Saturday, March 30, 2013

3/30/2013 by Ed Carlson

“For we do not have a priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)

As we reflect on our lives and our relationship with God and others, where do we fall prey to temptations?   I find that at times when I am feeling quite smug about my Christian walk God provides me something that is like a mirror and makes me see the real me.  The Barna Group recently surveyed people on the subject of temptations for Todd Hunter and his book, “Our Favorite Sins”.   Here are some of responses and the percent of those surveyed who stated they most commonly struggled with “temptation” in these areas:
Worrying or being anxious                                                                          60%
Procrastinating/putting things off                                                              60%
Eating too much                                                                                            55%
Spending too much time on social media                                                 44%
Being lazy, not working as hard as they should                                       35%
Gossiping or saying mean things about others                                        26%
Being jealous or envious of others                                                             24%
Viewing pornography/sexually inappropriate content                          18%
Lying or cheating                                                                                           12%
Abusing alcohol or drugs                                                                              11%
Expressing anger or “gone off” on someone by texting or e-mail        11%
Doing something sexually inappropriate with someone                        9%
Yes, this list contains some areas in which I struggle.    What about you?  I have to admit that sometimes I am tempted to rationalize my behavior by saying, “I am no different from the rest of the world.”  That’s another temptation to avoid.

 Why do we struggle in these areas?  The survey respondents’ top three reasons were: “not sure” – 50%, “to escape or get away from ‘real life’” – 20% “(isn’t that scary?)and “because I enjoy it”- 20%.  Only 1% said because of “human nature or sin.”  

And what do people do to try to avoid their areas of temptation?  23% of those surveyed said, “prayed,” “depended on God,” or “recalled or read scripture.”  That is encouraging, but……   Another 8% said “focused on something else.”  There is that word “focus” – the theme for these Lenten reflections.  Paul wrote to the Romans in 8:51b “”those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the (Holy) Spirit desires.”  “Have their minds set on” – another way of saying “focused;” focused on what the Spirit desires.

So, how do we set our minds on what the Spirit desires?  Certainly continual study of our Holy Scripture is very helpful.   I also find that taking time at the end of the day to reflect on my day to be very helpful (and would be more so if I did it more consistently).  I reflect on my interactions with people and ask myself if they reflected my Christian faith (were they consistent with what the Spirit desires?).   I reflect on both those things I did, and those things I didn’t do (did I offer words of encouragement or did I tear someone down? did I speak up when it was needed or did I avoid potential conflict? etc.)  I also think about my encounters with God during the day (did I recognize them? did I respond to them faithfully? or did I waste them by doing nothing or letting my pride lead to wrong responses?).  And then it is time for prayers- of confession, of petition, and of praise – remembering “The Lord takes delight in his people, he crowns the humble (consider others first) with Salvation.” (Psalm 149:4)

Jesus Christ died on the cross for us, and for our sins.  And he was raised that our sins might be forgiven through his abundant grace; that we would be recipients of God’s manifold blessings, including the gift of the Holy Spirit - to guide us, to protect us from the evil one, and to enable us to be the hands and feet of our living Savior, Jesus Christ.  Let us rejoice!  And in response for God’s great love may we strive to stay focused on “what the Holy Spirit desires” and to live our lives accordingly.

Friday, March 29, 2013

3/29/13 - by John Schroeder

Since my visit to the Holy Lands in 2011, it is impossible for me to focus on Holy Week without reflecting on that visit. It is especially true this year since in just the last couple of weeks I have finished reading a history of Jerusalem. It was on my visit to Jerusalem that God demonstrated to me most vividly the importance of broadening my focus and taking the entire journey from the Hosannas of Palm Sunday to the Hallelujahs of Easter.

There is a tendency these days to de-emphaisze our sin and its cost - to focus on the pleasant happy portion of the gospel and to keep the less pleasant aspects out of focus. Too often, mainstream, best-selling Christian literature tells us the good news of Christ's "helping us towards wholeness," or His "granting us our hearts desire" - But what Christ did for us was so much deeper and so much more fundamental that to discuss such things in such a fashion is talk about Handel or Mozart as if they were mere ten bar jingle writers.

My friend Mark Roberts is writing a commentary on Ephesians. He is using a daily devotional he writes, or sometimes edits, as an occasion to work out many of the ideas and avenues he is pursuing in that effort. Back in January, he looked at Ephesians 2:1-3 and said:
There's no need to scream at the Apostle Paul as he begins Ephesians 2. He does not waste a moment getting to the bad news, and his news is really quite bad: "As for you, you were dead . . . ." Now that's not exactly news you want to hear from someone. It's also news that stirs up lots of questions: Dead? What do you mean? Dead in what way? How do you know I was dead? If I was once dead, am I still dead?

We'll get to these questions soon. For now, I want to note that bad news is an essential piece of the Christian Gospel, the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. If we don't grasp the bad news, we won't understand the good news. And if we don't feel the horror of the bad news, we'll miss the joy of the good news. Too often these days, Christians downplay the bad news because we don't want to put anyone off. But, by ignoring the bad news, we diminish the amazing goodness of the good news.
It has often been said that had Christ died on Good Friday and there was no resurrection on Easter, Jesus would be just another nattering nabob with messianic pretensions. That is indeed true, but what I have not seen written is that had Jesus merely been resurrected on Easter morning, that would not be such a big deal either. After all, Jesus had already established resurrection as a part of His bag of tricks. Lazarus and his family were more than willing to testify to the power of Jesus to bring the dead back to life. No, there must have been something about Christ's death on Good Friday that made this particular resurrection something special. Without Good Friday, Easter would be just another miracle in the life of a man that made so many miracles.

In point of fact, if we shift our focus but a bit, the deepest miracle of Holy Week may not be the Resurrection. As we just said, this miracle was already firmly established. The real miracle may just be that Jesus died at all. Think about it. He was, after all, God Incarnate. He is the Alpha and the Omega - He was before and He will be after - he is the eternal God. How can that which is eternal die? How can that which is forever terminate? And more ominously, what could kill the eternal and omnipotent Creator of all things? Certainly not a few nails and a bit of suffocation inducing hanging.
The Garden of Gethsemane

Which brings me back to my visit to Jerusalem. I related the story of my visit to the Garden of Gethsemane to Lee Cook not long after I got back. Lee wrote of it in The Messenger. The facts are simple. I entered the garden gates and tears began to flow - unbidden. They did not stop, despite my best effort, until I left the confines of the garden and the attendant Church of All Nations. When Lee related my story, he spoke of my being overwhelmed with emotion, but I must confess that is an imprecise description of what I was experiencing. I had gone to the Holy Lands cynical about the spiritual significance of the various sites. I attached to them no particular importance. Their authenticity is, and always will be, in some level of doubt and a large part of the message of Christ was that our experience of God is not bound by time or place.  This was not some mere overwhelming of awe or anything else.

Rather, what happened to me at the Garden was, I believe, a direct encounter with the Holy Spirit. This is something rare amongst the frozen chosen of the Presbyterian church, but it does happen. The best way I can describe it is that the Holy Spirit came up to me, grabbed me by the collar and shouted in my face, "THIS IS REAL!"  My focus was sharpened with the understanding that the events described in the Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were fact. Hard, cold fact. These were not literary means of expressing deep theological concepts. This was not crafting a narrative because an essay would not do. These were real events, involving real people. And more, the way the Holy Spirit chose to shout that message at me was to give me a taste, the smallest possible portion, of the agony that Christ experienced in that garden and then crescendo-ed to a culmination on the Cross on Good Friday.

Golgotha Chapel In Holy Seplechure

You see, it was not hard for the Holy Spirit to grant that small taste to me  All He had to do was bring me face-to-face with my own sinfulness.  Not the sort of peek-around-the-corner-with-your-eyes-all-squinty look we usually take, but make me focus to a hard, piercing stare lasting but the most fleeting of moments.  The reason we take peek-around-the-corner-with-your-eyes-all-squinty looks at our sinfulness is because the agony of truly focusing on our depravity is unbearable. And so it became clear to me what force it was that could kill the unkillable. Imagine confronting in such a straightforward look not just your own sins, but all the sins of history and all the sins yet to come. The agony of such is truly beyond our comprehension. Why else would Jesus cry out on the cross, "ELI, ELI, LAMA SABACHTHANI?" that is, "MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?" (Matt 27:46)

Theologians have argued and argued about this cry of Jesus from the cross. Is He quoting Psalms merely to appear to fulfill prophecy? How could the Trinity be rent into multiple pieces? Can God forsake himself? It's a bit like analyzing the force vectors when a hammer drives a nail in a piece of wood, Who cares? What is apparent in the cries of the Psalmist and the cries of Christ is unbearable, unrelenting agony. This, then, is the force so great that it could kill the unkillable. My sin, and your sin, killed Jesus.

Many Good Friday services feature a ritual in which the congregants write sins they wish to confess on a piece of paper and they nail that paper to a cross. Most people feel relief from this action, But the symbolism runs deeper than we often realize. We are putting those nails into Jesus hands and feet when we nail our sins to the cross. We are killing Jesus because those sins are what killed Him. That was the source of my tears that day in Jerusalem - the shattering realization that I was responsible for the the very real agony that Jesus suffered.

Light from the dome onto the Tomb of Christ
Oh how sweet grace, the grace of Easter, becomes when one truly realizes what is being forgiven. Jesus is not just forgiving me "my sins," He is forgiving me for killing Him!

What response can we possibly offer to such revelation? I am certain nothing I ever do can in any fashion merit the grace I am granted nor compensate Christ for the agony He suffered. But I must make the effort -- with the total commitment of all that I am and all that I have. Every time I sin, each slip I make, is another hammer blow on one of the spikes holding Christ to the cross - or driving the spear just a bit deeper into His side. I do not wish to be a part of that hideous scene anymore. I MUST give my all to overcome it.

Good Friday is the blackest day in history. But the blacker we understand it to be, the deeper our focus on that blackness, the brighter the dawn of Easter becomes. To truly appreciate Easter we must take the whole journey to that glorious morning.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

3/28/13 by Bob Keiter

The New World Dictionary does not make it easy to pick one definition for the word "Focus".  I will go with "An adjustment to make a clear image".

In  the book of John 12:27-36, Jesus knew his crucifixion lay ahead, and because he was human, he dreaded it.  He knew he would have to take the sins of the world on himself and he knew this would separate him from his Father.  He wanted to be delivered from this horrible death, but he knew God sent him into the world to die for our sins, in our place.  Although we will never have to face such a difficult and awesome task, we are still called to obedience.  Whatever the Father asks, we should do and bring glory to his name.

One of the first "growing up" religious books I owned was given to me by my grandfather.  It was called "Focus on the Gospel".  Paul, the writer, planned to visit Rome and he wanted the Christians there to pray for him so he could go on to serve God.  Paul wanted to protect new Christians from elements destructive to their faith and character.  We as Christians often settle for "what is" rather than reaching for "what is possible".  When we are in tune with the Holy Spirit, Paul says, we produce His fruits; love, joy, faithfulness, and self control. 

We should exercise our freedom to love and serve.  Freedom must be guided by love as we build each other up in the faith, being sensitive and helpful to those who are weak.  (Romans 14: 1 - 15: 4)

My goal to try to stay focused is to remember the following:  1) Live simply, 2) Speak truthfully, 3) Serve faithfully, 4) Love generously, 5) Pray daily, and 6) Leave the rest to God.

We should all sharpen our focus on life by praying like Paul did.  This will give us insight into where we are spiritually.  Let's cling to the truth we have heard from true teachers and stay in focus this weekend. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

3/27/13 by Lee Cook

Matthew 10:37-39
37 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

I always come to passages like this with fear and trembling. I, like most Americans, have made Jesus out to be a really nice fellow. A loving teacher who came so we could all just get along.  And then, "Wham", Jesus breaks out of my mold and shows that he will not be tamed by our deeply held 21st century beliefs.

A person said to me once, "Lee, I was hoping you would tell me this was a bad translation. I just can believe Jesus would say this". Alas, it's not a bad translation, and Jesus says things like this a lot, but we just usually skip over those parts.

I've tried to be open about my own struggles in my faith journey, and this is something I've been struggling with recently. What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? I think I've fallen into the current false belief that life should be easy and being a follower of Jesus should be painless. But in fact, life is hard and being a Christian is a call to suffer. I'm not trying to paint a dark picture, just an accurate one. 

Being a Christ follower means giving up everything: hopes, dreams, ideologies, political affiliations, and even familial ties (this was especially true in the early church). There is nothing more important to us than Christ and his Kingdom. But as I prayed this morning, I had to be really honest and admit that I often seek to "find my life". I do everything I can to avoid the cost of being a Christian.

As we approach Good Friday, I can't avoid a confrontation with my own hypocrisy and brokenness. As we journey to the Cross, I can't help but hear Jesus' words anew: "Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me". 

I'm not advocating a new "earn-God's-love" mentality. Rather, I'm advocating listening to Jesus' words and deciding if we are truly on the road of discipleship or if we are just fans of a "Jesus" who tells us what we want to hear. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

3/26/13 by Nancy Coler

Faith is a peculiar thing. We want it to be something solid in our lives. If you are anything like me, then you sometimes find you are looking through freshly Windexed window panes of glass, seeing God quite clearly, yet at other times things are quite out of focus, like those obscured panels of glass used for bathroom windows. Perhaps Jesus is there but you can’t really make Him out.  Naturally these changes in the glass are governed by my own life’s events and my personal disciplines, or lack thereof.
Tremendous changes in my life both good things and sad things, bad things and great things have molded my faith from childhood through maturity to demonstrate how God stands beside me. Those events yielded various levels of clarity in the glass with which I see Him.
 Psalm 91:14-16 God says, “Because you are devoted to me, I’ll rescue you, I’ll protect you because you know my name. Whenever you cry out to me, I’ll answer. I’ll be with you in troubling times. I’ll save you and glorify you. I’ll fill you full with old age. I’ll show you my salvation.
This is my favorite time of year, and it reminds me of God’s amazing grace, which is everywhere this time of year! One step out my backdoor and I am greeted by so many flowers! To breathe in the delights of spring’s scent is an elixir that gives me a rush! It doesn't have to be spring to recognize the beauty in our world and to be personally restored by it. Recently I had the good fortune to take a watercolor workshop by an instructor with such enthusiasm that he pointed out the beauty in a photograph of a pile of junk!  “Look at the shapes!” “Look at the values, the darks, the lights!” He was so totally jazzed by this pile of junk! Then we all began to see there was indeed an artful beauty there after all, we needed only to really look. 
My glass becomes a bit clearer all the time. If I just keep on looking through it, I will see God. He is there. I know that. Sometimes I need to wipe away a bit of the mist on the glass to bring things into to better focus.
Today’s Lectionary readings:
Morning: Psalm 34 +146
Evening: Psalm 25+91
Jeremiah 15:10-21
Philippians 3:15-21
John 12:20-26

Monday, March 25, 2013

3/25/13 by Mark Williams

The biggest trap I see in my life is that it’s so easy think and feel I’m doing it (this thing called life) all by myself. Whether I get sucked into feeling alone and isolated and can’t imagine anyone else having the slightest idea what it’s like for me to go through the pain and suffering I’m subjected to, or I choose to accept, for whatever reason, that by my own force of will or strength of intelligence, that if something is going to happen, I have to make it happen. 

A lot of that changed when I received a jury summons several months ago and was selected for, what turned out to be, a ten-week criminal case. 

I truly don’t think I understood theliteralpower of prayer until I was in the middle of  my time at the Pasadena Courthouse. 

Giving up any amount of control is not an easy thing for me. For the most part, in my line of work what I don’t set up, prep for, dig into, and present for others to read, doesn’t get done (that’s one of the joys of being a work-from-home writer with my bosses in Chicago). Did you know many Chicago businesses allow for at least nine weeks for jury duty for their employees?

What I thought was a horribly unfortunate situation turned out to be a great lesson and opportunity for me to relearn (that’s usually how it works for me—learn, forget, relearn) that as much as I’d like to think I’m in control and free to be out in front, choosing my own path, the best place for me to be is behind Jesus, centered on the plan he has laid out for me. 

Letting go and trusting Him at the exact moments I wanted to cling tighter and tighter to my own comfort habits, my own strengths, would have been impossible without, what eventually became, my daily prayers and conversations with Him. I asked Him why I needed to hear this brutal testimony and what possible good could come of all this, and He kept responding, “Give it to me.” Why is there so much brokenness here? Give it to me.Why are jury deliberations making me feel claustrophic? Give it to me. Why do you want me to step forward? Give it to me. How are we ever going to agree? Give it to me. 

Obviously, I’m a slow learner. Where I thought I wasn’t getting a direct answer, I eventually realized I was. Without the act and discipline of prayer  and my conversations with Jesus, I was having a great deal of trouble remembering to give it all to Him.  Thankfully, He was very patient with me. All I know is without prayer, without my LCPC community, without other strong Christians around me, my life is out of focus. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

3/23/13 by Mary Wilson

I was born in the morning and have always loved the morning as well as morning food like coffee and toast. I am a “morning person” even when I stay up too late or don’t sleep well. I love sunrises and roosters...or any early tweeter.  Over the years I have found Psalm 143 verses 8-12 a great companion for starting any day because they remind me of my need for daily surrender and trust.

 ( Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul, verse 8.) Read all the verses for best effect!  

 I have always identified with David’s desperate cries for deliverance, even though I am not hiding in a cave or being chased by crazy King Saul. My enemies are just as real and rarely take a day off.  My husband’s love for Westerns has rubbed off on me, so much so that when I think of my enemies , I think of a gang of bandits on horseback with gunslinging pride and idolatry as the leaders followed by their slimy cousins jealousy and envy and that  no-good varmint worry always brings up the rear. They come in a group and work as a team, wreaking havoc in my heart.  When I hide myself in the Lord, by focusing on his boundless and eternal love for me and the daily grace he supplies, I am rescued. I am ready to learn his will, ready to ride with His Good Spirit on the level ground instead of those backwoods bandits.  Best of all,I am filled with an infectious gratitude that opens my eyes to all the things I have to celebrate. Just as surely as the sun rises each day, I need another dose of this surrender, trust, and rescue.  In fact I need this kind of love therapy all day long which is another reason why this psalm is such a good prayer.  You can easily substitute  “afternoon”  or “evening”  or “KIDS HOPE”  or “Sparks Meeting”  or “mission trip”  or “family vacation”  for the word  “morning “,  and you still have a powerful petition!  I like the way 19th century poet/novelist George MacDonald describes our need for the daily surrender that leads to the right focus.

But he who would be born again indeed,
Must wake his soul unnumbered times a day,
And urge himself to life with holy greed;
Now open his bosom to the wind’s free play;
And now, with patience forceful, hard, lie still,
Submit and ready to the making will,
A thirst and empty for God’s breath to fill.