realizing and accepting our limitations

Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

2 Corinthians 12:7b-9a

As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.

Psalm 103:13-14

I think it’s vitally important for us to accept our human limitations, as well as the limitations we have as individuals. And to look at reality in the face, and not try to escape it, or pretend that it doesn’t exist.

Yes, we hurt. We’re impacted by weaknesses that we’re trying to overcome by faith, but we often slip back. We also have not arrived in this life so that we don’t sin, but because of God’s grace, we confess our sins, repent, and seek to find God’s way for us in Christ.

I think the older we get, the more we realize that we need each other. We’re all in this together. And as we get older we realize that our time is drawing near, as the days, weeks, months, years, and even decades simply escape us. Soon it will all be over. That underscores our complete dependence on God, who gave us life, new life in Christ, and on whom we depend for resurrection beyond this life.

But back to now. We are limited, frail, often weary and worn human beings. With many disappointments along the way, indeed some perhaps serious regrets. Made of clay, yet in God’s image. God in Jesus joining us in that. Never forgotten and continually loved in this life by the God who made and is remaking us. Yes, even while we groan and are sorrowful and struggle even in our faith at times. In and through Jesus.

accept darkness (the needed darkness before the light)

A Psalm. A Song at the dedication of the temple. Of David.

I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up,
and did not let my foes rejoice over me.
Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.
Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones,
and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment;
his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.

As for me, I said in my prosperity,
“I shall never be moved.”
By your favor, O Lord,
you had established me as a strong mountain;
you hid your face;
I was dismayed.

To you, O Lord, I cried,
and to the Lord I made supplication:
“What profit is there in my death,
if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me!
Lord, be my helper!”

You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth
and clothed me with joy,
so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

Psalm 30

There is one thing none of us like, what’s called “the dark night of the soul,” when any sense of God and of spiritual insight is gone. When it seems like we’re on our own.

Seasons of darkness vary. Sometimes we feel like we’ve taken a battering from the spiritual enemy if we’ve been taken for another ride in their deception, having failed to resist that. Or it might be over some sort of struggle we’re having in our attitudes, or in overcoming sin, maybe something which has plagued us, even an addiction, whatever it might be. There are times too when we really can’t put our finger on it. Maybe we’ve drifted, unbeknownst to us, but for whatever reason we feel dry and lost.

Seasons of darkness, even of dryness we can and should see as opportunities to seek God and hopefully find God in something of a new and fresh way, breaking through into our lives in some ways God hasn’t before. Maybe times for needed confession of sin and repentance (James 4). And such times can serve to confirm our faith rather than unsettle it. If we only hold on and look to God and not give up.

When the light does start breaking in, because by and by it will, we need to accept that. Be thankful and live in that gentle light of God. Realizing the next time darkness come settling in on us, that light will eventually come.

All of this for our good. In and through Jesus.

Jesus’ freedom proclamation (Juneteenth in the United States)

When [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke 4:16-19

Jesus’ ministry, the good news he brought was one of emancipation, proclamation of freedom to all who are captives. Too often we’ve just seen this in terms of freedom from the  penalty of sin, and hopefully we’ve seen it as freedom from sin’s power, as well. Even though Jesus was not about rescuing Israel from Roman occupation as Israel expected from the Messiah to come, he was about ushering in a kingdom which makes such entities as Rome essentially bystanders, the kingdom of God on the scene, someday to rule completely, but now in a subversive reign. God’s way of change now isn’t easy. It’s Jesus-like, which means cross-shaped. But it brings in the needed, lasting change. But do churches fully appreciate all that means?

Juneteenth is a new national holiday commemorating the day in 1865 when slavery in the United States officially ended. Unfortunately not all the slaves were set free that day, and we know the ugly aftermath which followed. Jesus and the good news in him includes freedom for all peoples to love and worship God, and to live as neighbors to love and be loved. It is not complicated, even though we often make it so. At the same time the web of deceit in refusing to follow through in the simplicity and power of what such freedom means to some extent sadly envelopes so many of us. We fail to see clearly, and therefore we don’t appreciate what others go through even to this day.

May the Lord help us, and lead us to see how we white folks can help people of color to live as equals among us, most importantly how people of color can help us in this. Beginning in the church, even through the church and God’s reign there. In and through Jesus.

better days are coming

“‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.

“‘In those days and at that time
I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line;
he will do what is just and right in the land.
In those days Judah will be saved
and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it[c] will be called:
The Lord Our Righteous Savior.’

Jeremiah 33:14-16

One of my favorite pastors used to say, “The best is yet to come!” And that’s true in God’s world. In the world in which we live, which in the end is also God’s world we see trouble piled on trouble, no end of it. If it isn’t one thing it’s another and another and then the next problem. There’s always something. And it’s not just problems we might solve, but issues far beyond us. And we can thank only ourselves collectively as well as individually for much of the mess we’re in.

But God’s promise in Jesus is that better days are coming. God can’t wait to forgive and pour out God’s love on us. This does require repentance of sins, of our own foolish ways. All we have to be is honest to God, to others. God will take care of everything in the end. In the meantime God helps us, setting us on a course to be a part of solution the world needs, nothing short of God’s kingdom and that kingdom come in Jesus.

But we can take solace and even find relief with the thought that good days are ahead. That the problem or problems, troubles and trials which weigh in on us will someday be a thing of the past. It will all be gone. This can help us in the present, not to ignore hard reality, but not be suffocated in it, either. God will help us now as we look forward to the day when it will all be gone. In and through Jesus.

an important priority for us

News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.

Acts 11:22-24

I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another.

Romans 15:14

Goodness is inherent in God. God is good as we read over and over again in the psalms. And humans are made in God’s image. What goodness resides in humans is indeed fragile and broken, but existent due to this special work of creation and relationship to their Creator.

Goodness takes on new meaning for followers of Christ. Our goodness is tied to Christ, Christ’s goodness, and God’s goodness given to us through Christ. The Spirit has changed us from people whose goodness is present but mixed with much that is not good into people who have the same kind of goodness as Christ: intent on loving God and loving others as ourselves. And that demonstrated in good works.

It is a gift from God, a part of who we are meant to be as humans, and who we actually are in Christ. That doesn’t mean that there still might be a number of things about us that are not good because that will surely be the case. But goodness should be the dominant desire and drive in us, helping us to confess and renounce and repent of all that is not good.

Ironically the enemy can play on this strength causing us to have unrealistic expectations. We should want pure good in every situation, at the same time realizing that only God can help all the good we desire be realized.

We in Christ and as Christ followers are made good by the Spirit. God’s children with something of the heart of God. In and through Jesus.

one of the devil’s many but most effective lies

Soak me in your laundry and I’ll come out clean,
scrub me and I’ll have a snow-white life.
Tune me in to foot-tapping songs,
set these once-broken bones to dancing.
Don’t look too close for blemishes,
give me a clean bill of health.
God, make a fresh start in me,
shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life.
Don’t throw me out with the trash,
or fail to breathe holiness in me.
Bring me back from gray exile,
put a fresh wind in my sails!
Give me a job teaching rebels your ways
so the lost can find their way home.
Commute my death sentence, God, my salvation God,
and I’ll sing anthems to your life-giving ways.
Unbutton my lips, dear God;
I’ll let loose with your praise.

Psalm 51:7-15; MSG

I don’t know why this is not included online, but this is Eugene Peterson’s rendering in The Message Bible of the ascription given to the psalm, part of the inspired text or not, but certainly steeped in tradition: “A DAVID PSALM, AFTER HE WAS CONFRONTED BY NATHAN ABOUT THE AFFAIR WITH BATHSHEBA.” This may well have been written by David during that time (2  Samuel 11-12). Whatever the case, the psalm itself lends its voice to whoever and whatever. It is general enough, that it includes all who have sinned grievously in big ways, as well as perhaps small yet willful acts which also need repentance and God’s cleansing, saving work.

One of the devil’s big lies, which we need to learn to recognize and reject is the lie that certain sins put people beyond the pale of usefulness to God. I know when a pastor falls there is disagreement as to whether after repentance and time for restoration he or she can be reinstated to their pastoral position. I tend to think so myself, but that’s not specifically what we’re dealing with here. There’s no doubt that such sins can haunt the one who is guilty as is evident in Psalm 51 itself, and that there will be fallout or consequences from it, as we see in the case of David (see 2 Samuel 13-15, also 12:10-14).

But we need to get rid of the notion and again outright lie for sure that such a person can no longer be useful in God’s service in love to others. I know this is old covenant, but David himself was not stripped of his position as king, nor of honor as we see Jesus himself called “the son of David” as not just a fact, but as likely an honorific title. How much more in the new covenant can such a one be restored?! I think of this passage about an erring sinner in the church:

Now, regarding the one who started all this—the person in question who caused all this pain—I want you to know that I am not the one injured in this as much as, with a few exceptions, all of you. So I don’t want to come down too hard. What the majority of you agreed to as punishment is punishment enough. Now is the time to forgive this man and help him back on his feet. If all you do is pour on the guilt, you could very well drown him in it. My counsel now is to pour on the love.

The focus of my letter wasn’t on punishing the offender but on getting you to take responsibility for the health of the church. So if you forgive him, I forgive him. Don’t think I’m carrying around a list of personal grudges. The fact is that I’m joining in with your forgiveness, as Christ is with us, guiding us. After all, we don’t want to unwittingly give Satan an opening for yet more mischief—we’re not oblivious to his sly ways!

2 Corinthians 2:5-11; MSG

We need to get rid of the notion, yes the lie, once for all that when a person sins bigtime there’s nothing left for them, except forgiveness of their sin when they confess it. Surely they should live in deep humility the rest of their lives. But they also need “to inhabit [others’] forgiveness and God’s forgiveness,” to accept that as a matter of fact and reality.

This truth must never be abused to mean that I can do what I please, even though it’s sinful, knowing that in the end full restoration will happen. That is both dangerous to the person doing it, who may in fact not see fit to repent, not to mention the damage that occurs. We can’t have both our way and God’s way. At the same time, we also must not set aside God’s amazing grace for all sinners, including those who have abused this truth, who return to him in genuine repentance, not just sorry about the consequences of their sin, but that they sinned against God and against others.

In and through Jesus.

returning to our first love

Write this to Ephesus, to the Angel of the church. The One with Seven Stars in his right-fist grip, striding through the golden seven-lights’ circle, speaks:

“I see what you’ve done, your hard, hard work, your refusal to quit. I know you can’t stomach evil, that you weed out apostolic pretenders. I know your persistence, your courage in my cause, that you never wear out.

“But you walked away from your first love—why? What’s going on with you, anyway? Do you have any idea how far you’ve fallen? A Lucifer fall!

“Turn back! Recover your dear early love. No time to waste, for I’m well on my way to removing your light from the golden circle.

“You do have this to your credit: You hate the Nicolaitan business. I hate it, too.

“Are your ears awake? Listen. Listen to the Wind Words, the Spirit blowing through the churches. I’m about to call each conqueror to dinner. I’m spreading a banquet of Tree-of-Life fruit, a supper plucked from God’s orchard.”

Revelation 2:1-7; MSG

To really get a good overall picture, and just how we might fit into the scheme, or what God might be saying to us, we surely need to read each of the seven letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3. The first letter here as rendered by Eugene Peterson, or in any translation, for that matter, is striking and noteworthy. This church is as zealous as it gets, but their zeal while at least largely based on head knowledge, has left its/her first love, or the love this church had at first. And thus we might say it was bereft of heart knowledge, or a knowledge driven by love. Love for Christ, and the love which follows from that.

It’s a burden to try to apply these letters to us as individuals, and it’s important to see that they’re actually written to churches. But individuals make up churches, so we all have to ask how they might apply to us, what we might be contributing to the situation. Notice that the blessing at the end is applied to individuals who overcome. I would like to think that I fit, or would prefer to be part of a church like Philadelphia, having little strength, but faithful, and simply being told to hold on to what they have until Christ returns. But we need to prayerfully read and consider all these letters.

How do we fall from the first love we had? And Jesus makes no bones about it, they either have to repent as a church, or he’ll put their light out, so that they’ll be a church in name, only. No church was more active, but that’s doesn’t mean they were okay. Far from it, though Jesus does give them the nod of approval for their hatred of the works of the Nicolaitans, which he too hated.

I’m not sure. I think it can become more about what we’re doing than anything else. Maybe we need to stop in our tracks, shut our mouths, quit doing what we’re doing, maybe something like a silent retreat. Then maybe we’ll be able to hear what the Lord is saying to us. It’s a work of the Spirit, quite beyond us. It’s not like sitting in a schoolroom where we might possibly figure it out with the help of the teacher. No.

I will offer this from my own life and experience. I think the more we realize life is all about love, that God is love, and that Christ’s love for us is as great, deep and true as love can get, then that can help us. But it’s so easy to substitute doing, doing and more doing for the real thing. Let’s find that love, enter into it, live it out with each other, and out into the world. And keep doing that. Then what we do will matter. And Jesus’s life and love will continue among us as a light for us and for the world. In and through Jesus.

a meditation for Ash Wednesday: Luke 18:9-14

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14

He told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people: “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’

“Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’”

Jesus commented, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”

Luke 18:9-14; MSG

On this Ash Wednesday, as we enter into Lent, it is indeed a season of reflection and preparation. An important aspect of it is the acknowledgement and confession of our own sins. And of how we fall short of God’s perfection and will. We should never think we have a leg up on others. Yes, some sins are more devastating than other sins; we can’t escape that reality. At the same time, we too sin, and are sinners in that sense. We’re no longer sinners as before, as those declared and made righteous in Christ, so that we’re on a new path, the path of righteousness (Psalm 23). Yet we still have sin and sin (1 John 1).

It is particularly important during this time when some may think they’re better than others given what’s happening in our nation. We need to face the fact of our own complicity. Even the sin of simply not being present, of excusing one’s self, or not making the effort to understand what’s wrong, and how it affects actual people, including possibly some of our neighbors.

The point is that we need to accept that we too are in need of ongoing forgiveness, and a deeper repentance, which gets right to the heart of our own need, as well as the need around us.

This is not something we beat ourselves with again and again. But in a sense it’s where we live and is actually for our good. In the process we’ll more and more come to find the special place God has for us. In God’s love for all. In and through Jesus.

for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: the politics of the good news

When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.”

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Mark 4:12-17

This Isaiah-prophesied revelation came to life in Galilee the moment Jesus started preaching. He picked up where John left off: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.”

Mark 4:17; MSG

Jesus’s message and proclamation was “the good news of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23). The gospel is actually political through and through. Of course it’s about our individual salvation as well, but it includes so much more, really everything within God’s creation and human culture. God’s kingdom in King Jesus was coming in, but not in the way that people would naturally anticipate. They wanted in one way or another for God to end Rome’s rule over them. But God saw a much bigger picture, and really an altogether different one. Yes, it was about fulfilling God’s prior promises to them, but in the ways of a costly love which would break down all barriers, creating one new humanity, a beautifully woven mosaic of people groups together (Ephesians 2:11-22).

During this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, let’s take time to pray and ask God to show us where we are blind and resistant to what God has done, is doing, and will complete in and through King Jesus. And what works God has for us in what God is doing now in this regard (Ephesians 2:10; MSG). In and through Jesus.

the need for repentance and lament

O Israel, come back! Return to your God!
You’re down but you’re not out.
Prepare your confession
and come back to God.
Pray to him, “Take away our sin,
accept our confession.
Receive as restitution
our repentant prayers.
Assyria won’t save us;
horses won’t get us where we want to go.
We’ll never again say ‘our god’
to something we’ve made or made up.
You’re our last hope. Is it not true
that in you the orphan finds mercy?”

“I will heal their waywardness.
I will love them lavishly. My anger is played out.
I will make a fresh start with Israel.
He’ll burst into bloom like a crocus in the spring.
He’ll put down deep oak tree roots,
he’ll become a forest of oaks!
He’ll become splendid—like a giant sequoia,
his fragrance like a grove of cedars!
Those who live near him will be blessed by him,
be blessed and prosper like golden grain.
Everyone will be talking about them,
spreading their fame as the vintage children of God.
Ephraim is finished with gods that are no-gods.
From now on I’m the one who answers and satisfies him.
I am like a luxuriant fruit tree.
Everything you need is to be found in me.”

If you want to live well,
make sure you understand all of this.
If you know what’s good for you,
you’ll learn this inside and out.
God’s paths get you where you want to go.
Right-living people walk them easily;
wrong-living people are always tripping and stumbling.

Hosea 14; MSG

Hosea, like all of the Old Testament prophets (called a “Minor Prophet”, the first of twelve of them only because of the relative shortness of the writing) is not a light lift. You see at the outset that God calls Israel, the northern kingdom to whom Hosea was writing, “a whorehouse” (1:2; MSG). To read or listen to it, one ends up in quite an interplay between God’s exposure of Israel’s sin and its ugliness, what that means to God, along with the pronouncement of God’s judgment on them. Back and forth with different imagery, but by and large in terms of Israel having been married to God, but departing from him for other lovers. It is not pretty or comfortable, and we do well to not rush to the end of the book, until we’ve at least taken in all that was said before.

The prophets really don’t mince words, and some of what they say is indeed frightening, and abhorrent at least to our ears. The prophets like Hosea call us back to God, away from our sin, and the idols we so easily embrace in our lives. John ends his first letter warning his dear children to keep themselves from idols (1 John 5:21).

What the prophets call God’s people to, each and everyone of us, is repentance and lament. God wants us to listen, to catch something of God’s longing for us, and to respond in openness to God’s call. We can’t break our own hearts, they are often so hard to begin with. We want broken hearts, but the only way toward that is an openness to repentance and lament. Repentance has the idea of stopping what we’re doing, where we’re going, turning around and facing God, and coming back just as we are, in all our failure and guilt. Lament is the idea of brokenness before God. It was accompanied in the Old Testament and beyond by one ripping their garment, and dressing up in sackcloth and ashes, with loud cries. That could all be show, just as Hosea says in this letter, but God wants us to come to take his words seriously. Not for someone else, but for ourselves. A word for us together, but one in which each of us shares in the sin.

This is a necessary call to us from Scripture, from the prophets. They are not condemning at all. You can see that when you note the end of Hosea’s prophecy quoted above. God is always longing and determined after judgment to fully restore. God in love wants humans for himself, and wants them also to live in that love with each other. Something for us today, just as in Hosea’s time. In and through Jesus.