Friday Devo – Psalm 5

I recently began sending the students in CSF a brief reflection on a Psalm each Friday.  My hope is that it will provide them with some motivation to read scripture.  I have enjoyed meditating on the Psalms, and I look forward to taking the next few years to get through them all!  I decided it might be worthwhile to post the weekly devos here, so if you happen to read this, I pray it is helpful.  Enjoy.
Psalm 5
For the director of music. For pipes. A psalm of David.
      1 Listen to my words, LORD,
consider my lament.
2 Hear my cry for help,
my King and my God,
for to you I pray.
      3 In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice;
in the morning I lay my requests before you
and wait expectantly.

What do you do when you first wake up in the morning?  Check your phone?  How does this set a tone for your day?

Challenge – begin each day with 5 minutes of silence and prayer.

4 For you are not a God who is pleased with wickedness;
with you, evil people are not welcome.
5 The arrogant cannot stand
in your presence.
You hate all who do wrong;
6      you destroy those who tell lies.
The bloodthirsty and deceitful
you, LORD, detest.

Does God hate?  That seems harsh. What do you think?

How much does our reaction tell us about our own life?  I think of the shooter in Florida last week and I imagine if it was my child gunned down…any view of God that does not hate such evil, that can’t call it what it is and condemn it, seems disconnected from real pain and suffering.

      7 But I, by your great love,
can come into your house;
in reverence I bow down
toward your holy temple.

      8 Lead me, LORD, in your righteousness
because of my enemies—
make your way straight before me.

What are you struggling with?

Find life and love in the presence of God.  Jesus preached that God is close to the broken, and that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled (Matt. 5:6).  Note, such righteousness is not just an inner spiritual feeling but is akin to justice; it is a hunger for God’s love and mercy to fill the world, for wholeness and peace.

9 Not a word from their mouth can be trusted;
their heart is filled with malice.
Their throat is an open grave;
with their tongues they tell lies.
10 Declare them guilty, O God!
Let their intrigues be their downfall.
Banish them for their many sins,
for they have rebelled against you.
11 But let all who take refuge in you be glad;
let them ever sing for joy.
Spread your protection over them,
that those who love your name may rejoice in you.

      12 Surely, LORD, you bless the righteous;
you surround them with your favor as with a shield.
Above we questioned the idea of God hating.  But if we only examine evil as something outside ourselves, we miss the point.  Paul quoted verses 9-10 in Romans 3 where he concludes that all humans are evil.  I am reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s account of the Russian work camps, illustrating the deep evil of Soviet communism.  He notes though that the truth about evil is not that it is out there, but it cuts through each of us.  I may look at the world and wonder how evil people can do such things, but they’re as human as I am.  We’re all capable of evil and we’re all broken.  Jesus reminds us that anger towards someone is murdering that person in your heart.

We take solace in the faith that God’s love is bigger than anything else about God.  As the late Billy Graham preached, any and all people are welcome to take refuge in God.  Jesus died for all of us and as we have faith, God will surround us with favor.  The only thing keeping us out , any of us, is our own anger and hatred.

This is one place to remember that the Psalms reflect humans relating to God and are often beautiful.  Yet a Christian interpretation must hold up Jesus , the clearest revelation of God, next to the Psalms.  Without Jesus, we might be tempted to take this Psalm as a way to point at evil people out there while we are the good guys with God; with Jesus, we know we are the bloodthirsty and those who speak lies and our only hope is God’s love and forgiveness.

Have a blessed weekend.

Advertisements

Friday Devo – Psalm 4

I recently began sending the students in CSF a brief reflection on a Psalm each Friday.  My hope is that it will provide them with some motivation to read scripture.  I have enjoyed meditating on the Psalms, and I look forward to taking the next few years to get through them all!  I decided it might be worthwhile to post the weekly devos here, so if you happen to read this, I pray it is helpful.  Enjoy.

Psalm 4:

For the director of music. With stringed instruments. A psalm of David.
      1 Answer me when I call to you,
my righteous God.
Give me relief from my distress;
have mercy on me and hear my prayer.
      2 How long will you people turn my glory into shame?
How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?

I resonate with David’s distress here.  This week we’ve experienced another mass shooting in a school.  It distresses me to kiss my wife goodbye when she heads off to the high school she teaches at.  I am distressed when I hug my daughter as she gets on the bus.  I imagine parents all over the country have experienced this the last few days.

I do not claim to have any answers or to know what the government should or should not do.  As a person of faith, I do question my fellow Christians though, as I have long thought the number one sin of Christians in our nation is love of  violence.  While Jesus calls us to take up our cross, lay down our lives, and follow him, follow him, we seek safety through blaming and scapegoating others.  While Jesus calls us to respond to violence with peace, to turn the other cheek and give to whomever asks, we vow to protect our lives and our stuff with weapons of death.

We like that Jesus forgives us our sins and promises us life with God after death, but we don’t seem interested in following his teachings in our daily life.

Ares (Mars) was the god of war in the ancient world.  Jesus is the Prince of Peace.  Do we who claim Jesus as our Lord live in ways that point more to Mars?

Again, I am not speaking of what the government should do and what the law should be.  I’m wondering what difference it may make in the world if we Christians sought to live like Jesus.

3 Know that the LORD has set apart his faithful servant for himself;
the LORD hears when I call to him.

      4 Tremble and do not sin;
when you are on your beds,
search your hearts and be silent.
5 Offer the sacrifices of the righteous
and trust in the LORD.
      6 Many, LORD, are asking, “Who will bring us prosperity?”
Let the light of your face shine on us.
7 Fill my heart with joy
when their grain and new wine abound.
      8 In peace I will lie down and sleep,
for you alone, LORD,
make me dwell in safety.
Once again, I do not claim to have answers or solutions for the government (and they’re not asking me anyway).  My concern, as a man of faith and a pastor, is how Christians live.  Do we seek peace and safety in..in what?  As David notes, “you alone Lord, make me dwell in safety.”  Peace and safety do not come in any way apart from God the Father and his son, Jesus Christ.

My hope is that this trust in Jesus will overcome my distress.

How do you overcome the stress and distress of life?

Do you think violence is a false god for American Christians?

What do you cling to that you hope will provide safety and peace – education? intelligence? muscles? guns? parents? government? Jesus?

May God bring peace to you this weekend

Habbakuk’s Conversation with God (Weekly Word)

Last night at CSF we continued our study of what I am calling secondary characters in the Bible, the sort of people who may not get top billing but who play an important part in the story.  We moved into the minor prophets last evening, looking at Habakkuk.  Originally I was going to do Habakkuk the week prior to Spring Break as it pairs well with the story of Job which we had looked at the previous week.  Both books discuss the problem of evil and suffering and ask where is God or how could God let this happen.  Unfortunately, snow led to that night being cancelled.

First off, to set the stage for the prophets, I summarized the story of scripture up to that point:

*God Creates and Humanity lives in Relationship with the Creator

*Humanity Rebels and the Relationship is Broken

*God launches a rescue mission to restore this relationship – this mission begins with the call of Abraham and the promise to bless all nations through his descendants.  It then moves through the rescue of Israel from slavery and the giving of the Law through their becoming a nation and eventually rejecting God as king.  In this Israel, who was to be an example to other nations, wants to be like other nations and have a king.  God gives them a king, some are good but many are bad.  Bad kings lead them away from God so God sends prophets to call them back.

Enter Habakkuk.  Being such a short book we read it and discussed it rather then me just talking about it.  Habakkuk 1:2-4 begins with Habakkuk complaining, wanting to know where God is and why God is silent in the face of violence.  God responds (Habakkuk 1:5-9) by saying the Babylonians will soon arrive to punish those who are violent among God’s people.  This is not the response Habakkuk wanted, as the Babylonians are even worse (1:12-17).  God response includes what is now a well-known statement, “the righteous will live by faith” (2:4).

We spent time reflecting on what this means.

1. Such a faith is a trust in God’s entire plan for the whole world – God says in Hab 2:14 that the earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.  In other words, God’s rescue mission will succeed no matter how dark things look from Habakkuk’s perspective, or ours.

2. Along with that, such faith remembers what God did in the past, recognizes God is faithful and thus lives based on God’s promises for the future.  Important to say then that faith is not just assent or belief, rather it is an active trust that plays out in real life.

3.  At the same time, we see from Habakkuk’s conversation with God that when we struggle to understand what is happening in our world, it is okay to ask.  Even to complain.  This is what real relationship entails, even relationship with God.

4. Finally, such faith leads to prayer and praise.  Habakkuk 3 is a long prayer and is a model for where we end up through our conversations with God.

I think there is a lot in Habakkuk that is very relevant to us as we live out our faith in the contemporary world.

Weekly Word – Job’s Suffering, Dialogue and General Awesomeness

I love the book of Job.  It is forty-two chapters of brilliant dialogue around the problem of evil and suffering that never really provides any solid answers.  People argue and debate, lose their temper and scream at each other.  Its great!

I did not always like it.  I remember hearing people say, in regards to the problem of evil and suffering, to just read Job.  As a kid I read the first few chapters and last few chapters to get the gist, but I skipped the dialogue.  It was not until much later that I plodded through the whole thing and realized it did not offer the answers I wanted but instead gave space to ask questions.

I think people struggle with Job because we read, if we read, one or two chapters a day.  In this way it will take weeks to work through Job.  If you only read one chapter you will read a diatribe by one of Job’s friends one day and then Job’s response the next day.  But by the next day, you’ll forget what Job is responding to.  That is why I think the best way to get Job is to read it in big chunks.   If you can, read it all at once!

Last night at CSF we went through the entire book of Job, obviously not going deep into much of it since it is so long.  Here is an outline of the book:

  • Job 1:1-12 – Introduction
  • 1:13-22 – Satan’s First Attack and Job’s Response
  • 2:1-10 – Satan’s Second Attack and Job’s Response
  • 2:11- 13 – Job’s Friends Arrive
  • Chapters 3-27 – Dialogue between Job and his three friends arguing about why this has happened to Job – Dialogue continually escalates in anger of friends towards Job due to Job’s refusal to admit he deserved it
    • Job’s friends confident – they knew how God worked and that God did not punish those who did not deserve it, so Job must deserve it (rigid retribution theology)
    • Job agrees God works this way in theory – but Job insists he is sinless in this case and thus God is wrong and Job wants to plead his case
  • Job silences his friends (Zophar does not respond a third time like the others
  • Job 28 – An Ode To Wisdom
    • 28:28 – To fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom
  • Job 29-31 – Job’s Final Speech – His Defense
  • Job 32-37 – Elihu speaks to Job
    • Job has silenced the traditionalists, Elihu speaks for the younger generation, offering new solutions to old problems but fails to provide an answer just as the others failed.
    • Elihu’s speech on God’s greatness in chapter 37 does foreshadow God’s speech
  • Job 38-41 – God speaks and silences Job
  • 42:1-6 – Job repents, acknowledges he does not know God’s ways
  • 42:7-9 – God rebukes Job’s friends for not speaking right as Job has
  • 42:10-17 – God blesses Job

One of my favorite things about Job is how the story seems to question the sort of wisdom you find in the book of Proverbs.  Proverbs, a fantastic work in its own right, tends to promise that hard workers succeed and lazy or evil people fail.  This is the sort of theology that both Job and his friends hold to.  Yet we know from real life that things do not always work out this way.  More than that, the fact that our Bible contains both Job and Proverbs tells us something important – being a wise person, a disciple of God, does not mean turning our brain off and blindly following a few commands.  Instead, God provides us wisdom teaching that will show us how to think and live in the situation we find ourselves in.

Since Job and his friends have this basic idea that God only punishes people who deserve it, they insist Job deserves it.  He must have some secret sin to confess!  Job, agreeing that God punishes those who deserve it, argues that God is unfair in this case for he does not deserve it.  Thus, Job wants to plead his case with God.  What we, the reader, know is that God is not the one who did this.  God has allowed it for sure, but has not done it.

Is there a difference between God doing something and allowing something to be done by someone else?

I think there is.  There is a big difference between pushing my daughter off her bike as she is learning to ride then in allowing her to fall as she learns.  Anyway, I drew a few general conclusions from Job’s story last night:

Job was WRONG in what he said about God (42:3, 6)

*God’s speech emphasizes the complexity of creation and God’s power over it – as finite beings we do not know much

*When we talk about God then we ought to be humble, realizing how much we do not know.

*When someone suffers and comes to us…we better not be like Job’s friends!

Job was more right in what he said about God than his friends were

*Even though Job was wrong, he was closer to being right even as he challenged and questioned God

*This shows me that God desires a real relationship and not just people who blindly follow accepted truths

 

God’s speech to Job is satisfying on one level but leaves us wanting more as God remains kind of distant from Job’s problems.

In Jesus the distant God of Job comes close and experiences our suffering

What Job wanted of God we get in Jesus.

The Story of Uriah, Bathsheba and David (Weekly Word)

I remember being at a church event once and the speaker was talking on the story of David and Bathsheba from 2 Samuel 11.  The story begins by noting that it was spring, the time when kings go off to war.  But David stayed home.  This, the speaker said, was his first mistake.  It began a chain reaction which led to adultery and murder.  The lesson, we were told, was that if we want to avoid sin (sexual sin, specifically) we need to be where we are supposed to be, unlike David.

The problem is that the previous summer when Israel was fighting the Ammonites, David had also stayed home (see 1 Samuel 10).  It made sense for the king to not always go on military campaign, since he was the head of the government.  Later on David’s soldiers will beg him not to go (2 Samuel 21:17).  David certainly makes mistakes in this story, but simply being home is not one of them.

That said, maybe we could still fault him.  I mean, he was a great warrior!  He had fought Goliath!  But for whatever reason, he was home.  He went out on his roof one evening to catch the cool breeze.  His roof probably gave him a good view of the city, including a view of a woman bathing.  She probably, on her own roof, thought she had privacy.

Here’s another part of the story I never got before.  It always sounded like David simply saw this random woman, was attracted and invited her to him.  But if we look more closely, it is pretty obvious he had to know who she was and that she was married.  We are told she is the daughter of Eliam who, we learn in 2 Samuel 23:34, was one of David’s top soldiers.  Uriah, her husband, is also in the list of David’s top soldiers (23:39).  And her grandfather, Ahithopel, was one of David’s most trusted advisors (2 Samuel 16:23).  These three men were part of his inner circle.  This indicates to me that he had to know exactly who he was inviting to his bed.

To make a long story short, and we spent more time discussing it last night, David gets her pregnant.  In an effort to pass the child off as Uriah’s, David calls Uriah back from the military campaign.  After getting a report, David encourages Uriah to go home and enjoy the comforts of his wife.  Uriah, showing deep integrity and identification with his men in the field, refuses.  The contrast is clear – David does not mind staying out of harms way and enjoying women while Uriah chooses to pass up those pleasures in order to identify with his community.

David has to think of another solution and he does.  He sends sealed orders with Uriah for the military commander.  The orders say to put Uriah in harms way so he will die.  The leader complies and after Bathsheba mourns for the appropriate time, David marries her.  This may seem fishy to us.  It was common in those days for a woman to marry her dead husband’s brother.  If Uriah had no siblings, David as king could have volunteered to care for Bathsheba, fulfilling the role of a brother to Uriah.  David would come out looking quite generous.  That is, until the next chapter when Nathan the prophet uncovers the whole thing and David confesses!

So what lessons did we take from this?

1. Uriah provides a fantastic model of integrity for us – In a world filled with cheaters, Uriah illustrates what it is like to live by strong character and conviction.

2. Uriah was an outsider to God’s people who lived a holy life; this points us to Jesus who welcomes outsiders – Uriah was a Hittite, one of the people Israel was to exterminate (Deut. 7:1-5).  Surprisingly then, Uriah is the hero of the story.  When we come to Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus we notice there are only four women listed – Ruth, Rahab, Tamar and Uriah’s wife.  This is often used to emphasize that Jesus came to welcome women and men.  While this is certainly true of Jesus, I do not think that is the point of Matthew’s genealogy.  If it was so, why did Matthew say “Uriah’s wife” and not simply “Bathsheba”?  Bathsheba was an Israelite while Uriah was not.  The emphasis is that those outside of God’s people – Ruth, Rahab, Uriah and so many others – are now welcomed into God’s people.  But “now” is not right, for Matthew is showing that such people have always been welcomed!

3. Reconciliation does not end in Confessing to God – You must go to the one you have hurt – David’s confession in Psalm 51 kind of bothers me.  He says to God, “against you only have I sinned.”  What about Uriah?  Taken alone a passage like this could lead someone to think they just need confess to God and they are fine.  In light of Jesus’ words in places like Matthew 5:23-24 and Luke 15:21 we are reminded that reconciliation is not just vertical with God, we must also pursue reconciliation with others.  Of course, this was already a reality at places in the old testament – see Numbers 5:5-8 and Proverbs 28:13.

 

The Story of Hannah and Samuel (Weekly Word)

Last night at CSF we took some time to read and discuss the story of Hannah from the 1 Samuel.  Hannah was one of two wives of Elkanah, a Levite (his being a Levite ought to have us on edge after last week’s lesson, but he’s a good guy).  Elkanah appears to be wealthy, able to sacrifice three bulls, and it is possible he married the second wife because Hannah was not having children.  This is a common theme in the Bible, we’ve read of women before who were unable to conceive (Sarah and Rachel being two).

Hannah prays and promises that if God gives her a son she will never cut his hair and that she will give him to the Lord.  To make a long story short, she soon becomes pregnant and gives birth to Samuel.  Samuel grows up in the temple (not the temple in Jerusalem, that is not yet built) and becomes the last judge.  He is a pretty pivotal guy as his name is on the book that tells not just his own story but that of the first kings, Saul and David.

Reflecting on the story, we drew out five points:

1. Everything you have is a gift from God Hannah realized this, which is why she was able to give Samuel back to God.  May we realize it too, from the time we are poor college students to when we are making the big bucks later on!

2. There may be something you desperately want, so ask God for it!  I think the way Hannah prays is a model for how we ought to pray.  We do not need to be shy or fearful, we can pour out the depths of our heart to God.  Of course, there may be some things we desperately want that we do not need, or even if we ever got them we would realize we do not really want them.  What Hannah wanted though was a beautiful thing and there is no shame in asking God for good things.

3. Hannah’s prayer is answered, but this does not mean ours will be.  Prayer does not work like that.  It is not as simple as just asking for something and getting it.  Lots of women then and now desperately want to get pregnant and cannot.  I have friends who want to get married and have not yet, perhaps they never will.  How prayer works remains a mystery.

4. When you do get that thing you pray for, it still belongs to God.  Again, Hannah knew this which is why she was able to give Samuel back.  It is easy, or easier, to rely on God when we need or want something.  After we get it, when life is comfortable, we may forget that previous reliance.  The point here is to remind us that at all times, its all a gift.

5. Hannah’s story points us to Mary and thus to Jesus.  Hannah knew everything was from God and belonged to God.  She was thus able to give Samuel back even as she praised God (1 Samuel 2).  This praise echoes that of another unexpected mother, Mary, in Luke 1:46-55.  Mary’s miraculous birth gave the world Jesus Christ.  And just as Hannah’s son served God, so too did Mary’s, going to the very farthest extent of love for the world.

The point of Hannah’s story is not to pray like or have faith like Hannah, even though she is a good example.  Her story, like all stories, points us forward to the coming of Jesus.  Jesus is the gift to the hungry and needy world, Jesus is Lord and Savior.

Thoughts on the Most Horrific Story in the Bible (Weekly Word)

Last night at CSF we studied the story of a Levite and his concubine from Judges 19-21.  If it is not the most horrific story in the Bible, it is certainly top 5.  The concubine, a sort of second-tier, lesser wife, leaves the Levite and goes back home.  Older translations said the woman prostituted herself out, basically blaming the woman for much of what was about to happen.  Newer scholarship argues that the specific reason she leaves is unclear, leaving it as anger at the Levite.  When the rest of the story is taken into consideration and the Levite’s character is seen, we can see why she left him.

He goes after her and together they begin the journey back to his house.  They are forced to stay in the town of Gibeah for the night and are taken in by an elderly man.  The men of the town come to the house they are staying and, in echoes of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19, demand the Levite be sent out so they can rape him.  To make a long story short, he sends his concubine out to save himself.  The next morning, after she is viciously abused, he awakes and finds her laying on the outer doorstep.  Apparently he had no problem sleeping while she was raped.  The text leaves it vague as to whether she is dead or unconscious.

The Levite proceeds to cut her body into twelve pieces and send them out to the twelve tribes, calling for vengeance.  He tells his fellow Israelites what happened, putting himself in the best light.  A few battles follow, the tribe of Benjamin (it was a city of this tribe that committed the crime) is decimated.  The few remaining Benjaminite men have no wives and thus one of the 12 tribes of Israel will die out.  So the Israelites, fresh off decimating them, seek to find them wives.  They do this through further violence and rape.

Its all around awful.

As I prepared for this lesson, two thoughts stuck in my mind.  First is a church I often drive past that has a sign out front that says, “Jesus on every page!”  It sounds nice, but I don’t see Jesus on these pages.  Second is a few websites I came across that use this story as proof the Bible as a whole, and God if one exists, is evil.  The argument seems to be that since this is in the Bible, God is okay with it.

I think both of those are false starts.  Here are the lessons I drew from this story:

  1. The Bible is a Story About Humans and Does Not Hide Humanity’s Depravity – Within this not everything humans do is smiled upon by God.  In other words, just because it is in the Bible does not mean God approves of what happened.
  2. The Bible is Not Simply a “How-To” Manual For Life – Sometimes the Bible is difficult to understand.  We are obsessed with practical application but there does not seem to be much here.  I mean, it can be found – be hospitable, don’t abuse women.  But such lessons are not why this story is in scripture for such lessons could be taught in other ways that do not include horrific narratives.  The point is,the Bible is not always easy, despite what some Christians may say.
  3. The Bible is Not Unbiased – The point of this story – “everyone did what they saw fit because there was no king in Israel”.  That statement is repeated both before the story and at the very end. This shows that the reason Judges was written was to argue for why a king was needed.  Judges is propaganda explaining why we (Israel) need a king.  Yet if we turn the page and go into the books of Samuel and Kings we learn that once kings do show up, violence and evil continue to plague God’s people.  If the problem Judges sees is correct (everyone does as he sees fit), their cure is found to be inadequate (so we need a king).
  4. Ultimately then, this story points to the inadequacy of human systems and even kings – Reading this as a Christian, we do get to Jesus.  The answer is not a king, the answer is Jesus.  Jesus is the one who willingly steps outside, leaving his own safety behind, and gives himself into the hands of the mob to be abused and killed.  Jesus voluntarily takes on violence to say others.
  5. Where is the application then, if there is any?  Well, are we like the Levite, in seeking our own security first?  Or are we like Jesus, giving ourselves for others?  Jesus had the opportunity to harm a woman who was accused of sin but he saved her (John 8:2-11).   And ultimately, as I said above, he gave his life in our place.  This is our example.
  6. Do We Listen to the Voiceless Among us Today? Who is the nameless concubine in our culture today?  It is clear that rape and abuse continue to happen, both on our campus and in our churches.  May we speak in in support of those facing this.  Here are just two resources that are helpful: RAINN  and GRACE .

Weekly Word – Some Lessons from the Story of Ruth

Weekly Word is a weekly Friday devotional geared towards the college students at PSU Berks.  But hopefully anyone else who stumbles across it finds something helpful.

This semester on campus our theme for Thursday nights is The Bible You Never Knew: Secondary Characters Who Matter.  I am hoping to investigate the lives of some less known Bible characters, people who do not get a yearly mention in Sunday school growing up, like Abraham, Moses, David and Daniel.  Of course, who is a secondary character is a somewhat arbitrary choice.  This week we looked at Ruth, who has a whole book of the Bible dedicated to her story!  So why did I choose her as a “secondary character”?  In my experience, the stories of great women from the Bible such as Ruth tend to only show up in women’s Bible studies.  Everyone studies David and Moses, only women study Ruth and Esther.

Like I said, its somewhat arbitrary.  That said, I think the story of Ruth teaches us some amazing things.  I won’t go into the details of the story here, other then to note that it is important to grasp that Ruth was a Moabite living in Israel  The narrator refers to her as a Moabite quite often, not allowing us to forget her outsider status.  Moabites and Israelites did not get along in those days, there was a mutual animosity.  Living in Israel, Ruth would have not been trusted, she would have been seen as a questionable woman  In some ways, think of negative stereotypes that immigrants have today and you may begin to get the idea of how people thought of Ruth.

Not everyone looked down on her.  Boaz showed kindness to her which, to make a long story short, led to their marriage.  Ruth ended up giving birth to a son whose descendants included King David and Jesus.  So Ruth is rather important.

Here are four points I drew from the story with some questions I gave the students time to discuss last evening:

1. Be generous in ways that go above and beyond what is required.

Ruth would have been seen as “just an immigrant” or “just a Moabite” or “just a woman.” Who do you tend to look down on, to see as “just a _______”?

Who is someone in my life that I should make an extra effort to love and care for?

2. By walking in someone’s shoes and seeing the world from their perspective we are able to be humble and sympathize

How would the way I talk about immigration (or really, anything) be different if I tried to put myself in someone else’s shoes for one day?

3. The love of God transcends all human made borders and boundaries.

Do I tend to think God favors people who think, act, talk and look like me? Am I open to loving the people Jesus loves?

4. The most unlikely person can be used by God to be the hero of the story.

With a college education, you are someone empowered to do great things. You will have opportunities others may not. What will you do to empower all the Ruths in this culture who are going to do great works for the kingdom of God?

Weekly Word – Jan 16 – Stories from the Margins

Weekly Word is a weekly Friday devotional geared towards the college students at PSU Berks.  But hopefully anyone else who stumbles across it finds something helpful.

When I watch movies, I am often intrigued by minor characters.  They show up on screen so briefly, perhaps making a major contribution to the story, and then disappear.  The primary example of this is Boba Fett, the bounty hunter who captured Han Solo in the sci-fi/fantasy film Empire Strikes Back (I know, nerd alert!).  He appears on screen quite suddenly, says little, has an awesome spaceship, and disappears just as quickly.  We know little about his background and motivations, though we want to.  Of course, book authors and the prequel trilogy sought to shed more light on Boba Fett.  But part of his coolness is his mystery as a minor character.

As you go through the story of scripture there is a Hall of Fame of sorts when it comes to characters.  Some characters get a lot of time for their story.  These men, and mostly are men, are the main characters in the story – Abraham, Moses, David, Joshua, Daniel.  If you’ve been around the church for any amount of time you are probably familiar with their stories.

What about the characters in scripture who are not quite as well known?  People who live  on the margins, either the margins of their time or the margins of our understanding?  People like Ruth, a poor immigrant woman from an enemy country?  Or like Micah and Habakkuk, prophets whose tiny books are dwarfed and often lost in the hazy end of the Hebrew Bible?

This semester our Thursday studies at CSF will focus on such people.  We will see what lessons their stories and writings can teach us.  Beyond that, we will see how they point us to Jesus.

Who is your favorite minor character in a movie?

Who is your favorite minor character in scripture?

Spiritual Disciplines – Simplicity and Service

This past Thursday at CSF we continued our discussion of the spiritual disciplines.  Once again we tackled two of them – simplicity and service.

Luke 12:13-33 was our primary text.  Here Jesus warns against greed, telling the crowds to beware storing up things for yourself but not being rich towards God.  From this we see the challenge of simplicity.  Over and over the Bible warns against wealth, as Foster says in Celebration of Discipline, “The biblical injunctions against the exploitation of the poor and the accumulation of wealth are clear and straightforward” (82).  I have seen many stories of people who take a scissors and cut all the verses about money out of the Bible.  They are not left with much Bible.

Yet simplicity is not simply poverty.  It is not so much about what you have as to how tightly you hold on to it.  If anything, there is sometimes a false dichotomy built between helping the poor and creating beautiful architecture, for example.  I have been guilty of this in my life.  There have been times I have been very critical of churches who spend money on a beautiful building.  I now believe this attitude buys into a myth of scarcity, as if God only has enough money for one.

That said, some things are a waste of money.  A well-known creationist organization is building a replica of Noah’s Ark and asking for donations.  For $500 a month for 10 months you can have your very own beam!  This is a total waste of money.  If you had an extra $500 a month there are myriad better ways you could use it.  In the same way, if you are a pastor of a church that gets big and you have the choice between buying the biggest house in your community with 3-4 times as many bedrooms as people in your family, that too is just plain wrong.  The prophets in scripture spoke publicly against the greed of some and there is certainly a place for that in our world.

On another level though, things are not so simple.  It might be nice if the Bible had a chart for us so that we knew what amount of income was okay.  We humans want laws.  But we don’t get any.  When I analyze my own life I can say I am doing well in the discipline of simplicity compared to some people, while others may look at me as quite greedy.  So it is not sinful to have a house or to create a beautiful worship space (I admit, the cathedrals I saw in Spain, making me wonder if I am on earth or in heaven, influenced me in this).  And those who give the most to the poor are not automatically living the simple life.

Jesus says that when you give do not let your right hand know what your left is giving (Matt. 6:2-4).  Lest we turn this into a law, we need to remember that we can follow the letter and give in secret and still be proud.  These challenges of spiritual discipleship cannot be reduced to a few laws or rules.  I think it is more likely that as we live in relationship with God, surrounded by a community of Christians, and immersed in prayer and scripture, that we discern what it looks like for us to live simply.  Simplicity for one person may look different then for another.

Foster’s solution is to follow Jesus’ teaching – seek first God’s kingdom and everything else will be made known.  But again, beware reducing this to a law:

“Should a person get a suitable job in order to exert a virtuous influence? His answer: no, we must first seek God’s kingdom. Then should we give away all our money to feed the poor? Again the answer: no, we must first seek God’s kingdom. Well, then perhaps we are to go out and preach this truth to the world that people are to seek first God’s kingdom? Once again the answer is a resounding: no, we are first to seek the kingdom.”

Just as simplicity cannot be reduced to a chart, rule or graph, nor can service.  When we talk about service on campus we tend to talk about programs – go to the after-school program, ring bells for the Salvation Army, come on spring break mission trip.  These are good things, but they do not automatically show we are living a life of service.  Service as a discipline is a lifestyle.  For some of us, especially at the beginning, forcing ourselves to schedule the service may be necessary.  It is a first step to developing a lifestyle of service.

But it is so tempting for these programs to miss the point.  When we sign up for a program, it is public.  Perhaps we go on the mission trip because everyone else is.  As the leader there have been a few times, such as after Hurricane Katrina, where we got a bit of local publicity for the trip.  Admittedly, that feels nice.  If we start going down this road though, service becomes more about us then the other we are serving.

As Foster puts it:

“We must see the difference between choosing to serve and choosing to be a servant When we choose to serve, we are still in charge. We decide whom we will serve and when we will serve. And if we are in charge, we will worry a great deal about anyone stepping on us, that is, taking charge over us. But when we choose to be a servant, we give up the right to be incharge. There is freedom in this” (132)

I think how well we are doing in service is more revealed by what we do when no one is looking.

How well do I tip my waiter?

Am I willing to assist someone when it would be easy to walk past?

When I get an email asking help for someone at church, and I know 30 other people probably got it, and I already have plans, am I willing to help?  Or do I find easy reasons not to: They don’t know I’m not busy!  Someone else will do it!

What kind of neighbor am I?

Am I serving when no one is looking?

Like all disciplines, who we are when no one is around reveals our true self.