Thursday, February 28, 2013

Beautiful Feet


Click here to read Isaiah 52

How beautiful are the feet that bring the news.  What a strange image.  The sound of feet.  Think about that.  The implication of the passage is that how we walk and the sound of our feet can actually tell us a lot.  Our children running down the hall frantically tells us something.  Stomping our feet when angry tells us something.  The silent sliding of feet when trying to sneak out tells us something.

Here is my questions for you...what do feet bringing good news of peace and joy sound like?  What do dancing or joyful feet sound like?

As I write this my daughter is skipping and dancing around the living room.  It brings sounds of rhythm and along with it there is the sound laughter and joy.

Here is another truth: we can hear feet long before we can see who is coming.  I wondering if people of God in exile became astute listeners to the sound of Babylonian feet marching to give more orders?  Could they hear the sound of horses hooves clicking on the rock?

But the feet of a messenger of peace sounds different...joyful...more like my daughter's dancing.

I invite you as you are at work this week to listen for the sound of feet.  Can you make out the sounds of co-workers coming?  Does that bring hope or dread?  That might help you connect with the People of God Isaiah preached to centuries ago.

As you listen to the sound of feet around you...may the traces of God's grace bring you peace too.

Blessings!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Waking Up





Isaiah tells the people to be alert and awake.  Again, remember the people of God are in exile, in a foreign land, their temple lay smoldering in ash, walls in ruins, and things have never seemed that bad.  Wake up...to that?  Really?  

Most of us today struggle with facing the reality around us.  Often we turn to food...or shopping... alcohol...medication...or other addictions to help us be desensitized to the pain.  Brene Brown talks about this in her TED talk.  I encourage you to watch that.

Brene talks about needing to live our lives wholehearted.  That sounds great when life is going well, the lights are on, and laughter comes easy.  But when things get in a slump and things are difficult, we don't always want to wake up.  So, we turn to screen time...we lose ourselves in television or chat rooms...certainly not this blog, but maybe others.

How do we wake up to this world?  And do we want to?  I wonder if the People of God in Isaiah had the same questions.  Did they want to wake up to the reality around them?  I am not sure it is easy to wake up.  But I know most mornings, it is a slow process.  

I do think one of the ways we notice the traces of God's grace is in the realities of this world...even when the realities are not easy to wake up to.  I pray you might wake up to that today>

Blessings and peace!


Where did Jesus Get That??





There is a hymn inspired by Isaiah 50, "Great is thy faithfulness, great is thy faithfulness, morning by morning new mercies I see."  While I love that hymn, I don't know how well I live its truth or the truth of Isaiah 50.  I wake up in the morning...groggy...not necessarily considering God's presence.  I usually go to the gym in the morning and start to plot and plan my day...not necessarily considering God's presence.  And so when someone comes in with words of criticism, I am not ready to respond. When I feel the slightest insult, I become sullen and sad.  And sometimes those bad days can extend to bad weeks with my mind lingering over what was said.

Remember, the people are in exile, in a foreign land, and away from home.  Each morning they wake up and are reminded of that painful truth.  Why?  And how long?  These become the unanswerable questions for the People of God Isaiah is preaching to.

And amid people who conquered your land, torn down your walls, and destroyed your sacred place of worship, Isaiah essentially says, "Turn the other cheek,"  Ever wonder where Jesus got that wisdom from the Beatitudes?  Isaiah 50 verse 6 might have been roaming around the back of Jesus' mind and in his heart when he preached that sermon on the plain in Luke.  

But imagine trying to do that day after day after day in exile.  Turn the other check when someone pulls your beard...or refrain from trying to get even when someone insults you.  That is really difficult.  Most of us can hardly stand it when a co-worker gossips behind our back, so we build a wall of silence around them.  Or that family member whose politics are different, or that group of people who makes our skin crawl.  Really, be nice to them?  What was Isaiah and Jesus thinking?  Why can't we take revenge and get even and even act on the anger we feel when someone says something that breaks our egos...and hearts?

I am not sure I have a great reason for that.  To be sure, when I try to get even, it usually means the relationship goes to the lowest common denominator, to a place of utter chaos and brokenness.  When I hold onto grudges, I am usually the one who ends up feeling lousy because the other person just goes on with life unaware.  Part of what revenge and anger do is cause us to see the other as less than human and to deny our connection to that other person.  And when we do that, morning after morning; day after day; life becomes less than what God intended.

Morning by morning - with the rising of the sun to the going down of the same - can you this week be honest about those who have hurt you?  Can you forgive?  Can you seek to live in a different way with those around you?  Perhaps that will allow a trace of God's grace into your life.  I pray it will for mine.

Blessings and peace!   

In the Bulb a Flower





Isaiah proclaims today that God will not remember the former things.  I do not know if Isaiah is saying God is forgetful or just sees things differently now.  The season of Lent takes place in the weeks leading up to Spring and it is appropriate to listen to the wisdom of God's creation around us to see how it might help us prepare for the joy of Easter.

One of the ways we celebrate Easter is with plants - colorful plants.  But those plants did not just spring forth over night.  Often the bulb was planted in the ground last fall, weathered the harsh winter beneath a blank of snow, and only as the soil temperature rises, does it's tiny green shoot burst forth from the ground (sometimes the snow) with a promise of new life. And when you see the colorful array of tulips starting to come up, I have yet to ever hear someone say, "Oh I remember when that was just a blah bulb.  Do you remember how hard and misshapen that bulb was?"  

No, we exclaim how much we admire the burst of color.  We write odes to the beauty of a flower and we forget the bulb.  To be sure, if someone asked, we'd remember.  Maybe that is the way God works too.  It is not that God has a short term memory loss, it is just that in looking at God's people, there in exile in Babylon, God sees something new and different.  Do not remember the former things.

Of course, writing to church people, those words take on different meanings.  The church is built upon former things.  We LOVE former things...it is just we prefer to call that "tradition."  Cue Tevye from "Fiddler on the Roof."  Yet, the former things do not always last.  Jesus said something like that in Matthew 9:17, "Do not put new wine in old wine skins or the skin will burst."  I wonder how many of our churches today feel like they are making new wine?  I question it.  Are my sermons or blog posts or leadership at meetings...I am really doing a new thing?  Or I am caught up in the former things, the bulb God planted years ago that I think is still a bulb but don't realize is actually blossoming and needing to be harvested/enjoyed.

The people Isaiah is preaching to are in exile.  They are away from their homeland, what was comfortable and familiar.  They are in a new place.  Most pastor's today believe the church is in a new place, do we realize it?  Do the People of God realize it?  Do we see a bulb or a flower?  Do we listen for the new song of God or keep thinking that God will sing the former hymn we've always known?  Those are good questions and they are questions I believe that if we ask today, we might have traces of God's grace in our dialogue and attempts to answer the questions together.

May it be so this Lenten season.

Blessings and peace!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Dust in the Wind




Come and sit with me in the dust Isaiah says.  Ahhhh, now that is the Isaiah we have come to know and love over the last forty some chapters.  Enough with these images of comfort and hope.  So much of what I find compelling in Isaiah is his ability to name reality and offer hope.  That is a hard line to walk.  So often, I can slip into cynicism at the brokenness of our world.  Or I find myself almost naively trying to harness the "power of positive thoughts," believing that happiness can be forged or forced.  To see the brokenness for what it is and still say that there is a trace of God's grace, I admire that in Isaiah.

At this point in Isaiah most scholars believe he is writing as one in exile.  The people have been uprooted and transplanted into Babylon and Isaiah along with them.  The walls of their beloved city reduced to rumble, the temple Solomon built is now in smoldering ash, and Isaiah says sit in that ash and find God.

That is not exactly a passage I usually preach upon.  Yet, I find it refreshingly honest and heartfelt.  So often we try to explain away, justify, or even rationalize the brokenness and ash in our lives.  This can be done through religious frame work of "God's will" or "God's plan".  Or it can be done through humanist points of view, "Humans are broken and cause brokenness."  Yet, where both fall short is our desire to understand or explain away pain or brokenness.  Maybe pain and brokenness just are.  Just are part of life.  Just are part of walking around in this vessel and breathing in air.  Just are.  

Jesus experienced pain and brokenness within his life and upon the cross.  Many theologians contend that it is in Jesus on the cross that God suffers.  God suffers because of an unconditional and unceasing love.  The parting of the Red Sea, the beautiful words of the Psalms, the words of accountability of the prophets, or countless other passages of the Hebrew Scriptures did not truly capture the hearts of the people the way God prayed those words would.  And so God comes upon us, takes on human flesh - the incarnation.  This is incredibly vulnerable.  And why does God do this?  To be 'at-one' with us.  All these "reasons" people give about why Jesus had to suffer and die are called "atonement" (at-one-ment) theories.  That is just it.  There are all theories...just the ramblings of humans trying to make sense.

Maybe the brokenness and pain, the ash of life, the moments of exile when we feel like we are far from home or in a foreign land - maybe they should NOT make sense.  Maybe we should NOT explain them away.  The beginning of prayer is a sigh.  A sigh that says words cannot every capture what is going on here.  So, I turn not to words, but to ash.

In the beginning (Genesis 2) God took dust, made a being, and breathed life into that dust creature.  Maybe sitting in the dust is not about being down in the dumps, but re-connecting with our humanity.  Our beginnings.  And while I don't think we need to go in search of those dust/ash moments...they seem to find us anyway...perhaps this is another way to look at them.  Not as a trial or a test or something God gives us or something someone else caused us...just a dust moment that connects us back to a truth about being humans created in God's image.  I don't think that solves anything, but it helps me sense a trace of God's grace in that moment.  I pray for you too.

Blessings and peace!

Friday, February 22, 2013

What's the Idol with You?


Click here to read Isaiah 44

Click here to read Isaiah 45

Click here to read Isaiah 46

The next three chapters have the theme of idols, making idols, the work of our human hands, and what happens when other gods take center stage in our lives.  Ever since the Ten Commandments, God was clear that no good can come from trying to craft idols for ourselves.  And the People of God found that incredibly meaningful...for about twelve chapters in Exodus.  Then, along comes the whole Golden Calf incident.  Moses was up on the mountain chatting with God...AGAIN.  And this time he was taking forever.  And there was no way the governing body of the church approved that much time off.  And so anxiety increased.  And Pastor Aaron, wanting to be helpful, said, "Let's make an idol."  Now to be fair, Aaron really thought he was making an idol to honor God.  It was not as though he was trying to start a new religion.  Rather, he just wanted to calm the people down.

That's the lure of idols in the world.  Here, buy this new ipad it will make you happy.  Here, buy this new television and impress your friends.  Here, buy this new outfit and wow everyone.  Andrew Root makes a compelling argument that so much of our identity today comes from what we buy and consume.  Years ago...my grandparent's generation...it was the family.  You lived closed to your parents, uncles, aunts, and cousins.  Family defined...and confined....your identity.  Around the 1950s, we became much more mobile and even nomadic...work and our profession began to provide our identity.  Watch Mad Men sometime to see how central work and who does the work is to the person's understanding of self.  But increasingly in the 1980s and 1990s, work ceased to provide that meaning.  So, people turned to what we can consume.  You don't like who you are or your identity?  It is just a swipe of a credit card away.  Family...work...stuff...all can be idols.

To be completely fair...family, work, and stuff can also connect us to God.  But there are limitations and we need to be careful.  I sense God when I laugh with my family.  I sense God when I talk with someone in my church.  I sense God on a spring day driving my car with the sunroof open.  It is not that these things are inherently bad or evil.  The problem with idols is not necessarily that it is a material thing.  It is just that at some point the idol will fail to point toward the deeper meaning and hence stop pointing to God.  All of the sudden, my kids do something that upsets me...or the church doesn't do what I think it should...or my car breaks down.  See what happens with idols?

In Exodus 32, the Calf incident...it was not so much that they made a calf or what the calf represented.  Rather, the calf could never fully reflect the mystery and unfolding nature of God.  Those three letters: G-O-D have so much depth and breath, and when we try to reduce that to something we can see, touch, or taste, we reduce the image of God.  And here is the real truth about idols: we also like to control them.  There is a reason why you have to vote on American Idol for your favorite and you want to control what they do.  I think one of the qualities of God that we don't talk about is that God is beyond our control...and yet God is intimately intertwined in our lives.  That is the tension!  That is the contradiction.  Idols reduce that tension and the creativity that comes from it.  Idols reduce the contradiction and can make us complacent.

We all craft and collect idols.  The point is not to eradicate them from our lives or to condemn others.  The point is to see an idol for what it is, not God...perhaps a way that can at times through the mystery and serendipity of God connect us to God, but that is not a guarantee.  This Lent, be aware of the idols in your life.  Name them for what they are.  And may you sense a trace of God's grace that can never be contained in anything other than the moving Spirit of God in our lives.

Blessings and peace!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Baptism




When you pass through the waters you will be redeemed.  The waters could be those of the Red Sea when Moses parted them and the people walked through and the mud squished between their toes.  The waters could be those of baptism of Jesus.  Water is vital for life.  We need water to survive.  And so, when Christians needed a symbol for what it meant to be part of the community of faith, we turned to water.  

As Christians we place water, which we know is vital for life, on the forehead of the one being welcomed into the Church, let it evaporate, and proclaim that there is something else that is vital of life: being claimed as God's beloved and being part of a community of faith.  Water is what connects us.  Moses knew this.  Jesus knew this.  And Isaiah knew this.

Within the faith we proclaim God was willing to come to earth, incarnate - in the flesh - of Jesus.  And through the water, we also welcome a person into the Church - known as the Body of Christ.  Incarnation, living life in the flesh, is vital to our faith.

We hear echoes of Jesus' baptism, where God proclaims Christ is God's beloved.  Where did the Gospels get that image, look at verse 4.  "You are precious in my sight and honored, and I love you."  And those words surround every time we gather around the font and baptism someone in the name of the One who Creates, Redeems, and Sustains us.

I encourage you over the coming days to pay attention to water.  Water you drink, cook, and clean with.  Each time you feel water wash over your skin and refresh your throat, remember your baptism! And may you sense the traces of God's grace in that.

Sing a New Hymn




Isaiah begins now a hymn to a servant, often known as the suffering servant in these chapters.  The servant is one in whom God delights, the servant is one who brings justice, and the one who continues to strive to do what God calls the servant to do.  Often as Christians we read these passages as references to Jesus.  The passage could also refer to Isaiah who is willing to go with the People of God into exile.  The passage is also a reminder that often following God's nudges does not lead us to the easy pathway beside the chocolate river, rather it can be the proverbial "path less taken". 

This servant than breaks forth into a hymn, singing to God a new song.  Think about if you had to compose ode to God, what would you sing?  Many people struggle with what to say in prayer, lend alone if the words had to rhyme and be set to music.  They hymn is not some melodious, uplifting hymn that is sugary sweet.  Rather it is a hymn the servant cannot help but sing, it erupts out of her very soul, almost like the shout of a woman in labor.  I am not sure that hymn is our hymnal, but maybe I will try to look again.

But I love at the middle of hymn Isaiah speaks of God changing darkness into light; and the rough places into plain, level place.  There are times in my life I wished that was more than hymn, but a reality.  Let's face it, what is in our hymnal is an ode to "The Bleak Midwinter".  And it is now February in Wisconsin which mean I know the full brunt of how true that can be.  But a hymn that promises God will shine light into the places of darkness is at once amazing and a bit scary.  Think about being in a room where it is completely dark and all of the sudden a light comes on...it is blinding and takes time for our minds and eyes to adjust.  

It can be disorienting, but once our eyes do adjust, we realize how much we were missing by trying to see in the dark.  I wonder how often in the midst of rough places and difficult times, it is like our eyes and imaginations and lives are trying to adjust.  When things happen at the church, it can be like a light being turned on.  But often in our rush to keep the calm, we try to find the switch to extinguish the light. 

Is there a place where your eyes or heart or life is trying to adjust?  And would you want to sing a hymn in response?  Maybe there would be a trace of God's grace in the midst of that.

Blessings and peace

Monday, February 18, 2013

Beginning and End




After speaking words of comfort, Isaiah tells us that God continues to calls us into relationship.  Part of having a relationship means that there is an understanding of the other; whether that other is a spouse/partner or a friend or a co-worker or even, in this case, God.  Who is God?  That question lends itself to countless different answers.  Some describe God using gender language: Father or Mother.  Others try to skirt that issue by saying words like Mystery or Great Spirit.  Others prefer to use adjectives like God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-present.  Others try piling words on the three letters G-O-D that those letters collapse and can only be found by sorting through the heap.  

All that is to say, perhaps God is beyond definition.  In just a few short chapters, Isaiah 55:8-9 God will say, "My thoughts are not your thoughts."  This echoes what God says to Job, "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth."  Perhaps that should make any theologian or preacher shutter wondering just who are we to stand up before people Sunday after Sunday trying to reduce God to mere words.  

One image of God that comes through in Isaiah is that God is the Alpha and Omega, which means God is the beginning and the end.  If God is at the beginning and ending, it also means God is in the middle somewhere too.  Not just our individual beginnings, middles, and end; but more expansive than that.  God was there from the beginning and when all fades away, there will still be God. And God is here right now as you stare at your computer screen.  One of the tensions in understanding God is that God is both in creation but not completely bound by creation.  

And so, what do we know?  Again, what I love about Isaiah, is how wonderfully practical what follows in Isaiah 41 is.  Isaiah says that what we know is the way we relate to other humans.  The artisan who encourages the goldsmith; those moments when we reach out to others, that is one way that we tangibly encounter the sacred.  Again, our human moments do not exhaust or completely capture who God is.  

In these chapters before the exile Isaiah lays the foundation for what is needed in those moments when we feel cut off from the sacred.  Namely: someone who speaks words of comfort and care and someone to say, "Take courage"!  We may not always be receptive or appreciate these folks, but they are what make the mystery of God present in our lives.  Who is that person in your life right now who is helping to make the presence of God less mysterious and more tangible?  Who is that person who lets you know the truth of the traces of God's grace?  During this season of Lent connect with that person and may you know the truth of God's presence.

Blessings and peace!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Comfort




Comfort, O Comfort my people.  After so many chapters of holding the People of God accountable for worshiping other gods and thinking we know better. After chapters of dissonant chords of brokenness and missed opportunity, Isaiah decides to write in a major key instead.  Comfort and care is a hope many have the church.

Let's face it, we live in a difficult world that tries our patience, empties our hope, and runs our soul through the wringer, I understand why people look to the church for comfort.  And it is a great place to look for care.  At the most basic level, the church should embody caring.  The difficult part is knowing when to care and when to challenge.  At some point, if all the church does is care, we can become complacent or think that we deserve the care.  This is a grey area in ministry.  

On any given Sunday there are those sitting there who need to hear good news of great joy of God's love and there are people who are just counting to ten trying to get through the service and there are people who are trying their best to put their actions that past week out of their head lest God hear the brokenness they caused.  All sitting there.  All sitting side by side.  All suppose to be addressed in some way through hymns, prayers, proclamation and through physically being together. 

One of the best images for the church is the Body of Christ, the living, breathing body of Christ.  Right now, I have various parts of my body that ache from running on Friday or from swinging my golf club on Saturday.  Yet, other body parts feel just fine.  So, do I rest or do I keep going?  Just as that question is individually hard to answer, so too is the question of what to emphasize Sunday after Sunday.  

The amazing part is that Isaiah talks about comfort even before the people go into exile.  We don't often think about God speaking comfort to us before we go into brokenness, pain, or grief.  We want that comfort in the midst of the valley moments.  Yet, what if God's presence and comfort comes before?  Before we need it.  The hard part too is trying to answer, what does comfort look like, feel like, or taste like?  

Maybe comfort is taking all the pain/suffering away instantaneously.  Now, to be clear, there is some pain and suffering that needs to be removed immediately.  The pain of abuse, the pain of parents neglecting children, and the pain of emotional violence.  Yet, there is other pain that is part of what it means to be alive.  Jesus felt the pain of betrayal and dissertation ...and that was by his friends the disciples!  

I invite you to think about a place in your life where you need to know comfort and strength.  Then, click on the link above and read, re-read and re-read again these words of Isaiah trusting in the One who reached out with comfort and compassion to the People of God in Isaiah's time and to us still today.

May the traces of God's grace sustain you and comfort you in the midst of the twists and turns and rocky places in your life right now.

Blessings and peace!

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Ups and Downs of Life




Hezekiah falls ill.  Isaiah shows up and like all good friends predicts Hezekiah's demise.  Talk about needing a lesson in bedside manners!  "Hi Hezekiah, you look awful!  I guess this is the end."  Gee whiz, with friends like that, who needs Babylon breathing down your neck threatening to over throw your kingdom.  Hezekiah turned away from the gloom and doom of Isaiah (I dare say I would do the same), offered a prayer to God, and wept bitterly.  God heard the prayer, saw Hezekiah's honest grief, and changed God's mind.  

Did you catch that?  God changed God's mind.  There is a strand within Christian theology that says everything is pre-planned or predestined/pre-ordained.  I don't know what those who hold onto that line of thought do with this passage.  It is almost as if Hezekiah's repentance (see last post) caused God to repent/turn around.  God changed God's mind within Genesis a number of times.  God initially tells Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit or they will die.  Only to just kick them out of the garden after they ate the fruit...a good lesson for all parents about trying to enforce the most extreme punishment.  God changed God's mind about the flood when God smelled the sacrifice Noah made, realizing that even a flood would not fully solve the problem with human brokenness.  

Of course, it really should not surprise us too much that God can change God's mind.  After all, that is what being in a relationship is all about.  It is not much of a relationship if you have no impact on the other person and the other person has an impact upon you.    

Hezekiah is saved and in the very next chapter he is putting on an open house for the Babylonians.  "Come on in fellas!  Let me show you around.  Here is where I keep the gold.  Here is where I keep all my secret plans.  Go ahead.  I am feeling great since my near-death experience."  And somewhere God boinked God's head.

I am sure I have my Hezekiah-moments too.  Just when things turn on a dime, go great, and the very next day my decisions act as if yesterday was a million years ago.  How frequently we forget, sometimes in the blink of an eye.

Lent asks us to be honest about those places where our relationship with God is on rocky ground.  Where are those places where we cry out to God, sense God's presence, only in the next moment to break God's heart?  That is not an easy question. But at the heart of Lent is the truth of denial by Peter, betrayal by Judas, and the desertion by everyone else.  And yet, God would not allow that brokenness to be the last word.  Easter brings a joy that surges and stirs our soul.  When that is the promise that awaits us at the end of the 40 days, we can be honest about the rocky ground in our life because the trace of God's grace that rises with the sun on Easter morning truly is good news.

Blessings and peace!

What Repentance Means




The passage begins with Hezekiah taking the actions of one who is deeply grieved (tearing his clothing) and in a state of repentance (putting on sack cloth).  This happens in the book of Job and also in the book of Jonah.  If you click on the Jonah link you will see it is not only humans who put on sackcloth, it is also all the animals and cows.  That is a funny picture...even though I have no idea what a cow would need to repent of.

The image of repentance is one that carries a lot of baggage in the church.  When I searched for pictures for the top of this post, many showed people on their knees, heartbroken, guilt-ridden, with clasped hands, and looking like they were at their wits end.  At the most basic level, repentance means to make a change, even a U-Turn as the above picture shows.  Sometimes as human beings we refuse to make the most basic change until the urgency to make that change has increased to such an unbearable level. Hence all the pictures of people on their knees on Google images.  However, it does not need to be that way.  Change can happen without being so soul stretching and straining.  

Change, like its cousin repentance, is a difficult word.  Change can be initiated by us, as in the case of New Year's Resolutions.  Change can also be afflicted upon us as in family or friend relationships where the other person's decision has consequences for our lives we did not anticipate or ask for.  And at other times, change is what we want to see/have happen for everyone else.  David Sedaris says, "I haven't the foggiest idea of how to change people, but I keep a long list of people just in case I ever figure it out."  Change is fine for others, but when it involves us, that is when it gets personal.

Part of the creative tension within the faith is living between the truth that God receives us and loves us as we are; and that by receiving God's unconditional love there is transformation within our life.  Often we think unconditional love means love that asks nothing of us.  Yet, unconditional love is such because it does not demand we change, but might inspire or awaken a change because of the way we experience of this kind of love.  

Hezekiah goes through change and repentance because of coming into contact with the grace of God.  Hezekiah realizes that it is not the walls he built or the army he assembled that will protect him, but God's presence, which does not mean everything will be rainbows and chocolate river...after all the people of God will still be carted off to exile.

Lent is a time of change, transformation.  That is one of the reasons why butterflies and flowers are so popular at Easter.  What better to represent change/transformation than a caterpillar becoming a butterfly or a seed becoming a flower.  Yet, such change/transformation does not happen overnight.  It takes time.  Hezekiah's change takes time...the people of God wander in the wilderness for 40 years in the exodus... the people of God will be in exile for years too.  While Lent is only 40 days, it offers us the chance every day to encounter the love of God that can make all the difference in our lives.

And may the traces of God's grace empower that change this Lent for you and me.

Blessings and peace 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Plot Thickens


Click here to read Isaiah 36

The plot thickens.  After chapter upon chapter upon chapter of predicting gloom and doom is coming.  Assyria comes knocking on the door of Jerusalem, toppling the walls of the Israelite towns, and generally taking over the place.  King Hezekiah, the king of Israel, looks out his window and see the whole Assyrian army standing there.  And if that was not enough, the King of Assyria, starts to egg on the Hezekiah.  "Where is all your confidence now, O great, King?"  "Where is this God that you had been calling on now, O great, King?"  "Not so quick with the words anymore, are we great King?"

When someone says things that we know to be true, but are difficult to hear, it can cause us to be defensive, we can get angry, and we want to strike back.  When someone gloats or tries to get our goat with words, we might only be able to say, "Oh yeah...well says you."  When someone has a quick quip that leaves us stammering and stuttering, our cheeks turn red, and we want so hard to come back with some kind of snappy come back.  But King Hezekiah, like us, doesn't have anything he can say.

He had heard what Isaiah had said in the past and those memories are hard to push down.  "I should have listened to Isaiah!"  In the midst of fear, we can question, "Where is God."  And when faced with devastation and destruction in our lives, it is even more difficult to know which way to turn and what to do.

Lent invites us to be honest about our brokenness, about times when our words have hurt, and facing our fears.  Isaiah does not smugly stand there saying, "Told you so."  Isaiah is willing to go through the brokenness and stand side by side in the face of fears. He is willing to go even to exile with the people. Part of our faithfulness calls us to do just that.  Yet, it is easier to stand on the sideline and say, "Told you so."

This Lent are we willing to learn from Isaiah?  If we are, I believe, there are traces of God's grace to be found even in those moments.

Blessings and peace!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday




Today is Ash Wednesday.  If you want a quick overview of Lent, click over to Busted Halo and watch this two minute video...well worth it.

Lent is a time of renewal and repentance and receiving the hope that is new life found in our connections with each other and to Christ.  

I will be honest, I love Lent.  Unlike Advent, Lent has weathered very well the commercialization of our culture.  Unlike the Christmas tree that has to be just so, no one in the church even knows we own a crown of thorns, much less where it is at or what we would do if it once we dusted off the cobwebs.  On the other hand, as the Bible study class today astutely pointed out to me today, Lent is still "too Catholic".  That makes me sad.  We need a season to clean out our spiritual cobwebs and clutter.  We need a season to be honest.  And let's face it, nothing else is happening in the bleak midwinter of February or March.  We need a place that in the midst of the old piles of melted and re-frozen snow to know that underneath it all a seed is slowly starting to burst forth.  We need a season where hope comes in the form of a crocus and to realize we are on the way.  At its best that is what Lent is.  At its worse it is about guilt and giving things up.

This Lent, in addition to posting on my blog (almost) daily, I am also trying very hard to engage in spiritual disciplines.  I don't say that to sound righteous at all.  Believe, there is a reason I am recommending a site called "Busted Halo".  Yet, I did preach last Sunday on disciplines and I know all too well the charge about not "practicing what we preach" as people of faith.  So, if I have stood in front of people and said it, I ought to follow through to the best of my ability.

For the next forty days I will practice the disciple of the Examen prayer.  I encourage you to try this too.  Not because I think it is the 'best prayer practice ever!'  But I think we do things together, it helps keep us accountable.  If I know you are doing this each day, I sense the trace of God's grace connecting us.  If you know I am doing this each day, then we keep going to support one another.  I pray you will give some thought to Lent in the coming days.  It does not have to be this minute, but hopefully between now and Sunday.

I pray that as signs of spring slowly, emphasis on the word slowly, start to show up, that we will sense God's presence, new life, our connections to each other and creation!  And may it be a blessed and holy 40 days for you.

Grace and peace!

Two Choices


Click here to read Isaiah 34

Isaiah today describes the "un"-Kingdom of God, the place where the hyenas and wildcats hang out, where the hawk and hedgehog rule the day, and where Isaiah says the name of this "utopia" is "No Kingdom There."

On the one level I hear that and I think of Obi Wan Kenobi from Star Wars using the Jedi mind trick on Storm Troops and saying, "These are not the droids you are looking for."  And the Troopers falling for it.  Or police officers at a scene saying, "Moving along people, nothing to see here."  Which usually means there is a lot to see there!

Isaiah says, no kingdom there.  Just your run-of-the-mill chaos of all the animals you wonder why Noah saved on the ark.  Add in a few bats while you are at it to really make a shutter go down my spine.  Isaiah 34 stands in stark contrast to Isaiah 11, which was the peaceable kingdom.  The place where the lion and lamb frolic together.  And while we may not like the un-Kingdom of God, it feels a bit more familiar than the idyllic, almost absurd, vision of Isaiah 11.  I don't think I would every let my children play around a snake hole, does not sound very peaceable to me!

In some ways, neither place feels like home.  One feels so desolate and dark, like something out of an Edger Allan Poe poem (Isaiah 34), while the other feels so far away like something out of a fairy tale.  Most of my life is navigating in the wide waters between these two visions.  But maybe the point is not to avoid these extremes, but to notice them.  There are moments when the world is really scary and seems chaotic....just turn on the news and we see Isaiah 34 come to life.  There are moment when the world is joyful and peaceful...like when I am playing a board game with my family.  Both are true.

I encourage you to keep these two images in your mind.  Where do you see the truth they point to in your life today and this week?  And may the traces of God's grace be seen whether we find ourselves in Isaiah 34, Isaiah 11, or somewhere in-between during this season of Lent.

Blessings and peace!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Waiting


Isaiah 33

O Lord, be gracious to us...we wait for you.  Be our arm every morning, our salvation in the time of trouble.

Where is God in the midst of waiting?  Isaiah asks for God to be gracious to us while we wait.  I don't think that translates into God speeding up time.  Graciousness can mean giving us patience.  Graciousness can mean we notice God's presence.  Graciousness might just mean having strength and clear thoughts.  

Isaiah asks for God to be an arm to lean on in the morning and salvation/hope in times of trouble.  That wisdom is profound and makes sense to me.  In the midst of waiting we need an arm to surround us and support us and remind us we are not alone.  In times of trouble we need to know God is still our hope.  

Sometimes I want five simple steps for making sure that beyond a shadow of a doubt God is with me when I am waiting.  I want a money-back guarantee that God will give me all I need to get through that time of trouble.  I just don't think faith works that way.  Faith is more mysterious and confusing at times.  It does not always make linear or logical sense.  Yet, I think faith can open us to see the ways the arms of God are around us in times of waiting.  It might come in the friend who drives us to the doctor's appointment.  Maybe in the person who calls us to check and see how we are doing.  Hope does not always mean everything works out "happily ever after".  Hope can be that sense of peace we feel even when things don't work out. 

Perhaps the reason why waiting is so difficult is we have countless things to distract us.  Waiting at the store?  Pull out your smartphone and post to Facebook.  Waiting at a traffic light?  Fiddle with the radio.  We don't practice waiting when we distract ourselves constantly.  Maybe this week we can try to wait in lines and see if we can sense the arm and hope of God?  While it may not be easy, we may find trusting in God opens us to traces of God's grace.

Blessings and peace!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Contrasting





Click here to read Isaiah 31
Click here to read Isaiah 32

Chapters 31 and 32 are a study in contrast.  Chapter 31 lays out the futility of our human efforts.  Chapter 32 lays out the hope of our human efforts.  One chapter makes our shoulders slouch, the other chapters makes us sit up tall.  Life is an exercise of contrasts.  One day joy can well up in laughter, the next day an event can leave grieving.

I think the hard part in all of this is the unexpectedness of the contrasts. We cannot always plan ahead. We don't always know when the words we hear are foolish until we look back in hindsight.  The other hard part is as people of faith we claim God is good all the time...and all the time God is good.  So, what gives?  This tension, or contrast, has at times caused people to drift away from faith. And while I am grateful Isaiah talks about the nobles doing noble things and making noble plans...I still don't always know who the noble people are!  And to make matters worse, sometimes the ones who are noble still make mistakes...they are human after all.

Which is why I think contrasts are so important in faith.  Reformer Martin Luther used to keep two pieces of paper with him.  On one piece of paper he kept in his pocket were the words, "I am a beloved Child of God."  On the piece of paper in the other pocket were the words, "I am a sinner."  Living between those two contrasting truths... simultaneously is what Reformed faith is all about.  Of course, many churches tend to error on one side or the other.  Some churches start sounding like the song, "All we need is love."  And there is truth in that.  Other preachers make you feel a bit like a worm by the end of the sermon.  And there is truth in that.  The problem is both trying to hold each in balance and trying to sort out when to say what.  After all on any given Sunday there are people who need to hear each message.

That is the contrast of faith.  That is the contrast of being a human.  That is the contrast of creativity where God moves in our lives.  I invite you into that contrast and simultaneous sense of who we are this week.  In the midst of that messy middle, I think there is a trace of God's grace for us.

Blessings and peace!

Friday, February 8, 2013

Worship




I read the first version of this chapter and my first thought is, "Ouch"...that is a little too close for comfort.  I think of all the ways I take shelter in the stuff of my life.  I think of the way I listen to the wisdom of the world...rather than scripture.  I think of the times I rely on my plans rather than trying to listen for the still speaking voice of God.  Many Mainline Protestants would prefer not to think of this tension.  Most of our churches still proclaim the Gospel of Enlightenment that tends to think our thoughts are God's thoughts...rather than hear the wisdom of Isaiah coming up in chapter 55:8, "My thoughts are NOT your thoughts and my ways are not your ways."  

Yet, it is not as though God shuts and locks the door on the People of God in this chapter.  In verse 15, we are reminded that it is in returning to God we find our rest.  I think this is why people find familiar worship so comforting.  Like a cozy pair of well-worn slippers, worship has a steady rhythm and people know what to expect.  Opening hymn? Check.  Lord's Prayer? Check. Sermon that drones on and on? Check and check!  

Worship is important within the faith because it helps remind us what is central to full life: God.  We worship a lot of things in this society.  To get a glimpse, flip through the latest issue of People magazine when waiting in the grocery line next time you are there.  We worship people who lose weight and the latest diet craze.  We worship celebrities - especially male athletes.  We worship those who are wealthy.  I don't claim to know what God thinks about all the idols we have made.  I know in Exodus 32 the People of God convince themselves that the calf represents God.  In the midst of their fear and anxiety that Moses was gone too long, they think the calf will provide some kind of reassurance.  Like Isaiah 30, I see a lot of myself in that passage.  We can convince ourselves that our wealth and athletics and body images are about God rather than us.  Think back to how many times football players reference God.

Worship can comfort and challenge us in good ways to examine our lives.  And yet, I do get concerned about that line between being comfortable and complacent.  It is a thin, easily passed over line and we are so astute (see Enlightenment above) that we can even convince ourselves that we are no where near that line, that our prayer life, volunteering, worship and such is still as vital and vibrant as ever.

On the last post, I asked about your dreams.  One of the things dreams can do is stretch us and tell us about our deepest desires.  This is why we don't often share our dreams with others, lest they tell us we are foolish and we fear they may be right!  We can also make idols of our dreams that if we don't achieve them exactly as we have in mind, we are mad at God.  I encourage you over the coming days to think prayerfully about your dreams and about the idols in your life.  Are there similarities between the two?  Bring that to worship and be honest about that in the presence of God and the People of God at worship.  That might actually be a faithful way to worship this Sunday and allow us to get a glimpse of the traces of God's grace.

Blessings and peace!   

Dream a Dream


Click here to read Isaiah 29

What sort of dreams do you have?  Maybe you dream about spring when the snow is not piling up?  Maybe you dream about going back to school?  Maybe you dream about a world where violence and hatred don't occupy so much of our nightly news.  Isaiah offers a profound insight about our dreams in verse 8.  The hungry person who dreams of food still wakes up hungry, no matter how large the buffet was in his mind.  The thirsty person who dreams of swimming in gallons of fresh water still wakes up thirsty, no matter how long she stays asleep.

While I don't want to knock the power of positive thought, in the end our thoughts are sometimes stuck in our minds and does not become a reality...no matter how much we try to focus on it.  No amount of Jedi-mind-tricks will alter our reality sometimes.  I think this is why consumerism is so big in our world.  My soul may still be thirsty, but at least I have a cola in the refrigerator.

Yet, we don't want to sell dreams short either.  Think back to Joseph in Genesis and the dream he dreamed of greatness.  Or his ancestor centuries later of the same name who dreamed the dream of angels telling him that Jesus was the Son of God.  Dreams are important to our faith and they have limitations, which is pretty much so true of just about everything in the church.  Worship is important and has limitations.  Prayer is important and has limitations.  Mission is important and has limitations.  You get the idea.

The point is not our dreams, but God's dreams, which Isaiah tells us is written on a sealed letter we cannot read.  It is mysterious, which for a person who likes to plan ahead is really frustrating.  Yet, Isaiah does not leave us there.  He proclaims there will come a time when the dream of God is realized. Again, I want to know the timeline and the strategic plan, but it too remains a mystery.  Perhaps not a mystery, as much as it is messy and non-linear, sort of like dreams themselves.

Isaiah's language is not that of Mission, Purpose, or Vision statements so common in businesses and churches today.  Isaiah's language is that of promise and trust.  Promise that God is present, interwoven in our lives.  Trust that even when we don't see or understand, God is present, interwoven in our lives.  May our dreams today open us to that promise and trust; and in that may we sense the traces of God's grace.

Blessings and peace!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

More on Words




Priests and prophets stagger from beer, bet you never thought that was in the Bible?  Not exactly a passage that gets preached on a lot on Sunday mornings!  Let's be clear that Isaiah does not exactly give a rousing endorsement of combining beer with your religion.  I do think it needs to be clarified that some of Martin Luther's famous Table Talks with his theology students was done at the tavern, where I once heard that Luther had a stein with the 10 Commandments on it...it has to be true because I heard that from a Lutheran!

Having just come off the Super Bowl, I saw lots of ads for beer. Of course, now everyone from the White House to your neighbor's basements tries to create it's own micro-brew.  And while I live in a state that glorifies beer to the point of naming our baseball team after the act of brewing beer, it is a complicated relationship at best.

While the image of the priest not handling his liquor well is one thing, it is the next verse that really cuts close.  People ask, "who is he trying to teach?"  I wonder on Sunday morning if people wonder if I am talking to them, really talking to them?  Who am I trying to teach?  What am I trying to teach?  And while I am completely sober, that does not mean I don't play the part of the fool.  Looking foolish is a bit of a past time for me.  I am reminded of what Mark Twain once quipped, 'Better to keep your month shut and let people think you are a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.'  

It is an occupational hazard that I open my mouth and I know the truth of Twain's quote.  But Isaiah reminds me that God is the One who measures justice and God's righteousness (not mine) is the plumb line.  We live in a world awash in words. In previous generations there was basically newspapers and gossip.  Now, there is t.v., radio, newspapers, blogs, and gossip (some things don't change).

I invite you to continue to listen to the words around you.  Continue to listen for that still speaking voice of God.  And may some of the words you hear be in harmony with God's wisdom of justice and righteousness.

Blessings and peace!

What do we hear?


Click here to read Isaiah 27

When I read Isaiah 27, I hear the melody and words of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" in the back of my mind.  This was written by Julie Ward Howe around the time of the Civil War.  While most of the lyrics have connections and images from the Book of Revelation, there are some echoes of sword and vineyard that are heard in Isaiah.

The vineyard was an image of Israel, remember back to Isaiah 5, where God plants a vineyard and all God got was sour grapes.  So, now twenty-two chapters later, the vineyard (Israel) is finally bearing good fruit.  Somethings just take time.

The image of God guarding, watching over, day and night brings to mind images from Psalm 121.  This psalm was sung by pilgrims as they journeyed to Jerusalem about God not slumbering or sleeping.  This was especially important when traveling in unfamiliar and unfriendly territories with bandits and robbers waiting, perhaps, when you cross over the top of the hill.

Part of what I hear in the image of the sword and mouth is a sense that our words have power to hurt or help.  While children are taught, "sticks and stones my break my bones, but words can never hurt me," get no further than Elementary School to have that be disproved.  And don't get me started about Middle School.

Isaiah 27 is a reminder that God is with us and God can be heard in the words that we absorb through our lives.  Tomorrow, listen...really listen, to words that sound like they might be in harmony with the melody of God's still speaking voice.

May the traces of God's grace be heard in your life.

Blessings and peace!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Pathways


Click here to read Isaiah 26

One of the earliest images and references to Christianity was "The Way".  Our ancestors were known as People of the Way.  Which way you may ask?  The Way of following Christ.  You need only get a few chapters into reading any one of the gospels to know that the Way of Jesus is not a flat, smooth, cruising with the sun-roof down, and wind in your hair kind of pathway.  The Way of Jesus twists and turns, sometimes at such a dizzying rate, we may wonder if The Way of Jesus should be a new amusement ride at Disneyland.

Given that there are a lot of pathways in our lives to select from, given that lots of people today want us to follow them (which usually means giving money in some form or fashion), how will we know if the pathway we are on is the right one?

Usually when we are going down the interstate or highway, there is some sort of signpost to let us know we are on the right path.  The same could be said for Christianity, "The Way".  One of the earliest Christian historians was Tertullian.   He lived from 160-225 AD.  And one of his most famous descriptions of "The Way" and early Christians was, "Look how they love each other."  Love and caring and compassion are the signposts that let us know when we are on the path. When we are distant from those ways of caring we may have taken an exit ramp, and start to feel like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and think, "Well, I am no longer in Kansas, Toto!"

When Isaiah envisions a world where the pathway is smooth, straight, and level, on the one hand that sounds great.  How easy to navigate and make sure we stay on the path.  How re-assuring to know that we can see for miles and miles.  How...um...well to be honest, boring!  It would sort of be like driving across the state of Iowa.  To be fair, I am from Iowa, I grew up there, graduated high school and college from that state, and it is where my roots are.  But I have to tell you driving across the state is a bit of a snooze-fest.  Twists and turns, ups and downs do make life and trying to follow "The Way" interesting.  And while I do not wish for more twists and turns, I think part of what faith offers us is a way to keep looking for those moments of caring, love and compassion in the midst of times when the road is not smooth-sailing.

There is a time for traveling the smooth, level pathway and a time for dwelling on the mountain and a time to even be in the valley.  Our journey so far with Isaiah has led us through all three.  If you had to say today, where do you find yourself?  Are you on a mountaintop of joy?  Are in the valley of despair?  Are you in a place where you can see for a thousand tomorrows to come?  Are you in a place where a recent twist or turn left your head spinning?  Sometimes just knowing where we are on the path can help.  Sometimes just knowing where we are on the path can even help us sense God's grace.

The powerful part of Isaiah is he suggests God is with us, not just when the road is easy, but in times when the walls have come tumbling down.  And everywhere, every place in-between.

I pray where ever you find yourself this week, that the image of the Way might help you respond with a compassion, care, and love that connects us to our ancestors and helps us realize the presence of the One we still follow today.

Blessings and peace!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Hope and Despair


Click here to read Isaiah 25

After all the words about pain and destruction, this hymn of praise is a bit jarring.  Maybe that is what Isaiah intended.   Previous chapters have felt like the wilderness where the trees tower over head and it can be difficult to see what is in front of us. The wilderness is a theme throughout scripture.  From the People of Israel wandering in the wilderness for forty years in Exodus to Jesus' temptation in the wilderness to Elijah fleeing for his life.  Isaiah does not exactly say it is a wilderness moment in those chapters we have just slogged our way through, but it certainly felt that way.

Wilderness are those moments when grief sits upon your soul or you struggle with a decision.  Wilderness are those moments when life seems to be spinning out of control and you just want to get off the ride for a moment.  Wilderness is often those times when we wonder where is God and why isn't God fixing everything in my life?

That is the way the wilderness was for the People of Israel in Exodus complaining about bread, water, and wanting to go back to Egypt where they were slaves.  That the way the wilderness was for Elijah when he sought ran there after defeating the priests of Baal and he complained that he had been "very zealous for God his whole life".  That is the way the wilderness was for Jesus after spending forty days in prayer only to be tempted or tested to make bread from a stone or to leap from the highest mountain or from the top of the temple.  Wilderness is not just geographically but metaphorical. It encompasses all those moments when we wonder, why?  And are not satisfied with the answers of our imaginations.

So, after reading now twenty-four chapters of Isaiah when most of those messages would not inspire a Thomas Kinkade painting, I wonder what is your reaction to hearing this hymn of joy, promise, and hope?

Seriously...take a few moments, what is your honest reaction?

I ask that because usually when I am in the wilderness moment and I encounter a moment of serendipitous joy I think, "Oh, this won't last."  The hope feels fleeting and I tend to think that the wilderness is what is real and true and to be trusted, not the joy.  Why is that?

I don't think we have to be peskily optimistic all the time or just think positive thoughts.  But I do think joy and pain can co-exist together and often do in my life.  In the midst of the wilderness, there can be laughter.  In the midst of a world with too much gun violence there can still be times of hope.  In the midst of a world where words are used to hurt and harm people there can still be words that invite the sacred into our lives.  Not to make everything magically better.  But to remind us that God is found in both the pain and hope of our lives.

May the traces of God's grace be found in your life today whether it feels like you are in the wilderness or at the great feast where all people come, are welcome, and fed.

Blessings and peace!