Of Rainbows and Patience

Below is the final of seven devotionals I was asked to write for a group of Judson University students heading to India for a three-week May term missions trip several years back.  I used a logorainbow as a metaphor for God’s patience with us.  Given the hoopla surrounding rainbows in our culture the past couple of years, I might have gone with something else here, and the devotional certainly dates itself with the mention of an Encarta encyclopedia, but, on the whole, the general message holds up well, I think.  To my shame, I am so quick to write people off, to believe the worst about their future prospects based on their current behavior.  Thank God He is more patient with us than we usually are with those created in His image.  (More on praying directly to the Holy Spirit, as I do at the end of this devotional, might be good fodder for a future post.)

“The Promise”

Genesis 9: 12-16 – “God continued, ‘This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and everything living around you and everyone living after you.  I’m putting my rainbow in the clouds, a sign of the covenant between me and the Earth.  From now on, when I form a cloud over the Earth and the rainbow appears in the cloud, I’ll remember my covenant between me and you and everything living, that never again will floodwaters destroy all life.  When the rainbow appears in the cloud, I’ll see it and remember the eternal covenant between God and everything living, every last living creature on Earth.’”  (The Message)

One of the coolest of any natural phenomena is the rainbow.  Kids and adults alike stop to “ooh” and “ah” at its appearance.  Although I’m terrible at science (I always hate to get the green pie pieces in Trivial Pursuit), my Encarta CD-ROM encyclopedia tells me that when “the sunlight enters a raindrop it is refracted, or bent, by and reflected from the drop in such a way that the light appears as a spectrum of colors.”

The scripture passage above illustrates the metaphorical reflection that takes place to accompany the physical reflection of the sunlight hitting the raindrop, each and every time a rainbow shows up.  It is God’s promise never to allow His wrath to overcome Him again in the form of an earth-destroying flood.  Certainly the world is as wicked now as it ever has been.  Scripture paints no rosy picture of things getting better—from a purely moral perspective—as time goes on.  And yet, God chooses to restrain Himself, to hold back, to wait.  Second Peter 3:9 tells us that God doesn’t want any people to perish as the result of their sin, and so He is patient.

In like manner, would you be patient with your brothers and sisters in Christ on this trip, and would you be particularly patient with unbelievers?  Would you, especially, not write the non-Christians off, give them up as lost causes, leave them to their just desserts, or wash your hands of them, Pilate-style?  Instead of becoming angry or frustrated by the lack of belief, or morals, or basic human decency that the non-Christians with whom you come into contact on this trip display, would you channel that energy into prayer for them, that they would—somehow, someway—understand their need for a Savior?  Would you exhibit to them the same patience that God has exhibited to all of us?

Just as the sunlight is bent by the raindrop to produce the rainbow, may God take the interactions that you have with unbelievers, as difficult as they might be, and bend them into a beautiful rainbow of patience for all the world to see.

Prayer for today:

Holy Spirit, Who comforts, sustains, guides, and directs, make us patient beyond what is humanly possible, that our relationships with those that don’t know You might please You and benefit them, for the growth of Your Kingdom.  Amen.

The Lord be with you!

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Why Do Christians Routinely Hide behind Masks?

Earlier this summer, I began posting devotionals I had written a few years back at the request of the leaders of a team of Judson University students traveling to India for a short-term missions project.  The theme of the trip was the general topic of reflections.

TrueFacedThis is the sixth of the seven short meditations, and it came on the heels of my having read one of the handful of books that I can honestly say changed my life.  I have referenced it in this blog before, and I encourage any Christians who want to face our tendency to pretend we are flawless and have all our stuff together to grab a copy of TrueFaced and give it a read.  I don’t think you’ll regret it.

Here are the devotional thoughts I offered in the aftermath of digesting this short but important work and coming face to face with my own tendency to live my life behind a mask of piety and stoicism.

“Being True-Faced”

Galatians 3:5 – “Does the God who lavishly provides you with his own presence, his Holy Spirit, working things in your lives you could never do for yourselves, does he do these things because of your strenuous moral striving or because you trust him to do them in you?” (The Message)

We discussed a few days ago that the eyes are the windows to our souls.  Windows reflect—in certain lighting, anyway—but they are primarily transparent.  We see through them into another realm.  Christians should be windows; we should be transparent with each other and with a dying world that desperately needs to hear our Good News.  Then why is it so hard to be honest with each other about our struggles with sin?

Recently I read a fabulous little book entitled TrueFaced.  Although I can’t do justice to it in a one-page devotional, the gist of the book is that we all come to a fork in the road in our lives; sometimes we come to it daily.  One side takes us down the path of Pleasing God, while the other takes us down the path of Trusting God.  Although they both sound desirable, when we start to travel the road of Pleasing God, we end up entering the Room of Good Intentions through the door of Human Effort, and we end up miserable, because, as Paul tells us in the verse above, our “strenuous moral striving” gets us nowhere.  “Our righteousness is like filthy rags,” Scripture tells us (Is. 64:6).

In contrast, when we head down the road of Trusting God, we end up entering the room of Grace via the door of Humility, and we find that those assembled there are “standing with God, with [their] sin right in front of [them], working on it together.”  In other words, God stands with each of us, viewing the hideous ca-ca of our lives, and it doesn’t cause Him to flinch, run away, or reject us.  Instead, he acknowledges the sin, and gives us the strength, one day at a time, as the folks in AA would say, to work on it with Him.

1 John 1:8 says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”  And what’s worse, those on the outside of the Christian faith are affected by our dishonesty.  Mike Yaconelli (one last time) says,

What we don’t understand is that when people look at the Church and see only imposters, they conclude that Jesus is an imposter.  . . . The power of the Church is not a parade of flawless people, but of a flawless Christ who embraces our flaws.  The Church is not made up of the whole people, rather of the broken people who find wholeness in a Christ who was broken for us.

Prayer for today:

Gracious God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us mercy and peace, that we might be honest with You and with each other, and affect the world with the Truth of the grace that sustains us.  Amen.

The Lord be with you!

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What Does the SCOTUS Ruling on Gay Marriage Mean for Worship Leaders?

It has been interesting to see the hoopla in the aftermath of last week’s Supreme Court ruling affirming gay marriage as a civil right.  There have been astounding responses on both sides of the issue.  In particular, who knew so many evangelical Christians would be pleased by the decision?  Even the most progressive evangelicals have to be pleasantly surprised to learn how many brothers and sisters agree with them.

At a time like this, it’s tempting for theologically conservative worship leaders to feel the need to have an excellent response to it all.  There is an understandable urge to address the cultural Zeitgeist with a pithy riposte, something that can be used as an “Onward Christian Soldiers” rallying cry for any needing reassurance that the battle is not lost.  To any of my brothers and sisters feeling this way, I would suggest, in love, that the answer to the question asking what the SCOTUS ruling on gay marriage means for worship leaders is simple.

Nothing.

Indeed, nothing has changed for us worship leaders based on this ruling–whether we loveKauflin the decision or hate it.  The role of worship leaders, notes Bob Kauflin in his excellent book Worship Matters, is “to teach, train, and encourage God’s people in praising him rightly and living for his glory.  In that sense worship leaders follow in the footsteps of Old Testament Levites who taught the Israelites what God required in worship and how they could faithfully follow him.”  What worked well for the Levites thousands of years ago will work well for us today.  Two Sundays back, our job was to help our parishioners praise God “rightly and live for his glory.”  For every Sunday henceforth that still is our job.  The opinion that one can’t live for God’s glory if married to someone of the same sex is one best taken up by a pastor in a sermon.  The famous theologian Karl Barth allegedly encouraged pastors to prepare sermons with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.  No such exhortation is known for worship leaders.

This past Sunday, in my opening comments before we launched into the call to worship, “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus,” which I had selected under the direction of the Holy Spirit before I knew the SCOTUS was going to rule on gay marriage last Friday, I reminded the congregation at Elgin Evangelical Free Church that the exhortation voiced most often in Scripture is “Do not be afraid,” or words to that effect.  (Some have posited that this encouragement occurs 365 times in Scripture, in the event that some of us need daily reminders.  I don’t know if that’s accurate, but it has a plausible ring to it, doesn’t it?)  For those who dislike this ruling, now is not the time to run and hide.  God is still on His throne.

I also read James 1:19-20, where the apostle says, “My dear brothers and sisters, be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.  Your anger can never make things right in God’s sight.”  If our righteousness is like filthy rags (Is. 64:6), then our righteous mark-galliindignation can’t be a whole lot better.  Even if it’s true that we can be angry without sinning (Eph. 4:26), how many of us do that well?  I would err on the side of caution here.  (The best, brief summary I have encountered re: how theologically conservative Christians should then live in light of the ruling comes from one of my favorite current editorial writers, CT‘s Mark Galli, in this article: “Six Things to Do after the Supreme Court Decision on Gay Marriage”)

I am grateful to the Holy Spirit, forever and always the source of our inspiration as worship leaders, for guiding me to choose that classic chorus as the call to worship for this past Sunday.  Worship leaders, let us, in the days ahead, whether we’re for gay marriage or against it, remind our congregations to turn their “eyes upon Jesus,” to look fully into His “wonderful face.”  If we and they do, the things of this world, such as polarizing Supreme Court decisions, “will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”

The Lord be with you!

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A Prayer for Charleston

In place of the usual this week, and in light of the horrible shooting incident in Charleston last week, I offer the following prayer from my friend, Pastor Ian Simkins, lead pastor of Poplar Creek Church in Bartlett, Ill.  As you read, please pray for all those involved in the tragedy.

A Prayer of Lament (Charleston)

God of comfort, grant us peace.

Our hearts are broken, our souls heavy. Our sorrow is a weight around our necks – sinking our feet deep into the mire of despair. Deliver those buried under this burden of misery.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of justice, grant us hope.

We proclaim that Jesus is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, yet we confess that the sin and brokenness we see around us is a bitter reminder of a Kingdom not yet fully come. May we be agents of your justice in every crack and crevice of our lives.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of power, grant us strength.

We know that the same force that spoke the universe into existence is alive in each of us, yet our spirits are weary. How long, oh Lord – must communities be torn and fractured by senseless violence? How we are desperate for your vitality and courage. We can do nothing without it.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of passion, grant us stillness.

We are a tangle of emotions from rage to anguish. We long for your Holy Spirit to guide our hearts to right responses. May our hearts break for the things that break yours. May we be filled with anger that submits to your sovereignty. May we find the stillness necessary to align passions with yours in order to navigate these brutal waters.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of wisdom, grant us insight.

We are confused, disconcerted in every way. We know that you “work for the good of those who love you,” but we must confess our own turbulence. With all of the messages competing for our attention, may we attune our ears to hear you voice loudest. We desperately require a wisdom beyond our own faculties.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

God of redemption, grant us life.

You alone, O God, are the source of life. Yet our narratives bleed crimson with brutality and death. We need new songs whispered into our ears, new rhythms to pound in our chests, so that we may join in the chorus of new life.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

The Lord be with you!

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“Money Is Evil . . .”

You’ve heard the sermons, too.  You’ve heard preachers say that in the gospels Jesus speaks more about wealth, money, and how we handle it all than He does just about every other subject.  “We live in the wealthiest nation in the history of humankind.”  “The poorest among us in America is better off than most of the rest of the world.”  Etc.  I wonder if at some point we just decide to tune it out.

If so, I get it at some level.  Trying to figure it out–how to handle our often-obscene first-world riches (comparatively speaking where third- or developing-world nations are concerned) in a God-honoring way–is a conundrum.  Scripture gives some guidance, of course, but the metaphor-rich language doesn’t help at times, does it?  Sell everything I have?  Really?

I don’t have great answers here, and I certainly didn’t have them several years ago, when I wrote these devotionals for students heading to India on a missions trip.  But as I read though this one again, I am reminded of the value of wrestling with the issue, even if hard-and-fast answers are elusive.

“Money”

1 Timothy 6:10a – “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (NIV)

To celebrate the birth of our son, my wife and I went out and did what all parents of more than one child must do at some point: buy a minivan.  I was determined to buy a new one.  You see, my father was the King of Used Station Wagons.  We had them all—Ford Country Squires (with the faux-wood paneling), Oldsmobile behemoths into which small villages could comfortably fit, and even poor-excuse-for-a-station-wagon station wagons made by obviously small Japanese people (a couple of Datsuns).  Why?  Because after one used vehicle would break down, as it inevitably did, it seemed more frugal to buy another one than to put too much money into one now in need of a major repair.  And so I made up my mind, by gum, that my first car purchase was going to be a new one.  Our 1995 Dodge Caravan (Sport model, mind you) had all the trimmings, but the best part was walking around it, admiring its newness, and seeing my reflection in its shine.

Those prophetic voices from the field of pop music, Pink Floyd, summed up in one song what the reflection that I saw was all about:

Money, get away.  Get a good job with good pay and you’re okay.  Money, it’s a gas.  Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash.  New car, caviar, four-star daydream, think I’ll buy me a football team.  Money, get back.  I’m all right, Jack; keep your hands off my stack.  Money, it’s a hit.  Don’t give me that do-goody-good bull[feces].  I’m in the high-fidelity first-class traveling set, and I think I need a Lear jet.

YacMost of us American Christians do a nice little two-step around the uncomfortable fact that we all have more material goods than we need.  Mike Yaconelli, again, cuts to the chase in his usual dramatic fashion:

Radical faith doesn’t mean that we all give up our money and become indigent, but it does mean that we give up the antiquated illusion that money isn’t evil.  We must face up to the frightening fact that anything money touches, it corrupts—including us.  Money is evil and, therefore, extremely dangerous.

Whether you want to go all the way with his argument, Yaconelli raises a serious question.  As you work with and minister among those with severely fewer means than you on this trip, may God challenge you to consider your lifestyle as it relates to wealth.

Prayer for today:

God of Providence, Whose word says that the children of the righteous have never begged for bread, impress upon us the need to be reflective regarding our wealth, that we might live within our means and be free to give to others, even as we have been given so much.  Amen.

The Lord be with you!

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I Reek of My Father

This fourth devotional I wrote a few years back focused on humanity’s bearing what theologians refer to as the Imago Dei, or the image of God.  It’s a powerful concept, one that should give those of us in leadership pause now and again, especially when we encounter recalcitrant members of various worship committees, boards of deacons, or diaconates.  My hope in writing this particular reflection was that the students going overseas might broaden their understanding of what it means to be a child of God.

“You Are Very Much Like Dad!”

Genesis 1: 27 – “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”  (NIV)

I’ve got news for you, my friends.  You are becoming, little by little, day by day, sometimes perceptibly and sometimes not but nevertheless very really and truly . . . your same-sex parent.  It hits us at different times, and, depending on the relationship that we have (or had) with our parents, this realization can provoke thoughts that range from mildly annoying to downright dreadful.  Regardless, you have no control over this steady morphing.  Like the ominous “da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da” which signaled the arrival of the shark in the Jaws soundtrack, the doom is inevitable.  Death and taxes have nothing on the inevitability of your turning into your mom, ladies, or your dad, gentlemen.  Although I look nothing like my father, I emulate his personality to such an extent that my brother, several years ago, upon hearing me parrot something that could have come straight from my father’s mouth, was moved to exclaim, “You reek of Dad.”

Psychologists (and not just Freud) have been hip to this for awhile, and the concept has become so pervasive that it has seeped into the mainstream.  Twenty-five years ago, author Nancy Friday wrote the best-seller My Mother/Myself, in which she both lamented and celebrated that her identity was so wrapped up in that of her mother.  My sister, who read the book, fought off the encroaching behavioral proof for years but has recently come to embrace it, to the point where her mantra has become “I’ve given up fighting.”

Thank God that we don’t need ambivalent feelings when it comes to the fact that we are becoming, little by little, day by day, sometimes perceptibly and sometimes not but nevertheless very really and truly . . . more and more like our heavenly Father.  That’s what sanctification is all about.  As James MacDonald has said, “Christianity is a process . . . with progress.”  But what’s true for us as Christians is not completely untrue for non-believers.  Granted, without salvation they will not experience sanctification, but they are, each and every one of them, nevertheless made in the image of God.  And hence there is hope for them.  As Fanny Crosby, the great hymnwriter, reminds us, “The vilest offender who truly believes that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”

As you serve the people of India, may you view them, even the most obviously sinful of them, as reflections of God, created in His image.  Try that at the onset of your trip, and see if it doesn’t make a difference in your attitude and behavior.

Prayer for today:

Creator God, who molded and shaped each and every one of us in Your image, cause us to view each other and all we will meet on this trip as Your reflections, that we might afford them the respect and dignity belonging to Your creations, for the sake of Your Son, who died for us all that we all might live.  Amen.

The Lord be with you!

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How’s Your Soul Today?

Any time I can bring my formal training in English to bear on anything related to worship and/or the Christian walk, I enjoy doing so–all truth being God’s truth.  I wasn’t a huge fan of the essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson when I was taking various American literature surveys in high school and college, but his arresting metaphor (or its equivalent attributed to Shakespeare and others) about the eyes being the window to the soul always resonated with me, and I used it as a springboard for the following devotional, the third in a series of reflections on reflections given to Judson students for their use during a missions trip to India several years ago.

“Windows to the Soul”

Matthew 6:22-23: “Your eyes are windows into your body.  If you open your eyes wide in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light. . . . If you pull the blinds of your windows, what a dark life you will have!”  (The Message)

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great essayist and poet, once said that our eyes are the windows to our souls.  What a concept—that we can gaze into people’s eyes and get a glimmer into what’s going on in their souls.  Or, to put it another way, our eyes reflect our souls.  Lest this sound a bit New-Agey, let me put it into practical terms that American Christians can appreciate.  Periodically I will quote Emerson to my volunteer church choir regarding this very thing; when they’re up in front of the congregation singing, they are communicating, not only with their voices, but also with their eyes.  Communication theorists tell us that communication transpires through two channels, sound and light.  In the case of my choir, they communicate via sound—the words themselves that they are singing, the way in which they articulate certain phrases and emphasize certain key words—but also via light—their non-verbal cues: their posture, their body language, their facial expressions, and, especially, their eye contact.

I have always taken the scripture passage above (and most translators have, as well) to refer to keeping myself from regular viewing of harmful material, and I think Christ probably had that in mind, at least to an extent, when he gave this exhortation during the Sermon on the Mount.  But I also like the broader application that Eugene Peterson gives it in The Message.  Part of what Christ is getting at here, I think, is attitudinal.  It’s about the very way that you approach life.

The late Mike Yaconelli, co-founder of Youth Specialties and a personal hero of mine, once said this:

The more pagan a society becomes, the more boring its people become.  The sign that Jesus is in our hearts, the evidence of the truth of the Gospel is . . . we still have a light on in our souls.  We still have a gleam in our eyes. . . . The light in our souls is not some pietistic somberness; it is the spontaneous, unpredictable love of life. . . . Christians not only know how to practice piety, we also know how to party.

May all those that come in contact with you on this trip see the reflection of your Christ-imbued souls in your eyes, eyes filled with wonder and belief.

Prayer for today:

Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, who bid playful children to come to Yourself and chastised those who would hinder them, cause us to be childlike in our faith—always, but especially on this trip—that we might reflect in all our nonverbal communication Your light in our souls, so that others might glorify Your Father, and our Father, in heaven.  Amen.

The Lord be with you!

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