Category Archives: devotionals

Who Am I?

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For the past seven or eight months, I’ve been in therapy. Not because there’s anything wrong with me. I’m not schizophrenic, bipolar, neurotic, alcoholic, nor am I thinking of harming myself or others. So why did I start seeing a psychologist? As I approached the big five-oh (which I’m thankful to have behind me), I was struggling with issues of identity. Who am I? What do I want to be? While I’m still working on answers, wrestling with those questions has led me to a career change, which I discussed in my last post.

One of the benefits of no longer being a pastor is getting to hear other people preach. The sermon this morning concerned issues of identity. In the Gospel reading (Matthew 16:13-20), Jesus quizzes Simon Peter, asking who people say he (Jesus) is, then asking Peter his opinion. Peter’s answer to the question earns him praise, not because he studied for the test and made an A, but because someone whispered the right answer in his ear: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven” (v. 17). Grace, not nature (“flesh and blood”), enlightened Peter’s understanding of Jesus’s identity. And that grace came from Peter’s relationship with God (“my Father in heaven”). The preacher made the point that to know Jesus the way Peter did we must be willing to follow Peter’s life and example. He ended his message with this: “How much are we willing to sacrifice in order to know Jesus the way Peter did?” Good question.

Peter followed the Lord closely but imperfectly. When Jesus was on trial for his life, Peter lied about knowing Jesus to save his own skin. St. John Chrysostom speculated that Peter “fell into sin so that, remembering his own fault and the Lord’s forgiveness, he also might forgive others out of love for them.” Acknowledging our own sins allows us to do the same. Confession and repentance not only build self-knowledge and humility, they also develop empathy and encourage us to show mercy.

Studying today’s Bible lesson inevitably leads us to turn the main question back on ourselves: Who am I? It’s a difficult question. As with the original question, the right answer doesn’t come from preparation but from grace. The phrase “know thyself” was inscribed on the entrance to the Temple of Apollo in ancient Delphi. The inscription implies that self-knowledge is an essential part of worship. That doesn’t mean religion is primarily self-focused. It isn’t about us. But as we grow in our knowledge and love of God and others, we also grow in our knowledge and love of ourselves.

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Follow Me

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On Thursday I watched the new Martin Scorsese movie Silence. It’s about two Portuguese Jesuit missionaries who travel to Japan during a time of intense persecution of Christians. Many Japanese were tortured and killed for their faith. Many more gave up their faith to avoid persecution. At the climax of the movie, one of the missionaries is given a choice – renounce his faith and save the lives of five Japanese Christians or keep his faith and watch them die a cruel and painful death. I won’t spoil the ending by telling you what he did, but I will say that it was a difficult film to watch at times.

Like the missionaries in the movie, the earliest disciples had no idea what they were getting themselves into when Jesus called them. The first four, two sets of brothers, were all fishermen: Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Matthew 4:18-22 tells the story. What’s impressive is how these men left their nets and followed Jesus IMMEDIATELY when Jesus came and said to them, “Follow me.” Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Traveling from town to town with a rabbi must have sounded better than doing the same strenuous work day after day. To be sure, Jesus didn’t promise them a rose garden. Not by any means. But he did promise that they’d still be fishermen of sorts. Only instead of catching fish, they’d catch people for God.

I often wish God’s call to me were as clear as the one the disciples received by the lakeshore. Before I went to seminary, I struggled with my calling. I thought I might want to become a psychologist instead of a minster, so I enrolled in a psychology class at the local community college and applied for a graduate studies program in counseling psychology at the University of Florida. In the end, I decided to go into the ministry instead. My wife Amelia and I hitched a U-Haul trailer to our 1974 Chevy Impala, loaded up our furniture and personal belongings, and drove from Florida to North Carolina where I enrolled in seminary. I’d like to tell you that making that leap of faith settled all doubt about my calling. It did not. I continued to struggle with the question of what God wanted me to be. A missionary? A pastor? A Navy chaplain? A college or seminary professor? I didn’t know. I’ve done all those things except for being a missionary. I’ve found good in all of them. I’ve sensed God’s blessing in all of them. But I’ve never heard a voice telling me, “This is the way, walk in it.”

One thing that God has been teaching me lately is the difference between being and doing. Who I am is more important that what I do. God calls everyone to follow him. For some that involves leaving everything and entering full-time ministry like the Jesuit missionaries in the movie Silence. For many following Jesus means being a faithful witness right where we are. No change of employment. No new address. The important thing is that we’re living for Jesus now – this day, in this moment.

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Saint Benedict’s Toolbox

What do Baptists and Benedictines have in common? Not much other than they both start with the same letter. On second thought, that’s not true. Both movements began as radical attempts to get back to first-century Christianity. Benedictines remained within the established Church but withdrew from the world. Baptists remained in the world but withdrew from the established Church. Only by the early seventeenth century when the first Baptist churches formed, the established Church in England was no longer Roman Catholic but Anglican.

I, a Baptist, find myself drawn to the Rule of St. Benedict as a practical guide to Christian living. Even though it was written specifically for silent monks a millennium and a half ago, it still speaks to anyone who will “incline the ear of [their] heart.” In fact, Benedict offered his “little rule for beginners” as a gift to all, addressing it to “whoever you may be.”

In chapter 4, the Rule enumerates seventy-two “tools” of spiritual craftsmanship. Among these are some usual suspects such as the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, as well as some of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not steal,” “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” and “Thou shalt not covet.” Others are more monastic in flavor: “Love fasting,” “Love not much talking,” and “Love chastity.” My favorite is number twenty-one: “To prefer nothing to the love of Christ.” In chapter 43, the Rule says, “Let nothing be preferred to the work of God,” referring to the Liturgy of the Hours, the set times of communal prayer in a monastery. Thus, the Rule equates prayer and loving Christ, since both are identified as the pinnacle of Christian spiritual practice—that to which nothing should be preferred.

One thing that strikes me is how Benedict begins and ends his list of spiritual tools. He begins where Jesus began, telling his hearers “to love the Lord God with the whole heart, the whole soul, the whole strength.” That’s number one, and it’s a positive command. He ends with a negative command. Number seventy-two says, “And never despair of God’s mercy.” These two form the bookends of spiritual disciplines. I believe Benedict positioned them intentionally. Those who attempt to love God by obeying his commands and living a good life ultimately fail. No one can love God perfectly, keep the commandments continually, or practice spiritual disciplines consistently, even in a monastery. The temptation then is to wallow in self-pity. Self-pity makes you want to give up, feeling you’re not good enough for God. That’s why Benedict ends by telling us what not to do: never despair of God’s mercy. No one is so far gone they can’t be forgiven and restored. No one.

A monk was once asked, “What do you do there in the monastery?” He replied: “We fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up again.” That’s a picture of the Christian life outside the monastery too.

The tools in St. Benedict’s ancient toolbox for monks can help anyone live a healthy spiritual life today. Even a Baptist.

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True Repentance

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Peaceable Kingdom (c. 1834), Edward Hicks (1780-1849), National Gallery of Art

The Gospel reading last Sunday, Matthew 3:1-12, introduces us to the enigmatic figure of John the Baptist. We need to set the record straight about one thing: he wasn’t a Baptist, at least not in the denominational sense of the word. Even though he’s called “the Baptist,” he wasn’t a member of a Baptist Church. His title means that he was known for baptizing. John turned a Jewish ritual bath for converts into a sign of repentance. Let’s keep in mind the Baptist movement originated in England in the early 1600s. John wasn’t the first Baptist preacher. He was the last Old Testament prophet (in style, message, temperament), even though he appears in the New Testament.

John lived in the desert. He wore weird clothing. He ate bugs. Some people thought he was Elijah the prophet come back from the grave. A cross between Grizzly Adams and Jonathan Edwards, John preached hell-fire-and-damnation sermons, telling listeners to turn or burn, get right or get left behind. When the hypocritical Pharisees and Scribes showed up to have their sins washed away, he rebuked them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

How do we know if we’ve truly repented of our sin? The short answer is that we don’t keep doing it. Since John fits the mold of an Old Testament prophet, it would be instructive to ask a rabbi what repentance means in the Jewish tradition. According to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, here’s how the famous Rabbi Maimonides answered the question, What constitutes complete repentance?  He who is confronted by the identical situation wherein he previously sinned and it lies within his power to commit the sin again, but he nevertheless does not succumb because he wishes to repent, and not because he is too fearful or weak [to repeat the sin]. How so? If he had relations with a woman forbidden to him and is subsequently alone with her, still in the throes of passion for her, and his virility is unabated, and [they are] in the same place where they previously sinned; if he abstains and does not sin, this is a true penitent.” (Jewish Literacy, rev. ed., p. 608; citing Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Teshuva,” 2:1).

Sunday’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah describes the future Peaceable Kingdom, so beautifully illustrated by the painter Edward Hicks:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

I always assumed God will take away the predatory instinct from these animals. But maybe, just maybe, the miracle is that the wolf still wants to eat the lamb but chooses not to and the lion still wants to devour the calf but refrains. This is a picture of true repentance.

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Docility

Easter Sunrise Service, Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, March 27, 2016

Easter Sunrise Service, Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, Africa, March 27, 2016

We often associate docility with weakness and assertiveness with strength, but the opposite is true when it comes to living the Christian life and responding to the Holy Spirit. Too often we are like a toddler fighting against a parent who is trying to lead it by the hand. We pull away. We protest. We pout. We make ourselves miserable, resisting God’s will for our lives.

When the Navy told me I would be mobilized and deployed to Djibouti, Africa for a year, I didn’t want to go. Djibouti is hot, miserably hot, and a year is a long time to be away from my family. I prayed that God would give me the grace to accept his will in this matter, even if it’s not what I want. Guess what! He did. This deployment has turned out to be a blessing, not a curse as I had feared. It has taught me a lot about God.

Docile submission to God’s will is a key to spiritual growth. This is a lesson I am still learning. I spent weeks planning an Easter trip to Mogadishu, Somalia with the goal of leading worship for a handful of American and European troops stationed there. The logistics were complicated since there are currently no commercial flights to Somalia due to safety concerns. The commanding general allowed me to borrow his plane – a Beechcraft C-12 twin turboprop aircraft. We took off on Friday, March 25, only to turn around after 45 minutes and return to base due to mechanical problems. After that my trip was canceled. I spent Easter weekend at my home base: Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti.

Instead of grumbling and complaining, I accepted the change as part of God’s plan and asked him to show me opportunities for service. I wasn’t on the preaching schedule, so I attended all of the Holy Week services both Protestant and Catholic. On Saturday, much to my surprise, I was asked to preach the Easter Sunrise service and assist with the main Protestant service. Because my plans changed, I had some unexpected and meaningful opportunities.

As I continue to learn the importance of docile submission to God’s will, Proverbs 3:5-6 come to mind: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” My hope and prayer is that we will all grow in this grace.

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Mary Christmas

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David Dances Before the Ark, Francesco Salviati, 1552-1554

Mary Christmas! It’s not a typo. No Mary, No Christmas. Know Mary, know Christmas. When the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive the “Son of the Most High” in her virginal womb, her “yes” – her “Fiat” (let it be) echoed God’s “Fiat Lux” (let there be light). Mary’s consent allowed for an even greater creation than the first. The original creation brought forth the sun, which sustains earthly life, but Mary brought forth the Son God, who gives eternal life.

Mary is the new Eve. Just as we are all children of Adam’s spouse, we are also all children of Mary. Through Eve’s disobedience sin entered the world and passed unto every one of us. Through Mary’s obedience, the remedy for sin entered the world: Jesus Christ, the Savior.

Mary is not only the new Eve, she’s also the new Ark. As in the Ark of the Covenant, which most people know from the Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Ark was the most sacred object in ancient Israel – a wooden box overlaid with gold whose lid, the Mercy Seat, had two golden angels with wings unfurled. It was both a container for holy objects and a piece of furniture fashioned after God’s directions and placed in a room called the Holy of Holies, first in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Philistines captured the Ark in battle but returned it after God sent a plague on them. When it was returned, “the ark was lodged at Kiriath-jearim, a long time passed, some twenty years, and all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord” (1 Sam. 7:2). Second Samuel chapter six narrates the happy occasion when King David brought the Ark to Jerusalem. The parallels between this passage and the story of the Visitation in Luke 1:39-45 are striking.

The recovery of the Ark and the Visitation both take place in the hill country of Judea. In both stories there’s a similar response to a new arrival: “King David [was] leaping and dancing before the Lord” (2 Sam. 6:16), and “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb” (Luke 1:41). David and Elizabeth ask similar questions. David says, “How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?” (2 Sam. 6:9). Elizabeth says, “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” (Luke 1:43).

Finally, the contents of the Ark and Mary are similar. The Ark contained the original tablets upon which God wrote the Ten Commandments, the “covenant” from which it derived its name. It also held a pot of manna and the rod of Aaron, which miraculously budded. Three objects: God’s Word, God’s bread, and the God-given symbol of High Priestly authority. Similarly, the expectant Mary contained the One who is God’s Word (John 1:1, 14), the Bread of Life who like manna came down from heaven (John 6:31-25), and our Great High Priest (Heb. 4:14).

As we await the celebration of Christ’s birth, let’s remember that because of Mary’s “yes,” allowing herself to become a vessel for God himself, it’s both a Merry Christmas and a Mary Christmas.

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Hospitality

Welcome

I’m writing this on Thanksgiving Day and I’m tempted to say all the many things I’m thankful for. Instead, I want to share something that God’s been teaching me lately. We all know about the benefits of prayer, Bible study, and worship for growing in the Christian life. These are all important. But one of the most important spiritual practices in the New Testament is often ignored: hospitality.

Have you ever noticed how often the Gospels tell us that Jesus was eating a meal with people when he taught them? Learning and teaching during mealtime was a practice embedded in Jewish culture. To this day the Passover celebration takes place during a meal – called the Seder. In this meal the story is retold and questions are asked and answered about God’s miraculous deliverance of his chosen people from Egypt. The Passover Meal is the background for the Lord’s Supper in which Jesus identified the bread and wine with his body and blood. The early Christians celebrated this meal daily in their homes (Acts 2:42, 46).

Jews extended hospitality not only because it was part of their culture, but they did it to be obedient to God and his Word. The book of Proverbs even says hospitality should be extended to one’s enemies: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the Lord will reward you.” (Prov. 25:21-22).

Jesus used the language of hospitality to describe the Kingdom of God. It’s like a great banquet to which many are invited he explained on one occasion (Matt. 22:1-14). On another he told a parable about a host going next door to borrow food from a reluctant neighbor as an illustration for persevering in prayer (Luke 11:5-13).

In his Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus even ties hospitality to salvation: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt. 25:34-35). What is Hospitality? It’s giving food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty. It’s inviting strangers in. It’s treating people as if they were Jesus Christ himself, because in a sense that’s who they really are.

Leo Tolstoy wrote a short story called “Martin the Cobbler” found in his book What Men Live By that illustrates this point. It concerns a man who was told, through prayer, that Christ was going to visit him on a certain day. He went about his business as usual; he was a shoemaker. His first customer was a prostitute; the second, a mother with a sick child; and the third was an alcoholic. He hurried around trying to be hospitable to these people, offering them a kind word and something to eat, as well as fixing their shoes. When evening came he was rather disappointed, for it was time to lock up—and Christ still hadn’t come. He was very unhappy until he heard a voice saying, “But I had come, in the person of each of the people to whom you offered hospitality today.” (Doherty, Poustinia, p. 84) If Christ were to visit us today in the form of a homeless person or a Syrian refugee, how would we receive him? Would we show him hospitality? Ignore him? Or worse, treat him with contempt?

Hospitality is reciprocal. It’s both giving and receiving. When Jesus sent out the 12 Apostles to preach he told them not to bring any provisions so they’d be forced to rely on the hospitality of others (Matt. 10:9). That requires both faith and humility.

But Jesus wasn’t asking them to do anything he hadn’t done himself. Although Jesus was God from all eternity with all the riches of heaven at his disposal, for our sake he humbled himself in the miracle of the Incarnation by becoming human. He didn’t arrive in this world as a full grown man capable of providing for himself, but as a helpless baby who had to be fed and burped and changed.

It’s just as important to accept the hospitality of others as it is to give hospitality. To do this, we have to be humble, flexible, and open. It also means that we can’t always be in a hurry, ready to rush off to the next task.

Hospitality isn’t just a matter of good manners. It’s a way of life and an attitude of the heart. If we consistently practice hospitality, we’ll be walking in the footsteps of Jesus.

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