“Even when the way goes through Death Valley, I’m not afraid when you walk at my side. Your trusty shepherd’s crook makes me feel secure. You serve me a six-course dinner right in front of my enemies. You revive my drooping head; my cup brims with blessing.” from the Message translation of Psalm 23: 4 & 5
I keep finding myself drawn to these verse of Psalm 23 this week. I think I’m drawn to these verses because they speak a truth to us, especially as we were reminded once again this week in Orlando (and dare I say even as we as a nation continue to argue passionately over what is the best way to reduce gun violence in our nation) that evil is alive and well in our world.
Yet, the promise of scripture is NOT that evil will magically go away, in fact, the Psalmist says that God will set up a table for us in the presence of our enemies (which, by the way, doesn’t mean that we should do nothing in the face of evil); nor is the promise that God will eliminate our walking through the valley of death or darkness (depending on your translation). Rather the promise IS that God walks with us through the valley—God stands with us in the presence of our enemies.
And for me, this is a much more comforting image than the one that often gets portrayed—that somehow following God is going to mean the removal of all things difficult or evil from my life—or that I will magically be removed from such things when they do happen—because, let’s be honest, we know that’s a lie. We have seen and experienced enough darkness and evil and death to know that it’s not going away any time soon—even though I believe with all my heart and soul and mind in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.
But a God who walks with us—who stands with me, in the face of evil—who guides me through the dark times—even death itself—a God who promises to strengthen me—to help me lift my head up—who blesses me with his presence now and forever—that’s a God I can believe and trust in!
Pastor Jim Derkits in the April 21st devotion for ‘Forward Day by Day’ (the Episcopal daily devotion similar to our Christ in Our Homes) reflecting on these words from 1 Thessalonians 2:20 “Yes, you are our glory and joy.” recounts the following story.
“My son was playing in and around a small kiddie pool on a summer day with a friend. They had already made up a couple of games involving toy dinosaurs and helicopters and were struggling to work out some rules for the next game. That’s when my son hopped up and announced, “Let’s just joy out!” Then they both ran and jumped in the pool, letting go of all the rules and games and simply enjoying the sunny day. It was such a delight for his mother and me to witness them looking so free, so joyful in their play. We took our learning that day, and it’s become a family phrase. When things seem complicated, we remember to ‘joy out.’ It is the reset button and reality check to which we can return again and again. When we do, I imagine that God delights in witnessing that and perhaps thinks, ‘Finally! They remembered to joy out!’”
“Joy out!” I love this idea. So often we can turn what God meant for good, including the 10 commandments, into something that becomes less than life-giving. The Christian life is not meant to be drudgery. It’s meant to be filled with joy. How often is it that we impose all sorts of rules upon ourselves and others and drain the joy out of our relationships and life itself.
Derkit’s story reminds me of playing a game with my 5 year old granddaughter. She creates these games with all these rules and then gets quite demanding when I don’t do something according to the rules. I even find myself from time to time deliberately breaking one of her rules, just out of orneriness. But after a while to be honest the rules-even a 5 year old’s rules-begin to see seem kind of draining.
But at other times, what joy, when she just plays. She sings and chatters and dances and invites us into her joy. I imagine that just as I find joy in her in these moments, so too, does God find joy in us, when we remember, that a life in Christ is not about the rules—as if we somehow still have to earn our salvation by keeping the rules—rather, it’s about a relationship with Jesus—it’s about learning to live in God’s presence—and finding joy in all that God has done and provided for us.
“O Lord our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!...When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the starts you have set in their courses, what are mere mortals that you should be mindful of them, human beings that you should care for them.” Psalm 8 vv. 1, 3-4
Ever since we have moved here, people have asked us, ‘do you like it here?’ And I can truthfully answer that I am loving it here. Not only because we are enjoying our ministries at Calvary & Holy Apostles, and being so close to our granddaughters, but also because I never tire of looking at the wonder and beauty of the world that God has created which is so very evident here in the valley.
Every day, as I drive into Scottsbluff from Mitchell, the Monument brings a smile to my face and a sense of wonder and thankfulness to my heart.
So, I can truly resonate with the writer of Psalm 8. As beautiful and vast as God’s creation is, it is truly amazing and humbling that God cares for us—each of us—and has made us stewards and co-creators with God of this world and of each other.
So, the next time you’re out enjoying the beauty of this world that God has created; don’t just give thanks to God for the wonder of the world around, let it also be a reminder to you of how much God loves and cares for you!
“O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
“Come, Holy Spirit. Fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your spirit and they shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.”
Sunday is Pentecost which is probably my favorite day of the church year. I love Pentecost’s reminder that the Holy Spirit is at work in our world and in our lives, but unfortunately, I am not feeling very ‘pentecosty’ this year. In fact, I’ve been struggling all week to think of what I wanted to write not only for this devotion but for my sermon on Sunday. How’s that for scary!!!
And yet, perhaps the fact that I’m not ‘feeling’ very pentecosty is a good thing; because sometimes I can get caught up into thinking that my faith is about how I feel—it’s about what I am doing—or perhaps not doing—instead of being about what God is doing—irregardless of how I feel.
When Nicodemus comes to Jesus and asks how he can be born from above, Jesus responds by saying ‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)
I think what Jesus is saying is that we cannot control the spirit any more than we had any control over our human birth. The Spirit is not tameable—it is not controllable—it is not influenced by our feelings—the Spirit is the power of God at work in our world and in our lives. Yes, there are things we can do to make ourselves more aware of God’s Spirit or even open ourselves to the work of the Spirit, but in the end it is the Spirit who is at work—not us. And for that I give thanks!!!!
When I created this blog I had high hopes of writing a weekly devotion for this page. But somewhere along the way, those weekly devotions took a significant hiatus. It wasn’t anything I did intentionally; in fact, ‘write devo’ is a weekly recurring task on my ‘To-Do’ app on my phone! But the reminder would pop up and the more pressing tasks of the church would crowd out my best of intentions.
But writing these weekly devos was something I really wanted to do. It’s something I enjoy (when I get around to doing it) and the regular discipline of thinking and writing spiritually and devotionally is something that feeds me spiritually.
So, for the last few weeks, I have been thinking about how could I jumpstart myself so that I would get back to this regular practice of writing and it became obvious that the only way it was going to happen was I needed to make it a priority—not just a nice idea—and secondly I needed to block out time on my calendar to make it happen, because just wishing it was going to happen was obviously NOT working!
I’ve been thinking about these things for over a month, but I decided today was the day that I would block out time on my calendar to write. It would be the first thing I do today—everything else, unless it was an emergency would have to wait.
Through the years, I have discovered that this need to block out time is just as important if I want to continue to grow closer to God and deeper in my faith. My best of intentions, generally, do not get me very far. If I want to grow spiritually, I need to make it a priority in my life, otherwise, the seemingly more pressing tasks of life and work will crowd it out.
So, I make time with God a priority in my life. It’s the first thing I do pretty much every day (well, except for my morning cup of coffee), even on my day off. And I have learned the hard way, that if I want to consistently keep my ‘date’ with God, that I have to keep my phone, ipad, computer & TV off, and the newspaper out on the porch, until after I have spent my time alone with God.
So, what about you? Do you long to grow in your relationship with God? Do you desire a deeper faith? Then, remember, our ‘best of intentions’ rarely get us where we want to be. Instead of just longing for that deeper relationship, block out time for God; literally put ‘Sunday Worship’ or ‘daily devotions’ in or on your calendar and then keep your ‘date’ with God.
“But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But Jesus would withdraw to deserted places to pray.” Luke 5:15-16
Worship is Horizontal
At St. Mary’s Church in Wittenberg, Germany, Lucas Cranach a contemporary of Martin Luther, painted an altar panel depicting different aspects of the Reformation and the Lutheran understanding of worship. The bottom panel (the picture included with this post) shows the crucified Christ right in the middle of the congregation, between Luther, the preacher, and the people gathered for worship.
Dave Daubert, the author of ‘The Lutheran Trump Cards’ writes “This is Lutheran preaching at its best. It doesn’t just inform people about Jesus. It helps them actually see the crucified and risen Christ right there among them. Worship that is horizontal does not seek to tell us about a God who dwells up in heaven. The focus is to encounter the incarnate God in the midst of the gathered community.”
This is one reason why we stand for the reading of the gospel; for just as it is customary to stand when the President of the United States or a Judge enters the room, so we stand to acknowledge that in the reading of the gospel—the Living Word, Christ himself is present in our midst.
We see an example of this as well, in our emphasis on the Sacraments and our understanding of the ‘Real Presence’ of Christ in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. Traditionally, then, our hymns and prayers, even our liturgy, continually point, not to a God who is ‘up there’ or ‘other’ or far away—but to a God who became one of us and is still present and with us each and every day.
Life Is Sacramental
A sacramental view of the world means that as Lutherans we understand God to be present within creation and the centerpiece of this understanding is the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
In Jesus, God became flesh and dwelt among us which means that our God is not some far off in the distance God looking down upon us from his heavenly throne—rather God is, to quote Martin Luther, ‘in, with and under’ the very stuff of life.
We see this sacramental presence most clearly in our understanding of Holy Communion. When we receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion, we receive bread and wine; but we also receive something more—we receive the body and blood of Jesus because Christ is present ‘in, with and under’ the bread and wine of Holy Communion.
And because Christ is present, we receive the gifts promised in Holy Communion as well (forgiveness of sins, eternal life and salvation)—not because the bread and wine have somehow taken on magical properties, but because Christ is present in them.
Dave Daubert writes “Ultimately, a Lutheran understanding of sacraments is tied to our understanding of the Word from John 1. The same Word that became human in the person of Jesus is the Word that also called everything else into being. Luther could see God’s Word incarnate declaring God’s work in the world around him. This enabled him to say, ‘Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime.’…as we share in the presence of Christ in the bread and cup we are reoriented to see that same God in the places we might not otherwise notice. As we encounter Christ ‘in, with, and under’ the bread and cup we, are also confronted by the Christ who is ‘in, with, and under’ the stuff of life.”
This week’s Lutheran Trump Card (The Ten) is the Lutheran understanding of the Priesthood of all believers. In many ways, the priesthood of all believers is an extension of our understanding that we each have a vocation—that we are each called to ‘serve as instruments of God in our daily lives’—whether at home or work or even in our leisure.
But when we speak of the priesthood of all believers, we are speaking about more than just serving God, rather we believe that we are also called to be the mediating presence of God in the world in which we live. As Dave Daubert writes in our study book ‘The Lutheran Trump Cards’, “all Christians have the authority, the command and the obligation to preach (that is, share the message of the gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ with others), to come before God to prayer for one another, and to offer themselves as a sacrifice to God (to offer one’s self for the benefit of others).”
Martin Luther is often quoted as saying that we are to “be Christ” for each other— or as I like to say, to be God’s hands and feet in our world. It is not enough that we know and are assured of our own salvation; our faith is not a private faith—it is not something we are to keep to ourselves.
When a child is baptized, we light a candle from the Christ candle and then present it to the person being baptized (or a parent or sponsor if it’s a baby) and say these words from Matthew 5:16 “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.” This then is our calling as the baptized children of God—to live our lives in such a way that people will look at us, that they will say—NOT, what a great person—but what a good God they have—and then hopefully, they will want to know the God who we serve and follow.
Again quoting Daubert, “Baptism becomes something that unites us with Christ (Romans 6) and reminds us that we have the power to minister (with humility as Christ) to others. It is a constant reminder of God’s commitment to work through the abiding presence of Christ, which is promised to all who believe.”
Vocation of the Baptized
Vocation = “calling”. It’s a truly radical idea. Although we may not think of vocation as being all that radical because as Lutherans we have been raised on the idea that we each have been called by God—that we each have a vocation (even vocations) to which we have been called—but before the Reformation, the whole notion of vocation was something primarily reserved for those who worked in the church. The work that ordinary, non-religious people did was necessary work but not holy or sacred like the work of priests, monks, nuns, etc.
Martin Luther himself was raised with this world view of the priestly and monastic life being a “higher calling” which is partly why he became a monk. But eventually, Luther discovered that being a monk didn’t somehow make him more important or holier than anyone else and that God, in fact, can and does use all people.
Dave Daubert in chapter 4 of our ‘Lutheran Trump Cards’ study writes, “The new insight for the church was that God can use people in all occupations and roles to serve as instruments. There is nothing more holy than to work as a parent, a farmer, a teacher, or any of the many other roles that people live out in the world…the life of faith helps provide meaning and purpose in all places, in all people and in all occupations…the vocation of the baptized frees all of us from the burden of finding that one special thing we can do that is pleasing to God. We are set loose to live out our lives and do God’s work in all that we do, whether we leave our current setting and go half way around the world or stay home and raise our kids and go to our current jobs.”
Or as Paul writes in Colossians 3:17 ‘Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.’ And then again in Colossians 3:23 ‘Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord.’
Grace for Us Includes Hope for Others
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” John 3:16-17
John 3:16 is perhaps the best known and best loved verse of the whole Bible. Why? Because it summarizes so well the heart of the gospel message; but equally important and not quite as well known is verse 17 which states quite clearly that the intent of God coming into the world in Jesus Christ, was not so God could condemn the world (meaning the people God created in the first place) but that God might save the world—might save, not only us, but the whole world—including those people that we may have a difficult time believing God could and would save, like mass shooters, rapists and child molesters, or that neighbor or co-worker that we just can’t stand.
Last week we looked at the importance of grace for us as Christians—grace being the love that God bestows freely upon us through Jesus’ work on the cross, even though we do not deserve it. This week, we must struggle with the fact that if God loves us even though we do not deserve, then God must also love those who we so often deem as un-loveable or unacceptable to God.
Or as Dave Daubert, the author of our ‘Lutheran Trump Cards’ study writes, “As a matter of discipleship, we are committed to hoping that hell, should it exist, is empty and not full. Our confidence in God’s grace for us calls us to hope that God will be gracious with others—even those who are different from or offensive to us. This is not confidence in humanity. It is a commitment to the grace of God being beyond that which we can define. The bottom line is that Lutherans are committed to the belief that trusting God’s work in Christ brings life. We live out of that faith and the hope and promise that comes with it. But we are not willing to say “to hell with everyone else.” We hope and pray for the best for all people, hoping (some would say “expecting”) to be surprised by a God of amazing grace.”