Bread – Entrance

February 25, 2011


Readings for Friday, February 25, designated by the Book of Common Prayer: Isa. 65:17-25; 1 Tim. 5:17-25; Mark 12:28-34; Psalms 102, 107

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Where is the door? You might ask this question if you are in a dark room, perhaps because a light bulb went out, and want to get out. This may be a question that you speak out loud or you might just ask it of yourself in your mind.

Entrances or doors or gates are the things we pass through to get from where we are to a different place. It can be a door into better things, or it can be an entrance to a terrible place. In cartoons, one of the classic pictures is opening a door to race through it, only to run into a brick wall. We expect entrances to lead somewhere, but not somewhere which hurts us (where you go out a door which is on the second floor and opens to the outside with no porch, so we fall to the ground or which stops us (the brick wall).

There is a dialogue reported in Mark in our readings today between Jesus and a “teacher of the law.” Mark 12:28-34. The man asks Jesus what the most important commandments are, and Jesus responds with essentially three commandments [Jesus combines the first two into one]: (a) know that God (the Lord) is one, (b) love God first with everything you have, and (c) love your neighbor as yourself. In obedience, the teacher of the law repeats these points back to Jesus and then adds that both of these commandments are greater than religious procedures or practices (“all burnt offerings and sacrifices”). As a “teacher of the law,” this is a major step forward for this man – to admit that the religious practices he teaches and helps enforce are less important than the attitude of heart of the believer, first love toward God and second love toward neighbor.

In response to this man’s major step forward, Jesus says “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” The Bible records no more dialogue.

Imagine yourself as the teacher of the law, bound up in procedures, having realized that your way and method is not God’s desire, but being obedient enough (remember the man repeated what Jesus had to say) to listen to what Jesus had to say. Imagine yourself being told that “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” What question would you ask? I think that I would ask “Where is this kingdom?” or maybe, “How do I enter this kingdom, since I am so close to it?” In other words, I would (I think) have asked the question “Where is the entrance, where is the door?” Perhaps if I had asked that question, Jesus would have responded “It is before you. Knock and the door will be opened.” (see Matt. 7:7)

So why was there no further conversation? Mark reports that it was because no one “dared” to ask Him any more questions. Mk. 12:34

I can see why no one dared to ask Him any more questions. After all, the “teacher of the law” had come to the point where he realized that all of his religious teachings and observances, rules and regulations, took second fiddle to the primary commands of love God and love your neighbor as yourself. His carefully crafted and maintained world was crumbling before him and now he is told that he is “near” the kingdom of God? Where is this kingdom? Where is the entrance to this kingdom? Since he could see nothing around him except his fellow teachers and Jesus Christ, the answer was likely to be something which was beyond His comprehension. He was confronting a door which might lead to the outside with no porch, where he might fall to the earth and be hurt. Rather than open the door, however, and look, he turned away and asked no more questions.

As Christians, had the teacher of the law completed the conversation, asked the question, and listened to the answer, we know what the remainder of the conversation would have been. We know that Jesus would have said that He is the entrance to eternal life, to the kingdom of God. And we know that this truth might be more than than the man could bear – that the door is not a physical location, that the door is not a process of rules and regulations, that the door is not a higher knowledge or a better life – that the door is a person, Jesus Christ, God.

I have often wondered why it seems so hard to talk to non-believers about Jesus Christ in a way which they appreciate. Perhaps the answer to this question is locked up in Mark’s gospel today. Perhaps it is because once someone realizes the truth of the commands of God, that God is one, that God is to be worshipped with all of our heart and commands our absolute loyalty, and that we are to love each other the same way we love ourselves, and his works do not meet the test of this requirement, even if that person realizes that his world view may be subject to God’s world view, after he has heard that he is close to the kingdom of God, he must next ask the question “Where is the entrance to the kingdom of God?” And that person does not ask the question because he does not want to hear the answer because it does not line up with his or her religious system or his particular practices? Or that person does not ask the question because he does not want to hear the answer because the answer is so far out in left field – that Jesus Christ is the door to eternal life – that to wrap his mind around the fact that the door is a person and not a thing or a system is more than he thinks he can bear.

All of us have watched enough spy movies to know that entrances can be disguised as a bookcase or a panel of a wall or, in our modern world, maybe an electronic hallucination. And our imaginations run wild in such circumstances. Why is the entrance disguised? What lies behind the door? Is it empty space, is it a brick wall, is it a dungeon, is it a dream, is it a wonderful place? We don’t know and, you know what, we may not dare to ask. We might rather just not open that door and find out.

To the unbeliever, the very existence of the door, much less its location, may be disguised. Once, however, they are aware of their sin and realize that obedience to God trumps their particular views of the world or their economic, political, personal, or religious practices, they may understand that they are close to the kingdom of God, but to them the door is disguised and what is behind it is unknown. What will overcome this blindness, this fear, this desire to avoid confrontation with truth and, yes, love? We like to think it is us, but it is not. It is the Holy Spirit, God.

What is, then, the seeker’s role in this? Going back to our reading today, the seeker’s job is to continue the conversation with God. When Jesus says “You are not far from the kingdom of God,” (Mk. 12:34) the seeker’s job is to ask the question – Where is the kingdom, where is the entrance to the kingdom? God, perhaps acting through us and perhaps not, will take care of both the answer and the seeker’s acceptance of the answer.

Where is the entrance to the Kingdom of God if it is close to me? If you know Christ and know that He, with the Father and Holy Spirit, is God, you already know the answer to this question. If you have come to a place in life where you know God’s ways are superior to yours, where you know you sin and are disobedient to God’s commands and are in need of someone powerful enough to help you out of the muck and mire of your own doing, then ask Jesus the answer to that question. Are you afraid to ask, do you “dare” ask? I understand your fear and so does Jesus. Then ask Him to overcome your fear. And the entrance to the Kingdom of God which now appears lost to you will be revealed and you will, in the strength of the Holy Spirit, walk through it … not into a wall, an empty space, or a dungeon, but into eternal life.

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Bread – Conceited

February 23, 2011


Readings for Wednesday, February 23, designated by the Book of Common Prayer: Isa. 63:15-64:9; 1 Tim. 3:1-16; Mark 11:27-12:12; Psalms 101, 109, 119:121-144

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Children can be mean to each other by picking up a character trait in another and making fun of it. Somehow, if we can keep from being beaten into conformity by our peers, then at some point the world rewards us.

In junior high school, I played the trombone very well and I made sure everyone knew it. As a result, my “friends” called me “conceited.” This hurt a lot, because who wants to be conceited when one is trying to be liked by his peers? So, for a while, I retreated into conformity only later to discover that adults had created some synonyms for “conceited” which had better connotations, such as “self-confident” or “assertive” or “self-aware” or just plain “confident.” So, instantly, I went from being conceited (according to others) to being self-confident (according to me). No change, but much better perceptions and feelings.

In our reading today from Paul’s first letter to Timothy, in the middle of Paul’s description of the characteristics of bishops-ministers and deacons, there is this sentence – “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil.” 1 Tim. 3:6

In the NIV Bible translation, the word “conceited” appears in two other places in Paul’s writings. The first is Romans 12:16, where Paul tells those in the church simply “Do not be conceited.” The second is Galatians 5:26, where it says “Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.”

However, the translation differs in the NASB Bible translation, where Romans 12:16 says, instead, “Do not be wise in your own estimation,“ and Galatians 5:26 uses the word “boastful” instead.

Reaching back into the Greek words being used, there appear to be two underlying concepts associated with the English word “conceited.” The first is Strong’s #5187 (used in the Timothy passage), which means “to raise or make a smoke, symbolizing pride, insolence; to be drunk with pride with a heart lifted up not only against man, but against God.”* The second is Strong’s #5429 (used in the Romans passage), meaning “thinking oneself to be prudent judging by one’s self-complacency.”*

There is something wonderful about the first definition, starting off with the idea of making a smoke. Just visualize what we do every day. We start sending out smoke columns, smoke signals, saying “here we are, pay attention to me.” The beautiful thing about smoke is that it can hide us, it can drive other people away, it can be seen by other people (thereby acting as our own advertisement) and it even rises to heaven (picking up the element of the second definition where our pride is not only directed toward others but toward God).

So why would conceit, another name for excessive pride, result in our apparent fall from grace, as suggested by our passage today – “fall under the same judgment as the devil?” Paul is dealing with someone who has declared himself to be a Christian and is living such a walk that he is promoted to being a deacon or overseer and he warns about that person not having enough experience and therefore falling prey to conceit, resulting in him falling under the same judgment as the devil.

I think there is a simple, but profound answer to this question and that is to ask ourselves what happens when we receive the heart transplant from true belief in Jesus Christ? What happens? Is it a mere opportunity to do good or is it really a “new birth” into a “new man?” If it is a new birth, what are some of the primary characteristics of the true believer?

I think a major characteristic is that our conceit is gone, because we know someone who is more perfect than we are, more loving than we are, more caring than we are, more creative than we are, more knowledgeable than we are, more honest than we are, more wise than we are, more powerful than we are, more holy than we are. We have met Jesus Christ, God the Son. And just like in playing the trombone, I met a young kid who had five times more talent than I ever dreamed of and my pride, my conceit in my trombone abilities was instantly stripped away, when we have truly met Jesus Christ we know that we are subject to His rule, that we are slave to His yoke, and that, as a result, we are free from the greatest prison of all – ourselves. The overseer filled with conceit may fall the way of Satan not because it is possible to lose his salvation, but because he has never truly met Jesus Christ.

Are you pumped up about yourself today? The world would say that is OK. I would ask you the question, are you pumped up because you know your place in the Kingdom of God or are you just sending out smoke signals?

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*Definitions are from the Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible (Zodhiates ed.), AMG International 1990

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Bread – Sources

February 18, 2011


Readings for Friday, February 18, designated by the Book of Common Prayer: Isa. 61:1-9; 2 Tim. 3; Mark 10:32-45; Psalms 88, 91, 92

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We often are sloppy in our reliance on sources for our information and guidance. Although we intellectually “know” that some sources are better than others, either because they are consistently more truthful or have proven more accurate over time or have some measure of special authority, we act differently.

For example, there was a time where the issue of the definition or spelling of a word was decided by the ”best” source, perhaps either a Webster’s dictionary or an Oxford Dictionary. These were sources prepare by one or a small group of persons who had studied greatly into the area, and if nothing else we could easily acknowledge that they knew more than we did. Today, it is as likely that we will look up the word on the Internet, using Wikipedia or some such. Supposedly this is an authoritative source because the community of people prepares it, revises it, etc., and the “community of knowledge” is more likely to be right. The only problem with this kind of thinking can be seen by asking this question – who is the best source of good information, the community running off the cliff because their group belief is that there is no cliff or the sole individual “fool” standing against the crowd with the sign “cliff ahead!”

We are lazy with our sources. We use the Internet because it is immediately available and will return many “hits” for any question we have, so that we can search through the plethora of answers to find one which meets our needs, including the need to have been right all along. We use the newspaper because it is delivered to our door and we don’t have to go to the library or, God forbid, read a book! We use each other as sources. Why, after all, it is faster and easier to call “X” and use his knowledge, without a real clue as to whether that purported knowledge is useful or correct. Besides, if we can call someone, we don’t have to look it up (unless we have our computer, smart phone, personal digital assistant, tablet PC, or whatever close at hand, in which case we can look it up on the Internet.)

Paul speaks to sources today in a roundabout fashion. He first talks about people as a whole in the “last days.” He notes that they are the kind of people who “worm their way into homes” and who are “always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth.” 2 Tim. 3:6-7. We all know these kind of people. They are those with positions of authority or who are advisors. Many times we ask ourselves “how did that person get there?” but we listen to them anyway because, after all, they are the notable or the authority or the advisor. These people populate our universities, our corporations, our government, our churches. They “worm” their way into our consciousness and because of friendship, position, laziness, or whatever, we begin to rely upon them as the source of knowledge, truth, bases for decision-making, “good” philosophy, life, and day-to-day living advice.

Paul ends this chapter by warning Timothy to avoid those people and, instead, rely upon another source – “But, for you, continue in what you have learned ….how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 2 Tim. 3:14-17

Paul’s message to Timothy is simple – Scripture should be the source you turn to for everything having to do with wisdom. Not people and the artifices they build, but what God has built.

So, what is your favorite source for wisdom? Is it the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal? Is it Google? Is it your next door neighbor, your doctor, your lawyer, your friends? Is it perhaps a minister? Is it perhaps some other book, other than the Bible, like “Who Stole My Cheese?”

Do you believe that you are equipped for every good work? Do you believe that you are well-trained in righteousness? If you have some doubts about the answers to these questions, maybe it is time to consider the sources you are using and to return to that which is God-breathed.

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Bread – Fasting

February 14, 2011


Readings for Monday, February 14, designated by the Book of Common Prayer: Isa. 58:1-12; Gal. 6:11-18; Mark 9:30-41; Psalms 77, 79, 80

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Fasting is often labeled one of the “Christian Disciplines,” something to do from time to time to become “more Christian.” Richard J. Foster wrote a famous book called the “Celebration of Discipline” (HarperCollins 1998) in which he lists fasting as one of the “inward disciplines.” In his chapter on fasting, Foster says that “throughout Scripture fasting refers to abstaining from food for spiritual purposes.” (pg. 48). And, indeed, fasting is generally associated with food deprivation.

Isaiah, though, today seems to have a different take on fasting. From 58:3-5, Isaiah describes elements of an unacceptable fast – where man does as he pleases, where he exploits the people who work with him, where there is quarreling and strife (probably due in part to irritation), where there are fights, where one only bows one’s head and where one lies in “sackcloth and ashes” (probably feeling sorry for oneself). He then describes the elements of a successful fast – where the chains of injustice are loosened, where the oppressed are set free, where food is shared with the hungry, clothing with the naked, and shelter with the homeless, where family is reconciled [“not to turn away from your own flesh and blood”]. Isa. 58:6-7. The Isaiah fast is the kind of fast where good works abound.

Except for feeding the hungry, deprivation of ourselves from food does not appear in this chapter. So, in Isaiah’s mind, what is a fast? It is the deliberate denial of our sinful desires – our desires for pleasures, our lusts, our desire to increase ourselves – and replace those desires with the desires of Christ, the desire for truth and love in action in our world. To use New Testament phrases, a fast is intended to be a circumcision of the heart so that we know that we are not ours but His. Food merely becomes a proxy for this fight to take the self and to subordinate it as slave to the Master. The purpose of the fast is not to show God that we are doing a good job of implementing His commandments, but to cause ourselves to yield to God’s authority and His power, so that we actually do a good job in implementing His commandment of love.

In golf, there is a saying “Drive for show and putt for dough.” In ourselves, we might say “Fast for show and dough.” In Christ, we might more accurately say “No show and fast for dough for Christ and others, not ourselves.” (All right, this last line won’t make it to the Superbowl ads.)

In our reading today from Galatians, Paul says “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation.” Gal. 6:15 Isaiah says the same thing today when he says that the act of fasting in and of itself does nothing unless is results in a new man, one who adds and does not subtract, one who gives and does not take, one who does not lie on his bed and reflects on what he does have but who rises up to serve others, delighted in what he has that he does not need. What matters is not the discipline but what the discipline produces if done with a circumcised heart.

In our reading today from Mark, Jesus says “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” Mk. 9:35. Isaiah says the same thing today when he says that, if we use fasting to show God how much we obey His commandments, we are attempting to be first and will get nowhere. On the other hand, if we use our fasting to subordinate ourselves, our needs and wants, to others, “Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear…and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and He will say: Here I am.” Isa. 58:8-9.

When you look behind you, do you sense the oppression of memories, of lost opportunities, of hurt relationships, of the damage caused by selfishness and self-centeredness, or do you sense “the glory of the Lord” as your rear guard, protecting you from your past and urging you into a future of hope, of life, of freedom, of love, and of fulfillment. If the former, have you fasted? Have you really, for a period, set aside your desires and your needs for those of others? If not, try it – but not for the purpose of showing God how good you are, but for the purpose of walking with Christ and the Holy Spirit for a while and taking on their character, their desires, their causes, and, in the end, their glory. Amen.

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Bread – Prayer

February 11, 2011


Readings for Friday, February 11, designated by the Book of Common Prayer: Isa. 56:1-8; Gal. 5:16-24; Mark 9:2-13; Psalms 69, 73

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From today’s reading in Isaiah – “And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve Him, to love the name of the Lord, and to worship Him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to My covenant – these I will bring to My holy mountain and them joy in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on My altar; for My house will be called of house of prayer for all nations.” Isa. 56:6-7

In this passage, God refers to His heavenly place where we will meet and worship Him as “His house of prayer” and a “house of prayer for all nations.” Is there any doubt that God considers His home to be a “house of prayer?”

What is prayer exactly? Whole books have been written on defining prayer, describing the life of prayer, reporting about people with powerful prayer lives, outlining the discipline of prayer, identifying the potential outcomes of prayer, etc. But what is it? My personal simple definition is that “prayer is honest communication with God.” I like this definition for all kinds of reasons. First, it is neutral as to the initiator – either God or I can initiate the conversation and the conversation is equally good. Some writers believe that prayer is a continuous conversation with God, initiated by Him, of which we are only sometimes aware when we are in a position to listen. This may be true, but it doesn’t matter because in my definition it does not matter who initiates the conversation or how long it lasts.

Second, another reason that I like my definition is that it is a communication and, like all communication, important things can be conveyed both non-verbally and verbally. For example, to the extent the communications involves conversation. I speak and God listens (for sure) and He speaks and I listen (maybe). To the extent the communication may be partially conversation and partially non-verbal communication, It is a dialogue where I ask and He loves, I talk and He cares, I complain and He comforts. Sometimes the communication can be non-verbal both ways, like when God communicates the wonder of His nature in the rising sun, and I observe the morning entranced by the elegance and beauty of the new morning. Whether non-verbal or verbal, real communication occurs in prayer.

Finally, the reason I like my definition is that it emphasizes the honesty of the communication. God knows everything; the communication improves dramatically when we realize that He knows everything and, therefore, there is no reason to try to keep anything hidden from Him or us either, for that matter. True prayer takes place in the light of truth. Yes, the truth does hurt, but the prayer which comes from an honest heart is a sweet counterbalance to the bitterness of our recognition of our own fallen-ness.

I think God calls His house the house of prayer because that is where we meet the Lord face to face, when all pretense is stripped away, all truths revealed, and honest communication is so complete, so uninterrupted by noise, to pure that we would be destroyed but for our shield and advocate, Jesus Christ.

In Galatians today, Paul talks about the difference between the old man steeped in sin and the new man in Christ, slowly learning how to live out his or her life in victory in the power of the Holy Spirit, showing the fruits of the increasingly sinless life. The beginning of belief in Jesus Christ, the beginning of trust in Him, the beginning of understanding our truly lost we are without a Redeemer, is the beginning of that honest communication with God. My practicing that honest communication in the power of the Holy Spirit, God speaks truth into our lives and we begin to show the fruits of that Spirit. One of the reasons perhaps we cannot appropriate the complete power of that Spirit in our lives to overcome all sin is that the House of Prayer is where we are going, not where we are. The house of prayer we create in our bedroom, in our study, on the road, at work, in the shower, is merely a poor reproduction of the heavenly house of prayer. Or maybe not just a reproduction of the original, but a piece of the original. How much stronger would our prayer life be if we thought of our prayer time as the presence of a slice of heaven, a piece of God’s House of Prayer, right here, right now?

In Mark today, Jesus has been transfigured in glory before the disciples. The house of prayer is not only where the Holy Spirit is fully displayed in our lives, but is also where God is transfigured before us in His full power and majesty, where His glory is revealed without distraction or distortion. To the extent then our slice of that house of prayer in our present circumstances, where we meet God in honest communication, is present in our lives, is the extent that we can meet God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – in their transfigured state, in their full demonstration of power, authority, holiness, and glory.

Have you had your piece of heaven today? Have you stepped into the house of prayer where honest communication between you and God takes place? If not, as you read this, where are you? In a meeting, on the road in a car, in a foreign city, in bed, in your bathroom, in your study, on a couch, watching television, cooking breakfast? Where are you? Where you are is the place where heaven can be – step into honest communication with your God, and enjoy a glimpse of God’s house of prayer. Right now.

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Bread – Nature

February 9, 2011


Readings for Wednesday, February 9, designated by the Book of Common Prayer: Isa. 54:1-17; Gal. 4:21-31; Mark 8:11-26; Psalms 72, 119:73-96

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Nurture or nature? This is one of the great debates in the modern world. Are we the product of who we were born to be (nature) or of whatever environment we live in (nurture)? If you believe the latter, to improve life you change the environment for the better – better education, better food, better health care, better housing, etc. If you believe the former, you understand that in order to improve life you have to have an infusion of better DNA. For the modern scientist among us who believe that they are God, this means changing genetic coding in the womb (designer babies) or through manipulation of genetics in treatment of disease. For those of us who understand what Christ did for us on the cross, the understanding is that, in order to infused with Christ’s genetics, to be adopted into God’s family, we must be “born again.”

Sometimes the Bible interprets itself, which is a great thing. For example, in Isaiah 54:1 from our reading today, we read “’Sing, O barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor, because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,’ says the Lord.” Is. 54:1. When I read this, my thought was “what is the world does this mean?”

Well, it turns out that my answer is in the second reading today, from Paul’s letter to the Galatian church, where he describes the barren woman as Sarah of the Bible, the barren woman who was blessed with many descendants as the recipient of God’s promises, and the “her who has a husband” as Hagar, the slave woman. In this passage, Paul essentially describes the genetics we receive from the actions of man are no good, whereas the genetics we receive from the actions of God in making good on His promises are good. “Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman [representing children born by man’s action], but of the free woman [representing children born by God’s action].” Gal. 4:31

This debate has been satisfied in Scripture. It is man’s nature which determines outcomes, not his nurture. Change the nature by acceptance of God’s promises in Jesus Christ, change the man. Everything else clouds the issue.

But even though the debate has been resolved in Scripture, it goes on throughout the centuries in society, throughout all cultures at all times. The insidious murmurings of both religious and secular authorities that “we” can somehow change ourselves through a higher understanding of religious duty, a better understanding of human psychology, a more complete and thorough science, is quite possibly the “yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod” which Jesus warns us about in our reading today from Mark – “’Be careful,’ Jesus warned, ‘Watch out for the yeast [leaven] of the Pharisees and that of Herod.’” Mk. 8:15.

Why is this debate so important? It boils down to the question of who is on first. Is it me or is it God? If I can change myself by changing my circumstances, then the person on first is me and God becomes a co-laborer in the field, if he (lowercase “h”) even has that status. If I have to be changed in my innermost nature, how can that change come from me? – it requires a force external to me. If I know that it is my nature which has to be changed first, then God is on first and I am not even in the picture.

So, today as we attempt to deal with all of our various problems, how much of these are caused by our nature? To the extent the answer to this question is positive, have you been working in your own power to change your nature? Is that working for you? I suspect the answer to that is “no.” If so, maybe it is time to look to the source of true “nature” change, our Creator, and ask Him to deliver on His promise to us. When we do, in our barren state, we will “burst into song” and “shout for joy” because “more are the children of the desolate woman [who knows she needs God] than of her who has a husband [and therefore relies on her-him rather than God].”

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Bread – Under Law

February 7, 2011


Readings for Monday, February 7, designated by the Book of Common Prayer: Isa. 51:17-23; Gal. 4:1-11; Mark 7:24-37; Psalms 56, 57, 58, 64, 65

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In Galatians today we read “But when the time had fully come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.” Gal. 4:4-5.

The part of this I want to focus on today is the phrase “to redeem those under law” and actually a segment of that phrase – “those under law.” Who are “those under law?”

A knee-jerk reaction to this question would suggest Israel and the Jews, as the law of Moses was given to them as God’s chosen people. Indeed, Jews would be “those under law.”

But what about the Gentiles, the rest of us? Is it appropriate to also think of ourselves as “those under law” (before our redemption by Jesus)? Certainly Paul, the author of Galatians, was the apostle who missionized the Gentiles. Galatians was written to a church of both Jews and Gentiles, and was an attempt by Paul to help those Christians there to understand that in Jesus they were no longer under law, but under grace. As a result, it is probably fair to conclude that Paul thought that “those under law” included Gentiles, included us.

How is it then that we find ourselves as Gentiles “under law” when we were not born under law, when we were not born as Jews?

Perhaps it is because God’s law is universal – it applies to everyone doing everything everywhere every time. However, I think it is because of something else.

In evangelism circles, there is a familiar prayer which is said for someone who has been awakened by grace to see that he or she needs Jesus. It is often called the sinner’s prayer. One form of it (taken from some evangelism materials produced by EvanTell) begins “Dear God, I know that I am a sinner…” Whoa, stop right there! How do I know that I am a sinner unless I know that I am disobedient judged against a standard of behavior and life? How can I know disobedience unless I have a standard to compare my behavior against?

Perhaps we find ourselves “under law” when we see by grace that there is a God and that He has standards (the law). Once we realize that we are “under law,” it is short hop of reasoning and realization to see that we fall way short of that standard, God’s law, on a daily, minute-by-minute basis. Once we understand that there is a law and we are disobedient to it, not by will but by nature, we then realize our need for redemption from prison and, again through grace, find that Jesus is that Redeemer.

But doesn’t the process begin only for “those under law,” those people who by the grace of God see clearly their shortcoming, their sins, their fundamental disobedience, their nakedness before truth?

So God’s law may apply universally, but it is recognized only by those who by grace begin their lives in Christ “under law.”

Much of the Western Christian church today is weak – weak proclamation, weak teaching, weak results in transforming people’s lives. One reason for this may be that we throw off the lines “I know I am a sinner” as if it were no more than a state of mind, like a bad feeling we get when we have had too much to eat. It is much than that and to realize how much more one has to see clearly that one is “under law.” We have been given a holy standard and we fall so short as to not even register on the “goodness scale.” That is a lot more than a bad meal; it is the recognition we are under law and that we have failed fully, completely, and miserably.

So where is this going? Paul says it himself in the quoted Scripture. We recognize that there is a law and we are under it, we recognize our abject and complete disobedience to that law, and a redeemer comes around who takes us from our abject poverty and makes us sons of God.

On Monday, as we prepare for the week, we should take the time to reflect on where we’ve been and where we are going. For those of us who began our journey “under law” but who have been redeemed in Jesus Christ and given rights as sons, our past is sin and our future is glory. Sort of puts the rest of the week in perspective, doesn’t it?

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Bread – Trapped

February 4, 2011


Readings for Friday, February 4, designated by the Book of Common Prayer: Isa. 50:1-11; Gal. 3:15-22; Mark 6:47-56; Psalms 40, 51, 54

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As I write this today, ice has been on the ground and the streets for three straight days, only to be followed by seven inches of snow during the night. Except for a brief outing yesterday where I managed to slide out of my garage to go to my office, I have been home. This morning, when I looked out over the scenery, it was heavenly, white fluffy gobs of snow clinging to the cars, the bushes, the roofs, the sidewalks, and the trees. A beautiful landscape which reminded me – that I was trapped.

The past four days have been a microcosm of what the world and life does to us. We have great plans, we have lofty desires, we have vistas of imaginings, we have horizons of hope – and then we look around at debts, things, relationships, business, obligations, and yes, the weather, and realize that we are trapped in a box and we can’t get out.

Throughout the ages man has responded to being trapped in any number of ways. One of the most common is to dive deeply into the depths of obsession, of addiction, to lose oneself in the lusts of the flesh. Another is to take oneself out of circulation, death by suicide being only one of the choices available for those who take this option. Another is to take one’s anger, one’s sense of being trapped, out on other people through rudeness, tongue lashing, hitting, beating, stealing, murder.

But there is another response, one which results in us being released from the box, being released from the prison of the world’s or our own making. David, author of the Psalms, is an example of such a response. In Psalm 40 from today’s readings, David shows that, even while he feels trapped, he knows that the solution is not in feeling sorry for himself, or engaging in carnal pleasures, or being mean spirited, or succumbing to addiction, but in recognizing that God is the solution and that the solution is already working to David’s good. See how David bookends this truth between his feeling of being trapped:

“I waited patiently for the Lord; He turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; He set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Ps. 40:1-3a …troubles without number surround me; my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see. They are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart fails within me.” Ps. 40:11b-12 You are my help and deliverer; O my God, do not delay.” Ps. 40:17b

In another example of the same thing, Mark tells the history today of Jesus’ rescue of the disciples from the boat and then follows that narrative with the following statement: “They (the people) ran through that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard He was. And wherever He went … they placed the sick in the marketplaces…all who touched Him were healed.” Mk. 6:55-56.

Certainly a sick person feels trapped unless he or she has hope of delivery from their condition. Jesus provided that hope to these sick people, and they knew that they could be released from the prison that they were in by touching Him, by knowing Him.

Although not part of our reading today, I recall the time when Paul was trapped in prison and began to sing spiritual songs. Although he was held against his will behind a steel gate, he obviously did not think of himself as trapped. Neither did the sick people who sought the touch of Jesus. Neither did David although his “heart fail[ed]” at all of his sins.

Reading the Word of God today to us and reflecting upon the circumstances which bind me to the house today reminds me that, for Christians, being trapped is only a state of mind. It may be just a way we feel at the moment. The reality is that when we are set free from bondage by Jesus Christ, we are set free indeed. Paul knew it. The sick people knew it. David knew it.

Now all we need to do, trapped in whatever source of depression we have, is to remember it and, like David, bookend the truth on either side of our feelings. “He lifted me out of the slimy pit … [my feelings] … You [Jesus] are my help and deliverer.” Remember this and forget about being trapped, because you are not.

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Bread – Head Off

February 2, 2011


Readings for Wednesday, February 2, designated by the Book of Common Prayer: Isa. 49:1-12; Gal. 2:11-21; Mark 6:13-29; Psalms 49, 53, 119:49-72

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In Mark’s gospel, today we read: “…Herod feared John [the Baptist] and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him….The king [Herod] was greatly distressed [at his daughter’s request to behead John], but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head…” Mk. 6:20, 26-27

Thus the title of this Bread – “Head off.”

There is so much here and all of us have probably heard many sermons on this passage. Most of them focus on Herod’s yielding to the demands of the world – the demands of family, the demands of stupid promises made without thinking about their consequences, the demands of the crowd – in doing something which he knew was wrong, and then applying what Herod did to what we do. These are good points and well worth meditating upon, because we do the same thing every day – we deny the gospel, the truth and life we have in Jesus Christ, to yield to the demands of the world – our family, our friends, our work, and our societal norms. We deny truth every day to get along, to be socially acceptable, and to be politically correct.

But there is another question which I wish to pursue today – why his head? Why did the mother (who is the person who manipulated the daughter to manipulate Herod) want John the Baptist’s head? One simple answer of course is that that is how they killed people back then. However, that is not entirely true. When the Roman officials decided to kill Jesus and the thief who died next to him, it was not through beheading but through the cross.

It strikes me that there are several reasons why Herodias wanted John’s head. The first is that it destroys the functioning of the mouth, which is how John delivered the truth. The second is that it separates the thinking part of the body, the “executive function” so to speak, from the rest of the body, causing it to lose its ability to act with purpose and, ultimately, to act at all. The third is that, by somehow separating the head from the body and taking possession of it, Herodias may have believed that she was capturing John’s essence, that she was taking hold of everything which made John John. The fourth is that by taking John’s head, Herodias may have felt that “his” truth would be shut down, would be shut out of her life.

The analogy here is that what Herodias did to John through Herod is the same thing which Satan is doing to the Church today through those persons who sort of like what the church has to say, but who would rather listen to their own philosophies and opinion polls than the Head of the Church, God’s revelation in Scripture and Jesus Christ. If you think about it, the beheading attempt occurs every day – diminish Jesus to being a way instead of the way, and you separate Him as the head of the church (the body of believers) from the body (if you can pick your own head, haven’t you essentially decapitated the real head?). Or, argue that the Bible, God’s revelation of Himself in words, is no more than a vaguely inaccurate history book, or a collection of useful worldly wisdom written from the perspective of a particularly nationalistic group of people, or man’s attempt to fill in a void in their understanding (now unnecessary because we have “science”). If we can separate the Bible from the church, we have decapitated the church.

Put in this perspective, Mark’s gospel reading today is more than a snippet of history, it is a template for the destruction of the church, for the decapitation of the head of the body (Scripture, Jesus) from the body (the church) itself. Head off.

What is interesting about Mark’s rendition is that it is missing a player. We have the protagonist (Herodias), the unwitting messenger (the daughter), the person in power with no absolute truth to judge his actions against, a person facile in the ways of the world but lacking in wisdom (Herod), the person who actually destroyed (the man whom Herod sent to behead John), and the victim (John). But where is the protector, the person who shows up at the last minute to show everyone the error of their ways, to place their life in substitution for John’s life, to stay the sword, to stand firm against the evil day? Where is that person? Well, in this historical account, that person is no one and nowhere.

Where is that person today when the Church faces the daily executioner, the people who would have its head, would try to sever Jesus and Scripture from the body, making them speechless, lifeless, headless, thoughtless, and useless? Where is the person who can head off the “head off?” Where is he or she indeed?

Maybe that person is you. Maybe those people are us.

An exciting thought and, to some extent, a worrisome thought. Because if it depends upon me, the truth is that me is in trouble. I suspect as well that if it depends upon you, then you is in trouble too.

Luckily for us, there is no missing person in this equation, because God’s truth will not be denied, it will not be squelched, it will not be sidetracked, it will not be destroyed. Herod knew this because, in our readings today, when Herod heard about Jesus he thought that John the Baptist had come back to life. He knew in his heart that by beheading John the Baptist he had accomplished nothing to stop the march of God and His truth through history. And he was afraid.

Satan knows the same thing. He knows that he can try to decapitate Jesus from the church, that he can try to take aware Scripture from the church, and that he can cut away all he wants … but the end is the same. And he is afraid.

Head off? No. In the truth of God’s Word, His promises, His blessings, and His Holy Spirit, and in the power of Jesus’ death on the cross to defeat death and the effects of our sin, Head On!

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