God’s Expectations (Life Journal – July 2, 2015)

Scripture

I will sing for the one I love
    a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
    on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
    and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
    and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
    but it yielded only bad fruit. (Isaiah 5: 1-2)

Observation

  • Isaiah 5:7 makes clear this is about Israel is the vineyard – who is “I” and the beloved?
    “The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
        is the nation of Israel,
    and the people of Judah
        are the vines he delighted in.
    And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
        for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.”
  • Echoed in Jesus’ description of the vine and the branches in John 15
  • “I” is singing about the Lord whom he loves
  • The crop of good grapes is justice and righteousness
  • The Lord has worked, labored for the good of the vineyard
  • There is a natural order here – preparation of the ground, installation of the facilities,  needed for the vineyard and its fruit and then an expectation of fruit

Application

One of the great truths of the biblical witness (and something I mentioned in a recent sermon) is that God is not distant and uninterested but active and involved in human affairs. Including mine!

I am not a farmer but I understand the analogy and the expectation of God that fruit would come from the sacrifice, the effort, the love expended in behalf of the vineyard. God has blessed me, worked on me, resourced me, sacrificed for me in Christ.

These sobering words spoken to Israel and Judah are just as sobering to me. How have I borne fruit from God’s efforts for me? How have I used who I am, whom God has made me, to produce a crop of justice and righteousness?

Something worth considering today…

Prayer

Lord of the Vineyard, thank you for your love and for the countless ways you have worked for me and in me and on me. Give me a heart and mind to see where you have prepared the soil of my heart and life and  where you have built what I need to be fruitful. I confess that I have not always been a fruitful vineyard, not always produced a crop of justice and righteousness with what you have given me and done for me. May I be a fruitful vine today in the name of the One whose vine I am, Jesus the True Vine. Amen.

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Life Journal – 6/29/2015

Scripture

Teach me your way, Lord,
    that I may rely on your faithfulness;
give me an undivided heart,
    that I may fear your name. (Psalm 86:11 NIV)

Observation

  • Both of these phrases in 86:11 are examples of instrumentation – moving from means to end:
    (1) Means – Teach me your ways —>  End – I may rely on your faithfulness
    (2) Means – Give me an undivided heart —> End – I may fear your name
  • How does God’s teaching us his ways help us rely on God’s faithfulness?
    How does having an undivided heart lead to fearing God’s name?
  • What does it mean to have an “undivided” heart?
    – ESV& KJV: “unite my heart”
    -CEB: “make my heart focused”
  • In both cases what God gives is what enables the Psalmist to do and become

Application

Not the first time I remember reflecting on this verse. The phrase “undivided heart” is one of those biblical phrases that resonates in the soul. To have a heart with only one loyalty… only one love… only one thing that captivates and engages it. For God to be that one thing!

Joined with this plea is for God to teach David the divine way. If these two petitions are parallels, it suggests (an echo of the Proverbs call to select the true way, the way of wisdom) that we ought to implore God to  teach us so to live that we would walk in the way of God and of God alone. Not to follow two ways – who can do that? Or have conflicting loyalties – and therefore none? To be taught and gifted by God so that God’s faithfulness might be enough, God’s name the only fear/awe/respect in our lives.

Prayer

Lord, as David prayed… teach me your ways that I may learn to rely on it and not on my way, on your wisdom and not my own, on your dreams and purposes and not mine. May I have such heart – a heart with one love, one passion, one loyalty, one joy – You, my maker and my God. Amen.

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Learning to Listen(Life Journal – 6/24/2015)

Scripture

17 After the death of Jehoiada, the officials of Judah came and paid homage to the king, and he listened to them. 18 They abandoned the temple of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, and worshiped Asherah poles and idols. Because of their guilt, God’s anger came on Judah and Jerusalem. 19 Although the Lord sent prophets to the people to bring them back to him, and though they testified against them, they would not listen.

20 Then the Spirit of God came on Zechariah son of Jehoiada the priest. He stood before the people and said, “This is what God says: ‘Why do you disobey the Lord’s commands? You will not prosper. Because you have forsaken the Lord, he has forsaken you.’”

Observation

– Jehoiada had been priest in the Lord’s temple and rescued the king from his grandmother and made sure he was set on the throne of Judah
– Jehoiada had kept the king faithful to God. When he died, the king listened to his secular advisors who led him astray. Jehoiada’s absence left a void that they filled.
– God’s messages are sent in an escalating way: first prophets were sent, then the Spirit of the Lord comes upon Jehoiada’s son
– God forsakes the king when the king forsakes him (paralleled in the king’s betrayal of Jehoiada whose son he will soon have killed)

Application

I can learn much about leadership and significance in the negative – by learning what not to do as much as what to do. By seeing where poor choices lead, we learn to make better ones. In this case one of the king’s great failures is to listen to the wrong advisors when his good one dies.

Until the end of his reign, the king, Joash, was a good one who honored God and restored worship in the temple. Under his reign the people returned to the temple and returned to God. But in the end his legacy was undone by his unwillingness to listen to what God said to him through the prophets and his mentor’s son.

I don’t like to hear “negative” messages – words of criticism or even judgment. Who does? When it is God speaking to me, generally God works in stages and repeats so even my slow-learning soul can hear.

The danger is to take things personally – to mistake the message of God for the someone’s personal criticism or opposition. Yesterday the writer and researcher Ed Stetzer Tweeted – “You won’t make it as a leader if you can’t discern the difference btwn a constructive critic & a contentious cynic.” Sometimes I know that I get this all wrong. Joash is a reminder to continually learn to discern the difference.

Prayer

Lord, speak to me today through those around me. May I hear your voice when it is your message. May I understand and discern the difference between those whose words are meant to help and those whose words are meant to hinder, to hear the Spirit of God and ignore the spirit of discord and destruction. Surround me with people who will speak truth and grace and who have my best interests and your will in mind – and give me the wisdom to see and know them.  In Jesus’ name… Amen.

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The Power of Disappointment

The last few weeks have been.. disappointing. Several times something that I really wanted slipped from my grasp – or I realized I had thought was close but never was. In several cases these disappointments came from close, personal friendships. Don’t feel too sorry for me! I just want to make clear that the last month or so has been characterized by disappointment. Today I am still feeling the sting of the most recent one that came last Friday.

Disappointment is a reality of human life. People will disappoint – and I have disappointed others. Circumstances will seem to conspire to defeat us. Hopes will not be realized. Dreams will not be fulfilled. Carefully laid plans and monumental efforts will come to nothing.  Disappointment is the emotional reminder that this is true. Sometimes I wish Jesus had said “Follow me, and you will never be disappointed.” But he didn’t.

So what do to with it?

One thing is not to despair. Not to surrender in the face of defeat and failure, especially if and when we find ourselves in what seems a season of it.

Another is to use it to refocus and reorder our lives. In some cases I have dreamt of things that perhaps God does not want for me. In some things I know I have invested energy and hope in things that God would have rather been invested elsewhere. In others I have trusted people and their friendships where I ought not to have done so. Sometimes I even knew this… in others I am learning.

Disappointment is a sting to say “Look at this – what happened here?” It keeps us from just saying “Oh well” and moving on. Making the same mistakes again. Pursuing the same dead-ends. Even, sadly, not seeing clearly some of our human relationships for what they are when they are the issue. Or not seeking God’s redemption and forgiveness when we realize the fault is, in fact, on our side.

Isaiah 49:23 says —

“Kings will be your foster fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers. They will bow down before you with their faces to the ground; they will lick the dust at your feet. Then you will know that I am the Lord; those who hope in me will not be disappointed.”

The most important thought over the last few days is not to allow this disappointment to erode my faith or undermine my hope. God has not disappointed me. Sometimes, in fact, my longing has disappointed God and I feel in my own disappointment an echo of the divine one. Disappointment can be a goad to see things anew and to freshen faith. Let is be so.

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In the Long Run, We Are All Dead (Life Journal – 6/22/2015)

Scripture

19 Nevertheless, for the sake of his servant David, the Lord was not willing to destroy Judah. He had promised to maintain a lamp for David and his descendants forever. (2 Kings 8:19 NIV)

Observation

8:19 stands in opposition to the evil ways of King Jehoram who is described not as doing what David did but what the Kings of Israel did.
– Jehoram is also criticized in vss. 16-18 for marrying a daughter of King Ahab
– The “nevertheless” is how God responds to this evil: with mercy and restraint
– God’s mercy is not due to Jehoram or even Judah but David!

Application

In our day we want results. Even my church (The United Methodist Church and The West Ohio Annual Conference) seems at times to demand instant and measurable results. Show me the money as they say. But it is also true, as John Maynard Keynes said “In the long run we are all dead.”

David’s favor from God far outlives him. Jehoram rules in Jerusalem more than 100 years after David. Yet God spares Judah because of the promises he made to David!

How am I living in such divine favor… seeking it… honoring it… that 100 years from now someone will be blessed because of me?

I may never see what happens – and in fact won’t – because of my life. Buy my decisions and choices and fidelity matter even if the fruits of the moment don’t seem to indicate it.

Prayer

God of  David – help me to live as David did, with a heart that pleases you. And show me where it does not. Help me not to look to the results and to the measurable as much as to the eternal and that which will bring your blessing and favor upon future generations of my family, my circle of friendships, my community, and my church. In the name of Jesus… amen.

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First Pray (Life Journal – 6/20/2015)

I’m back after a week of limited internet access and some vacation. Still on vacation today but time to get back to writing and reflecting. Blessings!

Scripture

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth. (1 TImothy 2:1-4 NIV)

Observation

– Paul is writing to Timothy, a leader in the church: this is pastoral advice, leadership advice more than personal instruction
– What is the distinction among these listed “prayers:” petitions, prayers, intercession, thanksgiving?
– Why are kings and those in other places of authority (political authority?) specifically mentioned as subjects of prayer?
– The result of these prayers is peaceful and quiet lives
– These lives are lives of “godliness and holiness” — how do prayers lead to this???

Application

Paul advises a young man and student of his how to lead, how to live, in Christ. Paul’s first advice is these various forms of prayer: petitions (or supplications), prayers, intercession and thanksgiving. The principle is that prayer changes even those in authority. And therefore changes the context, the culture. God is not a passive observer or quiet lover of humanity but the God who hears and does, who desires the salvation of all people. Verse 2 suggests that the peaceful and quiet lives that they will lead due to prayer are God’s will for all.

The specific mention of those in authority… one reason is that submitting kings and others in authority to God is an acknowledgment of God’s authority over all, even kings! Also it reminds us how the world works matters to our prayers. We are not praying in isolation from the world but for it – understanding and discerning it.

If I want things to change – my world, my context, myself the first thing Paul reminds me to do today is to pray.

Prayer

King of All Kings – the rulers and leaders of our world are under your authority. You are the authority that trumps all others. Bless those in authority over me today  – in the political realm, in the church, in other places where I serve and work. May they be blessed by you who are the real authority and the ultimate giver of peace and quiet. In the name of the King, Jesus. Amen.

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Only the Discerning Need Discernment (Life Journal – 6/4/2015)

Scripture

A discerning son heeds instruction,
    but a companion of gluttons disgraces his father. (Proverbs 28:7)

Observation

– As with much of Proverbs, the imagery is of sons and father, children and parents
– “Instruction” is also translated “understanding” and “wisdom” (the theme of Proverbs as a whole)
– Is this a contrast between two hungers: a hunger for knowledge/wisdom/understanding vs. a hunger for physical things like food, drink, sex, etc.?
– Instruction is tied up with relationship always…

Application

We all have appetites – for food, for sex, for sleep. We also hunger after affection and love, acceptance, recognition. Proverbs makes much of where are appetites are focused. We will be satisfied with what we crave… but how satisfied and for how long?

Wisdom is only of value to those who want it. Understanding is only satisfying to those who hunger after it.

I don’t like being corrected or told I am wrong. But I know that to grow I need to know what I don’t know, to know where I have not measured up. Nowhere is this more true than in faith! God’s Spirit, sent to be our great teacher, is constantly whispering wisdom and instruction in my ear and in my heart. Only if I am discerning will I gain discernment. Only if I want to know will I learn of God.

Prayer

O God, we live in a culture that values being open-minded. May my mind today be open to you, to your voice, to your instruction. Make me a more discerning of your truth and more responsive to your instruction. May I be more a child in whom you delight today than one who disgraces you, my Heavenly Father. Amen.

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Burning, Burning Love (Life Journal – 6/3/2015)

Scripture

21 If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
    if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
22 In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head,
    and the Lord will reward you. (Proverbs 25:21-22)

Observation

– Paul quotes this passage in Romans 12:20 and then advises “to overcome evil with good.”
– Vs 21 suggests a simple response that ignores the fact that he is your enemy
– Vs. 22  – “What does it mean to “heap burning coals on his head?”
In what way does responding to his need rather than to his being your enemy do that?
– The Lord’s role is not to punish my enemies but to reward me for my behavior: the focus is not at all on the enemy bu ton my response and on  my reward from the Lord

Application

Oh the energy wasted imagining our enemies getting their just reward (as we see it anyway)! Oh the confusion we generate between justice and revenge in our imaginings. Oh the depth of our flesh-ness in our first response being to ignore or even punish our enemies.

Paul quotes this passage centuries after its writing. It fits very well with Paul’s argument and reminds us that the biblical revelation is a unified one. The God of the Old Testament is not really a proper designation for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is also the God of Jesus, Peter, and Paul.

Proverbs suggests a way that goes against my “human nature,” my fallen inclinations. To respond in love and not revenge is not what we want to do apart of the transformation of Christ in our lives. I cannot will myself to love, to respond in goodness – I have to do it and ask God’s help in making it more who I am and less forced. More my character than what is often my character.

Prayer

Loving God, help me this day to do the hard living and loving that you demand of me – to give food to my enemies rather than to give him grief, to give water to a thirsty enemy because he needs it and because I need to do it. Transform me that my character and my inclinations will more and more be this way and less and less my own. May I, in short, love and live as Christ did toward his enemies and does still. Amen.

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Food Stuff (Life Journal – 6/2/2015)

Scripture

19 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. 20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. 21 It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.

22 So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin. (Romans 14:19-23 NIV)

Observation

– Sin results from not acting in faith (what does this mean?)
– Is this only about food (what we eat or what we drink)? How far does this apply in terms of conscience and conviction?
– The need of the other seems to be the guiding principal: peace, mutual edification, not causing another to stumble

Application

At one time I lived in a community where, among other things, alcohol abuse was rampant. So we did not drink alcohol during that time – we did not buy it in town. We also didn’t make a big deal of it! Today I am in a different context and I behave differently. It was a conviction that I believed was from God that caused me to act as  I did.

This is tough stuff to figure out. Paul talks about food – a much bigger deal in his day. Jewish food laws (kosher) and food that had been sacrificed to idols and then eaten by people caused Paul to speak in several places in his letters. What about playing cards? Going to the movies (and which movies are ok and which are not)? Where is the line when we move from “food” to matters are the core of faith?

Paul’s advice is pretty clear here, though. Acting out of love for our neighbor or fellow believer is always the right thing to do (note he does not say telling them what to do out of love!). When my actions are submitted to the needs of others I fulfill Christ’s command to love my neighbor as myself.

And faith also must come into play. It is not about food but faith – not about externals but internals. If I judged myself as strongly and as clearly as I sometimes judge others how different my walk and faithfulness might be.

Prayer

Lord, as Jesus once told the disciples it was comes out of a person and not what goes into a person that makes him or her unclean… so may I look at what it is in me today. Where there is judgment rather than love, take it away. Where there is a critical eye replace it with love and mercy. Where I act out of anything but faith, renew and rework my motivation. May my heart be the focus of my judgment far more than the actions of others. In the name of Jesus I pray. Amen.

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The Awfulness of Clarity

I am departing today from my Life Journal postings. Part of this current run of readings is Proverbs which, in the vast middle portion, is a succession of aphorisms not always related to one another in sequence. It is harder to focus on a single reading or even passage so today I take a break to look at something much on my mind.

How uncomfortable clarity can be. In life many of us want God to be clear about what path we should take. We say that we want God to speak clearly and directly. I have thought the same myself, especially lately around some questions and choices.

The difficult is that clarity means we lose the option of passivity that ambivalence brings. When we don’t know or can’t see we can refuse to act. When the light shines brightly it is much harder to waver. (I am reminded today of that Mark Twain witticism that could be generalized to the will and purposes of God: ““It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.”)

I find discerning God’s will is seldom a Damascus-road moment but rather an accumulation of evidence and insight that coalesces into a clear picture when the right moment comes. For me such a moment occurred yesterday.  I had a conversation with my clergy coach on Thursday about a subject that challenged me and then Friday a sequence of events brought her challenge to me into focus.

It is uncomfortable because it means re-prioritizing. It is uncomfortable because it means a painful conversation or two. It is uncomfortable because it means confronting the fact that I have made plenty of choices that the writer of Proverbs would say are the way of foolishness rather than of wisdom. One of the lessons in Proverbs is that wisdom comes from heeding and correcting and learning. Folly results from ignoring the wisdom and learning that God places before us.

Clarity is like stepping out of a dim room into bright sunlight – the bright light may hurt the eyes for  a moment. But the way ahead is into the light, not back into the dark.

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