Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Daily Devotion for Lent 2018 - Wednesday, Day 13

Scripture Reading: Genesis 17 (NRSV)

Abram becomes Abraham.  His name change signifies the covenant God makes with him.  This would have been a less painful expression of the covenant than circumcision.  Circumcision becomes the sign of the covenant that males could not hide if they were undressed.  Even the slaves of the Jews were to be circumcised.  It became a part of the Jewish identity.

Jesus is also circumcised according to Luke 2:21: "After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb."
Baptism has become the
new sign of the covenant for 
the Christian community.

One interesting point in this passage is that God gives Abraham and his people, "the land where you are now an alien."  This reminder of displacement would become important to their identity as a people.  Later, they remember what it is like to be mistreated as slaves.  When they are at their best, they allow this part of their narrative to shape their compassion toward others who are outsiders.  Of course, we are not always at our best.

Jesus often instructed his followers to put themselves in the shoes of another.  He tells the parable of the unforgiving servant.  In this story, a slave is forgiven a ridiculous amount of money.  He later shows no mercy to a fellow slave who owes him a pittance in comparison.  As we see the lack of character shown here, Jesus reminds us that we better exceed the forgiven slave in compassion!

Jesus claims the Jewish identity, becoming an extraordinary teacher.  But he claims the identity which reminds us to not sweep the difficulties of our past under the rug.  Rather, we are to allow our hardship to remind us to be diligent in offering grace.

God, give me eyes to see:
eyes to see my neighbor as you see her
eyes to see past his faults and sins
eyes to see beauty where the world may see ugliness
eyes to see the resurrection beyond the cross.

Photo by Andrew Schaeffer, April 10, 2016, First United Methodist Church of Edmond

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Daily Devotion for Lent 2018 - Tuesday, Day 12

Scripture Reading: Genesis 16 (NRSV)

Hagar is an Egyptian slave.  Presumably, she was acquired by Abram when they were in Egypt and Abram obtained female slaves due to the goodwill established when Sarai became a part of the harem of Pharaoh.

For Hagar, she may have felt superior to Sarai from the beginning.  Living in the city of Pharaoh would have been culturally an increase in status over living in the tent of a nomadic herdsmen, even one that was rich.  Someone raised in a city often believes there are more opportunities in an urban setting than in a rural one.

In that day, a wandering life may have been cleaner than an urban one but people didn't associate a lack of disease with cleanliness yet.

If we come across a spring in our desert,
sometimes it is difficult to leave it.
When Hagar conceives while her mistress remained barren, we are not sure what kind of behavior would have been defined as "contempt" but whether it was imagined or justified, Sarai treats Hagar harshly as was her legal right (certainly not her moral right).

Hagar abandons her mistress and is a runaway slave.

She, too, has a mystical experience in the midst of her flight and understands God telling her to return and submit to Sarai.  She will be the mother to a great people through her son Ishmael.

This is a disturbing scene in imagining God telling anyone to submit to slavery, let alone a woman who was just treated harshly.

As we fast forward to Jesus, he also lived in a culture where slavery was the norm.  The gospels do not prohibit slavery but instead accept it as a part of society.  They also do not seek to overturn the blood inheritance of royalty but there are seeds within which spark a longing for a better way to live.

When Jesus has to ease tension within his disciples, he states in Matthew 20:25b-28:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Jesus doesn't condone slavery as much as he shocks the reader of his day about the perception or attitude of slavery.

So as we continue in Lent, we must ask the difficult question, "What does it mean to serve?"  and maybe the even harder follow-up question, "How much am I willing to take?"

God, I'm going to hold steady on You, an' You've got to see me through.  Amen.

Prayer by Harriett Tubman, African-American abolitionist, 19th century

Photo by Yair Aronshtam via  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Daily Devotion for Lent 2018 - Day 11, Monday

Scripture Reading: Genesis 15 (NRSV)

We have a unique encounter with Abram and God in this chapter.  It has all of the characteristics of a mystical experience as defined by William James in his classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience

It is ineffable.  When we read this encounter, we are left saying, "What just happened?"  It seems weird.  It must have been hard for Abram to describe to his offspring who passed on the story.

It is noetic.  Abram's precluding question to this experience was, "how am I to know that I shall possess (this land)?"  After the encounter, we see God confirm upon Abram a surety of knowledge of ownership even though the lands were occupied by others.

It is transient.  This encounter doesn't last long and is unique.  Abram doesn't speak of it being repeated although it may have been ritualistic to pass between the pieces as Jeremiah 34:18 states, "And those who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make like the calf when they cut it in two and passed between its parts".  This may have had the intent of keeping a person honest as they pass through two halves of a (formerly) living creature.  Thus shall happen to me if I break the covenant.

It is passive.  A mystical encounter may leave one feeling as if they were in the grip of a superior power.  Abram certainly felt this way following his encounter with God.

Fire has been included in mystical experiences
likely since its development. We still light candles
as a part of worship today.
What stands out to me as I read this passage this time is that the mystical experience comes after the doubts of Abram.  He is seeking assurance. We often seek assurance from God.  We want to KNOW and we want to know NOW!

Abram's assurance also brings with it a foreshadowing of suffering.  His descendants will be slaves in Egypt for 400 years.  This reminds us that the human experience includes great blessing but also great difficulty.

When Jesus is asked to heal a Roman centurion's son, he is sent a message by the officer that he need not come to the house.  He believed that Jesus could heal him from a distance.  Jesus responds that he hasn't seen this kind of faith in all Israel!

It would be nice for us to put away our doubts but the more common experience is that we all have them.  Mystical experiences do not come very often to us.  Sometimes after we have them, we may even doubt ourselves later.  Did we really have an encounter with God or was it just a dream?

As we continue in Lent, may we recognize that our own insecurities may be the author of our doubts.  May we rest in Christ with assurance today.

Lord, I believe!  Help my unbelief!  Amen.

Prayer from Mark 9:24.  

Photo from angela c. via  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Daily Devotion for the Second Sunday in Lent 2018

Scripture Reading: Genesis 13-14 (NRSV)

These are rather interesting passages which highlight the wealth of Abram.  He and his nephew Lot are nomadic herdsmen who have so much livestock that they can't live near each other.

Then Lot gets caught in a struggle between five kings allied together against four other kings in what reads like a Peter Jackson movie.  Abram's special forces are then sent out on a night-time raid to get his nephew back.  

After successfully rescuing Lot and routing the enemy, Abram is blessed by the High Priest Melchizedek in a ritual utilizing bread and wine.  In a show of magnanimity, Abram then returns all of the goods that his men recovered to the king of Sodom.  

Jesus may have been influenced in his initiation of the Eucharist by Melchizedek's blessing using bread and wine.  We can see that this usage was for a time of peace and we still understand the meal to be reconciling today.

As Jesus saw the wealth of his ancestor Abram, how would someone who has "nowhere to lay his head" think about it?  

Sometimes we all wander off.
Jesus tells a parable about a flock of one hundred sheep.  One of them gets lost in the wilderness.  The rest are left and the one is secured and returned.  

Abram didn't cut his losses with his family.  He went after his nephew.  One of great wealth might be tempted to let a solitary sheep go - especially if it meant that the rest of the sheep might wander off.  However, Jesus shows that God values each of us even though God has plenty of people to go 'round!  

This makes an important statement about God.  It also reminds us that God expects us to value one another.  In a day where people are regularly written off, this is important for people of faith to practice what we preach.

God of love,
whose compassion never fails;
we bring, before thee the troubles and perils of people and nations,
the sighing of prisoners and captives,
the sorrows of the bereaved,
the necessities of strangers,
the helplessness of the weak,
the despondency of the weary,
the failing powers of the aged.
O Lord, draw near to each;
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Prayer by Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, 11th Century

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Saturday, February 24, 2018

Daily Devotion for Lent 2018 - Day 10, Saturday

Scripture Reading: Genesis 12 (NRSV)

Abram, prior to his name change to Abraham, is blessed by God to be a blessing.

The responsibility of his favored status is apparent from the beginning.  God grants greater gifts not to be hoarded but to ensure that the world is transformed.

This idea has influenced much of Wesleyan theology including the sacrament of baptism where we understand that this blessing by God calls each of us into some kind of Christian ministry to the world.

Jesus understands this at his baptism as he sees God's favor.  He immediately journeys to the desert to fast in preparation for his public ministry.
Youth are participating in a relay race
where some are given disadvantages.  All must
cross the finish line to win.  We practice being
a blessing at a young age!

I wonder if the journeys of Abram and Sarai influenced the itinerant ministry of Jesus?  If he saw himself in this role of blessed-to-be-a-blessing, did he seek to travel widely in order to touch as many lives as possible?  His ministry definitely transformed each part of the world he touched.

Another interesting tie between Abram and Jesus from today's chapter is the journey to Egypt.

Jesus flees to Egypt as an infant in Matthew 2:13-23.  Of course, Joseph, son of Jacob, rises to power later in Genesis and is the key reason for the Israelites ending up in Egypt as a people.  When Hosea 11:1 states, "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son." he is referring to the people called out during the Exodus.  By including this quote in 2:15, Matthew is referencing Jesus as the new Moses.  Just as Moses leads his people to eventual freedom, Jesus frees us from the bondage of sin and death.  

As we continue on our own Lenten journeys, today's passage may allow us to hold up the mirror to our own lives and ask, "What gifts have I received from God?"  Am I utilizing these gifts to share with others?  How does my life bless the people I encounter?

O Lord, baptize our hearts into a sense of the conditions and needs of all people.  Amen.

Prayer by George Fox, 17th Century, England, founder of the Quakers

Photo taken by Quent Wheeler on June 14, 2017 at Canyon Camp, Oklahoma.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Daily Devotion for Lent 2018 - Day 9, Friday

Scripture Reading: Genesis 11 (NRSV)

"Why does that man talk funny?"

"He's speaking in another language.  He understands everything he is saying."

"Where did his language come from?"

"Well, let me tell you the story of the Tower of Babel..."

The first part of chapter eleven deals with the origin of linguistics.  It was not a scientific explanation as modern science was unknown to the people telling the story.  But it was an explanation rooted in their theology.

If God is sovereign, then God must have created languages just as God created people.  It comes in a single event rather than developing over time.

It's amazing how many times I've had 
difficulty understanding people speaking
my native tongue in other places around the world.
This makes sense for us at this moment in time.  Because we are here in the now.  The languages we can observe are here in the now.  They must have always existed like they are now.

We know that the English language (in which this blog is written) did not exist when Genesis was first written down.  We can trace how it evolved through time (and continues to change).

So according to Genesis, why do people speak different languages?

Because of hubris.

People placed themselves in the realm of God (in the heavens).  As idolatry is later addressed in scripture, this is an idolatrous act - presuming to replace God.  The consequence is division.

When we place ourselves as God, it results in an elevation of the self.  To take over the realm of God may also mean that I elevate myself over you.  Human achievement becomes worthy of worship rather than God.

There are many times we would seek to do this today.  We celebrate advancements in medicine and longevity.  However, even though it is delayed, we still face mortality.  It is a good thing to have a long life if it contains quality.  I, too, celebrate these new discoveries.  But they are not the end-all.

When Jesus is tempted in the desert with all the kingdoms of the world, it is offered to him if he would worship the devil.  This is the ultimate displacement of God - a matter of following the opposite of God's will.  Jesus resists with the words, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him." from Deuteronomy 6:13.

This stance could also come from today's story in Genesis.

As we continue in Lent, we might ask ourselves where we may tend to elevate things over God.

Set our hearts on fire with love of thee,
O Christ our God,
that in that flame we may love thee with all our heart,
with all our mind,
with all our soul,
and with all our strength,
and our neighbors as ourselves;
so that, keeping they commandments,
we may glorify thee, the giver of all good gifts.

Prayer source unknown from the Eastern Orthodox tradition

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Thursday, February 22, 2018

Daily Devotion for Lent 2018 - Day 8, Thursday

Scripture Reading: Genesis 9-10 (NRSV)

Wolves fight over food. We are more sophisticated
in our territorialism but a lot of the time it still
comes down to being afraid.
We have a kind of re-boot following the flood.  This time around, people are given the option of eating the animals.  If you read Genesis 1:28-31, it implies that only the vegetation was originally given for food.  Now we seem to have the menu opened up dramatically.

The similarity in these two passages is the command to "be fruitful and multiply" however, the difference lies with the "fear and dread" that all animals shall have of humanity.  While this may sound like good news if you questioned where you were on the food chain, now that we are firmly on top, it comes with a little chagrin.

At this point, it seems that God institutes capital punishment for murder.  The life for a life model is the first step in the ordering of human society.  It is used as a deterrent for violence.  Interestingly, God doesn't utilize this standard in dealing with Cain when he slew his brother, Abel.

When Jesus references homicide in the Sermon on the Mount, this is what he says:

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire."
                       Matthew 5:21-22 (NRSV)

Jesus has higher hopes for humanity at this point.  Don't even allow yourself to become angry with someone else. God seems to be instilling a greater order on how people interact.  On the days where I'm optimistic for people, I believe that we are making progress.  However, there are other days when it feels like Cain and Abel all over again.    

Maybe on these days, I should initiate God's action toward Cain and seek to forgive rather than God's directive to Noah that seeks retribution.  Jesus seems to move me to the former rather than the latter.  

It is definitely the harder road to take as oftentimes our own anger leads us to seek vengeance.  Maybe that's why Jesus bids us to master this difficult emotion.

We are reluctant, O Author of Love,
   to set aside our hurt, our anger, our disappointment.
Heal us with your tender touch,
   that we might be cleansed of all unclean thoughts,
   all schemes of revenge, all hope of vindictive retribution.
Open our eyes to the power of love,
   shown to us in the unselfish sacrifice
      of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen. 

Prayer by Michael J. O'Donnell, The United Methodist Book of Worship

Photo by Tambako The Jaguar via  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Daily Devotion for Lent 2018 - Day 7, Wednesday

Scripture Reading: Genesis 8 (NRSV)

One cold January in the early 1990's, when I was serving as a youth minister at New Haven United Methodist Church, we made a float out of chicken wire and white tissue paper.  It was a dove that we pulled on a trailer behind a truck during the Martin Luther King, Jr. parade in Tulsa.

Except that a winter wind made the parade less than pleasant.  To make matters worse, driving our float through town to get to the start of the parade route left the dove looking like a skeleton of itself after leaving behind a trail of tissue paper.  It looked more like a bomber than a dove when we crossed the finish line of the parade.

This is ironic in that the dove is supposed to be a symbol of peace.

In today's reading, the dove is symbolic of the reconciliation of humanity with the land.  Noah and his family were ready to leave the ark and take up residence on the earth again when the dove failed to return signifying the dawn of a new day.

The dove represents the Holy Spirit at the baptism of Jesus.

Mark 1:10 remarks, "And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him."

This signifies to the reader the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus.  Just as the dove signaled a new start for Noah, it also signals a new beginning - a new vocation - for Jesus.

As we continue in Lent, it is good for us to think about new beginnings.  What new start would you hope to celebrate in your life this year?

a prayer to the Spirit as dove

Holy Spirit,
when Jesus Christ
came up out of the waters of baptism,
the sky lit up with the voice of the Father
you—you alit on Christ in the form of a dove.
You descended not as an eagle,
powerful and regal;
not as a hawk,
keen-eyed and quick;
not as a sparrow,
flitting to and fro;
but a
You descended upon Christ as a meek bird,
the sort of bird that the poorest of the poor
could afford to offer as a sacrifice,
with wings full of peace and hope, too,
like the dove who returned to Noah
after six straight weeks of unrelenting rain,
with a sprig of olive in her beak,
extending the hope of life once again.
When you alit on Christ at his baptism,
full of meekness and innocence,
you anointed him for a ministry
not of royal power
or military might,
but of humility, hope, purity, peace.
Anoint us with those same gifts,
and send us out wise as serpents
and innocent as doves,
preparing the way for hope and peace.
In the gentle, humble name of Jesus the Son, we pray,

Prayer by Grace Claus from her blog, Forsythia Root.

Photo by sheilapic76 via  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Daily Devotion for Lent 2018 - Day 6, Tuesday

Scripture Reading: Genesis 7 (NRSV)
This horse was saved from the floods in Houston
in 2016.  It plucks at the heartstrings to think
about the horses (or people) that didn't make it.

The animals featured in the Noah story have kept this tale in children's Bibles for generations.  Most of the time, these editions omit the part where the rest of humanity is washed away in the flood.

This story definitely has a pension for works righteousness as Noah is the only righteous person that God has been able to find.  So Noah and his family get seats on the boat while everyone else drowns.  From a Christian standpoint, this seems to be the opposite of grace.

As we think about how Jesus was influenced by this story, it is interesting that the grace he represents is for the righteous and the unrighteous alike.  

John 3:16-17 may contend for most well-known verses in the Bible (certainly if you took verse 16 alone): 
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."

Jesus certainly spoke about judgment.  But our overall image of Jesus is the grace we receive.  Jesus is the one washed away by the pain and suffering of crucifixion rather than the rest of the known world.  Substitutionary atonement suggests that his sacrifice pays for our sins.

Some biblical scholars have difficulty with this kind of atonement because it makes God seem a little blood-thirsty.  After all, why would an almighty God need any kind of payment, let alone blood from an innocent?  Couldn't God just forgive us?

As I consider how we think about God, it is clear that the theologians writing about Noah were attempting to talk about such a difficult natural disaster.  If their world was flooded such as the Black Sea's sudden movement into its current location during the Halocene epoch, it would certainly be notable and survivors would try to explain it.  There are flood myths from many Middle Eastern cultures.  

How the Bible talks about Noah means that God is in charge of the universe - even if it means ascribing horrible disasters to God.  People in that day may not have thought about those who died because they would obviously had as their ancestor the one found righteous in God's eye.

As we begin to think more deeply about these kind of disasters, Jesus tells people that sometimes bad things just happen as when he says in Luke 13:4-5a:
"Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?  No, I tell you."

So if this is the case, we must always put ourselves in the part of Noah's family when hearing this story because in this sense, we are saved by God.  And it may be that God did not require blood as much as the people used to making sacrifices to appease God.  Jesus is willing to do whatever is necessary to communicate this grace to us.  As I think about this, it makes it that much more difficult for me to bear.  And so what is my response to God?

Move our hearts with the calm, smooth flow of your grace.
Let the river of your love run through our souls.
May my soul be carried by the current of your love towards the wide, infinite ocean of heaven.
Stretch out my heart with your strength,
as you stretch out the sky above the earth.
Smooth out any wrinkles of hatred or resentment.
Enlarge my soul that it may know more fully your truth.

Prayer by Gilbert of Hoyland, Lincolnshire, England, 12th Century

Photo by Pinke via  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Daily Devotion for Lent 2018 - Day 5, Monday

Scripture Reading: Genesis 6 (NRSV)

There are some interesting narratives going on within chapter six.

We begin with the Nephilim who are similar to demigods of mythology.  They explain legendary heroes of the day and appear to survive the impending flood as the "afterward" of verse four implies.  They are mentioned again in Numbers 13:33 when Moses sends out spies to scout out the land which occurred well after the flood.

Jesus is silent about them but does mention the flood of Noah in Matthew and Luke.  Jesus is likening the coming of the Son of Man to the flood of Noah in that it is unexpected and will be difficult for many.

As we look at Genesis, this is one of the passages where we see the judgment of God come to light.  Many people like to imagine that God is more judgmental (with extra wrath) in the Old Testament and that this is not on display in the New Testament.  These verses from Matthew and Luke belie this point.

Oklahoma City National Memorial, Murrah Building, bombing
taken July 12, 2010
Was the flood sent out to destroy a violent world?  Was this kind of a cultural reset for humanity?  If sin is inherited as a kind of orientation to the self, then Noah and his family surely are carriers.  Sometimes values are passed on through teaching rather than genetically.  Since systems resist change, it may be that something drastic was needed.

And yet, the violence of today such as the school shooting in Parkland makes us wonder if we are any better?  Jesus invites us to be watchful.  Maybe I need to watch how I take part in a system of violence where children are killed.  We weary when the innocent are murdered and it seems that the names of these schools are soon lost to memory.   

As we journey with Jesus to the cross, what can be done to alleviate the suffering of the innocent?  This is a Lenten question if ever there was one.  My hope is that God won't choose to do anything too drastic.  As a parent, it is hard to imagine my response if it were my child that died in the shooting.  But maybe God calls us to identify with them - that in our solidarity, we are stronger than when we choose to forget.

I am the building that was blown apart by a bomb in the "heartland" of America. My heart is blown open. The front of me falls away: I am the gaping floors, the broken glass, the dangling wires, the film of concrete dust that rises into the air.

This is my body.

I am the children who were killed: the little ones, the innocent, tender little people full of play and laughter. The babies.

This is my body.

I am the women and men who were killed, the mother, father, husband, wife, grandparent, neighbor, relative, friend, startled by death on an ordinary day.

This is my body.

I am those who mourn: the suddenly bereaved, the shocked, the bereft. I am the mother clutching a picture of her two children, the husband grieving his newly-wed wife.

This is my body.

I am the rescue workers, the medical personnel, those who hope against hope, and those who are faithful even when there is no hope, those who press on into the rubble, searching for the living, the wounded, the dead, searching for what is human, for what is loved.

This is my body.

I am the ones who planned and planted the bomb: the hardhearted, the fearful, the numb and angry ones who no longer care.

This is my body.

I am the ones who fill the airwaves with venom and hate. "Take them out in the desert and blow them up." "Shoot 'em." "I hope they fry."

This is my body.

I am the Holy Spirit, brooding over our bent world with bright wings. I am the wings of Jesus, tenderly outstretched above the city, sheltering everything and everyone beneath.

This is my body.

I cannot hold it all. I hand it to you, Jesus. Hold it with me. And suddenly I see that I am handing you the cross: here, you carry it.

I cannot.

And he has taken it up. He is carrying all of this, all of this. The dead, the wounded, and those who mourn; the killers and those who were killed; the frightened, the angry, the sorrowful--he is carrying all of this, all of us, every part of us, into the loving heart of God.

A Prayer after the Oklahoma City Bombing
Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, April, 1995

Photo by natalie419 via  Used under the Creative Commons license.