The Gracious Hand of God

The Gracious Hand of God

It is interesting, throughout the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the scribe Ezra continually remarks, “The gracious hand of God was upon me.” He makes this claim through good times and bad; through celebrations and opposition; through success and danger.

Ezra had spent his life, not only studying his faith, but living it. Over the years, he had come to know God’s presence, protection and guidance first hand. He reminds us that there is more to this everyday life than what we see.

Today I pray that you too would recognize the gracious hand of God upon you. Whether you are in the midst of deep struggles or on top of the world, God is with you.

Let us pray: God of hope, today we remember the words of the Apostle Paul that if you are with us, who is against us? We remember that you are bigger than any obstacle we face. We remember that your love is deep, and your grace is sufficient. Open our eyes to see your hand at work – even in our everyday lives.

We pray today especially for those who might need an extra measure of your grace and guidance this day. We ask your protection for women and men overseas serving this country as ambassadors, peace keepers, aid workers, or military personnel. We pray also for friends or neighbors we know are struggling. Draw near to them – and grant them your hope. Amen.

God’s Place for You

God’s Place for You

During my morning devotional time not too long ago, I was reading Eugene Peterson’s The Message version of the Bible. One morning in particular, I was struck by the following: In his introduction to the book of Joshua, he wrote, “God’s great love and purposes for us are worked out in the messes, storms and sins, blue skies, daily work, and dreams of our common lives, working with us as we are, and not as we should be.”

Then, later I was in 1 Corinthians 7. Peterson translates the verse this way: “And, don’t be wishing you were someplace else…Where you are right now is God’s place for you. Live and obey and love and believe right there.”

I thought about the context of my life right now, and I reflected on where I spend the vast majority of my time. Ever since that morning, sometimes when I pray the Lord’s prayer I add a few words, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done – in my life, in my relationship with my family, in my daily work, in the church, on Earth… as it is in heaven.

Let us pray: God of grace, thank you for working with us as we are – not as we should be. Thank you for your presence in our families, in our jobs, in our recreation, and in our relationships. Give us eyes to notice and hearts to respond. Wherever we find ourselves this day, may we be instruments of your grace. Amen.

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I Need You!

I Need You!

One of the greatest compliments a person can give is to say, “l need you!” The words melt our hearts and impel us to want to help. We all need to feel needed. A crucial part of friendship is to be able to admit our inadequacies and say to others, “l need you!” We can be sure that if we can’t say that to others they will probably never say it to us. Actually, confession of our needs is an expression of healthy self-esteem. We value ourselves enough to believe that we are worthy of another’s care. Those who cannot express their needs usually end up unable to help others with theirs. Sadly, a man I knew committed suicide; he did not share his needs. What a loss! We were created for fellowship with God. There will be a restlessness, an emptiness within us, until we rest in Him and allow Him to fill the God-shaped vacuum.

Let us pray: Loving God, without you we are truly scared stiff of making mistakes, of being ridiculed or rejected or missing out in our always fumbling uncertainties. So today we pray that your Spirit will hover over us to enable us to separate the light from the darkness. Encourage us to keep getting up and going on no matter how many times we have tripped up and fallen down crying. So, move in among us that we may grow in your Spirit and live with passion in this amazing life. How wonderful are your ways, O Lord, how marvelous are your gifts of grace. Straighten the backbone of our beliefs and deepen our commitments to your way so that the roots of faith will reach the center of our hearts. God, we need you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Where It All Began

Where It All Began

(This is a reflection I wrote during my recent visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the place, as tradition has it, where Christ was born.)

While visiting the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square in Bethlehem, I was caught off guard in a way I did not expect. I was expecting to see the spot where Jesus was first laid and took his first breath, but I was not expecting this. Right next to the manger itself, separated only by a wall built much later, sits the tomb of the innocents, a memorial to the firstborns killed in Herod’s attempt to end Jesus’s life before it ever got started. Standing in the breach of their deaths and our Savior’s birth is a stark reminder of our horrific capacity to want to snuff out something new and beautiful from God in order to try and keep things the way they are.

When reflecting on her own visit to the manger, author and pastor Danielle Shroyer writes, “You can imagine Jesus sleeping there, with Mary and Joseph nearby, all of them unaware that soon enough the kingdoms of this world will start coming for him, starting first with Herod and ending with the full power of the Roman Empire itself. In between he will bring discomfort to every kind of power this world has to offer: political and economic power, religious power, powers of class and gender and ethnicity, powers of nation and state. He will even disrupt natural powers: disease, storms, a simple loaf of bread. This child is King, and there is no place on which his authority does not rest. He will replace all those misplaced attempts at power with the only force that can undo them: the unconditional, unwavering, unfaltering love of God.”

While inside this holy place, we spontaneously began singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” As we entered the cave of the birth of our Lord and touched the spot where so many have come, we sang words that so many have sung. “The hopes and fears of all the years” we sang as the air became ripe with the same unconditional, unwavering, unfaltering love of God that overshadows all the powers that too easily monopolize our lives and the world we live in. And in a glimpse, in a fleeting moment, a group of Presbyterian pilgrims could feel the heart of our faith beating.

Let us pray: Lord Jesus, be born in our hearts anew this day. May your love overflow into our lives and beyond. We pray in your name. Amen.

Like Us in Every Way

Like Us in Every Way

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. (Matthew 3:13)

One of the curiosities about Jesus being baptized by John in the Jordan is why Jesus needed to be baptized at all. The baptism John was preaching about was one of repentance and forgiveness of sins. People were coming to him to be washed clean and start anew, much like Delmar in “O Brother Where Art Thou?” who rises up out of the river and declares, “Well that’s it boys! I’ve been redeemed. It’s the straight and narrow from here on out.” So why would Jesus need this? From what does the Son of God need redeeming? Even John asks that question in the verses that follow. “I should be baptized by you,” he says.

The answer to this curiosity comes in Jesus’ reply to John, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus gets baptized not because he needs it, but because we do, and the whole of Jesus’ life is one huge act of God’s solidarity. As one commentary notes, “Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism is presented as a righteous act of solidarity with those to whom and for whom he has come.” In other words, this is just one more piece of evidence that God became one of us, fully and completely. In Jesus Christ, God was born like us, grew like us, got tired like we do, felt pain like we do, needed to bathe like we do, laughed, cried, got frustrated, rejoiced, and was baptized just like us. He faced tension and ridicule and death. In every way shape and form, God became flesh and bone and lived among us. Now that is a God who really cares.

Let us pray: As we face the trials and tribulations of life, O God, we are grateful that you walk with us. Grant us the strength, the courage and the faith to live the full and abundant life that you offer; through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Jesus the Refugee

Jesus the Refugee

God’s angel showed up again in Joseph’s dream and commanded, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. Stay until further notice. Herod is on the hunt for this child, and wants to kill him. (Matthew 2:13, MSG)

Stories in the Old Testament tell about the many years of exile the Jewish people had to endure from dominating rulers like the Babylonian Empire. Prophets like Jeremiah would preach about God’s judgment alongside the hope of God’s promise to bring them home. In chapter 31, Jeremiah quotes God as specifically saying, “I will bring them back. They will walk a straight path and not stumble.” In one way or another, all of the prophets spoke of God’s promise to return the people home from exile.

The unexpected thing about the salvation story, though, is the manner in which God ultimately began to fulfill this promise. What we are surprised to find is not so much that God shows up, but how God shows up. The savior comes, not as an all-powerful king in command with the authority to make decrees and create armies, but instead, as a refugee on the run from the law. In chapter 2 of his gospel, Matthew gives us the rundown on the whole thing, telling us about an angel that sends the family of Jesus into hiding in Egypt just after his birth. Jesus, it seems, began his life enduring the same exile God promised to rescue the people from.

When you put Jeremiah and Matthew side by side, the good news reminder you get is this: God truly became one of us, leaving his throne and entering the wilderness of life. God went into exile. In Jesus Christ, God went to the far places in order to win our hearts and bring us home.

Let us pray: We thank you, Lord, for your love for us. Help us to accept that love and to share that love with the world around us. Amen.

Dropping Everything

Dropping Everything

“Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.” (Matthew 4:19-20)

I cannot get over how quickly the disciples make the decision to follow Jesus. As Matthew tells it, they were right in the middle of fishing when it happened. They dropped everything, we are told. They left everything. In a moment’s notice, they completely ended the life they were living to begin a whole new one, no big deal. But it was a big deal. This was a huge deal. I try to think about what it would take for any one of us today to do that, to forego our obligations, end our relationships, quit our jobs and drop everything. People would think we had lost it. And yet, that is exactly what the disciples did. What did Jesus say to them?

The late preacher Fred Craddock once shared a conversation he had following one of his sermons. He was standing in the church at the conclusion of the service when a young lady ran up to him almost shaking with excitement. “I know what I am going to do!” she said. “I was going to go to graduate school, but I’m going to put everything on hold and be a missionary first. What you said in your sermon changed my mind. That’s what I’m going to do.” Craddock looked at her parents who were standing behind her with an awkward expression of trepidation. “What did I say?” Craddock thought to himself. “I’m not sure what I said.”

It is quite a mysterious and powerful thing when the good news of Jesus Christ hits us. When it does, though, and in whatever way it comes, our hearts are transformed, our lives are changed, and sometimes, we drop everything because we simply can’t sit still any longer.

Let us pray: O God, give us ears to hear your call, and hearts to follow. We ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Bearers of Hope

Bearers of Hope

There was an article in the Chicago Tribune by a writer named Jim Yardley. It concerns a great bridge that spans the Yangtze River in China. The bridge carries thousands of pedestrians across it every day. Unfortunately, a few of these persons use the Yangtze River Bridge to end their lives. Over 1,000 people have jumped from this bridge since it opened in 1968.

In 2003, a man in his mid-30s named Chen decided this had to end. Since then he has spent his weekends coming to the bridge to try to stop people from jumping. So far, he has stopped 42 people from ending their lives. “It is very easy to recognize potential jumpers,” he said. “[Such a person] walks without spirit.”

I really admire this man named Chen. It takes courage to reach out to people who are in need. It takes energy and time. And you never know how someone will respond. But you also never know how you might change someone’s life.

I wonder if you know anyone who is walking without spirit. You can often see it in a person’s eyes and in their face. The truth is that you may not be able to help them. Sometimes people are not ready for help. However, you never know how far a kind word, a prayer or a hug will go.

Let us pray: We thank you, O God, for people like Chen who are bearers of hope. May we follow his lead. Today we lift up to you all of those who feel as though they are walking without spirit. We pray for them that you would fill them with your Spirit. Bring the right people, the right help into their lives. May they know your love, mercy and grace; through Jesus Christ. Amen.

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Life’s Most Urgent Question

Life’s Most Urgent Question

Today we celebrate the life and ministry of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. One of my favorite quotes is his bold claim that, “Life’s most urgent and persistent question is, what are you doing for others?”

Dr. King gave his life for others. He lived what he taught. And because of his life, our nation has come a long way in terms of healing a deep racial divide.

No doubt racism has diminished, but it is still present. Healing must still take place. As Christians, we follow the One who said, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the church in Galatia, gives us a God’s eye perspective. He writes, “In Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Today, let us honor the witness and the sacrifice of Dr. King by loving one another.

Let us pray: We consider the billions and billions of people you created – each and every one of us different – it’s awe inspiring! You must delight in different shades of skin, hair textures, eye colors, shapes, sizes and languages – for there are an abundance. We remember today that although we may look different and speak different, we all love and dream. We all have fears and hopes. And, we share a common Creator – You who made us all.

Today we remember your servant Martin Luther King, Jr. who reminded us that your family stretches across the globe. We pray today also for all those who continue to sacrifice for the wellbeing of others… we lift up especially military families, disaster relief workers, missionaries, and volunteers of all types. Pour out your redeeming Spirit on them, and on us, through Jesus Christ. Amen.

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Give Thanks in All

Give Thanks in All

Ingratitude is a serious shortcoming. I agree with Martin Luther that “unthankfulness is
theft.” In his Inferno, Dante placed in the center of his hell not those guilty of fleshy
sins, but morose, gloomy, ungrateful men and women. Shakespeare wrote in “As You
Like It,”

“Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude.”

An elderly mother was bedridden with her final illness. The three married children, two sons and a daughter, were called to her bedside. Conscious but weak, the mother smiled weakly at their presence. One of the sons bent over and said, “You’ve been a good mother.” With a sigh the mother whispered, “Do you mean that?” “Of course, you have,” all three children joined in. The mother’s voice came again very faintly, “I didn’t know. You never said it before, and I didn’t know.” Unfortunately, some live a long time before they ever say thanks to God or to another person for blessings of human kindness. Sometimes the expression of gratitude comes as a surprise, yes, even a shock. A lady boarded a crowded commuter train. A man rose to give her his seat. She was so surprised, she fainted. When she came to, she thanked him for the seat. Then he fainted. Remember, the apostle Paul reminds us, “Give thanks in all circumstances.” (l Thessalonians 5:18)

Let us pray: Loving God, we thank you for grateful people who care; a friendly visit, a listening ear, a funny card, a warm letter, a long-distance call, an e-mail, a bouquet of flowers, a book of inspiration. Thank you, Lord, for the ordinary days of simple pleasures and quiet charm; and for those extraordinary days of laughing and weeping when the drama and depth of life touch and warm our hearts. May gratitude for your amazing grace and unconditional love fall frequently from our lips. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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