Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Sound of (sheer) Silence

Scripture Reading: 1 Kings 19:1-18 (NRSV)

Elijah is one of my favorite figures in the Bible.  In the previous chapter, he has a lot of courage to face down the prophets of Baal when he was so greatly outnumbered.  He trusts in God to see him through and God does not let him down.

That's why this story is so important.  After the dust settles, Queen Jezebel threatens his life because she was a supporter of Baal.

And even though he just had a victorious showdown with miraculous intervention, he fears for his life and heads for the hills.  As an outside observer, we want to shake some sense into Elijah and say, "After all you just witnessed, why would you run?"

But what makes this such a great story is that it shows Elijah as all-too human.  We all have moments of courage and cowardice.  We want to highlight our bravery and sweep the not-so-spectacular moments under the rug.  I would be happier if no one else knew anything about them.
There is something transcendent about
the high places on our planet.

Yet, the Biblical authors share these details precisely so we can connect with them.  To be afraid is to think with blinders on.  When we are afraid, our ability to make good decisions actually decreases substantially.  So Elijah runs away when maybe the best thing for him would be to stand firm in the Lord.

Elijah travels to the same mountain where Moses encountered God and received the 10 Commandments.  He sees a lot of flash in wind, earthquakes and fire but he doesn't perceive God in any of the chaos.  This reminds Oklahomans in particular that God is not sending tornadoes as retribution!

Rather, Elijah encounters God in the stillness following the turmoil.  The New Revised Standard Version relates a "sound of sheer silence."  The King James Version translates it as a "still small voice."  I think I prefer the new Common English Bible which states, "there was a sound. Thin. Quiet."

This reminds us that we can fill up the space in life with a lot of noise.  We can say a lot of words and phrases when we pray.  But maybe the most meaningful communication with God is when we can stop and listen.  When we hear nothing, our faith can allow a connection that is greater than the absence of sound.  It is mystical and it allows us to simply be.

Elijah interprets that God is not done with him yet.  In fact, he is not the only faithful person alive.  God begins to connect Elijah with others so that God's work can take on greater meaning.  But he might not have been able to hear this if he hadn't stopped running and stopped talking.  Good lessons to be learned almost three thousand years later!

Photo by Trekking Rinjani via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A Witness to Resurrection

Lectionary Reading: Acts 2:14a, 22-32

The context of the world during the early days following the resurrection was very different religiously than it is today.  It is strange to think that the majority of people on the planet had never heard of Jesus.  Christians today often take it for granted that everyone within our culture knows at least some of the basics of our faith.

After all, even non-religious people celebrate Christmas.

How did we go from obscurity to dominant?

Peter mentions in the above reading that the disciples were all witnesses to the resurrection.  Of course, by the time the Acts of the Apostles was written, most of the witnesses to the resurrection were in the third and fourth generations.

Being a witness to the resurrection originally meant "eye-witness" as in "we saw Jesus risen from the dead."  As people heard Acts read to them, "all of us are witnesses," began to take on a different understanding.  They would have seen themselves as a part of the movement.  They are also witnesses to the resurrection because Christianity is a living faith.

The fact that they made this leap of understanding is evident because we are recipients of this faith today - a faith that crossed two millennia and an ocean.  The difficulty for Americans is that we grew up in a culture where the majority were already witnesses to the resurrection.  And so we began to assume that everyone was already part of the story.

This old Sunday school postcard  assumes
that the truant friend is "lost" while the
regulars are "found."  This may not be the kind of
witness we want to project today.
This dampens the urgency of sharing as a witness.  And so this led to the plateau of American Christianity which now finds itself in decline.

What does it mean for us to reclaim our identity as witnesses to the resurrection?  At some point, we must quit assuming that others claim the Christian faith.  The difficulty of sharing the faith is that when we were dominant, Christians sometimes adopted an arrogant stance.

How do we prioritize the sharing of faith while at the same time keeping an air of humility?  I believe it begins with the resurrection becoming a key part of our lives.  This means that the witness is something we don't aspire to do as much as how we go about living our lives.

Photo by wackystuff via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Daily Devotion for Lent 2017 - Easter Sunday

Today's Reading: John 21:1-25 (NRSV)

Now that Lent has finished, the daily devotions here come to a close.  We have read through the entirety of John's Gospel.  The final chapter reads more like an addition - Paul Harvey's "The Rest of the Story" if you will.  That being said, it seems that most of the very early manuscripts we have of John include parts of the 21st chapter.

The regular order of the day doesn't
seem possible for those encountering
the Living Lord.
I like how the disciples kind of go back to business as usual when they go fishing. Was it all a dream?

It wasn't.  They find Jesus on the beach and he is cooking some fish.

Like Mary Magdalene, they don't really recognize him at first.

I wonder if they felt a little chagrined.  Jesus had told them that they would be fishing for people (although this was in Mark and Matthew) and here they are back to their old job.

The resurrection seems to be saying, "You can't go back to business as usual."

Now that our Lenten disciplines are over, it may be the same for us.  We may leave the scriptures untouched and unread for a time.  Yet while there may not be daily devotions posted here, it is still possible to read scripture daily.  This practice allows us to participate in the resurrection.

The resurrection not only colors the way we read the entire Gospel of John, but it colors the way we live.  Our lives should be changed along with our outlook.

Sometimes we may not really recognize Jesus but this may be due to the distractions which seem rather abundant.  When we set these aside, we too may proclaim with confidence, "It is the Lord!"

Prayer for the day:

God, give us eyes to see the beauty of the Spring,
And to behold Your majesty in every living thing -
And may we see in lacy leaves and every budding flower
The Hand that rules the universe with gentleness and power -
And may this Easter grandeur that Spring lavishly imparts
Awaken faded flowers of faith lying dormant in our hearts,
And give us ears to hear, dear God, the Springtime song of birds
With messages more meaningful than man's often empty words
Telling harried human beings who are lost in dark despair -
'Be like us and do not worry for God has you in His care.


    Helen Steiner Rice, 20th Century

Photo by Kosala Bandara via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Daily Devotion for Lent 2017 - Day 40, Holy Saturday

Today's Reading: John 20:1-31 (NRSV)

We have the resurrection!  We are a day early but in order to get all of John finished by Easter Sunday, the schedule necessitated chapter twenty on Holy Saturday.

As we look at this entire chapter, we can see that we have the encounter with the empty tomb by Mary Magdalene and then by Peter and the beloved disciple.

Then we have three appearances of the risen Lord.  The first is to Mary Magdalene and then we have an appearance to the disciples sans Thomas and then one where Thomas is present.

As we look at this, we can see how our spiritual lives may have an individual encounter with God in some way as well as one in a group context such as worship.

For our personal encounters, we may want these to last longer or come more frequently. We hear Jesus tell Mary, "Do not hold on to me."  This doesn't mean that we shouldn't seek to encounter God but it may mean that these encounters are beyond our control. We would like God to operate on our time but that is a bit egocentric.  God operates on God's time.

There's something symbolic
about a lighthouse that fits
with John's Gospel!
We see this again as Thomas misses out on the first appearance.  What's interesting is that the other gospels have instances of doubting from multiple disciples and yet John only points out poor Thomas.  I think this story reminds me that different people encounter God in their own time - maybe in God's time which seems to depend on the person.

As we seek to serve the living Christ, it may be that we each have our moments where we don't recognize him or we doubt he is there at all. That is the value of being in a faith community. We lift one another up with a vision of what we could be as a Christian.  We know we are not always there but we can at least see where we are trying to go.  For those that aren't ready yet, we bring them along with us.

You'll notice that just becomes Thomas doesn't believe the way they do, they do not kick him out of the group.  He is still present the next week when Jesus returns.  We hold one another in the faith and sometimes we believe on their behalf until they may come to the faith themselves.

Prayer for the day:

Gracious God, even when we are in the darkness of death, our brothers and sisters in the faith remind us that "this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality."  We do this in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  This allows our spirits to cry even in the face of grief and loss, "Death has been swallowed up in victory.  Where, O death is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?"  We pray this in the name of the Living Lord.  Amen.

Prayer based on 1 Corinthians 15:53-55
Photo by Louis Raphael via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Daily Devotion for Lent 2017 - Day 39, Good Friday

Today's Reading: John 31-42 (NRSV)

John includes some details of the crucifixion that we don't find in the other gospels. Verses 31-37 have no parallels.  What is it about these specifics that are important for John to include?

The standout for me is the piercing of the side of Jesus to make sure that he was really dead.  Blood and water pour out from his wound.  On one hand, this is a rather gruesome account.  It is almost as if we are adding more insult to the injuries we have put upon Jesus.  But I believe that John has other motives in giving us these particulars.
Blood, life and death
are often mixed together
for us in ways that are earthy
and quite clear.

Some in the early church claimed that Jesus didn't really suffer death but only seemed to suffer.  They believed he was spirit and so this shows that he was really flesh and blood.  For the same reasons, the Apostles' Creed states that Jesus "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried" so as to avoid any confusion around his mortality.

Some scholars have suggested that the blood and water that pour from Jesus remind us of the sacraments of Holy Communion ("This is my blood shed for you") and Baptism ("I will give you living water").  The sacraments offer new life that begins with the sacrificial life of Jesus Christ.

John also refers to Zechariah 12:10 which states,
And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.
All four gospels share that Joseph of Arimathea is the one to bury Jesus in the tomb. John adds Nicodemus as a helper who now tends to Jesus in the light of day.

As we consider our own role, it may be that Jesus is safer to tend to when he is dead rather than living.  When Jesus is dead, it is easier to assert our own will.  When Jesus is dead, our faith doesn't have to be challenging but rather becomes a comfort only.

As we think about the death of our Lord on this Good Friday, it may be helpful for us to confess how we have kept Jesus buried in the tomb from time to time.

Prayer for the day:

O Lord Jesus Christ,
take us to yourself,
draw us with cords to the foot of your cross;
for we have no strength to come,
and we know not the way.
You are mighty to save, and none can separate us from your love.
Bring us home to yourself, for we are gone astray.
We have wandered: do seek us.
Under the shadow of your cross let us live all the rest of our lives,
and there we shall be safe.  Amen.

    Frederick Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, 19th century,

Photo by Canadian Blood Services via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Daily Devotion for Lent 2017 - Day 38, Maundy Thursday

Today's Reading: John 19:16-30 (NRSV)

The crucifixion of Jesus is reported differently in all four gospels.  Verse 17 stood out to me where it states that Jesus carried his own cross.  There is no mention of Simon of Cyrene who is featured in the other three accounts.  It is important to know that the early church interpreted the crucifixion in light of Psalm 22 which allows us insight into the suffering of the faithful.

Verse 18 reflects the desolation of having people cast lots for your clothing.  The shame of public nudity was difficult for this culture and it added to the humiliation of crucifixion.

John fills out the cast of women present at the cross and gives us dialogue with them. John names Mary, the mother of Jesus as being present.  Matthew lists Mary, the mother of James and Joseph and Mark lists Mary, the mother of James the younger and Joses. These are likely the same Mary.  This Mary is also likely the mother of Jesus.  When Matthew lists the brothers of Jesus, he begins with James and Joseph and when Mark lists them, he begins with James and Joses.  

We know that James, the brother of Jesus, becomes the head of the Jerusalem church. Could he be the beloved disciple who remains unnamed?  It does add credence to the verse, "Here is your son" because if he was the next oldest, the responsibility for care would go to him.  It is speculation but it is interesting.

Mourning loss is difficult.  It is
somewhat less difficult when shared with others.
As Jesus passes on responsibility for the care of his mother to the beloved disciple, how agonizing would this have been for Mary?  No one wants to outlive their children - this would be a special suffering that she would have to endure and as we read the conversation, you can imagine her anguish.

We know that when we are in the midst of grief, it may be that we can't even begin to think about resurrection.  For those times, it may be that we need to dwell in the grief for a season.  These verses remind us that isolation is not helpful for us when we are grieving.  Family comes together and Jesus sees to it that his mother is cared for.

The prayer for the day comes from the United Methodist Book of Worship for an untimely or tragic death:

Jesus our Friend, you wept at the grave of Lazarus,
   you know all our sorrows.
Behold our tears and bind up the wounds of our hearts.
Through the mystery of pain,
    bring us into closer communion with you and with one another.
Raise us from death into life.
And grant, in your mercy, that with our loved one, who has passed within the veil,
   we may come to live with you and with all whom we love,
   in our Father's home.  Amen.

Photo by Shawn Harquail via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Daily Devotion for Lent 2017 - Day 37, Wednesday of Holy Week

Today's Reading: John 19:1-16 (NRSV)

Pilate is an interesting figure.  There is apocryphal material written about Pilate claiming that he converted to Christianity.  The Ethiopian Orthodox Church went so far as to canonize him and now they view him as Saint Pilate.

Some scholars claim that the gospels softened Pilate in order to diffuse conflict with Roman authorities.  With the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, groups might have been hesitant to incur more wrath from the empire.

We know that Pilate served as the governor of Judea for Rome from 26 to 36 AD.  His main job would be to keep the peace and keep the tax dollars flowing back to Rome.  It seems that he was recalled to Rome in 36 after he bungled a riot in Samaria resulting in the deaths of many citizens there.

Within John's Gospel, Pilate is very hesitant to have Jesus killed.  John makes it to be all about the will of the Jewish people.  We do know that people were crucified for insurrection and revolt.  Rome was good about sending a pretty clear message to the populace about what happens to rebels.

Jesus suggests that this is all according to plan.  We have the idea that God wants this to happen or else it would not happen.  The danger in this philosophy is that if we apply this thought across the board and all tragedies are God's will, it doesn't put God in a very good light.

The narrative today makes one reflect on
innocence and guilt.  As we see the response
of the crowd, we must re-think our own
sense of innocence and guilt.
This begs the question, "Did God need a sacrifice for the atonement of humanity or did humanity need a sacrifice to accept forgiveness?"  John implies that it was God's will but this could be because God understands the needs of the people.  For a culture that was steeped in blood sacrifice, the death of Jesus makes sense in a way that may be somewhat confusing today.

Regardless of how we understand the death of Jesus today theologically, humanity continues to show a propensity for violence.  If we think that Christians are immune, we see that American Christians are largely in favor of capital punishment.  The church really didn't bat an eye about the Syrian missile strikes.  This is not to debate the pros and cons of these actions, merely to show that we have a fairly nonchalant attitude when it comes to dealing in death.

What does it mean to go along with the crowd today?  Do innocent people still suffer when we do?
The prayer for the day was written by Bishop Hassan Dehqani-Tafti, who was an Anglican leader in Iran.  It was written for the funeral of his son, Bahram when he was murdered during the Iranian Revolution in the 1970's.

Prayer for the day:

O God, we remember not only Bahram but his murderers.  Not because they killed him in the prime of his youth and made our hearts bleed and our tears flow;

Not because with this savage act they have brought further disgrace on the name of our country among the civilized nations of the world;

But because through their crime we now follow more closely thy footsteps in the way of sacrifice.

The terrible fire of this calamity burns up all selfishness and possessiveness in us.  Its flame reveals the depth of depravity, meanness and suspicion, the dimension of hatred and the measure of sinfulness in human nature;

It makes obvious as never before our need to trust in thy love as shown in the cross of Jesus and his resurrection,

Love that makes us free from all hatred towards our persecutors;

Love which brings patience, forbearance, courage, loyalty, humility, generosity and greatness of heart;

Love which more than ever deepens our trust in God’s final victory and his eternal designs for the Church and for the world;

Love which teaches us how to prepare ourselves to face our own day of death.

O God,

Bahram’s blood has multiplied the fruit of the Spirit in the soil of our souls: so when his murderers stand before Thee on the Day of Judgment, remember the fruit of the Spirit by which they have enriched our lives, and forgive.

Photo by Victor via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.