Tag Archives: Joy

God’s People, part 137: Mary

Read Luke 1:26-56

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“When his family heard what was happening, they tried to take him away. ‘He’s out of his mind,’ they said…Then Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him. They stood outside and sent word for him to come out and talk with them.”  (Mark 3:21, 31 NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

the_nativity_story_15Part 137: Mary.

Áve María, grátia pléna, Dóminus técum. Benedícta tū in muliéribus, et benedíctus frúctus véntris túi, Iésus. Sáncta María, Máter Déi, óra pro nóbis peccatóribus, nunc et in hóra mórtis nóstrae. Ámen.

You may be scratching your head and saying, “Well, that’s Greek to me.” Actually, it’s not Greek, but it is LATIN. It is the traditional Ave Maria prayer that has been set to some of the most beautiful music. My favorite rendition is Gounod’s setting of the prayer to his own arrangement of Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C major, BWV 846.

The prayer reads in English as follows. “Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. It is a prayer to the Jesus Mother Mary, who is seen by Roman Catholics as set apart from other women because she is the Mother of God Incarnate. Some protestants like to state that this is idolatry; however, it really is NOT idolatry but rather an expression of reverence to Mary who did, Biblically speaking, who was set apart and chosen by God to bear God’s incarnation into the world. As a Protestant, I do not believe praying to Mary herself is necessary, or even effectual, but I do understand what is at the heart of it even if I believe it to be unnecessary and misguided.

The issue I have with this prayer, and our general image of Mary, is that it paints her as someone who is too holy to be human. We imagine her as a reverent, quiet, compassionate, loving woman. We think of her as having a halo over her head and as having guided Jesus from childhood to adulthood and preparing him for his ministry.

Roman Catholics, in fact, have the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, in which lies the belief that God removed Mary’s sin at the moment she was born. In other words, she was born untainted by sin due to God’s divine will. This doctrine officially came about under Pius IX during the 12th century in order to explain how Jesus was born without sin. If his mother was without sin due to divine intervention, then that makes the explanation easy.

Sadly, it also takes away the divine mystery of the Incarnation. What’s more, the Gospels do not all agree on how much on board Mary was with Jesus or his ministry. The power of the song, “Mary, did you Know?” (one of my all-time favorites), lies in the Biblical possibility that Mary did NOT know. For instance, while in Luke Mary clearly knew what was going on, in Matthew it is less clear how much she knew. In Mark, she seems to not only be ignorant to Jesus’ teachings and methodology, but to also be disapproving of him doing ministry in the first place. Don’t know what I am talking about, read the today’s suggested Scripture.

The challenge for us is to recognize that each of us is human. We must not put anyone on a pedestal as if they are holier than the rest. Whether it be Mary, the apostles, our pastors/priests, etc., each human being is just that: a human being prone to wander and sin. The only one who was and is sinless is Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. Let us put our trust in Jesus and show the kind of humble faith that Christ is calling for.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me.” – Jesus Christ in John 14:1.

PRAYER
Lord, I place my trust in you. Have mercy on me when I don’t and guide me toward trusting you again. Amen.

The Beatitudes, part 10: Rejoice

Read Matthew 5:11-12

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“What blessings await you when people hate you and exclude you and mock you and curse you as evil because you follow the Son of Man. When that happens, be happy! Yes, leap for joy! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, their ancestors treated the ancient prophets that same way.” (Luke 6:22-23 NLT)

Praise-Wheat-Field (1)Growing up, I was certainly no stranger to being picked on and/or made fun of. As a kid, particularly in elementary school, I always tried to make friends with everyone. I always tried to fit in, somewhere, anywhere I could fit in. Time and time again, I found myself failing in that endeavor. I found myself being bullied by some, ignored by others, and I couldn’t quite fit in any group I tried to belong to.

Some of that, of course, was also my perception as it developed over time. There were some, no doubt, who liked me and had nothing against me, but because of who they were friends with I perceived myself as not fitting in with them as well. My experience, no doubt, was not a isolated one. I am sure others in my grade, in my school and in other schools around the world, were feeling the same as me.

Growing up, I was also raised in the church. Though I was baptized in the Methodist church, I was raised and confirmed in the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA). I loved God, loved learning, and loved reading my Bible! I know, it’s hard to believe, right? One of the texts I read a lot, and I mean A LOT, was Matthew 5:1-12, also known as “The Beatitudes.” I was puzzled by Jesus’ teachings.

On the one hand, I clinged to them in faith, trusting that what Jesus taught was true. On the other hand, what could Jesus mean? Having been rejected so many times I certainly felt persecuted, and often times because while I wanted friends, I was not willing to cross moral boundaries to have them. I remember in 1st or 2nd grade, one kid I was friends with was bullying another kid on the playground and wanted me to join in. I refused because “Jesus wouldn’t want us to do that. We should treat others as we would like to be treated.” That was the reason I gave, and I stuck to it. As a result, my “friend” quickly became an enemy and started making fun of me. That particular person continued to make fun of me throughout elementary school and even in high school.

I tell this story not to evoke pity or anything like that, but to raise the question that I had as a child. How can the persecuted be blessed? How can Jesus expect us to rejoice over people hurting us and persecuting us for following him and for doing what’s right? On the one end, I hoped that Jesus was right in his beatitudes; however, that hope did not take away the pain of being hurt, mocked and made fun of. Eventually, I grew hardened toward myself and others as a result.

Yet, Jesus is telling people who are persecuted because they do what is right and/or follow him, to rejoice. This isn’t, by the way, a suggestion from Jesus. It is a command. To conlcude his beatitudes, Jesus transitions from “blessings” to an instructional command to his followers. For those who are persecuted over doing what is right, for standing up for justice, for following Jesus (who embodies all of those things), Jesus is commanding them to rejoice.

Jesus is not commanding them to be happy about being persecuted, nor is Jesus calling us to be happy “in spite” of being persecuted; rather, Jesus is calling the persecuted to rejoice (or find joy) because of the persecution itself. Jesus is not calling his followers to have some sort of masochistic “martyr complex” where they see themsleves as perpetual martyrs and get joyful pleasure from that. Instead, Jesus is calling them to recognize that persecution is a sort of badge that all “righteous” people have worn, and will continue to wear, for doing what’s right and following God.

Jesus is calling us to see it as an honor, rather than seeing it as a curse. While no one, not even Jesus, likes being persecuted, Jesus is calling us to not let persecution (or the fear of persecution) stop us from following him and doing what is right and just. Instead, like the prophets before us, we should endure to the end and continue doing what is right. Instead of letting the persecution harden us and make us spiteful (as I did as a child), we should continue on the straight and narrow pathway that leads to life, not just for us, but for all people everywhere. This is what it means to be blessed in the Kingdom of Heaven and what it means to be a true follower of Christ.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Knowledge of God’s Word is a bulwark against deception, temptation, accusation, even persecution.” – Edwin Louis Cole

PRAYER
Lord, remove spite from life and give me joy in serving you, especially in the face of persecution. Amen.

The Path to the Dark Side

Read 2 Timothy 1:6-8

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“So what are we going to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:31 CEB)

yoda-jedi-councilOne of my favorite film series of all times is the Star Wars saga. I grew up watching the original series of films, “Star Wars”, “The Empire Strikes Back”, and “The Return of the Jedi”. While many people criticized the newer films, finding them to be more about special effects and less to do with plot and character development, I actually disagree with that. The Phantom Menace for example, which was my least favorite of the films, was still filled with the same story and character development as the others. And we find great wisdom in it as well.

In it we come across a young Anakin Skywalker who, as all fans know right from the get-go, will one day become Darth Vader. With that said, he wasn’t always bad and, in fact, a Jedi comes to see great hope in his abilities to naturally tap into the force and so he decides to train him. In order for Anakin to be trained, however, he would have to leave his mom (both he and his mom were slaves) as the Jedi could only secure his release. As it would any 9-year-old boy, having to leave his mother behind devastates and distresses him and he vows to come back and free her one day.

Yet, before any future Jedi can be trained, the council has to approve the person to be trained. Thus, the Jedi brings Anakin before the council to be questioned and, hopefully, approved. While they are impressed with Anakin’s natural ability to sense and use the force, Yoda (who is the head of the council) is concerned for this young boy as well. He states that he senses fear in Anakin. “You have much fear in you. You fear the loss of your mother, don’t you?” Yoda interrogated. Anakin replied defensively, “What’s that have to do with anything?”

Yoda’s face turned even more concerned. “Everything,” he exlaimed back! “Fear is the path that leads to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hatred. Hatred leads to suffering.” What Yoda is trying to convey to young Anakin is that, while fear is a natural part of life, if we allow it to control us it will lead us to dark and, often, deadly places. This is a profound truth and we don’t have to think far or wide in order to reach it. Look at post-World War I Germany. It lost a major world war, had been dumped with the expenses of that war by those who fought against them, and they had fallen into a terrible depression. Along came a young man, who was a former soldier, and would-be leader, who sensed the fear of the people, drummed up that fear, and used that fear to scapegoat groups of people as being the ones holding Germany down. Ultimately, Adolph Hitler’s personal fears, as well as the fears of Germany which he preyed upon, led to the rising up of one of the greatest evils in modern human history. Yes, fear is the path that leads to the dark side.

We live in such a fear-driven world right now. We are a people who are fearful of each other, we’re fearful of our leaders, we’re fearful of people with different politcial viewpoints, we’re fearful of people from other countries, we’re fearful of people from other religions, and we’re fearful of terrorism and a very real existenital threat to our lives and to our way of life. All of these things strike fear into the hearts of people; however, it is in that fear that I hear people suggesting all sorts of things that, in another time and place, they would be horrified at hearing others even suggest.

For us, the question is not whether or not we will experience fear. We will! The question should be for us, in the voice of Yoda, is this: “What, to fear, will your response be? Hmmmm?” Will you succumb to your fears and place your faith wildly in the winds of rapid response? Or will you place your faith in force…rather, in the presence of God? Will you let your fears drive you, or will you let your God guide you? The one way leads to the dark side (e.g. anger, hatred, and suffering), the other way leads to forgiveness, mercy, compassion, hope, love, joy and peace. Yours to make, young padiwan, the choice is.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“To him who is in fear everything rustles.” – Sophocles
PRAYER
Lord, drive my fears far from me, for they are not of you. Fill me, rather, with faith and hope and love. Amen.

FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT: Joy

Read Galatians 5:22-26

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“There I will go to the altar of God, to God—the source of all my joy. I will praise You with my harp, O God, my God!” (Psalms 43:4 NLT)

In his letter to the church in Galatia, the Apostle Paul is writing to a community that is divided over the issue of male circumcision: should new Gentile followers of Jesus be counted as a part of the Jewish covenant without being circumcised, or should they have to be circumcised just as all of the Jews are circumcised. Being that Christianity at the time wasn’t a religion, but a sect of Judaism, this was a VITALLY IMPORTANT question. While Paul is opposed to making Gentiles be circumcised, he also is against divisive behavior regardless of which side it is coming from. In response to this division, Paul describes to the Galatian church what he calls, “The Fruit of the Spirit.”

FruitOsp_JoyFRUIT OF THE SPIRIT: Joy. We all want to be happy, right? I cannot think of a single person who would claim that they don’t desire happiness. We all have different ideas of happiness. I have the idea of a world where people lived together in harmony, where no one through judgment around and thought they were better than anyone else. I have the idea of such a world where no one thought that they were right and everyone else was wrong, where religion was taken seriously, where all religions were respected, and where religious fanatics didn’t ostracize, imprison or kill others. I have the same idea of a world where politicians follow suit and don’t try and ostracize, imprison or kill others for their own political gains. I could go on with this ideal world and I am certain that such a world would make me truly happy.

Since that reality is surely never coming, or at least not anytime soon, perhaps I will just settle for a permanent vacation (great Aerosmith album, btw) on an island somewhere in the Caribbean where I am slurping piña coladas in young coconut shells all day long, while sitting on a beach listening to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Sounds great right?!?! Our world loves happiness, it longs for it, it tells us all that we should be pursuing it to the ends of the earth. The problem, as many of us in life have already discovered, is that happiness is fleeting at best and the pursuit of it often leads us toward a giant cliff that over looks an endless abyss of disappointment and despair.

That is absolutely why you will not find happiness being called a Fruit of the Spirit. It just simply is not. I am sure that Paul was NOT happy getting rejected by the church in Jerusalem for wanting to be open-minded and open hearted to the Gentiles. I am sure that he wasn’t happy getting stoned (by rocks…to clarify) and imprisoned. I am sure that he wasn’t happy having his authority and his apostleship questioned, being considered an outsider by both his fellow Jews and his fellow Apostles. I am sure that Paul did not live a life of happiness, and I am equally sure he didn’t spend is life pursuing it. Rather, Paul’s life was one of joy, not happiness!

Joy, in essence is that inner thankfulness that causes one to experience bliss, peace and contentment in all circumstances. It is the calm assurance that God is with you in those circumstances and, even if your life is forfeit as a result of living out your faith, you are thankful for all that God has given to you and for all that God has called you to. One can try to pursue it; however, it is not bought, or earned, or easily attained; rather it is produced by the Holy Spirit, by the divine presence of God dwelling within us. It is in the context of a relationship with God and the transformative reception of the Holy Spirit that one begins to have a joy that cannot be contained or snuffed out. Do you want to experience it? Open your heart to God and allow the Holy Spirit to enter you and transform you into God’s agent of hope, healing, and wholeness.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Joy is prayer; joy is strength: joy is love; joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.” – Mother Teresa

PRAYER
Lord, turn my heart into an eternal well-spring of your joy! Amen.

15 Ailments of the Church #12: Having a Funeral Face

Read Romans 15:1-13

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.” (Proverbs 17:22 NRSV)

Dead-RosesWhat does a Christian look like? Can you tell one a part from anyone else in the world? What sets a Christian a part from the non-Christians, apart from the Christian’s profession of belief in Jesus Christ? Are we joyous, happy, loving, caring compassionate, understanding, patient, and forgiving? Or, when the world looks at us, does it see a reality that is far different than  our own self-perception of ourselves? I could go in a different direction with this, but for now, I will stick with the next of the Pope’s 15 Ailments of the Church.

Ailment of the Church #12: Having a Funeral Face. The church is supposed to be a people of hope, a people of unending joy, a people are are moved by compassion, and a people that are driven by love. Yet, in reality, the people of the church fall well short of that. First, let me remind you that by church I do not mean the building that people worship in. That is a place of worship, but that is not “the church.” Yes, most of the time when people enter our places of worship they see a happy people. But happiness and joy are two different things. I am not so certain they find joy when they walk into our doors.

When people see the church, whether it be within a place of worship, within a Christian organization, or within our community and/or the world, most people see a people who are angry, judgmental, manipulative, cut throat, filled to the brim with deceit and overflowing with the unholy art of slander through gossip. What’s more, they see a people who are cynical rather than hopeful. They see a people who are sullen as opposed to a people who are filled with God’s joy. They see a people who are fearful rather than a people who are faithful.

This is what I believe Pope Francis I calls, “Having a Funeral Face.” Christians, if we truly believe what the Bible and our own collective experiences tell us, should be acting as if they are at a great wedding celebration…not as if they are sitting at a funeral waiting for the body of the dearly departed to be brought out for burial. We should be joyful, hopeful, faithful, full of excitement and inviting of others to join us. Everyone LOVES a good party. Everyone loves to get invited to a great party; however, no one loves attending funerals and no one is bound to get excited about a funeral dirge.

We, as the church, need to get excited again. We need to take off our funeral face and throw it into the fire. We need to remember that we celebrate a RISEN and LIVING CHRIST. We are called to celebrate Christ’s resurrection and to partake in it, so that others may share in the same hope we have. Christ is calling us to be the people the church was called to be. Christ is inviting us to leave the funeral and rejoin the wedding. The door is open and the opportunity presents itself. Will we be a people consumed by the death of our very own faith, will be consumed by our own funeral sores? Or will we be resurrected with the LIVING CHRIST and live a life of pure and eternal joy and peace? Will continue down the road of hopelessness, or will we be agents of God’s hope, healing and wholeness. The choice is ours to make.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“The dead do not know the value of white sheets.” – Haitian Proverb

PRAYER

Lord, thank you for breathing life into me. Guide to a better way of living and expressing my life in you. Fill me with your joy, your peace and your love! Amen.

A Little Perspective

Read 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10b)

PerspectiveHave you ever had one of those days where you take two steps forward only to feel like you are still ten steps behind? Have you ever had one of those weeks where absolutely nothing seems to be going your way? Have you ever had one of those years where you feel like the stars, the planets and perhaps even God seem aligned against you? Have you ever sat and asked the question “why me?” Or, have you ever exclaimed in frustration, “I can’t stand this life!”

Whether you admit to it or not, these feelings and under-the-breath questions and exclamations are common to the human experience. Often times, it is very hard for us to see beyond the situations we are in. When caught in stressful moments, or in the midst of life’s trials, it is very hard for human beings to see anything but the small picture. We are caught in the moment, as it were, and the bigger picture often escapes us. It is in moments like these that we literally begin to make a mountain out of the proverbial mole hill. It is also in moments like these that we are in need of just a little perspective.

As a minister I have seen some people go through pretty tough circumstances. Many of these people have witnessed to me with their faith, in spite of their circumstances. These people went through things I couldn’t even wish on my enemies, and yet they were the last to complain about their circumstances. I have seen veterans who have lost limbs and nearly their lives, who have suffered through homelessness and other terrible situations, striving to find ways to help other vets so that they don’t have to go through the same things. I have seen people who are terminally ill, worrying about others who are suffering over and above the things that they, themselves, are going through. I have seen people who are suffer from debilitating diseases giving thanks for all that they have. In India I saw young and impoverished children, infected with HIV/AIDS, dancing with joy over being visited by us at their orphanage.

On the flip side, I have seen people who are relatively well off complain over the slightest things. I have seen people who have been given so much complain about having so little. I have seen people take their lives and the blessings in their lives for granted. I have seen people who have been given so much in life feel entitled to for that much more. I have seen people who have everything in the world to be happy about walking around completely miserable about everything.

What I have come to understand is that we all have been blessed with the lives we have, whether we realize it or not. Being blessed in life does not mean that everything will go as I wish it to. It does not mean that I will never have bad days or that things will ALWAYS go easy. In fact, how blessed would I really be if I never had to work hard for anything? The fact of the matter is that we are alive…and that is a blessing.

This is not to guilt anyone for feeling lost in their situations; rather, this is being written as a hope-filled reminder that no matter how bad things may be, and no matter how bad we may think things to be, we have a lot to be thankful for. Let us become a people witness to the blessing of LIFE that we all have been given. Let us be a people who are thankful for whatever we have, whether it is little or plenty! Let us be a people who realize that we are blessed so that we may become a blessing and, then, let us become that blessing for others.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree; in cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free! In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.” Natalie A. Sleeth

PRAYER

Lord, help me to have perspective in the midst of my trials so that I may find joy even when I am not happy, and feel blessed even when I cannot see any blessing. More importantly, use me in a way that is a blessing to others, for then I will truly be blessed. Amen.

The Beast Within

Read Luke 15:11-32

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:31-32 NLT)

wolfmanJust recently I sat down to watch the remake of the Wolfman. Of course, the original 1941 Wolfman starring Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Bela Legosi and Evelyn Ankers will always be one of my favorite monster movies ever; however, with that said, the 2010 remake of that film does pay homage to it, all the while adding its own twists and spins.The root of the story is the same. Larry Talbot returns home after his brother dies suddenly and horribly. Upon getting home Larry ends up getting bit by what he believes is a wolf, and when the moon shines full and bright in the sky, things begin to get a bit hairy for Larry (pun totally intended) as well as for the village. In the remake, which is where the film departs from the 1941 storyline, we learn that Larry and his father, who is cold and quite distant, had a falling out years earlier over the death of Larry’s mother (among other things). Since that time, Larry had distanced himself with his father and his family (including his brother), and did not wish to return…that is until he learns of  his brother’s death.

When he does finally return he is not welcomed warmly, as is the case in the story of the prodigal son; rather, his father greets him coldly and indifferently. Clearly both father and son have a resentment toward one another and the result is, in the end, catastrophic. In more than one way, the fact that Larry ends up turning into a werewolf serves as a metaphor the hatred, bitterness, anger and unresolved hostility that is caged up inside of him. That is all being said as a matter of observation, without affirming or denying the justification he had to be angry, bitter, and hateful of a father who, in many ways, failed him from his childhood onward.

The truth is that we all have the beast that lies within us beneath the surface, don’t we. For most of us, we are able to supress the beast, to keep it locked away, and to move our lives forward in a positive, constructive and meaningful manner. Yet, there are some who have truly been beaten up in life, or at least the feel as if they have, and it is very hard for them to move beyond what has happened to them. It’s not right, or wrong, it just is. The problem is that, when we are unable to move beyond our past, that past comes back to haunt us and that is when that inner beast comes out in full force.

Today’s challenge is for those of us who have a hard time moving beyond our past, beyond the hurts, the pain, the abuse, and/or the perceptions we have of those we feel have wronged us (whether they have or not). If you are a person who struggles with this, know that forgiveness is attainable. There is a God who has forgiven us of our past and that same God is calling us to forgive others as well. Forgiveness does not mean that we forget what has happened, or that we somehow pretend it didn’t. Nor does it mean what happened to us is okay, or we should somehow justify it. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we ignore when wrong is being done, nor does it remove the obligation we have to seek justice, as well as reconciliation.

It is also important to note that forgiveness is not just to the benefit of the ones we are forgiving, rather, it is a benefit for us…perhaps even more so than the ones we forgive. Forgiveness is our way of saying that no matter what others do to us, God still loves us and cares for us and we aren’t going to harbor anything against anyone. We are defined by God not them, and in that recognition comes a liberation that not only keeps the beast at bay, but eliminates it altogether. Remember that no one is without the need to be forgiven; therefore, no one is above forgiving others. Forgive and be set free!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

PRAYER

Lord, give me the strength to forgive, even as I seek to be forgiven, and move me beyond my hurts and pains to a life of joy and peace. Amen.