Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Welcome to Egypt

So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt (Genesis 37:28).

I had had enough of Texas.

I had no reason to be there. I had no family anywhere west of the Mississippi river. There was a perfectly fine seminary in North Carolina – a school from which my father and uncle had both graduated. I was in my second year of seminary and I had made up my mind that after that year I would transfer. I would go back east where trees grew large and the land rolled.

And then a phone call came from a man in Oklahoma. He was serving as interim pastor to a new congregation on the outskirts of Ardmore – yet another place out there I’d never even heard of. He had to be out of town one week in October and he asked if I’d make the drive from Fort Worth and preach in his absence. I said I would.

Within a month I was called as pastor to that fledgling church.

North Carolina was the state of my birth, a place where I had roots. I had “people” there. Getting back would take another twelve years. Rather than transfer to my Dad’s alma mater, I began a five year season of my life in which I made a weekly pilgrimage from Fort Worth, through Denton, over the Red River, to a small church in Oklahoma.

Oklahoma. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to be in Oklahoma. Ever. For any reason. And I will forever cherish that place and those people.

To my surprise, God was in Oklahoma too. And God blessed me there. I grew to love the wide open land, the abundance of cattle, the pork v. beef barbeque debate, the family that took me in and gave me a home. I found so much grace in a place I never intended to be.

On the day that Jacob told Joseph, “Go check on your brothers and let me know how they’re doing,” Egypt could not have been further from Joseph’s mind. He ends up in Egypt against his will and apart from his own plans. Joseph had plenty of dreams – but Egypt never showed up in any of them. He never saw Egypt coming, never saw himself going there. Ever. For any reason.

And the same can be said for some of you. You may find yourself in a place today you never intended to be. You’re there because the company told you to move; you’re there because you married someone from there; you’re there because there’s something you’re trying to escape and leave behind; you’re there because there’s something you’re hoping to find. But wherever it is, it was never a part of your plan for your life. Welcome to Egypt.

The connection between place and grace is a Holy mystery. God shows up in surprising ways in places like Egypt. We may spend time wondering how to get “home” or anyplace else – but God has things to accomplish in the place you find yourself today. God is at work in Egypt, and God just might intend to do that work through you.

Where is your Egypt? How might God be at work (through you) in that place?

Prayer:
Remind me today, O Lord, that my place is not an accident. Forgive my complaining and my dreams of escaping to someplace else. I will be vigilant today for signs of your presence in this place. Help me to be still in my place long enough to see them. Amen.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

No More Props

So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe – the richly ornamented robe he was wearing – and they took him and threw him into the cistern (Genesis 37:23).

Joseph was outnumbered eleven to one. Their plan was formulated the moment they spotted his solitary figure on the horizon. “Here comes that dreamer . . . let’s kill him” (Genesis 37:19). Rueben used his influence to spare his younger brother’s life. The cistern was substituted for homicide.

It doesn’t take much for our imaginations to supply detail to the biblical narrative. We can sense Joseph’s fear when they sieze him, the shock, the resistance, the violence, the curses. It didn’t take eleven men long to subdue their younger brother.

And the first thing they did was take the coat.

Here we have one of the earliest known instances of identity theft. The coat distinguished Joseph as the favored one. The coat gave him rank among his brothers. The coat spoke to the special nature of his relationship with their father. The coat told Joseph who he was.

“They stripped him of his robe.”

And though we cannot see it yet, something very significant begins to take place. What seems to us like abuse of Joseph and the subsequent deception of Jacob is much more than that. Transformation is beginning. Stripped of the robe, the boy we dislike begins to fade to the background and the man we will admire begins to emerge.

**********

When we are stripped of all the external props that give us our identity, the person we were truly made to be is all we have left. And that’s the person God seems to use to best to impact the world.

Far too easily and often we allow external things to define us. We all wear a robe of some kind that tells us and others who we are. But like Joseph’s bright garment, these robes can be stripped, taken away as easily as they were given.

We get our identity from a job or career. But a job can be lost, eliminated. We get our identity from a marriage or relationship that proves fragile. We get our identity from the things we own, from the clothes on our back to the expansive and expensive architectural tiles over our heads.

And when these things are taken from us, what we have is simply the person that God created and loves. To our surprise, this is the person that God wants to use.

Something may be happening in your life that makes you feel like you’re being robbed and cheated, stripped of something that’s rightly yours. Maybe God is chiseling away all the layers of falsehood, the illusory self, to get to the real you. God is preparing you for something he wants to do through you.

How have you been stripped of the external props that define your life?

Prayer:
O Lord, you give and take away. We will bless your name in all things. Help us to know who we are in you – not by what we own or what we do to earn our paychecks. Do what you must to dismantle the false self, then use us as you see fit, we pray. Amen.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Belonging

When Joseph arrived at Shechem, a man found him wandering around in the fields and asked him, “What are you looking for?” He replied, “I’m looking for my brothers . . .” (Genesis 37:15-16).

The instructions were clear and simple. Joseph’s father was sending him on an errand and had told him exactly what to do. “Go and see if all is well with your brothers and bring word back to me” (Genesis 37:14).

The other sons were grazing the flocks near Shechem. Why Joseph was not working alongside them is a mystery. Why he went to them wearing his annoying I’m-the-special-one coat is an even greater mystery.

Ever dutiful, Joseph made his way to Shechem and searched for his father’s livestock and his father’s sons. He found neither. Noticing that Joseph seemed lost, a stranger was kind enough to offer some help.

“What are you looking for?” That question was more significant than the man knew.

“I’m looking for my brothers.” That answer was truer than Joseph knew.

The drama of the Joseph story will now be defined by that search. Not simply the quest for Jacob’s sons and their flocks, but the quest for a place and a people. Joseph will be rejected by his kin and find himself among a people he does not know.

As of this moment he is no longer home under Jacob’s protective and affectionate eye. And he is a long way from becoming Egypt’s Secretary of the Interior.

He no longer holds a position of favor, signaled by the coat and bestowed by a father. And he is not yet ready for the position of power, earned by his foresight and leadership, bestowed by a political ruler.

For now Joseph is wandering and lost, roaming a nondescript field, looking for his brothers. He is truly in the middle of nowhere, belonging to no one.

Most of us know what it’s like to wander those fields. We know we’re looking for something, and we may even have a clear idea of what it is, but we’re not sure where to find it. It’s not where we thought it would be when we set out.

We arrive at the intended job, we close the coveted deal, we move into the most desirable neighborhood, we get our kids into the highly selective school or we get our kids out of the house. And what we thought we’d find isn’t there.

Perhaps like Joseph we suddenly find ourselves in an in-between place. The economy is teaching us plenty about that these days. The life we once knew is no longer ours; the life we’re headed towards has yet to take shape. Where are we going, and what will we do once we get there? Shechem came up empty, so we set out for Dothan, never dreaming of Egypt (Genesis 37:17, 25).

For Joseph it will take some time, maybe a long time, before he discovers where he truly belongs. It ends up being a place he probably never intended to be. But all the while, at every moment and in all things, this much is clear: Joseph belongs to God. And when you’re wandering about, groping to find your way out of a no-man’s land, the same is true of you. You belong to God.

What fields have you wandered in lately? What are you looking for?

Prayer:
Gracious God, we wander about in our quest to belong. Seems we belong to so many things: We can belong to a club or a company. We belong to our families and our traditions. More than anything, we want to belong to you. Keep us close to you today, wherever this quest takes us. Amen.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Dream

Joseph had a dream . . . (Genesis 37:5).

Sometimes it’s hard for us to hold on to our dreams. Years pass, we get older, we give our attention to other things like babies and bills. Dreams are so easily eclipsed by these good things in our lives. So we let the dreams go, give them a quiet dismissal.

But sometimes the dreams we think we’ve dismissed have a way of hanging around. While we were we busy living our lives the dream was ever present. Maybe when we can’t seem to hold on to our dreams, our dreams have a way of holding on to us.

Joseph had a dream; actually, he had two dreams. Each presents the same picture. As Joseph and his brothers were binding sheaves of grain, the brothers’ bundles all bowed down to Joseph’s bundle. The same picture is seen again as the sun and moon and eleven stars bow down to Joseph. This is a bold dream, including not only the brothers, but also Mom and Dad among the bowing heavenly host (Genesis 37:5-11).

We see this picture in Genesis 37. If we’ll stay with the story long enough, we’ll see it again in Genesis 50. This time it is more than a picture. It’s reality. What the seventeen year old boy saw in his dreams is now happening right at his feet as his brothers, forced to Egypt in search of food, bow before him.

A dream may take many years to come to fruition.

There were so many times when Joseph could have easily dismissed his dream. The evidence gleaned from Joseph’s actual life experience suggests that the brothers were right. Joseph’s dreams were foolish – grandiose imaginings of an adolescent mind. The dream should have never survived.

Stripped of his prized tunic, thrown in a well – so much for the dream. When Joseph’s brothers negotiated a deal with the Midianite merchants and sold Joseph as a slave, the dream should have been dismissed and forgotten.

As Joseph took the role of Potiphar’s household servant, the dream should have been recognized a joke.

Sitting in prison, accused and convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, Joseph could have let go of whatever was left of his dream. By this time the dream should have died.

And for all we know, there might have been times when it did. But even in prison, Joseph’s fondness for dreams and their meaning earned him a reputation among the prisoners and guards. And eventually this turned his life around (Genesis 40 & 41).

All along, the dream was holding on to Joseph. Better said, the God who gave the dream was holding on to Joseph – and holds on to you as well, even when you think you’ve lost your dream.

That’s the difference between a dream and raw ambition. Ambition is what we set out to do that will make us great. A dream is what God wants to do through us that will make God look great. Ambitions drive us and wear us out. Our dreams call us, beckon us, and give us life.

Ambitions sometimes need to die. But we need our dreams.

What dreams have you let go of? And what dreams might be holding on to you today?

Prayer:
O God of past, present and future, hold me fast. Give me a picture of what tomorrow can be. Help me to understand how you have already been at work in my life. Work through me in ways that seem beyond imagining. Grant to me a dream, I pray. And bring it to pass as you will. Amen.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Listen to Your Life

His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said (Genesis 37:8).

During my chaplaincy internship at Baylor hospital in Dallas I would often carpool with a group of seminary students, sharing the burden and cost of the 30 mile commute from Fort Worth. From time to time Kay would ride with us and when she did we could almost always count on hearing about one of her dreams. It seemed that Kay dreamed something interesting every time she fell asleep, and she was always eager to tell us about it.

What I remember most about Kay’s dreams was the vivid detail with which she described them. Like most dreams they were bizarre, weird things happening and random people showing up. Most of the time, Kay laughed at her own dreams. She had all of us laughing too, which made the creeping ride from Fort Worth to Dallas breeze by. Never once did she try to actually come up with what the dreams meant – but she could tell a tale and paint a picture.

I rarely remember my dreams. When I do, it seems my mind has only retained snippets, and even these are shadowy and vague. Some people see their dreams in high definition. Mine look like an old Polaroid, left too long in the sunlight, faded and difficult to make out.

As for what they mean, I cannot begin to guess. Sometimes, I’m not sure I even want to know.

Joseph’s dreams, like his colorful robe, were a source of irritation to his brothers. Was Joseph really that na├»ve? Did he think the other eleven would listen eagerly as he narrated a scene in which they bowed to him? Would they all share a good laugh as Joseph described their submissiveness?

Joseph’s dreams were annoying, but we know something that his brothers could not have known. Joseph’s dreams were true. The dreams were a way for God to speak to Joseph. This kind of thing happens all over the Bible. Dreams amplify the divine whisper.

For most of us, we do not take our dreams seriously. We accept them as the natural function of a sleeping brain, something the body does to restore the mind and ready it for conscious engagement with the real world.

Many of us, schooled in Western educational systems, discover truth about God from books. We read the Bible. We read and think about theology. We discuss and debate doctrinal propositions, testing them with the mind and thus arriving at truth. Having the truth in hand, presumably, allows us to discover something about God.

I like that. In fact, I prefer it. But maybe we need to learn how to read our lives as well. That might include dreams we have as we sleep, or visions we have as we let our minds wander – but it will include more than that.

Maybe today God is speaking to you in ways that are not printed on the pages of a book (or an email devotional). What is it about this day that has you excited? What are you dreading? What interactions bring you life and what kinds of interactions drain the life out of you? What are you doing when you feel like you’re really making a contribution to this world?

You may not be much of one for interpreting dreams, but you can learn to listen to your life. What is your life telling you today?

Prayer:
Gracious God, help me to go through this day listening for your voice by paying attention to my life: relationships, thoughts, hopes, disappointments. Use every detail of my life to shape your will in me, I pray. Amen.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Who Gets the Coat?

Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made a richly ornamented robe for him (Genesis 37:3).

We’re not quite sure what to call it. A fair rendering of the biblical Hebrews deems it a “richly ornamented tunic” or “long sleeved robe.” A more popular designation speaks of the “coat of many colors.” Exactly what is was is hard to say, but this much is clear: Joseph’s coat galled his brothers.

And if we’re honest, it would have galled us too.

You have to wonder what Jacob was thinking. What brilliant stroke of parenting insight prompted him to give this garment to only one of his sons? Did the others see it coming? There’s Joseph being measured, the length of his arms, the distance from his shoulders to his ankles. There’s the bolt of hard-to-miss cloth, lying on a table one day and then showing up around Joseph’s shoulders the next. A gift from Dad. One of a kind, not a set.

No use pretending. Joseph was the favored one. Perhaps that’s because he was born to Rachel, the woman Jacob had loved from the moment he saw her. Joseph’s mother wasn’t a servant that Jacob had slept with. She was Jacob’s wife, the real deal. So Jacob doted on Joseph without shame, without apology. And in doing so he stoked the resentment of his other sons.

Every time they saw Joseph prancing around in his loud look-at-me robe they wanted to spit. They despised him, couldn’t say a kind word to him or about him. Joseph had something they didn’t have. He had the coat, but he had more than that. He held their father’s affections in a way that no one else did.

Most of us know what it’s like to be one of the eleven.

We know what it’s like to want something and see someone else get it: A promotion, a marriage proposal, a positive pregnancy test, an offer on the house.

We might try to be gracious, but questions ricochet in the mind and they stir up all kinds of bitterness. What did they do that we haven’t done? What do they possess that we lack? What makes them more deserving than we are?

The world is full of richly ornamented garments and life is wasted when we spend our energy looking at who’s wearing what, noticing the robes we’d like to have and resenting others who are already wearing them.

It took a long time for Joseph’s brothers to get over their jealousy. Their resentment over the coat caused them to do some hurtful things. But God worked in all of it, and eventually these brothers came to see Joseph’s life differently. They came face to face with the man Joseph had become. Jealousy and resentment are abated when we understand that God is shaping his will in every life. The person we resent today may become someone we respect tomorrow.

What is the coat of many colors that someone else is wearing today? How can you shift your focus from what they have to who they are becoming?

Prayer:
Gracious God, I don’t want to spend my days obsessed with what others have. I don’t want to be bitter over the favor they receive. Drive bitterness and jealousy from my heart, and replace it with awe at your life-shaping work, forming something holy by the power of your Spirit. Amen.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Just Shy of Functional

When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him (Genesis 37:4).

My son was born in Houston, Texas. When he was six weeks old we moved to North Carolina and about 15 months later my daughter was born in Raleigh. Last week on the way to school their differing states of origin became the focus of some backseat bickering. John was obnoxiously singing the refrain to Alan Jackson’s “God Bless Texas.” I kept expecting Anna to counter with James Taylor’s “Carolina in My Mind.”

I marvel at the ease with which sibling bickering can be provoked – even over something as silly as the states in which they were born. I’m always encouraged when other parents share stories of their antagonistic offspring. And I’m further consoled by what I find in the pages of scripture. In fact, when I read the Bible I’m thankful for those minor skirmishes that erupt on the way to school.

The book of Genesis narrates one feud after another. Scarcely four chapters into the book and Cain has murdered his brother Abel. Read a little further and righteous Noah is suddenly fighting a hangover and cursing one of his sons. The drama continues to unfold and we find the twins Jacob and Esau warring in the womb. Their sibling rivalry outlasts childhood as Jacob cheats Esau out of the rights that belonged to the firstborn. Later, having been tricked again and robbed of their father’s blessing, Esau threatens to kill Jacob.

Jacob’s marital woes get considerable attention and we find him in the midst of domestic squabbles brought about by two jealous sisters. The fact that Jacob was married to both of them only served to further complicate his plight.

And finally in Genesis 37 we begin a series of stories that will focus on Jacob’s sons. By this time we should not be at all surprised to find that Jacob’s twelve boys have issues. Given their family history, they didn’t stand a chance. At the center of these stories is Joseph. True to form, the opening of the story tells us three times that Joseph was hated by his brothers (37:4, 5, 8).

To be honest, Joseph didn’t help himself much. We meet him as a seventeen year old tattle-tale, giving his daddy bad reports on the other eleven boys, shamelessly telling dreams in which he is superior to everyone else in the family, including his parents. Joseph is a big brat. We look at him and find little to like or admire.

And yet this is the one through whom God will work to bring about salvation for Jacob and his sons. God will save Israel through Joseph.

This turns out to be good news. Your broken, imperfect, somewhat-less-than-functional family is not a barrier to the saving work of God. God does not look for the deserving and then set about to accomplish his purposes in the world. In ways that defy our comprehension, God simply chooses those whom he will use and then sets about doing whatever he intends to do. The great surprise is that God’s choices regularly involve deeply flawed people and families. People like you and me; families like ours.

Long after Joseph had died the apostle Paul would give us words that help explain Joseph’s life: God uses weak things to shame the strong; God works through foolish things and stumps the magna cum lauds. That might explain a few things about your life too.

How has God used family difficulties to shape your life?

Prayer:
We give you thanks, O God, that your work in us and through us is based on your grace and not on our qualifications. We love because you have first loved us. We would live this day in response to your grace, embracing every relationship as a gift – even the difficult ones. We ask for your help through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Nothing Wasted

Part of our basement is a woodshop, complete with woodworking bench, shelves for tools, and an array of hooks upon which to hang accessories that might be useful in the woodworking craft. At least that’s the intent. Once I’ve distinguished between a Philips- head and a flat-head screwdriver, my skills with tools are pretty much exhausted. Thus, very little woodworking actually takes place in the so-called woodshop. A more truthful designation for that part for the basement would be “storage room.”

Step into this part of the basement and what you’ll find is a healthy collection of stuff that we couldn’t manage to throw away. There is an old oven down there, along with a Gateway computer. And there are plenty of scraps – left over materials from various household projects. Among the scraps you will find a pack of roofing shingles, several samplings of bathroom tile, a collection of paint cans, odd pieces of bead board and sheet rock.

The scraps accumulate because they are perfectly good materials – but we have no idea what to do with them. The underlying conviction in all of this is that surely these things are good for something. But I can’t say what. So there they sit, taking up floor space.

The sight of my mildly cluttered would-be woodshop provides me with a way of understanding the story of Joseph. In the coming weeks as we walk through the Joseph stories from the book of Genesis, we’re going to learn something about the way God deals with us and works in our lives.

What we’ll see may be summed up like this: God never leaves scraps. Nothing is wasted, nothing thrown out. Everything you live through is something that God takes in hand like a tool to craft your life according to its intended design. That’s basically the story of Joseph. As with Joseph, so with you.

Joseph was despised by his brothers, sold to slave traders, accused of rape, imprisoned and subsequently ignored by the parole board – until a door opened in government service and Joseph ascended to the right hand of the Pharaoh. And in all of that, nothing was wasted. When God designs and builds a life, there are no scraps.

Maybe your life has a would-be woodshop, a place in your soul where you’ve collected some things that you don’t know what to do with but you can’t seem to let go of. Remember – God wastes nothing.

That divorce you didn’t want, the illness you didn’t expect, the tears you’ve shed over a difficult child, the misunderstanding that cost you a friend, the job you wanted but didn’t get, the job you had but couldn’t keep - all of it becomes a scalpel in God’s hand, cutting us deeply while making us whole.

Perhaps in the weeks to come you’ll begin to see that Joseph’s story is actually your story. Pieces of your life that seem like scrap are essential material in a design you could never imagine. Nothing is wasted.

What have you hidden away in the would-be woodshop of your life?

Prayer:
Ever creating God, so many life experiences seem like scrap – left over pieces that we can’t throw away, but we don’t know what to do with. Today we offer the material of our lives to you, trusting you as a master craftsman who wastes nothing. Use all that we bring, and even what we try to hide, to shape your will and character is us, we pray. Amen.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Prayer Vigil

I could not tell if
she was weeping or
if she had a cold.

Three pews up, leaning
forward with head bowed.
Was that fatigue or reverence?

Her occasional sniffles broke
The silence of the chapel
Along with birdsong outside
the shuttered windows.

“Could you not keep watch one hour?”

We had answered yes
and sat praying and waiting early
as sky lightened to gray, sponging
water that had fallen the night before.

Now sitting taller her sounds
have stopped and I
three pews back, wondering
left with the mystery.

But does it matter?
Our broken hearts
Our broken bodies

The black drape waits to yield to white.
Easter Hope.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Watching These Things

Invitation to Prayer
Sin makes us want to create our own lives according to our desires and wishes, ignoring the cup that is given to us . . . Sin and death entrap us. Drinking the cup, as Jesus did, is the way out of that trap. It is the way to salvation. It is a hard way, a painful way, a way we want to avoid at all costs. Often it seems an impossible way. Still unless we are willing to drink the cup, real freedom will elude us (Henri Nouwen, Can You Drink the Cup, 90-91).

The Psalm
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?

2 O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, and am not silent.

3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the praise of Israel.

4 In you our fathers put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.

5 They cried to you and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not disappointed.

The Scripture Reading (Luke 23:44-49)
It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." When he had said this, he breathed his last. The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, "Surely this was a righteous man." When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.

For Reflection
A gathering of people stayed for the end. They heard his final words, saw his body sag in the emptiness of death, felt the air chill slightly as the sun withdrew and deprived the land of daylight. Interestingly, some of the spectators vented emotion as they beat their breast, but then they walked away – went home for lunch or back to the office. But those who knew him, those who had followed, stood at a distance and watched these things. Good Friday presents us with the same choice every year: to go about our business, or be still long enough to watch, to truly take in what has happened on the cross.

How will you find a way to stand still and watch these things today?

Closing Prayer
Lord Jesus, because the story of your death is so familiar, I assume I’ve seen all there is to see. Today, I want to watch these things yet again. I don’t want to express sadness and then walk away. I want to stand still, take it in, feel the weight of it. Help me to look again at what I’ve seen before, and help me to see it anew. Amen.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Everything Made Ready

Invitation to Prayer
When we meditate on a saying or scene of the Gospel, we do not meditate on a text but on him of whom the text treats and to whom it points: the person of Jesus Christ (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Christian Meditation, 34).

The Psalm (Psalm 147:12-20)
12 Extol the LORD, O Jerusalem;
praise your God, O Zion,

13 for he strengthens the bars of your gates
and blesses your people within you.

14 He grants peace to your borders
and satisfies you with the finest of wheat.

15 He sends his command to the earth;
his word runs swiftly.

16 He spreads the snow like wool
and scatters the frost like ashes.

17 He hurls down his hail like pebbles.
Who can withstand his icy blast?

18 He sends his word and melts them;
he stirs up his breezes, and the waters flow.

19 He has revealed his word to Jacob,
his laws and decrees to Israel.

20 He has done this for no other nation;
they do not know his laws.
Praise the LORD.

The Scripture Reading (Luke 22:7-13)
Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, "Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover."
"Where do you want us to prepare for it?" they asked.
He replied, "As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, and say to the owner of the house, 'The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?' He will show you a large upper room, all furnished. Make preparations there." They left and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover.

For Reflection
We need not resort to “symbols” to find grace in the last supper. Indeed, as Jesus speaks of his shed blood and broken body, the grace of the cross is anticipated. But grace was at work before the bread was broken and the cup poured. The room was already arranged for, fully furnished just as Jesus had said. Again we see the dance between our own efforts (prepare the meal) and grace that leads us to what we never worked for or planned for (the furnished room).

How do your daily efforts move in time with the rhythms of grace? What do you prepare, and what do you simply discover as ready and waiting for you – a gift of grace?

Closing Prayer
Gracious God, we wake every day to a world in which you have called us to work, to serve, to obey. And we also wake every day to a world full of grace. So much has been made ready for us in ways that we cannot fully grasp. Help us to receive your grace today with thankful hearts, through Christ our Lord. Amen

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Learning the Liturgy at Augusta National: The Practice Round


Maybe it’s because the two typically fall so close together on the calendar, but I’ve long maintained that the Masters is to golf what the resurrection is to Easter. It’s the event. The Masters is marked by the beauty of Georgia’s signature azaleas and pines; there is an air of sacredness about the event with past champions venerated like Saints; and there is often drama that culminates in Sunday’s final round and the exuberant praise that erupts when the leader makes the walk to the 18th green.

Beauty, hushed reverence, drama and celebration: this sounds exactly like what Easter worship is, or should be.

Yesterday a generous friend took me to the practice round that precedes official play, which begins Thursday. Walking the grounds of Augusta National, it dawned on me that I was being drawn into a kind of liturgy, entering into and participating in something larger than myself. Some people worship golf. I am not one of those people. I don’t even play golf, so it’s surprising that I was even invited to Tuesday’s practice round. But as one who does worship God, and looks for ways to worship God in all of life, I came away from Augusta National having been tutored in worship.

For starters I was struck by the fact that there is such a thing as a “practice round.” Like many non-golfers, the attention I give to the Masters is usually limited to what happens on Sunday afternoon. I’ve been aware enough to understand that the actual tournament has been happening all weekend – but I never gave a moment’s thought to a practice round.

The practice round appears to be entirely voluntary for the pros. There are no set pairings of players and there are no official tee times. They simply go out and hit the ball to get a feel for the course. Once the tournament starts, the pros will only get one attempt at each shot – one tee shot, one putt. To my knowledge there are no do-overs once the real thing begins. But the practice round is different. The practice round is a chance to, well . . . practice. The players I watched would linger on the green, attempting various putts from various places on the green, reading the break, working with their pitching wedges, literally trying to learn how to play a particular hole.

None of the pros who make it to Augusta made it there without endless hours of repetitive activity. And once they get there, they don’t get to stop those repetitive behaviors. They go out and hit balls, this way and that. They study the game. They work at their craft.

Dallas Willard has spoken to this reality in the spiritual life. Fruits of the Spirit such as patience and kindness and self-control don’t suddenly appear in our lives when a circumstance arises that calls for patience or kindness or self-control. Those things are evident in our lives because we practice them, in ways large and small. Those who live by faith actually work at living by faith, they practice the Jesus way. They adopt a way of life that allows them to step up when it’s game time.

Worship is worthy of practice. Rushing into the sanctuary for a passive 55 minutes of religion isn’t worship. I like the idea of a practice round. That means that we get ready for Sunday by what we wake up and do on Tuesday. If we can’t – or won’t – worship on Tuesday, we’ll not worship on Sunday. The fact that we’re perched faithfully in a pew won’t change that.

So today is Wednesday. It’s not too late for a “practice round.”

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

He Came Near

Invitation to Prayer
Everything about Jesus is Word. This includes his silence before human tribunals, his being scourged and spat upon. Above all, his death after that great, inarticulate cry followed by the icy muteness of the corpse. No Word of God is more eloquent than this extreme condition of his mortal being. For if we did not have this Word and this self-expression on God’s part, we would not know that in the midst of all gloom “God is love”, a statement that no other religion in the world has dared to make. (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Christian Meditation, 14).

The Psalm (Psalm 34:11-18)
11 Come, my children, listen to me;
I will teach you the fear of the LORD.

12 Whoever of you loves life
and desires to see many good days,

13 keep your tongue from evil
and your lips from speaking lies.

14 Turn from evil and do good;
seek peace and pursue it.

15 The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous
and his ears are attentive to their cry;

16 the face of the LORD is against those who do evil,
to cut off the memory of them from the earth.

17 The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears them;
he delivers them from all their troubles.

18 The LORD is close to the brokenhearted
and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

The Scripture Reading (Luke 19:37-38)
When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:
"Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!"
"Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!"

For Reflection
As Luke tells us about Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, he uses the same word for “came near” at three different places in the story. On the east side of the mount he came near to Bethany and Bethphage, a place of preparation (v. 29). Later he came near the summit of the mount, a place of celebration (v. 37). Later Jesus will descend and come near to Jerusalem, a place of lamentation as Jesus weeps over the city (v. 41). This final journey captures the significance of Jesus’ life. In Jesus, God came near to us. This coming near describes God’s ongoing activity in the world today.

How have you experienced God’s coming near to you?

Closing Prayer
Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And fit us for heaven to live with thee there.
(The Hymnbook, Away in a Manger, p. 143)

Monday, April 06, 2009

He Sent Two

Invitation to Prayer
The capacity to see God working on our workplace, which he most certainly is doing, and to respond in astonished wonder requires some detachment from the workplace. How do we cultivate that detachment? Keep the Sabbath. We cannot understand the character or significance of Sabbath apart from work and the workplace. Sabbath and work are not in opposition. Sabbath and work are part of an organic whole – either one apart from the other is maimed and crippled (Eugene H. Peterson, Living the Resurrection, 42-43).

The Psalm (Psalm 113:1-4)
Praise the LORD.
Praise, O servants of the LORD,
praise the name of the LORD.

2 Let the name of the LORD be praised,
both now and forevermore.

3 From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets,
the name of the LORD is to be praised.

4 The LORD is exalted over all the nations,
his glory above the heavens.

The Scripture Reading (Luke 19:28-31)
After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, "Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' tell him, 'The Lord needs it.' " Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them.

For Reflection
Earlier in his ministry Jesus had sent his disciples out in twos (Luke 10:1ff.). They were sent to proclaim God’s Kingdom and heal the sick; it was powerful and thrilling work. Each pair reported unusual spiritual power to which even demons submitted. Now, approaching Jerusalem, Jesus sends two to retrieve an obscure colt from a no-name owner. And even in this meager task, the authority and power of Jesus is at work. Jesus works through tasks both great and small.

Do you realize that you go into this day as one sent? How will the power of Jesus be at work through you?

Closing Prayer
Lord Jesus, I often assume that you work in ways that are spiritual and dramatic – healing disease or bringing someone to faith in you. But you send us to do all things in your name: returning phone calls and retrieving a colt can be sacred work. Work through me in all I do this day. Amen.

Friday, April 03, 2009

The King

The Invitation to Prayer
The practice of paying attention is as simple as looking twice at people and things you might just as easily ignore. To see takes time, like having a friend takes time. It is as simple as turning off the television to learn the song of a single bird. Why should anyone do such things? I cannot imagine – unless one is weary of crossing days off the calendar with no sense of what makes the last day different from the next . . . The practice of paying attention offers no quick fix for such weariness . . . Instead it is one way into a different way of life, full of treasure for those who are willing to pay attention to exactly where they are (Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, 33).

The Psalm (Psalm 100)
Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.

2 Worship the LORD with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.

3 Know that the LORD is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.

5 For the LORD is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations.

The Scripture Reading (Luke 23:38-43)
There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" But the other criminal rebuked him. "Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."

For Reflection
Those who look upon Jesus with curiosity and hostility regard his Kingship as a joke; a charge posted above his head to broadcast his shame. But those who look to Jesus out of their own desperate need see his Kingship as their only hope. The man next to Jesus who saw himself as he truly was also had the capacity to see Jesus as he truly was: Jesus is King and he rules over a Kingdom. The self-satisfied and demanding onlookers missed this entirely.

What does Jesus’ kingship mean to you?

Closing Prayer
Lord Jesus, we seem to know you best when life is at its worst: when our need is inescapable and our true condition can no longer be excused or disguised. In our humility we know you in your glory. You are indeed our King, governing all things for our good. We turn to you in humble and thankful trust today. Amen.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Bystanders

Invitation to Prayer
Reverence for creation comes fairly easily for most people. Reverence for other people remains more of a challenge, especially if those other people’s lives happen to impinge upon your own . . . Particular human beings rarely do things the way I think they should do them, and when they prevent me from doing what I think I should be doing, then I can run short on reverence for them. One remedy for my condition is to pay attention to them when I can, even when they are in my way (Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, 27).

The Psalm (Psalm 30:1-5)
I will exalt you, O LORD,
for you lifted me out of the depths
and did not let my enemies gloat over me.

2 O LORD my God, I called to you for help
and you healed me.

3 O LORD, you brought me up from the grave;
you spared me from going down into the pit.

4 Sing to the LORD, you saints of his;
praise his holy name.

5 For his anger lasts only a moment,
but his favor lasts a lifetime;
weeping may remain for a night,
but rejoicing comes in the morning.

The Scripture Reading (Luke 23:35-36)
The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One." The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, "If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself."

For Reflection
From the lips of bystanders and soldiers “Save Yourself” was a taunt, a mocking command. From our lips “Save Yourself” is a life motto, defining what we wake up and try to do everyday. We save ourselves by what we accumulate and who we know. We save ourselves through hard work and sound investments – or so we thought. Self-salvation is an illusion.

Jesus refused to save himself. How do we do the same? How do we take care of ourselves without trying to “save” ourselves?

Closing Prayer
Lord Jesus, you came to seek and to save the lost. In order to accomplish that, you refused to save yourself even though you could have easily done so. Teach me to lose my life in order to find the life you intend for me to have – the life you died to make possible. Amen.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Criminals

Invitation to Prayer
Reverence stands in awe of something – something that dwarfs the self, that allows human beings to sense the full extent of our limits – so that we can begin to see one another more reverently as well. An irreverent soul who is unable to feel awe in the presence of things higher than the self is also unable to feel respect in the presence of things it sees as lower than the self (Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, 21).

The Psalm (Psalm 34:8-10)
8 Taste and see that the LORD is good;
blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.

9 Fear the LORD, you his saints,
for those who fear him lack nothing.

10 The lions may grow weak and hungry,
but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.

The Scripture Reading (Luke 23:32-34)
Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

For Reflection
In his life Jesus kept company with sinners. And in his death he continued to do so. Executed between two criminals, Jesus’ death is a powerful reminder that he did not simply die for sinners. He died with them. And with his dying breath he spoke the same word of blessing that he had spoken in life: Father, forgive.

In what specific way do you need to know that Jesus is standing with you today?

Closing Prayer
We give you thanks, Lord Jesus, that you do not stand at a distance, waiting for us to pull ourselves together before we can receive your grace. Instead you stand with us, right where we are, speaking forgiveness and offering us life. As we move through this day, empower us to live that way: meeting others where they are, extending mercy and grace. Amen.