Monday, November 29, 2010

Journey of the Magi by T. S. Eliot - Poetry Archive

Journey of the Magi by T. S. Eliot - Poetry Archive

The Journey of the Magi by T.S. Eliot

"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

I know what the lyrics to the song say, but Christmas is NOT my favorite holiday.  

It used to be.  I loved the decorations.  I set out three nativity scenes.  I fretted about finding the perfect tree.  I played Christmas music, Bing Crosby, the Nutcracker, and Amy Grant.  And I watched Christmas movies and TV specials.  I made sugar cookies, just like the ones my mom made, in nativity shapes.  I also made gingerbread cookies, even though no one ever ate them.  I bought beautiful Christmas cards, addressed and stamped them, and wrote individual notes inside them.  I sang in choirs and loved performing--or I directed children's musicals.  I shopped.  

And every year I got sick with a flu that lingered for weeks into the new year.  I also accumulated lots of stress and even more debt.  

In the end, I think I felt like Solomon, who throws up his hands and says, "Meaningless.  Meaningless.  Everything is meaningless."  


During this season when we celebrate the birth of the Holy One who redeems humankind, I often ended up so busy I didn't have time to read the Bible.  I would fight the Christmas Eve service crowds to find a seat a church and realize that it was the first time I had stopped in ages.  As I sat there, listening to familiar passages of Scripture from Isaiah, Matthew, and Luke, I wondered where the month went and asked myself, "How is it it that once again I forgot to enjoy the season?"

And I toyed (no pun intended) with the idea of opting out.  Generally not a great plan if you have young kids.  But I did quit sending cards.  I stopped looking for perfect gifts for my extended family.  I didn't make cookies.  And Duane and I stopped directing children's choirs.

After all, what do any of these things have to do with the holiness of Jesus' birth?  They're lovely American traditions, but they really have very little to do with Jesus.  And to be honest, these traditions can actually get in the way of remembering Jesus.  

And so I struggled with that too.  In the end, I came up with the idea of two Christmases.  The first is sacred. A way of commemorating the birth of Jesus, with its hope and promise.  The second is strictly fun--American traditions.  Santa Claus.  Stockings.  Christmas trees.  

My challenge every December is to balance the two Christmases.  
I want to remember the sacred promise of Jesus.
And I want to remember the fun of being a kid at Christmas.  

When I was a little, we attended liturgical churches that celebrated Advent, which means "coming" or "arrival."    I always considered it sort of a countdown to Christmas.  Think about it.  Advent calendars for little kids have chocolate or ornaments inside them.  

In fact, Advent served a much greater purpose.  We live in a literate culture, and we can't even imagine what it's like not to read or write.  But books are a relatively recent invention.  Long ago, church leaders used the passage of time and special celebrations to cultivate a memory of important biblical truths, to symbolize the spiritual journey of a community of believers.  And here is one important truth that we must remember.  Jesus, the long awaited Messiah came long ago as a baby, and he will come again as a conqueror.  

Jesus came to reconcile men and women to God, and he will come again to establish his kingdom on the earth.  

We forget about the implications of Jesus' arrival.  We forget that he is present in the world today.  And we forget that he will come again in power.  

This Christmas I want to remember. 

And so I'll be looking at and reflecting on Advent passages.  From Garden to City will be going through the book of Isaiah, and so I'll probably do that as well.  I know Advent started yesterday.  It's okay.  I'm following my own schedule of remembering.  

Low stress.
No cookies.
No cards.

This year I want to celebrate family and friends and Jesus.  I want to remember the beauty of Jesus' birth and look forward to his return. I want to sit down at the Christmas Eve service and reflect on a fabulous December and thank God for a blessed month.  

Merry Christmas.

Discipline and Rest

It's been two weeks since I last posted about needing rest.
I have conflicted feelings.

I started tutoring two weeks ago, and I have to be at SDSU at 8:00 a.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays.  That definitely cuts into writing time, although to be honest, I could write in my cubicle on campus.  We only see two or three students per session.  The rest of the time we wait.

I started journaling again.  That felt good.  Writing random thoughts into a journal is very different than publishing a blog that I hope people will read.  It's not less honest, but it is more purposeful.  I am always mindful that someone may read this blog, and I write for an imagined audience that wants to join me on life's journey.

Clearly, I needed to rest.  I've been kind of burnt out.  Not wanting to go to school.  Not wanting to study or write.  Not wanting to do anything.

And so I rested.  I finished the book of Matthew, took pages of notes which I didn't want to turn into blogs.  I cooked.  I planned lessons.  I graded papers.  I tutored.  I really do love teaching.  I prayed for friends.  I do feel rested, but it's time to tackle my last project for school.  I have great ideas, but am not sure how to jump into them.

It's also time to return to my blog.  These kinds of absences bother me.  I think I stay away because I lack self discipline, and I know I lack self discipline in many areas of my life.  And then the volume of notes I've written for the book of Matthew overwhelms me.  How can I condense my notes and say something meaningful?

So here I am.  Jumping back in again.
In a way it's kind of cute that I feel compelled to explain myself even in a blog that not too many people will read.  I always feel compelled to explain myself.  It's one of my charms.  It can also be very irritating.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Rest and Fatigue and Renewal

I skipped school last night.  I just didn't want to go.

It's true that I hadn't finished my assignment.  I had worked on it most of the day, but for some reason I just couldn't pick a film to analyze, and then I couldn't find the handout with my notes on it.  I sought out distractions.

We had worship practice last night, and I had planned on leaving early and getting to class late, but I decided not to leave.  This was not a spiritual decision.  I just didn't want to go to class.

I love the fellowship our worship team has.  Last night we had a combined team--Santee and El Cajon.  And we laughed and sang and worshiped.  And I didn't feel like going to class.

Somewhere in the evening, when I realized I had made my decision, I also realized I have pretty significant academic fatigue.  As in, I don't feel like researching, I don't feel like doing homework, I don't feel like studying. I'm tired, and I'm done.

Except that I haven't finished, and finishing is fairly important at this stage of the game.  And normally I love research and homework and studying.  Normally I love attending class.

It's been a long year.  I'm tired.  Worn out.  I don't have much left.  And that's when I realized.  I need to sit with Jesus.  I need to allow the Holy Spirit to work in me and renew my spirit.  I need God to restore my strength and use me for his glory.

When we're broken, we rely on God's power.  When we feel like we know what we're doing, we tend to step out on our own.  Or maybe it's just me.  Anyway, I've been feeling like I have the school thing figured out.  And maybe I do, or maybe I don't.  But I'm tired, and I can't do it on my own.

Last night I realized that I have very little quiet time in my life.  And by quiet time, I mean time away from electronics, alone, without agendas.  I rarely journal anymore--it's so much easier to type.  I spend my days staring at screens.  Traveling between this place and that place.  Crossing things off a list.  Making sure I check email and Facebook.  (I don't want to miss anything.)

And Jesus says, "Come to me, all you who are weary . . . and I will give you rest.  Learn from me, for I am gentle and you will find rest for your souls."

And I want to rest, but it's hard.  I'm wondering why.

As I drove home from practice last night, I realized that this was the Holy Spirit speaking to me.  Whenever he calls attention to a broken pattern in my life, he always shows me how to move forward.  I'm looking forward to that.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Come to me and I will give you rest - Reflections on Matthew 11:28-30

This morning I filled an entire page in my journal with names of people for whom I'm praying.  The prayer requests are complicated.  These men and women need God to work transformative miracles in the hearts of wives, husband, and children, as well as in their own hearts.  Suffice to say, answers to prayer requests of this nature are ongoing.  No quick fixes here.

And the people I'm praying for--they're tired.  Tired of trying to fix things.  Tired of dealing with broken relationships and rebellious spirits.  The thing is, there's nothing they can do.  Only God can work miracles in these situations, and, at least on the outside, it doesn't look God is doing anything.

I've got a few of those situations in my life as well, and sometimes I wish there was something I could do to guarantee that God would do what I want him to do.

Sometimes we feel like we've failed.  Like we let God down, and now he's not listening.  And he's not moving.

And Jesus says, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest."

The Message version puts it like this:
Are you tired?  Worn out?  Burned out on religion?  Come to me.  Get away with me and you'll recover your life.  I'll show you how to take a real rest.  Walk with me and work with me--watch how I do it.  Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.  I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.  Keep compahy with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.  
Trust me.  Learn from me.  Receive my love.  You didn't let me down.  
I'm gentle and humble. Come to me.  You will find rest for your soul. 
I don't want you to try to fix things.  I don't want you to work harder.
I want you to come to me.  Rest in me.

When we rest in Jesus, we experience peace.  We're still waiting for transformative miracles.  We're still waiting for God to move in our lives and in the lives of people around us, but as we draw near to the God who made us, the God who loves us, he gives us strength in the waiting.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Matthew 9-12: The Love of the Invisible God Made Visible

From Garden to City reading:  Matthew 9-12

In Luke, we read that Jesus goes to the synagogue in Nazareth, his hometown, after his 40-day fast and after being tempted by Satan.  He goes forward and reads a passage from Isaiah:  

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
   because he has anointed me
   to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
   and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
   to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-21)

Before sitting down, he announces, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."  

These words really irritate the people of Nazareth.  They know his parents.  They've watched him grow up.  They remember his rather unconventional birth.  After all, his mother wasn't married when Jesus was conceived.  

Who does Jesus think he is?  Certainly he couldn't be the promised Messiah, described by the prophet Isaiah.  

And so Jesus leaves, and everywhere he goes, the lame walk and the blind see.   He restores lepers.  He casts out demons.  He raises the dead. 

Read the book of Matthew.  It's filled with these stories.  

He associates with tax collectors.  He speaks to women.  And Romans.  He eats with "sinners."  

And he forgives sins.  

The teachers of the law quietly accuse him of blaspheming.  After all, only God can forgive sins.  

And Jesus responds, asking, "Which is easier: to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up and walk'?"  

Obviously, it's easier to announce that someone's sins are forgiven than to make a lame man walk.  Who can see forgiveness?

Jesus knows that and boldly announces, "But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . ."  At this point, he turns to the paralyzed man and says, "Get up.  Carry your mat home."  And the man gets up and goes home.  

Jesus heals  to demonstrate God's power.  He heals to demonstrate God's love.   He heals to demonstrate God's authority.  

The thing is, Jesus sees past the sin.  He's moved by suffering and pain.  He's come to give life, to restore their relationship with God the Father.  He's come to release the prisoners, to bring freedom to the oppressed.  Matthew tells us, "When Jesus sees the crows, he has compassion on them, because they are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  

When we see Jesus, we see God, made visible, the exact representation of his being.  We see God reaching out to touch men and women.  We see God making a way for us to have a relationship with him.  

We must pay more careful attention to Jesus, to what he says, to what he does, lest we drift away from the God who sent him.  

Matthew 5-8: When God enters the planet, and we decide to follow him, he turns our world upside down.

From Garden to City reading:  Matthew 5-8

As I read this passage yesterday morning, I tried to picture what it would be like to be on the mountainside with Jesus, surrounded by my countrymen, listening to him deliver what we now call the Sermon on the Mount.  And then I realized that wasn't the way it was all.  I'm not really sure how I got the idea that Jesus was standing on a mountainside speaking to hundreds of people, but when I went back to write this blog, I realized that in order to escape from the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and then sat down with his disciples and shared these words.

I like that.

These words for his disciples, the men who followed Jesus, who wanted to be like him and serve him.  And if we are his disciples, if we are willing to give our lives for him, to be like him and serve him, then these words are for us too.

Like the disciples, we have an idea about how the world should be.  We define concepts like democracy and liberty and equality.  We have pictures of what justice in our head, and we know what the world should look like.  However, there is no single definition for liberty, or equality, or democracy. These ideas, these concepts,  tend to have cultural connotations, which adapt over time.

In the United States, we are still redefining the notion of equality.  One hundred fifty years ago, we held black men and women as slaves.  Seventy-five years ago, they couldn't drink from the same drinking fountains as whites and certain neighborhoods were off-limits for them.  Today, most Americans believe African-Americans should hold the same rights as men and women of European descent.

The thing is, no matter how we define the world we live in, no matter what we think an ideal world should look like, when Jesus enters in, when we decide to follow him, he turns it upside down.

Think about it.  How do you define blessing?  And what does it look like if you're blessed.  I'm guessing it's nothing like what Jesus shares in Matthew 5.

It's the poor in spirit, the brokenhearted, that have the kingdom of heaven, not the people who look successful on the outside.  It's the meek, those quiet, humble people who go around serving, who don't get noticed, who inherit the earth, not the take-charge guy who draws attention to himself.  Oh, and you're blessed when people insult you and persecute you.

We all agree that murder and adultery are sins, but Jesus redefines murder as anger toward your brother, and adultery begins with lust.

Revenge?  Standing up for what belongs to you?  Jesus instructs his disciples not to resist evil men and women.

It's easy to love our friends and hate our enemies, but Jesus asks us to love our enemies and to pray for them.

Do you remember how God shows compassion on his people over and over, no matter they do?  Do you remember how he forgives them and delivers them, even after they betray him?

As disciples of Jesus, we need to follow his example.

No matter how we define the world, Jesus turns it upside down.  His instructions are counterintuitive.  That's just not the way the world works.  People will take advantage of us.

Love.  Forgiveness.  Compassion.
Death to self.

In everything, treat others the way you would want to be treated.  (Matthew 7:12)

I've read this passage many times.  I'm used to the words.  Their familiarity takes away the radical nature of Jesus' words.

I don't know how to live like this.  Not really.  I mean, I'm pretty nice, but I'm not like this.  How can I embrace Jesus' call to radical living?  How do I follow him wholeheartedly?  What does that look like in our world?

After Jesus and his disciples come off the mountain, Matthew records that Jesus touches an unclean man and heals him from leprosy.  He then interacts with a Roman soldier and heals his servant.  To his disciples, he praises this Gentile's faith.  Next, he heals a woman, Peter's mother-in-law.

Lepers, Romans, women--Jesus takes time for those considered less important in his world.  We see his love.   All these people have infinite value to Jesus.

Through Jesus, we see God's heart for the world.  We see God redefining our most basic concepts of justice and equality.  We see God redefining what it means to serve him.

When God enters the planet, and when we decide to follow him, he will turn our world upside down.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Matthew 1-4: God With Us

From Garden to City reading:  Matthew 1-4

So it's almost 9:00 in the morning, and once again I'm really slow to get moving.  After skimming through the online newspapers I follow, I thought about turning on the T.V., but ultimately made the very wise decision to open my Bible and read Matthew 1-4, which I did not choose to read yesterday.  (Honestly, I think this decision should be pretty easy, but it took a lot of willpower today.)  As I read, I asked God to teach me through his Word, but I was also thinking about what to write about.

Even before I opened the Bible, I thought about focusing on the genealogy in chapter 1.  It's pretty stunning how Matthew included women and foreigners in this genealogy, showing that God's plans include the marginalized and despised people of that culture.  Incidentally, that's all of us, unless you are a male Jew.

As I read, one thing stood out to me.  The angel appears to Joseph and tells him that his soon-to-be-wife Mary is going to have a baby, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and his name will be Immanuel, which means "God with us" (Matthew 1:23).

I continued reading, and other blog concepts emerged.  I could write about the temptation of Christ in the desert. I could write about how Jesus' ministry could only begin after God had prepared him through intense suffering.  I could tie this into passages from Hebrews which described the way Jesus understood us.  But I kept coming back to this very simple and profound idea--Jesus is Immanuel.  He is "God with us."

I got distracted again.  Caitlin and I talked about paint colors and Christmas gifts and her music class.  I checked Facebook and deleted some emails.  And I thought about what to write about, thinking that I should write about Jesus' suffering, leading to ministry.  I like to write about suffering.  Next, I checked my email.

This time I had a note from Becky Lang, my dear friend who loves 70s Jesus music as much as I do and remembers all the old songs.  She sent me a link to a song written by one of the members of Daniel Amos, who recorded one of my favorite records, Shotgun Angel.

Becky thought perhaps I could start out my holiday listening season with a song called "Holy Immanuel."  Now, it could be a coincidence that Becky's song and the phrase that stood out to me from Matthew 4 were so connected.  But Becky's never sent me a link to a song before, and the email came just as I opened my blog to start writing, and I do want to think about this.

God calls Abraham and promises to give him a land filled with milk and honey.  God blesses him, but over time his family begins to rebel.  And so begins a cycle of blessing, rebellion, repentance, deliverance, and blessing.  The people experience rebellion, slavery, oppression.  Disappointment.

Always God is at work, and always God offers this promise of forgiveness and restoration, but always the people rebel.  God's holiness separates him from the people.  The invisible sovereign God who rules the universe seems faraway, untouchable.  He seems unconcerned.  They feel forgotten.  Abandoned.  Hopeless.

They respond with rebellion.  Rejection of God's laws.
Or legalism.  They will follow those laws to the letter.  And a few more.  That should make God quite happy.

Enter Jesus.  The promise of life.
Enter Jesus, the man.
Enter Jesus, the "image of the invisible God" (Colossians 1:15).
He is the invisible God made visible.  The faraway made near.
He is God with us, so we can see him, so we can touch him.
He is hope.

When we see Jesus, we see holiness mixed with compassion.  We see his longing for the Kingdom of God, filled with people from every nation.

He welcomes children.  He speaks to women.  And foreigners.  He forgives adulterers, thieves, and those who collaborate with Romans.  He heals the sick.  He feeds the hungry.

Without compromising righteousness, he rejects legalism.

It's no wonder the disciples despaired every time he mentions leaving.  I could hardly stand it if Jesus stood next to me, in bodily form, and then he said he was going to leave.  And yet, Jesus tells his disciples that he must go so that the Holy Spirit can come.  Now that same invisible God of the Old Testament, the same God who entered the world at a certain time, in a certain place, is available for all of us.  All the time.

But back to Jesus.  The first glimpse of the fullness of God.  God's voice, in human sounds.

Look at Jesus.  Watch what he does in the Gospels.  Listen to his stories.  Hear his compassion.  Picture him walking with the people.  Picture him walking with you.

Spend time in the Gospels, asking God to fill you with his Holy Spirit.

In the past, God spoke through prophets.  Today God speaks through his Son, Jesus.  As the author of Hebrews says so plainly, "We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Hebrews 9-13: Unswerving

From Garden to City reading:  Hebrews 9-13

I left the house with excitement yesterday morning, thinking about my detailed lesson plans and my very creative writing prompt.  Thanksgiving filled my heart, and the words of Psalm 16 came back to me, "Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure.  The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance."

I'm teaching.  I get to take classes.  I write, and a few people read what I write.  I have an amazing husband and kids.  And friends.  I love God.

And then I remembered I have felt this way before, usually right before something crashes.  Life never stays perfect very long.  Not that I'm a pessimist or anything, but no matter how good things are, they're never perfect.

Let's just say that my detailed lesson plans had some gaps in them, and my prompt wasn't as clear as I thought.  And I could feel my students' confusion and disinterest.  I had a hard time getting them to engage in discussion.  Two students fell asleep.  I let them go early.

And I walked away defeated.  Who said I could be a teacher?  Why would anyone one to hire me?  How could I have thought I could write curriculum? I spent the afternoon catching up on episodes of Law and Order, SVU.  Now I'm even more behind on lesson planning, essay grading, and homework for my visual rhetoric class.

I also didn't want to go to my Life Group last night.  Not an option since I'm the leader of the group.  I felt unprepared.  I wanted to sit on the couch, watch House Hunters International, and escape to a Caribbean island or the south of France.  Sometimes the easiest thing is hiding in my house.  Sometimes that's the worst thing.

Just walking in the door changed my attitude.  We all come from different stages of life and we have different backgrounds, but none of that matters.  Really, there's just something about connecting with people who want what I want--to know God, to seek him, and to serve him.  As we looked at Scripture, shared our disappointments, frustrations, and struggles, my defeatist mindset faded away.

God is greater than whatever I'm going through.  I can trust him.  I can depend on him.

This morning I read Hebrews 9-13.  I really like the book of Hebrews, and even before reading the passage, I wondered what I would write about today.  I love chapter 11, which talks about faith.  I quote Hebrews 12:2 all the time, about fixing my eyes on Jesus.  Later on in Hebrews 12, the author discusses considering hardship as discipline, another theme of my life.  Or about God's faithfulness.  Or worship.

And then I actually opened the Bible.  Always a good plan.  God's voice, through His written word, really is "living and active" (Hebrews 4:12).  He really does sustain all things, including me, "by his powerful word" (Hebrews 1:3).

I don't think I've ever read chapters 9-13 in one chunk before, and reading this section together gives me new perspective on the passages I mentioned previously, the passages I gravitate toward over and over.  In Hebrews 1-9, the author describes Jesus, his power, and his divinity.  The author establishes the necessity for a new covenant, a new way of salvation.  In this section, Jesus is everything.

And then, after having made his (or her) case, the author sums up what he just said, saying, "Since we have confidence that we can enter God's Kingdom through the sacrifice of Jesus, and since we have a great priest who understands everything and provides a way for us to really connect with God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith" (10:19-22).

Everything's in place.  The sacrifice has been made.  Jesus is God, and he understands us.  He is the bridge connecting us to a most holy and awesome God.  Before, only the priest could connect to God, and only once a year, but now we all can.

So let's draw near to God.  With confidence.  With boldness.  With humility and awe.

The problem is, we can't see Jesus, and we can't see God.  We only know they are there by faith.  We believe, but after a while, believing can get hard.

And this is it, this is the thing that stood out to me this morning.
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.  And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.  Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching.  (10:23-25)
Sometimes it's hard.  Sometimes we lose sight of God's promises and even his presence.  He just seems so far away, if he even exists.  But he does.  And so the author says, "Don't give up.  Jesus is everything we've ever hoped for."  And instead of checking out, draw near to God.  Seek him.  Talk to him.  Spend time in his Word.  Spend time with other people who also want to draw near to God.  They'll encourage you.  And you will encourage them.  We need each other so that we don't lose hope.  We need to challenge each other to love more deeply and serve more fully.

So, hold on to your confidence because you will be rewarded.  It doesn't feel like it now, and we can't see it right now, but we can depend on God's promises.  (10:35-39)

In fact, that's what faith is all about (11:1-2).  Believing when we can't see.  Once we can see or hold the object of our faith, it's not really faith anymore.  And yes, faith is hard.

So don't give up.  And when you get tired, fix your eyes on Jesus (12:1-2).  And when you get discouraged because of difficult circumstances, remember that God will use these circumstances to strengthen you (12:7-13).

Don't give up.  Draw near to God.  Spend time with people who will encourage your faith.  Serve God and serve others.  Worship God!  Give him a sacrifice of praise.  Even when it's hard, keep his name on your lips, share your faith stories with other people (13:15-16).

As I got ready for Life Group last night, I knew I had nothing to give away.  I wished I could get a do-over on the day.  I wished that I had come home and spent time in the Bible, or journaling, or praying, instead of watching television.  There are no do-over.

I'm glad we had Life Group last night.  I needed my community of faith last night.  I needed to sit with these women and examine God's Word.  I needed their encouragement, and I needed to be "spurred on toward love and good deeds" (10:24).

Once again, I have hope.  I'm living by faith.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Hebrews 5-8: Do you have any idea what it is like to be me?

From Garden to City reading:  Hebrews 5-8

I scanned FB this morning, and I came across a friend's post.  She asked, "Do you have any idea what it is like to be me?"  I thought about typing "no" and leaving it at that, but that seemed abrupt and a little sarcastic, so I came up with some wise statement about how we would all be more compassionate if we could see the world through someone else's eyes sometimes.  

The thing is, I don't know what it's like to be her.  I don't even know what she's talking about or why she posted this statement.  She could be responding to a misunderstanding she had with a friend.  Or her parents.  Or her work.  Or some bad news she got yesterday.  

I don't know what it's like to be her.  And she doesn't know what it's like to be me.    

When my oldest started using drugs seven years ago, I needed prayer, encouragement, and understanding.  The women most helpful to me were ones who had walked through similar situations.  They understood my pain and my disappointment.  They knew how to pray because they had prayed these prayers.  

I think I was most grateful for Teresa, my pastor's wife.  She didn't know what it was like to be me, but she made it "safe" to be me because she did know what it was like to watch a child walk away from God.  She didn't just me or make empty promises.  She could share what God given her--Scripture and pieces of wisdom.  And most important, she shared her own pain and disappointments.  

I had another dear friend whose children were all serving God.  As far as I know, none of her children have ever questioned their faith, and they've never even thought about drugs.  I didn't share much with her.  I just had the feeling she wouldn't understand.  She had no idea what it felt like to be me.  

So when we read that Jesus is a high priest who understands our temptations and weaknesses (4:15-16), we know that he is "able to deal gently" with us as he offers mercy and grace in our times of need. (4:16-5:2).  He knows what it's like to suffer because he has suffered.  He knows what it's like to be misunderstood and rejected because he has been misunderstood and rejected.  He knows what it's like to be tempted--he knows how hard it is.  He resisted temptation, but only by the power of God.  In fact, he dealt with all of this by the power of God, and he freely shares the comfort and the wisdom God has given him.   

We tend to think we don't need a priest.  That's because we hear the word priest, and we think of a guy dressed in black, with a white collar.  Or we think of him standing in robes, holding up the communion elements.  We attach pictures to words, and sometimes the pictures are cultural and don't really represent the intended meaning of the passage.  

For the Jews, only the priest could offer blood sacrifices and only the priest could approach God directly.  Essentially, the priest served as a bridge, connecting the people to God.  We think we don't need a bridge because of Christ's sacrifice on the cross.  

The thing is, Jesus is that bridge.  Jesus is the sacrifice. Without Jesus, there is no forgiveness of sins.  In ancient times, only the priest could enter the Holy of Holies,entering the "inner sanctuary behind the curtain" (6:19-20), and then only once a year. We can approach God directly because Jesus has gone before us and has entered on our behalf.  

Jesus is our priest.  
He knows what it's like to be me. 
And he knows what it's like to be you.  

Monday, November 8, 2010

Hebrews 1-4: Pay Attention. Now.

From Garden to City reading: Hebrews 1-4

I woke up at 6:00 this morning.  The first thing I did is go make coffee.  Then I grabbed my Bible and my computer and sat on the bed.  My plan? Check mail real quick and then read Hebrews and then blog and then finish lesson plans for the final project of the semester.  Two-and-a-half hours later I have had a long FB conversation with Denise, read the online version of the New York Times, checked FB updates, watched the news, and had three cups of coffee.

Very productive.  Sort of.  My Bible is sitting unopened next to my computer.

And as I write this account of my morning, I recognize the irony because I've spent a lot of time in this passage.  Hebrews 1-4 is all about paying attention.  About listening to God and following him.  Now.

The writer of Hebrews begins by reminding the reader that God has communicated with people in the past, through the prophets, in various ways.  But now, more recently, he has communicated to the people through his son.

And then he describes Jesus.  He is the "radiance of God's glory, the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word" (1:3).  In essence, if you've seen the Son, you've seen the Father.  If you've listened to Jesus, you've heard God Almighty.

And then the author describes Jesus using the Old Testament.  We don't know the Old Testament that well, but for the original readers of this book, this was the most credible source available to support the idea that Jesus is the Messiah, the Promised One, the redeemer of mankind.

So in the past, God's used prophets to remind the people to turn to God the Father.  If you've been reading along through From Garden to City, or if you've spent any time at all in the major or minor prophets, you know that these guys are sort of odd.  And they aren't the easiest to understand.

But Jesus?  He's hard on the leaders.  He he shows compassion to the poor and oppressed, the outcasts of society.  He heals the sick.  He welcomes children.  He tells stories.  He calms the wind.  He feeds masses of people.  He raises dead people back from the life.

Incredible stuff.  We can question the accounts because we didn't see it, but the original readers of this book know it's true.  They saw it, or someone they knew saw it.

They know the rumors concerning his resurrection.  And they've seen the power of his followers, even after his death.

This is God.  Jesus is God.  And so "we must pay more careful attention to what we have heard, so that we don't drift away" (2:1).

If we don't pay attention, and by pay attention, I mean responding to the message now, we will forget.  We'll get caught up in the day to day concerns of life and forget to put Jesus first in our lives.  And "how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation" (2:3)?

First, I want to say that I love this metaphor.  I think of a boat, tied to a pier with a rope.  The knot is sort of loose, and the wind gently moves the boat, loosening the knot.  If the owner of the boat sees the problem, he or she can tighten the knot and the boat remains secure.  But if he or she doesn't see it, the knot will get looser and finally become untied altogether.  At that point, depending on the wind, the boat will drift away from the pier, into the open water, where it's hard to retrieve the boat, or crashing it into the rocks.

The are a lot of reasons why we drift.  Life gets busy, and people and circumstances require our attention.  And so we miss church, we don't read our Bible, we forget to pray as we go about our day, we don't take time for spiritual fellowship.  Or we get mad at God because something didn't work out the way so good.  Or another Christian hurts us.  Deeply.

Or we're tired and just want to take some time off and read Facebook and watch the news.

Jesus understands human life and suffering because he lived in our world, as one of us.  He shared out humanity (2:14).  He knows what it's like to be rejected, to be misunderstood, to have people and circumstances pressing in.  He knows what it's like to be tired and to want to get away from it all.  And so he's safe to go to when we feel like that.

And so, as the Holy Spirit says, "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts . . ." (3:7-8).  If you hear the Holy Spirit calling you, pay attention.  Respond.

And keep responding.  Trust God and trust his promises.  As has just been said, "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts" (3:15).

Any time a writer repeats something that has just been said, it's probably for emphasis.  And so the writer says it again.  And again in 4:7:  Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.  Pay attention Today.  Respond Today.  Right away.  Now.

For the Word of God--God's voice--is living and active.  We hear it Now, but the sound of it will grow dim and face away unless we do respond Now.  We will forget unless we do something Now.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Finishing Leviticus: Some Final Thoughts

I finished Leviticus today and rather than clutter up the blog with multiple posts and stress out myself with the time-consuming task of writing them, I want to mention a few things that stood out to me.

Moses wrote the book of Leviticus as a book of laws.  It describes the way to live, the way to worship, the way to treat other people.  And I like that.  These were passionate people, but justice rarely results from emotional reactions.

Some of God's instructions are difficult to understand.

Think about the "unclean" laws.  If someone has a rash, if someone has a discharge, if someone has a sore that doesn't heal . . . We know about bacteria and infectious diseases today, but they didn't understand those things then.  Even though the people didn't understand why, God set up these laws to protect them.

Sometimes God asks us to things we don't understand, and like the people of Israel, we have to obey by faith, trusting that God knows more and understands more thank we do.

God makes it very clear that the people must not eat or drink blood because "the life of every creature is in its blood" (17:17).  God does two things here.  First, we know that some diseases are spread through blood, and he protects them from those diseases.  Second, he begins to show them the plan of salvation, first through burnt offerings and then by Christ's death on the cross.   Without shedding of blood, giving up life, there is no forgiveness of sins.

Over and over, God says, "Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy"  (19:1).  Life according to God's laws, for his purposes.

I think we forget to do that sometimes.  I do.  Sometimes my purposes seem more urgent thank God's purposes.

I'm not saying that we need to follow all the laws in the Old Testament in over to be holy.

Christ's death on the cross eliminated the need for multiple animal sacrifices, and so parts of this book don't apply to us anymore.  We understand bacterial infections, and we don't need to quarantine every disease, and so we don't follow those rules anymore either.  We live by grace, and the New Testament tells us all foods are clean, so we don't live by those rules.

Peter tells us that instead of following the evil desires we had when we lived in ignorance, we should "be holy in all" we do.  Living separated for God's purposes, serving him in all we do.  Because God is holy.  (1 Peter 1:13-16)

Being holy is far more than following a long list of rules.  We tend to understand imperfectly, and part of living holy lives, separated for his purposes, is to prayerfully seek God and his purposes.  We seek God through his Word, through prayer, through humility.

Everything we are, everything we have, everything we do belongs to God.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Leviticus 9-12: Draw Near to the Altar

From Garden to City reading:  Leviticus 9-12

We live under a new covenant.  Jesus died on the cross.  He is the sacrifice for our sin, all our sins, past, present, and future.  And when he left earth, the Holy Spirit came as our counselor, our comforter, the one who convicts of us sin, the one who empowers us to witness.

Because of Jesus, because of grace, we can approach the throne of God the father with confidence.

And I don't think we fully recognize how amazing that grace is.  If we've been Christians for very long at all, if we've grown up hearing about this, we may forget what life would be like if we didn't live under grace.

Leviticus reminds us.

Chapter 9 opens up with Moses instructing Aaron, the high priest:  This is what you must do that the glory of the Lord may appear to you.  Draw near to the altar . . .

And so Aaron offers sacrifices, exactly as proscribed by Moses, who has received instruction directly from God.  And he lays out the offering exactly as proscribed by Moses.  And if you're reading, or if you've read this before, you can see that this is not a quick in-and-out sacrifice.  This is complicated.  Detailed.  Precise.

But when he is done, Moses and Aaron can enter the tent of meeting, and when they come out, they bless the people and the glory of the Lord appears to all the people.

Just so they don't forget it, so that they fear God, fire comes out from the altar and consumes the fat still lying on the altar.

Many of us would like to see tangible representations of God's glory like this, but it comes at a price for Aaron.  Two of his sons approach the altar in an unauthorized way, and the fire of the Lord consumes them.

And I don't understand this, but I'm thinking that this story doesn't register for most of us.  This episode doesn't fit with our image of who God is.  And yet, God hasn't changed.

He is holy.

We come to him on his terms or not at all.

And it's true that we don't see random people consumed on our altars today, and I'm grateful for that, and it's often true that God reveals himself to us gradually, and we're always in the process of learning how to please him.  God gives us grace in the journey.

But we don't get to make up our own rules.

Aaron's sons knew God's holiness, and for whatever reasons, they decided to approach him on their own terms.  The results are disastrous.

I don't need fire, but I do want to see God's glory.  I want to experience his presence.  I want to know him on his terms.  I need to draw near to the altar, draw near to Jesus, worship him on his terms, and allow him to reveal himself to me.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Leviticus 5-8: If you ________, then you are guilty. And if you ________, you are responsible.

From Garden to City reading:  Leviticus 5-8

So basically, if you don't say something when you should, God will hold you responsible.  Like someone is being convicted of a crime, and you know they didn't do it, but you don't speak up.

And if you tough something unclean, even if you don't know it, you're guilty and need to make yourself clean again.  And if you promise to do something, but don't do it, you're guilty.  And if you do something against the law, but you don't know it, you're guilty. And if you cheat someone, you're guilty and you have to pay it back, plus some.

This is a long list.  And this is only a partial list.  There are more laws elsewhere.

Honestly, a lot of this is common sense.  Somewhere, deep in my heart and my imagination, I know this stuff.  I didn't need to read it in a book.  And remember, most of these people couldn't read.  So they learned this stuff by listening.  First to Moses, and then to the people who came afterward, who learned to recite the law.

Some of this stuff isn't common sense.  Like when Moses says that entire communities can sin and must repent together.  And when leaders sin, they owe a greater sacrifice than when ordinary people like me si.

Elsewhere we see that entire communities are punished for their sin.   And entire communities punished for the sins of their leaders.

This is serious stuff.  And it's a lot to keep track of us.

Unless you can simplify it.
Jesus tells us that all the laws of the prophets come down to this:
Love God, and love other people.

Even that gets complicated, and we get busy with our lives and forgot to love God.  And loving other people?  Sometimes they aren't that easy to love.

Jeremiah promises a day when will come when God will put his law into our minds and write it on our hearts.  We won't need books and teachers to define sin for us.  We'll know.
We won't need reminders to love.  We'll love.

Until then, we keep our eyes on Jesus, and we keep our ears turned toward the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Leviticus 1-4: I am a suburban princess, and I don't like blood in the mud.

From Garden to City reading: Leviticus 1-4

What can I say about Leviticus 1-4?  

Well, God provides very specific instructions about burnt offerings and  how to kill goats and sheep and chickens and bulls.  And how to wash them.  And what to do with the blood.

And we can read that and say, well, God is an orderly God.  There's a right way.  And a wrong way.  And it's important to follow God's detailed instructions.  I agree.  

But as I read this, I started thinking about the mess.  About the altar.  About the blood.  I mean, it's not like the priests could take a hose and wash down the pavement.  And it's not even like there was pavement.  The blood seeped into the soil or the sand or whatever the ground was made of. 

And the stench.  The carcasses.  The bones.  The animal feces.  

I grew up in the suburbs.  We don't see too many cows or chickens.  And we don't see them die.  We buy our meat in the supermarket.  I'm happy with this arrangement.  Really I am.  This talk about blood and guts and dead animals makes me uncomfortable.  Watching them die would make me even more uncomfortable.  

For the Hebrew people, the book of Leviticus was an instruction manual, but we don't sacrifice animals for our sins anymore so we don't really need to know how to drain the blood out of doves.  For us, this book should serve as a reminder of Christ's sacrifice on the cross.

He suffered and died on a cross.  Nothing sanitary about that.  Blood flowing.  Internal organs.  Glassy eyes.  Dead bodies.  

Think of the sounds of men dying.  Groans.  Screams.  Crowds cheering.  Women wailing.  

This is the way Jesus died.  And it's not pretty.  
But he died for me.  For us.  

And this is Jesus, we're talking about.  The man John described as full of grace and truth.  He is the "image of the invisible God" (Colossians 1:15), the "exact representation of his being" (Hebrews 1:3).  

He is God in the flesh, and he suffered and died "for the joy set before him" (see Hebrews 12).  That joy is fellowship with us.  He loved us that much.  

I am a suburban princess who prefers buying boneless meat in the grocery store, not really thinking about where it came from, but I need to think about this.  

Monday, November 1, 2010

Ecclesiastes 9-12: Much Study Wearies the Body

Reading for today:  Ecclesiastes 9-12

I sat in my office most of yesterday afternoon, surrounded by books, trying to work out what I wanted to say for my midterm paper.  That old panicky feeling came back to me, and it took me about three hours to move beyond the anxiety and actually get something done.  Today I have notes, but I don't have a paper, and it's due tonight.  

One of the things that causes me great anxiety is the fear that I'm stating the obvious and the reader, in this case the professor, will say, "Duh.  Everybody knows that."  

Or I realize that I'm barely scratching the surface and can't possibly say what needs to be said.  

The thing is, no matter how much I study, how much I read, how much I think about my writing projects, it's never enough.  I can never know everything.  I can never ask all the questions.  I can never find all the answers.  No one can.  

Solomon, the wisest man in history, said the same thing.  He wrote, "No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun.  Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning." (Ecclesiastes 8:17) 

There you go.  I will never understand everything.  No matter how hard I try.  

Oh, and one other thing.  He says that if a wise man claims he knows and understands everything, he's lying.  

So why do I keep trying?  Why do I continue to think that I can figure everything out if I just work hard enough and that I can work past my anxiety if I do enough Lamaze breathing exercises?  Why do I panic when I realize my words don't sound polished and professional? 

Solomon all tells us that, "Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body."  (Ecclesiastes 12:11)

And so celebrate and enjoy life while you still can.  

"Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart . . ." (9:7)

  • I'll be sure to make time for that when my paper is finished.  
  • Solomon does say that whatever I'm doing, I should do it with all my might.  (I suppose that means I shouldn't check FB while I'm working.)  
  • He follows this up by reminding the reader that, after all, we can't work or study or do anything else fun when we're six feet under.  

"Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you . . . all your meaningless days" (9:9)

  • Wow.  Solomon sure knows how to make that sound romantic.  Even so, we'll be sure to make time for that, if we can synch our calendars.

"However many years a man may life, let him enjoy them all." (11:8)

  • "But let him remember the days of darkness for they will be many.  Everything to come is meaningless." (11:8)
Okay.  Solomon is a kill joy.  Basically, he says everything is meaningless.  So eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you'll be dead.  

And that would be the end of it except he adds a few more wise words to the end of this book. He says:
Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter:   
Fear God and keep his commandments for this is the whole duty of man.  For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.
In other words, our lives would be absolutely meaningless if it wasn't for God.  And you really could do whatever you want if it didn't matter in eternity.  

And if you really do want your life to matter, to have significance and meaning, if you want to avoid futility, keep God's commandments.  

Keeping God's commandments isn't about legalism; it's about love.  You remember that Jesus summed up all the commandments with two very simple ones.  In Matthew 22:36-40, we read that we should love God with our heart, soul, and mind, and love our neighbor as ourselves.  

In doing so, our lives take on meaning.  

And now, back to my paper, which seems rather meaningless at the moment.