Thursday, February 28, 2013

Honor is a Learned Behavior

Honor your father and your mother . . . (Exodus 20:12)

“I’ll never do what you do.”

As best I can recall those were my exact words. I made this announcement to my Dad – a pastor. He was driving the car and I was seated in the passenger seat. I think I was seventeen at the time.

Whenever I tell this story (and I’ve told it several times) I try to make it clear that my words were not spoken to dishonor him. I was not angry. The statement was not meant to be a form of rebellion. I was simply sharing with my Dad that I didn’t want to be a pastor. My reason was simple: I didn’t like moving. We had made several moves in my childhood, all connected to Dad’s ministry. In my mind, to be a pastor was to move. I didn’t want to do that.

These days my passenger seat declaration sounds laughable. What I announced I would not do, I now do. Furthermore, the life of ministry that seemed so unpleasant to me at seventeen is now something for which I am thankful.

I am thankful for the two voices that shaped faith in me. Of course, there were many voices along the way, but the two primary voices were those of my parents. My mother’s soprano voice sang the faith. I heard her voice singing next to me in the pew. I saw her in the choir. I heard her solo voice from time to time and knew my mom had the best voice in the church.

My Dad’s baritone voice preached the faith from the pulpit. He took the Bible seriously and preached with the zeal of an evangelist (and still does). And he told some pretty good jokes. I honestly can’t recall the content of specific sermons (or jokes), but I am thankful that my first pastor was my dad.

In their book The Truth about God, William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas point out that the command to honor parents is directed at adults. Maybe it takes us that long to truly learn to honor our parents. We gain insight and come to understand things as adults that we could not fully grasp when we were younger. Honor is a learned behavior.

We spend a lifetime learning to honor our parents because gratitude is at the heart of honor.

While the geography of my life changed from time to time, the songs and stories of faith were constant. I couldn’t fully appreciate that when I was seventeen. What have you come to appreciate or understand about your parents that you simply couldn’t grasp when you were younger?

Whatever it is, why not tell them? Gratitude is at the heart of honor.

Merciful God, from the moment of our birth we live by grace. Give us thankful hearts for the grace that came to us through our parents. Teach us what it means to honor them, returning grace to those through whom we first received it. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Looking for Loopholes

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right (Ephesians 6:1).

In the final days of his life, W. C. Fields was seen reading a Bible. Given that Fields was an avowed atheist, it was a strange sight. Someone quipped, “What are you doing . . . cramming for finals?” Fields replied, “No, I’m looking for loopholes.”

We’ll leave the veracity of that tale for biographers to debate. What can be said with confidence is that most Bible readers, even devout readers, will sooner or later look for loopholes. The Bible has a way of confronting us with truths that make us uneasy. It makes demands that we can’t fulfill and commands things we’d rather not do. We may have the words printed on a page or a screen – but the Bible is a book that reads us.

The search for loopholes is quite common when it comes to the command to honor parents. Paul’s application of the command in his letter to the Ephesians is pointed: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.”

For those who want to find a loophole, John Calvin seems to provide one. Calvin commented on Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 6:1 as follows:

We are bidden to obey our parents only “in the Lord” . . . for they sit in that place to which they have been advanced by the Lord, who shares with them part of his honor. Therefore the submission paid to them ought to be a step toward honoring the highest Father. Hence, if they spur us to transgress the law we have a perfect right to regard them not as parents but as strangers who are trying to lead us away from obedience to our true Father . . . Their eminence depends upon God’s loftiness and ought to lead us to it.

Is this a loophole? Sounds like it. Calvin seems to understand that the honor owed to parents is qualified by something higher, namely the extent to which parents point their children to love and honor and obey God.

But Paul and Calvin are not providing children with an excuse or an exemption from God’s commandment. Rather they are stating clearly the vocation of the parent. Parents represent God’s authority and share in God’s honor. Parents are called to point children to God, to engender love for God. The honor owed to parents is derivative, flowing from its source in God.

Yesterday we asked what makes parenting “weighty?” The short answer is “God.”

The practical implications of this are huge. Parenting involves plenty of tasks, but at the top of the list is the pursuit of God. Draw close to God daily. Seek to know God. Model a life that enjoys and delights in God. This is weighty parenting. This is worthy of honor.

And when kids are blessed to have parents like this, they won’t need to look for loopholes.

Heavenly Father, we give you thanks for the gift of Godly parents. Thank you for those who taught us your ways and showed us what it means to love you. Empower us by your Spirit to parent in that same way, pointing our children to you who alone is worthy of honor and glory. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Worthy of Honor

Honor your father and your mother . . . (Exodus 20:12)

“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a dumpster.”

That wasn’t what I expected when I began reading the first page of Jeannette Walls’s gripping memoir, The Glass Castle. That opening line doesn’t turn out to be a weird image from a dream or some kind of metaphor with which Walls interprets her life story. What she says she saw, she actually saw: Her own mother scouring trash for discarded treasure, clothes bedraggled and skin weathered from life on the streets in New York City.

Walls remembers, “I slid down in the seat and asked the driver to turn around and take me home to Park Avenue.” But she couldn’t get the sight out of her mind; the comforts of her home stirred self-loathing. “I was ashamed of myself for wearing pearls and living on Park Avenue while my parents were busy keeping warm and finding something to eat.”

The opening scene of Walls’s story evokes questions that keep us reading. How was such a thing possible? What does she do? Walls spends the rest of the book answering those questions, unfolding the story of a nomadic childhood with parents who were always on the verge of striking gold but were constantly striking out. Striking out, packing up and running away to the next gold mine.

There’s always a story.

God tells us to honor our father and mother. But there’s always a story that makes this particular command far more complex than it sounds. And quite often we look to that story as a kind of exemption - the more painful the story, the less binding the commandment.

Jeannette Walls tells an unusually stark tale, taking us to scenes of genuine joy as well as experiences of profound pain. She remembers her parents with deep gratitude and deep heartache. She tells her story in such a way that we sense is she is being completely honest about the life her parents gave her, and yet she somehow manages to honor her parents. She couldn’t save them or fix them. But still she honored them.

This week we’ll be thinking about what it means to honor our parents. For some of you this will be simple and effortless. Others of you have claimed exemptions because the story you have to tell is hard one. The web of relationships between parents and children can be complex. Still, the commandment stands.

Before the week is over, identify a specific step you can take that will honor you parents. Maybe a good beginning today would be prayer. There is grace in every story. Even Jeannette Walls saw grace in the story of her Mom and Dad. Look closely. You’ll see it too in your story.

Pray for your parents. Give thanks for them. They are worthy of the honor God commands us to show.

We give you thanks, O God, for the gift of parents. As we think of those who raised us, give us eyes to see the grace in our story. Help us to show grace to our children. And grant us grace that we might obey your command to honor our parents, we ask in the name of your Son, Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Friday, February 22, 2013

A Sabbath Heart

Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue ruler said to the people, “There are six days for work, so come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” (Luke 13:14).

In his book on Sabbath keeping, The Rest of God, author and Pastor Mark Buchanan begins by asking a basic question: How does one define Sabbath?

Our answers typically gravitate toward the calendar. Is it the first or seventh day of the week? Buchanan rightly maintains that regardless of the day, Sabbath keeping is about an inner posture, a disposition of spirit. Apart from a Sabbath heart we will never keep the Sabbath day, no matter what day that is. Consider again the story we’ve been looking at from Luke’s gospel.

The synagogue ruler loved the Sabbath day. He spent six days of every week thinking about the one – the Sabbath. He anticipated the gathering God’s people, the reading of the Scriptures, the Rabbi’s thoughtful exposition of what was read. Simply put, he lived for the Sabbath, guarding it, hovering over it. He had a zero tolerance policy for slack Sabbath keepers. So on the day when Jesus touched and healed the bent-over woman, the synagogue ruler was indignant.

Our indignation reveals much about us. Interestingly, one of the seven occurrences of this word in the New Testament speaks to Jesus’ own sense of indignation, a reaction provoked when the disciples tried to prevent children from coming to him (Mark 10:13-16). For the synagogue ruler, indignation flared when a Sabbath violation was detected.

“You have six days for work. Come and be healed on one of those days, not the Sabbath.” Indignant people find it hard to celebrate. Somehow he missed that a woman who had been afflicted for eighteen years had been healed, set free from her infirmity. How is it possible that he didn’t see this?

When the Sabbath is imposed from the outside there will be order and decorum, there will be dignified religion and decent behavior. What will be missing is joy.

When the Sabbath becomes something forced and enforced, a system of dos and don’ts rather than something that flows from within us, we quickly lose the joy and celebration that God intended for this Holy day. Sabbath is a matter of the heart – a heart that is both free and filled.

A free heart: Free from the drive to prove something to the world, free from the fear that things will fall apart without your constant attention, free from the need to be indispensable to everyone with regard to everything.

And a filled heart: Filled with peace, filled with confidence in the power of God to govern the world, filled with trust that this powerful God can handle what concerns you.

God cares less about your calendar than he does your heart. Designating one day out of seven as the Sabbath day is indeed important. Cultivating a Sabbath heart is absolutely necessary.

Gracious God, I don’t want to miss the joy of Sabbath keeping. By the work of your Spirit, begin this day to cultivate a right spirit within me – a heart that is both free from fear and filled with trust. Let this coming Sabbath day be lived from the inside out, delighting in your works and resting in your grace. Amen.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Anchored in Grace

When Jesus saw her he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” (Luke 13:12).

In the first year it felt like stiffness, the kind of stiffness that greets you first thing in the morning, making it hard to turn your head or get out of bed. After twelve years her stooped posture was simply a fact of life. Standing up straight had become a memory. By the eighteenth year her stoop had become a full-blown bend in her spine. She was doubled over.

Of course, this is far more than Luke actually tells us. Our imaginations are prone to supply many details when we read about a woman who had been afflicted for eighteen years, now folded in half, unable to watch birds fly. What Luke does provide for us is the drama of a true Sabbath: A burdened and bent over woman makers her way to a place of worship, and there she finds grace.

Jesus was teaching in a synagogue one Sabbath when this woman showed up, her presence barely noticed. After eighteen years, the synagogue regulars knew her story pretty well. But on this day her story changed. The woman who had entered the synagogue looking at the floor left the synagogue praising God, her face and hands lifted up. Jesus had set her free from her infirmity.

Luke makes use of a particular Greek word three different times in this story. Twice it is rendered “set free” and once as “untie.” That’s what Jesus did for this woman on the Sabbath. That’s what Jesus wants to do for us. That’s why God gave us the Sabbath to begin with.

The Sabbath isn’t defined by a religious activity. Going to the church (synagogue) and sitting through the service does not constitute a Sabbath day. A true Sabbath involves taking the burdens that shackle both body and soul and bringing them before God – and then anchoring them in what God is doing.

All the action words belong to Jesus. A series of four active verbs speak to what Jesus is doing: He sees the afflicted woman, he calls her forward, he speaks to her, and he lays his hands on her (vv. 12-13). The woman’s actions come after all this. She stands up straight and praises God.

Sabbath is for all of us who can’t quite straighten out our own lives. It’s has little to do with what we do for God and much to do God’s activity in and around us. Sabbath anchors us in the grace of Jesus, reminding us that the most important actions in our life, and even in the world, are Jesus’ actions.

God is at work all the time – and that means that we, for a period of time, don’t have to be. We are loosed, set free. Sabbath.

We give you thanks, O God, for the grace that sets us free. We easily reverse the Sabbath, making it our work for you, keeping rules, doing religious things. Anchor our lives in your grace, reminding us daily that your actions are at the center of all things, even our very lives. We will respond in praise, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Missed a Spot

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work . . . (Exodus 20:9-10)

A few summers ago marked a significant milestone in my son’s education in matters financial. At the age of twelve he bore upon his own shoulders the curse of Adam’s sin and toiled in the heat of the day with a push-mower and a blower. Worn out and sweaty after two hours, he knocked on our neighbor’s door and received the fruit of his labor: a check.

I had watched from a distance while John mowed our next-door neighbor’s yard. I wanted to be able to give practical assistance with our aged and occasionally non-cooperative mower. I was careful to let him do the work, right up until the very end. When he had finished mowing I sent him around to the front door to let our neighbor know he was done with the job – and then I spotted a tuft of grass up under the deck in a hard-to-get-to spot. I knew I could get at it in matter of seconds while John wrapped things up at the door. I cranked the mower and cut the grass.

Big mistake. I knew it when I saw the anger in my son’s face. I thought I was helping, but my over-functioning didn’t help at all.

The true learning experience that day was mine. I was wrong to cut that grass. My inability to stay out of the way sent two messages to my son that I never wanted to send. Message 1: You didn’t do it right. Message 2: I can do it better.

At a deep level our difficulties with Sabbath keeping reflect our inability or refusal to stay out of God’s way for one day each week. Our over-functioning betrays a belief. Our relentless pursuit of productivity betrays a fear. We might have learned to sing “He’s got the whole world in his hand” but we don’t think it’s true when it comes to our world.

Ignoring the Sabbath tells God that we can do things better or we’re not sure God will do them like they ought to be done. But there’s not a corner of your life, neither nook nor cranny, where God has missed a spot. You need not do his work for him just to be sure it’s done right. You can get out of the way – at least for one full day every week.

Where does it seem to you that God has “missed a spot?” Open your hands and prayerfully give that place to the one whose hands hold all things. Receive into your empty hands the gift of a true Sabbath rest.

How easy it is, O God, to say and sing one thing with our lips and then betray those words with our living. We fear that if we truly step aside – from the demands of the week and the demands of others – then things will fall apart. Teach us to trust you, and in that trust lead us to rest. We ask this in the name of the one who trusted completely and perfectly, Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Counting Rests

. . . so on the seventh day he rested from all his work (Genesis 2:2).

The drums that thundered during football season fell strangely silent in mid-November.

Upbeat arrangements of popular songs were replaced by slower pieces featuring lyrical woodwinds and sounding like something you’d hear on public radio. As seasons changed the music changed with them.

In September and October drummers stood up all the time, constantly pounding the daylights out of anything we could hit with a stick. In November, when the music changed, drummers became “percussionists” and took a seat. Those high-brow arrangements seemed to provide plenty of work for drummers who could navigate the keys of the xylophone or hear pitch and tune the timpani mid-piece. That wasn’t me.

Most often I found myself waiting on the occasional line that called for snare drum. And from time to time my sole contribution was to wait for one note - a singular moment when the music would crescendo, culminating in the crash of cymbals. Then back to my seat.

According to Psalm 150 God is well praised with the sound of crashing cymbals. I believe that. I love the sound of the cymbals. What I’ve never loved quite as much was counting measure after resting measure so that I’d know when to let loose with the climactic crash. Praise is sweeter when the cymbals crash at the right time and on the right beat.

In other words, knowing when and how to make a contribution means giving careful attention to bar after bar of rests. The rests require just as much intentionality as the moment of sound. What looks and feels like standing around doing nothing is in fact disciplined musicianship.

Counting rests, resting well, is critical for knowing when an how to stand up and do your job.

As with percussionists and concert band, just so with you and the Sabbath. Sabbath keeping requires intentionality. Effort. Sabbath does not happen simply because the weekend rolls around. We jokingly speak of our work week as a welcomed respite from the exhausting demands of our weekend. Quite often, we’re not joking.

Within few days you’ll be facing another weekend. Chances are you’ve already made some plans. Now might be a good time to ask what it will mean for you to keep the Sabbath. If it is indeed a holy day, the Lord’s Day, it is worthy of some focused energy. What things would be life-giving and restorative on your Sabbath? What things have you planned to do that can wait?

Dallas Willard has said that “grace is the opposite of earning; it is not the opposite of effort.” This is true of the Sabbath. Sabbath keeping is rooted in grace, not rules. But like a good musician, we have to be attentive and intentional about the resting. Those who rest well will play and work well.

Your call on our lives, O God, invites us to both work and rest. You give us work to do and ask us to participate in your work in this world. And you also invite us to rest, knowing that our work is never ultimate. Grant that we might be as intentional in our rest as we are in our labor, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Those Old-Fashioned Sundays

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy . . . (Exodus 20:8-11).

I learned at an early age that Sunday was a special day. It was different. “Sunday” was far more than a day of the week. It was a modifier used to denote an entire way of life.

I had Sunday clothes – usually uncomfortable and scratchy. The shirts choked me. The fabric of the slacks mysteriously inhibited me like iron shackles. Nothing remotely fun would happen in those clothes. What I especially disliked were my stiff and shiny Sunday shoes.

We had Sunday dinner. Now this part I usually liked. To this day there are certain foods that evoke within me a sense of ‘Sunday.’ Pot roast is a Sunday food, as is that timeless delicacy fried chicken. On certain occasions we went the cafeteria after morning worship. And Sunday nights will forever be connected in my mind to grilled cheese sandwiches and Campbell’s tomato soup.

And then of course there was church. Sunday was church day and this was not simply true in the morning. My church laid claim to the entire day. We had Sunday school and church in the morning, followed by the mandatory nap, and then we went back to church for ‘training union’ and another evening worship service. (My kids have no clue).

Throughout my young life I learned that Sunday was different, and for that I can honestly say I am thankful. But for all that I learned about Sunday, I didn’t truly learn about the Sabbath.

You’ve probably caught on by now that our reflections this week will deal with God’s command to keep the Sabbath. The path God has invited us to walk is best traveled if we regularly sit down to rest. But before we go any further I want to say very clearly we will not spend the week pining for yesterday.

The ‘blue laws’ are not coming back – and when we had them we were just as prone to violate the Sabbath as we are right now. Sunday night church is probably a thing of the past, even in traditions where it was once strong. The Sunday ball games are not going to stop, and if your child is on a team you will very likely play on Sunday.

But here’s the truth of the matter: in freeing ourselves from the old restrictions of Sunday we threw away the gift of Sabbath. And what we lost is far more precious than what we think we gained.

Even for the devout, with the exception of one hour in church, our Sundays look exactly like our Saturdays. We go to church, preferably getting out well before noon and then anxiously using the remainder of the day to ‘get things done. We don’t know much about keeping the Sabbath.

God intends the Sabbath as a blessing, not a burden. It is a gift given to you. It was never meant to take something from you. Maybe, by God’s grace, we can rediscover that gift and reclaim what we inadvertently threw away with those ‘narrow’ habits of our ancestors. Let’s pray so.

For today: What does your current “Sabbath keeping” practice look like?

Lead us, O God, back to the good gift of the Sabbath. Grant us grace to slow down, to rest, and to trust you with our lives, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Fahrenheit of Language

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths . . . (Ephesians 4:29)

In his fine memoir, Reflections on My Call to Preach, Fred Craddock uses a phrase that I had not heard before. He places quotation marks around the words, as if quoting a proverb, a piece of folk wisdom which he has long known and frequently used.

At two unrelated points in the book Craddock writes, “He tempered the wind to the shorn lamb.”

The only common thread connecting his use of this phrase is the context of dialog or conversation. At one point Craddock applies the words to his mother and the way she spoke with her children. “She knew children could ask questions beyond their ability to deal with a full answer.” In another place Craddock applies the same phrase to God’s call and the mystery with which God deals with us in varied ways as he reveals his will.

The saying is picturesque. Our gracious God “tempers the wind to the shorn lamb.” God will not unleash bitter winds when the lamb is exposed and unprotected. Neither should we.

We would do well to temper our words, to gage carefully the Fahrenheit of our language. Our words have the power to scald and burn. Our words can also chill to the bone. Either way, words that are not tempered tend to leave a trail of wreckage.

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians there is a singular verse that gives practical biblical definition to this folk wisdom. Paul wrote, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”

This verse merits careful and leisurely meditation. The negative command – let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths – is followed by three positive phrases that tell us how to “temper the wind to the shorn lamb.” Read it one more time, slowly, and notice what Paul is saying about the Fahrenheit of our language.

First, we should say only those things that are “good for building up.” Seldom are our words neutral in their impact. What we say will either build up or tear down, strengthen or undermine, bless or curse. As you speak to people today consider the overall impact of your words and speak what is “good for building up.”

Second, speak words that “fit the occasion.” Sometimes a hard truth needs to be spoken. But whether it has the impact of building up or not might be determined by timing. Consider more than the accuracy or truth of your words. Consider the timing as well and speak as “fits the occasion.”

Finally, God intends that our words “give grace to all who hear.” This one phrase reminds us that language is a means of grace. God uses your words to pour his goodness into the lives of others. Consider everyone who will hear your words and be a channel of grace in their midst.

Don’t take lightly the power of your words. “Temper the wind to the shorn lamb.”

Grant us grace, O God, that the words we speak today might be edifying, timely, and grace filled. You have dealt tenderly with us. Empower us to do the same with others, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Your Silence Speaks

You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain . . . (Exodus 20:7)

This year marks the 450th anniversary of the Heidelberg Catechism.

I was raised in the Baptist tradition, and it has only been within the past decade that I have been awakened to the Heidelberg. The fault for that, if there is any, is my own – not the Baptists’.

Keep in mind, the Heidelberg was written to be a teaching tool, a means of training the young in the basics of the faith. In the 16th century it was taught over a period of one year, the 129 questions and answers divided over 52 Sundays. Its content is basically a commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Of particular interest to us this week is question 99: “What is God’s will for us in the third commandment?” The answer is stated as follows:

"That we neither blaspheme nor misuse the name of God by cursing, perjury, or unnecessary oaths, nor share in such horrible sins by being silent bystanders. In a word, it requires that we use the holy name of God only with reverence and awe, so that we may properly confess him, pray to him, and praise him in everything we do and say."

In his fine book on the Heidelberg Catechism, The Good News We Almost Forgot, pastor Kevin DeYoung explains that in the reformed tradition the third commandment has had broad and varied applications. Cursing . . . well, we all know quite well what that is. We are hardly surprised by that cursing violates God’s will for us in our speaking. Perjury . . . again, to swear “so help me God” and then ignore God is clearly wrong. Needless oaths say too much when the simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ would suffice, just as Jesus taught (Matt. 5:37).

What is striking about the answer to Q99 is the culpability of silence.

The Heidelberg teaches us that to be silent in the face of false, damaging, and debased use of words is to somehow be complicit in what is being said. This is not to mean that you obey the third commandment by becoming the self-appointed censor of everyone’s words. It does mean that at some point silence can be acceptance or even approval.

Is there a place in your life where you have been silent for too long? Maybe you need to speak a word of truth to a friend or someone in your family. Perhaps there’s something that needs to be confronted in your work place. Maybe there’s an opinion or piece of counsel that you’ve been afraid to share.

And there’s a positive side to this. Don’t hold back with your words of encouragement, a compliment for work well done, an expression of pride in your child, a phone call to someone with whom you’ve lost touch. On this Valentine’s Day don’t miss the chance to say “I love you.”

Perhaps today you will obey the third commandment not by holding your tongue, but by speaking up. Restraint is admirable, but it needs to be coupled with courage. Restraint minus courage equals fear.

Merciful God, forgive us when we’ve allowed silence to mask fear, making us complicit in words that dishonor you and your name. We need your wisdom in knowing when to refrain from words. Just as often, we need the gift of boldness in knowing when to break our silence. Grant us grace in speaking and in silence, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Top of the List

Hallowed be your name . . . (Matt. 6:9).

Where are you focusing your praying energy these days?

For me it’s my children. I’m sensing an urgency there that hasn’t always been true of my prayers. These days I find myself praying for them all the time - and not just pious petitions for their wellbeing. What I feel is more like a holy ferocity, waging war on their behalf.

For you it may be something different. Health issues often top the list. Marriages rank fairly high as well, so many of them fragile and others damaged beyond recognition. Employment pressures are constant: jobs we can’t find, jobs we have but hate, as well as jobs that we used to love but find are driving us into the ground.

Whenever we make lists we usually begin with what is most pressing. The things that cannot wait are named first. We pray the same way: the most threatening circumstance, the people closest to our heart, the decision with no good option, the illness that won’t go away, these top the list. No surprise there.

When Jesus taught us to pray, the name of God was at the top of the list. We begin by praying for the hallowing of God’s name. We move from there to the coming of God’s kingdom and the doing of God’s will. After that we offer our prayers for daily provision (bread), for forgiveness (both getting it and giving it) and for protection from what is evil and pulls us away from God.

What Moses gave us as a command, Jesus taught us as a prayer.

Moses used the negative ‘do not.’ Do not take the name of God carelessly or ‘in vain.’ Jesus stated the law positively in telling us to ask for the ‘hallowing’ of God’s name. We call on God to work in such a way that his name will be highly esteemed and loved and honored.

But what we feel when we pray usually has to do with more urgent and practical matters, the latter three petitions. We sense urgency over meeting our basic material needs (bread), the wholeness of relationships (forgiveness), and protection from moral temptations and the larger evils in this world. That’s what gets our energy.

The beauty of the Lord’s Prayer is that as God answers our prayers regarding those last three petitions he also answers the very first petition at the very same time. In giving us bread, in restoring relationships with God and others, in protecting us and guiding us through this broken world God’s name is honored or hallowed.

So pray whatever sits heavily on your heart and mind right now: Job, marriage, children, health, guidance in a decision, protection on a long flight, a fresh zeal for your faith.

And at some point in your prayer come back to the top of the list. God blesses us and answers ordinary prayers for the purpose of hallowing his name. The great large prayer is answered in small and mundane things. Thanks be to God.

Merciful God, I do not always ask for the hallowing of your name. I say the words – but what I want has more to do with bread and protection and relationships that are whole. Take the prayers I offer today – the yearning for your blessing and grace and favor – and hallow your name. I ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Our Silent Profanities

And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them (Ezekiel 36:23)

Years ago comedian George Carlin built one of his routines around the seven words you can’t say on television. As it turns out, Carlin’s seven words you can’t say on television are identical to the seven words that should not be included in a daily devotional. As for what those might be I’ll have to leave you to your own imagination and well-stocked vocabulary.

For most people, the word ‘profanity’ is the larger category that encompasses Carlin’s seven words as well as long list of others. Indeed, the American Heritage Dictionary defines profanity as “obscene or irreverent language.”

But there’s more to it. The noun ‘profanity’ has a verb form, ‘to profane.’ So we’re not simply talking about words we use, but something we do or a way we act. Again, the dictionary helps us out here: “to treat with irreverence” or “contempt for what is sacred.” While a dictionary provides a helpful definition, the Bible gives us a story.

In Ezekiel 36 God’s people had profaned his name by worshipping idols. They had made God look small and trivial, one god among many. God responded to their idolatry with judgment and sent them into exile. What is interesting about Ezekiel 36 is that God is promising to restore his people. There will be a return, a gathering together of a people who have been battered and scattered.

But God makes it clear: he is not doing this for their sake; this isn’t an act of compassion born of God’s aching heart. God will do this for the sake of his name. “I will show the holiness of my great name.” The command regarding God’s name is given to us as a means of witness in the world.

Our most offensive profanities are often silent. They are a way of life that treats God as small and impotent. I can think of two very common ways that we silently profane God’s name.

We profane God’s name with our worry. Constant anxiety says that we are facing something that God either cannot or will not handle. Fear marks a life that is void of a faithful, good and powerful God. Our worries seem to make God small. Sure, we all worry at times – but to feed on the worries is to profane God’s name.

We also profane God’s name with our anger. Often our anger is provoked when something doesn’t go our way or when people don’t do what we want them to do. Our anger is born of our lack of control and our need for control is an affront to God who rules all things for our good and his glory. Sure, we all get angry. But to live angry profanes God’s name.

A confident life glorifies God’s name. A life lived at peace magnifies God’s name. So watch your life as well as your language. What has you worried or angry today? Be bold. Bless others. And hallow the name of God.

Magnify your name in my life, O God. Grant me grace to live in such a way that you are shown to be great and good in all that concerns me. Forgive my silent profanity, my worry and anger, and glorify your name in my life, I pray through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

A Path is not a Road

You shall not make for yourself an idol . . . (Exodus 20:4).

Hwy 64 was under construction. From the look of things, it had been for a long time.

It didn’t take much imagination to see that this ‘highway’ had long been a two lane country road. But western Wake County was changing and the two lanes that connected Apex to Raleigh were no longer adequate for the burgeoning population of the area. Marnie and I, along with our infant son, added three people to that population. Soon after we moved to North Carolina the two new lanes opened.

Roads evolve because of the numbers of people that use them. The volume of traffic creates the need to turn two lanes to four. Further, roads seem designed to for speed. Even if left unpaved, roads are wide enough to accommodate vehicles. But a path is for walking. Paths invite and even demand a slower pace. Roads are things that we build. Paths emerge. Roads are constructed. Paths are discovered.

Admittedly, a path exists because someone else has walked there. It is right that we consider God’s Law as a path. It shows us where God’s people have walked, a way of life that has been practiced and traveled for millennia. But while many have walked this way, the traffic growing through the ages and across the nations, the path has not become a road. This trail has not become a highway.

There are still rocks and roots, rough terrain and demanding climbs. All who set out to follow God’s way face the same challenges and dangers and joys. Previous travelers have not paved the path, making it easier, setting up rest areas and hotels. As of 2011 roughly 3200 people had climbed Mt. Everest. Not one of them attempted to make the endeavor ‘user friendly.’ You won’t find any tourists at the top of Mt. Everest.

Too often we grow impatient with the path. It’s too inefficient. It’s much work. It’s too slow. And so we set out to build a road. We throw ourselves in to the work of making our own way in this world. This is what God told us not to do.

The language of the commandment speaks of making idols. Few of us actually carve little deities and give them our worship, but we do love the work of our own hands. We love the roads we build, the way of life that we create on our own. The roads we construct may allow us to move fast, they may seem easier to travel. But the destination is either unknown or – once we get there - we are disappointed upon arrival. Sometimes the road is ‘out.’ We just don’t see it.

Here’s the good news: it’s never too late to turn back on the road we’ve made for ourselves and begin walking God’s path. The biblical word for this turning is ‘repentance.’

What way are you traveling these days? God invites you to be done with the work of building your own road. He invites you to be done with life as a race, or life as a commute. Leave the highway and discover the adventure of the path.

Free us, O God, from our attachment to the roads we’ve made and the way of life we’ve created for ourselves apart from you. Move us to repentance and make us bold to walk your path, knowing that Jesus has called us to ‘follow’ and he will faithfully guide our steps. We ask this in his name, Amen.

Still in Pursuit

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery . . . (Exodus 20:2).

On September 11, 2001 Nick Lerangis was eleven days away from his fourteenth birthday. That beautiful Tuesday morning marked his fourth day of school at the Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan – a mere eight blocks from the World Trade Center.

In a 2011 article titled "I Knew You’d Come" Lerangis recounts his personal experience of that day. His narrative captures the initial curiosity that spread throughout the school, students running to windows on the schools upper floors to get a look at the dramatic sight of smoke billowing from one of the towers. The story turns sharply from curiosity to fear as the reality of what was happening gradually dawned on his school and the nation.

Eventually all 3200 students evacuated the building and Lerangis found himself among the mass of humanity walking up the West Side Highway. “I was a speck in a crowd of tens of thousands of people, all of us walking away from the towers and toward something unknown.” And then Lerangis shares this remarkable moment:

I fell away from my friends and began walking alone, looking out at the river and losing myself in thought about the weather and the upcoming Mets season. Then a hand landed on top of my head. Someone was palming my head. I panicked for a moment, not knowing who was tall enough to do that, figuring maybe one of the Varsity guys was picking on me. And then I turned. It was my dad.

The first words out of my mouth were “I knew you’d come.” Because somehow I did. I had known all along that my father would come find me. Out of the 13,000 streaming uptown, out of the 3,200 Stuyvesant kids, I knew I would be found. Because he was my dad. That’s just how it was. He had talked his way past the police barricades on the West Side Highway in a cab, and when the cab was finally stopped by the cops he had gotten out and run against the flow of foot traffic. It didn’t matter that he was one man running toward the disaster, toward his confused 13-year-old son. It didn’t matter that I was just one puny and rattled prepubescent teen in a crowd of thousands. I knew he’d come. And of course he did.

Like Nick Lerangis’ Dad, God the father pursues his children. In the wilderness God pursued them with bread from heaven and water from the rock, with cloud by day and fire by night, with the parting of waters and the gift of deliverance. The pursuit had been happening long before they arrived at Sinai, long before the Law. Grace always comes first.

The Ten Commandments were never meant to be a way for us to find God. These instructions do not tell us what to do so that God will love us. Rather, these ten words tell us how to live once we realize that God has been in pursuit of us. Over and over again – before we ever gave a moment’s thought to ‘seeking’ God – God sought us.

Today God the Father comes alongside you; he finds you and invites you home. God has long been in pursuit of you. Do you see this? What gifts of grace do you see as you look back over your shoulder?

We give you thanks today, O God, for your faithful pursuit of us: For making a way when we didn’t know what was next; for meeting our needs we were completely spent. Remind us today of your faithful pursuit and move our hearts to respond in obedient love, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The Commandments and Costco

And God spoke all these words . . . (Exodus 20:1).

“Can you make the Costco run today?”

I paused to be sure I had heard her correctly. The trip to Costco is no small matter in our world. Costco is the central supply station for much of what sustains life in our home. Being asked to do this was a bit like a minor league player being called up to the big leagues. I wanted to get it right. Better make a list.

I find satisfaction in making lists. Lists allow me to plan my day; lists are a tangible indicator of progress and accomplishment; lists bring order to chaos; lists allow reflection on priorities, what comes first and what can wait.

But lists are static and inanimate things. When I went to Costco the list was important. It told me exactly what to do. But it was only important because before there was a list there was a voice. My wife’s speaking came first. She knew what we needed. I didn’t have clue. Her words were primary. The list was secondary.

Listening precedes listing. It was true for me at Costco. And it was true for Moses at Mount Sinai.

A couple of days we noted that for many of us the Ten commandments have been reduced to a list, inscribed tablets of stone, silent and foreboding. Fair enough. Exodus 32:16 says plainly that the tablets were “the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.” So yes, we have a written list of commandments.

But God did not give his instruction by writing, at least not at first. First, God spoke. This is how Exodus 20 begins: “And God spoke all these words.” The commandments are not a lifeless list; they are a living voice. Our primary task is to listen for this voice. If we refuse to listen to the voice, we will never be moved to pay attention to the list.

In C. S. Lewis’ Narnia story titled The Magician’s Nephew there is a scene in which Aslan the Lion is singing Narnia into being. A character in that story, Uncle Andrew, is convinced that Lions cannot sing. Lewis writes,
The longer and more beautiful the Lion sang, the harder Uncle Andrew tried to make himself believe that he could hear nothing but roaring. Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed. Uncle Andrew did. He soon did hear nothing but roaring in Aslan’s song. Soon he couldn’t have heard anything else even if he had wanted to. And when at last the Lion spoke and said “Narnia awake,” he didn’t hear any words; he heard only a snarl.

There are many who hear the Ten Commandments as a snarl, a harping list of demands or rules. But these words are God’s voice; they are a song. The list is important, but listening precedes listing. If you have not done so already, take a few moments to sit down and read the Ten Commandments. Read them slowly. As you read, listen.

What do you hear in the Ten Commandments?

Before we act in obedience, O God, help us to listen in devotion to you. Tune our hearts to the sound of your voce in your Law. Help us to live in loving response, we ask in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Monday, February 04, 2013

"Stay with Me"

You shall have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:3).

Years ago when my children were small I took them out for an afternoon hike on the trails of the Chattahoochee National Park. This park system has a number of locations along the Chattahoochee and this particular site features some beautiful wooded paths that snake along large outcroppings of rock. The main attraction to which all trails lead is the stone-speckled creek that feeds the Chattahoochee River.

Having tossed a water bottle and a pack of saltines into a small backpack, we set out for what I thought would be a pleasant stroll through the woods, an easy and wholesome way to get my suburbanite kids outdoors. Once we had parked and made our way to the trailhead I had to do a reality check.

Turns out our simple stroll wasn’t going to be so simple. And we would not merely be strolling. We would be hiking – leaning into some healthy climbs and digging in our heels on some sharp descents here and there. All of this was complicated further by the fact that the park is made up of a network of trails, multiple paths of varying length. If you wished, you could be gone for the better part of the day. Did I mention that my children were small?

I chose a path that would allow us to have adventure, start to finish, within a two hour block of time. As we set out I gave my kids one simple word of instruction: “Stay with me.”

The entire experience would depend upon their willingness to heed that one simple instruction. “Stay with me: do not go running off; do not deviate to other interesting trails; do not rush ahead out of my sight; do not linger behind in isolation. Sometimes I’ll walk in front leading the way; at other times I’ll behind you urging you on. Just stay with me.”

I did not say to them, “Study the map and meet me back at the car in two hours.”

When God gave his ‘ten words’ of command to his people he started with this very instruction: Stay with me. “I am the Lord your God . . . you shall have no other gods.” If we rush past this in our hurry to find out what God wants us to do, we will never truly understand the Ten Commandments.

Most of us think that the Ten Commandments are about behavior, doing what God wants us to do. But before God speaks about behavior he speaks of belonging. We are God’s people. God does not simply want us to be good. God wants us to be his. “Stay with me.”

Until we know to whom we belong, we will not know how to behave.

Allow this simple truth to rest gently on your mind throughout the day: you belong to God. Stay with him. Don’t rush ahead where has not led you. Don’t linger behind or turn aside to another path that seems appealing. In his Law God offers a lamp for your feet and a light for your path. But first he offers his love.

“I am the Lord your God . . . stay with me.”

Whatever this day brings, wherever this day leads, we will stay with you O God. Thank you for your faithfulness: going before us making a way, ever behind us urging us on. Thank you for claiming us and making us yours in your son Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

The Path

I run in the path of your commands for you have set my heart free (Psalm 119:32).

As I sit down to write this I’ve just spent the past hour watching my daughter throw a Lacrosse ball against a concrete wall. Her coach gave her a series of exercises that amounted to 325 throws. The point of the exercises: to master the basics by means of repetition.

Today we begin a series of reflections that will lead us over some familiar ground. In the weeks to come we will linger with that body of material from the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Ten Commandments. Our aim differs little from that of my daughter’s Lacrosse exercises. We will be getting back to basics, mastering fundamentals by means of repetition.

Sounds simple enough. There’s plenty to be said for getting back to basics. There is much good to be derived from repetition.

But if the repetitions are somehow flawed all we do is grow increasingly comfortable with our errors. Doing 325 throws against the wall is good, unless the form of the throw is defective. Then the only thing learned is how to do a poor throw. The same risk confronts us as we turn our attention to the Ten Commandments.

It’s no simple task to untangle the knot of misconceptions wrapped around the Ten Commandments. These ten statements - often called the ‘Decalogue’ or ‘ten words’ – have accumulated a thick crust of faulty associations. If nothing else, common portrayals of the tablets have shaped our imaginations. Two matching pieces of stone, thick and heavy, domed at the top, typically showing parallel lists designated with large Roman numerals.

Somewhere along the way, between Mount Sinai and wherever you are right now, the Law became a list. And then the list became a load. The list told us what to do, a means by which we could measure our moral aptitude. To the extent that we fell short of what the list required it became a burdensome load.

So for the weeks to come we will work with a different image. We will explore God’s law as a path.

There’s nothing new about this. In fact, to speak of God’s law as a path is to return to what the Hebrews understood from the get-go. For proof take a look at Psalm 119. This Psalm is the longest single chapter of the Bible, 176 verses of leisurely meditation on the Law of God. Over and over again the Law is spoken of as a path. “I run in the path of your commands for you have set my heart free.”

We begin with an invitation. You are being invited to run in the path of his commands, and in doing so you are being called to a truly free life. What kind of path are you on today? How did you come to find it – and where is it taking you?

God’s law was meant to be a gift, not a burden. Tomorrow we’ll take our first steps on the path that leads to the life we were meant to have.

Grant us grace, O God, as we begin these days of exploration. Your word “is a lamp to our feet and a light unto our path.” Lead us by your law to the life you for which you made us, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.