Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45 – On Divine Providence

Egyptian workers harvesting grain c1420BCE
Egyptian workers harvesting grain. From the tomb of Mena in Thebes, c.1420 B.C.E.

Give thanks to the Lord and proclaim his greatness.
Let the whole world know what he has done.
Sing to him; yes, sing his praises.
Tell everyone about his wonderful deeds.
Exult in his holy name;
rejoice, you who worship the Lord.
Search for the Lord and for his strength;
continually seek him.
Remember the wonders he has performed,
his miracles, and the rulings he has given,
you children of his servant Abraham,
you descendants of Jacob, his chosen ones….

He called for a famine on the land of Canaan,
cutting off its food supply.
Then he sent someone to Egypt ahead of them—
Joseph, who was sold as a slave.
They bruised his feet with fetters
and placed his neck in an iron collar.
Until the time came to fulfill his dreams,
the Lord tested Joseph’s character.
Then Pharaoh sent for him and set him free;
the ruler of the nation opened his prison door.
Joseph was put in charge of all the king’s household;
he became ruler over all the king’s possessions.
He could instruct the king’s aides as he pleased
and teach the king’s advisers….

All this happened so they would follow his decrees
and obey his instructions.

Praise the Lord! (NLT)

Our spiritual and emotional vision can sometimes be myopic. It is precisely in those times when we have tunnel vision and neither look back to a past in which God acted with justice nor see ahead to a future with hope that we must remember God is supreme over everything, including time.

God’s providence and blessing is the animating force behind all events. The biblical character of Joseph is Exhibit A of God’s sovereign backstage orchestration of personal and world forces. Joseph’s story of brotherly betrayal, bondage, imprisonment, and rise to power include some lessons for us (Genesis 37-41):

  • Joseph is portrayed as a model of wisdom for us to follow.

Respect and obey the Lord! This is the beginning of knowledge. Only a fool rejects wisdom and good advice (Proverbs 1:7, CEV).  

Do not let mercy and truth leave you. Fasten them around your neck. Write them on the tablet of your heart. Then you will find favor and much success in the sight of God and humanity (Proverbs 3:3-4, GW).

  • Joseph did not know the end of the story while he was in the middle of it, languishing in prison. Little did he know that God was testing his character, training him to listen well, and preparing him for his eventual leadership in Egypt – all to save many lives from hunger and starvation.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1, NRSV)

  • Joseph successfully negotiated and navigated a world which was vastly different from his own religion and ethics. He was determined not to give in to the seductions of women and power around him; and, he did not become bitter against his brothers, nor against the Egyptians.

Don’t love the world’s ways. Don’t love the world’s goods. Love of the world squeezes out love for the Father. Practically everything that goes on in the world—wanting your own way, wanting everything for yourself, wanting to appear important—has nothing to do with the Father. It just isolates you from him. The world and all its wanting, wanting, wanting is on the way out—but whoever does what God wants is set for eternity. (1 John 2:15-17, MSG)

Four-hundred years later, Moses also had to navigate the situation of being an Israelite in the world of Egypt, and walked in the footsteps of his forebear, Joseph:

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.  He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time.  He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt because he was looking ahead to his reward. (Hebrews 11:24-26, NIV)

We understand, knowing the end of the story, that Joseph was in Egypt (in the world) to be a blessing and that God had him there for a purpose. This is no less true for the people of God. We do not exist merely for ourselves but to be a blessing to the world.  God, as he did for Joseph, shows us mercy while we are smack in the middle of hardship and not by taking us out of our worldly predicament.  Life must sometimes be lived at great risk amid the world and not apart from it.

Seen from a strictly worldly perspective, Joseph’s time in slavery and prison was an unnecessary injustice. However, from God’s vantage point, Joseph was learning to be mindful of God despite his circumstances. For the Lord is much more concerned about the process we undergo in spiritual formation, rather than simply producing a product at the end of the line. Most of life is lived in the mundane, and Joseph was faithful in all the workaday decisions and demands of life. This made him able to handle all the vicissitudes of others in their fickle and feckless ways and see God’s providential working.

Lord God, you hold both heaven and earth in a single peace. Let the design of your great love shine on the waste of our anger and sorrow, and give peace to your Church, peace among nations, peace in our homes, and peace in our hearts through Jesus Christ our Lord who with you and the Holy Spirit benevolently reign as one God, now and forever. Amen.

Acts 17:10-15 – Being Open-Minded

Frank Zappa quote

That same night the believers sent Paul and Silas to another city named Berea. When they arrived there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. The people in Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica. They were so glad to hear the message Paul told them. They studied the Scriptures every day to make sure that what they heard was true. The result was that many of them believed, including many important Greek women and men.

But when the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was telling people God’s message in Berea, they came there too. They upset the people and made trouble. So, the believers immediately sent Paul away to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed in Berea. Those who went with Paul took him to the city of Athens. They returned with a message for Silas and Timothy to come and join him as soon as they could. (ERV)

Everywhere the Apostle Paul went on his missionary journeys he experienced both acceptance and opposition. Determined to spread the good news of Christ’s redeeming work, Paul found a receptive audience and was able to establish churches. However, by doing this, he also upset the religious status quo wherever he went, as well. As a result, there were times when Paul and his colleagues needed to steal out of town before an angry mob could get their hands on him. Sometimes, the furious cabal got a hold of him, and Paul forever carried the scars of those beatings on his body.

So, it must have been a refreshing experience for Paul to arrive in the city of Berea (located at the base of the Olympian Mountains in southwestern Macedonia) and discover a different spirit than he typically found in other places – a willingness to investigate, scrutinize, and grapple with the message presented.

To spiritually thrive and flourish in this life we all must embrace the noble character of remaining open-minded with a teachable spirit. Just as the body grows, changes, and matures over time, so the human spirit does the same. This means there is continual spiritual development. To become closed-minded and believe all questions are answered and settled is to cut off oneself from truth and reality.

The Apostle Paul, I believe, is a good model of what it takes to be open-minded and a lifelong learner. The following are some ways he kept alive to spiritual truth:

Paul found his motivation. He went on missionary journeys because he wanted to make Christ known in places where he wasn’t. “It doesn’t matter if people are civilized and educated, or if they are uncivilized and uneducated. I must tell the good news to everyone. That’s why I am eager….” (Romans 1:13-14, CEB)

Paul went to new places. Getting stuck in a rut comes from never doing anything new or going to new places. We don’t have to be missionaries like Paul to do some movement and discover personally unexplored places, both literally and spiritually. Habits and routines are good. Sometimes we just need to create new ones so that we see a different perspective and have new experiences. The inability to see another’s viewpoint comes from an unwillingness to entertain any kind of change.

Paul avoided speculation. He did not superimpose his own experiences onto others. Paul was remarkably open to people everywhere he went, instead of being afraid and expecting trouble and/or abuse. In other words, the Bereans were open to Paul because Paul was open to them. Paul avoided looking at them as Thessalonians or Philippians, both places where he got into loads of trouble just before coming to Berea. A contemporary way of stating Paul’s attitude and practice is that he was free of prejudice and discrimination.

Furthermore, notice the intellectual characteristics of the Berean people:

  • They were curious to hear what Paul thought.
  • They were able to have their ideas challenged.
  • They didn’t get angry when new ideas were presented.
  • They practiced both intellectual humility and mental empathy.
  • They believed Paul had a right to share his arguments, beliefs, and thoughts.

Today, in our intellectually and politically polarized world, far too many people are uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. So, they are unwilling to wrestle with spirituality by eliminating all mystery from their religion. When that happens, oppression is born. These are the folks who could not tolerate Paul’s ideas and gave him such a hard time. By rejecting alternative ideas that might challenge the status quo, people may be able to minimize uncertainty and risk – or at least their perception of risk – yet, the closing of their minds to other’s thoughts opens them to abusing the bodies of those same people.

When people are intellectually and spiritually proud, they wrongheadedly believe that they already know all there is to know, and so, they refuse to listen. At best, this limits the potential for learning; at worst, it forms a cognitive bias which blinds them to their own ignorance and blunts their ability for compassion. Instead, it is imperative we be humbler about our knowledge and that there is always more to learn.

Almighty God, in you are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Open our eyes that we may see the wonders of your Word; and give us grace that we may clearly understand and freely choose the way of your wisdom. As the source of all light, enlighten our spirits. Pour out on us the spirit of understanding so that our hearts and minds may be opened. Amen.

Matthew 15:32-39 – Feeding the Four Thousand

Jesus Feeds the 4000
Jesus Feeds the 4000 by Laura James

Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.”

His disciples answered, “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?”

“How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked.

“Seven,” they replied, “and a few small fish.”

He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, and when he had given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and they in turn to the people. They all ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was four thousand men, besides women and children. After Jesus had sent the crowd away, he got into the boat and went to the vicinity of Magadan. (NIV)

Through the event of Christ miraculously feeding more than four-thousand people, the Christian tradition embraces a living, ascended, and glorified Jesus who still looks to feed those in need. Furthermore, just as Christ had his disciples participate in the miracle, so he still wants to use us today in feeding the world. It is therefore necessary that we work on aligning our resources – our emotional energy, our money, our service – toward reaching out to people who are hungry, both physically and spiritually.

Jesus did just that in feeding thousands of people. He organized his disciples for a miracle even though they failed to understand what he was doing until he did it. The disciples, bless their head scratching, wondered how the vast throng of people were going to be fed, even though they had already participated in the feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14:13-21). The disciples sarcastically responded to Jesus, “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?”  Maybe they were less thick-headed and more hard-hearted. You see, unlike the previous feeding miracle, this one took place in the Gentile territory of Tyre and Sidon.

It appears the disciples were having a hard time with Jesus using his efforts, compassion, and miracles for Gentiles (non-Jewish people) instead of Jews. It could be that they were thinking Jesus should stand for holiness by being as far apart from pagans as they can get. Besides, it wasn’t as if there weren’t any hungry people among their own Jewish people. Maybe they were thinking: “Shouldn’t the miraculous and divine resources be better utilized in keeping them within the Jewish community? After all, the gentile Romans oversee the land. Couldn’t they take care of the needy? Is this really our responsibility?”

Jesus would have none of that kind of thinking. Christ most certainly could have avoided the Gentiles if he wanted to; but he didn’t. Jesus could have fed the people and done a miracle without the involvement of his Jewish disciples, but he didn’t. Jesus wanted his disciples to be part of the miracle through distributing the bread and fish for the people to eat.  Jesus would have nothing to do with his Jewish disciples avoiding the Gentile people.  He wanted the disciples to meaningfully connect with the hungry people.

I wonder whom Jesus wants us to meaningfully connect with. I am curious if Christ is looking to align his divine resources for people in our lives – and to use us as the means of a miracle. Perhaps the people who are quite different from us are the ones we are to feed. I am wondering how we view such persons. If we tend to freight our language about them in sarcasm, perhaps that is a clue to our own implicit or unconscious bias.

Back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, I had many conversations and dialogues with Christians about AIDS and the gay community. I am saddened that the pervasive attitude I encountered at the time was how gays and lesbians were ruining our society (among other attitudes not worth repeating). Instead of seeing them through the eyes of the compassionate Jesus and seizing an opportunity to love an entire community of people, the discussions were more about how to keep “homosexuality” and the “gay disease” out of church. The hospitals at that time had wards of persons dying from HIV, and few Christians present to bring the compassionate resources of Jesus to them. Withholding spiritual or physical food from people in need, no matter who they are, is not the way of the Lord Jesus – the One who feeds and heals. However, giving the grace of food and fellowship to all in need emulates the compassion of Jesus. Indeed, there is always room at the Table.

Table of Hope by Joey Velasco
“Table of Hope” by Joey Velasco

Jesus not only meets the needs of all kinds of people, he also gives lavishly so that the supply is more than enough. The resources of grace will never run out; there is always enough. I hope our legacy to the people of this earth is that there is always enough grace from us because we have ourselves received grace from the Lord Jesus.

Most folks, especially the poor, rarely have their needs met through rational ethereal arguments and pious pronouncements of truth. And their needs cannot be met if available resources are placed on the outside of their access to them due to existing attitudes about poverty and/or particular people groups. The needs of people are met through non-judgmental compassion which finds a way to connect them with food, both physical and spiritual, even if it takes a miracle to happen.

God Almighty, the One who sustains all, we ask you to pour your powerful Spirit into all who are empty this day. Fill the hearts of persons who are troubled. Fill the minds of people who are confused. Fill the stomachs of your children who are hungry. Fill the souls of people who are feeling lost. Fill the lives of all who need you, but do not know you. May your Spirit fill us all to overflowing, dear Lord, and may we be inspired to share our abundance with others so that there will be no more empty hearts and minds, stomachs, and souls. We pray all this in the name of Jesus Christ, who fills lives with your endless grace. Amen.

Psalm 17:1-7, 15 – Hear My Prayer!

Lament

Lord, hear my prayer for justice.
I am calling loudly to you.
I am being honest in what I say,
so please listen to my prayer.
You will make the right decision,
because you can see the truth.
You were with me all night
and looked deep into my heart.
You questioned me and found that
I did not say or do anything wrong.
Unlike most people, I have obeyed your commands,
so I have never been like those who are cruel and evil.
I have followed your way.
My feet never left your path.
Every time I call to you, God, you answer me.
So listen to me now, and hear what I say.
Show your amazing kindness
and rescue those who depend on you.
Use your great power
and protect them from their enemies.

I have done only what is right, so I will see your face….
And seeing you, I will be fully satisfied. (ERV)

This is one of David’s personal psalms of lament.  It is a prayer forged during a time of severe adversity with enemies who sought to snuff-out his life.  The psalm is a plea uttered with the hope that God would indeed vindicate him and subdue those who wanted to harm him.  It is a lament that wickedness exists and often gets its way; and, it is grief over the constant threats that swirled around David.

It was David’s prayer that with all the heartless and arrogant violence continually in his life that God would keep him as the apple of his eye and hide him in the shadow of his wings. Indeed, perhaps no better prayer could be said in those times when there are people who make untrue accusations and only wish harm to be done to you, that God would be gracious, merciful, and kind through rescuing us from both bodily harm and spiritual abuse.  It is in the times when angry simpletons spew their worst that we need to confidently know that God watches over his people with affection and cares for them as a mother hen protects her chicks.

You and I are precious to God.  We can and ought to run to him when there is trouble and feel no shame in loudly crying for fairness and justice.  The Lord is a benevolent God showing firm commitment to those who seek truth, loving actions, and merciful words.  When going through a difficult time in which another or others accuse you of wrongdoing and you know you are innocent, the proper prescription is to pray this very psalm repeatedly at night before bed.  For we all know that sleep can be elusive and hard to come by in such circumstances.  Perhaps, along with David, you will be able to say: I have done what is right. I will see your face. I will be fully satisfied.

Arise, Lord God Almighty!  Deliver my soul from the wicked and subdue them!  I seek refuge in you, O Savior; show me your steadfast love as I cry out to you for justice.  Incline your ear to hear me, and answer when I call through the name of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.