Spiritual Renewal (Isaiah 30:19-26)

People of Zion, who live in Jerusalem, you will weep no more. How gracious he will be when you cry for help! As soon as he hears, he will answer you. Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” Then you will desecrate your idols overlaid with silver and your images covered with gold; you will throw them away like a menstrual cloth and say to them, “Away with you!”

He will also send you rain for the seed you sow in the ground, and the food that comes from the land will be rich and plentiful. In that day your cattle will graze in broad meadows. The oxen and donkeys that work the soil will eat fodder and mash, spread out with fork and shovel. In the day of great slaughter, when the towers fall, streams of water will flow on every high mountain and every lofty hill. The moon will shine like the sun, and the sunlight will be seven times brighter, like the light of seven full days, when the Lord binds up the bruises of his people and heals the wounds he inflicted. (New International Version)

Better days are ahead.

In this time of year, there are many people who simply don’t have to think twice about purchasing and giving gifts for Christmas. They have blessings, both material and spiritual. And they can always identify other persons who are in much more need than them. Some of them may even believe that those in need are in that position because of unwise individual choices. 

But we must maintain a focus on our own lives. We need to recognize the maladies of our hearts. The state of our lives is as important, and is just as real and needy, as someone else’s life who is in more humble circumstances. 

There are specific conditions in our lives that leave us in bondage and in need of restoration, renewal, and revitalization, just like all kinds of other people. 

Being a vital part of a local church does not automatically immune one from having serious needs. And having a good steady income doesn’t inoculate one from need or privation.

We must not suppress those realities and needs, but instead, name the conditions which are packed away in a closet of our heart deep inside us – such things as the love of possessions and money; broken relationships; old grudges; hidden addictions; domestic violence; denial of depression; secret affairs; cutting; fear; anger; greed; hatred; and much more. 

Outward smiles and small talk conversations may hide the truth from others, but they do nothing to hide from a God for whom everything is laid bare.

The good news is not just something for someone else who has “obvious” needs; the gospel must touch our lives and bring us freedom.

Only then can we pass on the good news to the legion of social ills that make our world sick. There are people all around us who need spiritual, emotional, and material help. Yet, we will not have eyes to see them, or have hearts to help, if we are stuffing our own burdens so deep within that we are blind to others.

Far too many Christians, especially the church-going kind, have become expert emotional stuffers and deniers of need. 

We may believe “those other people” need ministries of justice and help. But the truth is: Many of us are one paycheck, one prodigal kid, one mental health diagnosis, one serious illness, one drink, one affair, or one bad decision away from being one of “those people” – the people we typically identify as in need – the ones that bad things happen to – the ones we do not want next door to us.

We may not yet be vulnerable enough to admit our situation; and so, we keep practicing the denial of our spiritual poverty. 

What to do? Turn from the things that have caused us to be in poverty and be prisoners (not just secretly!) and hope in the Lord’s restorative grace. God takes all sorts of seemingly impossible situations of destruction and death, creating fresh new growth in the form of a little green sprout. 

God will rebuild our ruined souls; restore the places of our lives that have been devastated; and renew the places that have not seen renewal for generations. 

It begins with you and me allowing the justice of God to work within us, not just others. 

If we want comfort, we need to mourn. If we desire joy, then there needs to be some lamenting of a dire situation. If we hope for an oak of righteousness, there must be a confession of despair. For there to be a resurrection, there has to be a death.

What is your real situation and the true realities of your life that need to be named? 

Where will you go to address those needs and truths? 

Will you keep stuffing them, or will you become able to voice your inner personal needs? 

How might you be vulnerable enough to allow others to minister grace to your needy soul?

Let us have a vision of Jesus coming into our lives and replacing a tattered hat of grief with a crown of beauty. 

Let us picture the Lord placing on us a garment of praise to replace our stinky clothes of grumbling. 

Let us allow our lives to display the grace of God in Christ because we have been profoundly touched by the justice of God. 

Let us herald the coming of the Christ child as the hope of us all.

Soli Deo Gloria

Lord, Have Mercy (Mark 10:46-52)

“Christ Healing the Blind Man” by Robert Hodgell

Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus, his disciples, and many people were leaving Jericho, a blind beggar named Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, was sitting by the road. When he heard that Jesus from Nazareth was passing by, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

The people told him to be quiet. But he shouted even louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Jesus stopped and said, “Call him!” They called the blind man and told him, “Cheer up! Get up! He’s calling you.” The blind man threw off his coat, jumped up, and went to Jesus.

Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?”

The blind man said, “Teacher, I want to see again.”

Jesus told him, “Go, your faith has made you well.”

At once he could see again, and he followed Jesus on the road. (God’s Word Translation)

“I’d like to live my life so close to the bottom that when the system collapses I don’t have far to fall.” Dorothy Day

This is one of my very favorite stories in the entirety of Holy Scripture. And I will tell you why….

Because Jesus listens with ears of mercy

Jesus was headed to Jerusalem and had a lot on his mind and his heart. He knew what was coming, that his passion and death awaited him. No one would fault Jesus for not hearing a blind man shouting. But Jesus was listening so that he might hear someone just like the needy blind man. Rather than being distracted and lost in his head, Jesus was just the opposite – being attentive and aware of the humble folk right in front of him.

The Lord is always and continually listening for honesty and vulnerability. His ears of mercy are specially tuned, even today, for those who cry out to him from a place of genuine openness and humility.

Because Jesus speaks with words of mercy

Once Jesus listened, he responded by asking a question. I am impressed with Jesus throughout the Gospels. Christ gave people the gift of choice. He acknowledged people and respected them by not simply and indiscriminately healing, as if he were some fix-it guy. Jesus Christ bestowed on the lowliest of people the human dignity of choice by empowering them to answer a question.

Whereas everyone around Bartimaeus was looking down on him, both literally and figuratively, Jesus granted him the gift of dignity and basic human kindness – which are gifts we can all bestow on one another.

Because Jesus pays attention with a divine appointment of mercy

Our Lord took the time to heal blind Bartimaeus. Jesus could have simply healed him without even stopping his journey. He could have just waved his hand and the man would be healed. What’s more, Jesus could have even started a healing factory where everyone with a need got healed: bring ‘em in, move ‘em out, and keep the line moving!

Jesus was doing more than giving sight; he was giving a man the blessing of time and personal attention. The Gospel is never impersonal, which is why we ought to resist being non-relational in ministry to others. Christian ministry isn’t simply about meeting a need; it’s about blessing other people with the gift of relationship.

Coptic Church icon of Christ healing the blind man

Because Jesus reaches out with the touch of mercy

Jesus touched the man’s eyes (included in Matthew 20:29-34). He didn’t have to do that. The Lord of all most certainly could have healed without touching. In fact, it most likely may have been downright gross. A lot of people had eye diseases with runny pussy eyes in the ancient world.

Because the blind man didn’t listen to the crowd

I really love that! Maybe it’s the rebel in me. I just believe it is such a beautiful thing whenever someone refuses to be shamed by another and embraces their need. That is exactly what the blind man did. He not only refused to give-in to peer pressure, but he also responded to them by shouting all the louder. May his tribe increase!

Blind Bartimaeus teaches us that, when we know Love is there, we can freely acknowledge our needs, our wants, and our pain. With Jesus, who is Love incarnate, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks around us; there is no pretense, no propping up a false self to present for others to see. The true self is able to express what is really on the inside.

Because the blind man could actually see

In truth, Bartimaeus already had sight – not physical sight but spiritual eyes which could see better than anyone else in the crowd. One of the great ironies throughout the Gospels is that the sighted crowd seems to never see who Jesus really is, while blind folk see Christ clearly for who he is: the Son of David, the rightful king, the Savior of all.

It matters not how much faith one possesses; but it very much matters in whom that faith is placed. A thimble-full of faith is enough to move mountains, whereas a water tower full of misplaced faith in someone else cannot even provide a single glass of refreshment.

Because the blind man followed Jesus

Throughout the healing ministry of Jesus, there were plenty of persons who simply walked away and went about their lives after receiving what they desired. Yet, Bartimaeus, now given the gift of physical sight, immediately started following Jesus on the road.

This account feels a lot like my own testimony of experiencing the love of God in Christ and not ever wanting to leave it. So, I’ve been following Jesus for over forty years, still profoundly grateful in my heart for the One who loves and heals.

Because one lowly non-descript blind man made a difference

I don’t think Bartimaeus ever set out to change the world. And yet, he did. Here we are reading his testimony all these millennia later. One person, becoming a simple follower of Jesus and living a life of discipleship, changes a crowd from being a group of shushing church ladies to a robust throng of worshipers.

One individual makes a difference. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of David, heal me, a broken person.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of Man, help me, a lost and lonely individual.

Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy on my love-starved soul and grant me your peace.

Amen.

Coming to Grips with Grinding Adversity (Psalm 137)

“By the Waters of Babylon, They Sat Down and Wept” by Kate Gardiner Hastings

Alongside Babylon’s streams,
    there we sat down,
    crying because we remembered Zion.
We hung our lyres up
    in the trees there
    because that’s where our captors asked us to sing;
    our tormentors requested songs of joy:
    “Sing us a song about Zion!” they said.
But how could we possibly sing
    the Lord’s song on foreign soil?

Jerusalem! If I forget you,
    let my strong hand wither!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth
    if I don’t remember you,
    if I don’t make Jerusalem my greatest joy.

Lord, remember what the Edomites did
        on Jerusalem’s dark day:
    “Rip it down, rip it down!
    All the way to its foundations!” they yelled.
Daughter Babylon, you destroyer,
    a blessing on the one who pays you back
    the very deed you did to us!
    A blessing on the one who seizes your children
    and smashes them against the rock! (Common English Bible)

This side of heaven is full of both love and heartbreak, celebration and lament, encouragement and insult. It is a spiritually schizophrenic existence of heaven’s kiss and hell’s bite. 

We live in a fundamentally broken world. Yet, it is a world that is presently being reclaimed by God’s kingdom. Therefore, our emotions run the gamut from joyful happiness to sheer sorrow. Either way, especially through the difficult stretches of our lives, Christians are to tether themselves to their true home of heaven.

The psalmist was speaking of Jerusalem, the city that represented the very presence of God. Yet, the Babylonians came and destroyed the temple, their homes, and carried thousands of her citizens into exile.

Although experiencing the Babylonian Exile, the people of Jerusalem were not to forget their real home. 

For the believer in Jesus, this present abode is like camping in a tent – it is a temporary home, and not our permanent residence.

It is easy to forget our true home, which is why we need the constant perspective of eternity. We ought not get too familiar with our current living conditions. 

Simple acts like looking up at the stars at night or gazing into the vast expanse of the day’s sky can be tangible reminders that we are meant for larger things, for the embrace of heaven.

None of this, however, means that we are to ignore what is happening in the here and now. Trauma is real and needs to be dealt with. Having an expansive perspective doesn’t mean we stuff the details and emotions of traumatic events.

The psalmist names the difficult experience, the agonizing emotions, and the bitter thoughts. None of it is hidden or buried under a layer of positivity.

“Lamenting Jews in Exile” by Eduard Bendemann, 1832

We need the combination of faith that my experienced is acknowledged, of hope that a better future is coming, and of love that good still presently exists in the world. Faith, hope, and love are all vital in coming to grips with terrible adversity.

Hiding large swaths of our lives and stories from others is not the path to spiritual wellness, emotional healing, and personal peace. Spiritual and emotional health comes from owning our internal struggles. The virtues of weakness, humility, vulnerability, and faith opens us to the way of grace.

We too often struggle because we don’t struggle. 

I’m the expert on stuffing feelings and turning them into thoughts. I learned it well early in my life. Yet, feelings never evaporate just because we ignore them. Just the opposite, like a forgotten half-carton of cottage cheese in the back of the fridge, our feelings only gather moldy bacteria and crust over with nastiness. 

We need to understand that feelings really do have an expiration date to them. If not openly acknowledged and dealt with, they’ll fester into bitterness. It’s much better to deal with our present struggles instead of living with the wishful thinking that they’ll just go away.

There are 52 references to “one another” in the New Testament, including: 

  • Love one another (John 13:34-35)
  • Be kind to one another (Ephesians 4:32)
  • Show hospitality to one another (1 Peter 4:9)
  • Forgive one another (Colossians 3:13)
  • Encourage one another (Hebrews 3:13)
  • Bear the burdens of one another (Galatians 6:2)
  • Spur one another on toward spiritual well-being and healthy community relationships (Hebrews 10:24)

Nowhere in Holy Scripture will you find references to hide from one another, pester one another, or put up a false front toward one another.

God desires for us to take a risk on betting the farm on Jesus. Embracing Christ involves owning our struggles, both to God and to one another. 

You may argue that it isn’t helpful to wear your feelings on your sleeve. But I’m not talking about emotional diarrhea; I’m referring to something far worse: emotional prostitution, where we sell ourselves to others in a cheap façade of who we really are and how we are really doing. 

We want to be liked, loved, and longed for. And we very much desire to avoid heartrending pain. So, many mistakenly believe that keeping up false appearances will get them what they long for.

What matters most is faith expressing itself through love (Galatians 5:6). It takes personal risk to have faith. And it takes two to have love.

Own your struggle. Face it squarely in all of its foulness, degradation, and ugliness. Face it with both God and others. 

If you’re mad as hell at God, then say it; the Lord is big enough to take it. If you need prayer or help, ask for it. Don’t just expect someone to read your mind or your emotions. If someone asks you to pray, stop what you’re doing, get on your knees with that person, and pray like there’s no tomorrow.

Life is too short to sleepwalk through it with a constellation of unacknowledged emotions. It takes no relational effort to ask a pat question like, “How are you?” It takes even less relational energy to give a pat answer such as, “Fine,” or “Busy.” Instead, let’s get down to why you feel a constant need to say how busy you are, even when you’re not really all that busy.

Holy Scripture doesn’t call us to hide, but to love one another enough to both give and receive God’s grace. 

Daily reading and praying of the psalms is a good place to begin in learning to be authentic with God and the people in our lives. It’s the only way of dealing with the overwhelming circumstances and emotions we face.

Loving God, please grant me peace of mind and calm my troubled heart. My soul is like a turbulent sea. I can’t seem to find my balance, so I stumble and worry constantly. Give me spiritual strength, mental clarity, and emotional calm to find my purpose and walk the path you’ve laid out for me. Just as the sun rises each day against the dark of night, may the light of your divine countenance shine on the shadowy places of my life, through Jesus Christ my Lord, in the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Less Is More (Luke 17:5-10)

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.

“Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So, you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” (New International Version)

You and I do not need control. Authority and power belong to God. And we are not God.

You and I need faith. And, since we belong to God, who is the ultimate authority and controls all things, we already have it.

You already have what you need: Jesus. There is no need to hustle and cajole for something you do not need.

Jesus tells his disciples two parables designed to reorient their thinking and their lives around God, and not around the typical worldly tools of power and authority.

We find self-control something very hard. We’d rather have plain old control.

In the 1990s, The Department of Transportation set aside $200 million dollars for research and testing of an automated Highway System. The plan was that this system would relieve traffic problems by placing all cars that entered the highway on “super cruise control,” allowing them to move in unison as they traveled in heavily congested cities.  

Such travel would be made possible by using special magnets embedded in the asphalt every four feet, which would transfer signals between the vehicles and a main computer system.  

Steering, acceleration and braking would be controlled by sensors, computer navigation systems and cameras along the side of the road. Control would be returned to drivers as they exited the highway.  According to the technology manager of the project, “The only thing we can’t do yet is get people to comfortably trust the system. It’s not a technology issue.”

The grace of God in Jesus Christ is our fail-safe system designed to put us in “super cruise control” when dealing with circumstances and relating to people. There is just one difficulty with the system: Getting people to comfortably trust it.

The real problem is that we prefer to retain control of life’s steering wheel, even though it is this tendency that drives us to discontentment and endless relational conflict. Rather than insisting on doing life our way, we need Jesus to take the wheel.

And the irony to all this is that we already have what we so desperately seek.

Just a little bit of Jesus makes a large impact on the world.

            Our Lord’s entire kingdom movement looked as insignificant as a mustard seed. Christ’s little band of disciples were, at best, a motley crew of very human characters who vacillated between faith and doubt; they spent as much time arguing amongst themselves as they did engaging in ministry. Yet, it was these same people who ended up turning the world upside-down.

            The insignificant and small looking mustard seed eventually becomes a world-sheltering tree. In the same way, a barbaric, bloody, seemingly insignificant cross became the means of changing the world.

            We, even though imperfect and small, can become, with Jesus in us, a healing force for the world. Little is much when God is in it. Although Gideon believed he needed to be in charge of a large army to defeat Israel’s enemies, God whittled his soldiers down to just 300, against a force described as an army with men as many as the sand on the seashore. Victory was no problem. Gideon already had what he needed: God. (Judges 7:1-25)

Never underestimate the potency of our little bit of ministry with Jesus animating it. Our…

Kind words spoken in the name of Jesus…

Hidden prayers uttered silently behind closed doors…

Secret giving in which the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing…

Gentleness in the face of violence…

Humility in the midst of pride…

Mercy given instead of judgment…

Peacemaking wherever frustration exists…

These and so much more, when energized by Jesus, becomes a mighty force for good and change in this old fallen world.

Yet so many Christians think they need all kinds of power, authority, and control – then mountains can be moved, trees uprooted, and things can happen.

With this misguided notion, we too easily succumb to the temptations of winning success, spinning a superior self-image, and pinning down power to get what we want and need.

However, we already have what we need, Jesus, and we do not need what he has – power and authority; we just need him.

The Lord Jesus has shown us the way in this. In Christ’s incarnation, he emptied himself and became like one of us – eschewing the typical power dynamics of the world. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus spends 40 days in the desert fasting – making himself empty.

And at the end of that time, the devil came to Christ and tempted him in the very same ways we are tempted (Matthew 4:1-11):

Satan: “You need to be successful.”

Jesus: “Nope, don’t need that.”

Satan: “Well, you definitely need to be on the right religious track.”

Jesus: “Get out of my face. I don’t need to play that game.”

Satan: “It’s simple. You can do your Father’s will with the tools of power I have.”

Jesus: “I’m not going there. I don’t need your sort of help.”

In submitting to his Father’s plan and will, Jesus showed us the way to live as his followers.

We, too, have to stare the same three temptations in the eye: the belief that I need to be successful, to be right, and to have everything under control.

The truth, however, is just the opposite. In actuality, we need to be poor in spirit, powerless,  and humble – not full of strength and control.

Jesus said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And Paul responded, “Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10, NIV)

In reality, we need to be open and vulnerable – not spinning a self-image which projects strength, authority, and power.

 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8, NIV)

We need to be meek and gentle – just like our Lord – not puffing our chests out with a show of strength and authority.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, NIV)

Less is truly more. Only those who have nothing to prove and nothing to protect can receive Christ. And Jesus himself will lead us on this path of self-emptying.

We already have Jesus. Therefore, we already have everything we need. Even a smidgeon of Christ is more than enough for us. What we may think we need – to win at success, to spin a narrative of rightness, and to pin down control through power and authority – amounts to nothing in the kingdom of God.

Instead, what we really need is to walk in the way of Jesus – to be weak through self-emptying, to leak out our pride and embrace humility and vulnerability, and to be meek by having a gentle spirit.

Being a servant is a good thing. And being a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ – the author and perfecter of our faith – is the only vocation we need. With Jesus, less is more.

Almighty and everlasting God, we are far too often influenced by what others think of us. We pretend to be in control, with it, in charge, and strong. Prevent us from trying to attract attention. Don’t let us gloat over praise on one hand or be discouraged by criticism on the other. Nor let us waste time weaving imaginary situations in which the most heroic, put together, and powerful person present is me. Rather, show us how to be humble of heart, just like your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit are one God, now and forever. Amen.