. One place I've recently come across some new songs to sing at http://www.gettymusic.com/. Kristyn and Keith Getty are Irish hymn writers that are producing some beautiful music for the church.

What sources have you found for singing some new songs (or some old songs afresh) to the Lord?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Centering Prayer

Through the Bible in 90 days: Day 42

Read: Psalm 69:22-89:13

Verse that stood out:
Teach me your way, O LORD, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name - Psalm 86:11.

Almost half-way through the Bible. I can honestly say I have not missed a day. That doesn't mean every day's effort has been equal in quality. Some days have been more about getting the reading done. Other days have been more meditative, reflective. The Psalms seem to demand this latter reading. Poetry demands a slower approach. As such, they've been more of a challenge.

I have been gleaning some verses from the Psalms that I hope to commit to memory and use as centering prayers. A centering prayer is a simple prayer, usually no more than a phrase or two that is used to quiet one's heart before God. A common centering prayer is called the Jesus prayer and is an adaptation of the publican's prayer found in the gospels. It says simply, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

Often before other types of prayer or when I find myself scattered during the day or just when I have a few spare minutes between meetings I'll repeat this prayer slowly as a way of bringing my thoughts back to God. I'm going to try using Psalm 86:11 this week in a similar fashion. I let you know how it goes. I thought there were several verses out of Psalm 86 that could be used in this fashion.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

A couple's prayer

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 41

Read: Psalm 45:15-69:21

Verse that stood out:
May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine upon us, (Selah) that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations - Psalm 67:1-2

In a section of reading with some memorable verses, Psalm 67 sticks out for sentimental reasons. These were the verses read at Alyson and my wedding. God has certainly blessed us in the last ten years: two children that delight our souls; a terrific church with ministries that touch the world; plus, we still really like each other. Our prayer hasn't changed much over the last decade. Lord, let you face shine upon us that your ways may be known among the earth. What more could a person want than that?

Friday, October 1, 2010

Taste and see

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 40

Read: Psalm 25:1-45:14

Verse that stood out:
Taste and see that the LORD is good - Psalm 34:8

The Psalms are different from many other parts of the Bible. For the most part, they don't tell stories. They certainly don't convey a lot of doctrine. They don't give us commands to obey. These are songs of worship. They invite us to "Taste and see that the LORD is good." That is, they invite us to experience God's presence in our own lives. Not by reading the words on the page and thinking about what they mean. That's fine and dandy, but what the Psalms really invite us to do is sing them ourselves to the God who is ready to be known. This move from reading about what God has done to seeking his presence in worship is the move we make from knowing the recipe for apple pie and actually eating the delicious dessert. It's the difference between knowing about someone and actually knowing them.

If you've been reading through the Bible with us, maybe use these days in the Psalm to try something a little different. After you've read through the day's readings go back and pick out a Psalm that stood out to you. Reread it. Let it sink even more deeply into your soul. Then offer it back to God as your prayer. Make up a tune for it if you are so inclined. Make the move from reading about God to seeking his presence in your life.