“God has landed on this enemy-occupied world in human form…The perfect surrender and humiliation was undergone by Christ: perfect because He was God, surrender and humiliation because He was man.”
C.S.Lewis

♦◊♦

“That man should be made in God’s image is a wonder,
but that God should be made in man’s image is a greater wonder.
That the Ancient of Days would be born.
That He who thunders in the heavens should cry in the cradle?”
Thomas Watson

♦◊♦

The Singing of Angels
by Howard Thurman
“There must be always
remaining in every life,
some place for the singing of angels.
Some place for that
which in itself
is breathless and
beautiful.
Old burdens become lighter
deep and ancient wounds
lose much of their old hurting.
Despite all the crassness of life,
all the hardness and
harsh discords,
life is saved by
the singing of angels.”

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Maybe it is a greed on my part, this desire I have to celebrate Christmas again, six months after December 25th. Or maybe it reveals a desire to live outside the constraints of time, to deny that I live in a time-bound world. Or maybe it’s because I remember what fun it was to celebrate Christmas in July every summer at camp.

But truly, I want to celebrate Christmas today because once every twelve months is not enough to marvel at the wonder of the incarnation, of God taking on flesh.

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A few years ago day I spoke with a man about this, after he commented that Islam and Protestantism had a lot in common.
“Yes, ” I replied, “except for Jesus.”
“Jesus ate and drank,” he answered. “God doesn’t do that.”

We chatted a little longer about the mystery of God becoming man, me from the position of belief, him from the position of unbelief.

Finally he asked me a question, almost with disdain, to prove that Jesus was just a man. “What has Jesus ever created?”

My response was a paraphrase of Colossians 1.
“He is the image of the invisible God.
by Him all things were created:
things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible,
 whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities;
all things were created by Him and for Him.”

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No, once a year is not enough. So today, I’d suggest you put on your favorite Christmas hymns and spend a little time reading these two ancient meditations on this great miracle.

Bethlehem has opened Eden:
Come, let us see!
We have found joy hidden!
Come, let us take possession of the paradise within the cave.

There the unwatered stem has appeared,
from which forgiveness blossoms forth!
There the undug well is found
from which David longed to drink of old!

There the Virgin has borne a child,
and at once the thirst of Adam and David is made to cease.
Therefore let us hasten to this place
where for our sake the eternal God was born as a little child!

Ikos of the Nativity of the Lord

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♦◊♦

Your mercy reaches from the heavens
through the clouds to the earth below.
You have come to us as a small child,
but you have brought us the greatest of all gifts,
the gift of eternal love.

Caress us with Your tiny hands,
embrace us with Your tiny arms
and pierce our hearts with Your soft, sweet cries.
Bernard of Clairvaux

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The yoke of rest

July 21, 2016 — Leave a comment

I’ve been reflecting on what it means to rest in God–to rest in being His beloved, to find rest for my soul as Jesus promised in Matthew 11 when He said, “Come to me, you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

That sounds like music to my soul, but the next sentence tends to jar my sense of peace: Take My yoke upon you. There’s nothing about a yoke that seems restful to me. In fact, the idea of resting and trusting seems to be the opposite of wearing a yoke. In my mind, a yoke chafes, to bumps, it constrains. It seems painful, tiresome, relentless.
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But that is not what a yoke is meant to be:
“A yoke, in ancient Palestine, was made of wood, handmade to fit perfectly to the neck and shoulders of the oxen to prevent cutting and chafing.” [Pete Scazzero in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality]

Or, as Jesus puts it in John 15: “Remain in my love.

Like a steering wheel, the yoke of Jesus keeps me on the good path, the path that leads to quiet waters where my soul is restored.
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“Take My yoke” is another way of saying, “Stay close. Stay attached. Abide. Rest.”
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I need to remember that the choice is not between having a yoke or having no yoke at all. There is no yoke-free life. Whatever track I am following is a yoke of sorts. And though other paths may seem pleasant at the time, there is only one directing me to my ultimate best. Jesus wants to bring me home and I can trust that the yoke He gives is going to be a good fit for me, a yoke of grace, love, forgiveness, comfort, shelter–and yes, rest.

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I’ve seen this in action. I’ve had the privilege of knowing saints who have taken the yoke of Jesus, and they are the lightest and most rested people I know. Their lives are full of peace and joy. They may experience trouble on every side, but they aren’t crushed; they may be perplexed, but they aren’t driven to despair; they may be knocked down, but they aren’t destroyed. They carry in their bodies the death of Jesus, but the life of Jesus is also visible in them, full of grace and truth.

They are able to rest in a storm, like Jesus sleeping on the boat in Mark 4:37-38. A furious squall came up and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. At rest.
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Thus says the LORD,
“Stand by the ways
and see and ask for the ancient paths,
Where the good way is, and walk in it;
And you will find rest for your souls.

Jeremiah 6:16
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“Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in a love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the mornings, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”
Pedro Arrupe

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♦◊♦

“‘Conversion’ is not about an abstract transaction in which your soul becomes destined for heaven instead of hell.

Rather, ‘conversion’ is the moment when you find yourself within the story of Jesus, the story of Israel, the story of the Church and the story of God.”

David at “A Psalm of David”

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♦◊♦

“Holiness is not a state of perfection but a faithful striving that lasts a lifetime. It is expressed primarily in small ways, day after day, through the practice of forgiveness, patience, self-sacrifice, and compassion.”
Dorothy Day
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“It is I, speaks the Christ, I am he
who puts Death to death, and stands above
the fallen enemy, crushes Hades
to bland chalk, binds the dark powers, and bears
all humankind up to heavenly peaks.
Yes, says Christ, I am he.

Rhodes, Greece

Rhodes, Greece

“Therefore come, all human families
ruined by sin, and receive absolution
of every error. I am your liberation
and the passage of deliverance.
I am the throat-cut lamb and sacrifice,
your ransom paid, your pulse and life, your fire,
your rescue, resurrection, and your king.
I gather you in one strong hand,
and guide you to the heights of paradise,
where I will show to you your Father.”
Scott Cairns, from his book Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life

Ealing, England

Ealing, England

“In Christ we have everything….
If you want to heal your wound, He is the doctor.
If you are burning with fever, He is the fountain.

Ceuta, Spain

Ceuta, Spain

“If you are in need of help, He is strength.
If you are in dread of death, He is life.

Alcobaca, Portugal

Alcobaca, Portugal

If you are fleeing the darkness, He is light.
If you are hungry, He is food: ’O taste and see that the Lord is good! Happy are they who take refuge in Him.’ (Psalm 34:8)”
Ambrose of Milan

Concord, Massachusetts, USA

Concord, Massachusetts, USA

Casablanca, Morocco

Casablanca, Morocco


You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek You;
I thirst for You, my whole being longs for You,
in a dry and parched land where there is no water.
I have seen You in the sanctuary
and beheld Your power and Your glory.

Psalm 63:1-2

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

“There is perhaps a glimmer of hope in the fact that however weak we may be,
however spiritually feeble and inclined to sin,
Christ still remains our sanctuary, immovable and ever desired,
to which we shall always return.”
Father Alexander Elchaninov

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai, Thailand

“Splendor and majesty are before the Lord;
strength and glory are in His sanctuary.”

Psalm 95:6

Entrepierres, France

Entrepierres, France

Pouring it all out

April 21, 2016 — 1 Comment

“Trust in Him at all times. O people.
Pour out your hearts to Him for God is our refuge.”

Psalm 62:8

I love how trusting God and expressing the feelings in my heart go hand and hand. Trusting God is not some robotic, ‘cut yourself from your mind and heart’ action. It is opening my heart and pouring it out to Him…the same action Mary did, pouring perfume on Jesus’ feet.

Perhaps in some way, the feelings we store in our hearts and then pour out to our Father are like perfume to Him too. Because to be honest with someone, to be truly open and vulnerable with them, is a great gift. And that is a gift we can give to God.

Pouring requires opening. When my heart is open, I can pour out my feelings, my worries, and my concerns to Him.

And then, with my heart open, He can pour Himself, the Spirit of grace and truth, in my life.

The love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit” Romans 5:5
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Pouring is not a timid action. It is the action of leaning forward, and letting the stream begin to flow.

“This is what the Lord, the one who made you, says –
the one who formed you in the womb and helps you:
“Don’t be afraid, my servant Jacob,
Jeshurun, whom I have chosen!
For I will pour water on the parched ground
and cause streams to flow on the dry land.
I will pour My spirit on your offspring
and my blessing on your children.

Isaiah 44:2-3

Just for today, Ashley Cleveland’s memoir, Little Black Sheep, is free as an ebook.

I’ve written about her memoir here: Zig zagging step by step
“..she grew up white in the refined, rich, and religious south of the United States where going to church was what nice people did–along with living secret broken lives. Ashley tells her journey from respectability to grace, with a whole lot of detours in between. When she was a teenager, she decided to follow Jesus, but she kept stepping off the path. Again and again, she gave in to her particular temptations: drugs, sex, alcohol. Again and again, she’d return to God and ask forgiveness. Again and again, God took her back. For years, her life was one endless zig zag. Zig onto the path, zag off the path….”

And you can find some quotes from her book here: Speaking of taking it one day at a time

It’s a powerful story of what hope can look like in someone’s life over the years: true, desperate, gritty, unfailing, impossible, redeeming.

Here is the Davd C. Cook publisher link which will point you to several ebook retailers, and gives a video where Cleveland talks about the book. You can get the Kindle version here on Amazon.

[And for those of you who are music lovers, I’d recommend her album, God Don’t Never Change ]

“Even in the life of a Christian, faith rises and falls like the tides of an invisible sea. It’s there, even when he can’t see it or feel it, if he wants it to be there. You realize, I think, that it is more valuable, more mysterious, altogether more immense than anything you can learn or decide upon… It will keep you free – not free to do anything you please, but free to be formed by something larger than your own intellect or the intellects around you.”
Flannery O’Connor in a letter to a young student struggling to believe

♦◊♦

“Faith is still a surprise to me. No small part of my religious conversion has been coming to know that faith is best thought of as a verb, not a ‘thing’ that you either have or you don‟t have. I appreciate much more the wisdom of novelist, Doris Betts who asserts that ‘faith is not synonymous with certainty but rather faith is a decision to keep your eyes open.’”
Kathleen Norris

♦◊♦

“People say, “I lost my faith.” But you don’t lose faith like you lose your keys. It’s a matter of the will, an abandoning that we do more or less knowingly. What we lose is not faith, but the will to believe.”
Jean-Claude Guillebaud

How I became a Christian Again [Comment Je Suis Redevenu Chretien] by Jean-Claude Guillebaud is the story of how a French intellectual returned to the Christian faith of his youth.

Maybe the reason I like this book so much is because it’s in French [though lest you get the wrong impression of my French abilities, it’s written in an easy journalistic style and I had to continually look up words]. Francophile that I am, everything seems better in my favorite language. I don’t like listening to talk radio and sports events in English. But if they are in French, suddenly my ears perk up. Is it because French was the first language I studied and some linguistic imprinting took place even though I was never a stellar French student? Or is it because of the chocolate? The bread? The cheese? The wine? But I digress…

Guillebaud started out as a reporter for Le Monde [the French equivalent of the New York Times] and then became a book editor at Editions du Seuil [perhaps the equivalent of Random House]. He grew up as a nominal Catholic which meant by the time he went to college, he had given up any connection to faith. He covered several wars but it was the civil war in Lebanon that disturbed him most and brought him to the question of evil. For the first time he became aware that evil was not something external, but there was an intimate enemy that lives inside each person.

His return to faith was a slow process over many years. He wasn’t searching for consolation or fleeing from existential despair but rather he was trying to understand how the world came to be as it is. And as he traveled on his way back to faith in Christ, he passed through three circles.

In the first circle he looked at the sources of our modern world and realized how much of our culture was formed by its Judeo-Christian heritage. The values that were important to him, such as the right of the individual and social equality, developed as a result of Christianity.

From there he came to a second circle where he began to rethink what Christianity is. He saw that at the core of Christianity is a subversive, radical faith that has split the world in two. In the kingdom of God the poor and weak, rather than the powerful, are given first place. And then there is the scandal of the cross: not only God becoming man, but God crucified.

In the third circle, he came to understand that faith is something you choose to do. There is always a leap involved because faith is concerned with things we don’t understand, things we can’t know–that’s why it’s faith and not knowledge. To believe means to put your confidence in something. It doesn’t mean to passively accept some dogma or truth written in stone. It’s beginning on a path with the hope of arriving at a good place down the road. In other words, faith is where you get on the train, not where the train ends.

This rang true to me. I can coast along living under the label ‘Christian’, but every time I come back to the roots of my faith, I’m bowled over by the mystery and the stunning power of the good news: grace, redemption, resurrection. But this conviction is something I hope for, not something I am going to fully realize while I live on earth. I will never get beyond trusting in what I don’t see. I have to go on in faith. That’s the only way.

I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” Mark 9:24

[from the archives]

“Let us pray for the company of all faithful people, for the followers of the Way, the Way of the Cross: for those who are asking questions, lest they lose the way;
for those who know all the answers, lest they become proud;
for those who withdraw from all fellow-travelers, less they become arrogant;
for those who are disappointed and discouraged lest they give up in despair;
for those who will not accept changes, lest they become inflexible;
for those who change with every passing fad and fancy, lest they lose their direction;
for those who have the spirit, but neither the will or the power;
for those who have the will, but not the imagination; the faith, but not the love;
for all these, hear our prayer, O Lord, and let our cry come unto thee.
 
For those who can withstand everything that life can do to them and be neither downcast or bitter;
For those who follow the Way of the Cross even though they see it only dimly;
For those who shine like stars in a dark world;
For those who stagger not at the uneven motion of the world, or censure their journey by the weather they meet or turn aside for anything that befalls them;
For those who by their steadiness keep us in the Way when we are tempted to drop out,
We are thankful, O Lord. Amen.”
Theodore P. Ferris

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This year, setting aside time to reflect on the season of Lent and its practice of denial strikes me as unnecessary. Another year, I’ll probably have the time and the need to consider the mysteries of Lent. But for now I find plenty of opportunities for renunciation as I walk the path before me one step at a time, without making an interior pilgrimage, or rooting around in my soul.

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Every day I’m presented with the invitation of Jesus to take up my cross.

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And every day this same Jesus who is gentle and humble, invites me to put on His easy yoke, to drink the living water He offers me,

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and to be nourished by Him, the Bread of life.

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As I keep on this sometimes ragged, and often less-than-glorious journey, three quotes about God’s invitation have spoken to my heart.

The invitation to let go of my complaints and trust His safe embrace:
“ Jesus.. says, ‘Let go of your complaints, forgive those who loved you poorly, step over your feelings of being rejected, and have the courage to trust that you won’t fall into an abyss of nothingness but into the safe embrace of a God whose love will heal all your wounds.”
Henri Nouwen

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The invitation to listen:
“The first service one owes to others in the community involves listening to them. Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them. God’s love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives us His Word, but also lends us His ear.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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And the invitation to a full life in the emptiest of places:
“If you get rid of unfair practices,
quit blaming victims,
quit gossiping about other people’s sins,
If you are generous with the hungry
and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,
Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,
your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.

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I will always show you where to go.
I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places—
firm muscles, strong bones.
You’ll be like a well-watered garden,
a gurgling spring that never runs dry.

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You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew,
rebuild the foundations from out of your past.”

Isaiah 58:9-11 The Message

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This is the journey, day by day, step by step on the dusty road of life.2013 2 22 dkej rabat volubolis meknes fes 262

“If you cannot make yourself what you would wish to be, how can you bend others to your will? We want them to be perfect, yet we do not correct our own faults. We wish them to be severely corrected, yet we will not correct ourselves. Their great liberty displeases us, yet we would not be denied what we ask. We would have them bound by laws, yet we will allow ourselves to be restrained in nothing. Hence, it is clear how seldom we think of others as we do of ourselves.

We may learn to bear with one another’s burdens, for there is no person without fault, no person without burden, no person sufficient to himself nor wise enough. Hence we must support one another, console one another, mutually help, counsel, and advise.”
Thomas à Kempis in The Imitation of Christ

♦◊♦

Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own?
No one—for God Himself has given us right standing with Himself.
Who then will condemn us?
No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us,
and He is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us.

Romans 8:33-34

♦◊♦

“The church is not made up of spiritual giants;
only broken people can lead others to the cross.”
David J. Bosch

♦◊♦

“Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do.
I have come to call not those who think they are righteous,
but those who know they are sinners.”

Mark 2:17


I’ve decided if I ever start a church, I’m going to call it First Stone Church.

A few weeks ago I was chatting with some friends, talking about this and that. Before I knew it I was throwing stony judgments left and right, trashing and bashing people for breaking vows, being greedy, ignoring the poor, being judgmental [that’s a good one, isn’t it?].

Then a friend mentioned something he had heard about the book of James.  The main message James wants to get across is that instead of me being concerned about my needs and other people’s morality, I should do the reverse. I should worry about my morality and other people’s needs. Ouch.

I was convicted that much of my conversation has this mixed-up focus. I worry too much about other people’s morality and righteousness, or my own needs [including the need to feel justified, right, and self-righteous].  Conveniently this means I don’t have time to deal with my own morality–or the needs of others.

As I thought about all the judgmental comments I had made, I thought of John 8 and the woman caught in adultery. Jesus told the people who were ready to stone her: let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone. Well, that definitely counts me out.

In my self-rationalizing moments, I’d like to think that I wasn’t throwing stones that day when I was chatting with my friends, just pebbles. And then I remember the standard Jesus gave in the Sermon on the Mount: we’re to give up not just murder but anger, not just adultery but lust. So I am pretty sure He’d say that not throwing stones isn’t just about big stones but also little ones. Big sins and little sins both count.

 

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Once all the woman’s accusers had left, Jesus told her He didn’t condemn her, and to go and sin no more. He didn’t say adultery wasn’t a sin, or that the woman hadn’t done anything wrong. He wasn’t changing the law or trying to make it smaller or more palatable.

“Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved… But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!” [Matthew 5:17-18, 20]

Jesus is not looking for me to change the law; instead He wants me to change my response to people who break the law. He doesn’t want me to throw stones at them or to condemn them. In other words, He wants me to imitate Him.

We wear crosses to remind ourselves of the way Jesus died when He gave us His righteousness. But someone once said that a cross is an outmoded symbol for us. Back in Jesus’ day that was how the death penalty was carried out. Now it would be more relevant to wear a miniature gas chamber or hypodermic needle or gun around my neck.

Or I could start wearing a stone on a string as a symbol of the first stone, the one I’m never going to throw because I too am guilty and deserve to be condemned.

That’s why in my First Stone Church, as a reminder, I’d have a basket of stones at the entrance. Because the gospel is about putting down our stones, and dealing with our own sin. Because I need God’s grace and mercy as much as the person I’m throwing stones at. Because Jesus came to call the sick, not the healthy, those who deserve to be stoned, not those who think they have no sin. Because I too need to go and sin no more.

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment! James 2:12-13

[edited from the archives]

Litany of Humility
“O Jesus meek and humble of heart, Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed,
From the desire of being loved,
From the desire of being extolled,
From the desire of being honored,
From the desire of being praised,
From the desire of being preferred to others,
From the desire of being consulted,
From the desire of being approved,

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being humiliated,
From the fear of being despised,
From the fear of suffering rebukes,
From the fear of being calumniated,
From the fear of being forgotten,
From the fear of being ridiculed,
From the fear of being wronged,
From the fear of being suspected,

Deliver me, Jesus.

– Cardinal Merry del Val

♦◊♦

“…Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily.

He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all. If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.”

C.S.Lewis

♦◊♦

Jesus knew that the Father had put him in complete charge of everything, that he came from God and was on his way back to God. So he got up from the supper table, set aside his robe, and put on an apron. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the feet of the disciples, drying them with his apron. John 13:3-6

Living Acts

February 3, 2016 — 1 Comment

As it just so ‘happened’, the day after I watched the video of the Iraqi Christians sharing their stories, I came to the book of Acts in my glacier crawl through the Bible.

I was reading The Message version, which has a brief introduction to each book written by Eugene Peterson. Here is what he says about the Acts of the Apostles:

“Because the story of Jesus is so impressive – God among us! God speaking a language we can understand! God acting in ways that heal and help and save us! – There is a danger that we will be impressed, but only be impressed. As the spectacular dimensions of the story slowly (or suddenly) dawn upon us, we could easily become enthusiastic spectators, and then let it go at that – become admirers of Jesus, generous with our oos and ahs, and in our better moments inspired to imitate him…

“The story of Jesus doesn’t end with Jesus. It continues in the lives of those who believe in him. The supernatural does not stop with Jesus. Luke makes it clear that these Christians he wrote about were no more spectators of Jesus than Jesus was a spectator of God – they are in on the action of God, God acting in them, God living in them. Which also means, of course, in us.”

In other words, Emmanuel.

As I read that, I was still deeply affected by hearing how some ordinary Christians in Iraq had gotten “in on the action of God”. (If you haven’t had a chance to watch the video yet, I recommend you do so now as it will be more profitable than anything I’m going to say here.)

And as I read the first half of Acts, I realized what I had heard on the video had the same freshness as the story that Luke tells, especially when I came to chapter 4:

They couldn’t take their eyes off them – Peter and John standing there so confident, so sure of themselves! Their fascination deepened when they realized these two were laymen with no training in scripture or formal education. They recognized them as companions Jesus…

Again, I thought of the people in the video I had watched. I thought that what was said of Peter and John could be said of many of these Iraqi believers who lived humble lives. They worked hard to put food, literally, on the table. No jet-setting plane trips. No exciting cross-cultural exchanges. No visits to corridors of power. I imagine they experienced a fair amount of subtle and not-so-subtle persecution from being a religious minority. Probably traditional rather than cutting edge. Perhaps not so theologically savvy. Guaranteed imperfect.

Our world values the opposite. Our role models tend to be sophisticated, clever, educated, wealthy people. [For a large part of history, you could add ‘warrior strength’ to that list.]

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As a consequence, it is all too easy [speaking here from personal experience], to care more about appearing sophisticated and clever than being faithful to the gospel of Jesus. This isn’t a new phenomenon: see Jesus’ parable about guests at a wedding banquet in Luke 14. But as I watched the video and then read Acts, I was reminded that these are people who haven’t achieved the world’s definition of success or brilliance or intelligence.

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And I remembered all the people I have worshipped with over the years here who have far less education than me [many, in fact, who are illiterate], who make a fraction or the US minimum wage, who don’t know the meaning of health insurance. Some come from countries where the average life expectancy is less than my current age, like Central African Republic where if you live to 50, you’ve beaten the odds.

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But none of these grave–and deplorable–negatives have hindered their ability to encounter the love of God in Jesus Christ. Their lives have been transformed by His embrace. They are living witnesses to His power and care.

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The kingdom of God belongs to fishermen who responded to the call.

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The kingdom of God belongs to those who receive it like a child [Luke 18:15-17].

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The kingdom of God belongs to the broken and the imperfect, to criminals and adulterers, to the simple and the unspectacular who have trusted the saving, amazing grace of Jesus.

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The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung.

I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God’s righteousness.I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself. If there was any way to get in on the resurrection from the dead, I wanted to do it

Philippians 3:7-11 The Message

[I will keep this short so you can take time to watch a contemporary version of the book of Acts.]

Why am I following Jesus?

In a peaceful place where I can live out my faith without being persecuted, it’s read the Acts of the Apostles as events that happened a long time ago. With smartphones, and airplanes, and human rights declarations, our world can seem very different–better–superior than the hostile world that Peter and Stephen, Paul, and the rest of the first Christians lived in:

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.
Acts 7:58-60

They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas and expelled them from their region… And the disciples were filled with joy and the with the Holy Spirit. Acts 13:50, 52

They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city thinking he was dead. Acts 14:19

The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. After they had been severely flogged there were thrown into prison. Acts 16:23

This week, however, I watched a contemporary version of the book of Acts.* As I listened to the stories of Iraqi Christians who were persecuted by ISIS, I got a glimpse of a world of where people are kidnapped, killed, expelled from their homes, and beaten because of their religion.

These ordinary Christians challenge me to reflect on why I am following Jesus. Is it for comfort? Tradition? Culture? Because it makes me feel good?

They could have escaped if they had given up their faith in Jesus and converted to Islam, but they didn’t. Why did they stand firm?

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
John 6:66-69

As I listened to these believers share what happened to them and how they responded, I found myself asking:
Would I too be willing to risk death for eternal life?
Would I too forgive those who caused me to lose my job, my house, my community?
Would I too pray for those who persecuted me?

These everyday saints encourage me to say yes.

 

[*It takes just a half hour to hear what it can mean to follow Jesus in our world today.]

“The birth of Christ in our souls is for a purpose beyond ourselves:
it is because His manifestation in the world must be through us.
Every Christian is, as it were, part of the dust-laden air
which shall radiate the glowing Epiphany of God, catch and reflect His golden Light.
You are the light of the world—
but only because you are enkindled,
made radiant by the One Light of the World.”
Evelyn Underhill

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“Blessed are you
who bear the light
in unbearable times,
who testify
to its endurance
amid the unendurable,
who bear witness
to its persistence
when everything seems
in shadow
and grief.”
Jan Richardson

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“Dear Jesus, help me to spread Your fragrance everywhere I go.
Flood my soul with Your spirit and love.
Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly
that all my life may only be a radiance of You.
Shine through me and be so in me that every soul I come in contact
with may feel Your presence in my soul.
Let them look up and see no longer me but only Jesus.
Stay with me, and then I shall begin to shine as You shine,
so to shine as to be a light to others.”
Mother Teresa

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You are the light of the world.
A city located on a hill cannot be hidden.
People do not light a lamp and put it under a basket but on a lampstand,
and it gives light to all in the house.
In the same way, let your light shine before people,
so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven.

Matthew 5:14-16

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Questions for reflection:
• How did I bring Your light into someone’s life today?
• What person needs light in their lives? How could I bring that to them?
• Who brought Your light into my life today?

“Grant us your light, O Lord, that the darkness in our hearts
being wholly passed away, we may come at last to the light
which is Christ.
For Christ is the morning star,
who when the night of this world has passed,
brings to us the promised light of life,
and opens to them eternal day. Amen.”
Saint Bede

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Today is the feast of Epiphany, the celebration of when God the Son was revealed as a human being in Jesus Christ [epiphany means manifestation.] Traditionally, this is the 12th day of Christmas, and marks the end of the festive season celebrating the incarnation.

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The Christmas lights and decorations are being put away. The delight we experienced 12 days earlier among our family and friends has begun to fade.And for those of us the northern hemisphere, we are living in winter light. The days are shorter. At night, the frigid air seems to sharpen the darkness. Spring seems a very, very long way off.

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Perhaps that is why Epiphany is one of my favorite days. I love yet another reminder that there is hope for the dark days ahead, a hope that is woven through Scripture.

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.
Isaiah 9:2

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But as for me, I watch in hope for the Lord,
I wait for God my Savior;
my God will hear me.
…Though I sit in darkness, the Lord will be my light.

Micah 7:7

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Because of our God’s tender mercy the dawn will break upon us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Luke 1:78-79

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I am the light of the world. Whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.
John 8:12

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I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope He has given to those He called—His holy people who are His rich and glorious inheritance.
Ephesians 1:18

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“Light, glorious light
I will go where You shine
Break the dawn, crack the skies
Make the way bright before me
In Your light I will find
All I need, all I need is You”
from the song “Oh How I Need You” by All Sons and Daughters

“I heard a teaching not long ago about the moment when Moses had the nerve to ask God what his name is.  God was gracious enough to answer, and the name he gave is recorded in the original Hebrew as YHWH.
Over time we’ve arbitrarily added an “a” and an “e” in there to get YaHWeH, presumably because we have a preference for vowels. But scholars have noted that the letters YHWH represent breathing sounds, aspirated consonants that in the Hebrew alphabet would be transliterated like this:
Yod, which we transliterate “Y”
He, which we transliterate “H”
Vav, which we transliterate “V” or “W”
He which we transliterate “H”
A wonderful question rises to excite the imagination: what if the name of God is the sound of breathing?”
Jason Gray

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All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.

Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.

Romans 8:22-28 The Message

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“Take a breath and breathe it out.  Do it again, slowly, and try to mean it.  Breathing – of all things maybe we take it most for granted. Do we ever wonder why we are built this way, this soft machine of ours always pumping oxygen in and out?
In sadness, we breathe heavy sighs. In joy, our lungs feel almost like they will burst. In fear we hold our breath and have to be told to breathe slowly to help us calm down. When we’re about to do something hard, we take a deep breath to find our courage.  When I think about it, breathing looks almost like a kind of praying.”
Jason gray

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The Sound of Our Breathing
“Everybody draws their very first breath with Your name upon their lips
Every one of us is born of dust but come alive with heaven’s kiss
The name of God is the sound of our breathing
Hallelujahs rise on the wings of our hearts beating
Breathe in, breathe out, speak it aloud”
Jason Gray, Doug McKelvey, Seth Mosely

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Great Are You Lord  by All Sons and Daughters
“You give life, You are love
You bring light to the darkness
You give hope, You restore
Every heart that is broken

Great are You, Lord

It’s Your breath in our lungs
So we pour out our praise
We pour out our praise
It’s Your breath in our lungs
So we pour out our praise
To You only”