Thursday, June 15, 2017

Everyday Spirituality: Speech

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Scripture for Sunday, June 18:  James 3:1-12
Additional Scripture:  James 1:19-27John 1:1-15, noticing the character of Jesus here

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"The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell....  [N]o human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison."  James 3:6-8

The starkness of James' warning about the destructive power of speech is enough to make this creation-affirming, redemption-believing pastor cringe a little.  Really, James--enough with the hyperbole.  Aren't you overstating the dangers of our words?  Where's the potential for God's good purposes to come through?

Yet the power of James' warning piques my curiosity:  What effects of flaming speech did James witness and deplore within the first communities of scattered Jesus-followers?  Which rumors had reduced reputations to ashes?  What false teaching had undercut the gospel?  What relationships had been burned? 

Get a handle on your tongues, James warns.  They create a world of hurt.

It's helpful to gain some perspective on James' view of the power of speech through the opening verses of his letter.  There he reminds the readers of their identity--that God "chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created."  (James 1:18). 

Just as God's creative word called the universe into being, his redemptive word in Christ calls a people into being  These people are given life, called to represent God truthfully in their life and in their speech.  And because they have been invested with a God-given capacity to create, and because they reflect God, the words of God's people matter.

Words create worlds.  We know this instinctively when we have crucial conversations.  When we have disagreements with people we love, we weigh every word.  We are "quick to listen."  We are careful in our tone and in our word choice.  We seek to be people who follow a Lord of "grace and truth" when we are silent, and when we speak.  We recognize that once verbalize our thoughts, we can't take the words back.

So, as we receive James' warning this week, we pay attention to the ponderings of our hearts and the words of our mouths--"for the mouth speaks what the heart is full of"  (Luke 6:45). 

Lord, fill us with the mind and words of Christ.

For Reflection:

1.  What contexts call out the best in you in terms of words used wisely?  What contexts make it harder to control your tongue?

2.  Truthful and gracious words can hurt and still lead to restoration and growth in relationships.  Sometimes words harm--cutting a person down to the core of who they are. 
If you have been harmed by someone else's words, ask God to enter that pain and work in it with you.  And if your words have been the cause of harm that hasn't healed, prayerfully consider what the Spirit may ask of you in the work of restoration.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Everyday Spirituality: Clothing

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Scripture for Sunday, June 11:  Numbers 15:37-41, Psalm 104:1-4
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I don't necessarily think of getting dressed in the morning as a spiritual task.  But a couple of my friends' lives have challenged my thinking on this.

One of my friends is a chaplain.  Her usual habit is to pray as she chooses her jewelry each day, knowing that her earrings or watch may start a conversation that helps her begin a relationship with someone who doesn't know Jesus.

Another friend is a mother of four young children.  She and her husband buy most of their children's clothes at secondhand stores--not for affordability, but for creation care reasons.  "If we can keep usable clothes from ending up in landfills, we feel like we should do that," my friend says.

Truth be told, many mornings I'm relieved simply to have something clean and dry to wear.  But my friends' awareness of the potential significance of their small choices, and their conscious desire to cooperate with God through those choices, inspire me.

In Numbers 15, God teaches the Israelites to sew tassels on the corners of their clothes.  Since wearing clothes is an inescapable reality of life post-fall, the tassels reminded the people of their lives with God everywhere they went.  It was way of calling to mind God's commands and promises at every turn--a visual reminder to every Israelite and to those they encountered that they were set apart as God's people.  

This Sunday, Rev. Jonker will consider the everyday spirituality of clothing.  We'll think together about how clothes can communicate belonging or separateness from others; how they communicate beauty (God himself "wraps himself in light, as with a garment" and clothes the lilies of the field in unspeakable splendor); and how clothes impact our spirits. 

What kinds of clothes attract you (for yourself, or for others)?  What kinds of clothes do you find off-putting?  Why?

Do you think of choosing your clothes as a kind of spiritual discipline?  How could choosing your clothes become a moment of connection with God?

Saturday, June 3, 2017

I Ask No Dream

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'Scripture for Sunday, June 4:  John 14:15-21

Additional Scripture:  John 15:26-16:11

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Jesus' teaching about the coming Advocate in John 14 comes on the heels of Philip's request:  "Lord, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us."  (Jn. 14:8).

Philip is asking a soul question, the kind of question that keeps us up at night as we worry about our health, our children, or our most important relationships.

"Please, Lord--I'm not asking you to take the pain away.  I'm not asking you to send miraculous signs, visions, or angels.  I just need to see you."

It's the kind of question voiced in one of the hymns we will sing together on Sunday.  "Spirit of God, Who Dwells Within My Heart."

"I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies / no sudden rending of the veil of clay / no angel visitant, no opening skies; / but take the dimness of my soul away."

Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.

Jesus' response to Philip is both straightforward and gracious.  "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time?  Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father"  (Jn. 14:9). 

And, Jesus says, even when I am NOT with among you, you will "see me."

"I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever--the Spirit of truth.  The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him.  But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you....  He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him"  (John 14:15-17, 21b, emphasis added).

Have you had your binoculars out, looking for God in the situations you face?  On Sunday Rev. Jonker will preach about the strong assurance we receive from the Spirit's coming, and the places where we are most likely to "see" the Spirit.

Reflect on times when you have been convinced of God's work around you, within you, or among his people.  How did you know God was at work?  What commonalities can you identify between the situations that come to mind?

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Midnight in Pharaoh's Throne Room

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Scripture for Sunday, May 28:  Exodus 12:29-32
Additional Scripture:  Acts 26, Hebrews 11:8-12, Revelation 4

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Reading the Passover story is hard for two reasons.

One, this is one of the most familiar stories in the Bible--a landmark moment when God saves his people.  We know how the story ends.  It's hard to engage it with fresh eyes.

Two, we can quickly "pass over" the life-changing judgment experienced by the Egyptians on the way to Israelite freedom.  If we pull up a chair in an Egyptian household, we catch other important dimensions of this story. 

In the darkest hour of this night, God strikes the firstborn children of Egypt, from the least to the greatest, both male and female.  Even the cattle are not immune.  And in the middle of the night, great crying is heard--because, as Exodus 12:30 tells us, there was no house without a death.

One commentator likens this final plague to SIDS on a grand scale--youngest to oldest, the firstborn sons and daughters die in their sleep.

Do you hear the pain?

Pharaoh is caught in the difficult position of responding to both personal disaster and national crisis at the same time. 

He calls for Moses and Aaron.  "Get out of here!  Go!  Serve the LORD as you have said.  Take your animals and get lost!  And bless me also."

It is a terrible plague, a terrible picture, that leads to deliverance for the Israelites.  What do we make of it?

There is a hint in Pharaoh's phrase, "Bless me also."

Up to this point in Exodus, the kingdom of Egypt has opposed the kingdom of God.  Pharaoh has
asserted authority over God's people:  Ordering the killing of not just the firstborn but all Israelite baby boys.  Sentencing the Israelites to hard labor.  Ruling as a god.

In this final plague, God does what he said he would do when he first called Moses in 4:21-23:  he kills Pharaoh's firstborn son.  In the plague on the firstborn, God makes a public statement of his claim over Egypt. 

No, Pharaoh, you are not a god.  The LORD is God.

It's as if for a moment, scales fall from Pharaoh's eyes.  He catches a glimpse of what has been true all along:  There is a creative, powerful, covenant-keeping God who rules a kingdom far bigger and far closer to his own reality than Pharaoh realized.  The experienced reality of that power draws an  uncertain confession of dependence and need from the lips of an all-powerful king.

We celebrate Christ's Ascension this week.  And we remember that Christ is ruling at God's right hand, reigning over us, ruling over the kingdoms of this world--and that the veil that separates his reign from our vision is paper thin.

Honor, glory and power belong to him.

1.  Hebrews 11 and Acts 26 give us pictures of how God's people in different times have navigated the tension between kingdoms of this world and God's kingdom.  How might God's Spirit use them to strengthen our own vision of his rule?

2.  Revelation 4 invites us into the throne room of God.  This week as you experience conflicts between the authority of God and the authority of the powers of this world, ask God to remind you that a suffering, risen, ascended, triumphant Jesus who loves you rules as Lord of all.   


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Bearing Burdens and Carrying Your Own Load

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Scripture for Sunday, May 21:  Galatians 6:1-10

"Carry each others' burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ."  --Gal. 6:2

Throughout Galatians, Paul goes to great lengths to debunk the myth of self-made righteousness.  He minces no words characterizing the "teachers" who had disrupted the Galatian church, and he pleads with these new believers not to fall into the trap of believing that they needed "Jesus-and...."  "Jesus-and-the-law-of-Moses."  "Jesus-and-circumcision." 

The problem with self-made righteousness--besides the fact that it can't ultimately make us right with God--is that checking the right boxes can foster spiritual pride.  It becomes very possible to think too highly of our own life of faith while judging the sins and failures of others from a distance.

Paul will have none of it.  There's no room for spiritual pride in a divine economy of grace.  He tells the believers to restore brothers and sisters caught in sin "gently," watching out that they are not tempted to think too much of themselves in the process.  And he calls the Galatian believers to carry one another's burdens--fulfilling not the law of Moses, but the law of Christ.

Unlike judging from afar, carrying each other's burdens can't be done pridefully or from a distance.  It requires getting close enough to shoulder a burden together.  It means listening to understand, not formulating our response as we listen.  It also means having the humility to let others in on our struggles--asking them to shoulder our burdens. 

Sometimes asking for help with our own burdens is harder.

Paul goes on to say that "each one should carry their own load"--the unique call that God has placed on each life to represent him daily.  Together we carry burdens; individually we plant seeds of God's love in our own Spirit-appointed ways, expecting a God-grown "harvest if we do not give up." 

For Reflection:

1.  Whom might you be most prone to judge from afar? 

2.  Is it easier for you to be the person who carries someone else's burden; or the person who asks for help?  Identify and thank God today for people who have walked alongside and carried burdens with you.

3.  Given your own personality, gifts, and season of life, what is one way that you are currently "planting seeds"; or one way that God might be leading you to plant?

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Reason for Hope

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Scripture for Sunday, May 14
1 Peter 3:8-22, focusing especially on verses 15-16

Additional selected Scripture on hope: 
1 Peter 1:3-21, Romans 8: 18-25

"But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect...."  1 Peter 3:15-16

I misuse the word "hope" all the time.

"Mom, can we go to the park today?" 

"I hope so.  Let's see if we can get all our chores done." 

Translation:  "That park outing is looking unlikely."

"Could we have our school friends' family over for dinner?"

"I hope so.  Let's find a time."

Translation:  "Not happening unless we schedule it."

In my vocabulary, "hope" frequently communicates a wished-for but uncertain outcome.  It lives in the realm of my day-to-day world.  That way of speaking bleeds over into my thinking about hope.  It's teaching my children something about hope, too. 

"Hope" in this sense often results in disappointment.

But biblical hope is something else entirely.  It is a treasured certainty.  It is complete confidence in a future held by God.  It is guaranteed by the presence of the Holy Spirit in us.  It is granted to us through the completed sacrifice and resurrection of our Lord Jesus.   

Biblical hope is an unshakeable foundation for living.  It's a foregone conclusion.  We can fully trust that God is working in ways that we cannot see toward a final goal that we can hardly imagine. 

In this passage, Peter assumes that Christian hope is visible.  In fact, he says to be ready to defend or give reasons for the hope that others recognize!  Biblical hope can't be disappointed or put to shame--even when the reasons for earthly hope are few. 

Questions to ponder:
When or how have you noticed biblical hope in another person? 
How would you distinguish biblical hope from a sense of duty to "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" when the going gets tough?
What personal stories come to mind when you think of someone giving a reason for their hope?

Thursday, May 4, 2017

"Church People"

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Read the Scripture for Sunday, May 7:  Colossians 4:7-18

Many of the "church people" listed in Colossians 4 have backstories that are included in the New Testament.  Paul greets a bunch of people who would have had no other reason to spend time together if not for the fact that they all belonged to Christ. 

Read the related passages below to dig into the backstory of some of the people Paul greets--John Mark and Onesimus.  What light do their stories shed on challenges and joys we face in "being church" together?

John Mark:  Acts 12, 15:36-41; Onisemus:  Philemon