Wednesday, September 28

Matthew 19:16-26

The rich young ruler has an imagination problem.

Have you ever hopped into your car and gotten a message on your phone announcing where you are heading and how long it takes to get there? How do our phones know where we are going? Of course, our devices are only learning to do what our brains have learned to do instantaneously. Trained by habit, our minds automatically direct our thoughts and move our hands and feet to do many everyday tasks without our thinking about them, like driving us home while we think about something else. We find new environments tiring because we must constantly think about what we are doing.

The reason change is hard for many is because they cannot picture what life will be like once things change. Happy fifth graders may be anxious as the school year nears its end because they cannot imagine what middle school will be like without many of their friends and teachers, or their familiar grounds. Retirement can be unsettling for those whose job is closely tied to their identity. “Who am I without this title?” many think.

The rich young ruler walks away because he cannot imagine a life other than the one he has. It isn’t that he simply loves his money and possessions more than his desire to follow Jesus. He just can’t imagine life with Jesus but without his wealth. The stress and anxiety of an unknown horizon is more than he can take.

The disciples have trouble imagining, too. “Then who can be saved?” they ask Jesus, who assures them that for God all things are possible (v. 25). God has abundant imagination, full of possibilities. When we face spiritual struggles, those are words of hope for us. 

Consider

What do you consider to be the scariest thing about change? Where is God when you are scared?

Pray

Lord, teach us to see soon-to-be friends in strangers and answered prayer in unexpected circumstances. Amen.

Tuesday, September 27

Psalm 62

My wife and I visited the Taizé community in France at the same time young people from across Europe came for a week or two of prayer, study, and worship. The evening vespers were enchanting. Sitting on floor cushions we sang numerous Taizé prayers in nearly a dozen languages. Soon we stopped thinking about the service and simply experienced worship. It was the silence between the a cappella singing, however, that I found most captivating. To sit in silence after letting go of thinking is to experience worship through your soul, rather than through your conscious thoughts or feelings. It defies description. The words, For God alone my soul waits in silence, took on new meaning for me after experiencing Taizé worship (v. 1).

“The Rule of Taizé” advises those in the community to let the Word of God breathe into their work and rest throughout the day. Yet, they are not encouraged to read several chapters of scripture for serious Bible study. Instead, they are told to “read little” and “to dwell on it.” This idea of reading less and reflecting more feels contrary to my Baptist upbringing and my vocation as a pastor. I’ve been raised, and have raised others, to think about scripture and God.

Some things, however, cannot be thought out; there are feelings which words cannot adequately describe, circumstances that will never make sense. Therefore, the psalmist waits for God in silence. This poet wants to move beyond thinking.

In our fast-paced, deadline-driven world, sitting in silence for God is resistance to the forces tugging at your life. Reading (and watching and gaming) less and reflecting more offers space for our soul to hear God beyond the ways our mind and feelings process.

Consider

This past week, how often did you put aside all that you have to get done to sit in silence and reflect on your life and faith? How could you make that happen today?

Pray

God, help me to wait in silence to hear your still, small voice. Amen.

Monday, September 26

Jeremiah 33:1-13

This passage is hard to read. In Jeremiah’s mind, God’s back has turned away from the people. Their dead bodies will fill the houses and become defenses at the city’s walls. This is the brutal reality of war, as ruthless in biblical times as it is today. Nevertheless, the prophet announces that places that have become a waste without human beings or animals shall once more hear the sounds of mirth and the joy of brides and grooms on their wedding day (vv. 10-11). 

In Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor reclaims the Medieval Church’s wisdom to willingly explore the dark—both physically and spiritually—in ways that our modern desire for quick fixes and happy endings cannot fathom. She quotes the anonymous fourteenth-century author of The Cloud of Unknowing, who spoke of a cloud between us and God that prevents us from clearly seeing God, “So set yourself to rest in this darkness as long as you can, always crying out after him whom you love. For if you are to experience him or to see him at all, insofar as it is possible here, it must always be in this cloud and in this darkness.” 

When my father died of a sudden heart attack, the way out of my grief was to sit in my darkness, to fully live into the reality that he was never coming back and what that loss meant to me. Once I did that for a while, I began to imagine a future without his guidance and advice and care. This is the wisdom Taylor tries to reclaim. 

In letting go of the Jerusalem that he knew, Jeremiah was able to imagine a new Jerusalem full of mirth, singing, and weddings.

The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Emilie Griffin (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1981), 15, as quoted in Barbara Brown Taylor (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 48.

Consider

When have you had to walk through the darkness and heartache of letting go in order to start imagining a new beginning?

Prayer

God of light, help us not be afraid of the dark and of learning to find you even in our losses. Amen.

Sunday, September 25

Jeremiah 32:1-15

The great cathedrals of Europe took decades to build, often more than a century. Stone masons could spend their whole lives working on a medieval cathedral, yet never live to see it completed. Dozens of masons worked side-by-side, measuring stone, cutting it with hammers and chisels, squaring it to precise dimensions, and finally placing it into a wall. They did this daily, for years, as a hopeful investment in the futures of their children and grandchildren.

“Picturing What We’re Looking For” is this week’s theme—and Jeremiah’s purchase of family land is a prime example of it. Babylon’s imperial forces have surrounded Jerusalem and laid siege to the capital city. The word of God comes to Jeremiah, telling him to go buy his cousin’s land in Anathoth—a town already under Babylonian control. The property is worthless to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

Jeremiah’s purchase is symbolic, intended to help God’s people picture how one day houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land (v. 15). This isn’t a real estate investment. The prophet isn’t buying low to sell high. This is his investment in hope. He has the deed signed in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court (v. 12). At a time when people fear that all is lost, Jeremiah makes the sale public. He wants people to believe that their descendants will know a hopeful future because their hope rests in God.

We live life in seconds, moment to moment. But we worship a God that sees in generations. Recalibrating hope beyond our immediate circumstances provides wisdom for living our days. This is how to address climate change or systemic racism—as investments in hope that our children and grandchildren will one day enjoy.

Consider

How do you express your hope in God through the decisions you make for the long haul?

Pray

Lord, help me to not grow faint when the journey is long, but to find the courage to keep taking one step after another. Amen.

Saturday, September 24

Psalm 146

When we step too far away and find ourselves in danger, praise be to God, who seeks us with the compassionate strength of a shepherd.

When we hide between the nooks and crannies of sin and doubt, praise be to God, who seeks us like a determined, desperate widow in search of a lost treasure.

When we need to be set free to find our own way, praise be to God, who welcomes us home with the warmth of a loving parent.

When we substitute good deeds for devotion to God, praise be
to God, who comes to us with holy wisdom and says, “All I have
is yours.”

Psalm 146 praises God who never stops working in the world. God ceaselessly feeds those who hunger for bread and those who hunger for righteousness. God ceaselessly opens the eyes of the blind (v. 8). God picks up those who have been cast down and those who have cast themselves away. 

The God whom we seek constantly seeks us. Sometimes we feel forgotten by God. We feel left alone to drown in our doubts, fears, and grief. But the good news is that the search for us is on. God’s Spirit is set loose in the world. No distance is too far; no doubting is too great.

Consider

When you imagine God seeking after you, what image resonates with you? That of a strong shepherd, a determined widow, a loving parent, a compassionate friend?

Prayer

Ever-seeking God, thank you that you will never stop seeking me. Turn my heart and spirit towards you so that I will realize your love and devotion anew. Amen.

Friday, September 23

Luke 15:25-32

Consider how this chapter, with its three parables about being lost and found, begins. Jesus hears the grumbling of religious leaders who reveal that they don’t embrace the truth of a scripture verse they have surely memorized: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is 53:6). In case his stories about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a prodigal son have not transformed those who are grumbling, Jesus adds a finale that makes the truth hard to miss. His final scene focuses on a character who bears a remarkable resemblance to the Pharisees and scribes. The elder son doesn’t consider himself “lost,” but whether he chooses to be “found” is still up in the air. Maybe this story should be retitled “The Lost Brothers.” 

Yes, the younger son is the one who openly wears the wayward prodigal label and who leaves his father to feed his rebellious longings. But the elder son also loses his way. The vast land of arrogant pride and addictive self-righteousness becomes too appealing and he wanders away from his father’s example. His inner journey of self-centeredness distances him from his father who longs to share with this son all of the blessing and goodness he has to offer. 

“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way….” Until we recognize that everyone falls short, but God’s grace wants to claim us anyway, we will miss out on the full and celebratory experience of God’s love. Jesus invites us to realize our need to return to God’s love daily. Again and again, we all come before God to be received and forgiven.

Consider

What helps you recognize your daily need for divine forgiveness? 

Pray

God of the wayward like me, help us come to ourselves and run to your open arms again and again. Amen.

Thursday, September 22

Luke 15:20-24

You know what it’s like when you are far from home and feeling a bit homesick. Memories of home and family come flooding back. You think of relatives, good cooking, favorite pets, funny moments, life-giving conversations. The prodigal son knows this experience like
we do.

While he is out there in the world, hungry, lost, and homesick, he keeps recalling all those things they say about home: “home is where the heart is,” “home is the place where when you show up, they have to take you in,” “home is where your story begins.”

The prodigal decides to change his ways and head for the place he left. Now that his life has fallen apart, he will return to his roots and go back to the only foundation he has ever known. He will return to the place where his story began. But he knows this chapter will definitely be different. He can’t expect to return as though nothing has happened. He works on his speech during the long trip back, hoping his dad will agree to let him become a hired hand. He heads home gazing downward, his shame intact.

While the son is still far off, his father spots him. He sees the son of his love, the one he has fervently hoped would return. The father greets him with celebration, affection, and gifts. The father’s welcome overwhelms this prodigal.

God’s welcome for us is much the same. When we repentantly return to God, we discover the love of a Savior who has been fervently longing for this moment. God receives us with a warm embrace and a face filled with relief. In God’s love, we find welcome and a place to call home.

Consider

When have you felt the surprising joy of being received with God’s warm embrace? 

Pray

Gracious God, remind me that no matter where I go or what I do, I am always your child. Thank you for always welcoming me home with open arms and overflowing love. Amen.

Wednesday, September 21

Luke 15:11-19

My favorite part of the Prodigal Son story happens in verse 17, after the younger brother’s over-the-top adventures in a distant country where he spends his entire inheritance and winds up without friends or food. After six verses of riotous behavior and its consequences, the prodigal has a moment of awareness when he came to himself. The prodigal finally turns inward, turning this story into one about recognizing what is true and returning to it. This becomes the story about how God’s love redeems the world.

Maybe this son recognizes that he has been living in the shadow side of his nature. Maybe he recognizes that something has been missing in his life. Or maybe he just recognizes exactly how hungry and tired he is. No matter what stops him from continuing on his self-destructive path, he does turn around and head for home, returning to his roots.

The prodigal comes to himself. He looks inward to that place where God dwells, his true nature. He knows that is where he needs to return. He needs to go back to his father and the place of his grounding. The prodigal makes his way back and admits what he has done and what he has become. He opens his soul to transformation, and we witness how excited his father is to welcome him home.

Each time we come to God in honest devotion, we are doing the same thing. We are returning to the recognition that God dwells within us and teaches us who we really are. Looking inward and acknowledging the shadowy nature of ourselves is part of the process of reuniting with God. Self-confrontation leads us to realize that we are constantly on this spiritual journey. This is the work of our life.

Consider

In what ways do you need to return to God? 

Pray

Loving God, when we feel far away from who we really are, help us return to ourselves and to you. Help us know your welcome this day. Amen.

Tuesday, September 20

Luke 15:8-10

You know how that moment feels, that long moment after your last glance of your child in the department store, when you suddenly realize that she’s slipped away from your sight. Or recall that moment when your wedding band slips off your finger and starts rolling towards the shower drain. Whatever the circumstances, that long moment between realizing something is lost (or about to be) and the point of finding it again is of utmost importance.

When something is misplaced, its value seems to rise in your mind. The time span between losing and finding can seem excruciatingly long, even if lasts just a few seconds, and is often punctuated by your increased heartbeat and frantic actions.

In this parable of the lost coin, what the woman does in the time between losing and finding is what piques my interest. She lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and searches carefully until she finds what she’s missing. What we do in the time between losing and finding is crucial, whether we have lost an object, our child, or some part of ourselves that we cherish. 

Like losing a precious object, when we feel that something within us is lost, we may first go into panic mode or depression. That reaction is necessary, but then we must begin the search. We must light the lamp, clean out the inner nooks and crannies of our lives, and search until we find that lost part of ourselves—the part that seems separated from God.

The process of seeking and finding our connection to God is holy work. To recover this lost coin within ourselves involves sitting in the in-between time until we discover that God has been there all the while.

Consider

What part of you feels lost today? How can you sit with God and continue your search?

Pray

Ever-seeking God, please show me the lost places within myself. Guide me to know how to sit in the in-between spaces of my life and seek you. Amen.

Monday, September 19

Luke 15:1-7

A parable about sheep and shepherds makes a wonderful children’s story. After years of leading children’s choirs and musicals, Kathie Hill’s musical “We Like Sheep” remains one of my favorites. I still recall sweet voices singing, “He never falls asleep counting sheep. Each number stands for a precious lamb that he’s been trusted to keep. No matter how long the day has been, we can always count on him. He never falls asleep counting sheep.” Jesus’ story about a shepherd who won’t stop looking for the lost sheep inspires children and their teachers alike. 

But will the story’s original audience, those grownups grumbling about the company Jesus keeps, be inspired by his creative response to their complaints? Jesus addresses their issue head on, explaining that welcoming the lost back into the fold is the point of his ministry. Such activity should bring joy to the faithful. If such acts of grace do not bring us joy, we need to identify what it is within us that is lost. 

In this parable, as well as the other ones about being lost, we learn that God is always pursuing us. God doesn’t slumber or rest from the work of loving and redeeming us. Rather, God seeks those who are lost and brings them back to the place where they belong, where God’s Spirit connects with our spirit. Our place is with God, and God will go to great lengths to bring us home.

Consider

How is God pursuing you right now? If you aren’t sure, think about the aspects of your life that are most stressful, and those that bring you the most joy. What might God want you to realize through each of those experiences?

Pray

Good Shepherd, remind me today of the ways that you love me and hold me in your grace. Amen.