Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Walking with God

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Lectionary Reading: Psalm 23

Within Oklahoma, Governor Stitt has outlined a plan for houses of worship to reopen on Sunday.  At the same time, Bishop Nunn, who oversees the Oklahoma Conference, has determined that United Methodist churches in Oklahoma won't be reopening this early.  We will have further evaluation after May 17.  My guess is that we are looking more toward June for reopening the Edmond and Guthrie sanctuaries provided that coronavirus cases don't spike again.

We will do our best to communicate in advance when we will reopen as soon as a decision is made.

Even when we do our best, we often
break the six foot guideline in public.
I recognize that this is frustrating.  As the weather warms and we see more people getting outside, the urge to return to business as usual increases, especially in populations that are not statistically vulnerable to COVID-19.  A part of the reason for continued social distancing is to do no harm to those who may be vulnerable.  You may not wear the mask or keep six feet apart for yourself as much as for those you are trying not to infect.  As United Methodists, this is the first of John Wesley's General Rules: Do no harm.  The Center for Disease Control's guidelines for Social Distancing still instruct people to avoid mass gatherings and so we comply for the good of the whole.

We must be clear that even though the disease may wane in Oklahoma, it is still possible for people to catch it.  As we reopen businesses and see more mingling, we want to make sure that there is not a new surge of cases.  Even as we consider opening our church doors again, it is likely that guidelines will still be in place to leave every other pew open.  Our church nursery will not be available until we get the okay.  We won't be offering children's church until the nursery is available.  We won't be passing the peace with one another during worship and coffee and donuts won't be served before and after worship.  Offering plates won't be passed but rather people will deposit their offering as they exit the sanctuary.  The staff is still trying to figure out how we will offer Holy Communion while keeping everyone safe.

Some may look at this list and say, "Why bother?"  It is a part of the frustration we all feel in trying to get back to normal.  As Oklahomans, our economy is also impacted by the unbelievably low price of oil.  Even as the United States gained energy independence, our energy sector was driven by a certain amount of oil consumption.  With the pandemic, the demand for oil has dropped dramatically as people are not commuting to work, not traveling in airplanes or taking vacations on cruise ships.  This further complicates things for state economies that are enmeshed with the oil industry.

For many, this may be the last straw to set off frayed nerves.  It certainly can feel like the "Valley of the shadow of death" as per the King James version of Psalm 23.  So even though we are not able to meet in person, we are doing our best to offer the ability to worship as individuals or families as you shelter at home.  For those who don't have internet capability, we are happy to mail you a DVD of Sunday's service at no cost.  If you know of someone who doesn't have a DVD player, we have a limited number that were donated to help with our isolation.  Please leave a message on the church office phone at 405.341.0107 if you want to be added to the list.     

We are going to great lengths to provide worship because we recognize that our faith is vital to sustaining our spirits during this time.  On Sunday, we'll explore the most beloved of the Psalms.  As the Lord is our shepherd, it tests our faith to declare, "I shall not want" in a time when our desires are so evident.

I continue to pray for you as we seek to do what is right while at the same time looking to the safety of as many as possible.  If you're on Facebook, I would invite you to follow the Edmond and Guthrie church pages to easily find our online worship Sunday mornings at 11 am.  If you're not, I would invite you to subscribe to our Edmond YouTube page.  You can find Sunday's worship here.  If you watched on Facebook Sunday, you may have missed a surprise at the end of the service that you can see on YouTube!  Blessings to you as we move through this together!

In Christ,


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

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Thanksgiving Sacrifice

Third Sunday of Easter

Lectionary Reading: Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19 (NRSV)

This particular Psalm was evidently selected during the Easter season because one could easily interpret the selected verses as read from the perspective of the resurrected Jesus.

When we read, "The snares of death encompassed me", we would no longer see it as metaphorical but actual.  Jesus did, in fact, die.

And when we see the Psalmist say, “O Lord, I pray, save my life!”, we remember how Jesus prayed in Mark 14:36 in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

If we hear Jesus' voice in this Psalm, one cannot help but equate his mother Mary with the "serving girl" mentioned in verse 16.  It is Mary's very words from Luke 1:38 which state, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

So just as we see the risen Christ within these verses, we may also find them as verses that resonate with our lives as we go through the pain of isolation.

What does this do to people psychologically and
spiritually when we are created for community?
What stands out to me is the idea in verse 17 of offering a thanksgiving sacrifice.  This was done liturgically in the temple and the rules for such are lined out in Leviticus 7:11-18.  For modern American worshipers in the 21st century, our rituals surrounding thanksgiving usually occur around this named national holiday in the United States.  We also regularly offer praise and thanksgiving in worship through singing, litanies and corporate prayers.  We make an offering through our financial gifts that is hopefully done out of thanksgiving for all that we have received!

But what does it mean to express thankfulness itself as an offering?  And if we seek to be grateful when all around us is chaos, is this a sacrifice on our behalf?  Can I afford to part with my grief over all that I've lost?  Is it too much to look for resurrection or is this merely glossing over a deeper pain that will fester if I don't tend to it?  But if I tend to a wound too long, will it ever heal?

I hope to address these questions as we further examine this Psalm in worship on Sunday.  Plan on joining us either Sunday at 11 am via Facebook or YouTube or at a time of your choosing!

In Christ,


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

All scripture used from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Second Sunday of Easter - Year A

Lectionary Reading: 1 Peter 1:3-9 (NRSV)

The idea standing out for me in this Sunday's epistle reading is our spiritual inheritance that is a part of being in Christ.  Usually inheritance is considered in terms of material goods that we receive upon the death of our last living parent.  It can be cash accounts, stock or property such as homes or cars.  It may come from a life insurance settlement.

In the first century, inheritance meant that you had come into your own as the adult of the family.  It is your turn to call the shots.  Others may be looking to you for leadership.  At this point, you might have greater respect as the senior member of your family.  Your responsibility to those under you in the family hierarchy of the time would also rise.  Their fortunes and future depended on your decisions for how you utilized the resources at hand.

With COVID-19 targeting people over 60 as vulnerable, we have seen a great rise across the country in people tending to their wills and estates.  Our sense of duty in how we pass along our resources to the next generation becomes more prominent in our thoughts as we prepare for the worst while hoping for the best.  Lines of inheritance get especially tricky for those who have remarried after divorce or the death of a spouse and have children from the former marriages. 

Issues of inheritance can be difficult for the surviving children if things are not laid out clearly.  The affection between siblings can be damaged to the point where it is difficult to repair.  This is common to the human condition and even in Jesus' day we saw this in Luke 12:13-14:
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”
Even Jesus wants to avoid the trap of coming between a family squabble!

The inheritance I receive and hope to pass on
in Christ is life after the cross.
If we think about the inheritance we pass along from a spiritual sense, it may be that our duty to our loved ones changes a bit.  As the markets show us, money comes and goes but spiritual discipline and awareness are resources that help us in any crisis that we face.  They certainly help us to move through uncertainty with a greater sense of confidence.

I find it interesting that the epistle speaks of inheritance as something we receive after we die.  Rather than waiting for our parents to pass on, we are the ones who inherit when we leave this earth.  The factor mentioned in providing for our inheritance is the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  While most of the atonement theories on how we receive our salvation involve the death of Jesus, we see here that it is the resurrection that seems to bear more weight.

What does it mean to focus more on the resurrection of Jesus rather than the sacrificial imagery of the cross?  How does this speak to us as we are in the grips of such wholesale change in our lives? 

I hope to continue to wrestle with this idea as we worship on Sunday and I would be happy to have you join me at 11 am CST (or some time after this) either on Facebook or YouTube!

In Christ,


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

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Easter Sunday

Scripture Reading: Acts 28:23-31 (NRSV)

And here we see the journey complete.  We started out in the first chapter of Acts with the disciples receiving the mission to be witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus "to the ends of the earth."  As I mentioned yesterday, the establishment of the church in Rome becomes a launching place for the entirety of the Roman empire which was their known world at that time.

Paul was not one of those who initially receives this instruction but he discovers it as the story of the church unfolds.  We are reminded of the exponential nature of the Christian witness.  At some point, it is likely that one of the original apostles baptized Ananias who initially received Paul and baptized him. 

We see Paul continue with his witness to both Jews and Gentiles.  Even though he has continually found opposition (sometimes violent) within the Jewish populations, enough have evidently been convinced that he continues to pursue conversations with them. 

We do see his frustration as he quotes from Isaiah 6:9-10 as does Jesus in Matthew in 13:14-15.  But we find that this applies to all people.  There will always be people whether Jew or Christian that do not follow through with the teachings that are laid out before them.

It is fitting that we see Luke describing that Paul shares the gospel boldly and without hindrance.  We don't see anything about Paul's martyrdom in Rome.  There's not even any hint of it.  While some scholars think that there was a sequel in the works by Luke, I'm not sure that Luke doesn't end the story here as a nod to the resurrection.  All of us eventually die be that by violence such as Paul or by old age which is how we would prefer.  But Paul is never more alive here than when he is sharing the gospel in the capital city of the world in which he lived!

And on Easter Sunday, we remember that the resurrection does give us life!  It reminds us to look past our current troubles and to remember that all things renew.  We see God at work in bold as well as subtle ways that lift our spirits and restore our souls. 

As you are a beneficiary of the early work of the apostles, what witness will you bear to the resurrection faith?  How will your story be a part of the larger story of God in the world?  What lives will you touch in a positive way that will look back to you with thankfulness that your paths crossed?

It doesn't take large actions but rather a sense of transformation.  One that bids us to pay attention to those things that build up rather than tear down.  And in this, Christ is alive - in you, in me and in the world.

Prayer for the day:

Gracious God, through the cross, you recognize the frailty of humanity.
In raising Christ from the dead, you move past any limits of frailty and finality.
May we too be raised with Christ.
Free us from the hindrance of sin.
Move us in the Holy Spirit to the freedom of love,
that our very being would be born anew,
and that our witness would emerge from our identification with this marvelous resurrection faith!

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

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 40

Scripture Reading: Acts 28:1-22 (NRSV)

Paul's time on Malta is not without its excitement.  Prior to the healing of the sick, he lives through a venomous snake bite with no real consequence other than the locals begin to mistake him for a god.  This is not the first time we've seen this as we remember in chapter 14 he was confused for Hermes.

We see this snake handling among other miracles of Paul verified in Mark 16:17-18 which reads:
"And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
Verses 9-20 from chapter 16 in Mark were later additions to his gospel and it is quite likely that they were written after the Book of Acts.  Paul seems to display all of these except the drinking of poison.  However, he does seem to shrug off the venom of the snake.  We see Paul laying his hands upon the father of Publius in today's reading and he is healed.  Then he cures the diseases of all who were on the island.  I'm sure they would have been happy for him to remain!

As Paul takes warmth in the hospitality
of a campfire, they then receive the
blessing of healing and good health.
Paul must travel on so as to fulfill his mission from God.  He finally arrives in Rome and finds that he is preceded by the Christian witness as he encounters believers who came to meet him.  While they are not mentioned by name, one wonders if some of the people Paul writes to in his Epistle to the Romans were present. 

Once again, Paul engages the Jewish population.  While they have heard negative press against Christianity in general, they have not received any bad word against Paul.  He seems to have caught a break!

Rome as the capital city holds more importance for the ancient world than we may understand today.  For Christianity to thrive in the world as they knew it, a church in Rome was vital.  Paul's success can be seen if you visit today as Vatican City in Rome is the center of the Roman Catholic Church.

While we await Easter once more, what does it mean for the faith to have spread around the world to touch our lives?  What history had to happen for it to come and transform me?  And how am I shaping today the history of tomorrow?

Prayer for the day:

Almighty and most merciful Father, 
   in whom we live and move and have our being, 
   to whose tender compassion we owe our safety in days past, 
   together with all the comforts of this present life and the hopes of that which is to come; 
we praise you, O God, our Creator; 
unto you do we give thanks, 
   O God our exceeding Joy, who daily pours your benefits upon us. 
Grant, we beseech you, that Jesus our Lord, the Hope of glory, may be formed in us, 
   in all humility, meekness, patience, contentedness, 
   and absolute surrender of our souls and bodies to your holy will and pleasure. 
Leave us not, nor forsake us, O Father, 
   but conduct us safe through all changes of our condition here, 
   in an unchangeable love to you, 
   and in holy tranquility of mind in your love to us, 
   till we come to dwell with you, 
   and rejoice in you forever.  

Prayer by Simon Patrick, Church of England, 17th century

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

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 39 Good Friday

Scripture Reading: Acts 27:27-44 (NRSV)

Paul continues to drift with the ship full of crew and passengers as they seek some refuge in making it to shore.  It would have been frightening and not a little dangerous as they also began to go hungry.

The experienced sailors try to escape in a dinghy and Paul alerts the others that if they lose them, all are doomed.  This may have been a spiritual insight that Paul received or it may have been the common sense that you need people who know what they're doing on board if you are going to have a chance to survive.  When we see in verse 37 that there were 276 people on board, this is not a small ship or a small number of passengers.

Barely making it through the storms in life
may make you kiss the ground in thankfulness.
Luke writes Paul's advice for them to take bread as an allusion to Holy Communion.  While it would be doubtful that he would serve the sacrament to a ship full of people that didn't believe, we are reminded of the grace of God that provides us salvation through every meal.  It is when we are the hungriest that we are the most grateful for our food.

Once more, we see a centurion cast in a good light.  This pagan works on God's behalf as according to Paul, God's mission for him is to testify in Rome.  We are reminded in this that God works through whomever God chooses!

As I consider the sacrifices we are making on behalf of the coronavirus, I see correlation between Paul's being cast adrift and our society at large.  It seems as if we are floating, waiting for rescue.  We know that researchers are working diligently on a cure.  We hear that more tests are being made available which will give us a more accurate picture of local health.  But for the most part, we can only wash our hands and stay separated.

When we see the passengers going hungry, this reminds me that people continue to lose their jobs.  It seems like I'm hearing about more congregants every week whose employment has disappeared.  We need to make sure we don't abandon those who have lost their jobs. 

When the sailors hired to crew the ship want to leave the passengers to their fate, it reminds me of those who want to start up society again at the expense of the elderly or vulnerable.  The sailors have a duty to uphold even when it is difficult.  We all do even when it creates hardships.

It is a reminder that we will get through it together.  When Paul broke bread with his shipmates, it united them with one another.  As we stay connected, we are united in Christ in order to bring as many as possible through to safety on the other side.  Somehow that seems a fitting thought to me for Good Friday.

Prayer for the day:

O God, as on this solemn day we bow at the foot of the cross,
may the love that was manifested there stream into our hearts,
challenging and subduing them and winning from us that response
which is your will for us.  
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Prayer by Leslie D. Weatherhead, England, 20th Century

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

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 38

Scripture Reading: Acts 27:1-26 (NRSV)

The first part of this passage reminds me of a road trip journal.  We are seeing various ports in the Mediterranean Sea that give us an idea of Paul's journey to Rome.

The trouble with the storm reminds me of Jonah's flight to Tarshish.  While it is clear that Paul is sailing to Rome on behalf of God's call on his life, Jonah had done the opposite.  God was the one behind the storms in Jonah's day as we see in Jonah 1:4-6:
But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep. The captain came and said to him, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.”
Jonah seems to have a sense of calm about him even when running from God!  He's able to sleep through the storm and had to be awakened.  We find that Jonah's answer will be to save the ship and crew through sacrificing himself by jumping into the raging waters.

Paul doesn't make this same offer, likely because he doesn't see the storm as a stumbling block from God.  We do see them throw the cargo overboard as the mariners did in Jonah's day.  God's message to Paul is that everyone is going to live through this ordeal.

We also remember that Jesus slept through a storm on the waters.  We see it in Luke 8:22-25:
One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” So they put out, and while they were sailing he fell asleep. A windstorm swept down on the lake, and the boat was filling with water, and they were in danger. They went to him and woke him up, shouting, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he woke up and rebuked the wind and the raging waves; they ceased, and there was a calm.  He said to them, “Where is your faith?” They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”
While Paul has worked miracles including exorcisms, healing and even raising one from the dead, he evidently doesn't have authority over the waves as Jesus did.  I'm sure it wasn't for lack of prayer!

I feel like I'm waiting for the rainbow
at the end of the storm.
This is a good reminder that we often sail into storms in life not of our making.  We get caught up in chaos that just happens.  This is what it feels like as we bunker down for COVID-19.  We were minding our own business when business as usual just came to a screeching halt.  Some people are feeling annoyed.  Others are frightened.  We might even have the idea of "just a little bit longer..." and the whole thing will go away and we'll be back to normal any day now.

We remember that when the storms rage, we turn to our faith.  We would like for Jesus to wake up and rebuke the pandemic.  Barring that, we would like to hear a word like Paul's that says, "I urge you now to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you" and "God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you."

Ultimately, we will make it through this.  It will be difficult.  We will likely be touched by grief and loss.  But we remember that God sails with us.  And every age has its storms.

Prayer for the day:

Lord, our heavenly Father, who orders all things for our eternal good, mercifully enlighten our minds, and give us a firm and abiding trust in your love and care.  Silence our murmurings, quiet our fears, and dispel our doubts, that rising above our afflictions and our anxieties, we may rest on you, the rock of everlasting strength.  Amen.

Prayer from New Church Book of Worship, 1876

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

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 37

Scripture Reading: Acts 26:19-32 (NRSV)

Paul continues with his appeal to King Agrippa.  In reality, we see that Paul is seeking not to prove his innocence so much as convert Agrippa to Christianity!

When Paul mentions that the Messiah was foretold by the prophets that he must suffer, the risen Lord said this same message to the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:26:
Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”
We have already seen Isaiah's suffering servant referenced as the Messiah from Acts 8 where Philip meets the Ethiopian Eunuch.

Agrippa's response is not as harsh as that of Festus who claims that Paul is crazy!  But Luke gives the impression that maybe a seed was planted with the king.  History shows us that nothing comes of this and Josephus the historian implies an incestuous relationship (Antiquities of the Jews Book 20, Chapter 7) with Agrippa and his sister Bernice who was also present for Paul's testimony.

We can applaud Paul for his tenacity though!  What do we do with people who hear the testimony but do not believe?  Jesus mentions this very situation in Luke 10:23-24:
Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”
This reminds us that it is a common experience for people to miss what is in front of them.  What do we do with truth as we see it which others may not merely miss but actively refute?  We trust in our testimony and remind ourselves that God is also at work in their lives just as God is at work in ours.  As we engage in dialogue with them, we must remember that true dialogue happens when we learn from each other and we're not just letting them speak while we think about what we'll say next.

Authentic dialogue takes trust.
Sometimes Christians are so charged by their transformation in Christ that they want this same experience for everyone!  Their enthusiasm may be just what some people are looking for while simultaneously turning others off completely.  For these same others, a quiet confidence may be needed for them to hear.  But this seeming lack of enthusiasm may cause the first group to pass on their faith!

We may relax and remember that God uses all kinds of people to get the witness across.  How would you describe your own sense of witness to the world?  Does it primarily rely upon your actions to your neighbors?  If so, is there a good word you might say that would accompany this?  And if you are more verbal in your witness, how might doing a good deed quietly accentuate your message?

Prayer for the day:

give us weak eyes for things that are of no account
and clear eyes for all your truth.

Prayer by Soren Kierkegaard, Denmark, 19th Century 

Photo by Public Relations Society of America via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 36

Scripture Reading: Acts 26:1-18 (NRSV)

Paul begins his testimony before King Agrippa who was the ruler of parts of Palestine.  This is the third time in the Book of Acts that Luke relates his conversion (the first being 9:1-8; the second being 22:4-16).  We see Paul stand upon his Jewish credentials.  This was likely something he did throughout his career as he went from place to place, sharing faith in the synagogues.  We see this in his own words from Philippians 3:4b-6 as he writes:
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
In today's reading, he expounds upon his persecution of the church.  He was certainly a bulldog in his pursuit of those he felt were wrong.  In this third account, when Jesus speaks to Paul, we hear him add the phrase, "It hurts you to kick against the goads."  A goad was a sharp stick used to prod a donkey or an ox.  We see even Jesus acknowledging Paul's tiresome doggedness in pursuing what he thought was right.

We have all known people with this personality trait.  You may wonder why God would choose Paul to be such an emissary to the faith.  It may have been because he was so relentless in his pursuit of his ideals.  With his new understanding of faith, Paul will work toward this witness with the same sense of zeal.  When we began chapter one of Acts and we heard in verse eight, "you will be my witnesses...to the ends of the earth" we were thinking that it would be the original twelve (minus Judas) disciples.

Paul's transformation and elevation reminds us that God works in ways we would not foresee.  I don't think God inspired Paul to persecute the early church so that later Paul would have the appropriate cred to reach future persecutors.  But I do think that God uses misspent free will to create something new.

What places in your life were difficult to overcome or endure?  Which things would bring you shame if you trotted them out in the light of day?  Have they given you mettle?  Made you more compassionate?  Because of the sins of our past, are we more willing to forgive people who commit sins in the present?

Prayer for the day:

Gracious God, raise us from the death of sin unto the life of righteousness.  Do not let us forget our past but rather heal us from what still hurts.  As it scabs over and becomes a scar, let us bear it wisely.  Give us empathy with others who may be so currently afflicted.  May your Holy Spirit use our entire selves for the witness of the evangel that pervades the earth.  Amen.

Photo by judyboo via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.
All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 35

Scripture Reading: Acts 25:13-27 (NRSV)

Which kind of headwear do you think God prefers?
This is a good reminder of how outsiders perceive us when we have disagreements with those who are within the faith.  The Jews accusing Paul saw their differences as blasphemous and felt justified in wanting Paul's death for his work in sharing the gospel.  Paul understood his allegiance to Jesus Christ as fitting within the scope of Judaism as he saw it pointing to his Messiah.  But Festus and Felix only saw it as "they had certain points of disagreement with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who had died, but whom Paul asserted to be alive."

After two years of imprisonment, Paul is receiving an audience before the King.  In 60 CE, this would have been King Herod Agrippa II and Bernice was sister to the king.  This rising of Paul from prison to stand before the king is reminiscent of Joseph going from prison to stand before Pharaoh although Paul will not be elevated to an adviser. Interestingly, Joseph also waits in prison for two years before he receives an audience.

This also fulfills what Jesus declares in Luke 21:12-15:
“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify.  So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict."
As I have read about all of the disagreements within Christianity through the centuries, they don't ever seem as urgent from the pages of history as they must have seemed at the time.  This should remind us to step back from our religious disagreements if they are getting too heated.  Why are we getting so upset?  What is it about the disagreement that makes us so angry?  What is happening in your opponent's life that would make this upsetting for them?  Why are they getting hot under the collar?

To reduce our own heat and to understand ourselves is important in any conflict.  Then we can take the next step and seek understanding of our neighbor.  To really love our neighbors is to listen to them and seek clarification on why they think the way they do.  But I think it is always difficult to understand them if we don't understand ourselves.  If Christians can begin to disagree respectfully, those on the outside looking in might take notice about The Way.

Prayer for the day:

Father, we pray for your Church throughout the world, that it may share to the full in the work of your Son, revealing you to all and reconciling all to you and one another; that Christians may learn to love one another and their neighbors, as you have loved us; that your Church may more and more reflect the unity which is your will and your gift; we pray through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Prayer from Coventry Cathedral, Chapel of Unity, Church of England.

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

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Palm Sunday

Scripture Reading: Acts 25:1-12 (NRSV)

Porcius Festus was the new procurator of Judea and was appointed by Nero in 60 CE.  Since the previous procurator Felix was unwilling to do anything about Paul except to keep him imprisoned, the Jews Paul had enraged thought they might have better luck with the new leader.  They would like to get Paul out of Caesarea and back to Jerusalem.

Who was really imprisoned?  Paul or those
who would seek his death?
Festus invites them to come with him to Caesarea to accuse Paul there while Festus is present.  He asks Paul if he wishes to be tried in Jerusalem and Paul appeals to his right to trial as a Roman citizen.  This was his right if he was being accused of treason.   It must have been one of the charges they brought as he states that he has committed no offense "against the emperor."

This is a textbook case in letting your anger get the best of you.  If those who hated Paul for his teachings had left him to rot in jail, he may have been forgotten and unrecognized by the new procurator.  Would Festus have even been aware of Paul?  But by seeking greater vengeance against him, this gives him a greater stage.

Luke references Jesus from his gospel when he states in Luke 6:37-38:
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
This is not easy to do when we have an enemy.  When you have been slighted in your mind, the offender will often remain in our thoughts long after the slight has occurred.  But the power of forgiveness is that it limits an enemy's hold over your mindfulness.  We can move on to better things.

Is there someone negative in your life that dominates your thoughts?  Do they take up a disproportionate amount of your awareness?  If you considered forgiveness for this person, you might be able to limit the larger stage he or she is occupying. 

Prayer for the day:

Lord, you remind us that you will give us rest for our heavy burdens.  We do not need the burden of enmity but we have become used to carrying it.  We have forgotten what it is like to be light.  Aid us in our forgiveness of others.  May we remember that you will help us to be merciful when we are unable to begin the work ourselves.  Amen.

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

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 34

Scripture Reading: Acts 24:1-27 (NRSV)

Paul has now been moved to Caesarea, a coastal city NW of Jerusalem.  He's under trial before Antonius Felix who was the Roman procurator of the Judea province from 52-60 CE.  The prosecuting attorney, Tertullus, makes his case against Paul as an agitator and states that the last straw was Paul's attempt to profane the temple.  This was referring to Acts 21:27-29:
When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, who had seen him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd. They seized him, shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this place; more than that, he has actually brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple.
I have already referred to the Jewish restriction of Gentiles in the temple.  Roman rule sought to keep order in all of its provinces.  But they also sought to protect Roman citizens and Paul qualified.

Paul makes his own case and testifies that Christianity (aka the sect of the Nazarenes, aka the Way) remained within standard observance of Judaism.  His defense further underscores that this is really a matter of intra-religious debate in the Jewish faith concerning the resurrection.

Felix is note shown in the best light by Luke as he seems to be ruled by fear and greed.  He keeps Paul imprisoned in Caesarea for two years (58-60 CE) without making a judgment against him one way or another.  We see that the prophecy of Argabus from Acts 21:10-11 came true:
While we were staying there for several days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. He came to us and took Paul’s belt, bound his own feet and hands with it, and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” 
Paul certainly understood suffering for the sake of the gospel.  Within his epistles, the themes of freedom in Christ take on a new ring.  When he writes in 1 Corinthians 13:7 that love "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" we have new insight.

Quiet contemplation can lead us
to greater spiritual insights if we
take the time to ponder.
As we undergo the shelter-in-place orders while the world seeks to get a handle on COVID-19, we may also have a new appreciation for Paul.  We recognize that our own exile from society is nothing compared to Paul's imprisonment.  There was no Wi-Fi, cell phones or ice cream available to him!

Paul was productive in his incarceration.  We have the epistles that were composed while he was in jail.  This makes us think about "throw-away" time.  How can we take some time in thinking about the larger spiritual matters that we face in life?  Are there ways that we can incorporate spirituality into everyday chores that must be done?  Is there a larger issue of your faith that you would like to research?

Prayer for the day:

Psalm 130

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
   Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
   to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
   Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
   so that you may be revered.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
   and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
   more than those who watch for the morning,
   more than those who watch for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord!
   For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
   and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
   from all its iniquities.

Photo by photoholic1 via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 33

Scripture Reading: Acts 23:23-35 (NRSV)

Paul is being evacuated from Jerusalem for his own safety.  The number of soldiers listed by Luke seems a little exaggerated.  It would be economically unfeasible to give this kind of attention to every citizen of Rome that was threatened across the empire.

I think it is important when we read this today to realize that we experience it from a totally different context.  As Paul experienced persecution from Jewish rioters in Jerusalem, this was done in the circumstance where Christians were a minority among a Jewish majority.  Today, in the United States, there are around 6 million Jews as compared to Christians at around 213,000,000.  This difference equates to a power differential concerning life in our country.  For instance through much of the 20th century, blue laws shut down American life on Sundays (the Christian sabbath) rather than Saturday (the Jewish sabbath).

If we don't understand the power differential, tragedies like the Holocaust can occur. 

Paul understands both sides.  Prior to his baptism, he was a persecutor himself.  He experienced all of the privilege of being in the religious majority.  Now he is on the other side and yet his privilege this time is coming from his Roman citizenship.  This may have further enraged the Jewish population in Jerusalem because they would have preferred to self-govern.   

This dismissive slogan is insulting to a generation
but it also speaks volumes to how they are received
by those entering adulthood.
Christians in the United States today are finding a shifting population as far as how they are being received.  There is more skepticism these days concerning organized religion.  Things that we took for granted such as couples returning to church after they started having children are no longer the norm.  Nevertheless, we are still the majority in this country.  The danger is that Christianity may be seen as something quaint or outdated by younger generations. 

How do we speak as a majority to a generation that finds much of the majority tedious?  How do we share our faith in ways that can be heard rather than dismissed?  I'll take my cue from Paul.  It seems that he was going to be authentically himself.  He would speak to those who would hear and move on from those who wouldn't.  But his interest was in giving everyone a shot no matter where they showed up on the social status radar.

Prayer for the day:

O God, who has bound us together in this bundle of life,
give us grace to understand how our lives depend on the industry,
the honesty and integrity of our fellows;
that we may be mindful of their needs,
grateful for their faithfulness,
and faithful in our responsibilities to them;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr, Union Theological Seminary, 20th Century 

Photo by Trending Topics 2019 via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 32

Scripture Reading: Acts 23:1-22 (NRSV)

This is the third Ananias mentioned in Acts.  The first was struck dead in chapter 5 for not being honest in his gifts before God.  The second was the Christian who healed Paul of his blindness in chapter 9.  And now this Ananias was the high priest during the reigns of Claudius and Nero after being appointed by Herod Agrippa II in 48 CE.  He was later assassinated around 66 CE as reported by Jewish historian Josephus.

Paul's insult of him being a "whitewashed wall" is not well-known among scholars.  He may have been referring to a tomb which would have been unclean (not something a high priest would appreciate).  Matthew 23:27 mentions Jesus using similar language:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth."
This would make sense as we read Paul's letters.  He was not a man that was unable to stand up for himself.

When they call out Paul for his insolence toward the high priest, Paul claims ignorance as to this position and quotes Exodus 22:28:
 You shall not revile God, or curse a leader of your people. 
Americans look at cursing our leaders as a constitutional right!  United Methodists may forget that our own heritage from John Wesley included the General Rule of "Do No Harm."  Wesley specifically lines out (Paragraph 104 of the Discipline) that we should avoid "Uncharitable or unprofitable conversation; particularly speaking evil of magistrates or of ministers."  It wasn't profitable for Paul at the time (no matter how satisfying it might have been).

When Paul observes a division of the council, he quickly tries to move the antagonism from his own person to the issue of the resurrection.  He knows that he'll have allies in the Pharisees while at the same time verifying his enmity with the Sadducees.  It does seem to ramp them up but unfortunately, they come back around to Paul for their outlet.

A conspiracy arises that will end Paul's life with the involvement of not a small number of people.  Paul may have been one of those people you either loved or hated!  We see that he's comforted by another vision of the risen Jesus who indicates that he'll survive this encounter in order to testify in Rome. 

Then we see help come from an unexpected quarter.  Paul's own nephew learns of the attack and warns him.  We may be surprised to learn that Paul has a nephew (or a sister).  We don't find out either of their names and can only assume that the nephew was also a believer since he was close by to help out his uncle.  This is the only place they are referenced in scripture.  The tribune hears about the plan from Paul's nephew.  Since Paul is a Roman citizen, the tribune will be under stronger persuasion to keep this from happening under his watch.

Paul reminds us to bloom in the midst
of adversity.
When we see Paul's crisis, we see how God was moving to keep him continuing to witness until he got to Rome.  We know that Paul will eventually die in Rome but not before he can help the church there.  He composes his letter to the Romans prior to his visit.  Consequently, the whole church has been enriched by his actions (and the fact that he survives Jerusalem in today's reading).  How do we take comfort in God having more for us to do?  I think as we have long-term goals spiritually, this allows us to see past whatever current crisis we may be experiencing.

As we think about our own goals, it may be that you don't normally think about spiritual goals.  If you were to name an outwardly focused goal (your work with your neighbors) and an inwardly focused goal (your relationship with God), what would they be?

Prayer for the day:

Lord, we pray not for tranquility,
   nor that our tribulations may cease;
we pray for your spirit and your love,
   that you would grant us strength and grace to overcome adversity;
      through Jesus Christ.

Prayer by Girolamo Savonarola, Dominican friar, Italy, 15th century

Photo by Dr. Wendy Longo via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Daily Devotion for Lent 2020 - Day 31

Scripture Reading: Acts 22:17-30 (NRSV)

Paul has been addressing the mob that wanted to kill him, first identifying with them and then relating his conversion story.  In verses 17-21, we have an interlude of a flashback to Paul's arrival in Jerusalem.  He tells of receiving a vision of Jesus where Paul is given instruction to leave Jerusalem.  Paul actually argues with Jesus (similarly to how Ananias reacts to being instructed) by telling him, "They'll listen to me because I was just like them!"  Jesus doesn't respond to his line of reasoning but just exclaims, "Go!"  Paul is going to the Gentiles.

Paul is arguing with Jesus because he wants his Jewish audience to believe.  He wants the message to ease their anger so that they can be transformed as he has been transformed.  His compassion may remind us of Abraham bargaining with God on the fate of Sodom.  After Abraham continues to bring down the number he needs to instigate their salvation, I like when he finally says, "Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more."  But just as Abraham doesn't find the ten righteous that he needs, Paul is about to find out that he should have listened to Jesus.

We discover that the crowd is ready to kill Paul.  Jesus should know what he is talking about because he had faced a similar crowd some years earlier.  Luke 23:20-23 seems to resonate here:
Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.” But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed.
Sometimes you get a better deal
if you are local or know the culture.
Here the tribune is about to have information beaten out of Paul but Paul's citizenship once more comes to his aid.  We see that while his foreign status (being from Tarsus) was not necessarily helpful to a Jewish audience, his Roman citizenship was beneficial for where Jesus was sending him.  It reminds me of Moses being raised as an Egyptian and then is able to later negotiate with Pharaoh likely because he knows the ways of the court.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was educated in Boston but returned to his people in the south to lead them to freedom.  Similarly, Mahatma Gandhi was educated in England and then brought freedom to his people first in South Africa and then in India.  Here we see Paul being sent to the Gentiles - people of an empire which was familiar to him.

If you were to examine your background, would you find experiences and commonalities that would help you relate to certain people today?  How can you bring this to light?  Do you ever argue with Jesus about what you are to do or say?  Who do you know - with whom are you familiar - that needs to hear a good word from you today and might receive it well?

Prayer for the day:

For a clearer vision of the work you have set before us and for a better understanding of your gospel, Lord direct us.
For a deeper commitment in your service and a greater love for all your children, Lord direct us.
For a fresh understanding of the task before us and for a sense of urgency in our proclamation, Lord direct us.
For a greater respect and acceptance among Christians of different traditions and for a common goal in evangelism, Lord direct us.

Prayer from liturgy of the Anglican Province of the Indian Ocean

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

All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.