November 16: what matters

I am often asked to write letters of recommendation. It may be for someone seeking acceptance to a college. Sometimes it is a potential employer. I have even written letters on behalf of a person being considered for an award. Before I can write a letter of recommendation, I think about the individual, what I know about the person and how I’ve interacted with that person. I write about the person’s character and how he or she has shown integrity (a consistency between words and actions). I try to give a specific example of how I have witnessed or experienced the person’s character. Sometimes I can comment on a person’s skills, but mostly I write about character which is why I think a pastor is asked to write the recommendation in the first place.

Even without a letter, Paul says we are already providing a recommendation. We show others what it means to be Christian. Every day we give the world a glimpse of what it means to be Christian. I think Paul is asking the Corinthians and us if we are who we say we are – if we represent Christ in such a way as to serve as a letter of recommendation for Christ.

As I read from 2 Corinthians, these words and phrases caught my attention; “So we make it our goal to please him” (2 Corinthians 5:9); “We are Christ’s ambassadors” (5:20); “God’s co-workers” (6:1); “Let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (7:1)

This morning, I stopped for a cup of coffee. As the woman at the counter gave me the cup of coffee, she said “Have a nice day.” Four simple words. They are not new words, but I don’t hear them every day. She made eye contact with me and said these words in a way that I felt she meant it. I paused and said, “Thank you.” And I meant what I said. In that moment, she became a letter of recommendation – for the business that provides coffee. I would like the coffee regardless of her words, but this morning her words mean more to me than the coffee.

How am I being a letter of recommendation today? In what way, have you been a letter of recommendation, Christ’s ambassador, God’s co-worker? We may need to purify ourselves from whatever contaminates us so that Christ is seen and heard in us this day.

Today’s readings: 2 Corinthians 3-6

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November 14: not without effect

I love watching the sun rise. I will not forget this one that Amanda captured when we were traveling in Kenya. A sunrise changes everything. The light gives us the ability to see what we could not see previously, but the beauty of the sun rising also puts our focus on the sun.

This morning, as I was reading from the Bible, two phrases became my focus. In Psalm 149:1 – “Sing to the LORD a new song.” Not just a song, but a new song. I hear that as an invitation to see something new and to respond in kind – a new song. Then in 1 Corinthians 15:10 – “his grace to me was not without effect.” Paul is making the case for the resurrection. He lists all of the eyewitnesses with himself as the last to see the risen Christ. His emphasis is on last. His life prior to seeing the risen Christ made such an experience all the more unlikely. And yet, “his grace to me was not without effect.”

This morning, I’ve been reminded of people throughout my ministry who could say the same. They were surprised by God’s grace and the effect God’s grace has had on their lives. It is a great privilege to hear such stories and to sing a new song. God is good all of the time. All of the time God is good.

Take some time and reflect on the grace of God in your life. Because just like the sunrise, God’s grace is not without effect.

Today’s reading: Psalm 149; 1 Corinthians 15-16

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November 9: influence

I am reminded by today’s reading from 1 Corinthians of our concern when our children were younger with whom they were associating. We wanted to get to know their friends. We wanted to know who they were spending time with. We may be able to shape the environment in which we live, but we are also influenced by the people around us. What was true for my children is just as true for me.

Paul has great concern for the people in the Corinthian church, and he is troubled by what he hears about the behavior of some within the church. It is not that we are known by the company we keep but we are influenced. It is one thing to spend time with people we are trying to influence and show the way of Christ. Paul is sending Timothy to them. “He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus.” (1 Corinthians 4:17)

Who fills this role for you? Who reminds you of the way of life in Christ Jesus? To whom do you fills this role? Who looks to you to see the way of Christ Jesus?

Today’s readings: Job 34; 1 Corinthians 4-6

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November 7: the only thing that counts

Reading from the book of Galatians on the morning after 115 million Americans went to the polls, this is the verse that caught my attention: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:6b) Paul was writing to the Galatian church that he dearly loved. It was a church that he started as people heard the message that Jesus is risen from the dead and believed. But now, the church was embroiled in conflict. Some Christians saw themselves as superior to other Christians in the church. Those who were Jewish Christians felt Gentiles could not be true Christians unless they followed Jewish practices including circumcision. What had gotten lost was the unity that is found at the cross. Paul made this impassioned appeal in the letter that what matters most is faith expressing itself through love.

The day after an election – what matters most? We are still here – all 115 million of us. The past months of campaign rhetoric was not pleasant. In the end, I had to stop watching television. I feared the relentless ugliness of the messaging was having an impact on me – not on my vote, but on my character.

Paul’s reminder was that Christian character is produced by the Holy Spirit. When we let the Holy Spirit work within us, there is fruit that will be seen in our character: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. If I want that fruit, then I must let the Holy Spirit work within me.

So, today. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. What is the most loving way for me to speak and to act? There are days (most days, I think) when I cannot do that on my own. Let us live by the Spirit.

Today’s readings: Job 31-32; Galatians 5-6

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November 1: I’ve never seen anything like this

Early this morning, I was watching an online news report of the damage along the New Jersey coast as a result of Hurricane Sandy. In the way the report was edited, every person in the story began with the same words: “I’ve never seen anything like this.” I will add my words to the news report that even from more than a thousand miles away, I have never experienced anything like what many people are experiencing today. I have experienced challenges. I have been in the midst of experiences that I did not want to have. I have been in the midst experiences where I did not know how it would end. I have been through experiences that did not end well for me.

That’s why I still cling to Psalm 121:3. He will not let your footslip… The writer does not mean literally or physically, because I have slipped and even fallen. I have gotten  hurt physically. But even when the way of life is treacherous and uncertain, God has never let go. Even when I have wandered and tried to wiggle my way out of God’s grasp, God has never let go.

the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore. Psalm 121:8 Amen.

Today’s readings: Psalm 121; Mark 9-10

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October 26: taking responsibility

“I appeal to Caesar!” (Acts 25:11) Paul felt compelled by God to go to Rome. In yesterday’s reading, we heard Jesus tell Paul that he would go to Rome. What we discover in today’s reading is that Paul had to take responsibility, at one level, for making this happen.

We learn something about the interaction of God’s purposes and our prayers. Sometimes when we pray and wait for God to act, part of the answer is that God will act, but God will do so through our taking responsibility. We don’t know that in advance. That comes through prayer. God’s purposes and prayer interact and bring us to the point where we must take responsibility.

What these chapters show are not a series of trials but a preparation (a working out of God’s purposes) for the greater trial yet to come. To Caesar, Paul will go.

Today’s readings: Job 17; Acts 24-26

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October 25: comforter

“You are miserable comforters, all of you!” The first five verses of Job 16 say a lot about what not to do and what to do in the presence of someone who is suffering. Job’s friends have been increasing his misery rather than bringing comfort. They come to Job and ask what’s wrong which only provokes arguments about why he must be suffering. None of this provides comfort. They should not need to ask. What’s wrong physically is obvious just by looking at him. What’s wrong emotionally is what he has been trying to say. They refuse to see and hear him as he really is, and this is what makes them miserable comforters.

Job’s suffering has taught him how his own efforts in the past to comfort others have not been helpful. He could be as miserable a comforter to others as they have been to him. “But my mouth would encourage you; comfort from my lips would bring you relief.” (Job 16:5) He has learned through his own experience to be a comforter.

An important lesson for us when we reach out to someone who suffers. Often the best thing to say is nothing at all.

As I read Acts 23, it is interesting to note that in Paul’s time of crisis: “the Lord stood near Paul and said ‘Take courage!'” No long explanations. No arguments about why Paul must be in a time of need. Simply this: the Lord stood near – Take courage!

Perhaps we, too, will see and hear when we get quiet and listen.

Today’s readings: Job 16; Acts 21-23

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October 20: signs and wonders

Do you remember the prayer for boldness? (Acts 4) Enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus. Today there is an answer to this prayer. Today!

Reading from Job, we hear the deep pain of a man who has experienced one horrible thing after another. Even Job wonders what he’s done something to deserve all this. Tell me, God. What have I done? A friend visits who also tells him that he must have done something, because God would not send such calamity for no reason. Of course, we will discover that God was not the source and Job did not deserve any of this and there will be signs and wonders (but I’m getting ahead of the story).

In Acts 12, we read of signs and wonders. James, the brother of John, is executed and it appears that will be Peter’s fate as well. The account of what happens could have focused on the days that Peter was in prison – naked, in chains, a guard on either side at all times, knowing how this had played out for a fellow disciple. We are not told what Peter was thinking while in prison. We are told that the “church was earnestly praying to God for him” (how might the situation have been different if Job’s friends had been praying to God for Job). And we read of signs and wonders.

As I read from Job and Acts, I hear a message for my life. Focus on the signs and wonders of God. How can focusing on pain and suffering and what has not happened be at all helpful to me? Focus on what God has done, can do, and will be. When my prayers address the greatness of God, I am lifted to a place above and beyond my current situation. Remember the prayer for boldness in the name of Your holy servant Jesus. Amen.

Today’s readings: Job 6-8; Acts 12

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October 18: why?

The words of the hymn come to mind: If thou but suffer God to guide thee, and hope in God through all thy ways, God will give strength, whate’er betide thee, and bear thee through the evil days. Who trusts in God’s unchanging love builds on the rock that naught can move. These words written in the 17th Century by Georg Neumark. While traveling, he was robbed of everything but a prayer book and a few coins. At the time he was also unemployed and nearly homeless. And yet, he found strength from God in the midst of suffering. And through such strength, he was sustained.

Job’s suffering was so severe that he “cursed the day of his birth.” He asked, “Why is life given to a man whose way is hidden whom God has hedged in?” (3:23) The God who in 1:10 “put a hedge around him” to protect him, now left him hedged in with suffering – or so it seemed. Then Job’s friend arrived to comfort him by explaining there must be a reason for such suffering. God has a right to punish you, Job! (some comfort!). As we will see with this story of Job, the ultimate answer to the reason for such suffering was never given. God never provides that answer, but God also never leaves and never abandons.

If God’s motive in suffering was to punish sinners, then look no further than Acts 8-9. Saul’s record of persecution of Christians surely would have put him first in line for suffering at the hands of God. But God reached out to transform Saul. “This man is my chosen instrument.”

This prayer comes to mind: “Lord, what do You want to do through me?” God is present and able to provide strength in my weakness, even in the depth of suffering. And even the worst can become God’s instrument. God is present and able. Am I willing and available?

Today’s readings: Job 3-4; Acts 8-9

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October 12: overcoming jealousy

Chapter 7 of Nehemiah describes how even with the wall completed around Jerusalem, the enemies – and most noteably Tobiah – still did not want Nehemiah to accomplish the goal of rebuilding Jerusalem. Tobiah had relatives in the city, they kept reporting what was happening, and Tobiah sent “letters of intimidation” to Nehemiah. Why? Nehemiah was sent to Jerusalem by God with the support of the king who also sent resources with Nehemiah. Tobiah could have rebuilt the city before Nehemiah ever arrived, but the state of affairs for the people in Jerusalem was “great trouble and disgrace” (1:3).

Tobiah had married a daughter of a leader in Judah, and his son married the daughter of a leader in Judah. The purpose of such marriages was political, to exert influence and have control. Throughout the book of Nehemiah, Tobiah attempted to tear down everything that Nehemiah was building up. There is a word for this – jealousy. Jealousy is an attitude – a sin – which is characterized by resentment for another person’s accomplishments or by hostility toward another person who is believed to have some advantage. Jealousy has its roots in one of the seven deadliest sins – pride.

Jealousy is always destructive. A person filled with pride is blind to the grace of God. We all have experienced the destruction – either because we’ve been filled with pride or we were in the path of someone else who had been consumed with jealousy. I’m convinced that some things can only be driven out through prayer. Nehemiah did not stop to listen to Tobiah, because Tobiah’s only interest was in destruction for the sake of Tobiah. Instead, Nehemiah continued to turn to God and to move forward in the purpose that God had given him.

When I turned to Acts 1, three phrases stood out for me. Each phrase spoken by Jesus to dispirited disciples: “Wait for the gift”; “You will receive power”; “You will be my witnesses”. The gift would be the Holy Spirit. The power would come from the Holy Spirit. Their mission would be to give witness to the resurrection. Waiting, receiving, being – their focus would not be on themselves but the Holy Spirit guiding and moving them forward.

Somehow these two stories seem to fit together for me. The spirit of jealousy and the Holy Spirit cannot exist together. Where one exists, the other ceases to exist. Which do you want?

Today’s readings: Nehemiah 7-8; Acts 1

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