Thursday, January 31, 2008


Pharaoh will think, “The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.” (Exodus 14:3)

When the Hebrews left Egypt there was a way out of town that involved a road. Roads are a good thing when you’re traveling; they are usually flat and fairly easy to see. When you’re on a road, you can look up ahead and get a sense of what’s happening, where the turns might be, where it forks, where it slopes downhill or presents you with a climb. Roads help you get a feel for where you are. However, the road that could have taken the Hebrews out of Egypt led them through the land of the Philistines – a very unfriendly people. God knew that a battle too early in the journey would discourage the people. They’d change their minds and go back to Egypt. So God ignored the road, and took his people through the wilderness (Exodus 13:17-18).

Traveling in a desert is disorienting. It’s hard. You can’t tell where you are or what kind of progress you’re making. The journey is far less clear. Sure, the road that God ignored was dangerous, but the wilderness wasn’t much better. Maybe God chooses to lead us to the wilderness because when we’re on the road we tend to trust the road or our map or our own sense of direction. In the wilderness we have to trust God to guide us.

In the desert it seemed to Pharaoh as if the Hebrews were confused, wandering about aimlessly. The Hebrews themselves felt misled. Once Pharaoh’s army came after them and they could see the dust clouds in the distance, they knew the desert would be a place of death. “It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” For centuries the dirt of Egypt had soaked up their sweat in slavery; now as freed enemies of the empire, the wilderness would soak up their blood. The desert was a desperate and deadly place to be.

Many years after the Exodus story, the story of Jesus would be told in such a way that the wilderness journey was remembered and re-imagined. Mark would evoke the memory of the Exodus by his frequent use of the Greek word “eremoi,” translated desert or wilderness. Mark has a special fondness for this word. Jesus’ arrival was anticipated and announced by a voice calling out in the wilderness (eremou). Like the forty year journey that tested and gave shape to the Israelite community, Jesus entered the desert (eremou) for forty days of testing and identity formation. Early in the morning when Jesus needed time to pray he left the house and found a “solitary place” (eremon). Jesus’ healing ministry was so popular that he couldn’t enter the towns but stayed out in the lonely places (eremois). As seen in the Jesus story, the wilderness isn’t a place of death; it’s a place of life. The wilderness is where we find God.

It’s easy to complain about the wilderness places God leads us to; we much prefer a road or at least a well worn path that shows us where we’re going. But the wilderness is the arena of God’s shaping and saving work. God does things in our lives that couldn’t be done apart from a desert experience. In the desert we learn who we are, we find the space to hear God, we discover healing. God may have you in such a place today. Be ready to travel off-road.

Gracious God, we resist leaving the clearly marked road for the unknowns of the desert; the wilderness frightens us, inconveniences us, deprives us of the props that we build our lives upon. But we know that you meet us in those hard and desolate places in a special way. Meet us today in our desert places. Make us willing to leave the seemingly safe and easy path so that we might know you better and become the people you have created us to be. Amen.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Getting Saved in the South

That day the Lord saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians (Exodus 14:30).

The story of what happened at the Red Sea is the definitive salvation story of the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Hebrew mind, “salvation” was not a topic for abstract theological discussion. Salvation was understood through a story.

There we sat, lined up neatly on the front pew of the church. An imposing figure stood before us and tried to muster a gentle voice as he told us about Jesus and how much Jesus loved us. This speaker was more at home with projected oratory than with gently speaking to a pew full of children. His name was R. G. Lee. In the church of my childhood, R. G. Lee was one of the most revered preachers in the country. I don’t really remember his talk. Either I’d heard it all before from my own preacher-father, or I was simply not paying attention. Seeing how we were perched on the front pew right in front of R. G. Lee, I don’t think it was a matter of being inattentive.

After his brief message, Dr. Lee went to one end of the pew on which we were seated. He paused in front of every child, one-by-one, placed a hand on their shoulder and asked, “Do you want to ask Jesus into your heart today?” I think that during this time we were all supposed to be praying. I cheated. I kept turning my head and peeking as he made his way closer to me. Within a few moments he was standing right in front of me. He placed his hand on my shoulder and leaned down next to my ear. “Do you want to ask Jesus into your heart today?”

“No,” I said. Maybe I said, “No thank you” so as not to sound totally reprobate. I felt strange telling him that, but for some reason I wasn’t ready to do what he was asking me to do. Maybe I was intimidated by Lee’s austere presence. I don’t know what it was. I just didn’t say yes that day. I said “no” to R. G. Lee.

Sometime later, I don’t know how long, my Dad used different words and asked the same question from a pulpit in Columbia, South Carolina. Back in those days I heard my Dad do this every week. For some reason on this night, I said “yes.”

I grew up with religious language that said I “got saved” on the night I said “yes” in Columbia. But I’ve come to believe that salvation was also at work when I said “no” to Dr. Lee. I say that because salvation isn’t something we do; salvation is what God does. Eugene Peterson notes that in the scope of the Red Sea story (Exodus 14) all the critical verbs have God doing the action. The people complain and cry out, Moses gives some instruction, but it is God who rescues and saves. Salvation is God’s work.

I’m thankful for stories about how I came to know and follow Jesus. But I’m also thankful that salvation is God’s ongoing work in the world. The real story is always God’s story, and it’s a story that’s happening right now. It’s God’s work becoming real in the details of your lived experience. What does your salvation story sound like?

“I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted . . . the Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. Who among the gods is like you, O Lord? Who is like you – majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders? In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed.” Amen. (Exodus 15:1-2, 11, 13)
(Photo: Dr. R. G. Lee, 1886-1978)

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Stillness We Need

The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still (Exodus 14:14)

What Moses asked of the people could not have been harder for them to do. At the sight of the approaching Egyptian army a contagion of panic spread among the Hebrews. They were trapped, desert and pursuers on one side, sea on the other. There was nowhere to go. They vented their anger at Moses: “what have you done?” And then they slipped into despair: “Slavery would have been better than a death in the desert.”

In the midst of their anger and despair, Moses gave a word of instruction and promise. “Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

You need only to be still. Nothing could be harder. Stillness is counter-intuitive when we’re eaten up with panic. It’s hard to find stillness when you’re trapped, out of options.

When financial options are exhausted; too much debt, not enough income, obligations that can’t be met, risks that didn’t pay off, deals that seemed promising but proved illusory. Stillness is hard to find in a money trap.

When a relationship seems damaged beyond repair; too many betrayals; too many apologies that evaporate with the next fit of rage; the hurts eclipse the hope and the dreamed of future simply isn’t going to happen. Stillness is hard to find in those relationships that are void of love.

When a career is going nowhere; passed over for promotions; bored with the work but chained to the paycheck; going through the motions, wondering if it matters. Stillness is hard to find in an office that feels like a straight jacket and meetings that feel like a thick sock in your throat.

These are the places where God’s work of salvation unfolds. The stillness Moses commanded is how we get out of the way. Stillness allows us to enter into that salvation work. It is not passivity or laziness or inaction. At the Red Sea God eventually commanded his people to stop crying and start moving. “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on” (Ex. 14:15).

The danger is that in our refusal to be still, we’ll miss the salvation. Preoccupied with what we need to do for ourselves, we ignore what God is already doing for us.

Salvation is what God does when we can’t think of anything to do or we’ve done all we can. If you find yourself in that kind of place today, the invitation is simple and plain; simple and plain, but not easy. You need only be still.

Gracious God, grant me enough stillness to see what you might be doing in my life today. When I can’t see a way forward, show me what your saving work looks like, and then make me bold to follow you. Amen.

Monday, January 28, 2008


What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? (Exodus 14:11)

After all that had happened to Moses, you’d think that he’d grown accustomed to the unexpected and unlikely. This was a man who had held conversation with a burning bush, a man who had fled Egypt as a fugitive only to be sent back to Pharaoh’s court, a man who had struck the Nile river with his knobby staff and seen the flow thicken and turn red, a man who had tossed soot into the air and witnessed the eerie spread of a fine dust that raised boils on all Egyptian flesh. Yes, after all this Moses was surely beyond surprising.

But barely out of Egypt with a nation of freed slaves, this man who had seen it all must have been blindsided by a question; a simple surprising and stunning question: “What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?”

It’s surprising how easily faith and trust are abandoned; how quickly exchanged for comfort and familiarity. Having taken those first steps toward becoming the people God intended for them to be, they were ready to go back, afraid that they’d made a mistake, second-guessing the God who had called them and claimed them as his own. They wanted a do-over, and it didn’t take long. Israel’s fear is surprising, but not inexcusable. The sight of the approaching Egyptian army was enough to send tremors to the knees of the most courageous and devout among them. Moses himself probably felt a knot in his gut.

This moment raises a question for us and our journey of faith. How quickly, how often, how easily is our trust in God reduced to questions and complaints? What does it take to lure us into fantasies about a different life, maybe a former life that we decided to leave behind? Sometimes it doesn’t take much: A flat tire, a missed deal, recognition given to a co-worker, payment that doesn’t come in when you needed it. You can make a list. And then there are times when we are truly overwhelmed by what we face.

The story of the Red Sea will be our focus this week. It’s a story that speaks to all of us who have ever been unsettled in the life of faith; it’s for those who have considered being done with it, going back. Maybe such a moment for you is a thing of the past. Maybe you’re there today. The Red Sea deliverance was a story told over and over again in Israel’s history to remind them of how God intervenes when we think there’s no way forward. The story still does that for us, especially in our unsettled moments.

Almighty God, in our unsettled season, in our questioning and complaining, you are always faithful to us. You make a way for us; a way that we often cannot even imagine. Teach us trust you as we walk into a new week, and use this story of your saving work to strengthen us in our journey of faith. Amen.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Plague Three

But when the magicians tried to produce gnats by their secret arts, they could not. (Exodus 8:18)

Thanks to dogged persistence, advanced planning, and frequent phone calls to Costco, my wife secured a Wii about a month before Christmas. The Wii (pronounced “Wee”) is an incredible video game system that allows you to physically get into the action of the game. Forget joysticks and buttons that only require the movement of your thumbs. The Wii actually makes you go through the motions of playing tennis or bowling or golfing. You can understand why parents were panic stricken and desperate just days before Christmas, and why so many of them went crying Wii, Wii, Wii, all the way home (sorry, but I couldn’t resist that).

The latest Wii acquisition in our house has been a game called “Guitar Hero.” You actually hold a small guitar in your hands, playing a series of colored buttons which function as the notes or frets of the guitar. On screen an animated band plays these mostly 80s head-banging rock songs as colored notes appear telling you what to play. You play with the band and at the end of the song you see how many notes you hit or missed. There are varying levels of difficulty, and if you miss too many notes, the song stops and you’re booed off the stage.

I’m still a novice at guitar hero. On the “easy” level I can jam with Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with your Best Shot” or Foghat’s “Slow Ride.” On one occasion, feeling a little too sure of myself, I tried to go the Medium level of the game. More notes, coming at faster intervals, demanding nimble fingers. I lasted about thirty seconds, if that. The game left me in the dust, my ego wounded by a computer-animation audience and their make-believe jeering.

Think of the first two plagues as the easy level of Pharaoh’s confrontation with Moses. When the Nile became blood Pharaoh’s magicians did the same thing. No big deal. When frogs covered the land and got into bedrooms and cabinets and dresser drawers, the magicians did the same thing. By now they’re looking at Moses as if to say, “Is that all you’ve got?” Then came plague three. Gnats swarmed the land. The magicians tried to duplicate this, but could not. It was important for Israel to see the power of Pharaoh’s magicians on two occasions, only to see them left in impotent humility eight times following.

We live in a world where we mirror God's best moves, as if we’ve had a peek into the divine playbook. We’ve exposed the old myths. Yes, God is able, but so are we. God can help, but we should help ourselves. Eventually, however, we encounter plague three. We reach a point where our best isn’t enough, our skills come up short, our capacity to manage is proved inadequate. In a highly developed and technologized culture where we can do so much, it’s easy to believe we can do anything.

There may be days when you sense that you’re matching God step for step. And then something happens that leaves you in the dust, absolutely spent. This is a good thing; it teaches trust and humility. Something significant happens at plague three. There will be days when we face things that force us to step aside and let God be God. What might that be in your life today?

Like the Israelites, O Lord, we claim you as our God. Like Pharaoh’s magicians, we often attempt to do your work in our own strength. Bring us to the end of ourselves and teach us to trust in your great power. As you accomplish your saving work in the world, grant your Spirit that we might participate in what you are doing. Amen.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Confusion Reigns

Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment I will bring out my people the Israelites (Exodus 7:4).

For most of my life I’ve thought about the story of the Ten Plagues as a duel between Moses and Pharaoh. Their repeated confrontations have the feel of a dusty western town where a good guy and a bad guy face off against each other in the street right in front of the saloon. Moses and Pharaoh keep trading blows like Hillary and Obama, back and forth. Moses calling for the freedom of the Hebrew slaves, Pharaoh refusing every time. With every refusal God sends another plague to crush Pharaoh.

But the plagues are not a duel. While Moses and Pharaoh seem to go at it toe to toe, the plagues were actually intended for the benefit of God’s people. After more than 400 years of slavery they had become very confused about who truly held power. The affliction of slavery and the impressive sights of Egypt had convinced them that Egypt ruled the world. It was believed that Pharaoh was a god; Israel suspected it just might be true. They had soaked for centuries in Egypt’s definition of the “real world.”

Eugene Peterson helped me re-think the plagues when he explained that they were “used to discredit Pharaoh’s claim to sovereignty and establish the sovereignty of Yahweh in its place.” God needed to show his people over and over and over again who had power. Peterson continues:

When Moses began his work with his Hebrew bother s and sisters, their spirits were broken (Ex. 6:9) and the only “truth” they had access to was this huge Egyptian lie. But Egypt and Pharaoh were not the “real world.” They were the real world defaced, desecrated, demonized. The ten plagues deconstructed this magnificent fraud item by item and piece by piece until there was nothing left of it to hold the imagination of the people of God (Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 163).

Like the Hebrews, we often get confused about who has power. We live in a culturally induced stupor, believing that Wall Street has power and Washington has power and Hollywood has power. We give power to the person we work for and others whom we wish to impress. That which ought to strike us as shallow and silly often intimidates us. That which ought to put us on our face in awe and wonder bores us. We take human limitations and place them on God. We take God-like power and give it to people. Confusion reigns.

We’ve heard often enough that God has power over the circumstances of our lives; that God can handle what we can’t. We’ve heard it, but we don’t always believe – and maybe we don’t believe it because we’ve been too long in Egypt. Maybe before we ask God to change our circumstances we should simply invite his power to come like sunlight that burns away the fog of confusion; we need to be reminded where true power lies.

All power belongs to you, O Lord. Help us to remember that throughout this day. We bring to you now the people we love, the struggles we face, the outcomes we fear. We place all of these things in your powerful hands, and we do so thankfully through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Heart of the Matter

“But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart . . . he will not listen to you.” (Exodus 7:3-4)

There are some very smart people out there who don’t believe in God. I don’t why that surprises me, but it does. More than that, it annoys me. Their unbelief isn’t benign and quiet; it’s hostile, tightly reasoned and very articulate. These folks are getting plenty of press these days with book titles like The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins) and God is Not Great (Christopher Hitchens). At the same time there are some very competent Christian scholars who, skilled in apologetics, have exposed plenty of error in these works.

I don’t have the fire-power to handle Dawkins and Hitchens in debate, but I wonder if debate alone pulls attention away from the real arena of this conflict. We give the doubters a great deal of power when we engage them on their terms. The real fight isn’t waged with evidence and reason, premise and conclusion. At some level this is a battle for the heart. Yes, I know . . . heart and mind are connected; belief need not violate reason. But it seems that argument alone rarely ignites spiritual zeal in a person. A heart captured by God, however, always seems to transform and renew and energize the life of the mind. The real fight is for the heart.

God unleashed ten different manifestations of his power against Pharaoh. With nearly every one we read that Pharaoh’s heart was made hard. Nahum Sarna notes that the metaphor of the hardened heart is basically a way of speaking of “the numbing of the soul, a moral atrophy.” Within the scope of chapters 4-14 of Exodus, the theme of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened appears twenty times. Interestingly, the hardening is attributed to Pharaoh himself ten times. There are ten times that speak of God hardening the heart. Pharaoh’s hard heart raises plenty of questions, but this much we know with certainty: the heart is heavily defended territory, and only God has power to bring down those defenses.

Some of you ache to see a change of heart in another person. For a while you tried reasoning and talking and persuading, using every rational argument, giving them a copy of the book that moved you so deeply. Nothing. Their hard heart was the wall you kept pounding your head against. Some hearts are calloused, made thick and unresponsive by negative religious experiences and off-putting religious people. Some hearts are layered with scar tissue simply because life has been hard. These are things that you cannot overcome with a book and an earnest plea. The citadel around the heart will only be brought down by God’s power.

So what can you do? Remember, there is great power in both truth and love. Speak the truth when you can – and love always. And be very patient. Pharaoh reminds us that hearts are not easily and quickly changed.

Lord Jesus, you came to us full of grace and truth. Fill me with grace and truth that I may know when to speak to the hard-hearted; let my words convey your love. Forgive my own hardness of heart and help me to trust in your power, knowing that you alone search the heart and examine the mind. Amen.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Access to Power

“See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh . . .” (Exodus 7:1)

A few summers ago, eagerly anticipating a week at the beach, Marnie decided that she would help us get ready for our Monday morning departure by cutting our unruly front lawn. I normally do this, but on this particular Saturday I had two weddings. Our excitement over the vacation caused a gush of goodwill in my wife. I didn’t argue. In fact her generous offer actually made me thankful for having two weddings on a perfectly good summer Saturday.

When I returned home that evening the yard was cut. “That was harder than I thought it would be” said my wife, giving me a deep sense of satisfaction in knowing that her admiration and appreciation for me had certainly been raised. “How’d you like that automatic front wheel drive” I asked. She looked at me with that blank does-not-compute kind of look. “What are you talking about” she asked. “You know – the front wheel drive. You pull the lever under the mower handle and it propels the mower forward automatically.”

That revelation instantly dissolved any new appreciation for me that my wife had gained from the experience of mowing the lawn. She had not discovered the automatic drive. She had not even been aware that such a feature existed on our mower. She had done a good job, but she had done it by expending enormous effort, pushing and pulling, back and forth. She had done the job – but she had done it without ever touching a source of great help and power that was literally at her fingertips.

There are days – more than I care to admit – when I sense that I’m doing my life the same way. I’m getting the job done, but I don’t sense that I’m doing it with power. This is puzzling to me. After all, Jesus told his followers that they would receive power for the work of bearing witness in the world. What does that look like today? When the woman with an issue of blood touched Jesus’ garment, Jesus sensed that power had gone out from him. I know what it feels like for energy to go out from me. I know what it feels like to put forth hard work and effort – but power? What is that like?

Moses reminds us that there is a power available to us that is received as gift, not obtained as an achievement. The power we most easily notice, the power we most often pursue, is the kind that comes with possessions and position. It is the power of wealth and status. That’s the power Pharaoh had. Moses had a different kind of power – a power not his own. At the risk of oversimplifying, Moses had the kind of power that comes when you’re standing in the center of God’s purposes in the world. That’s a power that you have access to today.

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power in through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power with all the saints to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.” Amen. (Ephesians 3:16-17).

Monday, January 21, 2008

Camden, S.C. 1969

[This piece was origianlly posted in slightly different form on Jan. 16, 2006]

“But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart . . .” (Exodus 7:3)

When I was in the second grade in Camden, South Carolina I became good friends with a black boy in my class. The year would have been around 1969. The Civil Rights Act had been signed into law. The Voting Rights Act had also become the law of the land. But real change, social and personal transformation, wasn’t brought about by debate in the house and senate, nor was it obtained by a president’s signature. If such things had been effective in bringing about change, the effects were not yet being felt in Camden – or at least not in some parts of Camden.

At some point during that second grade year my mother received a phone call from my teacher. She was expressing concern that I spent too much time with one child in the class. She thought it would be a good thing for me to expand my friendships, include other kids. My mother was able to read between the lines. Being the pastor’s wife, my mother didn’t want to be rude to a church member – but I think mom knew what was going on. She told me about my teacher’s concerns regarding having “more friends.” To my Mom’s credit, she never forbade me to associate with this classmate. I was given no mandate in the matter, but something changed with my friend, or changed with the way I saw my friendship with him.

Years ago, on MLK weekend, just before dozing off for a Sunday nap, I caught a few minutes of a documentary on MLK. One of the men remembering MLK spoke specifically of the day Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. The film showed Johnson seated, signing the legislation, King and many others standing behind him. There is a smile on King’s face, a look of deep gladness and satisfaction. It was clearly a significant moment, one long waited for and prayed for. But now, roughly 40 years later, what seems clear is the powerlessness of law to change human hearts. And until hearts are changed, King’s dream remains elusive.

The church my dad served in Camden, the church to which my second grade teacher belonged, didn’t escape the tremors sent through the nation (especially the south) during the racially tense 60s. On one Sunday morning about 20 students from the predominantly black Mather Academy came to the First Baptist Church and seated themselves in the sanctuary. As my dad tells it, that event sent shock waves through the congregation and provoked a moment of decision. Would black people be seated in worship services at the First Baptist Church? About two months after the event the congregation met to vote on the question. The result was that the church voted to seat any and all persons who came to worship.

But the real story happened at the end of the meeting. As a traditional way of ending and dismissing on a positive note, my dad asked that a hymn be sung. I can only imagine the emotion in the room. After all, votes don’t change hearts and there were surely some bitter people among the relieved and triumphant. But something happened during that hymn. An elderly woman, Mrs. Richburg, slipped out of the pew and made her way to the front of the sanctuary where my dad stood. No “invitation” had been extended with the hymn – but she came anyway. She told my dad that she had come forward to make a rededication, a renewal of her commitment to Christ. After Mrs. Richburg came, others came to do the same. The meeting became revival, lasting another 45 minutes. It may surprise you to know that the Spirit was at work in Camden, S.C. in 1969.

When you read about the plagues, this much is clear. God held the heart of Pharaoh in the palm of his hand. God changes hearts. That’s true power. Legislation is necessary for a just society, but it’s the Spirit that changes hearts and causes old southern women to make recommitments to Jesus. And it is by the Spirit, not legislation alone, that the dream will be claimed and lived.

Almighty God, you alone hold the power to change our hearts. I invite you to change mine in the places where I’ve hardened it against your will and your ways. Don’t give me over to a stubbornness born of comfort and habit. Change my heart and use me to change the world. Amen.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Snow Day . . . NOT!

The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt . . .” (Exodus 3:7)

As I write this I’m thinking about the thousands of kids that woke up yesterday to discover that their prayers were not answered. They went to bed praying for a snow day. It didn’t happen. We came close. The counties just north were sufficiently iced to shut things down – but not here. Most of the schools in metro-Atlanta are in session, buses will run, classes will convene, parents will go to work, all business as usual with the added misery of a cold wet commute.

This prompts young minds to pose some thorny theological questions: “Why are those places closed and we’re not?” As if Hall and Cherokee counties are the elect, the beloved upon whom God chooses to bestow the frozen blessing. We never stop asking questions like that. Maturity kicks in at some point and we don’t grieve the loss of a snow day (although I would have welcomed it today) – but other disappointments come our way. We pray other prayers that bear no fruit. “Why did he get the promotion . . . why is she pregnant . . . how did I get cancer . . . why is my child struggling . . . when will it be my turn . . . why doesn’t God do something?” The details change, the questions stick with us.

Moses had a tough sell, going back to Egypt and telling the Israelites that their God had heard their cries and seen their misery. Yeah, right. That’s a nice message, only they’ve been in Egyptian slavery for about 400 years. Most of them probably quit praying a long time ago. Surrounded by the various gods of Egypt as well as a powerful Pharaoh, they likely weren’t sure who they should pray to, what his name was. Moses rightly anticipated the question: “Who sent you?” The Israelites were no longer on speaking terms with their God. Their cries and groans were just that – cries and groans, nothing more.

In the film, Cinderella Man, Russell Crowe plays the role of washed-up prize fighter Jim Braddock. His fighting career ruined by injuries, his ability to find work crippled by the great depression, he can barely feed his family. Sitting down in their dark cold apartment to a meager meal, his wife asks him to say the blessing. He tries but chokes on the words. After a moment he explains, “I’m all prayed out.”

Prayer itself can be challenging. Endurance in prayer, month after long month, year after dragging year, is a monumental challenge. Even in those seasons when we pray regularly, we get a little antsy if we don’t sense some response after a few days, maybe a few weeks. It doesn’t take too long before we’re all prayed out.

God had a message for his people. “I’ve seen their misery. I’ve heard their cries and groans. I know what’s going on. I’m going to act. Get ready.” After 400 years of slavery it took ten plagues for the people to grasp that message. Maybe God wants you to know that he sees your circumstances, hears your prayers, knows exactly what’s happening in your life. What might it take for that truth to sink in and shape the way you live this day?

Gracious God, we easily grow weary in our praying; weariness leads to doubts; the doubts distance us from you – and soon we stop praying altogether. Remind us today that you see, you hear, and you are mighty to save. Sustain our faith as we wait on you and your perfect timing. Amen.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Rules of Engagement

. . . At this Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God (Exodus 3:6).

“Look him in the eye, John.”

I’ve been saying that for years, since he was a little guy. Nothing new there. Every Dad wants his son to learn that basic protocol when meeting another man, or simply when being spoken to by an adult. Eye contact and a firm handshake. This is simple stuff, but it’s a critical life skill. , and he’ll need to do those things throughout his life.

Looking someone in the eye is a sign of respect. It says you’re paying attention, interested in what’s being said as well as the person who’s saying it. The eye contact and the firm handshake together also convey a certain sense of strength and confidence.

“Hide your face, John”

I don’t think I’ve ever said that to my son. In fact, if I see him looking down when being spoken too I’m sometimes too quick to correct him or coach him. But hiding the face is also a critical life skill, every bit as important as making eye contact. Hiding the face is a fitting response to the presence of the living God. It is basic protocol for worship. I want my son to know how to do this too.

Moses hid his face. As God spoke from the burning bush a holy and healthy fear gripped Moses. Standing in the presence of the Holy, he wouldn’t look up. Many years later a prophet by the name of Elijah would respond to God in the same way. Having seen powerful natural phenomena like fire and wind and earthquake, Elijah heard a “still small voice.” Upon hearing it, he hid his face.

“Look him in the eye . . . Hide your face.” These rules of engagement seem completely contradictory, but both are essential for a life lived well. Those who know how to hide the face in humility before God will be sent into the world with purpose; they will be able to stand before the Pharaohs of this world with confidence.

Gracious God, as your people we want to engage our world with confidence. We want to make a difference in the lives of others. We want to make an impact in the places where you have put us. Teach us then what it means to hide our face before you - to hear your voice, to dwell in your presence. Send us from these moments of prayer into the day ahead with courage and strength. Amen.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Take Off Your Crocs

“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5)

One of the great injustices of my life is the fact that crocs were not around when my children were toddlers. Sure, we had the little tennis shoes with Velcro straps. That was a good thing – but having those spongy rubbery slip-on crocs would have been great, especially at Chic-fil-a.

In our culture there are not many places where we practice the custom of removing our shoes. For grown ups, I don’t know of any place where we do this. A bowling alley may be a minor exception, but then we’re removing our own shoes (which we like) and putting on goofy bowling shoes (which we otherwise wouldn’t be caught dead in). We’re still shod. However, children regularly remove their shoes when they romp around in the play place at Chic-fil-a. This ritual is practiced at other such shrines to high-caloric chaos such as Chuck E Cheese and McDonalds. Wherever the indoor play place is found, the shoes come off.

This used to annoy me. I silently wanted my kids to defy the rules and keep their shoes on. The focal point of my irritation was the challenge of getting shoes back on my kids’ feet. Bottom line: taking shoes off in a public place is inconvenient. It’s true of kids in the play place. It’s true of grown ups in airport security lines. Taking our shoes off slows us down, hinders our capacity to move, to set the pace at which we live. We feel somewhat exposed and vulnerable. Moving around Hartsfield-Jackson in your sock feet isn’t impressive. It feels strange and a little embarrassing.

That very dynamic is at work when God tells Moses to take off his shoes before the bush that’s on fire but isn’t burning up. Yes, the shoes collected the dirt and refuse of the ground, but the shoes were also representative of strength. Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna says that a shepherd who wore sandals was likely a “white-collar” kind of shepherd, the sandals a kind of status symbol. Moses might have recalled that even back in Egypt it was customary for a person to be barefoot when in the presence of a superior, and especially a King. Removing the shoes isn’t simply about cleanliness, it’s about contrition. To be in the presence of a Holy God means that we are interrupted, we are not in control, we are not setting the agenda of the meeting or pushing the pace at which things happen.

Today you are invited to “take off your sandals”; to recognize that every moment of this day is lived in the presence of Holy God who freely interrupts our plans and agendas, and gives us instead a deep and abiding purpose.

Too often, Holy God, our days are lived without a sense of your powerful presence. We sense the stress of our careers and the demands of our schedules and the needs of others who depend on us. Interrupt us today as you see fit. Teach us how to live every moment in the presence of holiness. Amen.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Voice

“When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.” (Exodus 3:4)

The man walking down the aisle straight toward me was someone I’d never seen before. His hair was dark and unruly. He had on a white shirt and an old tuxedo jacket, the fabric of the lapels a dull shine. It was standard practice to extend an altar call at the end of our worship services. Few ever “walked the aisle.” I don’t know if that said something about the effectiveness of altar calls or the effectiveness of my preaching. I can remember days when my dad would preach and we’d have to repeat verses of the last hymn to accommodate those who were responding to the invitation. I, however, had grown accustomed to stopping right at the end of verse four. Time for lunch!

But on this day a stranger came forward. My curiosity grew with every step he took toward me. True to form in these moments, he took my hand and leaned in close to share what the Spirit was doing in his life and why he had made the trip down the aisle.

“The Lord has laid something on my heart and I just need a few seconds to share it with everybody,” he said. I responded with pastoral concern and interest, but in my head I’m saying, “Oh, great!” I stall for time by having him take a seat on the front pew. The clock is ticking. We’re starting to sing stanza three.

My mind is racing: I have no idea who this guy is; I have no idea what he wants to say; I have no idea if the Lord laid it on his heart or if he’s a nut case. Stanza four begins. I walk over and sit beside him. “Let’s you and I visit privately this week about what’s on your mind. Once we talk there may a chance in a future service for you to share this.” He protests that it needs to be today. I make it clear that it won’t happen today. Stanza four is ending as he walks back up the aisle, retracing the steps he took only moments earlier. As he walks to his pew he looks back at me and shakes his head in disgust. Creepy. Stanza four ends. I never see him at our church again.

I have to confess that when the words “God told me” get slipped into conversation a glaring caution light starts to flash somewhere deep in my brain. I may nod in earnest empathy – but silently I’m asking questions. When I hear “God told me” I reach for the proverbial grain of salt. No big deal. You may be the same way. However, I sometimes wonder if I’ve let my healthy skepticism harden into outright disbelief; a loss of expectancy. That possibility frightens me.

The story of the burning bush is in fact the story of a voice. After the first few verses of the story the sight of the bush is not mentioned again. The sight recedes to background and the speaking voice of God takes center stage. Our God speaks to us. God spoke to Moses and God speaks to you as well. Moses encountered the bush and the voice in a wilderness place. Maybe that’s what it takes to hear God speak. A lonely still place.

We’re not Moses. For us, hearing God will always involve the written word. Ignore the Bible and you’ll miss the voice. But as you come to scripture, come expectant. Look carefully, the way Moses investigated the sight of the burning bush. A voice speaks behind and in these written words of scripture. God may very well have something to say to you today – even right now. Do you believe it? Do you expect it? Can you stay still long enough to listen?

We believe that you speak to us, O Lord. Help us in our unbelief. Forgive the hurry that keeps us from listening for your voice. For give the skepticism that lures us into neglect of the scriptures. Give us a hunger for your word, a willingness to study it, and the discernment to know what you are saying to us. Amen.

Monday, January 14, 2008

God Finds Us

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God (Exodus 3:1).

He thought he was safe there. In Midian Moses had found the kind of obscurity that allowed an outlaw to live a normal life. There he had embarked on his career as a shepherd, married the daughter of the local priest, and started a family. His son’s name might have reflected something about how Moses regarded life in Midian: Gershon means “I have become an alien in a foreign land.” Peculiar. Every time the boy was introduced, people heard, “I don’t belong here.” And that might have been exactly how Moses felt.

Moses wasn’t sure where he belonged. For most of his life he had been cocooned in Egyptian royalty. His aristocratic upbringing hadn’t prepared him well for life in Midian – but that unfortunate incident in which he murdered an Egyptian task-master changed everything. Moses was a wanted man back in Egypt and Midian seemed as good a place as any to settle. What Midian offered Moses was distance; distance from his past; distance from his failure; distance from threat and shame. In Midian Moses thought he was safe.

How strange then that in the far side of the desert, in a remote and hardscrabble place, God shattered Moses’ illusion of safety and obscurity. Near Mt. Horeb – a word that means “desolate” – God shrunk the distance that Moses had tried to put between himself and Egypt, between the man he used to be and the man he had actually become. God found Moses in that barren place, the distant place, and there God spoke; spoke words that would change his plans and redefine his identity and force him from hiding.

God has a way of finding us. A colossal lapse of judgment may ruin your plans, but it doesn’t disqualify you from being a part of what God has planned for you. In those moments when you’re no longer sure who you are, God knows you right down to your fingerprints. When you’re busy getting distance from something that’s in your past, God is getting you ready for something yet to come. There’s no place you can be or go to that will put you beyond God’s reach. When you’re not giving God a second thought, God finds you and speaks purpose and direction into your life. The challenge of everyday is simply being ready to hear.

“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up the heavens you are there. If I make my bed in the depths you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” Amen. (Psalm 139:7-10)

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Princess Diary

. . . She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to get it. She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying and she felt sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she said. (Exodus 2:6)

I have no idea if Pharaoh’s daughter kept a diary. This is a woman who took attendants with her when we she went to bathe in the Nile. Frankly, it doesn’t sound like she was accustomed to having much privacy. Recording the day’s events and her secret thoughts probably wasn’t high on the royal to-do list. Maybe someone was appointed to do that for her. The Bible doesn’t tell us so we’ll never know for sure. Still, I’ve been imagining what the princess diary might have looked like on the day she happened upon a Hebrew boy floating in the river.

Dear Diary,

Today I found a baby boy floating in a basket on the Nile. He’s a Hebrew baby, and a young Hebrew girl will help find a nurse maid who will care for him until he’s potty trained and can eat table food. Still working on a name – but since I took him out of the water I’m leaning towards “Moses.” Daddy will be thrilled!

There’s plenty that Pharaoh’s daughter could have written had she kept a diary. But there were so many other things happening in that event, things she could have never imagined. She had no way of knowing that this baby would grow to be the man who came back to Egypt to free the people her father was oppressing.

It’s one thing to describe an event. It’s something else entirely to interpret what that event means. Truthfully, in much of our lived experience, we don’t fully know what things mean. As much as we know, or think we know, there is always much more beyond our knowing. There is always more going on than meets the eye. What we can know for certain is that God is always at work.

Few of us will find a baby on our door step or a winning lottery ticket lying in the parking lot. Most of the events we live through from day to day are events we’ve lived through before. Mundane and redundant, our lives sometimes take on a dull coat of ordinariness. But in those places where we are least likely to look, in moments when we aren’t paying close attention, meaning is present. God is working. Unseen purposes are unfolding; a divine design is taking shape.

Gracious God, we thank you that none of our days are void of meaning. Remind us today that you are at work in ways that we cannot see, doing things beyond our awareness. Keep us alert, looking for signs of your presence in the most ordinary parts of this day. Amen.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Basket Case

But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. The she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile (Exodus 2:3)

Are you a basket case?

“I hope not,” is likely to be your answer. Perhaps, in a fit of honesty, you’d say “I am but I do a pretty good job of hiding it.” A basket case is not something that excites our aspirations. A basket case is a mess: ragged nerves, distracted mind, weary body. All of that and more is usually implied when we use the phrase.

Moses was a basket case – but not in the way you might think, and not simply because he was hidden in a basket. The Hebrew word in Exodus 2:3 is “tevah.” The word is the same word used in Genesis 6:14 of the ark – the vessel that saved Noah and his family from the waters of the flood.

The basket that held the infant Moses is significant for two reasons. For one, it is the means of salvation, hiding the child from the threat of death. As with Noah, the basket protects from the water, water which was meant to be the place of drowning Hebrew boys. The basket hides Moses from a death sentence imposed by racial profiling.

The other significance of the basket is the way it represents an act of radical trust on the part of Moses’ mother. She places her child in the basket, no longer able to hide him in the home where she can see him and hold him. The basket speaks to an act of letting go, placing into God’s hands that which is treasured and loved. Did she struggle to do this? We can only imagine what thoughts fill her mind as she covers the basket with tar and pitch, sealing tightly every seam and gap in the papyrus. She does all she can to insure his well being. But the day comes when she wraps her son, places him in the basket, and makes the walk to the reedy banks of the Nile where she will leave him.

A basket case is something you care about so deeply that you’re willing to relinquish it into the hands of God.

Your marriage can be a basket case. Your search for meaningful work can be a basket case. Your adolescent child, your mother and her growing dementia, your diagnosis, your recovery, your dreams for the future – so many parts of life need to be placed in the basket and yielded to God’s saving work.

Jesus told us that if we clutch and grasp at life we lose it; when we’re willing to lose life, place it in the basket, then we find it. Strange as it sounds, when you’re a basket case you’re at your best. What is there in your life that needs to be placed in the basket today?

Make me a basket case today, O Lord. Show me how to place my life into your hands. Teach me how to trust you with those people and situations that matter most deeply to me. Help me to loosen my choke-hold on life so that I can enter into the abundant life you intend for me. Amen.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Sister Act

His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him (Exodus 2:4)

Then his sister asked Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?” (Exodus 2:7)

Moses and I share something in common. I’m not bragging when I say that. It’s simply a statement of fact. I’d like to be able to tell you that we share the same kind of powerful presence as spiritual leaders. It would please me to no end to tell you that I have a prayer life like Moses had, regularly meeting with God face to face, my prayer closet a sacred tanning bed that leaves me glowing. I’d like to tell you those things, but I’d be lying. This however is no lie: Moses had a sister named Miriam, and I do too.

I’ve been rummaging through my memory trying to recall a moment when my sister Miriam did something that might remotely qualify as saving my life. I can’t come up with anything that dramatic. For a more dramatic story you have to look to the Miriam who was charged with keeping an eye on baby brother Moses.

It’s true that as an adult, Miriam doesn’t come off looking so great. She hassles her brother and God afflicts her with leprosy. But in the early chapters of Exodus when Moses is still in diapers, Miriam is the hero. In Miriam we find a model for the life of faith. She doesn’t show up often in the story, but when she does she shows us something important about living life before God. Specifically, she models holy restraint (knowing when to stand back) and holy courage (knowing when to risk stepping in).

Having placed the baby Moses in a basket and hidden him among the reeds of the Nile, Miriam stands at a distance to see what will happen. She is present, but not hovering. She doesn’t endanger the child by getting to close; she doesn’t endanger the child by abandoning him. She steps back and watches. Sometimes we need to do the same. There are situations from which we need to step back, people from whom we need a little distance. Our task is to pray and watch. This is an act of trust that places the circumstances in the hands of God. It is caring, but it isn’t controlling.

However, a moment comes when Miriam takes the initiative to intervene. Once Pharaoh’s daughter finds the floating infant there is a brief moment of opportunity. Miriam takes a risk. She could have bolted form the scene in a panic, but she doesn’t. She steps forward and offers to find a Hebrew woman to nurse the baby. We, the readers of the story, know that this will be Moses’ mother. Miriam is brilliant.

The life of faith means knowing when to stand at a distance and watch, and when to risk stepping up and speaking up. Both are an act of trust. Which of these faith-filled actions do you need to take today?

O God, give me discernment to know when to stand at a distance, and when to intervene. Help me to sense the leading of your Spirit through this day. Where needed, give me a holy restraint. At the right time, give me holy courage. Amen.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Twists and Turns

By faith [Moses] left Egypt, not fearing the King’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible (Hebrews 11:27)

Moses was born to slaves. At the age of eighty God called Moses to free slaves. Moses, however, was never a slave. He was raised by the slave-owners.

The Nile River was to be the place of death for baby Hebrew boys. Shrewdly, Moses’ mother hid him in the Nile, and there Moses was found. The Nile was a place of salvation for Moses. It sits silently in the meaning of his name: “I drew him out of the water.”

Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby Moses – but big sister Miriam wisely arranges to have Moses’ own mother nurse him. Not only that, the nursing mother gets paid.

Moses leads the Hebrews through the wilderness, constantly in route to the destination God had promised. Once they get close, Moses loses his temper and his venting costs him big time. After leading so much of the journey, Moses will not enter the Promised Land.

One of the things you’ll notice about the Moses stories is that few of them unfold as we might expect. Moses’ life, and especially his very early life, is characterized by the unlikely, the unexpected, the unintended. It is almost as if God delights in working this way. Moses himself probably rehearsed these surprises in his own mind; they strengthened his faith and helped him to persevere. The surprises revealed the one who is invisible.

The Moses stories invite us to look at our own stories. Look for the twists and turns, the plans that didn’t quite work out like you thought they would, the delights you never saw coming, the heartaches that turned you inside out while teaching you something you could have never learned any other way. Where do you see now what you never saw coming then?

My wife and I dated and eventually married while we were living in Houston. Nothing unusual about that – except that she and I grew up in the same church in Atlanta. I didn’t really know her then. I was (and remain) six years older than she is. High school seniors did not date 6th graders. It wasn’t cool, and besides, the 6th grader’s parents didn’t encourage it.

When Marnie and I met in Houston she was working at a Presbyterian Church. Her boss was Vic Pentz. “Oh yeah, I watch him on TV on Sunday mornings.” Now I’m a Presbyterian and Vic Pentz is my boss too. I’d have never dreamed that part of my story in a thousand years. Twists and turns. If you want to learn about the grace and sovereignty of God, don’t read a systematic theology book. Just look at your own story, and look for the surprises. God is often found in the unlikely, the unexpected, the unintended.

We give you thanks O God for the surprising ways in which you work. Remind us today that what seems like disaster may be your design; that the stories we live are authored by your tender hand. Help us to persevere in faith, finding you in the twists and turns that that come our way. Amen

Monday, January 07, 2008

As with Moses . . . So with You

As I was with Moses, so I will be with you (Joshua 1:5).

Every death leaves a hole somewhere, in someone; an empty chair at the table, a vacant place in the bed, one less cup of coffee to be poured every morning, a phone call that no longer needs to be made or will no longer be received. Absence: invisible and yet as massive as a glacier and every bit as heavy.

The weight of absence sat heavy upon Joshua’s shoulders, the same shoulders upon which Moses had often placed his hands. Moses was dead and the people were grieving. There was no question among them that Joshua was the new leader. Everyone knew that Joshua would assume the role that had belonged to his beloved mentor. But who would fill the void? It was hard to imagine that Joshua, or anyone for that matter, could occupy the emptiness left by the loss of Moses.

There had always been Moses. The plagues unleashed against their Egyptian oppressors, the parting of the sea, the water from the rock and the manna on the ground, the tablets of the Law; Moses spoke with God face to face and then spoke God’s words of instruction to the people. Every significant moment in recent memory was connected with Moses. His absence left more than hole. This loss was more like a canyon.

God spoke into this chasm and the words echoed deep in Joshua’s soul, clear and unmistakable. “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you.” Moses threw a long shadow, but these words forged the conviction that would move Joshua out of the shadow of Moses and into the bright sun that made the shadow. Behind Moses there was God. Yes, leadership among the people was changing, but God was not. God would continue to do through Joshua all that had been done through Moses.

In the weeks ahead we’ll be keeping company with Moses. What we’re likely to discover is that Moses still casts a long shadow. Perhaps the best thing that could happen today would be for us to hear clearly the words spoken to Joshua. “As with Moses . . . so with you.” As we make our way through the Moses stories, what we’re actually seeing is God at work: God leading, providing, speaking, rebuking, protecting, blessing. God still does those things, and he does them in your life. Moses is easily numbered among the Bible’s heroes, but like most biblical heroes he was an ordinary man devoted to an extraordinary God. And God still does extraordinary things through ordinary people living everyday lives, just like yours.

Almighty God, just as you guided your people through the wilderness with Moses leading the way, guide us in our journey with this remarkable servant. And remind us daily of the truth spoken to Joshua, that we may live our days with more than memory and story – but with expectancy as you continue to work among us. Amen.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Clock is Ticking

Teach us to number our days aright that we may gain a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12).
You can't read it in this photo, but the meter (placed there at "mom's" request) says "expired." The inscription mentions the humor of the dearly departed one. And yes, it's funny . . . for a moment. And then really sobering. You can read the photo to mean that our time here is short. You can also read it to mean that we won't stay "parked" beneath the stone forever. A day of resurrection is coming. Either way, eternity has a powerful way of shaping this life.

Are Resolutions "Bad Spirituality?"

Offer right sacrifices and trust inthe Lord. (Psalm 4:5)

I’ve been pondering that line from Eugene Peterson about resolutions being bad spirituality. For one thing, I feel that a clarification is in order. I’m not sure you’ll find that statement in any of Peterson’s published works. I heard him say this years ago as I listened to a recording of one of his class sessions at Regent College. I know in my own teaching I’ll make some throw-away statements that I’d have to carefully unpack if someone questioned me or asked me to explain myself. And honestly, some of those statements I might simply retract. That might be true for Peterson in this case. I don’t know.

I get some help in understanding him, or at least articulating my own understanding of what he meant, from Psalm 4:5. “Offer right sacrifices and trust in the Lord.” I find in this short verse a pattern for living the New Year. Better than that, a pattern for what it means to get out of bed every day and do whatever the day might demand of you, or whatever it might bring your way or dump in your lap – however you choose to look at it.

Offer right sacrifices: the essence of bringing sacrifice was bringing something of worth, usually the best of the crop or the best animal. Without extensive exegetical work in the Hebrew, I read this to mean “bring the best that you are to all that you do.” Teaching, writing, parenting, litigating, changing light bulbs, navigating congested roads into work, emailing colleagues, answering the phone – whatever. Do your best work. I often say those four words to my kids as they hop out of the car every morning in the carpool line and rush into school. Do your best work. Bring right sacrifices.

But having done our best, we trust. Ultimately, we don’t determine outcomes. We do our best work, bring our best self to the task, and then we step back to see how God might use what we do for his purposes. This is at the heart of Peterson’s statement I believe. Our lives are more about what God is doing through us and around us than they are about what we intend to do by our best efforts and good intentions.

It’s the trust part that I find difficult. And truthfully, the bringing of right sacrifices isn’t always that easy either. I don’t always bring my best to my teaching or writing; I don’t always give my family the best energies of my day. My hard-hearted self doesn’t simply want to teach the Bible on Wednesday nights. I want people to like what I say and how I say it and come back in greater numbers – and yes, hopefully be helped in their life of faith. It’s hard to bring the sacrifice, and then simply leave it on the altar, offer it up for God’s glory and leave it at that. After all, what does he do with it? That's entirely up to God. We're simply invited to trust.

“Offer right sacrifices and trust in the Lord.” It’s a short verse that takes a long time to get into the living of our days. Getting it right is good spirituality; worthy of our resolve.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Resolutions v. "Holy Habits"

It was the morning of December 26th and already a lone tree had been thrown to the back of the parking lot at the public library near our house. This is the site where once brightly adorned Christmas trees are placed when they’ve done their duty. The county takes them from the parking lot and does something with them, I’m not sure what. Soon there will be a mountain of trees behind the library. But to see one solitary tree lying on the wet asphalt on the morning after Christmas felt abrupt. Someone was in a hurry; a hurry to leave Christmas behind or a hurry to get on with what’s next.

These days immediately following Christmas are transitional in a number of ways. We take down garland and lights and restore the house to its more typical appearance. We slowly get back to work after days of traveling or receiving family. We find a few more moments of quiet after being inundated with parties and dinners and gatherings. Somewhere in the midst of this we begin to realize that another year is almost over. We may become reflective about the year past, how quickly it got by us, what happened and didn’t happen. At some point another shift begins to take place. We start looking ahead.

How do you cross the threshold of the New Year? A standard practice is the formulation of resolutions for the coming year – a list or statement about what you want to see happen and what you’ll do to bring it about. Lose weight, start jogging, finish a degree, hike the Appalachian Trail, expand the business. Many of us, having made resolutions year after year that we didn’t keep, have stopped the practice altogether. We make some plans, purchase a new calendar for the kitchen and the desk, and leave it at that.

Resolutions can be either helpful or burdensome. They give shape and guidance to the New Year or they can inflict guilt over a good intention that never came to fruition. Whether you make resolutions or not, I’d like to suggest a new practice for 2008. This is something you can easily add to your resolutions; it may be something you adopt as an alternative to resolutions.
The practice: adopt “Holy Habits.” I borrow the phrase from Mark Buchanan. Holy Habits recognize that from year to year God is continually at work. God’s game plan doesn’t change, but the variety of plays God runs is endless. God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. At the same time, God delights in making all things new. Holy Habits are ways that we participate in what God is already doing. Holy Habits do not ask us to start something new, but to find our role in something very old. Holy Habits are simply ways of paying attention to what God is doing. A simple starting place might look like this:

God continues to speak.
God spoke in the distant past through prophets and apostles and through Jesus. God still speaks to us. We would do well to cultivate the habit of listening. Our primary help in doing this is the written scriptures. John Calvin rightly understood that the Spirit and the Word work in tandem and speak to us. On a practical level, we need to make a time and a space for listening. When and where will you find enough quiet to give your attention to what God is saying to you?

God continues to love people
During Advent and Christmas we linger over the words of John’s gospel, words that revel in the mystery of the incarnation. John later states the aim of the incarnation with this familiar truth: “For God so loved the world.” The love of God that birthed creation and sent Jesus to us still continues to this very day. God loves the world, the people of the world, the people you work with and the people you drive past on our city streets. We would do well to find a way that allows us to love people too. God’s love comes to others through us. How will you find an avenue of service that allows you to actively bring God’s love to your world? What act of service will become for you a “holy habit?”

God continues to bless us
The holy habit of gratitude is our response to the reality that all good gifts, every good thing we know in this life, comes to us from God. The challenge is cultivating gratitude in the midst of adversity and hardship. Still, God is continually blessing. In both affliction and joy we can know that God is present with us. We practice gratitude as we steward our resources and use our gifts. We express our gratitude as God’s people whenever we gather in worship.

The list is simple: listen to God, serve others, join in worship, practice gratitude by using what God has given you. Resolutions come and go, change from year to year, vary in their urgency from week to week or month to month. Holy Habits are for a lifetime. They are not necessarily easy to cultivate, but they will never stop rewarding our efforts. This is because God is continually at work, never changing, and always welcoming us to be a part of bringing in the Kingdom. There is no better way to invest yourself in 2008.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Best Christmas Gift

Today I received the most thoughtful gift given to me for Christmas. As I write this there are two men in my back yard armed with leaf blowers that they’ve strapped to their backs, gathering huge mounds of leaves and placing them on a trailer. Our yard is adorned with some massive trees, beautiful and generous with shade in the spring and summer, but brutal in the fall as they rain leaves onto the ground week after chilly week. Just before Thanksgiving I labored for several consecutive Saturdays in the front yard and managed to clear the ground and the driveway so that concrete and grass were actually visible. I never made it to the back yard and the weekend demands of December, plus some well timed and badly needed showers, kept me from raking the leaves. My dear wife Arranged for a landscape service to come and get the leaves from the back yard. They’re almost finished. Merry Christmas to me.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Getting Ready for Moses in 2008

“Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you.” (Joshua 1:5b)

A lazy start to the New Year. Staying up late to welcome 2008 meant sleeping later than usual. Marnie warmed-up a tray of Mrs. Schubert’s cinnamon rolls – like having a Cinnabon right in your own house. Seems like the fragrance of breakfast had barely dissipated before we were off to my in-laws for a family dinner that included black-eyed peas and collard greens (is that a Southern thing?). Throw in some time in front of a few bowl games, and 2008 is off to a decent start.

I don’t make resolutions. I can understand why Eugene Peterson has said that making resolutions is bad spirituality, but my own practice in this matter isn’t theologically grounded. Basically, the things I want to do don’t change that much from year to year. I want to be a better Dad and a better pastor, I want to read more, I want to write better, I want to teach with more power and passion, I want to lose about 10 more pounds and that will mean better eating habits and a little more discipline in the gym.

What looms large for me at the start of 2008 is Moses. Specifically, the upcoming series of daily devotionals that I’ll be writing to accompany our Senior Pastor’s sermon series. My intent is to post those daily reflections here. The first one will be sent out on January 7th. I had hoped to have most of the first week’s reflections written by the end of this week. I’m nowhere near reaching that goal.

What I do have so far is a thought about how to begin. I’ll likely post it later in its final form, but the heart of the idea is to begin the Moses series with Joshua. What was it like to assume leadership after the death of Moses? Moses threw a long shadow; he had always been there. Every defining moment in the life of God’s people since leaving Egypt had involved Moses. God was always at the center, but Moses wasn’t too far from center. But like all mortal leaders, Moses died. Now it’s Joshua’s turn, and God speaks this sentence, these staggering words of promise. “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you.”

The focus shifts. Suddenly we’re less aware of Moses and more aware of God. It was God all along, using Moses and working through Moses. What we need to be convinced of is that God might want to use us too. As with Moses, so with you. Let that sink in and it’ll do something to the way you think about a New Year.