Love

Today is Valentine’s Day – when we pay special attention to the people we love.

Just for a moment, sometime today, give a thought not only to those you love but also to the fact that God loves you. It’s a Biblical promise we can stand upon. Isaiah 54:10 reads: “Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

I take that to mean that no matter what happens in your life, no matter how bad or unredeemable it seems, God still (and always) loves you.

That’s something to celebrate. Be grateful! Happy Valentine’s Day.

           

Hold Fast to Hope

Some people don’t particularly like the book of Romans, but this morning I came across something there that has stayed in my head ever since. It was Romans 15:4 in the Amplified Bible and it goes like this:

“For whatever was thus written in former days was written for our instruction, that by [our steadfast and patient] endurance and the encouragement [drawn] from the Scriptures we might hold fast to and cherish hope.”

Unless I am misreading that, Paul is saying that the entire early Bible was written to instruct us, yes, but more to encourage us to hold onto hope. The bottom line is to ensure that we stay in hope.

Why would hope be so important?

We often come across people who have been so beaten up by life that they have become bitter, negative, cynical, angry. Maybe the best word to describe them is “unhopeful.” They are people who have lost hope for a better outcome, for life to be at least somewhat as they envisioned it.

How can you ensure that you don’t become one of those who have lost their hope?

           

Moses – When Courage Fails the Strong

I noticed something in Acts the other day that fascinated me. It was a description: “Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action” (Acts 7:22).

I had to stop and look at that again, because what I remembered about Moses was that when God told him he was to go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses repeatedly objected, stating, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue” (Exodus 4:10).

Now, admittedly a lot happened to Moses between the time when he was educated in Egypt as a young man and decades later at the scene of the burning bush, but it’s likely that a lot happens to all of us between the time we are young and being educated, and the time we may be called to put that education to use.

What I find here is a message to the “educated,” to people who have gifts they have never used because they are fearful that when it comes right down to it, they will fail.

The Exodus story in chapters 3 and 4 recounts a little divine impatience with Moses, who has been chosen for a particular role, but it is God who delivers the solution: “I will help you speak and will teach you what to say” (Exodus 4:12). Even then Moses continues to protest and to ask that God send someone else, so God creates a further solution: Moses’s older brother, Aaron. You can hear the exasperation in God’s comment: “I know he can speak well.” So that is how the story goes. The two brothers go before Pharaoh; God tells Moses what to say; and Aaron delivers the message.

We’ve all heard stories about how God helps the poor, the weak, the downtrodden, but this is a story about God helping the strong and the educated who are suffering a failure of courage. This is a promise to store in your heart for those times when your confidence and courage fail: Go to your spiritual center and hear the divine message, “I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.”

           

Retroactive Grace

One of the evidences that spirituality is an “everyday” thing is how frequently spiritual or religious references show up in our culture.

I happened to see the 2006 movie Freedomland recently. The link will take you to a Wikipedia page that explains the plot. In brief, a young boy is missing, then found dead. Accusations are made against innocent people until the tragic truth is discovered. The lead characters are Julianne Moore as the boy’s mother and Samuel L. Jackson as the police detective. When the detective visits the boy’s mother in prison, he reflects upon his own personal history and tells her: “God’s grace is sorta like retroactive.”

What he means by this is that God’s grace has touched his life, giving him a chance to make up for past failures. That he can recognize this in his own life suggests that the same grace is available to her.

Even for people (like all of us) who have made mistakes, done things for which they have difficulty forgiving themselves, entrapped themselves in spirals of guilt and regret, God’s grace is available. It’s present; it’s future; it’s even retroactive. And if we think that our mistakes reveal our weaknesses, all the better.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes of asking God to rid him of a particular torment, a thorn in his flesh, but in response to his pleading, God said: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (NIV). The Amplified text spells it out more clearly: “My grace (My favor and loving-kindness and mercy) is enough for you [sufficient against any danger and enables you to bear the trouble manfully]; for My strength and power are made perfect (fulfilled and completed) and show themselves most effective in [your] weakness.” [2 Corinthians 12:9]

Our only role when it comes to God’s grace is to accept it.

           

Off the Cuff

In a short article in the September 18 issue of The Christian Century, I learned that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech was not from a written, rehearsed text but was instead extemporaneous. The singer Mahalia Jackson stood near as Dr. King rose to speak at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and she said to him: “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” Hearing her, King folded up his prepared speech, put it away, and instead spoke from his heart.

The result was one of the most famous, most quoted, most remembered, most cherished speeches of all time. Chances are, if he had ignored the prompting of his heart and read the text printed on the paper, the speech might have been a good one, but with nowhere near the impact and reach of the one he gave.

So, can we say that “I Have a Dream” was impromptu? Not if we consider King’s background in faith and religious studies. The same Divinity Who said to Moses: “I will help you speak and will teach you what to say” [Exodus 4:12] and to the 12 disciples : “At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” [Matthew 10:19-20] could certainly have whispered the same message to Martin Luther King Jr. on August 28, 1963, on the heels of the exhortation from Mahalia Jackson.

           

Bible-reading as Mystery

I might as well go ahead and admit that Bible-reading is a mystery to me. Last week I commented that I never try to defend the Bible, nor press it upon people, but I still return to it every morning and usually find reason for peace. The peace is part of the mystery, as is my urge to spend a little time daily with Scripture. Some days I hurry through, some days it doesn’t seem to amount to much, some days my perspective feels forever changed.

Several years ago I attended a presentation by Bishop John Shelby Spong, a retired bishop of the Episcopal Church well known in Christian circles for writing books that seem to be deeply critical of the Church and the Bible – books like Why Christianity Must Change or Die. The main thing I recall from his talk is his deep reverence for the Bible, despite his controversial public position on it. He, too, continued to find solace in returning to the pages of Scripture.

More currently, there is The Christian Century, which features in each issue a column entitled “Living by the Word.” In the 16 October 2013 edition, Scottish writer Sara Maitland, after discussing lessons to be learned from the scoundrel Jacob, gives this frame of reference for Bible-reading:  “So when we go to the Bible we have to go alert and cunning about the fact that it is not a single text. It may very well all be inspired, but it is inspired to a variety of purposes and therefore comes in a variety of genres and calls for a variety of reading skills.”

I like her suggestion that readers be “alert and cunning” in approaching the Bible. I don’t expect that such an attitude will expunge the mystery; I wouldn’t be surprised if it deepens it.

           

Gladness

Maybe it’s the rain. When it’s relentlessly wet and stormy, after a while I start to think about gladness – how to get some, how to keep it. I’m one of those people who need gladness.

So I was especially pleased this morning to notice something new in the Bible that I never saw before. It’s in John 17, with Jesus addressing God in prayer: “And now I am coming to You; I say these things while I am still in the world, so that My joy may be made full and complete and perfect in them [that they may experience My delight fulfilled in them, that My enjoyment may be perfected in their own souls, that they may have My gladness within them, filling their hearts]. John 17:13 Amp.

There’s so much in the Bible that is intolerable to friends of mine, even the deeply spiritual folks for whom things of this nature are important. I never try to defend the Bible, nor press it upon people, but I still return to it every morning and usually find reason for peace. Maybe that’s because after so many years, I know where to look and where not to! All I know is that I feel better about today, even with its rain, when I consider that there is a sacred intention that I have divine gladness filling my heart.

           

Obedience

We like obedience in our pets; we’d love it in our toddlers and teenagers. But how many of us like to apply it to ourselves? Most of us have grown up with “free will” and “freedom” as integral parts of our psyches.

Preachers know this, so it’s easy to see how they might not want to push on the Biblical texts requiring obedience. Nonetheless, those texts are hard to miss, since they are all over the place. I’ll include two or three at the bottom of this post for those in the mood for scourging.

So … how fascinating to find a novel built around the concept of holy obedience. Lisa Samson‘s 2009 book The Passion of Mary-Margaret relates the story of a religious sister whose focus her entire life has been the religious life – but then she receives the divine instruction to marry a man who had once been her childhood friend but had since entered into a sordid life involving prostitution and heroin.

What’s the likelihood that you would feel compelled to be obedient in that situation? Lisa Samson is a writer who knows her way around a difficult theme, and this is a book worth reading. Now for those few (of many) passages I promised:

Romans 2:13: “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.”

Luke 11:28: “He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”

Job: 36:11: “If they obey and serve him, they will spend the rest of their days in prosperity and their years in contentment.”

           

Believing

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how important believing is. This seems to be true in almost any arena of life you could mention: from athletes who perform so much better when they believe they have the skill to surpass previous records to sales people who have significantly better sales if they believe in what they are selling. But the specific context I’m thinking about is the God context. It looks to me as though believing is pretty crucial here too.

The Gospel of John speaks a lot about believing, most famously in 3:16 (For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life, NIV). But the verses I am presently most impressed by are in Ephesians 1:17–19, where Paul is writing about “the immeasurable and unlimited and surpassing greatness of His power in and for us who believe….” (Amp). What is striking a chord with me is not the part God plays in the equation, spectacular as that is, but the part we play. Admittedly the Amplified Bible throws in extra adjectives to make it more impressive, but even the NIV is unequivocal: “his incomparably great power for us who believe.”

It seems clear that a great power is available to us … if we believe that it is available to us. Our belief is an essential, activating ingredient.

           

Perfection

This morning I came across something in Psalms that was highlighted probably years ago, but just discovered again today – when I need it. It is Psalm 138:8, which in the Amplified reads: “The Lord will perfect that which concerns me.” The NIV reads: “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me….”

It’s all about trusting that whatever befalls you will not swamp you. This morning Joel Osteen talked about the fiery furnaces we face in life. Sometimes we pray to be delivered so that we are spared from having to go through them, but we might need to go through them to move us to the next place we’re supposed to be. In that case, God isn’t going to spare you from whatever is upsetting your life, but God will, as Joel said, make you “fireproof” because the situation is a critical step on your way to whatever is next. We’ve all heard stories of people who were doing everything they could to avoid being laid off from their jobs (often jobs that had long since stopped being rewarding), then they were laid off anyway, and ultimately they ended up in a much better situation.

If I can trust that God will perfect that which concerns me, then there are some keys to how I will approach anything that occurs. These keys include: I will readily forgive anyone who appears to have hurt or betrayed me; I will not hold bitterness or resentment; I can let go of anxiety and fear; rather than dreading each new day, I can look forward in anticipation; I can live in peace.

May we all live in peace in the New Year.