Dealing with demons…

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Romans 10: because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.

This passage brought back some memories from my past. Some years ago I served a church in the inner city of San Antonio, a place of significant poverty, addiction, violence, homelessness, and so on. One of the outreach ministries of the church was to hold worship under a freeway downtown on Saturday mornings and pray with people who were open to it. Some of the men in our church eventually started having bible studies there on Saturday nights, inviting those hanging out there to join. In retrospect it was a dangerous thing to do, but it was also very fruitful.

Part of that ministry experience was encountering demonic activity. Some charismatic Christians taught us how to navigate these encounters, praying for people to be freed from demons and so on. This was definitely outside the box for a Lutheran pastor. One of the things I learned is that demons know scripture well, can often quote it chapter and verse. They would present themselves as eager participants in the bible study, but then would be disruptive to the point of cutting off the actual study of the bible and/or prayer.

One of the tricky dynamics was telling the difference between a disruptive person who was genuinely interested in being with us, but was suffering from mental illness (a common phenomenon) – or if a demon was working through someone to sabotage our ministry by making it difficult for anyone to study or pray. We learned something very helpful along the way.

While a demon might appear interested, the demon would refuse to say the words “Jesus is Lord”. Seriously. It was fascinating to confront a demon that, once revealed, would change demeanor – from eager to openly hostile. They might also change their tone of voice to something more guttural and menacing. Sometimes such a person would leave the area. Other times we would pray for the demon to come out. Sometimes multiple demons would come out over a long period of time. It was exhausting.

“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Lord, let it be so. Amen.

Learning new ways to be God’s people…

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Romans 9:30 What then are we to say? Gentiles, who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; 31 but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law. 32 Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works.

This is an interesting passage. Jews and Gentiles took different approaches to fulfilling the law. First of course were the Jews who received the law from God through Moses. They tried to fulfill the law via works (doing what the law says) because that was the path they were given. Follow the law and things will go well with you. Violate the law and things will go poorly for you. Despite their greatest efforts at being faithful to the law, sin always got in the way.

Normal human beings are incapable of fulfilling the law via works… because of sin.

Gentiles were given the law in the context of the new covenant of grace through Jesus’ death and resurrection. In this new covenant, God’s people openly confess our inability to follow the law via works due to human sin. Instead we confess our sins and receive forgiveness in Jesus who also bestows to us eternal life and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The Gentiles generally found this new covenant of grace easier to embrace since they had never lived in the old covenant of works. Not so the Jews. It’s hard to un-learn what you’ve been taught to follow you’re entire life.

While the church is not necessarily confused about works versus faith, we are being challenged to embrace things that differ from what we’ve been taught our entire life. An obvious example is our embrace of virtual church alongside in-person church. As you know Rejoice is continuing to explore what it means for us to be a “hybrid” church – virtual and in-person. We’re wondering how we best use church space when staff are mostly remote. We pursue the goal of making disciples of people we may never see in the flesh. And so on.

Heavenly Father you continually challenge us to think differently about how best to live out our faith. Give us grace to follow where you lead. Amen.

Let me know how fleeting life is…

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Psalm 39:1 I said, “I will guard my ways that I may not sin with my tongue; I will keep a muzzle on my mouth as long as the wicked are in my presence.” 2 I was silent and still; I held my peace to no avail; my distress grew worse, 3 my heart became hot within me. While I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue: 4 “Lord, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. 5 You have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight. Surely everyone stands as a mere breath.  6 Surely everyone goes about like a shadow. Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; they heap up, and do not know who will gather. 

This psalm is attributed to King David who was a passionate person – the sort who took things personally and got himself worked up, “my heart became hot within me”. Sometimes that was a good thing. His days as a warrior under King Saul is an example of this. It was his passionate side that compelled him to accept the challenge of Goliath the giant Philistine. But as he got older, functioning more as a king than a warrior, he learned to moderate his reactions to his opposition.

I appreciate how he thought to consider his situation from the eternal perspective of God. “Surely everyone stands as a mere breath”. In other words, our lives are short so why spend what little time we have being angry? “They heap up, and do not know who will gather.” Why spend our lives trying to accumulate “stuff” that will end up going to someone else when we die anyway?

Lord it’s true that some of us let small things ruin our days. We let our emotions get the better of us. What a waste! The older I get the more I understand the wisdom of this psalm. Help me, and those like me, to embrace our days as the treasure that they are. For they are soon over. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

The right person in the right place at the right time…

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Esther 2:So when the king’s order and his edict were proclaimed, and when many young women were gathered in the citadel of Susa in custody of Hegai, Esther also was taken into the king’s palace and put in custody of Hegai, who had charge of the women. The girl pleased him and won his favor, and he quickly provided her with her cosmetic treatments and her portion of food, and with seven chosen maids from the king’s palace, and advanced her and her maids to the best place in the harem. 10 Esther did not reveal her people or kindred, for Mordecai had charged her not to tell. 11 Every day Mordecai would walk around in front of the court of the harem, to learn how Esther was and how she fared. 

Here we have Esther who, as a pretty young female, wins the king’s favor and ultimately saves her people from destruction. In her day there were few persons less powerful than a young female. And yet – she was the right person in the right place at the right time. God does this sort of thing all the time, choosing unlikely people who, with the grace of God, do great things for the sake of God’s people.

How has God called you, dear brothers and sisters? How might you be the right person in the right place at the right time – as unlikely as you perceive this to be? Lord reveal your plans for us and give us courage to say yes. Amen.

Fear and anxiety around “flesh”…

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Romans 7:21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin. 

Who will rescue me from this body of death? Wow. Of course I relate to Paul’s desperation and frustration. I cannot count the number of times I have desired to do what is right and yet failed to do so. Again, what I find interesting is how Paul locates the source of his sin in his flesh. His body or “members”. Paul’s “inmost self” (soul or spirit) delights in the law while his flesh rebels. There are two problems I have with this.

First, when God created human beings they were described as “very good”. Not just “good” as the rest of creation, but “very good”. I’m not ready to describe the flesh as categorically bad or sinful as Paul appears to do.

Second, Paul’s aversion to flesh or body has had awful consequences in later generations. Rather than celebrating bodies as a gift, too often human bodies have been understood by Christians as something to be covered, to be hidden, to be a source of shame rather than delight. God created bodies and called them “very good”. God created sexuality and gave it as a gift to human beings. The very first directive God gave to Adam and Eve was “be fruitful and multiply”. Guess what that involves? Lots of sex. Yes, there are boundaries around sexuality in scripture, but too often sex itself has been considered something inherently evil or sinful. I don’t believe God would agree.

Finally I will mention how I see this sort of cultural conflict play itself out in the lives of my two young adult daughters. Yes I have a son as well, but it seems to me the pressures and conflicts endured by females and their bodies are greater than for males. Just my opinion. I’ve seen my daughters have something of a love/hate relationship with their bodies, their appearance, their “flesh”. And I’m sad to say some of the roots of this conflict originate in the pages of scripture. Especially Paul’s letters.

Lord free us from fear and anxiety regarding human flesh, for in your eyes it is “very good”. Amen.

Grace and life in the face of sin…

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Romans 7:14 For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. 15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.

Paul uses the word “slavery” to describe his experience of sin. This must have been incredibly frustrating, particularly for a “thinker” sort of person like Paul – one who in his letters builds elegant, logical arguments to support his claims. Yet to Paul’s dismay, knowing what is right and doing what is right are very different things. “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” (v.18).

In the old “confession and absolution” liturgy of the green Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW) there is the statement, “We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves”. Taken in isolation this true statement is depressing. What good is it to know the will and ways of God if we cannot do it? A reading of the Old Testament elicits this question over and over as God’s people fail to obey the law and pay the consequences of death, defeat, famine, slavery, and more.

Then came Jesus.

By grace Jesus takes the burden our sin and gives to us righteousness in return. Sin (and death that accompanies sin) no longer has the last word. Grace and life through Jesus has the last, eternal word. Praise be to God!

Battling a spirit of scarcity…

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Psalm 37:25 I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread.  26 They are ever giving liberally and lending, and their children become a blessing. 

This is a great image of God’s provision. And those of us receiving from God have enough to be generous, “giving liberally and lending”. That said, it amazes me how often I’m tempted to act out of scarcity – to hold tight to what I have because I think I might not have enough. I’m convinced the enemy of God whispers such things into our consciousness all the time.

I was talking with a dear friend on this very topic not long ago. She told me that, when scarcity starts to creep into her consciousness, she simply gives away some of what she has. And the voices of scarcity usually subside. In essence, giving to others is a form of spiritual warfare, battling scarcity with abundance.

Lord, give us hearts that embrace the opportunities we have to give. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Battle of the flesh and mind…

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Romans 6:5–14 (NRSV): 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8 But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12 Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. 13 No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

In our passage Paul seems to connect the “body” with “sin”, especially v.13-14. The “members” he mentions refers to members of the body. There’s no question there are appetites of the flesh that can lead us astray. That said, speaking for myself at least, it is the battle of the mind that can lead me astray much more quickly than the battle of the flesh.

Bodily appetites are frequent enough, but the battle of the mind seems to be continuous. It. Never. Stops. I suspect Paul understood this kind of mental temptation, which is perhaps why he wrote the following:

Philippians 4:8 (NRSV): 8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Lord you know me inside and out. You know how I struggle in the battle of the mind. Give me grace to dwell on nobler things, such as those named in the verse above. As you know, the struggle is real. I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Be still before the Lord…

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Psalm 37: 7 Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices. 8 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret—it leads only to evil. 9 For the wicked shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land. 

In these verses is the encouragement to “be still” and “wait patiently”, both of which are challenging in stressful situations. But the part that gets my particular attention is the directive to do these things “before the Lord” (v.7). In other words rather that staring at the source of our anger, fear, fretting, and the like – we look upon the Lord. We focus on the Lord. We pray to the Lord. We recall the faithfulness of the Lord in the past as an expectation of the same in our present and future.

This is a great word for me this morning. There are a number of stress-inducing situations I’m wrestling with today, as is likely the case with many of you. Last night I was turning these things over in my head. What do I do about this or that? What’s my best response? Who do I talk to? What do I say? What if I get it wrong? I hardly slept at all. So I woke today weary and stressed out. It turns out that dwelling on my problems all night brought no peace or resolution, only more fatigue. Not good.

So this morning I’m accepting the guidance of the psalmist and instead focusing my attention on the Lord, asking for grace to wait patiently for the Lord to give me direction. And to trust the Lord will get me through today as has been true many times before. Lord let it be so. Amen.

Glory and suffering…

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Romans 5:1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. 

Paul mentions the “glory of God” expressed in Jesus via resurrection from the dead – a glory we expect to share one day via the grace of God in Christ Jesus. But glory is coupled with “suffering” here, like the other half of the coin. Suffering and glory were understood to go together. This was an experiential reality for many of the early believers in Rome, something it would have been silly to deny. I’m not sure suffering is an expectation of many current Christians, myself included.

Do I have to endure ridicule from some people because of my beliefs? Sure I do. As a “pastor” people will sometimes direct their anger and frustration with God (or with the church) at me. This is true for many believers, not just pastors. Some people find my Christian beliefs to be quaint or misguided or just plain stupid. But I’ve never felt my life was in danger in these encounters. The same cannot be said for some Christians who are persecuted regularly, even this very day. I’ve had the privilege of meeting a small number of such Christians from other parts of the world. They are amazing servants of our Lord.

Lord Jesus today we lift up those Christian believers whose lives are in danger every single day they call upon your name. Send your angels to surround them, protect them, hold them in your care. And give me boldness when I too am challenged for your holy name, for it is in your name I pray. Amen.