Tuesday, November 19

Isaiah 5:5-6

There is a shell of a half-built hotel on the street where I live. It wears a sign that says, “Coming Soon: Spring 2009.” There are vines and weeds winding and poking through the concrete and steel. Animals have made their homes inside. What was once meant to be a hotel in the middle of the heart of downtown is a canvas for graffiti and decay. 

What’s interesting about this building, though, is that it hasn’t been completely abandoned. A developer still owns it and is waiting for the right circumstances to finish construction so it might serve its intended purpose.

Today’s Scripture offers no answers for why the grapes turned out wild in Isaiah’s vineyard song, but there is a consequence. The beloved is still speaking, and he describes what will happen to the carefully built, perfectly prepared vineyard. The beloved will stop protecting, stop tending, and nature will run its course. There will be no pruning, no hoeing, no walls for protection, and no rain for sustenance.

It’s interesting that the beloved does not actively harm the vines. Instead, he’s passive. He removes his protection and ongoing care and lets things play out as they will.

Is the beloved’s response too harsh? I don’t think so. It’s difficult to read and consider, but I see a glimmer of hope. He lets it lay waste, but he doesn’t abandon it. He takes the time to tell the story of the vineyard to the people who need to hear it.

Consider

Has there been a time in your life when it felt like everything was falling into ruin? Could you sense the presence of the beloved even in the midst of it? How?

Pray

God, help us be people who listen closely when you speak, even when what we hear is confusing or hard to receive. Amen.

Monday, November 18

Isaiah 5:3-4

We left Isaiah’s beloved yesterday sitting in a puddle of disappointment. Today, the beloved speaks to the people of Judah who live in Jerusalem, and asks, “What more could I have done?”

What I love about Scripture is the opportunity it gives us to reflect and engage as we read. Jesus often speaks in parables, allowing his audience to think and consider what the story might mean. Later, he reveals the meaning, and we readers get to learn. Jesus’ teaching style was built upon years and years of tradition.

Here, Isaiah’s beloved is asking the people what they think about the story. Why did the grapes come out wild rather than the choice fruit they should have been given the superb growing and cultivating conditions?

We don’t get an answer. Perhaps they are still pondering. Perhaps they have a sinking feeling that they might be more a part of the story than Isaiah is letting on.

Imagine yourself in the crowd. You’ve just heard the story of the beloved building the vineyard and, instead of a satisfying harvest, things have turned wild and useless. You heard how careful he was to build his vineyard, how much skill and expertise went into the many layers of foundation, selection, and protection. What more could he have done?

When I put myself in the crowd, I’m perplexed. Why didn’t the grapes turn out the way they should have? Was it just in their nature? From the little bit I know about gardening, it seems the beloved did everything right; I don’t think he could have done anything else.

Consider

What is it like when you sit in the midst of Scripture and wait for a word from the Lord? Have there been times when you had an inkling that you knew what God might have to say and that perhaps it would be hard to hear?

Pray

God, make us sensitive to your teaching. Draw us close as we sit at your feet and hear from your Word and your Spirit, even when it’s hard. Amen.

Sunday, November 17

Isaiah 5:1-2

This morning I watched a video of a man building a swimming pool by hand, deep in the jungle somewhere. He uses only handmade tools and the strength of his body for the task. He has one small pail to fill with earth and water. The pool will sit on a second-floor balcony of a hand-built bamboo hut, a beautiful place to relax.

Every time he needs more soil, he climbs out of the swimming hole, walks down a set of stairs, and fills his vessel. He climbs back up the stairs and dumps the earth into the hole, again and again. He chops down bamboo, thick and strong, with a handmade machete. He measures, working with careful precision. He hammers the split bamboo into soft mud to create yet another layer of insulation. And finally, he begins trip after trip to a stream to get enough water to fill the pool.

When it’s finally full, he jumps in and splashes around, enjoying his creation.

This is how I imagine Isaiah’s beloved working on his vineyard: hand tools, the sweat pouring from his body, muscles tight from the work. He makes trip after trip up the hill to tend the earth and build up a protective fortress and vat for the hoped-for produce. Eventually he plants the best vines and the grapes begin to grow.

The beloved reaches for them with much anticipation. They will be sweet! They will be choice! They will burst in his mouth!

But no. They are wild.

It is as if the man in the jungle had jumped into his new swimming pool only to have it crash down through the roof of the rooms below.

Consider

How would you react to such a disappointment? Think about a time when you worked really hard on something only to have it fail.

Pray

Lord, make us sensitive to the words of Isaiah and the work of his beloved. Open our hearts and minds to the things you would have us to see and the ways you would have us to grow. Amen.

Saturday, November 16

Mark 10:15-16

“What is the best part of your job?”

I was so glad she asked me that question. Most of the time when I tell people I’m a chaplain in a children’s hospital, they respond with a tilted head, a furrowed brow, and a deep sigh: “Oh, that must be a really hard job.”

Well sure, there are difficult days. But there are also amazing days full of hope and healing. Every day I get to see parents and caregivers fiercely love and advocate for the least of these. It’s an honor to stand with them.

I gave my interviewer a slight smile and told her a secret. You might think I’m a little off, I told her, but something incredible happens when I visit my littlest patients. They look up at me with a knowing smile. Sometimes they laugh as they lock their eyes on mine. Their parents will often comment, “That’s the first time she’s smiled since she got here!” or “He hasn’t laughed in days!” The babies and I just grin because we know something their parents don’t, or have forgotten. Their child’s smile has nothing to do with me. 

Call it calm, or peace, or God, but the best part of my job is when a child recognizes the One that came into the room with me. To me, it is the purest form of the work I do. I am a vessel, and it gives me chills to realize what a gift that is.

Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it (v. 15). The kingdom of God is all around us, able to be received in countless moments. But sadly, too many of us have stopped looking. Oh, that we still had the eyes of children, wide open to the Holy in the ordinary, everyday moments of life.

Consider

Describe an everyday moment when you knew you were standing in God’s presence. What would it take for moments like that to happen more often?

Pray

Was that you today, God, or was it my mind playing tricks on me? I think you’re around me more than I realize. I want to see you. Amen.

Friday, November 15

Mark 10:13-14

I once heard a preaching professor say, “If you’re always identifying with the hero in the story, then perhaps you’re missing the point.”

“What were the disciples thinking?” we ponder in indignant confusion. “How could they possibly want to keep the children from Jesus?” It takes no time at all for us to stand behind Jesus and point a finger at the disciples. How dare they.

Until we remember the times we’ve experienced one of Jesus’ less-desirable grown-up children and cringed. We’ve encountered someone who didn’t think like we think or act like we act or believe like we believe, and we’ve wanted to keep them as far from God’s circle of friends as possible.

Until we remember the times we’ve looked in the mirror and been so ashamed and disappointed in ourselves that we’ve desperately wanted to hide from God. We thought we weren’t good enough, not kind, patient, or forgiving enough to be truly seen and held by the One who knows us best. We thought we didn’t deserve that kind of love.

Jesus says, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs (v. 14b). The ones the disciples tried to keep away were the ones that Jesus wanted closest. They didn’t have special qualifications, polished personas, or perfect temperaments. They were just children in need of love…and aren’t we all?

Consider

Who in your world do you think doesn’t deserve God’s love? Is that person you? 

Pray

Sometimes, dear Jesus, I am standing on the edge of the crowd of children. I long to be close, but I don’t want you to really see me. Help me take a step forward, trusting that you want us all as close as we can be. Amen.

Thursday, November 14

Hosea 11:10-11

I first learned the concept of “future story” from Andrew Lester. Just like we have a past story, we are always writing a future story about what tomorrow will bring. Whether short term (what we’re having for dinner) or long term (the hopes we have for our children), we are always writing future stories.

Future stories are a big part of the work of pediatric chaplains, often because those stories have been dramatically interrupted. A life-altering diagnosis. A devastating injury. A required intervention with unknown outcomes. Every day, future stories are being challenged and, sometimes, lost.

The loss of a future story is a uniquely powerful pain. Often, it’s a loss many parents just can’t hear. “She’s walking out of here,” they’ll angrily say as the doctor speaks of her spinal cord injury. “He’s going to survive,” they’ll defiantly shout in the face of a grim prognosis. Their pain is so profound, they cannot make room for anything but the future they had always imagined; anything less is unacceptable.

They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD (v. 11). God is writing a future story for Israel, but it isn’t an unrealistic one. They will come home again, God says, but they will be different. They will tremble for the things they have been through and for the unknown things to come, but they will come home.

Rewriting a future story is terribly painful, but it can also be incredibly hopeful. With tears in our eyes, we tentatively take up the pen again and whisper our affirmation: no matter what the future holds, God will be there.

Consider

What does the future hold for you? Is it what you originally planned? How will you trust that God will be there no matter what?

Pray

Alpha and Omega, may we never forget that you were with us for the beginning and you’ll be with us for the end, no matter what that end looks like. Amen.

Wednesday, November 13

Hosea 11:8-9

“You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.”

I first heard these words when a preschool teacher was handing out popsicles. There was a cacophony of demands rising from the little voices surrounding her: “I want an orange one!” “Purple!” “Red!” The teacher laid down the law: a popsicle is a popsicle. You get what you get.

For seven verses, God has told the Israelites you get what you get. “Choose to walk away, and you will experience the consequences of your choices. Follow another god and you will find yourselves enslaved and far from home.” Then, in a seemingly sudden reversal, God is gathering the children into God’s arms, where the popsicle supply never runs out. 

I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath (v. 9b). In the end, the love of God is so much more persistent than the waywardness of God’s children. We will fail, there will be consequences, God will call us back. We will fail, there will be consequences, God will call us back. God will never stop calling us back home.

Our mortality makes this so hard to understand. We can’t imagine there being infinite forgiveness because we don’t have infinite eyes. We can’t imagine God loving us no matter what because we struggle so much to love ourselves that way. We see dimly, so we do not understand being fully known. Hear the good news one more time: the view of God is long, the love of God is eternal, and the patience of God is never-ending.

Consider

What within yourself are you struggling to forgive? What would it be like if you could love yourself the way God loves you?

Pray

When I try to wrap my mind around just how much you love me, I am astonished and amazed all over again. I don’t know what else to say but thank you, God. Thank you. Amen.

Tuesday, November 12

Hosea 11:5-7

“Eventually, I lost everything. My job, my friends, my home, my family. At the time, I didn’t think my choices were hurting anyone but me, but I was wrong. I had no idea how wrong I was until it was too late.”

As a chaplain, I’ve heard this lament far too many times. Sometimes I wish I could record it and play it for people who are at the beginning of a series of bad decisions, as if hearing about someone else’s destroyed life would stop them from destroying their own. But that isn’t the nature of consequences. No, consequences must be experienced to be effective. Rare is the person who learns from someone else’s mistakes.

And yet Hosea tells Israel’s story in the desperate hope that we will hear it and not make the same error. The sword rages in their cities…and devours because of their schemes. My people are bent on turning away from me (vv. 6-7a). At times we have heard these words as prescriptive, as if God is punishing the Israelites for their disobedience. But I find them to be far more powerful when I hear them as a descriptive reality: because of the choices Israel made, they will experience these consequences.

We will lose what we think of as home. We will be captive to a way of life we didn’t really want. We will not see the future as hopeful, but as full of the same despair over and over again. Choosing to follow any other voice but God’s will lead us down a path we don’t want to follow.

It’s not that the future can’t be rewritten. It’s not that life can’t come after death or hope after disappointment. Indeed, that is what the good news is all about. It’s just that, sometimes, we have to live with the wrong choice before we can make the right one.

Consider

Are you in the middle of living with a wrong choice? What will it take for you to make the right one?

Pray

God of second chances…and third, and fourth, and hundredth…I am humbled by your love that keeps calling me back again and again. This time, I want to make the right choice, and I want to stay faithful to it. Amen.

Monday, November 11

Hosea 11:3-4

My home is ruled by a ten-pound dog.

Daisy joined our household when my daughter, now a junior in college, was in kindergarten. Daisy was already an adult dog when we rescued her from the pound, so she’s at least 15 years old, probably more. Daisy’s a cranky old woman who just wants things the way she wants them, and wonders why people don’t know exactly what that is. In her mind, we all exist to serve her and we should be grateful for the opportunity. If that means breakfast at 4 am, then so be it.

I like to think that rescue animals always retain some memory of life in the big house, and are thus eternally grateful for their second chance, but Daisy tinkles regularly on my theory. Perhaps she’s more like the Israelites than not. God’s voice through Hosea says, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them (v. 3b). Like a privileged household pet who has claimed her spot on the couch, we have forgotten how life used to be.

It seems to be human nature that when life is going well, we easily forget when it was not. We forget the times we struggled, when we were knocked down and out by the blows of the world and (more often) our own poor decisions. We forget how many times God has picked us up and dusted us off, offering us life and hope again.

It doesn’t seem like an unreasonable request: our Parent simply wants us to remember that it is he who rescues us, she who feeds us. Why? Because when we forget, we walk through life feeling smugly
entitled. But when we remember, we rest in profound gratitude.

Consider

What are you grateful for today? What are you taking for granted?

Pray

Too often, God, I forget how blessed I am to be called your child. May this be a day when I walk in gratitude, alive to all the ways you love me. Amen.

Sunday, November 10

Hosea 11:1-2

The last little bird left my nest this fall, and I don’t know what to do.

I clearly remember when my friends were going through this stage of life. I thought, “What’s the big deal? Why aren’t they relishing their freedom and congratulating themselves on a job well done?” I had no idea. The silence is unavoidable, the empty house is cavernous, and my freed-up schedule is like a mountainous beanbag chair I must maneuver around every day.

The prophet Hosea is known for using spousal and parental imagery to describe God’s relationship with Israel, making his writing feel so personal to us. Whether we are the parent or the child, we hear God’s deep longing for what once was: When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me (vv. 1-2a). Hosea wants us to feel God’s pain, that heavy, empty, silent pain of the parent whose child has no idea how loved she is.

I stand in the hospital room of the teenager who, in a desperate act, has ingested a handful of pills from a medicine cabinet. In the corner sits her mother, her eyes wide open with horror and confusion, eyes that may never truly close in rest again. 

I turn to the patient whose defiance fills the room like a thick fog. As her chaplain I say, “I pray today is a better day than yesterday. I pray you understand how very empty our world would be without you. I pray you know deep in your bones that you are loved.”

Consider

Who in your world needs to know they are deeply loved? Is that person you?

Pray

Our Loving Parent, give us courage to speak hope into despair and wholeness into brokenness. May we all feel deeply in our bones how much you love us. Amen.