Monday, July 12

Isaiah 14:12-15

Meditating on these verses from Isaiah makes me feel like the guilty perpetrator, squirming in the witness stand as the skillful prosecutor delivers a devastating barrage of accusations.

The prosecuting prophet in today’s passage doesn’t hold back. Using the prominent biblical metaphor of the heart as the center of one’s thinking, feelings, motivations, and behavior, his indictment of the accused beats like the rhythmic pounding of one’s heart under extreme stress. “You said in your heart ‘I will… I will… I will…’” (vv. 13-14). Five times this beat reverberates.

This sustained assault on my defenses is a brutally honest
indictment of my pride of self-reliance, a sin that effectively displaces God from God’s rightful place as a trustworthy presence in my life. How often has my relationship with God been based on convenience more than constance, my back-up plan rather than my go-to plan? The dominant pronoun in my life has been “I,” rather than “Thou” for God and “you” for others. Too often my various forms of I will, both blatant and subtle, betray how thinly I trust in God’s faithfulness.

To be brought down (v. 15) from the perch of arrogant pride or vain self-sufficiency is jolting. It can be deeply humiliating. At the same time, in God’s goodness and grace, such an experience can be profoundly humbling. And humility can be an entrance to the path of transformation. 

Consider

At an event I attended years ago, Parker Palmer shared one of his dad’s humorous sayings: “Today’s peacock is tomorrow’s feather duster.” How might this practical life lesson point you to deeper spiritual truth today?

Pray

Show me, O God, my pride and arrogance. Forgive my idolatrous self-reliance that diminishes the unmerited gift of your grace through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sunday, July 11

Proverbs 16:18-19

Since it emerged in the Middle Ages, the list of the Seven Deadly Sins has always started with “Pride.” While it may be an overstatement to say that pride is the root of the other sins, in the words of a pastor friend, “it could hardly be denied that pride makes the other six deadly sins deadlier.”

The writer of Proverbs would likely agree. These verses from chapter 16 have been quoted through the centuries for their practical wisdom. I can still hear my grandma’s conflated form of verse 18 in her King James Bible, warning that “Pride goeth before a fall!” In my boyhood, this was interpreted to mean, “Watch out! Sooner or later, an overly inflated ego will trip you up, and you’re liable to land flat on your face.”

I can certainly attest to the truth that a haughty spirit can lead to humbling, even humiliating, life lessons. However, I think this text offers more than a pithy moralism. The sobering witness of Scripture is that pride is sin. In its varied manifestations, pride is sin against God and God’s creation, and sin against others and ourselves. Furthermore, it is sin with destructive consequences for us individually and for our communities and world.

As we will see in other biblical texts this week, the “better” alternative is humility. This is not a uniquely Judeo-Christian idea or virtue. But for Christians, humility is given its distinctiveness and meaning by the spirit of Jesus. And in today’s American culture, Christ-infused humility is profoundly countercultural. To choose to be of a lowly spirit, to choose to live like Jesus, is to identify with the poor, the marginalized, and the powerless. 

Consider

In what ways have you seen and experienced the destructive power of pride in your life, in your faith community, and in society?

Pray

God, the source of truth and wisdom, help me see, acknowledge, and confess the damage that pride has done in my life and in my world. Give me the courage to choose the “lowly” spirit rooted in the spirit of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, July 10

Matthew 7:24-28

Our favorite summertime fellowship site for youth retreats was the Monahans Sandhills State Park in Texas. Just west of Odessa on the highway to El Paso, the sandhills are miles and miles of beach—with no ocean! We took our beach towels and sand surfboards to play in the sand. After cooking dinner over a campfire, we watched the sun disappear behind dunes, turning the sky peach, then a deepening blue. We shared stories and testimonies, sang folk songs, youth revival songs, and always “Kum Ba Yah.”

The sandhills are legendary. Stories abound about wagons, structures, and even roads disappearing overnight beneath their constantly shifting sands. It’s easy to become disoriented in the sandhills, so we were careful to stay within sight or sound of our friends. Thirty miles east, Odessa sits on the caprock. Slab foundations are laid by scraping down a few inches to the underlying rock and pouring the concrete directly
on top. No one is foolish enough to build in the sandhills. In the high dry desert of West Texas, the truth of this parable is clear to us all. Everyone who hears these words of mine, says Jesus, and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand (v. 26).

Messages bombard us every waking hour—and they all claim authority. It is tempting to be overwhelmed by the dire warnings, to be swayed by soothing voices and clever words. We all too easily accept arguments that support our own biases and ideas. But the test of authority is truth. The question we must ask ourselves is do we listen with ears attuned to Jesus’ words? 

Consider

How are we to know which voices to believe? In whose words do you hear the words of Jesus?

Pray

Faithful Guardian, help us listen for your voice as the One that has authority. Help us recognize your words as truth. Amen.

Friday, July 9

Matthew 7:21-23

In 1926, Sinclair Lewis published a satirical novel which followed the career of the unethical, immoral—yet utterly charming and handsome—fundamentalist Baptist evangelist Elmer Gantry. When actor Burt Lancaster won a 1961 Oscar for his portrayal of Gantry, his performance felt less satirical and more descriptive of the fall (and rise again) of several big-name evangelists. Now, almost a century after that first publication, the predatory behavior of endless religious and political Elmer Gantrys feels altogether familiar, warranting only a passing headline or a single news tease. But false prophets and messianic charlatans didn’t just appear with the advent of fundamentalism in early twentieth-century America. There were numerous “messiahs” traveling about the Holy Land in the centuries leading up to and during the lifetime of Jesus. Remember, even John the Baptist sent his disciples to inquire, “Are you the one, or should we look for another?”

Jesus knows how easily we are fooled. Here in the closing paragraphs of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns his followers not to be taken in by those who wrap themselves in the mantles of religious position and high-sounding words. Don’t be misled by a slick performance and misdirection, he urges. He reminds us there is one test of authenticity: Only the one who does the will of my Father will enter the kingdom of heaven (v. 21). What is God’s will? “Love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.” Otherwise, Jesus says, “I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you’” (v. 23). Are there any more damning words?

Consider

What strikes you with fear? Who seduces you to doubt? 

Pray

Holy, loving Shepherd, you tell us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in your presence (Micah 6:8). Yet like foolish sheep, we get distracted, we wander, we go our own ways. Find us again, Lord. Draw us back into your shelter. Remind us whose and who we are. Amen.

Thursday, July 8

Matthew 7:15-20

“Truth will out” is an adage at least as old as Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. According to the Gospels, Jesus often spoke about the inescapability of truth. He both opens and closes this passage in his Sermon on the Mount with You will know them by their fruits (vv. 16, 20). He restates the idea later in a conflict with the religious authorities. Isn’t this at least part of the message of the parable of the wheat and the tares? On the day of his most public entry into Jerusalem, the authorities rebuke Jesus for allowing his joyful followers to praise him as “the king, who comes in the name of the Lord!” This was a dangerously subversive act. Jesus responds by saying, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out!” Speaking truth to power can get you crucified in the court of public opinion.

So, in a time of unrest and upheaval, are the words “The tree is known by its fruit” a threat or a promise? Must we wait for the harvest of wheat or tares to find out? How do we discern the difference between truth and falsehood in the age of intentional and widespread misinformation, disinformation, and obvious lies? How do we know which prophets are false? 

Look at the fruit. Is it life-giving or poisonous? Who loses and who profits if the prophet is false? Jesus is the standard by which we measure everything else. Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus told the uncertain Thomas, “I am the truth.” How do we measure our lives and our witness by that measure of Jesus? Are we true?

Consider

What is the fruit of your labor? What is the truth of your life?

Pray

Merciful Redeemer, help us to walk in your way, cling to the truth, and flourish in your light so the fruit of our lives will be justice, mercy, and faithful humility. Amen.

Wednesday, July 7

Matthew 7:13-14

“Why must the gate be narrow?” asks poet Wendell Berry in “The Narrow Gate.” He answers himself, “Because you cannot pass beyond it burdened.” 

Rev. Dr. Charles Albert Tindley was an African-American Methodist minister. Born of a free mother and an enslaved father, he was considered free but was raised among slaves. He was self-educated, learning Hebrew with the assistance of a Philadelphia synagogue and Greek by a correspondence course. In addition to his vocation as a minister, Tindley was a civic leader. In 1915, he and others led a protest march against the Philadelphia theater that was showing D. W. Griffith’s racist film “The Birth of a Nation.” They were attacked by counter-protesters with clubs, sticks, and bottles. Tindley was also a noted songwriter and is considered one of the founding fathers of American gospel music. One of his songs is still in Methodist hymnals and has been recorded by gospel, blues, and country artists: “If you trust and never doubt, He will surely bring you out. Take your burden to the Lord, and leave it there.” Dr. Tindley knew something about burdens.

When Jesus instructed his followers to take the narrow gate, he was not being punitive. He was being descriptive. “The gate is narrow and the road is hard [but it] leads to life.” The verses of Tindley’s song describe conditions of poverty, oppression, sickness, age, and pain, but he testifies from his own experience that God can help: “Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.”

Consider

What burdens wear you down and tempt you to despair?

Pray

Precious Lord, take our hands, lift us up, help us stand. Teach us to lay down our burdens at the foot of your cross. Fill us with love for our neighbors and courage for the future, even the hard road ahead. Amen.

Tuesday, July 6

Matthew 7:12

In 1986 Robert Fulghum launched his best-selling book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. His list of the most important things is still a good one. But as important as kindergarten was for me, I learned some even more important lessons as a Sunbeam. For those of you not of a certain age, “Sunbeams” was a Baptist mission education group for five- to seven-year-olds. There I learned that “Jesus loves me. This I know, for the Bible tells me so.” I also learned that “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world” and that “they are precious in his sight.” We also had a great little Sunbeams song: “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam, to live for him each day…at home, at school, at play.” Maybe these lessons stuck so well because we sang them. 

There is one more thing I learned in those formative years, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” That golden rule was already old when Jesus taught it. But much more recently I learned that sometimes it is better to “do unto others as they would have you do.” Working with internationals, I became accustomed to being addressed with honorifics, usually undeserved, before my name. Many students and even colleagues were uncomfortable addressing me familiarly. I learned that Mama meant both respect and affection—and was not a comment on my age. I’m still learning to consider how my actions might be misinterpreted by newcomers to Texas-American culture and I’m working to modify some of my behaviors out of consideration and friendship. Regardless of our culture or gender or political persuasion, we want to be shown respect. 

Consider

What lessons from your early childhood still ring in your ears today? If those words you still hear are good, do you hold them close to your heart? If they are bad, can you let them go?

Pray

Holy God, Jesus shows us that you do not play favorites. May we take his lessons into our hearts and your love into our attitudes. Amen.

Monday, July 5

Matthew 7:7-11

At a 1964 college student conference in Glorieta, New Mexico, I made this notation on the inside front cover of my Bible: “Though the mills of God grind slowly; yet they grind exceedingly small.” It is William Wadsworth Longfellow’s translation of an old Latin adage. The Civil Rights Era was stirring and many of us believed the long, grim night of racial oppression would soon be over. We also believed that we would “win the world for Christ in our generation.” We were wrong on both accounts. Which brings us to today’s passage. 

Do you really believe verse 8? Do askers receive and seekers find? Are those who knock greeted with opening doors? Well yes, but askers must keep asking. Seekers must be persistent. Are your knuckles bloody yet? 

Whether we believe in the Apocalypse or not, for many among us it feels like we’re the ones left behind. Especially after this past year. So we may find ourselves asking, “How long, O God?” (Ps 13:1).

Jesus assures his followers in this passage that God is not just his father, but our Father as well. God, our Creator, is the giver of good things to those who ask him. God has already given us good gifts in abundance even before we have asked: a beautiful creation which, with our faithful stewardship, can provide beauty and plenty for all; a loving Son and Savior to show us the way to freedom, justice, and mercy; a compassionate Advocate who graces us with gifts of faith, hope, and love, even in times of seemingly endless darkness; the living presence of our risen Lord!

Consider

What are you asking God for? What are you thanking God for? How are you helping God respond to the needs of your loved ones, your neighbors, our world?

Pray

Redeeming God, open our eyes to your presence. Stir our hearts and minds with your unexpected possibilities. Strengthen our will to do your will. Steady our feet in your paths of peace. Amen.

Sunday, July 4

Matthew 7:6

One of the saddest characters in modern English fiction is Gollum from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In his lust to own the Ring of power, Sméagol, a member of the Hobbit-like river folk, murders his cousin. Though the Ring greatly extends Sméagol’s life, it twists his body and mind, reducing him at last to Gollum, a creepy, creeping creature, lonely and full of self-loathing. Gollum calls the Ring “my Precious,” and both craves and hates it. When he loses his treasure, he spends the rest of his life seeking to recover it. 

Pearls were the most precious jewels of the ancient world. Cleopatra is said to have worn the two largest pearls in the world as earrings, and just one would have been worth several million dollars today. No wonder Jesus uses a pearl in his sayings and parables to symbolize deep value. On the other hand, for his Jewish audience pigs represent all that is unclean, unworthy, and contaminating. 

Don’t throw your pearls before swine is an adage I grew up with. In that time, a pearl necklace was often the first adult jewelry deemed appropriate for teenaged girls. And having a strand of real pearls was a status symbol. As a teen, I was pretty sure the pearls in this verse were the kind I dreamed of wearing. As an adult, I repeat the adage to myself when I’m tempted to give someone a piece of my mind.

Sméagol threw himself away in relentless pursuit of precious treasure. In Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Gollum is a meditation on the ultimate end of a life misspent in pursuit of unworthy treasure.

Consider

As you ponder today’s Scripture, what question nudges you about decisions that you’ve made or need to make?

Pray

Holy God, many of us are feeling muddied and trampled on. Help us lift our eyes to you and remember the price you paid for the pearls of our lives. Restore to us the joy of our salvation. Amen.

Saturday, July 3

Matthew 7:1-5

Before I had my own children, I questioned the parenting decisions of others, sometimes harshly. I’d become particularly annoyed when a child threw a fit in a public place, like the local supermarket. “If those parents knew how to discipline their child,” I used to think, “they wouldn’t be making a scene.” 

Fast forward a few years and now I’m the one with a two-year-old. I’m learning what those poor parents I judged in the supermarket already understood: reasoning with a two-year-old is often a losing battle! No matter how calm I remain or how carefully I try to reason, sometimes my child just needs to release their emotions. Unfortunately, my child isn’t sympathetic to my rising anxiety as we draw unwanted attention from those now judging how I remedy the situation.

Sometimes judging someone is easier than loving them. Assuming the worst about other parents was easy before I became one. It was also easy to assume the best about myself, had I been in their shoes. Instead of judging, Jesus invites us to the hard work of self-examination.

Archibald Macleish once said, “Religion is at its best when it makes us ask hard questions of ourselves. It is at its worst when it deludes us into thinking we have all the answers for everybody else.” 

Self-examination is not easy. It forces us to look inward and face our own demons. It can be messy work. Yet, as we learn to assess our own shortcomings and address them, we also learn to be gracious with ourselves. And as we grow in grace toward ourselves, we naturally become gentler and more patient with others. What kind of world might exist if we started removing the log in our own eye first? 

Consider

What “logs” do you need to remove from your eyes? How might dealing with those things help you see others in similar situations differently?

Pray

Christ, help us to be gracious and patient with ourselves and our neighbors as we travel this journey together. Amen.