Tag Archives: Christian

Psalms

Read Psalm 137

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“My God, my God, why have You abandoned me? Why are You so far away when I groan for help?” (Psalms 22:1 NLT)

psalmsOne of the most profoundly beautiful, haunting, and human books in all the Bible is the book of Psalms. It is literally a collection of poems and/or songs that were written by people who were going through a widely varying range of emotions. Some are extremely happy and ecstatic. Some are extremely melancholy with a sense of foreboding loss. Some are filled with hopes, others are filled with fears. Some are an emotional mulatto rollercoaster ride that truly leave the reader hanging on every word for the duration of the ride.

Some of the Psalms are filled with love, and some are filled with bitter anger and hatred. One such Psalm, number 137, is written by a person who is grieving the loss of his or her homeland in the midst of exile. The smoke could still be seen arising on the horizon from Jerusalem. The former jewel city of Judah, was lying in ruins. Bodies of the dead men, women and children still lying up and down the streets, which were running with the blood of the innocent. The author of Psalm 137 is bitter, angry and wants justice. Correction: This psalmist wants vengeance!

I can relate with the psalmists because I, too, write poetry and I have written my own psalms in the past. Here is one such Psalm that I wrote during a time where I was going through a pretty rough situation:

My God! O, my God!
Help me to escape
This darkened, shadowy
Valley of peril and death.
I am not far away from
The edge of the cliff.
Destruction awaits me
And despair consumes me.

O, the melancholy kills me!
Sadness enslaves me!
Should I be angered by
This senseless betrayal?
Or should I embrace my fate
Like an outcast child
Who is abused and abandoned
By those closest him?

My Lord, You are also outcast.
My God, you have been rejected!
I should rejoice, and praise my God
As Jesus first instructed.
It is hard to endure the pain.
Help me, O LORD,
To remain humble and to be
Made righteous in your sight.

Help me, my God,
to go your way.
As long as I dwell South of Heaven,
I shall be your disciple.
You will never leave me,
Nor will you forsake me,
For you are always faithful!
You never abandon your children.

You never discourage
Nor do you tear down your beloved.
Your love is encompassing
And your forgiveness is endless!
You are always present
And you are full of compassion!
Give me strength,
And grant me wisdom.

Bless the fruits that I produce
For your Kingdom.
I only serve you, my God,
Only you, do I worship!
Your name is EL Shaddai;
You are everything I need.
Your name is EL-Roi;
You know my heart!

Your name is EL Haggadol;
Great is your glory!
Your name is EL Chayim;
I am your child!
Your name is Immanuel;
I know you are with me.
God knows my brokenness
And continues carrying me.

My God, my Lord,
My everlasting Father,
Do not pass me by
But give me sanctuary.
Hear my petition, my God!
I cry out to you.
Let not your disciple
Succumb to his enemies!

I don’t normally share my poetry; however, psalms are meant to be read or sung collectively by the people. They witness both to our brokenness as human beings and they also witness to the power of God in our lives. If God can walk the Psalmist of Psalm 137 through the horrific tragedy of the Babylonian Exile, then God can walk me through the situations I find myself in. If God walks me through my situations (and God does)…I who am an unworthy sinner…surely God walks you through yours too!

Not only do I challenge you to journey through the Psalms, I also challenge you to begin to share your psalms with others as well. You don’t have to be a talented poet or songwriter to share your psalms, and there is no rule that states psalms can only be written in words on paper. Your psalm is any expression that shows your faith journey and how God is working in your life. Show people that they are not alone. Show them that you, too, have periods of doubt, of despair, of hope, of happiness, of joy, of anger, and of every other human emotion. Take the mask off and show people that they are not alone and, then, be willing to walk with them as they share with you that you are not alone either. That is what the Psalms do for us, and that is what we are called to do for others as well! Make your life a living psalm.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble.” (Psalms 46:1 NLT)
PRAYER
Lord, I lift my psalms up to you. Make my life a living psalm, a witness to all. Amen.

Beyond Our Ghosts

Read John 14:1-7

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in Me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 NLT)

poltergeistFollowing suit with the previous devotional, I just recently watched another horror movie that is actually a remake of an older, yet still popular film by the name of “Poltergeist”. While the original, written by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper, will always be the favorite of the two versions, it is safe to say that this new film definitely delivers. Besides, who doesn’t love a good ghost story, even if retold, to send chills up and down one’s spine.

In case you are unfamiliar with the film Poltergeist, I will give you the gist of the plot. I will be referring to the 2015 remake, since it is the one I have seen most recently. Though the characters have different names, the plot is basically the same. Poltergeist is a film that follows a family that is moving into a new home in a development somewhere out in suburbia. Following their arrival, things start to get weird. The youngest daughter, Madison, starts talking to “imaginary friends” and their son, Griff, hears the tree growling at him. All of the family members, in different ways, come across seemingly random static electricity in certain spots of the house.

While at first the weird occurances are kind of fun and intriguing, they start to become more and more vicious and scary. Little Madison, begins having nightly conversations with “the lost people” in the television set, and eventually gets lured into the closet by mysterious lights, only to disappear. Following her disappearances, her frantic family starts to hear her talking through the static-laden television set. As it turns out, she had been kidnapped by the poltergeists who are trapped in the house in a world that between this life and the next. They are desperate to find a way out of the hellish purgatory they are in, and Madison’s innocence draws them to her, thinking that she can lead them to the light (aka to rest in peace on the other side).

Without giving anymore details away, or spoiling the rest of the story, I think it is fair to say that this film is full of thrills and twists that keep you at the edge of your seat throughout. What I have noticed in this film, as well as all films about paranormal hauntings, is that while the families being affected seem to be normal, average, everyday families, there is always something dark lying under the surface.

Again, without giving away too much of the story, it becomes clear fairly early on that the Bowen family in Poltergeist is a family that is struggling to remain together. Mom is an aspiring author who cannot find the time or energy to write because of the responsibilities of motherhood. Dad is unemployed and desperately seeking employment. My guess is that they have moved to this location because they could no longer afford to live where they were. To make matters worse, dad tries to calm the stress by spending money on his kids and wife. But that only adds to the stress, because every dollar is precious.

Griff, their son, has a tremendous amount of anxiety that goes unexplained throughout the film. One can imagine that much of it is caused by the uncertainty of their family situation, but there could be more to it than that. And their eldest daughter, Kendra, is a rebellious teen who is resentful of the family situation and their move. What’s more, she is a bad influence on her younger sister, Madison, who imitates all of the things she does.

As I mentioned above, it seems that this is a prominent theme in many cases of paranormal activity, and especially in films about “hauntings”. As I sit here reflecting on that, I think that is true even beyond hauntings and other tales dealing with the world of the hereafter. We as people invite the kinds of things we project into this world. What I mean by that is this is that if we are constantly surrounding ourselves with negativity and constantly have a negative outlook, chances are we will be tormented, or “haunted” if you will, by that negative outlook. What’s more, if we allow our faith and our spiritual disicipline erode, we become even more susceptible to succumbing to hopelessness and despair.

Today’s challenge is to be a people of light, a people of joy, and a people of hope. While life in this broken world will present us its challenges, Christ has overcome the world and we can too if we rest our faith and our trust solely in Christ. If we do so, if we move from our fears, our anxieties, our trials, and the negativity we surround ourselves with to FAITH IN CHRIST, we will be set free and rise above the negativity that can seep into our lives. I pray that we all can make the move byond our ghosts to the hopeful light and love of Christ.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” – Stephen King

PRAYER
Lord, I cast all my fears upon you. I give to you the ghosts that haunt me. Fill me with your light so that you, and not my ghosts, will win. Amen.

The Dark Woods

Read Matthew 5:13-16

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves.” (Matthew 10:16 NLT)

blair_witch-2016-headerJust recently I was watching the direct sequel to the Blair Witch Project entitled, Blair Witch. I can remember the first film like it was yesterday. BWP was a highly anticipated film. It was 1999, only two years prior to 9/11, and the way the director and filmmakers chose to promote it gives us an idea on the kind of world the ‘90s were. They chose to use the real actors’ names in the film, put their names and faces on milk cartons, and stated they were missing…FOR REAL. What’s more, and I didn’t know this at the time, they sent each of the actor’s families a letter offering their condolences over the disappearance of their children/siblings.

Yikes, can you imagine being those family members and getting a notice stating that your child was missing and believed to be dead? It was a total commitment to realism, but I can only imagine the heartbreak that caused. Of course, the actors had to hide away, lay low, and keep quiet until the film came out. What’s more, they made a “mockumentary” and aired it on national, and international, television leading up to the film. The marketing was, in a word, brilliant; however, it did have its consequences. Heather Donahue, the main star, stated that the film forever changed her life…and not in a good way. The film went down in history as being one of the most influential horror movies of all time, and it also spawned countless copycats and/or “found footage” horror films that now flood the theaters.

The direct sequel to this film, Blair Witch, was just released in 2016 and it, too, follows the same format as the first film. By now, most (and I do stress most as some still believe that BWP is a true story) people are aware that these films are fiction; however, the newest installment still delivers in terms of intensity, scares and a foreboding sense of doom. What makes this work in both films is that they are filming it in the woods, and a majority of the film is shot at night with very little lighting, only enough to see the actors and their immediate surroundings.

Have you ever been in the woods at night? I have. Well, I practically live in the woods but, that aside, I have been in the pitch black woods at night with nothing but a flashlight to guide my way. It is not a pleasant experience because one’s sight is so limited. Limited sight is scary enough on its own, however, add in the fact that around you could be bears, coyote, mountain lions (I swear they exist here), and any other number of wildlife. All one experiences in the woods at night is darkness, shadowy formations of trees, and sounds of critters moving and leaves rustling.

Being in the woods at night is a great metaphor for living one’s life as a Christian in this world. Jesus tells us that we are salt of the earth and the lamp on a lampstand. In order for us to not lose our flavor as salt, we have to be willing to have the courage and the faith to go where God is leading us. We have to be willing to go into the dark woods and to live our lives faithfully within it. In order for us to do so, we have to not hide who we are or whose we are, for to do so is to hide the light of Christ under a basket. That is treacherous at best for then we do not have the light of Christ to guide our way, and we do not have the light of Christ to draw others to the Salvation we bear in us.

Here’s the catch, we cannot be faithful Christians without entering the dark woods. Following Jesus is NOT about playing it safe, it is about risking safety in order to bring Good News to the last, the least, and the lost. Today’s challenge for us is to reflect on where we are. Have we left the safety of our sanctuary? Have we left the safety of the arms of Christ in order to venture out into the dark woods? Have we left comfort behind to embrace the darkened path that Christ has chosen for us? If not, I pray you will take that next step for the harvest is great, but the workers are few.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Love will find a way through paths where wolves fear to prey.” – Lord Byron

PRAYER
Lord, thank you for being my sanctuary no matter where I go. Help me rid myself of fear that I might bold step out into the darkness and shine your light. Amen.

Depraved

Read Mark 7:14-23

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

depraved-skullI am sure you are looking at this title and going, “Oh, no! Where’s he going to go with this.” I can assure you that I am not about to pull my inner Calvinist out. As a theologian, I do not subscribe to much of the five points of Calvinism. Still, on the point of “total depravity”, even John Wesley said (in a letter to John Newton dated May 14, 1765) he did not “differ from [Mr. Calvin] an hair’s breadth.” After all, the Bible clearly teaches that humanity strayed from the love and grace of God, allowing sin and evil to enter into the picture; however, the grace of God has given us the ability to choose good over evil and to choose holiness over sinfulness.

So, even though I don’t agree with the other four points of Calvinism, I am not going to take this devotion to a comfortable place in regard to human depravity. We all have that potential to fall to reject God and fall back into our depraved state. I see evidence of this in Scripture as well as in every day life. I would have to be morally blind and completely naïve to think that human depravity doesn’t exist in this world. All we have to do is turn on the news to find it. In fact, along with covering the depravity of human beings around our communities, our country and our world, the news networks (and I mean ALL of them) themselves engage in depravity.

I was just recently watching the news and seeing college kids at the University of California Berkley rioting on campus because a conservative/liberatarian speaker was coming to give a speech. When I say rioting, I mean wearing masks, throwing molotov cocktails, shooting fireworks at the school library, pepper spraying a woman who had a “Make America Great Again” hat on, knocking down power lines and making a bonfire out of school property. All of this because people are opposed to the current administration and, as a result, conservatives in general.

On the flip side, conservatives have done their share of riling up anger. They have engaged in irresponsible rhetoric, led a brutal campaign unlike I think anyone has ever seen before, thoughtlessly executed laws that have done harm to people, and engaged in “tit-for-tat” bomb throwing on social media. What’s more, as is usually the case when any side wins an election, there has been a lot of gloating as well. Not to mention the white supremacists and other morally debase people coming out of the wood work, spray painting swastikas on playgrounds, shouting racial slurs at people of color, and chanting “build that wall” at our Latino and Hispanic brothers and sisters, most of whom are citizens.

Don’t mistake me here, I am not engaging in political discourse or taking sides. As I see it, both sides are wrong. We live in an age where we no longer can look at one another as brothers and sisters, as fellow human beings, as children of God; rather, we look at others as enemies, as evil, as monsters, as ignorant, as dangerous, as threats, as demons that need to be sent back to the fires of hell. Burn, baby, burn.

This world is on fire with depravity right now. No, it’s not the first, nor even the worst time in the history of the world, but we are descending into the depths of destruction faster than anyone of us could have ever anticipated. People I once stood side-by-side with in serving others, are now chanting “fight fire with fire”. People I once could have an intelligible conversation with, are no longer stopping to listen anymore. Everyone anymore seems to be screaming expletives past each other, without stopping to pause and notice that they have lost the high ground.

Is this what God wants? Is this what God envisioned for us when we were created? How can we claim to love God when we hate our neighbor? How can we claim to listen to God when we cannot even have the respect and love to listen to one another? We have become a depraved people, spanning generations. I recognize that that NOT EVERYONE has engaged in the extremes of the depravity we have been seeing; even so, most of us who have not have laid quietly in fear of standing up IN LOVE against it.

Do you believe in Jesus Christ? Do you believe in all that he did and taught? Do you believe in the power of his resurrection and the coming of the Kingdom of God? If you answer yes to all of those questions, then you are called to be the peacemaker of the world around you. All of us who believe are. We are to look for truth on all sides and bring people together, rather than divinding them further apart. We are to take the long, hard, painful road of loving all people, especially those we disagree with or call our enemies. We are to be the hands and feet of our risen, living Savior. We are to counter depravity with the goodness and righteousness (aka justice) by the grace of Christ who is Lord. Will you join me in that? I hope so.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“All we are saying is give peace a chance.” – John Lennon

PRAYER
Lord, help me to assess my own fears and feelings so that I may rise above depravity and be a peacemaker in the world around me. Amen.

The Inner Skeptic

Read Psalm 14

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“And you must show mercy to those whose faith is wavering.” (Jude 1:22)

chirrut-imwe-and-jyn-ersoEveryone knows that I am a HUGE fan of Star Wars. Recently, the latest film in the Star Wars Universe was released, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”. The film follows a series of mostly new characters who are on a mission to get the blueprint plans of “The Death Star” from the evil Galactic Empire. If they succeed, it is possible that they can find a weakness that will help them destroy a weapon so powerful that it can eliminate entire planets in a matter of seconds.

Without spoiling the story for you (as I run a strict, no spoiler, ship), the characters of Jyn and Cassian are the unlikely leaders of a slim-to-none chance to infiltrate the enemy base and steal the plans of the dreaded battle station, “The Death Star.” All throughout the film, the characters are constantly being tested in their abilities, in their trust of one another, and in their faith.

In fact, wrestling with faith is a MAJOR theme in this film. Each of the characters, in their own way, find themselves wrestling with their faith in the existence of the force. One of the characters, Chirrut Îmwe, is a member of the Guardian of the Whills, which is a religious order that at one time were protectors of the Temple. Following the Temple being raided by the Galactic Empire, the Guardians remained true to their beliefs and sat out in the streets preaching about the Force.

What’s important to note is that thought the age of the Jedi and their use of the force, are not far removed from the time period that this takes place, many question the existence of such a “Force”. The Jedi themselves are quickly fading into mythological obscurity. How quickly hope fades, how quickly people fall from faith into the hopless state of despair. This is, honestly, the human condition.

When Jyn runs into Chirrut, he asked her if she knew what she was wearing around her neck. The crystals she was wearing were what the Empire had come to the Temple to raid, they were what powered the lightsabers. Chirrut sees it as a sign that the Force was alive and well. In fact, throughout the film, this monk kept reciting a powerful mantra, “I am one with the Force,  the Force is with me.”

Throughout the film, there are many skeptics who question this monk’s devotion to what they see as nothing more than a fairytale. Yet, his unwavering faith to the Force witnesses to these people and causes them to see beyond the inner skeptic within them. One by one, each of them is confronted with the choice between placing their faith in the Force or in continuing to deny the Force that is within them and all around them.

What I want to make clear is this, today’s Scripture is NOT calling the one who wrestles with his/her faith a fool. Everyone should be wrestling with their faith in God. It is was makes that faith real and it is how one grows in faith; however, the Scripture is stating that the one who concludes, absolutely and definitively that THERE IS NO GOD is foolish. Such an absolute proclamation leads nowhere but placing oneself in the place of God.

To make that proclamation is to shut oneself off from the discovery of the divine. There is not a single human being that can definitively know Ultimate Reality and, therefore, it is ultimately foolish for them to shut themselves off to the possibility of God based off of whatever limited “evidence” they may think they have. Not one of us can possibly have ALL of the evidence to make any conclusive and definitive proclamation.

We all operate on faith. We operate on the faith that there is a God or we operate on the faith that there is no God. Skepticism is good and healthy; however, it only gets us so far. The question for us is this, can we silence the  inner skeptic? Can we get to the place where we move beyond skepticism and acknowledge the faith that we are already operating on? If so, we can continue to wrestle with our faith and grow in it. I pray that, if you are struggling with your faith, this devotion may be your inner Chirrut Îmwe, reminding you that you are one with the Force (aka God) and that the Force/God is with you. I pray that you choose to move beyond faith in “no God” to faith in the God who is wanting to work miracles in you and through you.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

PRAYER
Lord, I believe. Help me in my unbelief. Amen.

The Sermon, part 24: Asking and Receiving

Read Matthew 7:7-11

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” (Matthew 6:7 NRSV)

askseekknockEvery Christmas season, kids beging to put their lists together to send to the jolly old elf in the North Pole. All year long, kids look forward to this particular holiday where their everything they want, or so they hope, will be lying under an evergreen tree wrapped in paper and a bow. With that said, all year long parents are reminding their children that they had better be nice or other wise Santa will be bringing them a lump of coal. Or worse still, they had better not be naught or Krampus (Google it) will come to visit them.

Still, kids know that they will end up with presents and not coal or some soul snatching, child-eating demon under their tree. They know that they are going to at least get some, if not all, of what they had put on their list. In fact, the list is just half of the equation. Not only do kids make their list out, but they persist in telling their parents that they really want this, or they really are hoping Santa gets them that. Their persistence is enough to get them what they want.

What is sad is that this kind of Christmas list mentality doesn’t end at Christmas time, no is it just prevelant with children. In fact, many grown Christians hold this mentality as well and it is how they approach their prayer life. God is seen as some sort of Santa Claus in the sky and faith is seen as some sort of vehicle that helps you believe God will fulfill your wish list. I guess this is the result of living in a consumer driven world, where the consumer (the church goer) is always right and expects to get what they paid for (through offering, or through faith and/or devtion, etc.).

Thus, many Christians approach today’s passage with that understanding in mind. Jesus says, “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened unto you.” That get’s interpreted into a prosperity driven message of persisting (aka bugging) God for what you want until you get it. If God doesn’t answer your prayer it’s because you didn’t pray hard enough, or you didn’t pray in the right manner, or you didn’t persist enough in your prayers.

This is a bad, bad, bad theology and it also happens to be completely missing the point of Jesus’ teaching here. First, it needs to be said that Jesus has already modeled what our prayer should look like in Matthew 6 (refer back to parts 15 & 16 of this series to refresh your memory). Today’s text comes in light of the Lord’s Prayer, and it is clear that the kind of prayer Jesus things we ough to be praying looks nothing like a Christmas wish list for Santa.

Rather, we should be praying for God’s will to be done, for God’s Kingdom to come, and for God to give us what we need spiritually and physically to carry on the work God’s calling us to do (this is different than praying for God to give us what we want). We should be praying for forgiveness (for ourself and others), and asking God to guide us every step of the way. Today’s text is setting up what are three Jewish expressions for prayer: Ask, seek, knock. These aren’t three unrelated expressions, either, but are three interrelated expressions that help us to establish a dynamic and vital prayer life.

Asking God implies less of a “begging” for God to gift us with things, as much as implies a complete dependence on God for everything, just as a child totally depends on his/her parents. We ask God, because we know God is the one who provides. Asking must be understood in light of our dependence on God, for it to truly be what Christ is teaching us. Yet, prayer does not just involve us asking and God supplying. God is not the only active participant, but we are as well.

Jesus’ three tiered approach to understanding prayer is that we will ask by seeking and knocking. In other words, we don’t just ask, sit back and wait. Rather, we ask for God’s will to be done all the while seeking it out and knocking on all of the doors until we find the one God has opened for us. Prayer is not just done with our words, but with our very actions. We should be living embodiments of our prayers, totally dependent on God, but totally an active participant in God’s plan for us and for this world. This is what it means to pray, according to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We ask God, not only with our words, but through our actions by seeking and knocking. When we are aligned with and dependent upon God’s will, and when we actively seek and knock in order to follow God’s will, we surely will receive what we are actively searching for.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.” – Mahatma Gandhi

PRAYER
Lord, thank you for the gift of prayer. May your will be done, and may I ever seek and knock on doors until your will be revealed unto me. Amen.

The Sermon, part 21: Anxiety

Read Matthew 6:25-34

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank Him for all He has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7, NLT)

bigstock-business-concept-53939776Today’s passage often gets read as a friendly suggestion by Jesus to those gathered around him. After all, Jesus cared for his followers and for people in general, right? He didn’t want to see them all stressed out and worried about what they will or won’t have. So, in concern of people’s stress-levels and heart health, Jesus was telling people that they should live an anxiety-free life, right?

What’s more, sermons on this text are often crafted around the notion of faith. If you trust God, you’ll have nothing to be anxious about. If you trust that God will provide for you, and if you seek first God’s Kingdom, God will give you what your heart desires. Many a “prosperity Gospel” message have come straight from today’s passage. Christ wants you to trust and have faith in God, and then God will bless you in ways immeasurable.

Unfortunately, both of the above paragraphs miss the mark. First, Jesus was not a self-help teacher who was instructing people on ways to reduce their stress. That is a very 21st century way of understanding the Gospel. There was plenty to be anxious of in Jesus’ day, and Jesus himself was not immune to it. In Gethsemane, Jesus was so anxious about his imminent crucifixion that he began to sweat blood. This is a medical condition called Hemtridosis, in which extreme physical and/or emotional stress cause capillary blood vessels to rupture and literally bleed out of one’s pours. Sounds, like a stress free and fun time, right?

This may all seem a bit facetious, but the reality is that we often interpret Jesus as if he was some sort of self-help guru who wanted nothing more than to teach you how to, as Joel Osteen puts it, “live your best life now.” To go with more Joel Osteen book titles, just for the fun of it, Jesus is not teaching you that “you can, you will,” nor is he teaching you that “it’s your time” to “break out” and “make wise choices” in your life. Think about it, conventionally speaking, was it wise for Jesus to resist the religious and world leaders of his time, or to roam the wilderness with a ragtag bunch of hooligans he called disciples? Was it wise to hang out with tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners? Was it wise to flip the money-changing tables in the Temple? Was it wise to befriend Judas, and was the crucifixion Jesus’ “break out” moment?

It’s time for Christians to understand that the Gospel is not about worldly, prosperity, but about God’s justice and the establishment of God’s kingdom.  It is also time to realize that Jesus’ words against anxiety were not a friendly suggestion aimed at making us live longer and more productive lives; rather, they are a prohibition against anxiety itself. This prohibition is not just for the rich who worry about their worldly possessions and the loss of things that they have, it is also a prohibition for the poor who worry about the things they don’t have.

What’s more, it is important to stress that Jesus is not addressing people who have anxiety disorders. People who suffer from such anxiety need loving support, counseling and healing presence, not condemnation by self-righteous bigots and holy rollers. Jesus’ prohibition is not against people who suffer psychologically in ways they cannot help; rather, he is talking about the kind of anxiety that is produced by the fear of losing what one has or the desire to have more. This is not just directed at individuals, but also at the church. I can’t tell you how many times I seen local church’s, as well as the global church, worry about what the future holds, fiscally speaking. Whether we are talking about individuals, or the church, what we worry about becomes what we worship. The object of our anxiety becomes our idol, consuming all our attention and energy.

Whether one has plenty or little, Jesus is telling his disciples not to be caught up in the anxieties of material loss or gain. To do so betrays a lack of trust in God who provides us with everything we’ll ever need. It also takes us away from what our true purpose is, to love our neighbors as ourselves and to love God with our whole being. It takes us away from our true purpose of seeking out the Kingdom of Heaven, and the seeking out (and even fighting for) God’s justice (aka righteousness) in the world.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strength.” – Rev. Charles Spurgeon

PRAYER
Lord, help me to trust that you supply and equip me with all that I need. Amen.

The Sermon, part 20: Two Choices

Read Matthew 6:19-24

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that His kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?” (Romans 2:4 NLT)

twochoicesIn Rabbinic Judaism, which developed following the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple in 70 CE, three tenants or pillars developed in the Jewish faith. It’s not that these “pillars” didn’t inherently exist within Judaism; rather, it is that it wasn’t until post-70 CE that they were so coined. The pillars represented the way one was to remain true to Judaism without the existence of the Temple, which was the center of the Jewish faith. Thus, the pillars replaced the Temple as the center of the Jewish faith and provided a way for people to live up to the Jewish covenant with God in the absence of a Temple.

The three pillars are Torah (including the study of the Torah), avodah shebalev (worship of the heart, aka prayer), and gimilut chasidim (acts of loving kindness). In other words, in order to remain a faithful Jew following the destruction of the Temple, one had to study the Torah and live faithfully by it, one had to worship God in their heart through regular and persistent prayer, and one had to perform acts of loving kindness in the world around them. By doing this, one was living in a way that was a holy and living sacrifice to God. Since there was no Temple to sacrifice in, this was the way the Rabbis taught to express faithful devotion to God. In fact, one could argue that if people lived perfectly by the three pillars, there would be little need to offer sacrifices in atonement of sin. Clearly, the three pillars are a noble and holy way to aspire to.

Matthew 6:19-7:12 parallels the third pillar of Judaism: acts of loving kindness. Today’s passage, Matthew 6:19-24, kicks off the section with another antithetical form. In essence, Jesus states that people either store up treasure on earth, or they store up treasure in heaven. People either hold onto material goods that will eventually be lost, or they will attain everlasting goods. People will either have a clear eye and live life in the light, or they will have a bad eye and live an utterly hopeless and confused life in the darkness. People will either serve “things” or they will serve God.

These antitheses serve to remind us that we are always facing two choices: the choice to do what is right and the choice to do what is wrong, the choice to follow God, or the choice to follow ourselves. Our God is a God of action and, thus, it makes sense that Jesus would lay out these antitheses centered on what we do versus what we do not do. It is important that we not only “believe” in Christ, but that we FOLLOW Christ and that we live our “beliefs” out in tangible ways.

Jesus doesn’t take time to explain what “heavenly treasure” is, nor does he go into detail on how to attain it. That is beyond Jesus’ point and he leaves it open for his disciples to respond in creative ways unique to their own situations. In other words, Jesus leaves room for interpretation. Where the wiggle room stops here: one either is actively working for God, being set apart for God, or one is not. Christ makes that very, very clear.

In our world we often look at the eyes as the window that lets light into brain, which then interprets that light, and shadows, into the objects we see. The ancients, Jesus included, had a different understanding of the eye. For the ancient world, the eye was a lamp that shined light on what we were seeing, thus illuminating objects so that they can be seen. Despite the two different understandings of the mechanics of the human eye, Jesus’ point is made clear by the fact that he makes it in the context of money and material gain. If the eye is seeking material gain, the person it belongs to will be misled and lost in a state of confusion and darkness. Their entire way of seeing the world will be perverted by their “eye’s” focus, which is really the focus of their heart.

This of course, is followed up with Jesus famous “mammon” verse, where Jesus states that one cannot serve two masters, that one cannot serve God and “mammon” or money. The fact is this, Jesus is reminding all of us that we have to make a choice, do we follow God or do we follow ourselves? Do we recognize Christ as our Lord, or do are we lords over our own lives? The choice is simple. If we choose Christ, then the Gospels (and all of Scripture in the light of the Gospels) points us to what our lives ought to become. If our lives are not matching up with the Gospel, that means we are not fully committal in serving Christ alone. Each of us falls into this reality, but Christ has gracefully given us the measure, along with the Holy Spirit, to begin to change.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” (Edith Wharton)

PRAYER
Lord, you are the light. Open my eyes that I may see it, embrace it, and reflect it. Amen.

The Sermon, part 19: Fasting

Read Matthew 6:16-18

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“This shall be a statute to you forever: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall deny yourselves, and shall do no work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you.” (Leviticus 16:29 NRSV)

man-repentance-humble-humility-sackcloth-and-ashes-rend-hearts-courtesy-of-conrado-shutterstockcom_136670741There is a practice in Christianity to abstain from certain things during the period of Lent. For some, such as Roman Catholics, observant Christians abstain from eating meat on Fridays. There even some Roman Catholics who abstain from eating meat on Fridays throughout the entire year. Others abstain from chocolate, from television, from social media, from food, etc.

Fasting has been a part of religious life for as long as people have been seeking a relationship with God. There are numerous reasons why devoted people fast. Some fast in order to humble themselves and set their relationship with God back on track. Others fast in order to enhance their prayer life. Still, others fast as a way of showing penitence for their sins, or the sins of others. The prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures fasted on behalf of their people, who had gone astray from the ways of God.

Fasting was a common practice in Jesus’ time. The act, itself, also included the wearing of sackcloth, the placing of ash over one’s head, and abstaining from bathing and/or washing the body. In other words, it was quite obvious when one was fasting, because they would wreak to high heaven and look like they’d slept in a hole in the ground for a month! This may seem like an odd practice; however, it was done as a part of lamentation and humility. After all, there’s nothing more humbling than having people keep their distance from you because you stink! That would be a constant reminder of one’s lowliness.

The Hebrew Scriptures had set forth only one time for public fasting, and it was only a day long fast: The Day of Atonement. It was during this day long ritual, to be held on a Sabbath day (or a day of rest), that the priests would atone for the sins of Israel by sacrificing animals in the Temple. The people were absolutely forbidden to do any work, which also included bathing, cooking, eating, etc. The people were to deny themselves in a spirit of repentance.

While that is the only public fast required in the Torah, two other public fasts cropped up in Jewish Tradition. These were Rosh Ha-Shanah (the Jewish New Year) and the Ninth of Ab (which marked the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians); however, it is unlcear whether or not these were a part of the tradition at the time Matthew was written, let alone during Jesus’ life time. With that said, there were days of the week (Mondays and Thursdays) that were designated for personal fasting, and it seems that Jesus’ disciples (at least some of them) were participating in that.

Unlike Jesus’ words on public prayer and almsgiving, Jesus’ words here are to be taken literally, though it is still not merely a legalistic command that Jesus is making. Rather, Jesus is speaking to the heart of why we do what we do. Are we doing it so that others can see, or are we doing it for God and God alone. In other words, when you abstain from meat on Friday, or you abstain from chocolate through Lent, do you feel the need to let people know? If so, why is that? Are you doing so that people know you are “religious” or that you are “holy” or that you are ”Christian”? Or are you doing it as an offering to God who gave everything up for us?

When I was juice fasting, I initally didn’t let anyone know I was doing it. My pastor, family and friends eventually talked me into going public with it because I was successfully shredding off weight and they thought I could be an inspiration to people. I hesitated for a while on it. I wasn’t doing it for attention, but for myself…to prove that I could lose the weight and be healthy once again; however, I did eventually start to share it with people to be an inspiration to them and to show them that IT CAN BE DONE.

There is nothing wrong with publicly fasting if it is being done for the RIGHT reason; however, what Jesus is getting at is that if you are fasting so that others will see you, you will have your reward. Others will see you and they will remark how “holy” or how “religious” you are and that will be that! That kind of attention seeking gains the wrong kind of attention and it is ultimately no benefit to the spiritual growth of the person seeking the attention. God will not be impressed by that, nor will one gain anything more than human approval and/or human mockery.

Again, we are reminded by our Lord, that we are called to be set a part FOR GOD and not for human approval or recognition. We are being challenged to search our hearts and test our motivations. Are we SERVING GOD or are we SERVING SELF? If the latter is the case, then we should prepare ourselves for much needed change, or come to terms with the reality that we are spiritually shallow. Once again, Jesus draws the line in the sand to measure where we are standing. May we acknowledge the truth, and adjust our position if need be.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Start the practice of self-control with some penance; begin with fasting.” – Mahavira

PRAYER
Lord, thank you for the spiritual discipline of fasting. Help me to be set apart for you, and you alone, in all that I do. Amen.

The Sermon, part 18: Forgiveness

Read Matthew 6:14-15

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
Even if that person wrongs you seven times a day and each time turns again and asks forgiveness, you must forgive.” (Luke 17:4, NLT)

unidos-en-la-fe-imagenes-cristianas-con-la-cruzAs was mentioned in the previous devotion, Jesus sets the model for how we should pray. Included in that model is the act of forgiveness. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” Jesus prayed. Debts, obviously, is a term that indicates finances are involved. Those of us who have ever taken out a loan, or borrowed from a friend, are all too familiar with what a debt is. Similarly, those of us who have loaned stuff out and waited for it to be paid back, know what it means to have debtors beholden to us.

I think it is important that we look at Jesus’ words in the Lord’s Prayer, so that we can best contextualize them as well as understand the words that follow them. In the prayer, Jesus prays that God forgives our “debts” (ὀφείλημα, pronounced of-i’-lay-mah) just as we forgive our “debtors” (ὀφειλέτης, pronounced of-i-let’-ace). The Greek word for debt means “something that is owed”. With that said, the word is not so black and white, as it can also mean a sin or a moral fault. In other words, debt (ὀφείλημα) can be taken in both the literal sense of one owing someone money or property, and it can be taken in the spiritual sense of one owing God reparation for his or her sins.

There are some that want to merely see sins in this verse, and there are some Bible translations that choose to interpret this verse as “sins”; however, it is important to point out that in doing so, these translators are taking a stance that matches their theology as to what Jesus is saying here. So, if one sees Jesus’ primary mission as saving people from their sins, he or she will translate this word as “sins”. Conversely, if a translator sees Jesus’ primary mission as standing in solidarity with and liberating the oppressed (including impoverished people who are in debt to those oppressing them), then he or she will translate this word as “debts”.

Both positions, as I see it, are gravely mistaken because they both fail to see the poetic subtlety in Jesus’ words. How do we know this for sure? Because in verses 12-13, Jesus chooses a word that explicitly means debts (though, more subtly, it could mean sins); however, in verse 14-15, Jesus uses a word that explicitly means sins. The use of the two words in reference to forgiveness tells us that Jesus doesn’t see this as an “either/or”, but a “both/and”.

Jesus’ mission was both to save people from their sins, and it was to stand in solidarity with and liberate the poor. The two missions are not mutually exclusive of each other; rather, they are an intertwined and connected purpose with in the same mission. Salvation from sin equals a liberation of the poor and the oppressed, for sin is what leads to the evil of oppression and abject poverty.  If people didn’t sin, they would oppress others, nor would they hold people indebted to them to the point of impoverishment.

What’s more, without sin people wouldn’t have the corrupt notion of “owning” property and goods for everything that we possess is, theologically speaking, given to us from God. That is why the early church members gave all of their belongings to the whole community, to be shared in equally with each other for the good of the whole community. These earliest Christians were making The Lord’s Prayer a lived reality in their communities. And this is what we are called to do as well.

Jesus couldn’t be any clearer, if we forgive those who sin against us (spiritually or physically), then we are in line with God’s forgiveness and will receive it; however, if we harden our hearts to forgiving others, then we are not in line with God’s forgiveness and we have hardened our hearts to the forgiveness God wishes to give to us. Hardened hearts will not receive forgiveness because they refuse to, just as surely as hardened hearts refuse to forgive. So here’s the key truth for us to reflect on: FORGIVENESS IS THE KEY TO BEING CHRISTIAN.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
To offer forgiveness is to show thankfulness to the infinite times God has forgiven you. Happy Thanksgiving!

PRAYER
Lord, thank you for your forgiveness. Help me to forgive. Amen.