God's Host

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I arise today...
Through God’s host to save me...

The Lorica of Saint Patrick (St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer)

Over the next few weeks we will explore what exactly God’s host saves us from, but for now, let’s take a few moments to ask, what exactly is “God’s host?”

This is not a term we hear very often but it has a rich tradition throughout church history and in Scripture.

Most often this term refers to the angels or “angel armies” as the “Heavenly Hosts.” (Psalm 148:2, 1 Kings 22:19, Luke 2:13-14). The problem with angels is that we don’t always recognize them when we see them. The writer of Hebrews says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). When the three visitors came to announce the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah, Abraham welcomed them and showed them hospitality as strangers in his midst (Genesis 18:1-22). They appeared as ordinary men and had Abraham not shown hospitality, we do not know if they would have stuck around to deliver the message.

Similarly, Jesus himself walked with the disciples on the road to Emmaus but they did not recognize him (Luke 24:13-35). He was going to continue on his way until they showed hospitality by inviting him to stay for dinner, and there around the table, their eyes were opened to the presence of God in their midst. Consistently throughout scripture we find that recognizing the presence of God’s host, or even of God’s personal and immediate presence, begins with an act of hospitality toward a stranger. How often have we missed the presence of God’s host among us because we ignored the stranger in our midst?

Traditionally the heavenly host has also expanded beyond angelic beings to include all of God’s creation, for God is enthroned in the heavens and “the earth is his footstool” (Isaiah 66:1). The point here is not that God treats us as lowly beings to be walked over, but rather that all of the created order is just that, something created or made by God. When the Psalmist declares, “Praise Him, sun and moon; Praise Him, all stars of light!”, it is a reminder that even the sun and moon and stars bow before God (Psalm 148:3). In Jeremiah 31:35 the prophet reminds us of this truth and explicitly refers to the God who created these celestial bodies as the Lord of Hosts, implying in part that the sun, moon and stars may be among God’s host. Zephaniah 1:5 refers to these as the “starry host.” Rather than being gods themselves, as so many ancient people believed, they serve the purposes of the God who made them (Deuteronomy 4:19).

In some cases, even human beings can serve as God’s host. Consider 1 Samuel 7:45 where the “Lord of Hosts” commands Israel’s armies in battle. This is not to say that any human army is the Lord’s host, but those who surrender complete authority to God as their commander may indeed serve in such a role as they carry out God’s saving work in the world.

No matter how broadly or narrowly we define the Heavenly Host, we can say two things for certain. First, the host of God is many… myriad upon myriad. The word host literally means multitude and was often used in the ancient world to refer to massive and intimidating armies. Whether in the form of angels, celestial bodies, or even human beings called for a particular purpose, the host of God is many.

Host also hearkens us back to the image of hospitality. To be a good host is to show hospitality to others. The second thing we can know for certain about the Heavenly host then, is that they are servants of the Most High God, extending hospitality so that God’s presence may be welcome in their midst. Perhaps this is why some parts of the church refer to the bread in the Eucharist as the “Host”, for in this ordinary bread, the holy mystery of God’s presence his “hosted” or made welcome, so that God may enter into our bodies and make us His body for the sake of the world.

May we also serve as hosts of the Lord, always extending hospitality both to the Holy Spirit and to the strangers among us, so that God’s presence may always be welcome in our midst.

Reflections:

1. How do you understand the idea of God’s host?

2. What new insights is the Spirit speaking to you about the role of God’s host in your life?

3. Reflect on a time when God clearly showed up in an act of genuine hospitality toward a stranger.


Our journey through St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer continues next week:

... I arise today, through God’s host to save me
from snares of devils…

Pray along with the full text of St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer

The Time is Now

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FISHING WITH JESUS - PART 1

The Time is Now
Sunday, August 18, 2019
Mark 1:14-20, Matthew 4:18-22, Matthew 28:19-20

“Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.”

Mark 1:17


Whose job is it to make disciples? The prophets? The preachers? The Sunday School Teachers?

We are quick to read between the lines in Mark 1 and Matthew 4 as Simon, Andrew, James and John leave their nets and follow Jesus like a group of children who have nothing better to do than join in a playground game of follow-the-leader. We struggle to find ways to excuse ourselves from such unreasonable demands. We have jobs and mortgages and kids and aging parents and pets. We have responsibilities that in our minds, are far more crucial than the lowly fishing business these early disciples walked out on. What exactly does it look like to “Come and follow Jesus,” in our day? The story is so brief it hardly does justice to the level of sacrifice these “ordinary fishermen” truly made. If we’re truly honest, most of us tend to think it was a much easier decision for them than for us.

There are much larger implications, however, when we consider the timing of this call. “After John was arrested…” (Mark 1:14, Matthew 4:12).

John was the prophet of the day. John was the mouthpiece of God. John was the first person in nearly 400 years to hold such a crucial religious position. No one alive at the time had ever heard the voice of God so directly and neither had their parents, grandparents or even great-grandparents. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he declared, and then he is arrested.

In steps Jesus, picking up right where John leaves off, except he is not just another prophet. He is something much more. He is the very presence of God in the flesh. And what’s more, God is not hanging out in the synagogues or even with the prophet’s followers in the wilderness. He is hanging out in the marketplace around the Sea of Galilee. He is eating and drinking and laughing with the tax collectors, the occupying Roman soldiers, the sick and the lame, the women and the children, and yes, even the lowly hard working fishermen.

“I’ll show you how to fish for people,” he says (Mark 1:17).

The nature of following Jesus and “fishing for people” looks different for everyone. Some may leave everything behind and others are needed to proclaim the Good News right where they are. Regardless of what shape our call takes or where Jesus leads, the point is that Jesus is leading “us”. He’s not training people for the office of “prophet” to replace John. He’s not offering a continuing education course or a doctoral program for Pharisees and Sadducee's so they they can update their methods and theology to fit the changing times. He is not saying everyone has to quit their jobs and go into full-time ministry, though that may be true for some.

Jesus calls you and me, ordinary people, to “fish for people,” to take up the mantle of the prophet and proclaim the Word of God not only in the wilderness, but in the marketplace, at our jobs, in our schools, at the restaurant, in the public square, with our friends and neighbors, in our homes and our families, and yes, even in our churches.

The more we try to plan out exactly how we will follow Jesus, the more we will find Jesus changing our plans. We are not Jesus’ GPS to make sure everything he calls us to do just happens to be on our route. If we stop to think about it too much, we will likely be overcome with anticipation and anxiety about the unknown. We might remember that John was just arrested and wonder if the same might happen to us. Our fear may get the better of us. We will surely come up with a million other things we have to do “first.”

Where our culture says, “trust yourself, trust your instincts, your intelligence, your abilities, your wealth, your plans, etc.” Jesus simply says, “Trust me. Step out of the boat. Drop your nets. Let’s go.”

The time is now!

God's Shield

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I arise today...
Through God’s shield to protect me...

The Lorica of Saint Patrick (St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer)

The Lord is my strength and my shield.

My heart trusts him.

I was helped, my heart rejoiced,

and I thank him with my song.

- Psalm 28:7 (CEB)

In Genesis 15:1, God promises Abraham a great reward. The most literal translation of the Hebrew here reads: “I am a shield to you, your very great reward.”

The key here is not that God will provide some external source of protection or reward, but that God is Abraham’s shield and reward. In Ephesians 6:16, Paul describes the “shield of faith, with which we can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” The key here lies in the object of our faith. What or who do we trust for our security?

As humans, we regularly put our faith in any number of things to provide safety and security in our lives. We trust in our own strength. We trust in job security, education, health-care, retirement funds, our military or police, even our guns. Our currency says, “In God We Trust” but as some have said, a more accurate statement may be “In THIS god we trust”, because in many cases, money itself has become our shield and our god.

On Sundays we go to church to proclaim our trust in God, but the rest of the week we spend building bigger and stronger safety nets to protect us from any worst case scenario. We build our nets so wide that it almost wouldn’t matter if God was there for us or not. Like rebellious adolescents, we essentially say, “I can take care of myself.” It’s almost as if underneath it all, we are afraid that God might not come through and we must have a backup plan. If we truly believe God is the perfect shield, why do we need to arm and protect ourselves so well?

We talk a great deal about security, safety and protection, but in truth, we spend most of lives living in fear. Fear is not the absence of faith. Fear is putting our faith in the wrong things, in things that cannot truly save us.

We have insurance, security systems, weapons and defenses of all kinds. We have law enforcement and neighborhood watches to keep the streets safe. We have shelters that are more than capable of weathering almost any storm. Yet in all of this, we are still afraid. In fact, the industries who produce all of the “shields” we use to protect ourselves actually tell us to be afraid. Fear makes for a wonderful marketing strategy. If you want to sell a warranty, you have to make the customer afraid that the product may break within a certain amount of time. If you want to sell a home security system, you have to convince them their neighborhood is not safe. The great irony here is that all of the people who make a fortune trying to “protect us” are the very ones convincing us that we need protection in the first place.

God is different. God doesn’t promise safety and security the same way an insurance company or a gun dealer might. God doesn’t promise that nothing bad will ever happen.

But in almost every encounter with humanity, God’s first words are “Do not be afraid.”

In fact, this is exactly how God begins with Abraham.

“Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; your very great reward.”

Genesis 15:1

Our act of faith in itself does not protect us from anything. God does. God is our shield and God alone protects us.

Reflections:

1. What are you most afraid of?

2. What safety nets do you have in place to protect ourselves? How much time, energy and resources do you invest in these compared to what you invest in our relationship with God?

3. Where have you seen God’s protection in your life?


Our journey through St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer continues next week:

... I arise today,
Through God’s host to save me…

Pray along with the full text of St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer

God's Hand

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I arise today...
Through God’s hand to guard me...

The Lorica of Saint Patrick (St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer)

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”

John 10:27-29

I will never forget an illustration I heard once from a Southern Baptist evangelist about God’s hand. He was preaching on this text from John 10 where Jesus promises that no one can “snatch his sheep out of his Father’s hand.”

Even if the Devil managed to pry open the all powerful grip of God’s hand, he would still have to swim through the blood of Jesus, and even then he would still have to unravel the Holy Spirit from our heart and soul, and by the time the Devil did all of that, the evangelist concluded, you would end up with a saved devil.

Looking back, I recognize the illustration is far from perfect, but I have to give it credit for being thoroughly Trinitarian, recognizing the power of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in our salvation and in guarding our lives from the snares of temptation. It also reminds us, as the classic song says, that God indeed has “You and me brother, in his hands. You and me sister, in his hands. He’s got the whole world in Hands.”

Scripture tells us that God will uphold us with his strong right hand and guard us like the shepherd guards his sheep so that we will not be led astray.

It is interesting, though, that in back to back lines of this prayer we see first God’s hand guarding us and then next week, God’s shield protecting us. Yes, these are parallel images that have many similarities, but as with our distinction between “rock” and “earth” earlier in the prayer, it is worth exploring the distinctions here. We will come back to the image of God’s shield next week, but at first glance, it would seem a shield would be far preferable to a hand when it comes to guarding us. A shield is more generally more resilient to attack. A shield will not bleed when struck by the arrows of enemy archers. I am reminded of a Christian comedian who once joked about the common prayer for God to “raise up a hedge of protection around us.” “Doesn’t the devil have a pair of hedge-clippers?” he asked. “How about a steel reinforced concrete wall of protection? Surely God can do better than a hedge.”

And indeed, a shield does sound safer than a hedge or a hand, but there is something more personal about a hand. Rather than a scene of battle with shields and barricades, God’s hand calls to mind a more relational and even emotional image. To guard with one’s hand is a more loving gesture than simply locking someone in a safe room. It requires direct presence. God’s hand to guard us implies that God is right there with us, in person. God is not an absentee boss, but is willing to “get his hands dirty” in the mess of our everyday lives.

I picture the image of a parent in the car reaching out their hand instinctively to guard their child in the passenger seat after a sudden stop or perhaps that same parent reaching out to grab a younger child before they run into the street. Whereas a shield protects from external attack, the loving hand of a parent guards us by holding us back. The parent’s hand keeps us from hitting our head on the dashboard or from running headlong into traffic. The hand is a warning that tells us there is danger ahead.

It may be true that nothing can pry us out of God’s hand, or as Paul puts it, that nothing can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:38). Nevertheless, perhaps some of us do not need another image of being smothered in the grip of an overprotective parent who won’t let go. Instead, may we take comfort in the image of an open hand, outstretched in front of us as a warning so that we will stop and become more aware of the dangers and temptations in our path.

Reflections:

1. What images does the idea of God’s hand raise in your imagination?

2. Reflect on a time when you felt smothered by God’s hand, as if he was ruling over your life with an iron fist? Looking back, how do you see God at work in that instance?

3. How does it feel to imagine God’s hand as a warning or a safeguard keeping you from stepping into harm or wandering astray? What emotions does that image stir in your heart? How might you respond to the presence of God’s loving hand in your life?


Our journey through St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer continues next week:

... I arise today,
Through God’s shield to protect me…

Pray along with the full text of St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer

God's Word

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I arise today...
Through God’s word to speak for me...

The Lorica of Saint Patrick (St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer)

Clearly we want God’s word to hold a central place in our lives, speaking to hearts and guiding us through whatever circumstances we may face. I am struck today, however, by what this particular line does not say about God’s word.

  1. It does not say: “God’s word to be read by me”

    Of course we must read and study and meditate on God’s word, but I think the writer of this prayer is getting at something a bit deeper. We must remember that the Word became flesh, not text. Even the pages of Scripture cannot fully contain the Living and breathing Word of God, incarnate in the person of Jesus our Lord. We may find God’s word primarily in the Bible, but reading the Bible alone is not sufficient. If we are not careful, the Bible itself may become an idol. We must not merely read the word with our eyes and process it with our minds. Rather, the Word of God is something that we must embody in our hearts and lives. Since it is God’s word which breathed life into us, every breath we take and every word we speak should flow forth from the Living Presence of God’s word dwelling within us.

  2. It does not say: “God’s word to be spoken by me”

    We are very good at quoting scripture verses when they suit our purposes. More often than not, we use them as ammunition in our political battles or to call someone out for a particular behavior we do not like. Yes, we are to proclaim the words of Scripture and preach the Good News of Christ wherever we are, but there is a big difference between “speaking the words” and having the word speak for us. In speaking the words, we tend to filter the words through our own lens, our own stories, and our own particular system of beliefs or ideologies. These lenses are conditioned by our families, our culture, our denominations, and countless other influences which can easily manipulate the word for their own purposes. Our lens is not always bad, but we must be aware that we have a particular way of interpreting and understanding that may not be the same as the way someone else sees it. They are not always wrong and we are not always right. Sometimes, by God’s grace, we may both be right, from different perspectives and in different circumstances. God’s word may indeed be a sword, but it is not ours to wield. When we allow God’s word to speak for us, we give up our agendas and remove our lenses so that others may encounter the Living Word for themselves. As Philip told Nathanael about Jesus, “Come and see” (John 1:46). The world doesn’t need our “opinions” about God’s word. They simply need to “come and see” God’s Living Word for themselves. #unfiltered.

  3. It does not even say: “God’s word to speak to me”

    God’s word speaks to us in many ways, but again, I think the prayer is getting at something a bit deeper. Often when we go to Scripture, we are looking to get “a word from God.” Even better if that word just happens to be a word for someone else and not for me, particularly if the word challenges our beliefs or behaviors. My preaching professor, Dr. Ellsworth Kalas, used to say that “If you do not know a passage or a topic well enough to sit down at a kitchen table and have a conversation about it, you do not yet know it well enough to preach.” This was his way of saying, in part, that we should preach without notes, as if we are simply having a conversation with the congregation. I think it speaks to all of us, however, in that God does not simply speak his word to us, in the moment of our devotional reading, and then allow us to close the book and walk away until next time. Instead, God’s word should go with us. It doesn’t just speak to us, but it becomes a part of us. The rhythms and melodies of Scripture become part of our everyday actions and conversation, not because we are always trying to quote what we read or what God spoke to us in our quiet time, but because they have become a part of us, like that song we can’t stop humming because it is stuck in our heads. “What comes out of the mouth flows from the heart,” Jesus says (Matthew 15:18). Likewise, James writes:

We praise our Lord and Father with our tongues. And we speak wrong words about people with our tongues, even though they were made like God. Praising and wrong words come out of the same mouth! My brothers, this should not be so. Do good water and bad water both come from the same place?

James 3:9-11

If God’s word is to speak “for us” and not merely “to us”, it must first become a part of us. It is Living Water that gushes from within us; the source of every word we speak. As we arise today, let us not seek to speak for God, but rather allow God’s word to speak for us.

Reflections:

1. Do my words sound like something Jesus would say? What specific words of Jesus are reflected in my everyday speech?

2. What lenses or filters influence my understanding of God’s word? How might I intentionally see God’s word through the lens of another so that together, our eyes may be opened even more?

3. Reflect on a circumstance when you could feel God’s word bubbling up from your heart like a fresh-water spring and you knew it was God, not you, who was speaking life into that situation.


Our journey through St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer continues next week:

... I arise today,
Through God’s hand to guard me…

Pray along with the full text of St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer

? Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin ?

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HALF TRUTHS - PART 5

? Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin ?
Sunday, July 28, 2019
Matthew 7:1-5, Matthew 9:9-13, Romans 14:4-13, Acts 11:2-18

Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you. Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye?

Matthew 7:1-3

Of all the “half-truths” or statements of “Bumper Sticker Christianity” we have talked about, this one feels the most right.

God hates sin. God loves sinners. So why shouldn’t we do the same?

Unfortunately it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Let’s take the statement apart piece by piece.


1. Hate the Sin.

Yes, of course we must hate sin… all sin. Sin breaks God’s heart and leads to destruction. Sin causes harm to ourselves and to others. There is nothing good about sin. The problem is that we rarely use this statement as a declaration against the sin in our own lives. Paul writes that we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23) and countless scriptures warn us about judging others because we cannot see clearly with the log of sin in our own eye (Matthew 7:4-5).

Generally this is a statement we use to justify our judgment of people who “sin differently than we do.” We will not say we “hate the sin” of the gluttonous person who eats four desserts at a church potluck, but we are quick to “hate the sin” of the homosexual teenager who never comes to church anymore because everybody glares at him with holier-than-thou stares, which we see as perfectly justified.

Yes, we should hate sin, but we must always begin with our own. Do we truly hate the sinful attitudes and behaviors and habits in our own lives? Do we hate the times we sleep in when we don’t feel like going to church? Do we hate the countless excuses we use for avoiding Bible study or times of prayer? Do we hate the ways we avoid difficult conversations about God with people who need to hear the Good News of the gospel? Do we hate the lustful thoughts that pop in our minds out of nowhere? Do we hate the anger and resentment that fills our heart toward that person we just can’t forgive because “they hurt us so deeply?”

Until we hate the sin in our own hearts enough to repent and change, we have no business calling out the sin in others who sin in ways that may not be a temptation for us.

2. Love the Sinner

The problem here is that it is not our place to decide who is a “sinner” and who is not. As we’ve already seen, we are all sinners. At best, this statement is simply redundant. Love the sinner = love everyone because everyone is a sinner. Why not simply say it the way Jesus said it… Love your neighbor (the fact that they are a sinner is irrelevant to the way we are called to love them). When we say “sinner”, we usually have a specific person or specific characteristic in mind. If we are all “sinners,” we have no business singling out people who struggle with specific types of sin.

Secondly, Jesus never actually called anyone a “sinner.” He called people to repent of their sins, and the sins that most angered him were the sins of the religious crowd who should have known better. But remember, it was the Pharisees and Sadducee's who condemned him for “eating with tax collectors and sinners.” Jesus simply saw them as people who God loved that happened to be caught up in sin. He offered them forgiveness and a fresh start. He loved them even before they “repented” or cleaned up their act. He loved them even when they walked away and refused to repent. Their sin did not have any impact whatsoever on his love for them.

Likewise, someone else’s sin should not be a factor in how we treat them and how we love them.


There is really only one part of this statement that needs to be said.

LOVE.

Period.

Nothing else matters. We are all sinners and we are all loved by God.

While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people. It isn’t often that someone will die for a righteous person, though maybe someone might dare to die for a good person. But God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us.

Romans 5:6-8

Stop worrying about whether you think somebody is a “sinner”. Just love.



God's Ear

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I arise today...
Through God’s ear to hear me...

The Lorica of Saint Patrick (St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer)

Parents know the difference in a child’s cries. They can tell when an infant truly needs something and when she is simply soothing herself to sleep. They can tell when a toddler is truly hurt and when he is just pretending. They know the difference between genuine screams and pitching a fit for attention or because the child did not get his or her way.

If we as human parents can understand how to respond to our children’s cries in so many different circumstances, God must certainly know how to respond to the cries of His children. How many nights have we cried ourselves to sleep, not realizing God was listening patiently and prayerfully on the monitor, aware enough to respond if we truly needed while also giving us the space we need as we learn to soothe ourselves? How many temper tantrums have we thrown thinking God didn’t care when He was actually just waiting in the other room long enough for us to calm down and re-engage in the conversation? How often do we sound like the child begging to “be blessed” with every piece of candy or toy in the store?

Just like earthly parents, God hears all of these cries. God listens. God waits patiently, just like the father of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). Rather than forcing us to stay at the table kicking and screaming through the entire meal, God lets us get it out of our system and reminds us by His Spirit that we are welcome back whenever we are ready.

If we’re honest, there are simply times when children don’t know how to talk to their parents. Children are not always sure that parent’s will understand or even care about whatever seems so overwhelming in their little lives. We often wonder the same thing about God. Does God even want me around? Is He listening anymore? Have I run too far away for God to hear me?

Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.

Romans 8:26-28 (The Message)

Romans 8:28 is often used to explain everything that happens in life as part of some Divine plan to do good for us, but the larger context shows us that this is really a passage about God hearing our cries. God even understands those times when we just need to scream and pitch a fit, when we don’t even know how to articulate what we really need. The Spirit even speaks for us, “making prayer out of our wordless sighs and our aching groans, for he knows us far better than we know ourselves and… he keeps us present before God.” That’s why Paul says God is working everything out for good.

God doesn’t always fix every problem in our lives, but God listens to us and even prays for us through every circumstance. When we feel like nobody is listening, we arise today trusting that God is a God who hears (John 5:14, Psalm 66:19, 1 John 5:15).

Shout. Scream. Cry. Argue. Question. Whisper. Be Silent.

Whatever you feel… whatever you need to express, do it openly before God. God hears.

Reflections:

1. Reflect on a time (perhaps even now), when it seems like your prayers are not getting through to God?

2. How do you feel about the idea that the Spirit is praying for you even when you don’t have the words? How might this change the way you pray and the way you experience God’s presence with you?

3. Pray along with Solomon as he dedicates the Temple is 2 Chronicles. Then worship and pray with the song below, “Hear us from heaven.” Envision God reaching out to invite you closer into his loving presence and know that you are being heard.

Can it be that God will actually move into our neighborhood? Why, the cosmos itself isn’t large enough to give you breathing room, let alone this Temple I’ve built. Even so, I’m bold to ask: Pay attention to these my prayers, both intercessory and personal, O God, my God. Listen to my prayers, energetic and devout, that I’m setting before you right now. Keep your eyes open to this Temple day and night, this place you promised to dignify with your Name. And listen to the prayers that I pray in this place. And listen to your people Israel when they pray at this place.

Listen from your home in heaven, and when you hear, forgive.

2 Chronicles 6:18-21 (The Message)


Our journey through St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer continues next week:

... I arise today,
Through God’s word to speak for me…

Pray along with the full text of St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer

? God Helps Those Who Help Themselves ?

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HALF TRUTHS - PART 4

? God Helps Those Who Help Themselves ?
Sunday, July 21, 2019
Psalm 18:6, 16-17, Psalm 121:1-2, Philippians 2:12-14, Ephesians 2:4-10

However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace!

Ephesians 2:4-5

“God helps those who help themselves.”

Odds are you have probably said or heard this exhortation at some point in your life. Most Americans believe it is found in the Bible, though no such Scripture exists. In truth, the source is unknown, although it is often attributed to Benjamin Franklin who popularized the phrase in the 1730’s.

At first glance, it seems to express good Biblical truth even if it is not directly quoted from Scripture. Surely God doesn’t want us to just sit back and do nothing. As James writes, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:17). Likewise, Paul writes to the Philippians to “carry out (or work out) your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12-13)

Anyone working for social justice knows that one of the most important tasks is to help people stand on their own, to break the cycles of poverty, addiction, crime, or whatever else holds them back from being productive members of society who live with a sense of purpose and dignity. We “teach people to fish” rather than simply giving them an endless stream of free handouts.

Honestly, this is all good and true. We should encourage hard work and discipline both in life and in our journey of faith. We do have to “practice what we preach”. We must live out our salvation by fulfilling our baptismal covenant through our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. When we pray, God empowers us and guides us into action. Adam Hamilton writes, “Those who fought for civil writes did not simply pray at church. They prayed and then marched, knowing they were likely to be beaten and arrested and that God would somehow see them through.”

So what’s wrong with saying “God helps those who help themselves,” even if it’s not directly quoted from the Bible?

The trouble comes at two key points… when someone cannot help themselves, or when we cannot help ourselves.

We often see others in need and respond by saying that if they work hard and “help themselves,” God will help them out of whatever pit they find themselves in. In some ways, however, this says far more about our cultural work ethic and rugged individualism than it says about God. After all, if we could truly help ourselves, what need have we for God? Why pray at all if we could simply work harder and help ourselves solve whatever dilemma presses in?

More than that, it often becomes an excuse not to help others. Scripture consistently calls us to care for the poor, the orphan, the stranger, the widow, and the needy. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us that whatever we have done for the least among us, we have done for him, and likewise whatever aid we have refused to others, we have refused for him. Rather than seeing those in need as people who should “pick themselves up by their own bootstraps”, we are called to see in them the face of Christ struggling under the weight of his own cross, and like Simon of Cyrene, perhaps God is calling us to help him carry it for awhile by bearing the burden of others (Matthew 27:32).

Challenging this well worn cliché is not a blanket affirmation of sloth or laziness. Rather it is a recognition that no matter how hard we work, there are times when we simply cannot help ourselves. Despite popular belief, not everyone was born with the same opportunities, abilities or connections. This is why God uses others to answer the cry of the needy, to help them when they don’t have a leg to stand on.

In the end, God helps those who CANNOT help themselves.

God is the God of the hopeless, the God who walks with us even in the valley of the shadow of death. This is grace, amazing grace, that saved even a blind wretch like me who could never save myself from the shackles of sin. When it comes to our salvation, not one of us can help ourselves.

Rather than condemning the helpless, perhaps it would do us well to sing that great hymn again… remembering that we were all lost and helpless, but God rescued us from the pit that we might sing His glorious and “Amazing Grace” all the more.



God's Eye

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I arise today...
Through God’s eye to look before me...

The Lorica of Saint Patrick (St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer)

In spite of this, you did not trust in the Lord your God, who went ahead of you on your journey, in fire by night and in a cloud by day, to search out places for you to camp and to show you the way you should go.

Deuteronomy 1:32-33

Deuteronomy 1 tells the story of Israelite spies who looked ahead to the land God had promised them but in seeing the inhabitants there, they turned back and grumbled against God for leading them into an impossible situation. God’s eye had looked before them even as they cried out from slavery in Egypt, and God’s eye saw a future filled with hope and blessing for all the world through this people he had redeemed, but they could only see through the eyes of fear.

As we arise today through God’s eye to look before us, two questions come to mind.

First, Do we really trust that God’s eye is looking out before us?

God set his people free from Egypt and looked out for them day after day in the wilderness, providing for their every need. Still the people grumbled and did not trust that God was truly looking out for them. Over and over again in Scripture we find God’s people complaining that God has led them into a trap, that God has abandoned them, that God would not take care of them, that somehow God’s way was not good enough. Even in the gospels, we find Jesus looking ahead through God’s eyes at the suffering he would have to endure and his closest friend Peter challenges him.

Then Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him: “God forbid, Lord! This won’t happen to you.” But he turned to Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stone that could make me stumble, for you are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”

Matthew 16:22-23

God sees the path more clearly than any of us, but sometimes it is difficult to trust. Like the famous “Leap of Faith” scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, sometimes we can’t even see the bridge God is asking us to cross. We’re not even sure there is anything there to step on. Where is God leading us?

That leads to our second question, “Do we really want God’s eye to look out before us, or would we rather just see for ourselves?”

Have you ever played “Follow the Leader” with your eyes closed or blindfolded. It’s a classic children’s game in church to teach lessons about faith and listening to the Spirit. The goal is to go wherever the leader tells you to go, trusting that they won’t lead you to walk into a wall or a chair. Sometimes there is an added layer of having everybody give directions so you have to listen more carefully for the leader’s voice to know which way to go in the midst of the chaos.

Honestly, I always hated those games. I don’t think I’ve ever completed one without peeking. Sometimes I didn’t trust the leader, but often times, I didn’t trust myself. What if I heard the direction wrong? What if he says left and he meant his left instead of mine? It’s one thing for kids to wander blindly around a classroom, but what if you tried to do the same thing while driving with only a voice over the phone to tell you when to turn, when to brake, etc. The stakes just got a lot higher and I imagine even the most faithful among us would not take on such a challenge.

Yet that’s often what it feels like to trust God’s eyes instead of our own. When all we see ahead is fog, do we really want to trust that God can still see the way, or would we rather just camp out for awhile until the fog clears and we can see for ourselves.

Here’s the irony. We naturally trust our own sight more than we trust what someone else sees, even if that someone is God. Yet whenever God’s people in Scripture rely on their own sight, they almost always take a wrong turn. Why? Because their vision, like ours, is clouded. Our vision is blurred by sin, by doubts, by pain, and most often by fear. We never see as clearly as we think we do.

Maybe this is why Jesus tells the Pharisees, “If you were blind, you wouldn’t have any sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (John 9:41).

This original song written in 2017 speaks to all of those moments when we either can't see or don't want to see the way God is leading us through the chaos of life.

Reflections:

1. How do you think you would score on a “spiritual vision test?” What “astigmatisms” keep you from seeing clearly? Fear? Doubt? Hurt? Sin? Something else?

2. Reflect on a time when you truly took a leap of faith and trusted God’s leading, even when it looked absurd or impossible to you? What was the outcome?

3. Read the story of the blind man in John 9:1-41. Where do you find yourself in the story? Who do you most identify with?


Our journey through St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer continues next week:

... I arise today,
Through God’s ear to hear me…

Pray along with the full text of St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer

? God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It ?

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HALF TRUTHS - PART 3

? God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It ?
Sunday, July 14, 2019
Matthew 5:17-48, Deuteronomy 23:12-14, 2 Timothy 2:14-15, 2 Timothy 3:15-17, John 1:14-18, John 8:2-11, Leviticus 20:10, 21:9

You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell.

Matthew 5:21-22


“You have heard it said… but I say to you…”

Such a statement from almost anyone would quickly raise a red flag today. We hear and use the arguments all the time. “What do you mean, “you say”?” “We’ve always done it this way. Are you telling us we’ve been doing it wrong all this time?” “Who are you to say my parents and great grandparents were wrong?”

I was talking to a group of church people once using a similar sentiment. I have had these kinds of conversations on a wide range of subjects. People have told me I did not preach God’s Word because I didn’t use the King James Version. Another man said I would “burn in hell if I didn’t get my wife to repent because she is a pastor,” which in his mind is clearly against God’s Word. The most extreme I have ever seen involved a church leader who actually believed that God’s commands to Joshua to drive the Canaanites out of the land also applies to white American Christians who are charged with ridding our nation of all minorities and non-believers, especially Muslims. His wife proceeded to send me a series of gruesome and inflammatory internet articles about extremist groups and they warned me that my Muslim friends would rape and mutilate my daughter, who was only 2 years old at the time.

Of course these are extreme distortions of Biblical teaching, but the truth is that Scripture has been used throughout history to oppress women, to endorse slavery, and to justify countless wars, the burning of so-called “witches”, the excommunication of scientists, and many other unjust atrocities throughout human history. This is the kind of violence and extremism that results in an “Us vs. Them” culture where God always just happens to be cheering for our team.

Yet Jesus himself said these words… “You have heard but I say,” not once but several times in His famous Sermon on the Mount. Jesus consistently re-frames the people’s understanding or interpretation of the law, not to undermine it, but to get to the heart of God’s intent. Lust is just as bad as adultery and hating someone is the equivalent of murder. “An eye for an eye” becomes, “love your enemies” and the Sabbath should never prevent us from doing good and bringing healing to others.

It’s easy to affirm, at least in words, because Jesus said it. But we must remember that Jesus’ audience did not attribute to him the same divine authority Christians recognize today. When they accused him of breaking the Sabbath or condemned him for defiling himself with sinners, they could just as easily have pointed to any number of scriptures to make their case and declared… “God said it, that settles it.”

If anything, Jesus, Paul, and other New Testament writers demonstrate that it’s not quite that simple. Scripture, just like any other text, can be twisted and distorted to say just about anything. Dr. Joy Moore talks about those preachers who have a verse for everything stating, “If you’ve got a topic, I’ve got a text.” Whether the text actually applies to the topic hardly matters, so long as it came from somewhere in the Bible, or at least “sounds Biblical.” Dr. Ben Witherington III is known for saying “A text without a context is a proof-text for anything you want to say.”

If God truly says something, and if we truly understand the meaning for our context, then yes, it may be fairly black and white. But more often than not, we are not as clear or certain as we would like to think. Let’s take murder for example. The command, “Thou shalt not murder” is one of the most black and white laws in Scripture and in almost every religion and law code throughout history. But even here we argue about gray areas. What about war, euthanasia, self-defense or the death penalty? Do these controversial issues count as “murder” and if so, are they justified? Some would even take it to the extreme that we must not kill animals, but even if someone could prove that was God’s intent, I imagine few of us would become vegetarian.

There’s no one-size fits all interpretation or even a universal method of Biblical interpretation throughout Christian history. We must wrestle with issues of language, context, socio-historic realities, literary styles, authorial intent, original audience and countless other exegetical and interpretive concerns. Rarely will all Christians of all times and all places ever fully agree on what it is that God actually said.

While I believe we must continue to study and wrestle with the meaning of the text in the context of the global Christian community throughout history, we must be careful making absolute statements that we and we alone have the only “right” interpretation on any given issue. Every time we are certain we are right, we will likely find another sincere Christian scholar interpreting the same passage in a very different way.

Understanding what God actually “said” or “meant” is no small task. If we’re honest, most of the time we are not even as clear as we thought we were about what our spouse means. This complex reality should not paralyze us to Biblical interpretation and study, but it should at the very least give us pause and keep us humble in our beliefs and out judgments against the beliefs of other Christians.

Two final words of advice.

  1. Remember that the Word became flesh… not text.

    When in doubt, always interpret the text through the lens of Jesus’ life for he is the only person to ever live out the fullness of God’s Word on this earth.

  2. Take to heart the wisdom of Mark Twain who writes, “It is not the parts of the Bible I do not understand that worry me, it is the parts I do understand.”

    For as much as Christians argue over the interpretation of obscure and controversial scriptures, we all know far more scripture than we actually put into practice. First and foremost, let us become doers and not merely hearers of those parts of the Word of God that are crystal clear… to love God and love our neighbor (which includes everyone)… to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our Creator.

    This alone may take more than a lifetime to master, and the world will be far better for it.

Special thanks to my wife, Rev. McKenzie Sefa, who preached this challenging topic today in our first of two pulpit swaps during this “Half-Truths” series. You can here her full message at the link below.