Devotional – Psalm 23.5

Devotional:

Psalm 23.5

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

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Sometimes the more we say something the less we understand what it means. Think about the phrase, “I love you.” Perhaps you can remember the first time your spouse offered those three magical words and how your body tingled with joy and hope and expectation. But then fast-forward 20 years… Do those three words still shake you to your core? Or are they more like the bookends to a conversation?

The same holds true for particular parts of Christianity. We memorize things like the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed to such a degree that we can say them in church, week after week, without thinking about what we are actually saying. We grow so accustom to seeing the same phrases and announcements in the bulletin that we just gloss over them (incidentally, I jokingly told the congregation that I hid a line in the bulletin months ago saying something like “the first person to notice this sentence will receive $20” and that no one found it. Of course I didn’t actually do it, but you could tell that a number of people were disappointed they missed the opportunity to make some quick cash!)

And then you take things like beloved moments in scripture, and we accept them without reflecting on them as well.

The 23rd Psalm might be the most well known passage in the entire bible, and yet somehow it contains a verse that many of us often forget. We like the idea of being lead to green pastures, and lying beside still waters, but having a table prepared for us IN THE PRESENCE OF OUR ENEMIES is another thing entirely.

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Now, to be clear, when we think about who those “enemies” might be, we often conjure up people on the other side of the globe. However, sometimes our greatest enemies are actually the people in the pews next to us.

In God’s strange and mysterious wisdom, Christians are regularly gathered together to break bread with both allies AND enemies. We come to the table with the people we love AND hate. The table is prepared for us in the presence of those we love AND fear.

God’s table, where we encounter a little bit of heaven on earth, is the place where we begin the difficult and powerful work of being reconciled with those around us. It is because God is willing to gather us with our enemies that we are anointed for the work of discipleship in this world. Only a people who willingly gather with those we might call our enemies can also faithfully affirm that our cups runneth over.

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Devotional – Psalm 4.4

Devotional:

Psalm 4.4

When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent.

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I like going to the gym. It’s one of the few places I can go without being spotted as a pastor (and therefore can avoid of all the Christianisms that often occur like, “I haven’t been to church in a long time,” and “What do you think heaven is like?”). There is a peace I experience while running on the treadmill in that I can be alone in my thoughts, with just enough distraction in running to actually relax.

On Monday afternoon, while about halfway through my run, my mindful journey was interrupted by the person running next to me. When I quickly glanced over it was clear that he was deeply disturbed by something on the television screen and I could hear him cursing under his breath. For 15 minutes I continued to run in silence, but I could not stop listening to, and worrying about, the man next to me. With every passing minute his face grew redder, his volume increased, and his anger became even more palpable until he could no longer stand it, he shut off the machine, and he walked away.

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I honestly left the gym feeling pretty good about myself. Not only had I taken the time to be mindful about my physical health but also I wasn’t nearly as angry or ridiculous as the man running next to me. I know I left on Monday afternoon with a sense of pride. At least, I did until I got in the car, started listening to the news on the radio, and saw my tight knuckles gripping the steering wheel as I listened to all that is going on in the world. By the time I got home I realized that I was no better than the man from the gym, the only difference was he let out his emotions in front of everyone and I did it in the solitude of my car.

How do you respond to difficult information? Do you pick up a nearby object and hurl it across the room? Do you mutter words of anger under your breath? Do you lash out on those around you? Do you clench your fists in concentrated frustration?

It is impossible, and frankly unhealthy, to keep everything bottled up. Whether it’s a response to what you witness on the news or learning something disturbing about someone you know and love, we can’t avoid how we feel. But, as the psalmist puts it, we can at least take the time to ponder it in silence before reacting.

If the Lord we worship responded to our many failures with knee-jerk reactions, this world would probably not exist. But God is patient and contemplative when it comes to how God’s creatures act. Sometimes God is silent specifically such that we might come to realize who we are and who we need to be.

We all live and move in a world predicated on knee-jerk reactions. The 24-hour news cycle bombards us with information designed to elicit responses from us. We check our emails, and social media accounts with a regularity that is frightening (myself included). But God shows us a different way; a way in which we can ponder the events of the world in silence before jumping into the fray.

Devotional – Acts 4.33

Devotional:

Acts 4.33

With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.

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A father was with his four year old daughter last Christmas, and it was the first time she ever asked what the holiday meant. He explained that Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus, and the more they talked the more she wanted to know about Jesus so he bought a kid’s bible and read to her every night. She loved it.

They read the stories of his birth and his teachings, and the daughter would ask her father to explain some of the sayings from Jesus, like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And they would talk about how Jesus teaches us to treat people the way we want to be treated. They read and they read and at some point the daughter said, “Dad, I really like this Jesus.”

Right after Christmas they were driving around town and they passed by a Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix out on the front lawn. The giant cross was impossible to miss, as was the figure that was nailed to it. The daughter quickly pointed out the window and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”

He realized in that moment that he never told her the end of the story. So he began explaining how it was Jesus, and how he ran afoul of the Roman government because his message was so radical and unnerving that they thought the only way to stop his message was to kill him, and they did.

The daughter was silent.

A few weeks later, after going through the whole story of what Christmas meant, the Preschool his daughter attended had the day off in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. The father decided to take the day off as well and treat his daughter to a day of play and they went out to lunch together. And while they were sitting at the table for lunch, they saw the local newspaper’s front-page story with a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. on it. The daughter pointed at the picture and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”

“Well,” he began, “that’s Martin Luther King Jr. and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher.”

And she said, “for Jesus?!”

The father said, “Yeah, for Jesus. But there was another thing he was famous for; he had his own message and said you should treat everyone the same no matter what they look like.”

She thought about it for a minute and said, “Dad, that sounds a lot like do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The dad said, “Yeah, I never thought about it like that but it’s just like what Jesus said.”

The young girl was silent again for a brief moment, and they she looked up at her dad and said, “Did they kill him too?”

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50 years ago today, while standing outside St. Joseph’s Hospital, Assistant Police Chief Henry Lux announced, “Martin Luther King is dead.” Rifle-armed police were blocking the front entrances and immediately had to hold back a crowd that gathered quickly. The city of Memphis quickly went into a state of emergency as news of Dr. King’s assassination became public.

Dr. King was in Memphis to help organize a strike of sanitation workers for higher pay and the right to union representation. Though known for his work in the Civil Rights movement, Dr. King was active in regard to a number of subjects including the Vietnam War, capitalism, and unjust economic practices. And because he was so vocal in turning things upside down (read: the first shall be last and the last shall be first), he was murdered.

Dr. King’s legacy is one filled with hope and, at the same time, frustration. He certainly left the country better than he found it, but few would argue that his dream has truly come to fruition. We are still a racially broken country, we are still held captive to the drama and economics of warfare, and the income inequality is higher now than it has ever been.

Part of what made Dr. King’s words and work so powerful is that he did what he did as a testimony to the virtues made real to him in Jesus. The Lord he met in the pages of his bible spoke decisively to him about the need to be prophetic in a time such as his. Jesus was a savior concerned with those on the margins, and therefore Dr. King believed it was his duty to be concerned with those on the margins during his lifetime.

When you look through the old speeches, the videos of the marches, and you weigh out how much he was able to accomplish in his 39 years of life, it is clear that grace was with him. But Dr. King’s vision of a better world, Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God on earth, did not die with them. Those visions are now part of our responsibility, whether that means providing voice to the voiceless, or being in solidarity with those without power, or simply befriending the friendless, there is still work to be done.

Today we give thanks for the life and the witness of Martin Luther King Jr., we reflect on the last fifty years since his assassination, and we are bold to pray that God might use us like God used Dr. King knowing full and well what might happen to us in the end.

Devotional – Psalm 118.1

Devotional:

Psalm 118.1

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!

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Holy Week is easily the busiest week in the life of most churches. While the palm branches are still resting on the floor of the sanctuary, pastors and lay leaders are frantically putting together the last minutes items for Holy Week services. Meanwhile, families are frantically planning Easter Sunday meals, and making sure they have enough eggs and goodies for all the children. And because we are so busy this week, we often forget to think about, and reflect on, Jesus’ final week:

It was early in the morning when Jesus sent two of his disciples to a village atop the Mount of Olives to find a donkey. The day had come for Jesus to enter the holy city of Jerusalem during Passover, a time when the city’s population would balloon up to 200,000 people entering to celebrate. On a Sunday morning, while the crowds gathered with palm branches, Jesus entered Jerusalem. Five days later he would be killed on a cross.

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The two disciples procured a donkey and Jesus prepared to make his triumphal entry. Riding on a donkey was a richly symbolic act, one that can be traced back to the time of David. To arrive in the holy city on a donkey calls back to the prophet Zechariah who declared, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.”

As he rode toward Jerusalem, droves of people arrived on the streets and they began to waves palm branches while he passed. They were so enraptured by Jesus that they took off their cloaks and placed them on the road with their palms in order to create a royal pathway for their king. They shouted things like “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” and “Hosanna!” which means “Save us!”

At the same time, on the other side of the city, Pontius Pilate (the Roman Governor of Judea) entered Jerusalem with at least 1,000 soldiers to demonstrate the power of Rome during the Jewish celebration of the Passover. It was a show of force to prevent the people from revolting against their imperial rulers while they remembered that time when God had delivered them from captivity in Egypt.

But with Jesus, there was no show of force. Instead of armor and swords, the people took off their cloaks and waved palm branches. Instead of cowering away in fear they rejoiced in the humble man on the back of a donkey.

While the distance between the Lord and the city grew closer and closer, while the crowds were dancing and shouting, he began to cry. He looked out over the holy city and he wept for Jerusalem. He wept knowing that he was entering as the prince of peace, and within the next few days the very people who were begging for his salvation with their palm branches would reject him and call for his crucifixion.

And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

On Monday, Jesus made his way to them Temple with countless other Jews. With the episode that had transpired the day before, all eyes were on the humble man with expectation of deliverance. As his feet walked over hallowed ground, Jesus encountered the moneylenders and changers who were taking advantage of all the Jews in Jerusalem. The prices for clean animals necessary for sacrificial rituals were vastly inflated to the benefit of the merchants and the religious elite.

Jesus, who had spent the better part of three years berating the elite for taking advantage of the poor and outcasts, Jesus, who had told the rich young ruler to sell everything he had and give it to the poor, became incensed when he saw the poor being ripped off in the name of God. He walked straight over to the tables and he lifted them off the ground and disrupted everything in the temple. He threw the merchants out of the Temple and declared that his Father’s house had been turned into a den of robbers.

The elite and powerful, who had heard about this mysterious man claiming to be the Son of Man, now had their attention on Jesus. It was one thing to have a crowd with palm branches welcoming him into the city, but to disrupt the economic scheme they had established was going too far. From this point forward, the tides began to turn against Jesus. The leaders started looking for a way to discredit him, or to remove him completely. For as long as Jesus stayed in Jerusalem, their power would be in question, and they would no longer make the money they had planned on.

And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

On Tuesday, Jesus once again entered the Temple and he began to teach. If people were excited to see him after his entry in Jerusalem, they were now even more eager to listen to the one who had throne the merchants out of the sacred space. The Pharisees and religious leaders began to interrupt his teaching and demanded to know whom he thought he was to speak with such authority. Jesus, the one who shared parables with his disciples and followers, used parables to respond to their accusations. Over and over again he used examples to show how the powerful and lost sight of their responsibility to take care of God’s creation and he labeled them “hypocrites.”

He accused them of neglecting to practice what they preached, he called them “snakes” and a “brood of vipers” and he told them they had failed to do the one thing required of them which was to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbors as themselves.

Jesus had a following, he had entered with a display of peace, but he had removed the leaders’ economic disparity, and now he had called them hypocrites. They tried to trap him in his words, but he continued to point to the love of God in all times and in all places.

And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

On Wednesday Jesus left the arena of the Temple and continued his teaching on the Mount of Olives. Some of the disciples made comments about the beauty and the magnificence of the Temple and Jesus responded by foretelling the destruction of the temple and his own body. He revealed images of God’s cosmic plan for the world made manifest in Jerusalem and called for his disciples to stay vigilant no matter what.

He used parables to describe the call of his disciples and ended by saying that his followers would be blessed in the end if they had fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited the prisoner.

Word about Jesus continued to spread fast throughout Jerusalem and the leaders learned that he was now prophesying the end of their rule and the destruction of the temple. Gone was the joy the people felt on Palm Sunday. Fear was present with the leaders and the elite.

And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

On Thursday Jesus continued to teach and gathered with his twelve disciples in the upper room for the Passover celebration. Around the table they remembered God’s great work in the delivery of the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt to the Holy Land; they remembered God’s actions in the lives of God’s people including themselves. But before the supper was over, Jesus did something radical. He took a loaf of bread, gave thanks to God, broke it, gave it to his friends and said, “This is my body, and I’m giving it for you.” Later, he took the cup, gave thanks to God, passed it to his friends and said, “This is my blood, and I’m pouring it out for you and for the world.” Even though he knew that in short time his disciple Judas would betray him he still shared this incredible meal and gift with his friend.

Later that evening, they arrived in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus urged his disciples to keep awake while he prayed. He knelt on the ground and he communed with his Father and prayed about what was about to happen. But he ended the prayer by saying, “Lord, with you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” In essence he prayed, “Let thy will be done.”

When Jesus finished praying, Judas arrived with soldiers. They grabbed and arrested Jesus. The disciples fled into the distance. Jesus was dragged back into the city to be tried for blasphemy.

And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

On Friday Jesus was brought to the Roman leader Pontius Pilate. The leaders demanded that he be crucified and executed, but Pilate could find no fault with Jesus. He then brought Jesus before the Jewish people and they chanted with loud and bellowing voices, “Crucify him!” The same people who had gathered on the road with palm branches yelling “Save us!” were now demanding Jesus’ death. In order to appease the crowds and the Jewish leaders, Pilate sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion.

The soldiers whipped and beat Jesus nearly to the point of death and then, to mock him, they placed an opulent robe on his soldiers, and they made a crown of thorns for his head. They forced Jesus to carry his torture device, a cross, on his shoulders all the way to the place called The Skull. The crowds berated him on either side while he marched forward to his death. “If you really are the Messiah, save yourself!” “Where are all your disciples now?!” “Some King of the Jews you are!”

He arrived at the top of the hill and the soldiers nailed his hands and feet to the cross and hung him in the sky. For six hours Jesus’ life slowly slipped away while the crowds continued to mock him from the ground. With some of his final breaths he offered a prayer that has haunted the world ever since, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” With two thieves on either side hanging on crosses, while some of his disciples watched from the distance, he died.

And there was evening and there was morning, the final week.

Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey proclaiming and inaugurating a time of humility and peace. Jesus rebuked the elite for preying on the poor and weak. Jesus confronted the hypocrites in leadership. Jesus called his followers to love God and neighbor. Jesus shared his final meal with the one who would betray him. Jesus was crowned with thorns and enthroned on a cross in the sky. Jesus forgave his murders from the moment of his death. And Jesus died so that we might participate in his kingdom and salvation.

Devotional – Psalm 118.24

Devotional:

Psalm 118.24

This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

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Depending on where you grow up in church, there are some hymns that are so familiar you just know them deep down in your bones. All you need to hear is the first note, or the first word, and before you know it the rest of the hymn comes floating out. And, more often than not, you get the hymn stuck in your head all day long after worship.

However, for as many hymns as we know deep in our bones, there are an equal number of hymns that are so unfamiliar, that if we were to hear the entire song, we’d wonder if it was in our hymn book at all.

Throughout my life I went to church on Sunday; I prayed when I was supposed to, I listened when I was supposed to, and I stood up to sing when I was supposed to. There are hymns in our hymnal that immediately draw me to a particular time and place when I can remember it being used in worship. But prior to becoming a pastor, I had never heard the hymn “This Is The Day.”

I’m not sure how’s it possible, but I can remember being at one of my first clergy events having just been assigned to my first church, and everyone started singing it together and I had no idea what was going on. Embarrassed, I started opening and closing my mouth as if I knew the song, and spent most of the rest of the session looking for it in the hymnal and pondering how I could’ve missed it.

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Fast forward to Sunday, when our choir both began and ended worship with “This Is The Day.” After half a decade of ministry I’ve used “This Is The Day” to start more worship services than I can count, but yesterday was the first time I ever heard the hymn at the end of a service.

And it was perfect.

This is the day that the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it! What a wonderful way to be sent out into the world to be God’s people. The words are not meant for our orientation to worship alone. They can be a tremendous blessing and reminder that God has made each day, that we can rejoice and be glad in it.

Can you imagine how differently we would live if we started and ended every day with these words? Can you picture how wonderful it would be to contemplate the blessing of life every morning, and express gratitude for the joyful day every evening?

As we take steps closer to the end of Lent, as we prepare to enter into the darkness made manifest in the shadow of the cross, as we wait for the promised joy of the first Easter morning, let us give thanks to the Lord our God for each and every day, knowing we can rejoice and be glad.

Devotional – Ephesians 2.10

Devotional:

Ephesians 2.10

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

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In a few minutes I will leave for a local funeral home to preside over a Service of Death and Resurrection for a longtime member of Cokesbury Church. I never met Frances Tyrrell, and yet I will be the one tasked with standing before her family and friends and offering words of grace, comfort, and hope.

It is a strange and mysterious thing that we ask people to speak on behalf of the dead, particularly when the person speaking never met the person everyone has gathered to celebrate and mourn.

After meeting with the family to begin making arrangements, they graciously lent me a copy of the Woodbridge Women’s Club’s History. Frances was an original member and pioneered a lot of the volunteer work that was done throughout the community. I flipped through the interview she gave and learned all about her life, from her birth, to her marriage, to her children, to her work. But there was one particular section that stood out.

At some point the interviewer, after realizing how deeply involved Frances had been in serving other people asked Frances, “So what does your family think about all this time you’ve given and all this work you’ve done?” To which she replied, “I never asked them.”

Rare these days are the individuals who do good works simply because God created them to be that way. More often we seek to serve such that we can be seen and congratulated for the work we’ve done.

But that wasn’t the case with Frances.

Paul says, “We are who God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before hand to be our way of life.” I can’t help but feel as if we’ve largely lost sight of the truth of this verse from Ephesians. We might think, instead, that our way of life is to earn all we can and save all we can. Or we might think our way of life is about building that perfect house, and having 2.5 children, and constructing a pristine white picket fence. Or we might think our way of life is any number of other things.

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But how often do we consider the fact that we have been made to serve? When was the last time we made the needs of others our priority instead of our own? How often do we help others simply because we were made this way rather than because we think God expects us to?

When we come to the end of our days, when people gather together to remember who we were and what we did, let us pray they remember us, like Frances, for our commitment to others.

Devotional – Psalm 19.14

Devotional:

Psalm 19.14

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

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I love to read. I love reading fiction in order to jump into a world I could never imagine. I love reading theology to help open my mind to all that God has done, is doing, and will do. And I love reading out loud to others.

I’ve often joked that if the whole “being a pastor thing” didn’t work out, I would love to be paid to make audio recordings of books. Between making up voices for particular characters, and adjusting my pitch to reflect the tone of a sentence, I just love reading out loud.

So when I was invited to read to a few classes at Featherstone Elementary School this week (to celebrate Dr. Seuss), I jumped on the opportunity.

My first class was filled with excited four and five year olds who mistook their teacher when she informed them that I was there to read Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham; they thought I was Dr. Seuss.

So I went along. And, for what it’s worth, they really liked my book.

My second class included those throughout the school who are autistic. I sat on the floor, and began reading The Cat in The Hat, when the teacher asked me to say something about the characters in the story. I tried to unpack the concept of character as best I could and then I resigned myself to just ask the question, “What is a character?”

Each of the students gave it a whirl, some of them getting closer to a definition than others, but then the last student spoke and this is what she said: “Character is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.”

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I know that I froze for a few seconds as her theological wisdom percolated in my mind.

Of course, she was referring to one’s character and not the character of a story, but her answer was so profound that I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.

In church I, or any leader, might say something like, “let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord” and though we specifically mention being in the sight of God, what we really mean is that we hope we say and do the right thing in front of everybody else!

How often do we do what we do so that we might be seen doing what we are doing? Do we do the right thing even when no one is watching? Or, perhaps it’s better to put it this way: Do we do the right thing even when God is watching?