Monday, March 30, 2015
Today's daily lesson comes from Psalm 51 verses 1 through 3:
51 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and acleanse me from my sin!
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
I know lots of people who have spent lots and lots of hours with pastors and therapists trying to get rid of a sense of guilt and shame about something they've done. It's heart-wrenching for them because about the time they begin to feel like they're coming out of the wash clean and beautiful in spirit again, some trigger of a memory grabs hold of them and wrestles back down into the mud and the muck of their past. It's like they're condemned to live out the terrible truth of Faulkner's words, that, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
Well, here's some bad news which if heard and received in the right spirit may actually turn out to be good news: we are never going to shake our sense of guilt and shame.
We am spend our whole lives dwelling on things we've done and hoping and praying and hoping and praying again and hoping and praying some more that God will deliver us from the haunting memories of what we've lied, betrayed, taken advantage of, and destroyed, but we're never going to shake loose. Not here, not now, and I believe not even in heaven.
So here we see the pricetag of God's grace and mercy -- that it is given freely, but it must be received with the cost of never forgetting that it was necessary for our redemption. When we receive this grace and this mercy, we do not return again to the primordial state Adam and Eve were in when they knew no sin and so knew not that they were naked. No; that's not the Gospel. The Gospel is that we are sinners -- stark butt naked, and ashamed of it all -- and yet God chooses to put a white robe on us anyway. This is the astonishing thing about grace.
And speaking of grace -- I am thinking of a quote from John Newton, the man who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace". Before he found redemption in Christ and became an Anglican clergyman, he was a slaveship captain. The memories of that time haunted him throughout his life and in one memorable letter he reflected back on the time, his sin, and God's great, great mercy:
"I was ashamed of myself then, I am ashamed of myself now and I expect to most ashamed of myself when he comes to receive me to himself. But oh! I rejoice in HIM that HE is not ashamed of me!"
We will never be relieved of all the darkness we know to be within ourselves. There is a curse to that yes; but there is also a gift. And the gift is always knowing just how amazing God's grace really is.
Friday, March 27, 2015
Today's daily lesson comes from Jeremiah chapter 29 verses 4 through 8:
4 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
During this Lenten season I've been reading my friend Jerry Campbell's book "Choosing to Live" which is about his journey through the five-states of grief following the sudden death of his wife Veta. At the end of the book Jerry talks about the fifth stage of grief, which is Acceptance. In a powerful image in the book Jerry tells how he closed his wedding band in its original box and the spring-loaded mechanism snapped the box shut. It was then be knew be had to accept Veta's death a reality. But accepting this new reality was not enough, Jerry says. Jerry reflects in the book that there ought to be another, sixth stage of grief -- what he calls Growth.
Today's lesson is a sixth stage lesson. The exiles who were taken into captivity in Babylon have lost everything. They have lost their Temple, their land, and their families. Some have not accepted their fate yet, speaking of God's imminent rescue. But the prophet Jeremiah writes them a letter to tell them this is their reality which must be accepted. Yet, he doesn't stop at acceptance. He speaks of more than acceptance. He speaks of building homes, and planting gardens, and having children, and seeking to make the community of exile a better place. In other words, he speaks of growth; he speaks of choosing to live.
Pardon my coarseness, but the reality we have to accept sometimes really sucks. Some people's reality is worse than that. Like the exiles 2,500 years ago, there are hundreds of thousands today who have been displaced, used, abused, betrayed, and bereaved in what can be a cruel, cruel Babylonian world. It would be so understandable if they were just to give up and die of despair. Yet, they don't; they go on. They accept the things about their life which they simply cannot change and they decide to go ahead and choose to live life and to live it fully. In spite of all circumstances, they somehow cling to the LORD's promise, written to the exiles in Jeremiah's letter: "For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you -- plans for hope and a future." They are a marvel to me and an inspiration.
"Bloom where you're planted," the saying goes; and it means to grow right where we are -- even if its in Babylon.
Thursday, March 26, 2015
Today's daily lesson comes from Psalm 142 verses 6 and 7, and Romans chapter 11 verses 2 through 4
6 Attend to my cry,
for I am brought very low!
Deliver me from my persecutors,
for they are too strong for me!
7 Bring me out of prison,
that I may give thanks to your name!
The righteous will surround me,
for you will deal bountifully with me.
Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? 3 “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” 4 But what is God's reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.”
In recent days I have been thinking of two friends, one here in town and another on the West Coast, who have chosen to fight the good fight for justice in their communities. One is a fight for better working conditions and the other is a fight for better environmental protections. Both are uphill battles; and neither of my friends seem to be winning. These women are lone voices in the wilderness and they must at times be tempted to despair.
But what seems to keep them going is the knowledge that change never happens without struggle. This has been true about all the great social movements in our nation's history, whether it be abolition, or suffrage, or civil rights. And it is true for the causes these friends of mine are working on. The mountain seems insurmountable and many give up; but one person keeps at it -- keeps struggling. And because she keeps at it the struggle is kept alive; and someday -- in the mystery of God's timing -- others are found to join in, as if from out of nowhere, and pretty soon that one woman's voice crying in the wilderness is joined by a whole chorus of voices calling for change. And suddenly then now there is what Malcolm Gladwell calls "the tipping point" of a movement.
Margaret Mead once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." I pray for my thoughtful, committed citizen friends, for their struggle, and for them to know that perhaps like Elijah in today's lesson, they may feel totally alone, but God has 7,000 other thoughtful, committed citizens waiting in the wings.
Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Today's daily lesson comes from John chapter 10 verse 16:
"And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice."
It is astounding what kinds of limitations Christian people have come up with to try and determine who is in and who is out of the fold of God. In the early church it was whether or not you were circumcised. Later, the Catholic Church made it's stand on what must be believed about the pope. Not to be outdone, we Baptists did the same thing with what should be believed about Scripture. In the 20th century, Pentecostals the line between true Christianity and false was whether or not you could speak in tongues. And today, the dividing line for orthodoxy is whether or not you believe it's okay to be gay. If you don't you're in; if you do you're out. "We have to draw the line somewhere," it's said.
Please. When are we going to stop this ignorance? When are we going to wake up and see that God continues to push open our boundaries to include more people? When are we going to wake up and finally hear what Jesus said -- that he has many sheep that are not of our fold? When are we going to see that we aren't the ones who get to draw the lines? When are we going to change our consciousness and understand the Gospel is a gospel of inclusion and not of exclusion.
It was in college that I first heard the Gospel of inclusion preached by my now friend and mentor Charlie Johnson. He talked about the difference between a bound set and a centered set. A bound is static and all about boundaries. On the other hand, a centered set's defining locus is not the boundary lines, but rather the center. A centered set is not static, but dynamic; and what belongs to it is based on movement toward the center. Christianity is a centered set, Charlie said, and the center is Christ.
Christ has other sheep that are not of our fold. He calls his sheep and they recognize His voice and come. He called and they came. He still calls and they still come. And He's going to keep on calling and they are going to keep on coming.
This means we are going to need a lot bigger fence. Or, better yet, it means we are going to need to do away with the whole fence idea altogether, because the Gospel is really not about good fences but about the Good Shepherd.
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Today's daily lesson is Psalm 124:
124 If it had not been the Lord who was on our side—
let Israel now say—
2 if it had not been the Lord who was on our side
when people rose up against us,
3 then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us;
4 then the flood would have swept us away,
the torrent would have gone cover us;
5 then over us would have gone
the raging waters.
6 Blessed be the Lord,
who has not given us
as prey to their teeth!
7 We have escaped like a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we have escaped!
8 Our help is in the name of the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
Go to any black church on Sunday morning and you're bound to hear it. If not in the sermon than in the testimony, and if not in the testimony than in the prayer, and if not in the prayer than in the rhythms of the call and response -- somewhere you're going to hear it:
"If it had not been the LORD who was on our side . . ."
It's the glad shout of the survivors, a word of witness from those who, against all the odds, are still alive. In it you hear the still-living voices of the generations: 350 years of North American slavery, 70 years of Babylonian captivity, and 300 years of labor under Pharaoh:
"If it had not been the LORD who was on our side . . ."
Yesterday I read a wonderful reflection by Ann Lamott, where she talked about what it's like to be a child growing up in a household with alcoholics and substance abusers:
"You grew up with a clenched fist in your stomach, agreeing not to see what's going on; tip-toe-ing around, not trusting yourself as a reliable narrator, trying to rescue people who were 30 years older and hundred pounds bigger. Scared, alone, small.
"You grow up waiting for the other shoe to drop."
Her words were a reminder to me of just how many of us are survivors. We have survived alcohol and substance abuse and all kinds of other craziness. We've survived physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. We've survived the abuse we inflicted upon ourselves in our own sin and shame that followed. Like the psalmist, we recount all that we've been through -- the torrents and floods which should have drowned us -- and still, somehow we made it; we're alive. Not only did we survive, but we are survivors.
So the words of psalmist, and the Israelites, and the black church are our words too. They're every human being's words and witness, thanksgiving and praise, call and response:
"If it had not been for the LORD who was on our side . . ."
Let the church and everybody else say, "Amen."
Monday, March 23, 2015
Today's daily lesson comes from Psalm 31 verse 5:
5 Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.
Last week I held the hand of a man at the moment of his death. In the time prior to his passing on I read to him the Scriptures, prayed the Lord's Prayer, recited the Twenty-third Psalm, and told him and his family what I try always to say to those nearing the end of this life, "We trust his life with God, and we trust God with his life."
Death is the ultimate act of trust. In dying, we must come to terms that there really is nothing on earth that can save us. Wealth is meaningless, medicine has no answer, all knowledge gives way. Naked and unknowing we came into the world and naked and unknowing we go out. Death strips us of all that we might cling to in hopes of being spared, and finally we are faced with the one essential question confronting all that lives and dies: Are we going to trust that God is - That God is able, That God willing, That God is trustworthy, That God is kind, That God in ultimate control, That God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob -- the God of the living and not of the dead?
From His cross, Jesus prayed the Psalm: "Into your hands I commit my Spirit." When his own hands were useless --nailed to the tree of death -- Jesus entrusted Himself to the hands of God; and for that though He was dying a brutal and ugly death on the outside, on the inside He was at peace.
When death comes -- as it does in many ways and shall for us all in an ultimate way-- it is not a moment of horror or dread, but a time for peace, and for the living out of our faith in the One who is and was and shall be again.
We trust our lives with God, and we trust God with our lives. And in the end that is all; and it is everything.
Friday, March 20, 2015
Today's daily lesson comes from Psalm 95 verses 4 and 5:
4 In his hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are his also.
5 The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.
God is; and there is nowhere where God is not. This is true of time, place, and circumstance. As Paul so eloquently put it, "God is in above all, and through all, and in all and all," (Ephesians 4:6).
This is easy to know when we stand on the mountains and take in the majesty of where the heavens touch earth. The Celts called these "thin places" and they speak not only of physical location, but also of spiritual experience. Sometimes we just stand on the mountain of life and know God is!
But mostly we are more earthbound. And sometimes we find ourselves in dark cavernous places -- what the psalmist calls "the depths". God , the psalmist says, is here in the depths of earth too. They too belong to God.
And so also the seas, with their white crashing wash, the ancient symbol of the chaos and uncontrollability of life. And so too dry land, the arid and desiccated landscape known as wilderness where nothing can blossom or grow for the ground is so hard and the soil so parched. These places also belong to God, the psalmist says.
It is sometimes said that a Romantic sees God in the glory and beauty of the heavens, while the Mystic finds God in the dirt. The Psalmist must have had a little of each inside him -- both eye of the Romantic and also the guts of the Mystic.
God is in both the guts and the glory. God is not only with us when we feel like we are standing so high that we could reach out and touch God. But God is also when we are so low or so dry or so submerged that we cannot see or even think on God. God still is; and God is still with us -- over and through and in it all.