Second Sunday of Lent 2019: The Gospel Passage – Grace and protection during Lent

The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh– my adversaries and foes– they shall stumble and fall. Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.” (Psalm 27:1 – 3)

Many years ago I was going through a particularly difficult time in my life. Getting through some days was hard enough. But relaxing and trying to get to sleep at night was nigh on impossible sometimes. And I needed to sleep and be rested to get through the days. That is when I remember an old technique called “swaddling”. It is mostly done with infants; you tuck a blanket around their body securely. It mimics being held closely safe and secure. What I did was take a second top sheet and fold it into thirds and then tucked it under the other to sheet. And night I open it up and slid my body into the folded over section. Then I repeat to myself “Nothing can get in here except for my Lord God, and what I bring. I can choice what I bring into this protected place. And I can choice what stays out.” Then I focus on the warmth and comfort of being safe and rest in the Lord. It has worked for over 20 years. Most nights I sleep very well.

One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple. For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock. Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the LORD.” (Verses 4 – 6)

I also have a Sherpa/pseudo lamb’s wool blanket that I tuck around me and sometimes over my head. Besides having some night time anxiety I also have problems keeping warm when I am trying to fall asleep. One side of the blanket is the Sherpa material, and the other side is a silky velour type of material. Softness, warmth, and secure embraces help me to relax and sleep. But all of these would mean nothing if I were not able to rest in the Lord.

Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, LORD, do I seek.” (Verses 7 – 8)

I do not know if the psalmist did the same thing; wrap himself tightly in a soft cloak and cover his head for warmth. But it seems clear that the psalmist did cry out to the Lord and sought solace and comfort in the Lord’s presence.

During those early difficult years I did sometimes feel that the Lord had “abandoned” me. Or at least that was my perception when the tough times came. What I eventually realized was the Lord was actually inviting me to closer communion with the Divine against those things that I felt were assailing me.

Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!
If my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me up.
Teach me your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.” (Verses 9 – 12)

I have written at times that Lent is a time of testing. Our Lord God Jesus Christ was tested – tested by the devil with temptations that the evil one imagined that Jesus would give into. Tested by the Pharisees who thought to trip him up with questions and ominous warnings. And tested by the disciples who did not always see what Jesus was trying to show them. And though we may feel tested, we can always find the answer with Jesus Christ and our Lord God.

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.
Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!” (Verses 13 – 14)

Whether this season of Lent be a time of testing for you beloved reader, or a time of learning – may you seek out the Divine and receive grace and protection. Selah!

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First Sunday of Lent 2019: The Psalm Passage – Being sheltered during Lent

You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” (Psalm 91:1 – 2)

A few days ago I made “confession” that I was feeling stressed and overwhelmed over something. I was going to let it rest for three days before I decided what to do, and more importantly, not to stress over it. Well, the situation has not resolved – that is, it is still present. But I am not obsessing over it, and I came up with a plan to handle it. And most importantly, I commended it to the Divine, and now I am at peace. So I can say with the psalmist “My refuge and fortress is in the Lord.” As a result . . . .

“Because you have made the LORD your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.” (Verses 9 – 13)

I also said last time we met over scripture that Jesus’ temptations were specific to Jesus. The psalmist does offer protection for those are the subject of the preaching/teaching. But I think the psalmist’s offer of protection for feet is more metaphorical than literal. At least that is my assumption. I base it first on hyperbole of scripture. And second, you can bet that the Devil will twist the words of scripture to its own purposes and devices.

“Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.” (Verses 14 – 16)

Lastly, but not least, we need to think of the saints and spiritual forebearers who have gone before us and paid with their lives for their faithfulness and steadfastness to the Divine. Can we say that the Lord God “rescued them” if they were put to death? Did that live long lives if they were cut down in their young adulthood? Yes, they were answered when they called on the Lord. The Lord was with them in troubled times and honored them. And they knew salvation. But there is no guarantee in the Christian life of safety. At least not bodily safety. And that is the falsehood that the Devil tried to sell Jesus. He did not fall for it, and neither should we.

The refuge and fortress of the Divine does not promise earthly human safety. Granted, many are saved. But it is not a promise that can be used to protect us and excuse us from reckless behavior, nor the troubled times and misfortune we have in life. In fact the season of Lent can be a time of being tested. Tested in many ways; perhaps our own temptations as we talked about yesterday. Or trouble that comes our way even within the Christian life.

Beloved reader, how I wish I could sit down with you and hear about your Christian journey. And share with you mine. Exchanging stories from our faith lives helps us to better understand the challenges and temptations, and the promises that the Divine gives us. I hope and pray during this season of Lent you do find someone to share with. Read scripture with, and pray with. Often times the refuge and fortress of the Lord is made manifest through being in community with others. And we in turn offer them a refuge and fortress that comes about because of our relationship with the Divine. The season of Lent can be an arduous one, but not one that we journey on along. Praise the Lord, and Selah!

First Sunday of Lent 2019: The Gospel Passage – Firm resolve during Lent

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.” (Luke 4:1 – 2)

I looked it up, beloved reader, and if you have water you could go forty days without food. So it was not a Divine attribute that allowed Jesus to do this, but a natural function of the human body. However, the Devil did tempt Jesus in ways that are unique to the Divine.

The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” (Verses 3 – 12)

It is “tempting” to think that we might be able to withstand temptation such as these if the Devil were to offer it to us. But what you need to understand, beloved reader, is that these temptations were specific to Jesus. Because only Jesus as the Son of God could do what the Devil asked. We cannot turn stones to bread, much less any other food. The Devil is not really interested in us worshiping him/it, although the Devil may tempts us in that way so we do not follow the Lord God. And it was not command that the angels will protect us from harm if we foolishly endanger ourselves. No, it was only for Jesus that these temptations were worth the Devil’s time and effort.

“When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” (Verse 13)

We never do hear if there was a more “opportune time.” The book and movie, “The Last Temptation of Christ” hinges itself on these phrase, suggesting that the Devil did indeed return and was more successful – for a time. But we know according to Holy Scripture that the gospel writers do not record a return, nor do they give any evidence that Jesus’ resolve failed. (Thanks be to God!)

So what is our portion for this scripture? Or do we have any part of it? Well . . . we have our own temptations; specific to our personality and to the human spirit. One of the things about Lent is that it is forty days of our proving our resolve to following Christ and the Lord God. Are we willing to give up our human agenda and commit ourselves to the way of Jesus? Do we belief that Jesus is the Son of God and empowered to forgive and absolve our sin? (Of course that is not the only thing Jesus did, but it is at the forefront of Lent and Easter.) Do we accept Jesus’ teaching as the way we should live our lives? At each week and stage of Lent there are questions that we need to answer.

Each of the three years of the lectionary cycle Lent has its own distinctive theme. This year is Year C and it is the year of penance, of confessing our sins and being forgiven. The story of the prodigal son has a prominent place in the readings this year. It comes later in the weeks of Lent. Watch for it. Until then, consider the questions that I have posed. Think too what temptations there might be in your life that takes your focus off the Divine and the life you are called to by the Lord God. May you remain firm, and give the Devil no “opportune time”! Selah!

First Sunday of Lent 2019: The Epistle Passage – Coming to the “land” of peace and hope during Lent

“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:8b – 9)

It seems that when ever there is a real world reality confronting me, there is also a epistle passage that is at the forefront of my day. Maybe something (or Someone) is trying to tell me something – that I should not obsess about the real world reality, and instead focus on the needs of the spiritual world and my spiritual life.

Many years ago, when I felt that fate and fortune were against me, I felt overwhelmed and could not manage what was at the forefront of my real world reality. So I decided not to obsess over it and instead wait three days before I felt I needed to take action. I got the idea of waiting three days because Jesus lay in the grave for three days, and the disciples and his followers mourned thinking all was lost. But on the third day grace and rescue dawned and all their problems faded away. Joy took the place of sadness and celebration took the place of mourning. It seemed like a good plan when I first decided on it, and it seems like a good plan to this day. The discipline is to let things rest for the three days.

“For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Verses 10 – 13)

Now, beloved reader, what is at the real world forefront for me has nothing to do with spirituality or salvation. It is actually the sort of thing that a well disciplined person with deep faith would commend to the Lord and trust in the Divine. I do, beloved reader, at times fall short of what I expect of myself. And I do, after stressing about things, finally hand it over to the Lord God. While things may not work out the way I think they would, or the way I hoped they would – things do work out. And how ever they work out, I feel the Lord is with me.

But I have to wonder . . . . . . can I/should I apply scripture that talks of faith and salvation to my real world problems? I know the answer is most probably “yes”. And I know the Lord God is concerned about my concerns and cares for all aspects of my life. And I also know the best approach is to “let go and let God.” That is not always easy to do, however.

In this instance I think I need to learn the lesson once again, to hand over the worries and concerns I have to the Divine and have faith. To stand on the promise that “No one who believes in him (the Divine) will be put to shame.”

It is an irony, beloved reader, that we are entering into Lent. A time of self-examination. A learning and growing experience. If that is the case for me, then I will be a willing student of the Divine! Selah!

 

Ash Wednesday 2019: The Old Testament, New Testament and Psalm Passages – A combined reflection

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near- a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.” (Joel 2:1 – 2)

Ash Wednesday. I remember them from my days at seminary. One of the few places where it was quite natural for everyone to wear a gray smudge on their forehead on this day. I miss living in that type of community where so many things were done according to the lectionary and liturgy. At the time I did not appreciate the framework of living in a liturgical community. Somehow I had the idea that it would just continue once I got to the “outside world.” I was mistaken in that.

“Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?” (Verses 12 – 14)

Other things have taken the place of that liturgical framework. One large part has been doing these blog posts for . . . . over ten years now. It shapes my days and weeks. It reminds me to turn my heart inward and listen to the Divine. It shapes me!

“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O LORD, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?'” (Verses 15 – 17)

When I am in the “outside world” I need to be my own “priest” and “minister” as opposed to seminary where we ministered to each other. Encountering scripture on a daily basis has prepared me to both minister to myself and extend ministry to others.

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1 – 6)

When I first started writing commentaries – before I started having a blog – one series I did was for a church newsletter. Actually it was more of a monthly reflection. I called “From my Prayer Closet” and it was in part inspired by this passage from Matthew.

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Verses 16 – 18)

Thinking about it, one of the drawbacks of living in a lectionary liturgical community was that was easy to know what another person’s faith life was like; or at least the broad sketches because when you worship with someone just about every day, talk to them during and outside of classes, and know their back story – you get to know them quite well. It is interesting then that Jesus exhorts his disciples, followers, and believers to partly shield their faith practices from other’s eyes.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Verses 19 – 21)

My true treasure is my faith life. It has supported me and under girded me. It has trained me to handle everything that life has thrown at me. And helped me make sense of the events in my life. The coming of the seasons of the church year – the familiar cycles both yearly and in the lectionary every three years – remind me of the tasks that need to be done for me to grow in the Lord. And finally, it leads me to prayer.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” ( Psalm 51:1-17)

 

First Sunday of Lent 2019: The Old Testament Passage – Coming to the “land” of Lent

When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.” (Deuteronomy 26:1 – 2)

In the midst of the current political climate, these verses bother me. It has always bothered me when/if one person does well it means that another person has lost what they had. While the Hebrews might have been the inheritors of the land that the Lord God “gave” them, it meant the people native to that land lost something – either the land, their lives, or both!

“You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.” (Verse 3)

I understand that these verses are meant to be reminders to the Hebrews/Israelites to respond to God’s promise and generosity. The Old Testament was written from the perspective that the only people who benefited from the monotheistic Divine were those who were called and chosen through the line of Abraham. But it still feels unsettling.

“When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.” (Verses 4 – 5)

At some point in the bible (probably the New Testament) believers are prompted to be kind to the strangers in the land because they too were strangers in the land at one point. I guess that exhortation did not extend to taking over Canaan.

“When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Verses 6 – 9)

It is very possible that those who came to the shores of North America might have said the same thing. And yet, and yet . . . . . we also hear the voices of those who were native to those shores, and the violence that was done to them. In fact from many, many shores around the world those native to those lands have stories of great harm done to them.

“So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.” (Verses 10 – 11)

The Israelites had become the prime residents of the land. Those who resided there but were not descendants of the twelve tribes were considered to be “outsiders.” Why, you might ask, does this bother me so much? One of the reasons, among several, is that we are entering the season of Lent where all of us are found to be lacking in some aspect of correct Christian living. Who are we, regardless of birthright and heritage, to call another not part of the “correct” group or people? Shalom!

Transfiguration Sunday 2019: The Psalm Passage – Not questioning the Divine

The LORD is king; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
The LORD is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples.
Let them praise your great and awesome name. Holy is he!” (Psalm 99:1 – 3)

I am pleased to say that I am doing better. The tough days as a result of my radiation treatment are over, and I am slowly healing. Being in a better space and frame of mind, the psalm passages do not hit me as hard. And this psalm passage does not ask me to follow a pre-ordained and prescribed pattern of praise, so I am fine listening to the psalmist. It is good to be at peace like this.

“Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob. Extol the LORD our God; worship at his footstool. Holy is he!” (Verses 4 – 5)

And the psalmist is doing a good job of describing the Lord God who has helped me through this journey. Of course my approval (or disapproval for that matter) does not change a whit of the truth that is being told nor does it change who and what the Divine is and has done.

“Moses and Aaron were among his priests, Samuel also was among those who called on his name. They cried to the LORD, and he answered them. He spoke to them in the pillar of cloud; they kept his decrees, and the statutes that he gave them. O LORD our God, you answered them; you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings. Extol the LORD our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the LORD our God is holy.” (Verses 7 – 9)

And then comes the part where this touches on Transfiguration Sunday – the harking back to Moses. And then appearance on the holy mountain of of Moses and Elijah (who strangely enough is not mentioned by the psalmist). Elijah lived his life according to the decrees and statutes of the Lord God. That is why he was a colleague of Moses and a support of Jesus at this moment in his ministry. Furthermore, in the transfiguration we have the confirmation again of Jesus being the son of and part of the Lord God.

As one who believes deeply in the triune nature of the Lord God Jesus Christ who inspires the Holy Spirit – I do not question at all the Divine. Yes, sometimes I struggle in my life and in my faith life. But question? No. Selah!