Thursday, July 31, 2008

Acts 1:15-26

Today’s passage raises all kinds of questions!

For instance, there is the way Peter uses Scripture, seeing in the 69th and 109th Psalm explicit references to Judas. What, if any, are the implications for us in the way Peter interprets and applies Scripture? Does this mean the Bible was written with specific references to people and events today—perhaps even to your life and to mine?

It’s not a question I have space to answer here. Perhaps it’s best to note that they were reading Scripture, looking to it for guidance, and seeing in it unambiguous instructions for their everyday lives—and that this is something we should be doing too.

Then there is the method of choosing a new Apostle. They pray—and cast lots! They apparently rolled the dice, drew straws—played a game of chance!

How would this work in our lives? Do I say a prayer like, “God, should I buy a Corvette?” and then roll a dice marked with yes and no to decide?

There are even some (I am not among them) who believe the Apostles are making a mistake here (or worse, engaging in sin by gambling). They believe God clearly wanted Paul to be the 12th Apostle, and that neither Barsabbas nor Matthias were His choice and that’s why we don’t here anymore about them or their ministry.

I’d suggest that the Apostles used solid reasoning and Scriptural principles to guide them as far as that would take them. And then at that point their method of decision making was their way of placing the decision squarely in God’s hands, and trusting Him to honor that desire.

So, in my example about the Corvette, for me (and only me in the context of my faith journey and station in life) I don’t need to roll a dice to see if God wants me to buy a Corvette. Through reason and application of Scriptural principles, I already know the answer. I can’t afford it.

But let’s say I was going on vacation and came up with two spots that seemed to be equal in every way. Let’s also say I really wanted God’s guidance on the matter. Perhaps praying and rolling the dice would be an appropriate way to proceed—rolling the dice only once, and trusting that the outcome would be an expression of God’s will.

The above is only my opinion, and it’s not one I hold with great certainty. I sure wouldn’t build a sermon around it or argue with someone about it.

And in the end, that is one of the things that really impresses me about Scripture. Yes, I believe it is all divinely inspired by God. But somehow it still manages to be such a…human book.

The stories are still so…raw…that is, they aren’t heavily reworked to serve some hidden agenda. They present problems and conundrums and people sometimes solving them by doing things we’d never think to do and still leave us puzzled as we look back and wonder why.

Yet somehow through it all…God works, just like He does in your life and in mine.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Acts 1:1-14

The acts of the disciples is a cornerstone in my Christian belief. These people were convinced that Jesus Christ was the son of God and the only way to God. They so believed this that they would rather face imprisonment, beatings, exile, and, in many cases, very unpleasant deaths, than to say that Jesus was not the Messiah. Who would do this if it was not true?? No one would. No one would be stoned, crucified, or beheaded if they were not 100% sure that Jesus was who He said He was and that by following Him they would end up in a place with a peace beyond human understanding.

I read an account of the Watergate break-in the other day. In this account, one of the Nixon Whitehouse insiders said that the brightest and the best worked in the Nixon Whitehouse yet they could not keep the break-in cover-up a secret for even a few months, and none of them were threatened with death. But the disciples kept the truth of Jesus in front of the masses even though they were not only threatened with death but, in many cases, executed. They did not reverse course one little bit. Again, no person would risk their life if they were not 100% sure of something better after death.

Today's reading tells the story of Jesus spending 40 days with His disciples after He rose from the dead. These 40 days drastically changed the disciples' lives. Before these 40 days, they had argued with each other, deserted their Lord, and even lied about knowing Jesus. After these 40 days, with the help of the Holy Spirit, they became a unified voice that consistently gave the same message about Jesus - no matter the hardship with which they were threatened.

Yes, I am convinced that the disciples absolutely knew that Jesus was the son of God. They were not 50% sure, not 90% sure, not 99% sure; they were 100% sure. Their acts demonstrated their knowledge. The steadfastness of the disciples should be a model for all of us.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Romans 16:17-27

Paul gives us a clear warning in today’s reading against causing strife between believers. The reasoning for this seems obvious, of course; as a Church we are supposed to be united in Christ, and if we get caught up in petty fights we’ll focus more on who’s right and who’s wrong than be concerned with what God wants for us in our lives, and even what God wants for the Church as a whole. So ultimately it’s best for the health (and sanity!) of the Church and its members if we all try not to antagonize one another—it’s the same as any family structure. Dinnertime becomes an agonizing experience if the twins can’t stop arguing about what color looks better and pulling each other’s hair. Similarly, the body of Christ can never truly represent Christ in this world if its members can’t stop fighting over what color’s more appropriate for what church season or how the liturgy should be properly conducted—and so on and so forth.

But don’t think that this means that we can’t have our separate opinions. Don’t think that this means God wants us all to just blindly agree with one another, and sacrifice all of our opinions for “cohesiveness” and “unity”. Notice that Paul warns against dissensions and offences—not disagreements or differences. There’s nothing wrong with having different opinions, ideas, or interpretations—God made us all different and unique individuals, and thus we all view Him in an endless myriad of ways. Just as we are unique, we all view God in our own unique way. There is no danger in that; God created us that way. The danger happens when these differences become arguments, and these arguments become fights, and these fights split people, families, and churches; hatred is generated instead of love, and God’s people can no longer work together or even truly love one another. This is the danger of dwelling on differences.

So while it is a blessed thing to appreciate one another’s differences, we should be careful not to dwell on them or stir up any ill will. When we stop viewing these differences as a result of God’s gifts of uniqueness and individuality to the human race, then it can become easy to see differences as flaws that must be corrected. But within the Church, there should be no ill will between its members; disagreements, conversations, and kind counsel are all well and good. But above all, we must live out Christ’s love for one another.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Romans 16:1-16

It is interesting that this reading should come up as we interns prepare to go back to college and the new Assistant Rector Anne MacNabb prepares to join Saint Matthew’s. I have only met Mrs. MacNabb once, and then just in passing, but when I did meet her she seemed very kind and very genuine. So, even though you don’t really need me to tell you, I would echo Paul’s sentiments and urge you to welcome her with all the love and warmth that you have shown us interns this summer.

Beyond, though, the interesting coinciding of these events and this reading, one must ask what can be taken away from such a passage. These exhortations mirror the lineages and laws, seemingly boring and quite easy to skip over; but it is often in these passages that we can find great meaning.

Notice how many different people the Romans are urged to welcome: Jews, women, workers, prisoners, mothers, and Gentiles. This is quite diverse list, but it tells us something important: that we should welcome other Christians with love and open arms despite denominational differences or theological squabbles. I am not saying that we need to ignore our convictions, but Paul’s letter speaks to something greater than that, which is recognition of the one fact that should matter — our acknowledgement of Jesus as our Lord and Savior.

I would suggest that this unity is important for two reasons; the first a practical one, which is that it is important to present a “united front” to the world as Christians. No one is drawn by a religion plagued with in-fighting and schism; I am reminded of a friend who, when I asked them to come to church with me, responded with something along the lines of “Oh, your church is too Catholic for me.” Until we are able to reconcile our, relatively small, differences it will be hard to draw others to the Lord.

The second reason is that it allows us to experience God in greater ways. Our missionaries who have just returned from South Africa spoke yesterday about the need to “pray big,” and it is hard to do that without support from others. Imagine how big we could pray if all Christians came together regardless of denomination, united in the fact that Jesus is our savior: there would be nothing too big to pray for; and that is a beautiful vision indeed.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Romans 15:1-13

Eugene Peterson translates a portion of today’s reading as follows, Each one of us needs to look after the good of the people around us, asking ourselves, "How can I help?" That's exactly what Jesus did. He didn't make it easy for himself by avoiding people's troubles, but waded right in and helped out. Can people say that about you and me?

It does seem to me that one of the fundamental calls of the Christian life is the willingness to forsake what we enjoy to do a better job reaching out to those who are around us. The NRSV translation is also instructive here: we are not to please ourselves, but we should all please our neighbors for their good, to build them up.

I think there are a couple applications to this. One has to do with how we are the Church. Our practices, from the music we choose, the way we read and speak about Scripture, our liturgical forms, and the things we do (or don’t do) must be accessible to those presently outside our walls, drawing them in. Sometimes that means doing things that run counter to our own likes, tastes, and expectations. This kind of flexibility and openness to new forms and ideas is, I think, one of the marks of a church moving towards maturity.

The other has to do with how we live our lives personally. It has to do with our willingness to be inconvenienced not just corporately (that’s the previous paragraph), but in the thick and thin of our lives. In any given day there are things I really need to get done, and I focus pretty tightly on them. Am I willing to let those things go when needed to do a better job of sharing God’s love?

Truthfully, not as often as I’d like. So here are some questions I ask myself as I reflect on this passage. Maybe you’ll want to ask them too.

* Who are “the people around us”?

* What do “the people around me” need?

* What can I do, and encourage my church to do, to meet those needs in a very practical and concrete way?

* To meet these needs, am I willing to be inconvenienced and take the trouble to go out of my way?

And if I'm not…who will?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Romans 14:13-23

Unlike last week, the message in today's reading is clear to me. Paul gives us sound instruction regarding respecting others.

Paul reminds us what we already know - that our actions are not a private matter. Our actions do influence others and we need to be mindful of others whenever we do something. Even though it may be our "right" to do something, a mature Christian will treat others with love and compassion. Paul says that just because it is lawful to commit a given act, we do not have to do that act and we should consider how it affects others before we do it.

Many people wish for peace and speak loudly for it. Sometimes these same people do not conduct themselves in a way that will bring about peace. In other words they do not walk the talk. If someone wants peace, then he or she will not commit an act that is offensive to someone else. Sometimes meekness, humility, self-denial, and love are the qualities required for peace. Often we have to think of the other person before ourselves to have peace.

Why is this important? If our actions offend others, they will not let us get close enough to them to have a relationship. Without relationships we are unable to bring more people closer to Christ. If we do not bring more people into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, then we are not complying with one of the commandments He gave us.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Rom. 14:1-12

It seems to me that this could be one of those passages that could easily be twisted to mean something completely different from Paul's original intent. After all, the passage repeats again and again that people must not judge on another—so by that definition, then pretty much anything is fair game, right?

If this passage could be used to justify pretty much anything we do—if we say, “Don’t judge me just because I lie and keep secrets, because I’m doing it so that others don’t get hurt”—well, it only takes a few more steps to get to justifying the Crusades and killing innocents, as long as it’s being done “for God”. This passage is not supposed to use to justify our actions or our misdeeds as long as they’re dedicated to God. The point is to recognize that we all make mistakes and we all sin, so there’s no point in being judgmental because then we’d all be pretty darn judged (and found guilty) anyway.

Of course, there are more subtle judgment calls, such as disagreements over theology— like the nature of God, or what is a sin and what is not. There are some things we can all concretely agree are sins—like idol worshipping or adultery, for example. But what about those things that sometimes fall in the gray areas? For example, a friend of mine and I used to argue about whether killing was actually a sin—we agreed that murdering was, but what about killing someone in self-defense, or in order to save the lives of others? Would killing another in order to save loved ones be a sin? One of us has to be wrong, of course; killing can’t both be a sin and not be a sin simultaneously. However, we both recognize that though one of us is wrong, that doesn’t mean that either of us is going to Hell or any such thing simply for being wrong. We’re just trying to follow God as best as we know how, and try to discern His will as best as we know how (spending time praying and carefully reading Scripture helps the most with this). This is what Paul means when he writes about no matter we do, we must always take care to do it in honor of the Lord. Don’t stress about technicalities, being judged, or always knowing the proper way to act or even the proper way to think; the most important thing is that we act sincerely and earnestly in order to glorify God with our actions. As long as what we do comes from the heart, through careful time spent with God and His Word, then we will truly be honoring Him.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Romans 13:8-14

I love the first verse in this reading, it is one that I often use when I am evaluating the appropriateness of actions or the truthfulness of statements; but I have never really thought in depth about what this verse communicated. Paul identifies the need to love one another as a debt, it is this fact that I find so interesting.

Debt is, many times, a negative thing. We try to stay out of financial debt as much as possible, we do not like owing other people favors, and the idea that another person has the right to expect us to give them something is uncomfortable in most situations. So why would Paul equate loving others with a debt? I would suggest that he uses this word for two reasons. Most importantly is the fact that love is something that others can expect from us as Christians.

If we are Christians we believe that Jesus is the son of God and that He died for our sins, He saved us from an eternity apart from Him, and we can never repay Him, so if we accept His salvation we are forever indebted to him. Jesus told us that the greatest commandment is to love God and the second is to love others, and so, if we are his followers forever indebted to Him it is our duty to follow His command. We can never pay off the debt we owe, but we can live our lives trying to pay the debt by following His commands.

The second reason I think Paul uses the word debt is because he wants to challenge our concept of what a debt is, especially a debt within a relationship. When we enter into relationships we acknowledge that the other person, or persons, can expect something from us. If we take a class we acknowledge that we owe the teacher our time and efforts to learn what is being taught, and if we enter into a friendship we acknowledge that we owe the other a large emotional investment. By thinking of this we can realize that a debt can be a deeply rewarding experience, and when we work to acknowledge and pay our debt to God by loving others we can only further enrich all of our relationships.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Romans 13:1-7

This passage has been one of the bullet points--on either side of the argument-- of those who debate the proper role of the Church in politics today. Taken in isolation, it could seem to provide ammunition for the side that argues against the Church being involved; after all, "those authorities that exist have been instituted by God." Also, taken by itself, it could be seen as an injunction to believers to yield to civil authority, almost without question of resistance.

Needless to say, there is plenty else in Romans to balance the perspective offered here, and to view it in proper context. For the main thrust of Paul is to argue that Jesus is Lord, and the Emperor Caesar is not Lord. Indeed, the cult of emperor worship throughout the first-Roman empire was a religion that tended to foster civil obedience and therefore a continuance of the order, justice and discipline that at first was imposed by the sword. Paul is saying that the emperor is not God, but is himself subject to the true God. The civil order is useful for temporal purposes, not for eternal.

At a time when Christanity contended with the empire, Paul was therefore saying: walk the middle road. Obey the just laws of the empire. But worship the God who alone can bring truth and ultimate justice.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Romans 12:1-8

Today’s passage tells us that we are to be “transformed.” As you no doubt know, the Greek word for transformation that is used here is “metamorphosis”. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with bugs understands this word, how a lowly caterpillar becomes a winged flower, a butterfly.

It “morphs”.

It changes.

And the idea is that so will we.

In other words, there is a before and after to our life story. In fact, in this life there is an ongoing series of before and afters where the latest “after” becomes the next before. In fact, that is what the Bible is—a collection of stories of how, through salvation history, God changes people, and therefore of how He both wants to and is able to change you. (And me, of course.) It’s the story of before and afters.

I’ve thought about this a lot the last several years, and I’ve come to believe that one of the surest marks of a healthy Christian community that really is centered on Jesus as Lord and Savior is that it will be a community of stories. These stories will be stories of lives changed by the power of God at work in them. They’ll be the kind of stories a person can’t help but tell, and they will encourage and inspire those who hear them to continue offering themselves as living sacrifices so that they will be transformed to a greater extent than ever before.

So… what is your story? What is mine? Do we have one? Are we telling it? How is God changing us, morphing us, delivering us from the pain of what was into the glory of what yet might be?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Romans 11:25-36

I do not know about you, but I find this part of Paul's letter to the Romans difficult to fully comprehend. Today's reading is no different for me. Perhaps it is my pea-sized brain. Anyway let me discuss some points from today's reading.

In today's reading Paul was apparently overcome by the reality and depth of the mercy of God. Perhaps this was because it was apparent to Paul that he himself was a recipient of God's mercy. As we know, Paul had previously been one of the hardened in Israel, one of the defiant, who actually persecuted Christians. Then for reasons only known to God, Paul was chosen to receive mercy and grace. As having come full circle in his walk with Christ, first being part of the elected nation of Israel that was set aside for disobedience, and then second receiving mercy, Paul is well qualified to praise the wisdom, counsel, and glory of God. We could all learn from this lesson as I dare say we have all been "hardened" against God from time to time in our lives. But God will always take us back. He will always show mercy to us. Unlike some humans where our actions or attitudes can drive them away from us forever, God will always become our friend again. All we have to do is ask Him.
The last part of today's reading brings this to my mind. Humans are not fully aware of God's ways or plan. However, we should praise God all the time. In other words, we should praise God for what we understand about His plan and will and we should praise God for what we do not have the capacity to understand. I feel it is great and awesome to worship a God who I do not fully understand. After all, what motivation would there be in worshipping a God whose purpose and will was totally known and comprehended by our human intellect? I do not want God to be limited to what I can understand. I am looking forward to a peace beyond my understanding - how about you?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Romans 11:13-24

I was hanging out with some friends today, having a Wimbledon-inspired Wii Sports tennis match, when the subject of college life inevitably came up. We started sharing our stories and comparing the attitudes of different schools and the students that go to them—my friend who goes to Harvard talked about how everyone she knows is desperately trying to prove that they’re not nerds. Another friend talked about how everyone who goes to Princeton has the “Princeton ego”—“In fact, I think it’s a perquisite; they won’t let you in unless you have it,” she informed us dryly.

I think similarly being a Christian can come with a certain attitude. It’s easy to think that since we have this one big important thing covered—life after death is a pretty big thing, after all—that we’ve got a one-up over other people. No matter what happens, be it an unfortunate accident or suffering at the hands of another, we’ll be rewarded for our pains later. I think it’s pretty easy to get a little “holier-than-thou” attitude. Or of course there’s the attitude of being patient though always suffering, or the attitude of being in tune with God’s will and always knowing what to do. Or just like the Christians that Paul refers to in his letter, being prideful of our sufferings for and belief in Christ. If nothing else at least we’re smart and wise enough to follow His teachings and get eternal life, right?

But the fact remains that it’s nothing we do that earns eternal life, and thus there really isn’t anything to be prideful in. All our little sufferings and inconveniences will never add up to the emotional, physical, and spiritual agonies that Jesus suffered on the cross. It is only grace that allows us to obtain eternal life and satisfaction, not our own works. There is nothing that makes us more special or more worthy than any other person, no matter if we are a sterling example of morality or a promiscuous drug addict. So, there’s really nothing to be proud of. There’s no reason that people should be able to classify Christians by any particular “attitude”… unless, of course, it’s an attitude of being faithful to Christ’s teachings.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Romans 11:1-12

What does Paul mean when he says there is a chosen remnant of people who have been saved by grace? This single verse has caused a significant difference of opinion between Christians, on the one hand there are those who support the doctrine of predestination, there are also those who support the idea of free will. Yet, no matter which camp you fall into, this passage speaks of hope. I cannot argue one way or the other, indeed I do not know enough about the theoretical or theological meanings of these ideas to understand fully the implications they have on a person’s life or faith. I think, though, that one of the reasons that this is a debate, though, is because of our limited understanding of God, just as we do not fully understand the love that provides the hope to this passage.

Paul assures us that we have been saved by grace, not by works. Paul is not saying, by any means, that we should not work our hardest, that we should not try to work in order to bring honor to God; no, it is because of grace that we should. But, at the same time, we do not need to do work to be saved, and that is what makes it a hard concept. I cannot remember the last time I did something for someone without expecting something in return, even if that return was not physical or immediate. Even in our friendships we do things because we know that our friends will be there for us. The human understanding of love, in its fullest, best, sense, is founded upon the idea of a two-way street. Just as we do not understand how God can be both all-knowing and give us free will, neither can we understand how God is able to love us so fully. God does not need the assurance of our gratitude or love, in fact He knows that, at times, we will lash out, or question, or even deny Him; he offers us salvation regardless. The saving grace shown to us cannot be earned, only accepted, and no matter what we do we cannot earn it.

May we find the strength to truly give without expecting anything in return.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Romans 10:1-13

Paul here again shows his love and concern for others; here especially the Jews. He prays with all his hear t that they would be saved. He points out that they have a zeal for God but it’s not taking them in the right direction. In other words they have speed but their steering is off and they’ve gone off the road. Paul himself knows what that is like. In Galatians 1:14 he talks about his religious zeal and how it was taking him the wrong way, even to where he was causing Christians to come to harm.

Paul talks about righteousness and the law. The law has a purpose but the Jews were using it for the wrong purpose. We all have used something in a way other than what it was intended for. I saw a talent show once in which teenage boys used shopping carts in an unusual way. They were riding in the carts and pushing each other in them to play bumper cars (I think set to music). It was a creative use of shopping carts; they weren’t intended to be used that way. Similarly Paul is saying that the law is intended to show us our need for Christ. “Christ is the end of the Law” he says (v. 4). Using the law to try to obtain righteousness is a creative use of the law, and not in a good sense. In Matthew 5:17, Jesus says He is the fulfillment of the law.

The Jews knew Scripture but didn’t listen to what it was really saying. Lest we think this passage is written for others, like for men in robes poring over dusty scrolls, let us remember that we all have things or ideas that we feel zealous about and that we forget to submit our hearts to God over. Thank God that when we plead with Him he can keep us on course.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Romans 9:19-33

Romans 9 began a new section in the book of Romans—one which is the subject of much debate. The theme is God’s dealings with Israel.

In today’s verses, like the previous verses in chapter 9, Paul is dealing with the issue of God’s sovereignty. One of the ways that sovereignty is expressed is in His calling Israel as His chosen people. In God’s relationship to Israel, Paul has shown that salvation has its roots in God’s grace, not in race; that it is bestowed on the basis of God’s providence, not our performance; that it comes through God’s mercy, not human merit.

And, of course, if all that is true, the big issue becomes, “If it’s all up to God, then it doesn’t really matter what I do. If what it means for God to be God is that God calls the shots, then I don’t really have a choice. And if I don’t have a choice, how can God blame me for anything?”

As Eugene Petersen translates today’s opening verse in the message, Are you going to object, "So how can God blame us for anything since he's in charge of everything? If the big decisions are already made, what say do we have in it?" On first glance, Paul’s answer is less than helpful. “Who are you to question God?”

But let’s think a little bit more about that. The other day we gave our cat a bath to help her with a skin condition. We did it for her good. But, being a creature of limited understanding, she had no way of knowing that. She thought we were harming her, that what we were doing was not in her best interested. And so she fought back, scratching and even lightly biting.

Our cat was in no position to question what we were doing, to judge us. In much the same we, are in no position to question what God is doing, to judge him. The problem, of course, is located in my ignorance and finitude and not God’s character. The real question then becomes whether or not we will trust God even when we don’t understand, even when life doesn’t seem fair, even when we are in great pain and God seems distant or uncaring.

There will always be circumstances and events and painful events that will tempt us to distrust God, but in simple trust we choose to let them drive us deeper into the heart of God rather than driving us away from Him.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Romans 9:1-18

Paul expresses what I think we all feel from time to time for a person or people we truly love. Paul wishes he could trade places with, and take the punishment for, his fellow Jewish "brothers" if that could or would save them.

"I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel." (Romans 9: 2-4)

Of course the only one who can save any of us is Jesus Christ. However, in these verses, Paul shows a rare depth of love. Like Jesus, Paul is willing to sacrifice his life for others.

When we see others that have not found a meaningful relationship with Christ, often it is easier to wish we could take their punishment than to try and bring them into a closer relationship with Christ. However, the latter is what Jesus calls us to do and the former is often not sincere (and not possible).

Given that none of us can take the judgment and punishment for another so the other can be saved, and given that Christ calls us to share the Word and bring more and more into a meaningful relationship with Him, what are we to do? We cannot sacrifice ourselves to save another, but we do have things we can sacrifice to save another. These other things are our time, money, energy, and comfort. If any of us asked for God's help through prayer, and then made a true sacrifice, I am confident it would be extremely effective.

Just imagine the joy it would bring any of us if we made such a change in someone else's life.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Romans 8:31-39

The reading today has one of my very favorite passages from the whole Bible. That’s right, it’s the often quoted verses 38-39 speaking of how nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of Christ Jesus our Lord”.

Wow. What a powerful statement. In a world of temporary fixes and unpredictable changes, it’s a rare day that we have such a promise. When everyone lets us down, our friends fail us, our family disowns us, our community abandons us, and even our church disappoints us, there will always be the great and powerful love of Jesus Christ to support us, heal us, and make us whole again. The best part about this promise is that it protects us not only from outside forces, but also from ourselves. No matter what we do—no matter what terrible, despicable sin we engage in, no matter what wicked temptation we succumb to, and no matter how much we fall short of God’s glorious plan for us, there is no possible way we could make Him stop loving us. That is the sheer beauty of this verse. There is nothing, absolutely nothing any man, woman, angel, demon, nor any other being or force could do that would stop God from loving us. His commitment to us is so strong that it surpasses all else—even our own weaknesses.

I think it is this reassurance that so many of us seek for in our lives. It is this reflection for our eternal need for God that causes us to seek out that eternal love in other sources—in friends, family, and significant others. Ideally our relationships with everyone we meet should mirror the deep and glorious love that God has for us. We emphasize commitment because God is committed to us, and thus our lives are a likeness of this yearning.

I talked once to a friend about how I didn’t want to be dependent on others, and how I didn’t want to need others; he, being much wiser than I am, counseled me that it is alright to depend on others, because it’s just a reflection of my dependence on and need for God. God created us with this need and reassurance of eternal love, and there is no one who can fulfill this promise but Him. And no matter how well we search or how deeply committed we are to others, only His love will truly be with us forever.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Romans 8:26-30

Today’s passage speaks about how God searches the heart. While in Belize this past week the pastor of the community church in Pomona, Pastor Wayne Lopez, gave a sermon that has stuck with me throughout the time since then. While the overall theme of his sermon was obedience, he also talked about how God looks at the heart and not the human mind, because the mind is fickle; so I am going to be working with that also, although I know it is not in the reading. Today’s passage, though, does not just say that God looks at the heart, it says that God examines the heart.

The first thing I am confronted with in this passage is the use of the word “searches.” While the word look is a passive word, the word “search” is active; it conveys an intimate involvement with our lives. The question is, though, are we willing to be searched. A search is invasive in nature, sometimes it does not reveal pleasant things, but we are also assured that all things will work together for good. Does this mean that everything we do is good or that God thinks it is okay? No, we do things that are not good, sometimes we break God’s heart; but because of God’s nature, God can handle it, and we have to trust that.

As followers of Christ we are called to have our heart’s searched, and to learn from what we find there. This has been illustrated to me, most recently, in Belize. As some of you may know I have been a vegetarian going on five years now, and while I recognize that it is a choice that I have made it has been carefully thought out and I regard my vegetarianism as part of who I am. But during the trip I did not have the ability to not eat meat, at first this really upset me, and petty justifications of my anger surfaced. But then I realized something; something that was not too pretty and something that, I am sure did not make God proud: I was putting myself before those I was there to serve. This has led to a lot of thinking on my part, a redefining of my priorities, and a broader trust in God. Would I have been better if I learned without the anger? Absolutely, but God still used the situation for good.

May we all understand that God can handle searching our hearts, and trust God will use what is found for glory.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Romans 8:18-25 "Groaning for Hope"

Last week six men from St. Matthew's hiked a trail in Shenandoah National Park. Our destination was Overall Run Falls, at 93 feet the highest cascade in the Blue Ridge. The trail was wide and clearcut, and I walked at Mark's left as we talked. "Oh my goodness" I said to myself, stopping short of a large black snake which loomed just ahead of Mark's next step. The snake itself seemed to take little notice of it, perhaps fat and sluggish from just having eaten, but as it leisurely disappeared into the brush it raised the last 3-inch section of its tail and rattled it like a castanet. "Don't tread on me."

Thus was my first-ever encounter with the Eastern Rattlesnake.

The whole of creation, Paul says, is groaning (and, perhaps, rattling), as we ourselves are groaning within, for redemption. This world that we know has remnants of the beauty that was Eden. But our redemption is not to be removed altogether from the earth, but to become part of the New Heaven and New Earth for which God is preparing us, according to the view of N.T. Wright in his most recent book, "Surprised by Hope." (For an excellent synopsis that will whet your appetite for the book, listen to
So, perhaps, in that hope that lies just beyond our sight, we shall walk on trails with snakes that have no cause to rattle, nor shall we fear to tread. We shall find cascades of living water that will refresh us for eternity. Until then we are groaning, but not as people who have no hope. Just as mortals who are thirsty from the hike and sore in our weak knees, and just a bit wary of what today may bring.

Romans 8:1-11

“There is no condemnation…” I don’t know about you, but that gets my attention. Frankly, I live with a lot of condemnation. Perhaps you do too.

Some of that condemnation does come from others. Most of it, however, comes from inside me. Perhaps it’s what I think others think about me. From what I can tell, most people live with conversations in our head. Maybe it’s a conversation with a boss, a spouse, a parent (even if they are long dead), or some other key person in our life. The conversations often occur when we perceive that someone is critical of us, and so we feel a need to justify ourselves to them.

Or perhaps it is that I am very aware of my faults, and no matter how well I do at something, cannot escape the feeling that I should have done better. Or maybe it’s that I feel like I’m letting others down. Personally, I often struggle with this one.

The point is, I can always find reasons to condemn myself, to feel bad about myself, to not like me very much. Not only is this a painful way to live, but I hope you’ve noticed it is also pretty self-obsessed, which is not a good thing either, and keeps the cycle of condemnation going.

So the thought that we can be free from all this is as good as good news gets. The thought that I can feel good about myself, or maybe even be freed from thinking so much about myself in the first place and just get about the business of loving others, is incredibly liberating.

So how am I free from condemnation? By growing in my relationship with Jesus Christ and learning to live in the life of the Spirit.

As I learn to live more and more in the Spirit, my focus shifts away from me to others. It shifts away from protecting my own ego to sharing love. It shifts away from a preoccupation with what is wrong to being devoted to what is right. It shifts away from condemnation—feeling bad-- to celebration—reveling in God’s immense goodness.

This takes time—a lifetime in fact. It takes diligence and discipline to do so. But to live free from condemnation--now that's sweet!

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Romans 8:12-17

I will be traveling to South Africa next week with our mission team. We have spent some 20 hours of training to prepare for this trip. When we started, I had no idea what could possibly take so much time to prepare for. I thought the trip would entail hard work for 8 days serving other people who are certainly not as blessed as I with health and creature comforts.

Boy, was I wrong. Our training instead started to prepare us to be stewards of God, to actively listen for His instruction so that we will truly be His hands and feet in George. We have been learning to do exactly what Paul calls us to do in today's reading - to live by the Spirit. I say "started to prepare us" because it was, frankly, hard to do. We would read scripture for guidance in how to follow God's word. We prayed a lot, not just for things like a safe journey, but also for God's help and direction so that we can take specific actions that He would have us take. I found myself trying so hard to do what the work book told me to do, that I had to try even harder to listen for God's voice.

Paul tells us not to live according to the sinful nature. But, I would submit that "sin" has a broader meaning here. There are many sins that are obvious - murder, lying, cheating, etc. You may easily be able to say that you don't sin in those ways. However, not taking the time to truly listen to God, I believe, is also a sin. And that is a sin I've been committing my whole life. This training has taught me how little I know about truly communicating with God and how important that communication is. It is not merely praying here and there. It is putting yourself in a position to truly listen because it is only when you allow yourself to be in that position that you may hear God giving you the answers that you seek and the direction you should take.

I would ask that you pray for all of us going on mission trips this year, that we will hear the voice of God and that we will do His will.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Romans 7:1-12

The problem with living in a fallen world is that sin creeps into everything, even those things that were meant to be beautiful. Paul writes here of that which was meant to be pure and holy becoming tainted by this world and our own selfish human desires. The law, which was meant to be a guiding light in the darkness, a way to discern evil from good and lead us closer to God, instead has brought corruption into our lives. We look at the law and what we are meant not to do, and instantly all we want is to indulge in that forbidden action. It is the age-old story of the forbidden fruit; just as Adam and Eve were tempted by the fruit which was forbidden to them, so too are we tempted by the sins forbidden to us by the law.

Unfortunately this is an innately human weakness, and I doubt that many of us could ever hope to be fully freed from temptation. It’s not that the law is evil; it’s that we are fallen creatures, and thus the law is tainted to us. However, Jesus recognizes this losing battle and steps in to redeem the situation; this is what Paul speaks of when he declares that “we die to the law through the body of Christ”. We follow Christ now, not the law. We belong to Christ, not the law. We follow him because he is a good and righteous God and we know that He wants the best for us and for our lives, not because we are following a law which preemptively mandates exactly what we must not do.

Just as we are given new lives in Jesus, we are given new opportunities. No longer do we have to nit-pick about what a laundry list of what not to do and what not to do; that is not to say that we do not try to follow the Bible and Jesus’ teachings. After all, we trust that He knows what is best for us. However, when we live for Jesus the strict guidelines of the law fall sort before the overwhelming power of God’s love for us; within Jesus, love becomes the do-all end-all, the final answer. After all, Christianity is about loving people, not about following a careful list of “do’s” and “do-not’s”.