Crossing over the Jordan…

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Joshua 3:14 When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people. 15 Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, 16 the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing toward the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho. 17 While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.

After 40 years of wandering in the wilderness the Israelites finally cross over into the Promised Land. They did so by walking across the River Jordan on dry land, in a very similar manner as they did 40 years earlier by crossing the Red Sea. The two water crossings serve as bookends to the season of wandering.

Our passage for today reminds me that God can overcome what appear to be insurmountable obstacles to our eyes. I’m thinking especially of the novel coronavirus which seems out of control right now. When will it end? Only God knows. Dear Lord, hold us in your care in this time of pandemic. By your power, lead us to the other side. Amen.

God’s provision: physical/spiritual…

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Luke 11:1–4 (NRSV): He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2 He said to them, “When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
3 Give us each day our daily bread.
4 And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

This is what many Christians refer to as the “Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father” for Catholics. It’s a shorter version than the one in Matthew. There are two things that stick out for me this morning.

First, there is “Give us each day our daily bread”. Bread represents the things we need for physical sustenance: food, water, shelter, and so on. The idea is that we should not expect to receive a year’s supply of what we need to stash for a rainy day. Instead it’s a posture of daily need and dependence. It also squares with Jesus’ directions to the 70 disciples sent out to visit towns and villages in Luke 10. They weren’t allowed to take anything with them for the journey, but to depend on the Father’s provision one day at a time. In a world that scorns living “paycheck to paycheck” the idea of daily provision is frowned up as being irresponsible. It’s a clear tension of culture for us Christians.

Secondly, there is “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” If bread represents our physical need, forgiveness represents our spiritual need. I’m again interested in the reciprocal nature of forgiveness. God forgives us first and then we are expected to extend forgiveness to others. However, in other places in the gospels Jesus makes plain that refusal to forgive others jeopardizes our own forgiveness. It’s considered unthinkable by God that we would receive forgiveness of EVERY sin and then refuse someone else.

Heavenly Father this morning we ask for you to provide for our every need today: physical and spiritual. Give us grace to trust you in both and by so doing experience the blessedness of your Kingdom. For we pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Saying no in order to say yes

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Luke 10:38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

I’d like to think if Jesus were sitting in my home offering his teaching, I’d choose time with Jesus over cooking a meal, but who knows. Hospitality was a very important value in ancient Israel so the pressure to feed their guest would have been significant. Martha feels like Mary dumped dinner on her, and maybe she did. But Jesus would not scold Mary for her choice.

I don’t have meals to prepare in the mornings when I read scripture, but other tasks call out to me. There are mornings when I think I don’t have the time to read and reflect on God’s word. I can rationalize my choices no matter what they are. But the truth is every day that I read and write, I’m saying no to important things so I can say yes to the most important.

The same is true for you, of course, in your reading this blog and whatever else you do as a spiritual discipline. I want to commend you for showing up, for saying no to other things in order to be here. And in the times when you’re tempted to skip your reading, remember there are believers all over the world sharing in your temptation and choosing God’s word along with you. Praise be to God!

Apparently the commandment of God is in fact too hard…

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Deuteronomy 30:11 Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 14 No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

This is the conclusion of the people of Israel receiving the law from God – the commandments, statutes, and ordinances. V.11 above got my attention because Israel would fail miserably at keeping the law. True, the commands of God were not “too far away”. They were not hidden or high up on a mountain somewhere. They were written and kept in the midst of the people. Moreover, the commands were not complicated or hard to understand. In this sense v.11 is correct.

However it was human sin that got in the way of Israel following the law and receiving God’s blessing. Instead they reaped the curses of God. Left to our own devices human beings are completely incapable of pleasing the Lord, obeying the Lord, completely submitting to his will.

Thank God we have Jesus our Savior through whom we have received the gift of salvation. Our sins are forgiven and we are restored to God the Father. And thank God for the Holy Spirit that strengthens and purifies us, giving us some hope of living as God has designed for us. Not perfectly of course, but to a much greater degree than when we are left to our own strength and will.

BTW I’m again taking a few days off to rest and pray and renew. You may not see me post much this week – and that is why. Love and peace to all of you.

Angry God

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Deuteronomy 28:58 If you do not diligently observe all the words of this law that are written in this book, fearing this glorious and awesome name, the LORD your God, 59 then the LORD will overwhelm both you and your offspring with severe and lasting afflictions and grievous and lasting maladies… 63 And just as the LORD took delight in making you prosperous and numerous, so the LORD will take delight in bringing you to ruin and destruction; you shall be plucked off the land that you are entering to possess.

Here is a continuation of the description of judgment that would befall Israel as a result of their disobedience to the law God had given them. And while it reads much like yesterday’s passage there is a part that really challenges me:

“so the Lord will take delight in bringing you to ruin and destruction”

This is hard for me to swallow. As a father of three young adult children I know what it is to bring correction/discipline to children, particularly younger children. It’s our job as parents to do this work. Bringing correction is part of the job, but I never enjoyed it or took delight in it. Apparently God sees it differently, which is his prerogative since he is, you know, God. But as I wrote yesterday, this image of God doesn’t square with my understanding of him.

Lord the truth is you confuse me sometimes. Give me grace to make peace with my limited knowledge and understanding of you. I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

A brutal dimension of God…

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Deuteronomy 28:20 The LORD will send upon you disaster, panic, and frustration in everything you attempt to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly, on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me. 21 The LORD will make the pestilence cling to you until it has consumed you off the land that you are entering to possess. 22 The LORD will afflict you with consumption, fever, inflammation, with fiery heat and drought, and with blight and mildew; they shall pursue you until you perish. 23 The sky over your head shall be bronze, and the earth under you iron. 24 The LORD will change the rain of your land into powder, and only dust shall come down upon you from the sky until you are destroyed. 25 The LORD will cause you to be defeated before your enemies; you shall go out against them one way and flee before them seven ways. You shall become an object of horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. 26 Your corpses shall be food for every bird of the air and animal of the earth, and there shall be no one to frighten them away. 27 The LORD will afflict you with the boils of Egypt, with ulcers, scurvy, and itch, of which you cannot be healed. 28 The LORD will afflict you with madness, blindness, and confusion of mind; 29 you shall grope about at noon as blind people grope in darkness, but you shall be unable to find your way; and you shall be continually abused and robbed, without anyone to help. 30 You shall become engaged to a woman, but another man shall lie with her. You shall build a house, but not live in it. You shall plant a vineyard, but not enjoy its fruit. 31 Your ox shall be butchered before your eyes, but you shall not eat of it. Your donkey shall be stolen in front of you, and shall not be restored to you. Your sheep shall be given to your enemies, without anyone to help you. 32 Your sons and daughters shall be given to another people, while you look on; you will strain your eyes looking for them all day but be powerless to do anything. 33 A people whom you do not know shall eat up the fruit of your ground and of all your labors; you shall be continually abused and crushed, 34 and driven mad by the sight that your eyes shall see. 35 The LORD will strike you on the knees and on the legs with grievous boils of which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head. 36 The LORD will bring you, and the king whom you set over you, to a nation that neither you nor your ancestors have known, where you shall serve other gods, of wood and stone. 37 You shall become an object of horror, a proverb, and a byword among all the peoples where the LORD will lead you.
38 You shall carry much seed into the field but shall gather little in, for the locust shall consume it. 39 You shall plant vineyards and dress them, but you shall neither drink the wine nor gather the grapes, for the worm shall eat them. 40 You shall have olive trees throughout all your territory, but you shall not anoint yourself with the oil, for your olives shall drop off. 41 You shall have sons and daughters, but they shall not remain yours, for they shall go into captivity. 42 All your trees and the fruit of your ground the cicada shall take over. 43 Aliens residing among you shall ascend above you higher and higher, while you shall descend lower and lower. 44 They shall lend to you but you shall not lend to them; they shall be the head and you shall be the tail. 45 All these curses shall come upon you, pursuing and overtaking you until you are destroyed, because you did not obey the LORD your God, by observing the commandments and the decrees that he commanded you.

Did you read the entire passage? I don’t blame you if you didn’t. That said, if you have two minutes let me encourage you to do so. Pretty gruesome don’t you think? If you’ve been following along in our reading of Deuteronomy you know that God is giving to Israel the law they were to live by when they crossed over from 40 years of wandering in the wilderness to occupying the Promised Land. Their faithfulness to the law would lead to either blessing or curse.

This is clearly the “curse” part of the covenant – what would happen to them if they failed to observe the law (v.45). Unfortunately most of this eventually came true. Because of their sin, the Israelites continually rebelled against God until they eventually lost the Promised Land altogether. To date they have yet to reclaim it.

What strikes me is the brutality of the passage. How does this dimension square with our common popular theology which says, “God is love”? I realize that Jesus revealed to us a new covenant of grace rather than the first covenant of the law, but there’s such a drastic difference in the two dimensions of God it’s hard for me to reconcile. Frankly, the God revealed in our passage from Deuteronomy is hard for me to embrace.

Lord, help me to understand who you are. Amen.

Thinking differently about leadership…

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Luke 9:49 John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” 50 But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.”

This is an interesting passage. A few verses earlier Jesus sent the twelve disciples on a mission to preach the good news of the Kingdom in nearby villages, to heal the sick, and cast out demons. Things went pretty well for them, but not entirely. Jesus chastised them for their lack of faith when they could not heal a boy with a demon.

So then the disciples encounter a stranger who is successfully casting out demons – despite not having the benefit of the personal teaching, training, mentoring they had received from Jesus. The nerve of this guy! We’ve got to stop him! But Jesus says to leave him be. He didn’t need to be authorized by Jesus or the disciples to do the work of the Kingdom.

We’re in an interesting time in the life of the American church, particularly the Lutheran church. We’re in a season in which there are more churches that need a pastor than pastors to fill the vacancies. It wasn’t always so. For many years there was a surplus of pastors, which was reflected in the preparation of pastors for the church. There were lots of requirements and processes to fulfill in order to be approved and ordained. Some of it made sense, but lots of it had little to do with actually equipping people to serve as solid pastors for the church. We’re starting to see that change.

It’s simple supply and demand. We need pastors so the church is becoming more flexible and inclusive in approving people for ordination – which is a good thing. We need people who are outside traditional boxes, who have a deep sense of call and who understand the rapidly changing landscape for ministry. And most importantly, we need people who have demonstrated fruitful ministry even if they don’t have the academic or scholarly experience required in the past.

But, just like the disciples in our passage, there are church leaders who’ve been through the traditional processes who object. I suppose the more things change, the more they stay the same. Lord Jesus, open our minds and hearts to see the value of those who bear wonderful fruit for your Kingdom. Frankly, the church needs them. Amen.

First fruits given in gratitude

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Deuteronomy 26:1 When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.

Here Moses is giving instructions to the Israelites as they prepare to cross over the River Jordan into the land God gave to them. It was an abundant land with more than enough of everything they would need. In these verses the people are instructed to take the first of “all the fruit of the ground” (crops and such) and return it to the priests who would use it to provide for those in need – the alien, the widow, the orphan.

What strikes me is how uncomplicated this must have been. I mean, the Israelites would not have planted and cultivated the produce they found. Others (the nations they were driving out) would have done the hard work. It was a pure gift from God for which gratitude would have come easily. Later this may not have been so simple. Why?

When we put in hard work for something we tend to view the results as “wages earned” rather than “gift received”. It’s “mine”. I worked for it. I earned it. This mindset is, in part, why so many believers struggle to return a tithe to the Lord. We hold on to what we’ve received as gift, missing out on the opportunity to see God’s abundance come to life in us. We hold on to the responsibility to provide for ourselves – and the stress that comes with it – rather than giving this responsibility to God. It’s one reason why Americans, who are among the wealthiest peoples in human history, continue to bear so much anxiety related to money. There is a better way.

Heavenly Father thank you for all you give to us. Give us hearts of gratitude expressed in generosity toward you and others. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Following Jesus…

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Luke 9:18 Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” 19 They answered, “John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.” 20 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.” 21 He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, 22 saying, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” 23 Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”

Jesus was well aware of his disciples’ expectations of him and the implications for their own futures. They expected Jesus to rule as king of Israel, seated on a throne, with his disciples helping him run the show. There would be wealth and status and power and authority – particularly for those closest to him. So imagine their confusion and distress in hearing Jesus’ words in v.22 – 24.

When I was in my early 20s I was working for USAA in San Antonio – just a couple of years out of college. As part of their executive development program I was working full-time during the day and studying for my M.B.A. at night. It was exhausting but I was excited by what I thought the future held for me. My family was proud of me, especially my mother, which meant a lot to me.

At the same time I was getting deeper into my Christian faith. After a while it became clear the Lord had different plans for me. My future would be in serving the church, not following a career in business. It took me a while, but I finally surrendered to the leading of the Lord and enrolled in seminary. I can remember telling my family about this. Some were happy for me, but some were not – including my own mother who thought leaving USAA was a mistake. Why leave a good thing in your hand for the unknown path of ministry? She meant well, of course, wanting the best for me. I might have done the same if the shoe were on the other foot.

So when I read v.23-24 those memories come back to me. And of course the “take up” the cross didn’t stop there. The Lord has called me and my family to do this again and again – to depart from our own expectations and submit to the leading of the Lord. It hasn’t been easy. But I’ve never regretted it. The Lord has always brought blessing along with the grief and anxiety of change and loss.

I wonder how the Lord might be calling you to move in a different direction, to take up your cross and follow. It’s normal to be wary of this. Leaving the known for the unknown is hard, especially when the known is pretty darn good. If you’re conflicted about this, I pray the Lord will give you grace to overcome your fear and doubt, to trust the Lord with a future you can’t see.

Lord let it be so. Amen.

Jairus – out of moves…

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Luke 8:40 41 Just then there came a man named Jairus, a leader of the synagogue. He fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him to come to his house, 42 for he had an only daughter, about twelve years old, who was dying. As he went, the crowds pressed in on him… someone came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the teacher any longer.” 50 When Jesus heard this, he replied, “Do not fear. Only believe, and she will be saved.” 51 When he came to the house, he did not allow anyone to enter with him, except Peter, John, and James, and the child’s father and mother. 52 They were all weeping and wailing for her; but he said, “Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping.” 53 And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. 54 But he took her by the hand and called out, “Child, get up!” 55 Her spirit returned, and she got up at once. Then he directed them to give her something to eat. 56 Her parents were astounded; but he ordered them to tell no one what had happened.

What catches my eye is the way Jairus approaches Jesus. We’re told that Jairus is a “leader of the synagogue”. He throws himself at Jesus’ feet – not something a person of stature in the community would generally do. There is no dignity here, only desperation and need. One would expect he’s done everything he can to help his daughter but nothing has worked. He’s out of options. But he’s heard about Jesus’ healing ministry and figures it’s worth a shot. Fortunately Jairus’ faith is well-placed and his daughter is restored.

Nothing brings about faith more than desperation.

At least that’s been my observation over the years. It’s also what I see in the scriptures. When things are going well, faith can be seen as unnecessary. Why bother? I’ve got this. But when life spins out of control and we’re out of moves, we tend to be far more open to things of God. Like Jairus. Like me (back in the day). Maybe like you at one time.

Here’s something to think and pray about. I firmly believe the Lord brings desperate people into our relational orbit who are marginally connected to the Lord or perhaps not connected at all. And when this happens we have a great opportunity to do four things:

  1. Ask what’s troubling them – and LISTEN deeply
  2. Ask if you can pray for them.
  3. Pray for them on the spot. If you’re not sure what to pray, the Lord’s Prayer will do just fine.
  4. Continue to pray that the Lord will open their hearts and draw them into a life of faith.

Lord, let it be so. Amen.