Tuesday, September 29, 2015

It's not the Emerald City

"For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.  Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need."
(Hebrews 4:15-16)

The Wizard of Oz is an iconic story (and film!).  Dorthy Gale, from Kansas, is transported to the "colorful" land of Oz via tornado.  In order to get back home, she must journey to see the Great & Powerful Wizard of Oz.  Along the way she picks up 3 friends (Scarecrow, Tinman & Lion), and 1 enemy (the Wicked Witch of the West).

One of the scenes that always got me was when Dorothy & Co. first meets the Wizard.  The throne room was huge: high walls, tall ceilings, booming sound system, and a Jumbotronlike floating head!  So intimidating!!! That's the effect that many rulers, leaders, and people in power desire.  But not Jesus.

Jesus chose to embody humanity.  Rather than settle for a floating green head (and great sound system), Jesus came with skin on him... flesh & blood... fully human.  He knows what it's like for us.  He's been through life on earth like we have.  Therefore, says the writer of Hebrews, we can approach the "throne of grace" with boldness!  God will not send us off on some quest to prove our worth (like bringing back the Wicked Witch's broomstick!).  No, He gives us mercy & grace to help in time of need.  So I need not be afraid of coming to God for ANYTHING.  Neither should you!

Monday, September 28, 2015

Why so afraid?!?

"I, I am he who comforts you; why then are you afraid of a mere mortal who must die... You have forgotten the LORD, your Maker..."
(Isaiah 51:12-13)

God's people were going through a difficult time when Isaiah was a prophet.  They were being besieged by the mighty Babylonian army.  They would soon be defeated, captured, and carried away from their homeland.  It was a time of fear & uncertainty for the Hebrew people. 

But God knew there was a greater threat to his people: they had forgotten God.  More than the enemy army lying outside their city walls, the people had neglected their relationship with their Creator... and that posed a far greater danger.  "Why are you afraid of a mere mortal," asks the LORD.  "You have forgotten your Maker... I am he who comforts you!"

We all have fears, worries & uncertainties in this life.  That's part of being human.  The question for people of faith is: will we allow those fears, worries & uncertainties to consume us?  Jobs, health, children, relationships, finances, past hurts, etc... the list can go on and on.  But GOD IS THE ONE WHO COMFORTS US!  Why are we overcome with fear?  Let us turn back to the LORD and trust in His grace & mercy.

We may not know where life will take us, & what experiences we'll have to endure.  But we don't have to live in a constant state of fear, worry & dread.  No matter what may come, God is our comforter.  God loves us, cares for us, and will work to bring about good in our lives.  Thanks be to God!  AMEN.

Learning from the Shepherd

[From 9/25/15]

"He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep."
 (Isaiah 40:11)

The author of Isaiah, in chapter 40, is bringing a word of encouragement & hope to a people oppressed and ragged.  The Hebrew people had been scattered in exile and taken to far-off lands (Babylon).  But God has not forgotten them. God will raise up a Savior... a Messiah... a Shepherd who will guide the people to safety.  The author uses shepherding imagery in verse 11, and the Savior will have 3 clear areas of focus:
  • "feed his flock"... We all need the spiritual nourishment that only God can provide.  We're great about finding our daily physical food (where shall we eat!?!?)... but often not so good for looking for our daily spiritual food.  God can provide!
  • "gather his lambs in his arms"... There's a special place in God's heart (and kingdom!) prepared for the children.  We all need to make sure our children are cared for & protected.  That is God's will for the world!
  • "gently lead the mother sheep"... I'm guessing mother sheep are somewhat like mother humans.  They both deeply love their children.  They make sacrifices for them.  This tells me God is about supporting & caring for families (especially moms & other care-givers).  And God if God is gentle with them, then so should we be!
LORD, thank you for your guidance, your nourishment, and the opportunity to follow your example in caring for others!  AMEN.

Cries & Sighs...

[From 9/24/15]

"Before Isaiah had gone out of the middle court, the word of the Lord came to him: 'Turn back, and say to Hezekiah prince of my people, Thus says the LORD, the God of your ancestor David: I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; indeed, I will heal you...'"
(2 Kings 20:4-5a)

King Hezekiah, who had carried out such great spiritual reform in Israel, became sick to the point of death.  The prophet Isaiah came to see him & told him he'd soon die.  The King prayed for healing & wept while Isaiah was leaving.  But God gave a NEW word to Isaiah: the King would live another 15 years!  God had heard his prayer & seen his tears.

Many of us believe in the power of prayer.  This passage reinforces that belief.  But I love that God acknowledges seeing Hezekiah's tears.  It's not the first time in scripture.  I can immediately think of Hagar's tears in the wilderness that God heard (& Ishmael's, too!). 

God hears our prayers, yes.  But He also sees our suffering.  He hears our cries & sighs of sorrow.  God cares.  God loves.  God can heal.  We don't know why God doesn't heal everybody, but it's still comforting to me to know that God can.  May I, too, see the tears of those around me.  And may it move me like it moves God.

Good advice

[From 9/22/15]

"But the people were silent & answered him not a word, for the king's command was, 'No not answer him.'"
(2 Kings 18:36)

Sometime's it's simply best to keep your mouth shut!  In 2 Kings 18, the Assyrian army is outside the walls of Jerusalem.  The high official, the Rabshakeh, is spewing propaganda & hate speech upon the Israelites (who had come out in droves at the city's walls to watch).  He tells them how weak & decimated they are.  How they won't stand a chance vs. the mighty Assyrian army.  How they shouldn't believe their king when he says, "God will protect us!"  Has any nation's gods saved them from the Assyrian onslaught yet?  NO!  Surrender now & their lives will be spared.

Can you imagine a foreign power coming to the US and "talking smack" like that?  We Americans are a proud people.  We couldn't just stand by and listen to someone insult our great nation, could we?

And yet, God had a plan.  A plan that did not involve retaliation at that time.  God indeed would provide.  I don't know if King Hezekiah knew that... or simply trusted in God's provision.  But he told the people to say NOTHING to the Rabhsakeh.  Don't get sucked in to his name-calling and trash talking.  Don't let your emotions get the better of you.  Say nothing. 

And that's just what they did.

In the iconic Disney film, BAMBI... it's Flower (the skunk) who tells Bambi what his mother always says, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all!"  That's great advice.  Whether it's to prevent us from saying something we'll regret... or preventing us from degrading ourselves with ugly speech... or a larger vision to trust God despite what the situation looks like... Flower's mom's advice is solid even today.

"But the people were silent & answered him not a word."

Lord, I try to control my tongue, but don't always succeed.  Help me to have better self-control.  Let my words bring life, hope & grace to others.  When I'm feeling angry or overwhelmed (or on the road driving!), let me be silent & trust in you.  AMEN.

Monday, September 21, 2015


"Then (the Levites) went inside to King Hezekiah and said, 'We have cleansed all of the house of the LORD, the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and the table for the rows of bread and all its utensils.  All the utensils that King Ahaz repudiated during his reign when he was faithless, we have made ready & sanctified; see they are in front of the altar of the LORD."
(2 Chronicles 29:18-19)

I love the story of King Hezekiah.  He was 25 years old when he assume the throne.  He reigned for 29 years.  One of his first actions as King was to clean out the temple and get it back in working order.  Over the years it had been neglected.  Items had been brought inside which were inappropriate.  It was dirty, abandoned, and nothing like what God had intended it to be.

For 2+ weeks the Levites cleaned it.  They got it back to its original splendor.  And one of the projects they tackled was restoring the worship utensils.  These are items used in worship (surrounding the altar sacrifices, sacraments, etc.).  Evidently a prior king (Ahaz) had intentionally misused & abused the utensils - not using them for the purposes originally intended.  But instead of throwing them away and ordering a new set from Amazon.com, the Levites cleaned, consecrated, and made them new again!

As I was reading today, I felt drawn to this detail.  It was as if God was reminding me that there are many people just like these utensils.  People who were created to be instruments of joy, praise & worship... but instead have been abused, misused, and neglected over the years (sometimes by the church itself!).  They feel unclean & unworthy.  But they are not!!!  They simply need to be restored & renewed.  And that's something God specializes in!

I'm going to be embarking on a sermon planning day soon.  I need to solidify my 2016 preaching schedule.  I've been praying for insight & inspiration as to what to preach/teach about here at my new appointment in Palmdale.  Maybe this is somehting I need to give more thought to: redemption & restoration.  

Speak to me, Lord... I'm listening!

Pause for Concern

[From 9/19]

"For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than loves of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power.  Avoid them."
(2 Timothy 3:2-5)

Paul is on his soapbox here in 2 Timothy 3... listing many different kinds of people to avoid.  Some are obvious (abusive, unholy, inhuman, brutes, slanderers, haters of good, treacherous, etc.).  Others cause me to self-reflect critically (lovers of themselves & money, arrogant, lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God, etc.).  And ONE causes me deep concern: "holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power."  Wow.

What are the "outward forms of godliness" in Christianity?
  • prayer
  • worship
  • giving/stewardship
  • scripture reading
  • acts of compassion
These are just a few, of course.  However, they are acts that ALL of us are called to be about as followers of Jesus.  And as a pastor, they're also activities that I strongly encourage others to do.  But do I truly believe in their power?  Or am I sometimes going through the motions?  Wow.  Forgive me, LORD.  Renew me.  Recenter me.  Release me to believe fully!

New EVERY morning!

[From 8/27]

"The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness."
(Lamentations 3:22-23)

What a testimony!  TO know that God's love & mercy is abundant, constant, and everlasting... it's new every morning!  What a gift!  What a faithful God!

There was a time in Israel's history when they didn't know if they'd survive.  They'd just been released from slavery in Egypt.  God had done mighty & amazing things and they were suddenly free.  but that freedom led them tot he desert, where water & food seemed scarce.  When they complained to Moses (and to God!), God gave them a gift: manna.  Daily food.  God gave one day's supply at a time.  No saving.  No hoarding.  Just enough for the day (anything extra would spoil!).  And they got a double share for the weekend (which somehow didn't spoil!).  Every new morning there was a supply of manna waiting.  It never ran out.  It supplied their needs until they entered the Promised Land and could farm & raise crops on their own.

We often get worried about things/circumstances/challenges beyond our control.  In the midst of change (new move, job, church, community, lifestyle, etc.), it's tempting to worry or become distressed.  But God's steadfast love & mercy endures.  Every new day a new supply comes to us.  Every day.  God's faithfulness is great, indeed!  So we can stop worrying.  Stop fearing.  Stop stressing.  Because God's love & mercy is as steady as each new day.

Thank you, Lord, for your great faithfulness!  You have given me all that I need for life, love & joy.  Create in me a heart that recognizes, embraces, and celebrates that daily faithfulness.  AMEN!

It's unsettling. Seriously!

[From 8/26]

"All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth... When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage."
(Luke 4:22, 28)

Jesus, fresh off his baptism in the wilderness and subsequent temptation, starts his ministry of preaching & teaching.  He heads home to Nazareth - the place he grew up.  He's invited to read from the scroll of Isaiah.  He locates the passage he wants to read & beings: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives & recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."  Then he sat down.  "Today," he said, "this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

WOW!  Could it be the time of the LORD has finally come, they must have been wondering?  "All spoke well of him," Luke tells us.  Awesome.  A sermon received well.  Every pastor likes to hear praise.  But then Jesus goes further.  He reminds them of the adage that no prophets are accepted in their hometown.  Why?  People know them too well, maybe.  They dismiss the prophetic words.  Then Jesus recalls 2 times in scripture where God reached out to bless non-Jews.  And this, in light of the Isaiah passage Jesus read, is too much.  They begin to see Jesus' words of good news, recovery & freedom may not be meant only for them... but also for others... outsiders!  And it angers them greatly.  "All in the synagogue were filled with rage."  They even tried throwing him off a cliff!

I sure enjoy a good post-sermon compliment.  I love it when people "speak well of me," especially after preaching.  But this passage from Luke reminds me not to get too excited about the positive compliments of those who hear me preach.  We all love to hear words, teachings & messages that encourage & strengthen us.  I try to do that often.  But the word of God is also sharp as a double-edged sword!  It should convict, correct, and challenge us.  That's uncomfortable.  That doesn't always lead to "people speaking well" of me.

Wen people realize the power of the Gospel, it's often unsettling.  That's ok.  That's important.  This passage reminds me not to get too worked up over those who are "filled with rage" over my preaching, either.  Let God work in the hearts & minds of the people who encounter His word.  Stay faithful to the task of preaching.  Don't focus on the immediate response of the crowd.  And it will all fall into place.

That's a difficult lesson for preachers like me who like to be liked.  How about you?

Help amidst uncertainty

[From 8/25]

"You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day..."
(Psalm 91:5)

The psalmist is one who evidently has felt attacked & overwhelmed by the circumstances around him/her.  Or s/he knows that GOD is the one who shelters, covers, & protects us, and thus is passing that info on to others... in terms of disease (deadly pestilence), in war (the arrows that fly by day), and in all things... including that which you cannot see or know because of the darkness.

Emily left for college last week.  Jody took her over to Abilene, TX.  They had 3 nights together at friends' homes... then she moved into the dorm.  The first 2 nights in her dorm she called me around 11pm PST (1am her time).  She could'nt sleep.  Her stomach was in knots.  Was it food related?  Probably not (though we talked about options there).  She thinks it was partly due to the enormity of this next phase of her life.  So I sat up and talked with her... prayed with her... and gave her some ideas about taking her mind off things.  We hung up & I kept praying for her.  Eventually, she fell asleep (she told me later).  In the end, the best thing I could tell her was to turn it over to God.  Fear not.  God is with you... even in new & uncertain surroundings.

Thank you, LORD, for watching over us... especially in the dark times of our lives.  Thank you for loving Emily and being with her during this new season of her life.  Be her rock & foundation.  Help her to turn to you first for any need she may have.  Amen.

I Might Be Wrong

[From Aug. 20, 2015]

"Then Zedekiah son of Chenaanah came up to Micaiah, slapped him on the cheek, and said, 'Which way did the spirit of the LORD pass from me to speak to you?'  Micaiah replied, 'You will find out on that day when you go in to hide in an inner chamber.'"
(1 Kings 22:24-25)

King Ahab had an interesting relationship with the prophets of God.  For much of his reign, he did not follow the ways of the LORD.  Nevertheless, he continued to "consult" his spiritual advisers.  However, when a king is known for imprisoning (or even killing) those who oppose or contradict him, soon very few oppose or contradict.

Enter Micaiah: prophet of God.  Ahab doesn't really like him.  He tells King Jehoshaphat of Judah why: "I hate him; he never prophesies anything favorable about me, but only disaster" (v.8).  Nevertheless, Micaiah was borught before the king (an adviser even told Micaiah to speak an encouraging word this time! lol)  At first he gave the "company answer" to the king: Do whatever seems best to you.  Then Ahab scolded him for not speaking the truth, whereby Micaiah gave a lnog & detailed account of Ahab's impending death.

While I find that interchange interesting, it's the next interchange that captured my spirit today.  Another prophet named Zedekiah took offense when Micaiah said that God put a lying spirit into the mouths of the other prophets.  So he struck Micaiah & sarcastically asked when did God levae him for Micaiah.

To me this is a warning never to get too smug or self-assured as a pastor.  I may have had wonderful moments with God in the past and great experiences leading His church.  But there's a chance I might also be wrong about something I think or believe.  I need to be steadfast in my connection/intimacy with God and never assume that I'm right, based solely on my past history.  Humility necessitates me to always consider there may be NEW INSIGHT and WISDOM from God that I need to learn.

LORD, I want to be in tune with You and Your Holy Spirit.  I also know that I don't have all the answers.  Keep me open to learning from whomever you send to teach me.  AMEN.