Good questions

In our morning services at Trinity CRC, we’re asking the questions Jesus asked: Do you want to get well? How many loaves do you have? What is your name? Who was the neighbor?

Iowa author Jennifer Dukes Lee sent an email to her friends this week that includes a quote from Lore Ferguson Wilbert, author of A Curious Faith. I love how she sees questions as expressions of hope and curiosity as a spiritual discipline. It connects perfectly with our sermon series!


“So the Lord God called out to the man
and said to him, ‘Where are you?’”
Genesis 3:9 (CSB)

Asking a question is an act of faith: faith that we could be answered, or that we won’t be refused, or that we will like the answer, or, if we don’t, that it will lead to a better question.

To ask a question is to hope that what we currently know isn’t the whole story. If we don’t make space for curiosity in the Christian life, we will become content with a one-dimensional god, a god made more in our own image than the God who made us in his image.

Curiosity is a discipline of the spiritual sort, and it begins by asking some simple questions, questions like “Where are you?” “Who are you?” “Are you there?” and more.

A Curious Faith by Lore Ferguson Wilbert

I believe there’s a reason so many questions are lobbed around Scripture, from God to his people, from his people to God, from people to people, and in the New Testament from Jesus to people, people to Jesus, and Jesus to his Father.

The Bible is a permission slip for those with questions.

All these questions aren’t just pointing to answers. They’re also saying, it’s okay to ask questions. Asking questions is a part of the Christian life.

Satisfied

A few weeks ago I spoke on Isaiah 55 about satisfaction and how we (myself included) are regularly tempted to look for satisfaction in things that ultimately don’t satisfy us. In my research, I found a poem and a prayer about inviting God to fill our deepest hunger.

:: :: ::

Feed Your Starving Soul

by Linda Siebenga
originally appeared in Christian Courier 2912 (9 May 2011)

Not just the nibble
we remember eating yesterday,
or that meal last Sunday
the pastor spoon fed us
as he waited for us
to want meat and potatoes.

We feed our bodies
more fuel than they can burn
but starve our souls
with skimpy feedings:
a little here
a little there
when a feast of wisdom and comfort
is in our grasp.

“Come and eat,” the prophet urges.
“Buy wine without money that your soul may live.”

Taste the honey of Psalm 139,
a platter of Isaiah 55,
the comfort food of Philippians 4,
the meat of Romans 8.
Chew the pithy parables.
Taste samples of the stories of those
who have wrestled with God.

Tomorrow dish it up again;
digest it so you may thrive,
grow strong,
mature and produce fruit.


:: :: ::


Prayer of Confession

by N. Graham Standish
originally appeared in Let Us Pray: Reformed Prayers
for Christian Worship
(Geneva Press, 2002)

There is a deep hunger within us, O Christ, for the food only you can give us: the bread of life found in you. We need you so desperately in our lives, and only you can satisfy our deep hunger. Yet we are such an impatient people. We want to be fed by you, but we don’t always want to sit at your table. We want fast spiritual food, not the nourishing food that comes through patient prayer, quiet reflection, service, thanksgiving, understanding, and virtue. We want your saving grace to work in a hurry so we can experience your blessings and peace now. We are not always willing to undergo the slow transformation that allows you to enter our very souls. Help us to [respond to your invitation and] come to you with repentant hearts so that in your grace we [will be filled and satisfied, going forth as] your disciples, your servants, your apostles. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

Isaiah 55 graphic found at TodayInTheWord.org

Open to God

In his Sermon the Mount, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”God of Weakness by John Timmer Reading the late John Timmer’s book God of Weakness shone some light for me on Jesus’ familiar yet hard-to-entirely-understand words. Maybe this will speak to you too.

::– –::– –::

The God of Scripture is a God who pronounces the poor blessed. The poor are people who are not self-made and are not self-sufficient. Because they are less walled in by what they possess, they are potentially more open to God. The reason Jesus warns the rich is not that he regards riches as bad per se, but rather that material prosperity easily isolates us from God. Riches of any kind represent power, and power gives us an advantage over others. It makes us independent from them. It also makes us feel independent from God. Jesus calls the poor blessed because the poor are able to listen to someone besides themselves, because they know they’ll never manage on their own.

Poverty before God makes us more receptive to God’s riches. Weakness before God makes us more receptive to his power…

Poverty in the Bible is a frame of mind, not first of all an economic condition or a question of money. Rather it’s a question of the heart.

Economic poverty, by itself, is not a virtue. After all, you can be dirt poor and yet be as greedy as the man in Jesus’ parable who tore down his barns and built bigger ones to store all his grain and his goods.

And then again, you can be a person of means and yet have the soul of a pauper.

To be poor is to be weak before God, to be open to him. God doesn’t need strong people. He prefers working through the poor in spirit; not through the poor as such, but through those whose poverty makes them receptive to him.

These poor can also be found among the rich, for there is a poverty of body as well as a poverty of soul. Each evokes God’s pity.

God loves everyone, even those who are well-off. It’s just that he has a much harder time getting through to them. (pages 17, 76)

I read God of Weakness while on vacation last month and
it inspired me to share this in today’s
Rock Valley Bee and here.
I also write about the Beatitudes at the start
of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in
this blog post.

Turning the world upside down

People opposed to the apostle Paul’s ministry got a crowd riled up in Thessalonica by shouting, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also!” They weren’t lying; Your Church Is Too Safe by Mark Buchananperhaps they were even paying Paul and his associates an compliment. Author Mark Buchanan wrote an entire book inspired by this charge against Paul (a book I highly recommend, by the way).

Back in 1962, a devotional appeared in Forward Day by Day also based on the charge against Paul, that he was turning the world upside down. When I came across it recently, I felt like it could have been written today.

::– –::– –::

Many sincere church people today seem to see Christianity as a social stabilizer rather than as an insurrectionist movement. They often say things like: “In a world of constant and terrifying changes, we need some things that stay unchanged, to which we can anchor our lives; and why can’t we find that blessed security in our religion?”

There is a sense in which they are right. God stands fast and changeless, and our only refuge is in the divine changelessness.

But this world is always changing; it must. And Christians are to be revolutionaries making certain the changes conform to God’s will. This is why the great Christians are always bent upon “turning the world upside down.” And no sooner is a change made than someone finds a way to use the new order for ungodly ends. The world always needs turning upside down. We dare not accept things as they are. God commands us to go forth in his power to attack entrenched greed, cruelty, and godlessness. This means change. And Christians know how to turn the world upside down in such a way that God can set it right side up.

Garden my life

Koehn Garden at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

God is a gardener. At the beginning of time He plants and walks around in the Garden of Eden. The risen Christ appears in a garden (and is mistaken for a gardener). And the end of time culminates in a beautiful garden-city called New Jerusalem.

God’s gardening work extends into my life as a prayer by Philip F. Reinders in Seeking God’s Face reminded me afresh. I invite you to make this prayer your own as I did.

Creator God, garden my life –
turn it over,
cultivate it,
and make it ready for gospel seeds to take root.
And in quiet darkness let the gospel do its work,
slow but powerful,
stirring up life in my heart,
increasing joy,
strengthening all your graces
until shoots of new life rise and good fruit
bursts forth on the branches of my life,
a life beautiful for you
and a blessing to others. Amen.

::– –::– –::

Here’s another prayer with a similar theme. It’s written by Handt Hanson and it’s one you can sing.

Concern for the corner

Among the laws God gave His people who owned land and fields is the command for farmers not to harvest every last corner and scrap:

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God.

Photo of a grain field at harvest time near the Yarkon Springs in Israel by Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

I always thought this command was only for the good of the poor. But the other day I stumbled across this Forward Day by Day meditation from 1971 that points out how it is also good for God’s creation – a timely reminder for Earth Day.

::– –::– –::

The command against reaping the corners of the field goes back to the primitive belief in spirits who had authority over the land. A place to dwell and food to eat had to be left for them or they would leave the farmer. Now Israel has given the old law a new humanitarian bent: We are not to take everything for ourselves but to leave something for the one less fortunate that we.

To plow the field up to the last furrow, to attempt to scrape the last bit of profit from one’s labor, betokens a miserly spirit which in the end works to its own disadvantage. Agricultural science [knows] this ecological truth. To drain the potholes and the marshlands, to plow up the submarginal lands, is to create floods and dust bowls.

We need this “concern for the corner” operative in the city as well as the country, and not the contractor who uses the cheapest possible material, replacing one slum with another soon-to-be, or the housing developers who crowd in as many apartments as possible in their high-rises. Without concern for the corner, we poison our streams, kill the lakes, pollute the air, and destroy the quality of human living.

Sad but hopeful

Like Jesus predicted, a rooster crowed when Peter denied Jesus. Graphic found with Google
My message yesterday at Trinity CRC was about Peter denying Jesus while Jesus was standing trial for His claims to be the Messiah. While Jesus affirms His identity as God’s Son, Peter denies His identity as one of Jesus’ followers. When a servant girl confronts Peter, she at least says the name of Jesus, but Peter won’t even utter His best friend’s name, distancing himself from Jesus as much as he can. It’s a sad story of Peter, nicknamed The Rock, disintegrating into a pile of sand (to quote David E. Garland).

Yes, it’s indeed sad, but it’s not without hope. Read ahead in the story and you’ll find that Jesus rescues and forgives Peter completely. Even when Peter is at his worst, Jesus remains faithful. That assures me that even when I am at my worst, Jesus remains faithful.

I love how Alastair Sterne puts it:

“God’s presence isn’t contingent on my performance.”

When I, like Peter, have denied and distanced myself from Jesus, Jesus suffered, died, rose again, and now reigns so I can receive the loving Father’s grace and be forgiven. That indeed makes Good Friday good and Resurrection Sunday worth celebrating.

Confession is good for the soul (and the rest of your body too)

Confession graphic found via GoogleIn a culture that downplays sin, the concept of confession may sound like an outdated relic from the past. Yet I have found confession to be vitally important in any relationship, whether with people or with God. When I confess something, I acknowledge the mess I’ve made, admit I was wrong, and place myself in the best position to experience reconciliation with the one I wronged or hurt.

In the Bible, the psalmist writes of the pain (physical? mental? emotional?) he experienced when he tried to ignore his guilt and then of the relief he felt when he confessed:

When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long…
My strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
the guilt of my sin.
Psalm 32:3‑5

It reminds me of a story told by author Mark Buchanan about Frederick the Great, the king of Prussia in the 1700s. On one occasion he was inspecting the Berlin prison. As he walked through the rows of shackled men, they fell pleading at his feet, protesting their innocence. They claimed to be falsely accused, models of virtuous living, completely innocent of all crime.

Only one man didn’t do this. Frederick called to him, “Prisoner, why are you here?”

The prisoner replied, “I robbed a man, Your Majesty.”

“And are you guilty?” asked the king.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” came the reply.

Frederick called the guard over. Pointing at the man who confessed, he said, “Release this man immediately. I will not have this scoundrel thief kept here where he might corrupt all these other fine, virtuous, and innocent men.”

That’s the lovely irony of confession: The one who actually confesses gets out of prison and goes free.

These reflections appear in today’s edition of the Rock Valley Bee.

Godly joy

“The joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Nehemiah

“My brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord!
Rejoice in the Lord always.
I will say it again: Rejoice!”
Paul

"Joy – Abstract" by Shevon Johnson, FineArtAmerica.com

This past Sunday I spoke at Trinity CRC about joy, how it is a gift from God and a spiritual discipline God’s Spirit prompts His people to grow within themselves as individuals and in community with one another. I quoted a couple helpful resources on the subject and share them here too.

We will not understand God until we understand this about Him: God is the happiest being in the universe. Yes, God also knows sorrow. Jesus is remembered, among other things, as “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” But the sorrow of God, like the anger of God, is His temporary response to a fallen world. That sorrow will be banished forever from His heart on the day the world is set right. Joy is God’s basic character. Joy is His eternal destiny. God is the happiest being in the universe. And God’s intent is that His creation mirrors His joy.
– John Ortberg in The Life You’ve Always Wanted

::– –::– –::

[Experiencing joy] does not depend on perfect circumstances or happy feelings. Even in prison, Paul and Silas found something to sing about. And Jeremiah, the weeping prophet … found reason to delight and hope in God even in a lament.

The world is filled with reasons to be downcast. But deeper than sorrow thrums the unbroken pulse of God’s joy, a joy that will yet have its eternal day… Every small experience of Jesus with us is a taste of the joy that is to come. God has not left us alone – and that in itself is reason to celebrate.
– Adele Ahlberg Calhoun in Spiritual Disciplines Handbook

Remembering and living into this reality grows God’s joy within us. . Finding and imitating “joy mentors” help us practice joy in community. Identifying people or things (TV or social media, perhaps?) that tend to suck the joy out of us can help us guard our hearts and respond well even when we can’t avoid them. And thanking God daily for at least one thing teaches us to keep our eyes, ears, and hearts open to His presence and provision which form the perfect foundation for joy.

Falling down with my enemies

To the church in Philadelphia, Jesus gives the encouragement to keep holding on. They have little strength left from enduring rejection and persecution from the leaders of the local synagogue who deny Jesus is Lord. But they can indeed hold on knowing their current situation will not last forever. Jesus promises He is coming soon, giving the church hope that the time is coming when wrongs will be righted.

More than that, Jesus tells the Philadelphian church they can look forward to the day when those who hurt them will “come and fall down at [their] feet.” Those opposed to God and His people will one day experience the return and victory of King Jesus. At that time they will hear Him say He is on the side of His people and He loves them.

But as Lou Lotz once noted, this talk of enemies groveling at one’s feet smacks of triumphalism and vengeance, and seems to be out of character with Christ’s command to love our enemies. True, but the picture of poor souls who have always resisted Jesus and harmed the church bowing down to Jesus’ followers helps me in two ways: 1. I’m given hope: Ungodliness will not endure forever. One day, to quote Pastor Lotz, “the tables will be turned, and God’s people will be vindicated.”

2. This picture also offers inspiration: Christians desire to love their enemies, to love their enemies to Christ. The more Christ’s reconciling grace is in me, the more I want no one being punished at my feet. I’m not saying there won’t be anyone; I’m just saying Christians love their enemies and the church’s enemies with the dream that all of them will change and love Jesus today and in eternity.

I’m fascinated by the actual words used in Jesus’ letter to Philadelphia, that those who oppose Jesus and His church will one day “fall down.” This is the same language used elsewhere in the Bible (in Revelation 4, as one example) for falling down in worship! I think I’m supposed to love my enemies, praying that they’ll fall down in worship with me and all God’s people.

Graphic found with Google

Morning star

Photo found with Google
In his letter to the church of Thyatira, Jesus gives that church and the church today one of the most encouraging promises you’ll ever receive. To the church that, by grace, repents and holds on, Jesus promises “the morning star.”

One of my favorite professors at Regent College was Darrell Johnson. He taught me that the morning star is the star that “appears at the darkest time of the night… It usually emerges at that point when the night is as dark as it’s going to get. When it appears, there is no sign of the dawn. But when it appears, very faint and small at first, you know that the night cannot withstand the dawn; it is just a matter of time until the dawn wipes the night away.”

Even when things are the darkest, Jesus assures me He is with me – and not only with me, but also ruling over all things and caring for me until the last bit of darkness in my life has dissolved forever.

I said that in a sermon at Trinity CRC a couple weeks ago. And people said “Amen!” I’m glad they were encouraged too.

Deep darkness

I read this meditation earlier this year
and its call to humble joy even in gloomy times
still echoes in my mind. I’d like to share it here too…

::– –::– –::

There are four little goings-on that universally create joy, making even the gloomiest heart smile:

  1. hearing your name called because you won,
  2. being chosen for the job,
  3. someone else picking up the tab, and
  4. being rescued from danger.

So why is it sometimes so hard for the people of God—called and chosen, redeemed and delivered—to feel incredible joy and give God the glory he so deserves? Jeremiah says it is our pride, lamenting, “If you will not listen, my soul will weep in secret for your pride.”

John calls it the “pride of life” and the Amplified Bible elaborates, “pretentious confidence in one’s resources or in the stability of earthly things.”

Jeremiah tells the people of God if they take credit for the wealth and beauty around them and take responsibility for their own security, God will allow darkness, stumbling, gloom, and deep darkness to overtake them.

Today, we have light to see the mountains ahead. They may be steep, but we need not stumble around in the dark because…

  1. Our names were called.
  2. We were chosen for the job.
  3. Our debts are paid.
  4. Our rescue is complete.

Graphic found at npr.org

As you pray, consider what God has done, lay down pride, and dare to feel the joy of it all.

This meditation was written by Amy Clemens
and published by
Words of Hope on 12 Jan 2020.