Category Archives: Church Devotions (Advent/Lent, etc)

Courage.

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. ~ 1 John 1:8-9

I was talking with a friend and colleague of mine about his sermon this past Sunday.  After the usual stumbling back and forth conversation, only to realize we are thinking exactly the same way in believing that it is the Holy Spirit, through God's Word, where the fundamental work of change happens.  Yet, what is the role of the person in all this?  When I think of myself, I think: COURAGE.

Courage to listen, take notice, and reflect….

Courage to look in the mirror and be honest about my hyprocracy, my pride, my self-indulgent need to "fix" what is problematic external to myself…..

Courage to admit my sin – those dark, ugly tendencies and urges that I'd just rather pretend don't exist….

Courage to admit where I am complicit and where I am in complete denial and avoidance altogether…..

Courage to really look in the mirror at the image staring back at me, stop deceiving myself and be honest.

For me, it is only when I exhibit this kind of courage do I ever properly hear God's Word as gospel, and thus the Holy Spirit is able to work in me.

Perhaps it is the same for you as well.

Lord, give us this courage daily so that we might be changed, and that we might be an instrument of your change in the world.

 

 

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2013 Advent Devotional 3: “Good Morning”

Isaiah 35:1-10

When I read this passage, the imagery catches my attention: water breaking forth in the wilderness (which in Judea was the desert), streams in the desert, thirsty ground springs forth water and the like. God will come again to the people and restore them, and all of creation will spring forth new life.

And it reminds me of mornings in the spring and summer on the farm. I grew up on a dairy farm in Minnesota as a kid, and so mornings started early for us….4:30am, while it was still dark outside. And because of that, I got to see a lot of sunrises and mornings – the mist of a fog lifting, the dew on the grass, the hay fields, and on the newly planted fields of crops. It turned everything green – I mean REALLY green, better than any touched up photo or painting. And in that moment, through the peaceful breaking in of the morning, and the life seemed to jump out of it, I felt a sense of joy and excitement at the day to begin. (Which would quickly disappear when my dad would show me his list of farm work for the day!)

This passage from Isaiah paints a similar vision for the people of God. Everything in Judah has been overrun; the people are in the “desert” place in their lives, a place of barrenness and hopelessness. But God provides a vision of new life – and in that vision, God will break through. “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped.” People will see in the restoration of their livelihood, the very presence and action of God.

I wonder, this Advent, if remembering the Christmas story isn’t like one of those “good mornings” on the farm; an announcement and vision of God breaking in and making all things new as in Judah in days of old.

The announcement of Christmas is that “Morning Has Broken”: The Christ Child comes into this world, and with him comes God’s vision of the past, present and future – a vision of joy and hope and peace.

That brings me to a favorite hymn of mine: “Morning Has Broken.” The lyrics were written in 1931 and set to an old Gaelic carol tune from the late 1800’s. Cat Stevens popularized it by recording it in 1972…and of course, people think that’s where the song originated from. But the imagery is striking, similar to Isaiah 35. And I think it’s a fitting hymn for Advent.

Morning has broken
Like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken
Like the first bird
Praise for the singing
Praise for the morning
Praise for them springing
Fresh from the word

Sweet the rains new fall
Sunlit from heaven
Like the first dew fall
On the first grass
Praise for the sweetness
Of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness
Where his feet pass

Mine is the sunlight
Mine is the morning
Born of the one light
Eden so play
Praise with elation
Praise every morning
God’ s recreation
Of the new day

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Advent Devotional Week 2: “Yearning”

Isaiah 11:1-10

“He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth…The wolf shall live with the lamb…the cow and the bear shall graze, their young will lie down together…They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain…On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples.” (Various verses, editing mine)

One word sums it up for me: “Yearning.”

I yearn for the world to be a little less violent, filled with a little less hatred. I yearn for that world to take time to sit down with one another in peace. I yearn for people to actually sit down and be honest with each other, even if that means weathering some conflict along the way. I yearn for things to be a little less cynical, a little less critical, a little less apathetic and indifferent. I yearn for things to be a bit more hopeful, to see possibility where things seem impossible.

I wonder, if the future that Isaiah prophesies to God’s people – the promise of God’s vision of the future – isn’t something worth yearning for. It’s a vision of the future I find comfort and hope in – a future that’s not mine, but God’s. One that God alone will usher in.

However, there is one thing with yearning. Yearning without action sounds to me like “whining” and “passing the buck.” Yearning that doesn’t lead to us participating in what God is bringing about in this world is dead faith. True yearning, that kind that touches our heart and soul, is the kind that compels us to act…but to act in a way that submits to God’s will and vision of the future.

And again, that perhaps leads us to the place where in our yearning for peace, hope, and justice, God has a song for us to sing and play – action borne out of our yearning. Action that witnesses to God’s deliverance from our deepest yearnings and cries. “Mary don’t you weep….prepare and wait….God’s gonna come, and God’s gonna do something, just like he did in ages past for his people.”

Mary don’t you weep no more.

Perhaps not your “traditional” Advent hymn, but a spiritual borne out of a time when God’s people were yearning for freedom – freedom from pain, freedom from exhaustion, freedom from abuse, freedom from the bonds of slavery. Yearning that eventually led to freedom (and continues to work towards it on other levels today).

“O Mary Don’t You Weep No More.”

May God hear your deepest yearnings this Advent season….and may you find peace and hope that God will come, that those yearnings will be heard.

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1 Week of Advent 2013: Isaiah & Hymns

I’m a big fan of weekly devotionals rather than daily – for those out there who wrestle with matters of faith and life like me, and in the midst of a season like Advent, prefer to wrestle more deeply with things. So that takes time…more than just a day.

So for this year, I’m taking the Isaiah texts from the Lectionary and coupling them with an Advent Hymn. I love hymns, even at my young age (35!). I grew up with them. Often times, they’re dismissed by my generation and younger in favor of more “contemporary” stuff. But to me contemporary means “singable” – they’re easy to sing along to.

But for me, contemporary means even more than that. Because singable means it takes on a voice – a voice that is heard, and resonates with our soul. Contemporary means song that speaks & gives voice to people and things of the present. And so for me, hymns are contemporary – or should I say, they can be. That said, let’s move on to the topic at hand.

Read: Isaiah 2:1-5
The book of Isaiah in a lot of ways is a book of our time – the nation of Judah was facing conquest from all around – threats to their nation and to their way of life. War was the reality of the day – war waged by kings – political powers – for their interest and gain.

And caught in between are people – ordinary folk. Farmers, laborers, families; people who for the most part go about their days and routines relatively unnoticed. But war affects all people, and often times it’s those without a piece in the game that are most affected. It wears on people. It makes them question and doubt what is right and good.

And as I think about our world today, there are many places where war is fully present – wars in the Middle East and drug wars in Mexico and South America. But also, wars over religion and class and race in the United States – wars where words are used as swords and spears – for the personal gain of an individual or group.

And caught in the middle of all this warring are people. And whether the instruments are sophisticated weaponry of our time, or words, the affect is the same – people are affected by them. The violence of those instruments rob people of life and growth.

And honestly, I – like many – grow weary and question everything around me. And, it makes me a bit cynical and hostile to “prophets and kings” who proclaim peace and inclusivity, but in reality create conflict and division.

The prophet Isaiah announces God’s promise in the midst of that, and a surprising one – one that comes about by peace, not war. “they shall beart their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (2:4)

It is through instruments of peace – a ploughshare and a pruning hook (something used to trim grapevines and the like) – that God will work. These tools of agriculture are God’s instruments – not instruments of war like swords and spears.

This song (scroll to 1:47 in the video) is rapidly becoming my favorite Advent hymn. It was written in a time too, when the Vietnam War wore on people – making them question the world around them. But it, like the prophet Isaiah, offers a word of hope for those of us who feel “caught in the middle.”

Yet I believe beyond believing that life can spring from death, that growth can flower from our grieving, that we can catch our breath and turn transfixed by faith.

O Child of ecstasy and sorrows, O Prince of peace and pain, brighten today’s world by tomorrow’s, renew our lives again; Lord Jesus, come and reign.

Again, it is the announcment of peace that is God’s promise – a small child, one who will eventually lay down his life on a cross for humanity and from that place, life and growth – resurrection – will spring forth.

Ploughshares and pruning hooks; a tiny child and a cross: instruments of God’s will and action in the world. God’s instruments of peace for a weary and questioning world.

Instruments perhaps, that can shed a bit of light into the darkness of a world that wages war on itself, and offer us a bit of hope in the midst of it all.

Each Winter as the Year Grows Older – William Gay

Each winter as the year grows older
we each grow older, too.
The chill sets in a little colder;
the verities we knew seem shaken and untrue.

When race and class cry out for treason,
when sirens call for war,
they overshout the voice of reason
and scream til we ignore all we held dear before.

Yet I believe beyond beliving
that life can spring from death,
that growth can flower from our grieving,
that we can catch our breath and turn transfixed by faith.

So even as the sun is turning
to journey to the north,
the living flame, in secret burning,
can kindle on the earth and bring God’s love to birth.

O Child of ecstasy and sorrows,
O Prince of peace and pain,
brighten today’s world by tomorrow’s,
renew our lives again; Lord Jesus come and reign!

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Homecomings….

This past weekend, I headed out to Virginia Beach, VA. I was there primarily to recruit wrestlers for Augsburg College at the AAA Virginia State Wrestling Tournament. But, I got to visit and preach at my “home” congregation, St. Michael Lutheran Church. Since 2005, St. Michael has been a meaningful place for my faith. I’ve grown in so many ways – fellowship, doing youth and kids ministry, serving on church council, assisting with worship, and even utilizing my organ-playing skills during Lent in 2008 (long story).

St. Michael has also helped me through some tough times in my life – carrying me through them, and in their witness to me, helping me wrestle with tough questions about God and life, about this gospel message we proclaim, a message about the move from death to life…..cross to resurrection.

It’s been over 2 years since I’ve last been back. We still claim each other – they are my “home congregation;” I am one of their members – but there aren’t as many familiar faces, and the faces that are, aren’t as well known. It’s the reality of being away, you drift a part as you’re not so integrated into their lives on a daily basis.

However, there are some experiences that just tie us together. Last week, someone who I had known well, passed away suddenly. Her health was declining, but she got sick, and within about an hour of being in the ER, she died. This was one of a few tough deaths the congregation has been through. And, if you’ve been following this blog at all, you know from my life, that I’ve had a tough winter in the way of close deaths too. Really, death is an experience that ties all of us together. In a very striking and somber way, our mortality is one of the fundamental things of what it means to be human.

I’ve found that faith and trust are hard in such moments….but perhaps not so much in community. This mini-homecoming reminded me of that. We never trust alone – we are given the gift of people in community to surround us where God and the Spirit are present, being faithful to us, caring for us, even in the smallest of trust. It points to a God who is so faithful to us always, fully, even when we aren’t and can’t be.

We never trust alone….that’s something to be thankful for, and perhaps, something that nurtures and strengthens our own meager faith.

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Cancer: The Real Heroes & Their Stories

Cancer seems to be affecting people I know well lately, and now that extends into the world of sports. Thursday, 2x National Champion in Track & Cross-Country, Johanna Olson passed away after a 12-year battle with brain cancer.

I guess why this strikes me isn’t so much that I knew Johanna well…because I didn’t. She grew up in Wadena, Minnesota next to my hometown. We graduated high school the same year. But everyone knew who she was, because she was one of the best running talents to ever come out of the area. We probably talked a few times over those years, and I’ve followed her blog, where she’s documented her trials fighting her cancer and at the same time, living life.

And in reading people’s tributes to Johanna, I came across this story – runner Gabrielle Anderson, who ran cross-country for my cousin’s high school team in Perham, MN, also battled cancer. She was able to triumph over it, and do some pretty amazing things.

I’m not going to say much more. I encourage you to click on the links and learn a bit more about their stories, because they’re really powerful. They’re the real heroes, like so many who battle cancer courageously and choose to live life in the midst of it…real, authentic people. I find it very ironic because yesterday I also came across this story – the latest on Lance Armstrong.

My thoughts and prayers go out to all who battle cancer, and my hopes that one day we find a cure for this disease…..

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Advent Devotion Week 4 – “Life is a Gift”

The Narrative Lectionary readings are as follows:
Sunday, 23rd: Luke 1:26-45 (Announcement of Jesus’ Birth to Mary)
Christmas Eve: Luke 2:1-20 (Birth of Jesus)

I can’t take it anymore.

It has been a rough Advent season for me to this point. There is a lot of saddness and tragedy affecting me, both personally and in the world. And that’s enough for me, on its own. In light of so many things, the response we get….is a war of words.

A war over gun rights and gun control.
A war between conservative and liberal Christianity. You can sense it in commentaries. And in statements like this: God in Schools (2)

I hate that this kind of stuff bothers me when normally, it doesn’t. But I can’t take it anymore. Not when I lost a dear mentor of the faith last week. Not when I learned that a seminary classmate and friend lost his long battle with cancer this morning. Not when I think of all the kids and families not just in Newtown, CT, but around the world, that experience tragedy and pain every day.

As I read these readings for the 4th week in Advent and for Christmas Eve, I think about these unlikely pregnancies, and Christ’s humble birth into a tumultuous world, and I think about what God might be speaking to us through these well-known stories today.

And for me, all I can think about is my older sister and her newborn son, born just about a month ago….I think about how for a couple years she and her husband tried to concieve a new life – and not being able to time and time again – and then, as they decided to give in vitro fertilization a try, they received the news: they had conceived life on their own. And now, in all her fear and wonder, she holds this brand new, delicate life in her hands. And I watch my sister with great joy as she experiences this for the first time, knowing just how precious this life is to her…..a gift.

Life is a gift. Did you ever stop to think about that? Life is a gift from God! And it’s a delicate and fragile one at that – the world has been telling me that pretty straight up this past couple weeks. And human life is so precious to God, that he is willing to take on the very form of humanity as well, willing to risk taking on its delicateness and fragility, subjecting himself to the pain, suffering, and death of being human so that we may also know the joy, the value, of wonder of life – life that God alone gives, life that God creates “in his own image, both male and female, he created them.”

That is the good news for this week of Advent, and the good news of Christ’s humble birth into this world for us today: a reminder, and proclamation to us from God, that God gives life as a gift. God is with us when the frailty of that gift becomes a reality in our lives, and God promises that this gift of life is everlasting in relationship with him.

There will be a time to debate gun control, and a time for theological debate. But for now, in light of God’s good news, the only thing that comes to me is, “Life is a gift.” Christ is our Light in this world, shining in our hearts and in all dark places, revealing to us the truth about life in this world, and revealing to us perhaps, just how important life is to God – our lives, the lives of our loved ones, and the lives of all people in this world.

Life is a gift. That said,

I think I’m gonna hug my wife a little tighter today,
text and call friends and family, and check in on them,
go workout with one of my wrestlers today,
honor lost brothers in Christ in my own way,
give thanks for their witness to me,
and hope my life points to and witnesses to Christ’s light working in their lives, and in this world, that
Life is a precious gift from God.

And hopefully, that’s enough.

the-light-shines-in-the-darkness-faith-lang

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