Monday, October 14 — Saturday, October 19

For our sixth week in the Beatitudes, we’ll explore Matthew 5:8 — “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

 

Monday, October 14

Read: Matthew 5:1-8

Consider: Sometimes we misinterpret Jesus’ words because we’ve gotten into the bad habit of always looking at his promises as if they were promises for the future, promises yet to be fulfilled. To be sure, some are. But Jesus’ gospel—literally, his “good news”—is about a new reality. And this new reality that he called the “Kingdom of Heaven” is a reality for today as well as for tomorrow. His kingdom is the present and coming kingdom. It is the now and not yet kingdom. We celebrate the values and presence of Christ right now.

If we miss this, we’ll miss the richness, the beauty, the challenge and the reality of Christ in us this very day.

I used to see this blessing of the “pure in heart” as a promise for the future. When Jesus said, “they will see God,” I assumed that he was speaking about that day when we will see him “face to face —that day when “I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). I now believe that there is so much more to this promise. I think this is a blessing for time and for eternity.

If I confine this promise to the future, I may find myself spending my life trying to manufacture a distorted concept of heart purity so that someday I will receive my reward. The danger in that is that I may try to earn a future reward rather than accept what God gives me every day—his presence. He wants me to see him now.

The beautiful mystery is that seeing him now is part of what purifies us. Seeing God in his world and in those around us has an amazing impact on our priorities. It humbles us. It opens us to the possibility of loving others, because we see they are gifts from God. It rearranges our perspective, which begins to wash from us the toxins of hate, fear and ignorance.

It is an amazing reality that the more he purifies us, the more clearly we see him and the more clearly we see him, the more our lives are made pure.

And, of course, we cannot purify ourselves. God is the One who cleanses us from sin. But we can submit ourselves to him, asking him to help us see him more clearly and to open us to his purifying love.

Pray: “Lord, I will look for you today—in your word, in nature, in the people I encounter, in moments of realizing that you are close—in all things. As I behold your beauty, purify my heart. May my motives conform to the beauty of your presence in my life and in our world.”

 

Tuesday, October 15

Read: Mark 4:3-9, 14-20

Consider: Søren Kierkegaard was one of the great philosophers and theologians of the nineteenth century. His writings are so important that some English-speaking scholars study Danish just so they can read his writings in his own language. But to many of us, Brother Søren is so much more than an intellectual. He has become a spiritual mentor.

His most famous book is called, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. In it, he tries to teach us that a life given fully to Jesus Christ is a life that is constantly changed, continually cleansed and purified by Christ’s presence. When he teaches us to “will one thing” he is saying that when our lives are consumed with a multitude of desires, we lose the primary value of life. But, when all our labor and all of our affections are sourced by the “one thing”—Jesus Christ—our lives change. This change is not simply a one-time occurrence. It is the continual breath of life.

This echoes what Jesus taught in the parable of the farmer, in which he explained the various soil types that allowed the word to grow or prevented it from growing in our lives. He said that some people’s reaction to the word is like seed planted among thorns. They “hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful” (Mark 4:18-19).

Those “desires for other things” can be subtle, but they complicate our lives in terrible ways. They can bring duplicity and chaos and, as Jesus said, “choke” the very life of Christ in us.

When we ask God to remove our “double mindedness” (James 4:8), we are allowing him to purify us. And when the clutter is cleared away, we begin to see God again. We see his power and beauty in new and amazing ways.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8)

Pray: Let’s pray the prayer of a centuries-old Irish hymn…

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light

Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art

 

Wednesday, October 16

Read: Mark 10:13-16

Consider: Surrounded by children, Jesus said, “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (10:14). Jesus’ new kingdom—the kingdom of heaven inaugurated with his coming to earth—would only be grasped by people “such as these.” What does that mean?

Well, first let’s go back to our basic understanding of the kingdom of heaven. This reign of God is here now, while it is still yet-to-come in its fullness. We are called to live in the new kingdom—to live by the values of that kingdom—today, while we prepare the way for its full realization when Jesus Christ makes all things new (Revelation 21:5).

So, when Jesus told us that if we didn’t “receive the kingdom of God like a little child” we would “never enter it” (10:15), he was addressing our current relationship to the kingdom (see Monday’s meditation).

When he spoke about “entering” the kingdom of heaven, he wasn’t talking about going to a future heaven in the sky (as people so often interpret his words today). He was telling us that to “get it”—to understand the kingdom, grasp the kingdom, comprehend the kingdom, live in the kingdom—right now, we would have to approach it in the manner of a child.

To which we repeat the question, what does that mean?

Take some time to ask yourself, “What child-like qualities do I need to embrace today so that I may get a glimpse of Christ and his kingdom in this present moment?” How are you going to “enter the kingdom” this very day?

As you meditate on that, put it in the context of the promise we’re looking at this week…

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8)

Pray: “Lord, you welcomed the children and you welcome me. I am your child. Help me to live like your child today. Help me to walk in simplicity and live in dependency on you, so that I won’t miss seeing your kingdom that has already come to our earth.”

 

Thursday, October 17

Read: Colossians 2:1-5

Consider: When it comes to understanding the good news of Jesus Christ, we must avoid what Richard Rohr calls “dualistic thinking.” Dualistic thinking is that “either/or” determination that takes place in our minds only. With our intellectual understanding, we put language to concepts, we categorize them, we say that if “x” is true, then “y” must be false.

To a degree, we were formed to think in that manner, and it is necessary. But when it comes to God’s work in our world, we can’t confine it to “either/or” thinking. We serve a “both/and” God.

If I am only going to believe what I can comprehend with my mind, then the gospel—the good news—is inaccessible to me. There are things the gospel teaches that cannot be grasped between the ears. Jesus was fully God and fully man. That cannot be understood with dualistic thinking. Dualism says that Jesus was human, or he was divine, but he can’t be both. But God gives us the capacity to somehow grasp that both are true. Another example is the Trinity. God is one and God is three—Father, Son and Spirit. I don’t care how committed you are to define and describe the Trinity, if you try to reduce it to what can be comprehended intellectually, you lose the reality of it. It becomes just a matter of words and vague concepts.

If we’re going to grasp realities such as God and Christ and love, we must embrace a larger thinking—a thinking that goes beyond the mind alone to include our whole being. This inclusive thinking—this non-dualistic reality—is what Paul often calls “the mystery of the gospel” (Ephesians 6:19), or as he called it in today’s reading, “the mystery of God, namely, Christ” (Colossians 2:2).

Don’t lose the mystery. If we lose the mystery, we lose God. If we can define and explain him, we have reduced him and crammed him into an “either/or” world. And that puts us in danger of making him in our image instead of asking him to continually create us in his image.

In today’s reading, Paul tells us that in Christ…

“…are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments.” (2:3-4)

I believe that embracing the mystery is what Jesus meant when he said…

“Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15)

Pray: “Lord, today I want to ‘see’ you with all of my senses. I want my eyes and ears, my mind and soul, my emotions and my will to bask in your presence today. Purify my life. Show me how to work with you to clear the clutter so I can know you with my whole being.”

 

Friday, October 18

Read: 1 John 4:7-17

Consider: What comes to your mind when you hear Jesus speak about the “pure in heart” (Matthew 5:8)? To some people that sounds like a person who has conquered temptation—a person who never has an impure thought or a bad attitude, who never struggles with anger or vindictive feelings against another person. It is someone who lives on a different plane than the rest of us. But how does that make sense when before Jesus blessed the pure in heart, he blessed the “poor in spirit”—those of us who are weak and spiritually destitute?

I think we need to be careful here. Purity is not something that I accomplish. It is not the pursuit of an unattainable perfection. In fact, that’s the opposite of purity. When I am consumed with whether I’m doing it right, when I’m consumed with my own purity, when I’m consumed with my own righteousness, I have then made myself the center of my universe. I am consumed with me! And, of course, that goes against everything that Jesus taught us about love.

Every good thing is a gift from God (James 1:17)—including our cleansing. We are not purified by our efforts. Purity simply comes as we allow God to remove the impurities from our lives.

I tend to think of purity of heart as honesty of heart—the lack of duplicity. When we are transparent and humble, we accept his forgiveness and we then have the freedom to love others. We are not concerned about our own reputation. We don’t put ourselves first. But we live in the freedom and joy of Christ’s presence and his acceptance of us, so it is natural to accept and love others.

I think that is why Jesus said that the pure in heart “will see God” (Matthew 5:8). If I am bound up in my own pursuit of perfection, I won’t see God. I’ll see my own successes and failures (mostly failures), and I’ll compare myself with others. I’ll walk through this world in the bondage of bad religion. But purity of heart clears the clutter, so I can see God.

John said that “No one has ever seen God.” Now it’s obvious here that John is talking about not seeing God with our physical eyes, because he went on to say, “but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:12). In other words, in the realm of the spirit, we see God continually in one another. We see Jesus in the faces of those who are served (Matthew 25:40) and in the hands of those who serve. This was so real to John that he had the boldness to say…

“In this world we are like Jesus.” (1 John 4:17)

Pray: “Lord, help me to be open to you—to your forgiveness, your acceptance and your love for me. Help me resist the prodding of my ego to try and earn my righteousness. Help me to allow myself to accept this gift from you. Then as I pass that gift on to others, I know I will see Christ in them and in me.”

 

Saturday, October 19

Read: Matthew 5:3-8

Consider: It’s easy to read the Beatitudes and see them as stand-alone statements or as a list of virtues. But that misses the point. Remember, at that time, Jesus was beginning to teach on the reign of God—the kingdom that had come to earth with the coming of Jesus Christ. He would show us the contrast between this kingdom and the empires of the world. His plan was for us to live in him as he lives in us (John 14:20), and to simultaneously live as agents of grace in our world.

So, these intertwined blessings give us a new vision—a vision of how to live in Christ as he lives in us and through us. This is the view from the bottom, not the view from the top—not the view from a position of privilege and power. No, this king was bringing a new world into existence through those who were willing to see the world as he saw it and willing to walk like him. He was calling us to be like Jesus. And, against all earthly wisdom, he was showing us that our spiritual poverty would be the very thing that empowered us to be like him.

When you act like Jesus, you stand in opposition to the values of our culture. You don’t bow to their idols. You take the position of a servant—even if it costs you your life.

So, to understand purity of heart—or as we saw yesterday, honesty of heart—we need to see our other blessings as well. We are blessed as…

…people who acknowledge their need for God—the “poor in spirit.”

…people who mourn with one another to find God in that place of suffering.

…humble people who are free to be gentle with others, knowing that our meekness is not weakness.

…hungry people—hungry for what is right, hungry for justice for the poor and oppressed, hungry for God’s will to be done on this earth.

…people who freely lavish on others the mercy that we ourselves have received.

…peacemakers who love their enemies, no matter what it costs.

This kind of life changes us before it changes the world. It humbles us, purifies our motives, and expands our vision to see what was impossible to see before we fully embraced the way of Jesus. Or as Jesus said, this would cause us to “see God” (5:8).

Pray: “Lord, purify my heart. Help me to live in the simple humility that you love to bless. And as you purify my life, thank you that I will see you more clearly every day.”

Mercy Givers

This is our fifth week in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12). Here that we find Jesus’ initial teaching on the present and coming Kingdom of Heaven. This week we focus on Matthew 5:7 — “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

 

Monday, October 7

Read: Matthew 23:1-3, 13-15

Consider: Among the Jewish sects of Jesus’ day, the one we encounter the most in the New Testament is the Pharisees. This group saw themselves as the keepers and preservers of God’s Law—also called the Law of Moses. There were many wonderful, sincere Pharisees who were earnestly trying to do God’s work. You see, they were convinced that if every Jew kept the entire Law for one full day, the kingdom of God would come.

So why were they constantly at odds with Jesus? Why were they always confronting him and why was he always challenging them? Why did Jesus use such strong language when dealing with Pharisees? Why were they the ones who received excoriating words from the One who was a friend of sinners? Jesus didn’t call anyone else “hypocrites” and “snakes” (23:13, 33). Those words—and the blistering, verbal assault of Matthew 23—were directed at Pharisees. Something had gone terribly wrong with their version of religion.

From our perspective, we can see a glaring weakness in their approach. An emphasis on keeping the rules, makes us believe that religion is something measurable. So, we begin to measure our performance rather than embracing the work of God’s Spirit in us and through us. And, of course, if we can measure ourselves, we can measure others. And then the comparisons begin, along with the inevitable competition and condemnation.

And Jesus could discern their motives. (By the way, that’s why we should be very careful with the word “hypocrite.” We can’t read people’s motives. Only God can do that.) Jesus knew that many of those teachers of the Law were using their religion to make themselves look holy as they oppressed and dominated others. They set themselves up as the arbiters of who was right with God and who was not. They used that power to control others. God’s intent for the people’s relationship with him was being destroyed by Pharisees.

It remains the same today. Whenever people use religion—including the Christian faith—as a measuring rod that they can wield to declare who is in and who is out, Jesus is not seen. Judgmental religion is seen. And it’s ugly. Legalistic “righteousness” is as deadly today as ever.

We don’t come to Jesus as Pharisees who believe we have all the answers. We don’t save the world by bullying people into agreeing with our theology. We don’t belittle those who have yet to discover God’s grace or those who discover that grace by other approaches. We come to Jesus as the “poor in spirit” (5:3) and approach our sisters and brothers as people who need the good news as much as we need the good news.

I love that old saying that describes how we approach the world. We’re beggars who are running to tell other beggars where we found bread.

Pray: “Lord, your grace is a gift that is beyond my comprehension. Thank you for teaching us that ‘God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world’ (John 3:17). Help me today to be an agent of your grace.”

 

Tuesday, October 8

Read: Matthew 23:23-24

Consider: Matthew 23 contains Jesus’ “Seven Woes” against the Pharisees. (See yesterday’s meditation for why Jesus was continually at odds with them.) I’m sure the Pharisees were not amused, but the others who were listening were laughing out loud at Jesus’ image of someone straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.

You see, some of the Pharisees actually did strain gnats out of their food. They had dietary laws about eating meat that still had blood in it. And their thinking was, because you can’t get the blood out of a gnat, you better make sure you don’t accidentally swallow one and, thereby, break the Law of Moses.

I know. You can’t make this stuff up.

Jesus lampooned their concept of religion and said they had entirely missed the point of God’s will. They might as well swallow a camel—blood and all!

Jesus wasn’t saying that keeping the Law was bad. In fact, when he talked about their tithing, he said that they should have done that. But, in their obsession with measuring an exact 10% to prove their obedience to God, they lost the intent of God’s Law. Jesus said…

“You have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.” (23:23)

Working for justice for the poor and vulnerable. Giving mercy as God has been merciful to us. Being faithful to the work of Jesus and learning how to love like Christ. This is what Paul would later call “the righteous requirement of the law” (Romans 8:4).

When we get free from the legalism that is embedded in toxic religion, we find the freedom to love. We don’t have to judge others. We don’t have to tell people who is righteous and who is not.* We don’t even have to prove that we are believing and living right. We simply get to respond to the invitation to love like Jesus loves.

Pray: “Lord, sometimes I try so hard to be right that I lose the freedom of my relationship with you. It’s easy to concentrate on the wrong things. Help me to learn more—this very day—about loving like you love. Give me encounters and opportunities to be the face of Christ to others today. What a thrill it is to be invited by you to be your agent of grace.”

*Our call to humility—to refuse to be judgmental—does not mean we should be silent in the face of oppression. Matthew 23 shows Jesus coming down hard on those who were oppressing others. (We also see this in the Old Testament prophets.) A good rule of thumb is to be nonjudgmental of individual’s motives, but to be vocal activists when in unjust systems—including our own government—people are oppressed or deprived of equality and dignity.

 

Wednesday, October 9

Read: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Consider: For the past couple of days we’ve looked at the toxic religion of the Pharisees. Jesus described it as “the yeast of the Pharisees” (Matthew 16:6). In other settings, Jesus used the image of yeast as a positive thing—an image of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 13:33). You don’t see the yeast in your bread. You don’t taste it. But it has changed the very form and structure of the bread you are eating. In the same way, God’s new kingdom is working below the surface, as agents of his kingdom are changing the world.

But just as the kingdom is beautifully subversive, destructive things also take place out of our sight. The yeast of the Pharisees—which is still with us today in legalistic Christianity—militates against the advancement of the new kingdom.

The most famous Pharisee of all time was a man named Saul. His form of religion was so skewed that he believed he was doing the work of God by persecuting the early followers of Christ. In God’s name he separated families, threw innocent people in prison and arranged for their execution. But even Pharisees can be redeemed.

The most powerful statement on love—which we read today—came from the stylus of that Pharisee. His life changed. He saw what he could never see before. And what he saw was love, mercy and grace. Saul—later known as Paul—came to see the real law as the law of love. And he couldn’t stop talking about it.

Regarding to the old way of thinking, Paul said…

“…we are no longer under the supervision of the law…the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 3:25, 5:6)

Pray: Take some time today to prayerfully meditate on 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. Ask the Lord to give you the freedom to live in that kind of love today.

 

Thursday, October 10

Read: Matthew 12:1-8

Consider: We’ve been looking this week at the tension between law and love. Sometimes it is communicated as the tension between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. As Paul said…

“…the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6)

This is vital to our understanding of Jesus’ message. A legalistic “righteousness” makes us harsh and judgmental. We begin to rationalize our unloving stance by saying that we are speaking truth. And somehow, we’ve come under the ridiculous assumption that speaking our version of truth is more important than our call to love. But it isn’t. Our top priority is not getting our theology right. Our top priority is learning to love like Christ loves.

As Jesus and his friends walked through the grain fields on the Sabbath, the Pharisees (there they are again) challenged Jesus about the disciples’ apparent breaking of the Sabbath laws. Jesus’ response included a quote from the prophet Hosea who gave us these words from God…

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Matthew 12:7, quoting Hosea 6:6)

What Hosea and Jesus meant by “sacrifice” were the rituals, worship and laws of Israel (which included the sacrifice of animals). Jesus was saying very plainly that how we treat others was much more important to God than how we worship or even what we believe. That was a pretty radical statement. It still is today. But remember that it comes from the lips of God.

Our worship is important. Our rituals are important. But if we do not live the life of a mercy-giver, we’ve missed the whole point.

Pray: “Lord, you desire mercy more than the other things we’ve often associated with our faith. Help me today to be a mercy-giver and one who loves all people regardless of who they are or what they’ve done. Today someone will cross my path who needs your mercy, grace and love. Please give that to them through me.”

 

Friday, October 11

Read: Matthew 9:9-13

Consider: As we saw yesterday in Matthew 12, again today in Matthew 9 we see Jesus quoting Hosea 6:6…

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (9:13)

We saw it yesterday when we looked at Jesus’ response to the Pharisees concerning their Sabbath laws (Matthew 12:7). He was telling them that people are more important than rules. Love is more important than law.

In today’s reading, we see Jesus use the same response as the Pharisees question the worthiness of the people with Jesus. They thought the swindlers and the prostitutes needed to do something to make themselves worthy of God’s attention. And that is the essence of legalism. It is the effort to earn God’s favor by what we do, rather than accepting God’s favor based on who he is and what he has done. So, legalism continually emphasizes beliefs and doctrines, while it pulls us away from mercy, grace and love.

We have a disease in contemporary American Christianity. Christianity has been reduced to a belief system. People proclaim themselves to be Christians simply because, like the Pharisees, they adhere to a system of thought and certain religious practices. So “Christians” are free to be mean-spirited, free to denigrate others, free to neglect the poor, free to watch out for themselves first and foremost, and free to live life on their own terms because they say they “believe” in Jesus. Look at our politics. Almost every one of our politicians claims to be a Christian, yet the words and actions emanating from so many of them are so toxic that our whole culture is being poisoned.

Jesus said, God does not desire empty worship (sacrifice). He does not desire us to use his name to promote our existing agenda. He does not call us to bully others because we think we know better. He calls us to mercy.

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

If I want to ask myself if I’m really following in the steps of Jesus, I can simply use Jesus’ measuring rod. Am I a mercy-giver?

Pray: “Lord, my life is defined by your mercy. I want to give what I have received. Thank you that your mercy is fresh in my life every day. Make it fresh in the lives of others as I let your mercy flow through me.”

 

Saturday, October 12

Read: Matthew 5:1-7

Consider: It’s easy to look at the fifth Beatitude—the fifth blessing—as simply a promise for the future. If I’m merciful now, then someday God will show me mercy by allowing me into heaven. But that misses the point. God has already been merciful to us. He has already brought heaven—God’s presence—to us when he took on our humanity and clothed himself in flesh. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and every day of our lives are gifts of mercy. So, like the other Beatitudes, mercy is all about life here and life now.

You see, the biblical concept of mercy is very close to the idea of forgiveness. Just a few moments after giving us this blessing, Jesus said…

“…if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” (6:14)

And a few moments after that he said…

“…with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (7:2)

I think the promise that merciful people will be given mercy is a promise about divine and human interaction for every moment of every day. God’s mercy must flow through me. And the odds are good that I will receive mercy from others when I have been graciously merciful to them.

I believe our lives with God and with one another are to be lives that inhale and exhale mercy, forgiveness and love.

This week we’ve heard God proclaim it through the prophet (Hosea 6:6), Jesus affirm it as he lived among us (Matthew 9:13, 12:7) and Paul put it into poetry (1 Corinthians 13). And they all tell us the same thing. Nothing is more important.

Pray: To remind us to live the life of a mercy-giver this day, let’s pray the Prayer of St. Francis…

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.

Righteousness and Justice

We’re spending one week on each of the blessings that begin Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) introduce us to Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of Heaven. Our focus this week is found in 5:6 — “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

 

Monday, September 30

Read: Isaiah 55:1-2

Consider: Cravings. All of us get them from time to time. Our minds fixate on a certain food and we determine that it is the only dish that will really bring us satisfaction. Sometimes those cravings are real. When our bodies call for protein or hydration, our minds cooperate with our bodies to search out what we really need to eat or drink. But we all know that many times our cravings are simply the result of a favorite food that has come to mind—perhaps through an advertisement, a smell or a good memory.

Of course, we all know the major problem here. Most of the time those false cravings make us reach for all the wrong foods. I confess, I’ve never outgrown my taste for chocolate. Mocha lattes, chocolate chip cookies, dark chocolate candy, birthday cake with chocolate frosting—these are things that bring me great pleasure. Of course, too much of any one of those treats will leave me feeling awful rather than feeling satisfied.

There is nothing wrong with wonderful, delicious desserts. But there is a downward spiral with excess in pleasure food. The more of it we eat, the more our bodies adjust to it so that it begins to feel like it is real food. Then, when we’re hungry, we don’t feel hunger for healthy food. We crave the sugar hit and the junk food.

That is why, through the prophet, God said…

“Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare.” (55:2)

Of course, this is not a passage about calories. Those words address the nourishment of our souls—the nourishment of life. And God wants us to crave the right things.

“Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?” (55:2)

Good questions. Why do we go for emotional junk food when there is a spiritual feast available to us? I’m convinced that if we continually ingest spiritual, emotional and intellectual junk, it will begin to feel like the real thing. Then we will continually crave all the wrong things.

Pray: “Lord, you have invited me to your table. It is a place where my soul can be filled, nurtured and satisfied. But it is so easy for me to order off the wrong menu—to fill my mind and life with spiritually empty calories. I don’t want the junk of this culture to be my food. I want to ‘delight in the richest of fare’ that is your presence in my life. Place in me this day the desires you have for me.”

 

Tuesday, October 1

Read: Psalm 63:1-8

Consider: Yesterday we saw Isaiah use the image of physical nutrition and fulfillment to speak about what God wants to do in the entirety of our lives. The psalmist also takes up that theme. David wrote…

“I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.” (63:5)

And, like Isaiah, he relates the satisfaction of our souls to the legitimate cravings—the real, life-sustaining longings—of our lives.

“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…” (63:1)

Food always tastes best when we’re hungry. I’m not talking about those times when we eat simply because it’s lunch time, whether we’re really hungry or not. I’m talking about those times when our bodies call out for nourishment—when our stomachs are empty and we’re anticipating real food, not the junk that we so often put in our bodies when we’re on the run. I’m talking about the hunger we feel when we’re about to eat something substantial and delicious that fills a real need. That empty feeling in our bodies is a wonderful gift from God.

And how much more wonderful is the gift of spiritual hunger! We were created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27) for fellowship with him. And just as we don’t eat one meal in a lifetime, we need the filling of our lives with God’s Spirit every day.

But again, it’s not just the filling that is a gift from God. The hunger is a gift as well.

It’s important for us to understand that and live accordingly. I don’t conjure spiritual hunger in my life. I don’t manufacture it or try to work myself into some emotional state of spiritual hunger. I ask for it. I ask God to give me the right desires and then to give me the desires of my heart.

Pray: “Lord, give me the heart described by the psalmist. Help me to ‘thirst for you.’ Give me a heart that ‘longs for you.’ Then it will be natural for me to earnestly ‘seek you’ (65:1) and ‘I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods’ (63:5). And please show me how to position my life so that I can receive both the hunger and the fulfillment of that hunger.”

 

Wednesday, October 2

Read: Matthew 5:6

Consider: What makes us hungry for God? What causes us to “hunger and thirst for righteousness”? Is it something that just happens, or is it something that we develop? Is it something we seek after, or do we just wait for it to come upon us?

Spiritual writer Richard Rohr believes there are two things that take us to a deep level in our relationship with Christ—great suffering and great love.

We’ve all seen—in the lives of others and in our own lives—how pain can bring us closer to God. That is one of the reasons that Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn” (5:4). Great suffering brings the potential for spiritual depth like we have never known before. The comfort that Jesus promised to those who mourn is his presence.

Of course, that concept alone—that suffering draws us closer to God—won’t give us perfect peace. We want a deep, vital relationship with Christ, but we’re certainly not hoping for more pain.

So, I’m glad to continually discover that great love also takes us deeper. Love is something that can be developed. Of course, love is always a gift from God. But we can exercise love, practice love, determine to love whether we benefit from it or not. We can love the unlovely. We can love by sacrificing. Love is a gift, but it is also intentional action on our part. We partner with God to learn how to love.

And the more you love, the more you love. The more you allow God to love through you, the more you want to be an agent of his love. And you find that, since God is love, your hunger for love is hunger for God.

Pray: “Lord, my prayer is that I may walk closer to you. May joy and pain, hope and fear, mountains and valleys, be places where I find you because I have sought you there. Teach me to love, to find you in love, and to yearn to know you and your love at an ever deeper level.”

 

Thursday, October 3

Read: Psalm 42:1-5

Consider: There are so many layers to this great psalm. So many insights to meditate. But there are two images that are particularly powerful to me in this prayer. The first is desire.

“As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” (42:1-2)

Yesterday we looked at two experiences that deepen our longing for God—great suffering and great love. Both are seen here…

“My tears have been my food day and night…” (42:3)

“These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God…with shouts of joy and praise…” (42:4)

This is life. “Joy and sorrow are this ocean” is the way the late Rich Mullins said it. So, we navigate this ocean with God.

When we suffer, we choose to suffer with God. When we watch a child blow out her birthday candles, we choose to experience that moment with God. When we mow the lawn, we choose to work and sweat with God. When we crawl out of bed in the morning and when we lay our heads on the pillow at night, we choose to see God at our side. And when we reach out and touch another person, we choose to do it with the hand of Christ—the hand of God.

As we learn to alertly and intentionally live in the presence of God, we experience a growing hunger to never spend one moment without him. The more we know him, the more we want to know him. The more he satisfies us, the hungrier we get.

I often share these words from A. W. Tozer, because no one has said it better…

“To have found God and still to pursue him is the soul’s paradox of love, scorned indeed by the too easily satisfied religionist, but justified in happy experience by the children of the burning heart.”

Pray: “Lord, make me a child of the burning heart.”

 

Friday, October 4

Read: Psalm 42:1-8

Consider: There are two powerful images that stand out in our forty-second psalm. The first one, which we looked at yesterday, is the strength of longing, seen in the soul that “pants” for God (42:1).

And as I continue reading that psalm, I’m always inspired by these words…

“Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.” (42:7)

I’m not sure any of us could adequately describe the meaning of “Deep calls to deep.” Yet, we know it to be true. We know that deep within us is a longing for God. God calls for us and we call for God. When we get past the superficialities of life, this becomes increasingly clear.

Even people who don’t read the Jewish and Christian scriptures, those who may not have developed a vocabulary to think and talk about God, know that they cannot function in life without love. Almost everyone agrees that a basic human need is to love and be loved.

Our faith teaches us that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). So, our longing for love is a longing for God. Deeps calls to deep.

The biggest challenge that we face in giving and receiving love, is realizing that love—that is, God—is already with us — “all your waves and breakers have swept over me” (42:7). How do we miss the waves of God’s love? I don’t know. But we do.

But when we see past the distractions of life, when we quiet our lives long enough to listen, we will recognize that deep calling. We will know that we are loved and that we love. And we will long for more.

In that longing, we’ll discover something amazing. We don’t need more of God’s love. His love for us is already infinite. We simply need to learn to live in that love.

“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.” (1 John 4:16)

Pray: Take some time to meditate on “what great love the Father has lavished on us” (1 John 3:1). Consider how his “waves and breakers” have swept over you (Psalm 42:7). And try to discern his voice in your life—as “deep calls to deep” (Psalm 42:7). Express your gratitude to God today by your words, by your actions, and with your whole life.

 

Saturday, October 5

Read: Matthew 5:1-6

Consider: This week we’ve looked at the hunger that Jesus spoke of in the fourth beatitude—the fourth blessing. There is something in that one sentence that we dare not miss. If we do, we’ll miss the beauty of the Kingdom that he goes on to proclaim throughout the Sermon on the Mount and throughout all his teaching. We must ask what Jesus meant by “righteousness.”

There are two words that are very distinct in our language—righteousness and justice. We typically think of righteousness as a very personal thing. A righteous person is a good person, a humble person, an honest person—a person in whom we see the results of God’s presence. We usually think of justice as something broader. We think of justice as it functions in a community or among the nations.

But in the original language of the New Testament, those are not two distinct words. It is one word—dikaiosuné. Jesus was saying, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice…”

In the Bible—in Jesus’ words—justice refers to caring for the most vulnerable among us. Justice means making sure that everyone who is made in God’s image has food, shelter, safety, dignity, equality and love. Biblical justice means seeing every person as one who has ultimate value.

To be righteous is not simply a matter of one’s internal disposition towards God. To be righteous is to seek justice for the oppressed.

The Old Testament prophets spoke of this kind of righteousness as being central to what it means to walk with God. The prophet Micah asked, “What does the Lord require of you?” His answer was…

“To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

So, when Jesus blessed those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, he was including more than their own personal righteousness. He wants us to be hungry for the poor to be fed. He wants us to be thirsty for the oppressed to be set free. He wants us to yearn for God’s best for everyone, not just for ourselves.

That kind of righteousness brings about a new intimacy with God. When we begin to see Jesus in the suffering people around us, we get to know him better than we ever had before.

Pray: “Lord, make me hungry for you and hungry for your will to be done in our world. Teach me to walk in a manner that allows you to use me to bring righteousness and justice to our world.”

The Power of the Meek

We’re spending a few weeks in The Beatitudes, found in Matthew 5:3-12. Those blessings form a new worldview, which Jesus called the “Kingdom of Heaven.” This week we focus on Matthew 5:5 — “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

 

Monday, September 23

Read: Matthew 7:24-29

Consider: “Yes, but in the real world…” We’ve all heard that. It’s often the opening phrase of a statement from someone who is struggling with the ethics of The Beatitudes and the entire Sermon on the Mount. Have you ever heard that approach? Have you ever used it? Well, for most of us, if we haven’t actually said those words, we have wondered, “Does that work in the real world?”

When we read Jesus’ teachings on meekness, peace-making, enemy love and turning the other cheek, we can’t help but wonder if they really apply to our world. In day-to-day human interaction, in family relationships, in business and industry, in relationships between communities and nations, it just seems like Jesus’ teachings don’t apply to the real world.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is stunning. It is challenging. It offends us (even if we won’t admit it). If anyone besides Jesus would say those things, we’d dismiss them as naïve or castigate them for being soft on evildoers. Some of Jesus’ words are just hard. Hard to understand. Hard to put in perspective. Hard to live.

But we can’t ignore them. We can’t say that the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t apply to the “real world” or we are calling Jesus naïve. We’re saying that he doesn’t understand life.

We don’t want to go there, so often we try to make Jesus’ words more palatable. We believe that meekness is for safe environments only. It can be practiced among decent people. We believe that we can love when that love is returned. When it is not, we fall back on “loving” by the world’s rules and values.

Of course, a common way of dismissing the Sermon on the Mount is to say that it only applies to individual relationships. In other words, it’s no way to run the world. Recently an American religious leader boldly stated that Jesus’ ethical teachings don’t apply to businesses or governments. Of course, Jesus didn’t say that.

So, when we listen to Jesus instruct us as to how we should live, we must come with open eyes and attentive ears. We must humble ourselves enough to admit that we are the ones, not Jesus, who don’t understand the “real world.” The One who created it does. And he understands the world that he wants for you and me and for all his creation.

Jesus concluded his Sermon on the Mount by saying…

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock…but everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.” (Matthew 7:24, 26)

Pray: “Lord, your teaching on meekness, peace-making, enemy love and turning the other cheek are a rock upon which you want me to build my life. This goes against my engrained way of thinking and judging. It is contrary to everything this world teaches us about security. Help me, Lord, to begin to see your real world in the way you see it.”

 

Tuesday, September 24

Read: Matthew 5:1-5

Consider: We cannot read the blessings that begin the Sermon on the Mount without noticing how wrong they feel. Or can we? Perhaps they no longer feel strange to us. What if we’ve read, heard and quoted the Beatitudes so many times that we no longer really hear them?

When I say they can feel “wrong” or “strange,” I mean they seem to be at odds with the way we normally think and categorize. In some ways we are very much like the people who first heard these words from Jesus. His teaching seems backwards or upside down to us. We don’t feel blessed when we’re poor. We don’t feel blessed when we mourn. And we would certainly never embrace meekness. In fact, our culture sees meekness as a character flaw. We’re taught to be more assertive. We want to develop characteristics that would never be considered by others to be meek. And yet Jesus pronounces a special blessing on “the meek.”

Perhaps part of the problem is ascertaining what Jesus meant by “the meek.” For many people, meekness is synonymous with weakness. People who assert themselves, who boldly express their opinions, who take what they think they have coming to them, and refuse to take any guff from anyone, are considered, by our culture, to be strong. A person who doesn’t put his or her own rights above all else, is seen to be weak. But that’s because we’re the ones who have it backwards.

Jesus exemplified meekness. But we cannot imagine a stronger person than him. So perhaps meekness has something to do with how we direct our strength—how we choose to use it. This can redefine strength, redefine weakness and redefine meekness.

Perhaps we need to totally reorient our thinking if we are to understand the third blessing.

Pray: Take some time to meditate on the strength and the meekness of Christ. What does it mean to say that Jesus was meek? How was his meekness displayed? How does it run counter to the values of our culture? Then ask the Lord to show you how—this very day—you can live like Jesus.

 

Wednesday, September 25

Read: Colossians 2:6-15

Consider: Many of the people who witnessed Christ’s crucifixion mocked him.

“Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!’ In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. ‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him…. In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.” (Matthew 27:39-44)

The people thought they were seeing the epitome of weakness and failure. The one who had been proclaimed to be a king was reduced to this. All they could see was something to spit on, because, at that moment, they could not see reality.

After the fact, the Apostle Paul saw it clearly. And what he saw was quite different. Something else was being exposed. Something else was being defeated.

“And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he (Jesus) made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (Colossians 2:15)

In the New Testament, “powers” and “authorities” usually refer to the empires, governments and corrupt systems of the day. These demonic powers are ruled by might, intimidation and violence. Jesus ruled by meekness, exposing them and leading to their utter destruction.

So, Christians don’t see strength in the sword. We see strength in the cross. We see power in a manner that is unintelligible to the world. The power of love has brought down empires and saved the world. If we miss the humility, meekness, power and love of Christ, we fall into the trap of depending on the wisdom and “strength” of this world. And if we get this wrong—if we see strength the way the empires of this world see it—we’ll end up embracing the pitiful weapons and tactics of this world.

Pray: “Thank you, Lord, for making ‘a public spectacle’ of sinful ‘power,’ exposing it for all its weakness. Today I humble myself to live in the true sacrificial power of the cross—the power of the love of Christ. Help me to see like you see and to love like you love.”

 

Thursday, September 26

Read: Psalm 37:1-11

Consider: When we read the words of Jesus, we often find him making references to God’s work in the Old Testament. Sometimes he quoted the prophets and the psalms. In the third beatitude, Jesus quoted a portion of Psalm 37. There we find God’s instruction to “be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him” and to “refrain from anger and turn from wrath” (37:7-8). Then comes the promise that…

“…the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity.” (37:11)

But, as Jesus always did, he greatly expanded the original meaning. In the Old Testament, when the Hebrews spoke of “the land,” they were talking about the land of promise—Israel, their homeland. And when they spoke about the meek, they were speaking about their sisters and brothers who were oppressed. The promise of the psalmist was that the oppressed would return to their home.

But when Jesus quoted the psalm, he had so much more in mind. He didn’t simply talk about “the land.” He said the meek “will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5). And the meek were not only the oppressed, but also the ones who would choose to live by the values of Jesus the Christ.

I believe Jesus was pointing to something far beyond the land on which people live. He was not speaking about a piece of ground that we would call our home. He was speaking about the earth that God will renew at Christ’ return. God’s plan is to restore, renew and resurrect his creation. The new kingdom has already come, but someday it will come in its fullness. When that happens, we will see that God did not use those who are powerful by the world’s standards. God used the meek—those who would choose to love like Christ loves.

“At some thoughts one stands perplexed, above all at the sight of human sin, and wonders whether to combat it by force or by humble love. Always decide ‘I will combat it by humble love.’ If you resolve on that once and for all, you can conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a terrible force: it is the strongest of all things, and there is nothing else like it.”

— Starets Zosima in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov

Pray: “Lord, I want to be an agent of your new kingdom. Teach me to understand your power as opposed to the kind of ‘power’ that is worshipped by our culture. And teach me to live in that power as a meek lover of God and his creation.”

 

Friday, September 27

Read: Revelation 12:10-11

Consider: The Book of Revelation is a wonderful, mysterious and difficult book. The reason that it is so hard to understand, and the reason there are so many misunderstandings of it, is that it is a type of literature that we do not have today. We don’t naturally know how to approach it because it is unlike anything we read anywhere else.

It is a genre known as Jewish Apocalyptic. It is addressed to people who are—or soon will be—undergoing severe persecution. And although it often sounds frightening, it is a message of hope to the persecuted church that God’s plan will prevail over evil.

One thing that is obvious when you read Revelation is that it uses images to convey truth. When John wrote it from Patmos, he didn’t intend for us to take the images literally, but to look for the meaning behind them.

There are two major images in the Book of Revelation—the Beast and the Lamb. The Beast (the Roman Empire) was an image of the evil that stands against God and his people. Through power, violence and death, the Beast intended to dominate the world. Blood would flow from the sword of the Beast.

Yet, the Beast is overcome “by the blood of the Lamb” (12:11). The Lamb, of course, is Jesus Christ. He is the Lamb that was sacrificed—slaughtered—for humankind. That sacrifice is the only thing that could overcome the evil that finds its home in our world.

When we consider the way of Christ, it is helpful to look at the images of the sword and the blood as depicted in Revelation. The Beast tried to conquer by the sword. Yet, John repeatedly tells us that the sword of the Lamb is in his mouth, not in his hand. In other words, it is the sword of the “Word of God.” The Lamb wields truth, not the weapons of this world.

The Beast tried to conquer by shedding the blood of the innocent. The Lamb overcame the Beast by the shedding of his own blood. The blood on the robe of the Lamb is his own blood, not the blood of his enemies (Revelation 19:13).

So, when we look at the cross, we see the God who died for his creation. He didn’t kill to save. He died to save.

Pray:

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this
That caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul!

To God and to the Lamb I will sing, I will sing;
To God and to the Lamb I will sing; 
To God and to the Lamb, 
Who is the great I AM, 
While millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing,
While millions join the theme, I will sing.

— American Folk Hymn

 

Saturday, September 28

Read: Philippians 2:1-11

Consider: There are various ways that English translators have tried to convey Paul’s words in Philippians 2:5…

“Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus…”

“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus…”

“Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…”

But my favorite translation of this verse is…

“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus…”

I believe Paul was talking about more than an attitude or even a mindset (as we commonly use that term). I believe he was calling us to a total transformation of life that empowers us to see God, Christ, ourselves and our world in a new way. We must have “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16) if we are going to live the servant-life that Jesus did—the life to which he calls us.

He calls us to be like him, the One who…

“…did not consider equality with God something to be grasped…made himself nothing…humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8)

I can’t even conceive of what that means for me. I only know that I must humble myself and ask the Lord to show me how to be a servant—how to be like him.

This will involve the rejection of my ego needs, such as my need to be recognized or honored by others. (I believe that is part of what Paul meant when he said we must crucify the “old self”—Romans 6:6.) It will mean submitting all my plans to God’s plans for me. It will mean living close enough to Jesus that his Spirit can guide and direct my steps.

And it will be worth it. For just as Paul taught us that the crucified Christ would be exalted (Philippians 2:9-11), Jesus taught us what that would mean for each one of us when he said…

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5)

Pray: “Lord, right now I can’t discern what all is involved in my call to servanthood. But I know that you set the example and will guide my steps. So today I tune my heart—my spiritual eyes and ears—to you. Show me this day how to walk like Jesus. Show me how to serve like Christ. Help me to have ‘the mind of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 2:16).”

Those Who Mourn

We’re spending a few weeks in The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12). But as we do, we’ll explore other passages—from both the Old and New Testaments—which point us to Jesus’ blessings. Those blessings begin to form a new worldview which Jesus called the “Kingdom of Heaven.”

This week’s meditations will take us to the second blessing on Saturday — “Blessed are those who mourn” (5:4).

 

Monday, September 16

Read: Psalm 139:1-6

Consider: As the psalmist praises God for his presence, protection and strength, he uses spatial language—he “locates” us in God’s presence. “You hem me in behind and before” (139:5). Or, as we might say today, the God who goes before me also has my back.

It brings to mind other psalms that describe God’s closeness to us as physical proximity, such as Psalm 91…

“A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.” (91:7)

I remember a particular time in my life when the assignment before me was intimidating. I was nervous, afraid of what I had to do. At that moment, words from the psalms began to flood my mind—passages about God going before me, God being my rear guard, God standing at my right side and my left. My world changed at that moment. I didn’t see myself as walking alone, hoping that God would somehow give me success. I saw myself surrounded by him. Many years later I would find another way to describe this truth from the words of our brother, the Apostle Paul, who said, “your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).

It sounds too good to be true. Or, as the psalmist wrote, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain” (139:6).

But that is our reality.

Pray: Take some time today to meditate on God’s presence by visualizing the Lord going before you, standing behind you, defending you on the right and guarding you on the left. Then ask God to help you see him in that manner throughout the day. (God gave us the poetry of the Bible so we could “see” God in these kinds of powerful and intimate ways.) And don’t forget to thank him that “your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”

 

Tuesday, September 17

Read: Psalm 139:7-12

Consider: This psalm is poetry that sustains the soul. The psalmist uses language that evokes powerful images of God’s presence. He wrote…

“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.” (139:7-8)

Sheol is the Hebrew word that, in this passage, is translated, “the depths.” It is a word that signifies the grave or the place of the dead. In the King James Version of the Old Testament, we find the most famous translation of this passage — “If I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.”

Let that concept settle in your mind. Or rather, let it settle in your spirit at a deep, abiding level — “If I make my bed in hell, you are there.”

Now, we know (by the meaning of sheol) that the psalmist was not talking about hell in a manner that some would later come to see it. He was not speaking about a place of eternal torment. But I love the King James translation of this phrase, because it paints a picture about the hell that many of us are going through right now. The psalmist wove his words together to tell us something that is too good to be true, and yet is true.

If I find myself in the depths, if the darkness is so overwhelming that it seems like I’ll never see light again, if I can find no concept or word that describes the place I’m in other than “hell,” there is still a promise. The promise is that God is there with me, even in the hell I’m walking through right now.

Pray: Thank God that even when we don’t feel his presence, we can know his presence—not so much at a cognitive level, but at a spiritual level. We can believe him when he said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:3, Deuteronomy 31:6).

 

Wednesday, September 18

Read: Psalm 139:1-12

Consider: Darkness is a powerful image throughout scripture. Sometimes evil is described as darkness, but that is certainly not the only use of that word. Other times it is an image of sorrow, grief and abandonment. St. John of the Cross, a sixteenth century saint, wrote about “the dark night of the soul.”

We don’t even have to define the dark night of the soul. We know it when we’re there. Some of God’s people have had to travel through unimaginable seasons of depression—a reality that goes far beyond changes of moods, common sadness or emotional volatility. The dark night of the soul cannot be captured in words. It has claimed the lives of many people we love.

When you read the psalms, you get the impression that the psalmist had experienced that dark night. Many of the psalms are laments and some are even called “complaints.” And sometimes the palmist wished he could die.

Today’s psalm doesn’t deny that. It doesn’t say “lighten up” and everything will be rosy. In fact, it says that sometimes we find ourselves saying, “Surely the darkness will hide me, and the light become night around me” (139:11).

We find a promise in this psalm. No, it’s not easy to grasp. It’s not a quick fix that removes the darkness. It doesn’t immediately pull us out of the darkness. But it is truth.

“…even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.” (139:12)

When we can’t see God, we stand on the promise that he sees us. He has not abandoned us. Believing that is not easy. But his presence makes it possible.

Pray: “Lord, thank you that you see clearly in my darkness. I pray that I can see clearly as well. But until I receive that clarity, I’ll trust you, knowing that you see what I cannot see. Guide me by your light.”

 

Thursday, September 19

Read: Psalm 23:1-6

Consider: In this, the most famous of all the psalms, David proclaims…

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me…” (23:4)

Remember when you were a child and you found yourself walking alone in a dark place. What did you do? You quickened your pace. You walked faster and faster. If the fear didn’t subside, your hurried steps turned into a run. Your goal was to get out of the dark as soon as you could, so that the fear would go away.

We still do that. When I find myself in a dark place emotionally or spiritually, my goal is to leave that place as soon as possible. I may beg God to take the darkness away. I may try to sidetrack my mind with a host of diversions, so I don’t have to peer into the darkness. But as normal and natural as it is for me to run from, ignore or deny the darkness, there is a better way. I can look for God in the darkness.

Pain, grief and sorrow are part of my life and yours. They can’t be avoided, and they can’t be ignored or denied for any substantial length of time. We all pass through those valleys. But David said that in those dark days of pain and sorrow, we don’t have to be overcome by fear.

I’m trying to learn to slow my pace in the valley. It’s not easy. But if I do, I have a better chance of seeing the face of God and knowing his presence. I hate the valley. But what would be even worse than walking in the dark, would be missing his presence in that dark place. If I run, I may miss an opportunity for life-changing intimacy with the God who walks with me through the valley of the shadow of death.

Pray: “Lord, when it’s dark, I have to strain to see and sometimes your presence is hidden from me. When I can’t feel it, teach me to know your presence at a level that is much deeper than my cognition or my emotions. Help me to find you in the valley. Thank you that I don’t have to be afraid. Thank you that I never have to journey through the darkness alone.”

 

Friday, September 20

Read: Matthew 1:18-23

Consider: At the center of our faith is our belief in the incarnation. With the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, we don’t simply celebrate the coming of a prophet or a wise, compassionate leader. There is so much more. We celebrate the miracle that God put on human flesh and took on our humanity. He became one of us.

John teaches us that the Son—the second person of the Trinity—is eternal and is one with the Father (John 1:1-3, 14). So, Christ didn’t come into existence when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. He simply came to our world. He came to us.

“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’—which means ‘God with us’.” (Matthew 1:22-23)

Throughout the Bible, we are told repeatedly that God intends to dwell with his people. When his people journeyed through the wilderness, God showed his presence with a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. When the appointed time came, God became a man and “pitched his tent among us” (John 1:14). And before Jesus left us in the flesh, he promised that he would not leave us as orphans, but that his Spirit would dwell with us and in us (John 14).

The most wonderful thing we can do on this journey is to develop our awareness of God’s presence. The dishwasher, who we know as Brother Lawrence, called it “the practice of the presence of God.”

Through prayer, worship, the sacraments, silence, solitude and other spiritual practices, we teach ourselves to live in an ever-increasing awareness that “God is with us.” This is how we live the full life to which we are called. His presence causes our pain to form us, not destroy us. His presence changes our desires, so that sin is no longer our master. His presence brings contentment that keeps us from chasing after empty promises. His presence makes all the difference.

Pray: “Lord, in my mind I know that you are with me. But I want to know it with more than my mind. I want to know your presence with my whole being. Help me to make every day of my life a day of increased awareness of you. Help me to live in the reality that Christ is in me and I am in Christ (John 14:20).”

 

Saturday, September 21

Read: Matthew 5:1-4

Consider: “Blessed are those who mourn.” That statement doesn’t usually come from our lips. We feel sorrow and empathy for those who mourn. We pray for them, asking God to be real to them in their grief. But we don’t usually think of them as being blessed.

And yet, we do. When we walk with someone through times of great sorrow, we keep finding God in the middle of the suffering. In small and large ways, we get to see that God is there. And, in the middle of the pain, we have a sense of gratitude—a sense of blessing—that can only come from the presence of God.

Jesus said that those who mourn will be comforted. That comfort doesn’t come from understanding our suffering. We don’t know the “why” of pain. (That’s why it’s best if we don’t try to bring answers to those who grieve, but simply bring ourselves.) No, it’s not answers, but God’s presence that brings comfort.

This reminds us of why it is important for us to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). We can bring the presence of Christ with us to that place of mourning. And when we share the mourning, we also share the blessing.

I serve as a hospice pastor. Every day I have the honor of ministering to people in their final weeks, days, or even moments of life. I get to embrace families as they walk through their darkest moments.

When I tell people what I do, I often get reactions such as, “Oh, that must be depressing” or “I could never do that.” But what they don’t know is that every day I get to see Jesus. For he is found in the weakest, the most vulnerable, those who mourn. And when we can see him there, the second Beatitude makes perfect sense. “Blessed are those who mourn” when in that mourning they see the face of Christ.

Pray:“Lord, help me to see you in my suffering and in the suffering of those around me. I want to know your presence in my pain and to be a vehicle for your presence in the suffering of others. Show me today how to comfort and how to be comforted.”

The Poor in Spirit

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to spend some time in the opening verses of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount—that series of blessings that have come to be known as “The Beatitudes” (Matthew 5:3-12). As we do, we’ll explore other passages—from both testaments—to open ourselves to the new reality that Jesus taught and lived. It forms a call on our lives, which is the same call Jesus gave to his disciples — “Follow me” (Matthew 4:19).

Our thoughts will guide us to Saturday and the first blessing.

 

Monday, September 9

Read: Luke 15:1-7

Consider: As happened so many times in Jesus’ ministry, today’s account finds Jesus addressing two very different audiences at the same time. Before Luke recorded this parable about a lost lamb, he told us who was listening. Those considered to be the worst of sinners and those who saw themselves as the righteous ones—the good guys—were both in attendance (15:1-2).

Have you ever sat through a sermon, cheering on the inside, thinking, “Yeah, you tell it, pastor! Straighten out these people!” only to slowly discover that you were the one who needed to listen? Let’s be honest. We’ve all done that. Well, Jesus didn’t want anyone to miss his point, so he gave us the punchline. He summed up the parable by saying, “There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (15:7).

Now, on its own, that statement doesn’t make sense. Wouldn’t we rejoice more if people kept their lives pure? Wouldn’t we be happier about ninety-nine people who did it right than we would be about one person who finally got it right after making a mess of things?

Well, we know there really is no such thing as a person who does not need to repent. But Jesus was looking at “ninety-nine” Pharisees who were convinced that they didn’t need to. They saw no reason to change or to allow God to change them. And because they couldn’t see their own need for repentance, Jesus knew that they weren’t ready to see what God wanted to do in their lives. So, the shepherd went to those who knew they were lost.

By the way, this story contains a powerful truth about Jesus. And if we don’t understand it, we don’t know who God is. It comes from the mouths of the Pharisees who muttered, “This man welcomes sinners” (15:2).

That’s where we get that beautiful name for Jesus — “a friend of sinners.” That name should be our name as well.

Pray: “Lord, thank you for loving me, even though I am so far from perfection. Help me to love others—regardless of their actions—in the manner that you love them. Keep me humble before you. I realize that if I’m ever convinced that I no longer need to change, I close the door on the work that you want to do in my life.”

 

Tuesday, September 10

Read: Luke 15:11-24

Consider: In the days prior to smartphones with GPS, I got lost. A lot. All the time. Pretty much whenever I drove to unfamiliar territory, I’d get lost. My wife always recognized it immediately. She’d ask, “Do you know where you’re going?” Of course, I always said “yes” because I knew what my destination was. But then she’d ask the killer question, “Do you know where you are?” Well, now, that’s different. That’s when Carol knew for sure, and I had to admit, that I was lost.

And I always had a strange reaction. For some reason, when I realized I was lost, I’d drive faster. Maybe everyone does that. I don’t know. Perhaps we’re just anxious to see the next mile marker. But the result was simply that I was going further off course at a higher rate of speed—getting “loster” faster.

The three parables of Luke 15—the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin and the Lost Son—have a beautiful commonality. They all end in celebration. But the third parable brings added truth. And part of that truth has to do with the heart and the vision of the one who was lost.

If a shepherd loses a lamb or a woman loses a coin, it’s obvious that something is missing. But when it comes to seeing that we ourselves are lost, we can be slow (or too stubborn) to see it.

The son who left his father had no clue that he was lost. He kept going the wrong direction and picking up speed, which took him far and fast from the life his father had for him. He thought he was doing a pretty good job managing his life. He had to experience great tragedy, sorrow and loss before “he came to his senses” (15:7).

What was obscured to the son was obvious to his father, for when the son returned, his father exclaimed, “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (15:24).

Our Father never stopped waiting for us. He never wrote us off as being unredeemable. He never gave up on us. But he had to wait. He couldn’t (and wouldn’t) force us to come home. He waited and waited. When we were humble enough—when we came to our senses—it became possible for the lost to be found and the dead to be raised.

Now, let’s not diminish this concept of “lostness” as simply referring to those who have never opened themselves to Christ’s love. Yes, in that respect, we are already found. But let’s be honest, even committed believers in Christ encounter times when we feel lost. That state can be brought on by discouragement, depression, anxiety, lack of direction or other factors that we didn’t see coming. And those times of feeling lost can last a long time.

What is invisible to us is clear to our Father. But sometimes, we walk through dark passages—very dark paths. At those times we may not see the Father, but we are humble enough to know we can’t navigate the night on our own.

Pray: “Lord, the thing that can draw me away from you is my delusion of self-sufficiency. When I forget that I am lost without you, I wander into strange lands. Today I walk with confidence because I will walk with my Father in whatever direction you take me.”

 

Wednesday, September 11

Read: Luke 15:25-32

Consider: On Monday we looked at one of the most beautiful names ever given to Jesus — The Friend of Sinners. Of course, that didn’t sound beautiful to everyone. Those who found their identity in being morally superior to others didn’t like those “others” to be loved and cherished simply for who they are. They wanted those “others” to earn it, like they thought that they had earned God’s favor.

What Jesus saw in those Pharisees and teachers of the law (15:2), he addressed in this third parable. He pointed out the thinking of the older brother who couldn’t handle the grace and mercy his father gave to his “morally inferior” brother.

Of course, that’s the difference between us and Jesus Christ. We want to feel like we’re righteous. We know we’re not perfect, so we’re tempted to find our “righteousness” in comparing ourselves with others. The older brother said, “Look, I never disobeyed you or gave you a moment of trouble, while he was out spending your money on prostitutes! How can you possibly rejoice over that?” (15:29-30).

Let’s be honest. We really like to appear to be righteous. And, as I said, that’s the difference between us and Jesus. He chose the opposite…

“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

It’s amazing that the only one who was willing to claim total unrighteousness was the Righteous One. And he did that for you and me.

So, as is the case in so many of Jesus’ parables, he flips our world upside down. The “bad guys” become the good guys and the “good guys” must realize that if they would only bring their unrighteousness to God, he would change everything.

This is mercy. This is grace.

Pray: “Lord, I can barely comprehend what it means that you ‘became sin’ for us. I only know that it humbles me. I am reminded that without your grace I have nothing. But your love for me compelled you to a sacrifice of mercy that is beyond my understanding. Thank you.”

 

Thursday, September 12

Read: Matthew 9:9-13

Consider: By all accounts, it was a pretty unsavory crowd that Jesus partied with that evening. The tax collectors of Jesus’ day were Jews who had betrayed their sisters and brothers by working for the enemy. They extracted exorbitant taxes for Caesar’s army and Herod’s construction projects and lined their own pockets in the process. They ripped off their own people while helping the Romans oppress them. Traitors are the worst kind of enemies. They were so hated that many of the Jewish Zealots thought that the only thing better than slitting the throat of a Roman soldier was killing a tax collector.

Yet, Jesus accepted an invitation to Matthew the Tax Collector’s house, so he could spend an evening in the company of Matthew’s cohorts. Who knows what kind of “sinners” (9:10) were in attendance?

In that culture, to eat with someone was to call them your equal. The rich didn’t eat with the poor. The landowners didn’t eat with the slaves. Jews didn’t eat with Gentiles. And men didn’t eat with women in public. You would only allow yourself to be seen eating with someone you considered to be equal to you.

So, the Pharisees were utterly baffled and deeply offended. They asked Jesus’ disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (9:11). It didn’t make sense to them. Those people could only hurt Jesus’ reputation. It was clear that they should be shunned and condemned.

But…

“On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick…for I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’” (9:12-13)

Jesus wasn’t saying that the Pharisees were healthy and righteous. They weren’t. Rather, he was telling them that these tax collectors and “sinners” knew they were broken. Matthew invited Jesus to his home because he knew he needed to hear what Jesus had to say. He invited his friends because he wanted them to meet Jesus. Those Pharisees were not at a point where they could hear Jesus, because they thought they were the healthy, righteous ones. So, Jesus gave words of life to those who could hear them.

Here we find Jesus making the same point as he did in the parable of the Lost Sheep recorded in Luke 15:1-7 (see Monday’s meditation). One lamb could hear. Ninety-nine could not.

Jesus keeps returning to this point—it takes humility to hear and understand the message of the new kingdom. It takes seeing and accepting our brokenness to experience the liberation of his righteousness living in us.

We’ll see again tomorrow another way that Jesus tells us the same truth—the same good news. And we’ll see that it is indeed good news!

Pray: “Lord, when I think my sins are great, you remind me that you are the healer, the physician for our sick souls. Thank you for coming to heal me and liberate me by your mercy. Today I give you thanks for your amazing grace.”

 

Friday, September 13

Read: Luke 18:9-14

Consider: Sometimes Jesus’ parables are subtle. In many of his stories, we must look for the nuances and spend time meditating on the meanings and multiple truths contained in them. Not this one. Nothing subtle here. Jesus told a parable that sticks a finger in the face of anyone who embraces a sense of moral superiority. And because it is so black and white, it’s easy to dismiss. After all, who of us would stand in church, point to someone else and pray, “Thank you, God, that I’m not like that jerk! Thank you that I’m so much better!”

Of course, we would never do that. But when Jesus spoke in such stark terms, he was trying to rattle us—trying to help us see something about ourselves that we may find shocking.

So, let’s do a little personal inventory. Let’s talk about our feelings toward others. I’m not referring to rational discourse. I would never say I’m superior to someone else. But how do I feel?

How do I feel about people of other races or ethnicities? How do I feel about sexual minorities? How do I feel about people of other religions or those with no religion at all? How do I feel about people who embrace politics that are completely at odds with my political convictions? How do I feel about people at a different socio-economic level (whether “above” me or “below” me)?  How do I feel? How does Jesus want me to feel?

He wants me to feel love.

Oh, I know that love is active and can’t be reduced to a feeling. And that’s a common excuse we use when we despise someone. But Jesus wanted action and a willingness to allow others into our hearts and into our lives. Remember, he taught us that, when it comes to our spiritual health, to hate is as destructive as committing murder (Matthew 5:21-22).

So, let’s be honest. Unless I’m willing to feel love toward all humans—willing to see the Image of God in them—I’m never going to act like Jesus.

This parable sticks a finger in my face and compels me to be honest about my love for God’s image-bearers. If I’m honest, it may cause me to fall on my knees and say…

“God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:13)

And that will lead to my liberation.

Pray: There are many written prayers that have become a part of Christian worship down through the years. One is called, “The Jesus Prayer.” It simply says…

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

Another has become a part of common Christian liturgy…

“Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.”

These are good prayers to pray if we approach them in the right way. Don’t see them as self-condemning. (Don’t focus on original sin. Focus on the original blessing—the truth that you are made in God’s image.) See them as the liberating prayers that are taken to the One who loves us more than we can imagine—the One who is eager to forgive and has already forgiven. See them as a vehicle for you to open your heart to everyone, because all of us need God’s grace.

 

Saturday, September 14

Read: Matthew 5:1-3

Consider: You may want to take another look at the passages we’ve read from the New Testament this week. You may want to scan the observations we’ve made. Their origin is found at the starting point of Jesus’ teaching about the new kingdom…

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (5:3)

The kingdom cannot be comprehended by…

The “ninety-nine” who won’t admit that they are lost (Luke 15:1-7).

The obedient son who feels morally superior to his messed up little brother (Luke 15:25-32).

Those who feel no need for a spiritual “doctor,” believing that they are already whole (Matthew 9:9-13).

The one who looks at the “other” sinner with contempt (Luke 18:9-14).

No, not them. The kingdom of heaven—the here and now kingdom of heaven—belongs to “the poor in spirit.”

This first phrase of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the starting point for all of Jesus’ teaching. If we do not recognize our own spiritual poverty, if we will not humble ourselves, if we will not ask God to change us and create new ways of thinking and living, the kingdom of heaven will be unintelligible to us.

This is not a one-time event. This is a way of life. Without a constant, humble seeking of the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16), we will fall back into the “wisdom of this world” (1 Corinthians 3:19) and be seduced by the lies of the nations.

As Jesus sat on the hillside and told the people what it would mean to follow him, his very first sentence explained the attitude we must bring. He spoke about the position we take to hear him and to follow him. He blessed the spiritually impoverished. He blessed us.

Pray:“Lord, your call to acknowledge my spiritual poverty is also a promise for me—for us. Lord, please open our eyes to see your kingdom in ways we could never have imagined. That is a true blessing.”

Simplicity — 6

This is the final week of our focus on Christian simplicity. I hope we can get a glimpse of the power of simplicity and humility. If you read the opening words—the Beatitudes—in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, you’ll discover that the simple, the meek, the humble and the peacemakers are the ones who turn the world upside down. They are the ones who live simply so that others can simply live.

 

Monday, September 2

Read: Ephesians 1:3-10

Consider: For many years I’ve had the privilege of teaching church leadership to undergrads who are preparing for ministry and to graduate students who are on assignment, leading churches and various other ministries. Of course, we always begin with the big picture—the meta-narrative of the church. What is the nature of the church? What is its role in our world? When is the church at its best and when is the church at its worst? What did Jesus teach about the church and how did the early Christians find their way? What does it mean to be the Body of Christ?

But at some point in every course, we take the study of the church—what we call “ecclesiology”—to very practical levels. What does the church look like in the flesh? This is not a departure from beautiful theology. It is our theology, for we worship and follow the One who “became flesh” and pitched his tent with us (John 1:14).

As we study, strategize, pray and live the daily calling of the church, we are often dealing with the management of resources. So, I always begin this section by asking the students, which resources are finite and what resources are infinite. What do we have that we will never find in short supply, and what resources must be rationed and used with great care?

This is an important question. And it’s easy to get turned around on this, to get it backwards. “Resources” like love, grace and forgiveness are always available. We never have to ration them. God lavished his love on us, so we get to spread it indiscriminately. In fact, that’s the essence of living like Jesus. But sometimes Christians start to ration what is infinite. They try to reserve grace for those who they think deserve it. But, of course, that is absurd. If we think someone deserves it, then what we’re giving is certainly not grace.

But we also deal with limited resources. For example, time, money and energy are not infinite. Even the natural resources given by God are not without their limits. But, at times, we live as though they are.

In our final week of focus on Christian simplicity, it’s important for us to look beyond ourselves and to see our task of living responsibility with finite resources, while we freely and extravagantly pass on the infinite gifts God has given.

Pray: “Lord, I cannot begin to thank you enough for your love, grace, forgiveness and patience. I want to see those gifts more clearly as I praise you and as I pass them on to my fellow travelers. Freely I have received, freely I will give (Matthew 10:8).”

 

Tuesday, September 3

Read: 2 Corinthians 8:13-15

Consider: Yesterday we considered the responsibility of managing limited resources while extravagantly passing on the limitless gifts that God has “lavished on us” (Ephesians 1:7-8). As our gratitude overflows, we develop a generosity of spirit that reflects God’s abundance. But it’s important to see abundance through the eyes of God.

Simply put, God’s abundance is not for me. It’s for us.

I grew up in a church that taught that the core of Christianity was a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I’m so grateful for that teaching. I cannot imagine my existence apart from the reality of knowing God and being known by him—to know that I am in Christ and Christ is in me. And, yet, there was something lacking in the manner that I understood the gospel.

I was taught a very personalized—even privatized—faith. The goal was to make it to heaven, so personal piety was the highest calling. I spent my early years searching for inner peace, spiritual abundance and personal contentment. Sure, I was supposed to tell others about Jesus. But that was so they too could have a personal faith.

But abundance is not personal. It’s communal. God did not want a person to abound. He wanted a people to abound. It’s not about me. It’s about us. And “us” includes all who are created in the image of God.

Back to limited resources. We usually discover that many resources are not as scarce as we think they are. They seem to be in short supply when I am trying to find abundance for me. But when our passion is for God’s people—and all of his creation—to prosper, we usually discover that when resources are shared, they go much further.

It’s almost as if a few loaves of bread and a couple fish could feed thousands.

Pray: “Lord, misunderstanding abundance complicates my life and steals my joy. But when I—when we—work and pray and give so that your image-bearers may thrive, you give a depth of gratitude that puts life into perspective. Thank you for your amazing gifts.”

 

Wednesday, September 4

Read: Proverbs 31:8-9

Consider: An axiom on Christian simplicity has guided our thoughts this week. It’s simple and self-evident. Yet I must often remind myself to “Live simply so others can simply live.”

It is possible for me to live a life insulated from the oppressions that are crushing God’s image-bearers in our world. I am a straight, white male living as a citizen in the most affluent nation on earth. I have a job and I own a home. I am never discriminated against because of my religion or my race. I’m never bullied for my sexual orientation or gender identity. Even when I think my finances are tight, I’ve never gone hungry and never slept on the street.

It is easy for people like me to keep our faith private. We can piously proclaim that we don’t get involved in politics or social issues, we just believe in Jesus.

It’s easy to accept the status quo when the status quo serves you well. But what about all of those in our nation and around the world who are being crushed by the beasts of the nations and systems of our world?

Let me clarify my use of the word “politics.” I’m not using it in the manner that we do in America. I’m not talking about tribal partisanship that fights to gain and keep power. I’m talking about the politics of Jesus.

“Politics” comes from the Greek word, polis, which means “the city.” We could also think of the polis as “the people.” We live in societies and cultures where people are interdependent. Jesus and the early Christians addressed the inequities of the society and culture, and even the oppressions of the governments, because Jesus always cared about those who were being crushed. And so must we.

So, those of us who are greatly privileged must learn how to set those privileges aside. We shouldn’t speak for the powerful, but for the powerless. The privileged must not guard our way of life, but we must seek to offer life to others. We’re not supposed to make excuses for ourselves, but to learn how to use our privileges for those deemed by the world as “the least of these” (Matthew 25).

When we divest ourselves of pride, excuses, fear, self-protection and the idol of security, we find a beautiful simplicity that makes us like the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers, and yes, the persecuted. And that’s not a bad place to be, because Jesus said they are the ones who are blessed.

Divesting of spiritual and material baggage frees us up to be Christ’s agents of resurrection. Tomorrow we’ll be more specific about how we can live simply so others can simply live.

Pray: “Lord, remind me that the beautiful life you want for me is the life you want for all of your children. When I’m tempted to stand up for myself, help me to heed the advice of the wisdom writer to ‘speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.’

 

Thursday, September 5

Read: Proverbs 19:17

Consider: Our Christian scriptures—the Old and New Testaments—are amazing in the range of wisdom and insight they bring. That’s why we can read the Bible for decades and continually find new insights and those beautiful, life-changing “aha!” moments.

People often call the Bible the word of God. But the scriptures proclaim that Jesus is the Word of God—the Word made flesh (John 1:14). The word (small w) about the Word (capital W) has power because the Spirit of Christ—the Holy Spirit—translates God’s truth to our spirits as, again, the Word takes on flesh.

All that to say that many times you will find layers of meaning—layers of revelation—in one passage of scripture. They unfold for you as your heart opens and becomes fertile ground.

So, let’s look at the simple, profound statement we read today from the Old Testament wisdom writer…

“Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord…”

Centuries later Jesus of Nazareth would teach us the same thing. When you serve the vulnerable, you are serving Jesus. When you look in the eyes of the poor, you’re looking in the eyes of Jesus.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta is known for her ministry to the poorest of the poor. But if you read her words, she often spoke about poverty in a very expansive manner. To her poverty was not only about food and shelter. It was about embrace and dignity. She worried about those whose poverty was that they were unloved. She believed sincere love was more powerful that food.

So, let’s allow the flower of Proverbs 19:17 to bloom, to show us new beauty. Let’s expand our definition of “poor” and see how we might lend to the Lord. Today you may have the opportunity to show kindness by giving money to someone who desperately needs it. But it is more likely that today you will have the opportunity to give kindness that goes beyond the poverty that is evident. We can show kindness by…

  • Giving dignity to a homeless person. Even if you don’t have money, you can look them in the eyes and see them for the image-bearers they are. Most people try to make the homeless invisible. You can make them seen and affirmed.

  • Embracing an elderly man or woman who has lost their spouse and has no family nearby. They may have gone months without someone holding their hand or giving them a heart-felt hug.

  • Getting down at eye level and listening to a child. This is especially important for children who do not stand out as particularly cute or cuddly.

  • Having a slow cup of coffee with a lonely person. Giving your time is an act of sharing your greatest treasure.

Every day we will encounter a wide range of people who are poor in a variety of ways. Our scripture says, be kind. In so doing you are giving your time, your energy, your love, your affection and yourself to the Lord.

Pray: “Oh, Lord, open my eyes to see you today.”

 

Friday, September 6

Read: Psalm 8:1-9

Consider: If you regularly read from the Book of Psalms, you’ll find various themes and moods. At times the psalmist stands on top of an emotional mountain, praising God with shouts of joy. Other times, he’s humbled at entering the sanctuary of the Lord. Some of the poetry is filled with lament and expressions of deep sorrow and loss. Sometimes the psalmist expresses fear. And we even find palms of complaint where the writer fumes his outrage at the unfairness of it all, and questions why God is letting him down.

But, if you’re like me, I’m guessing that your favorite psalms are the ones that speak about the earth, the heavens, the stars, the mountains. The language is lofty, but still inadequate to describe the cosmos or the love that is poured into all of God’s creation. In trying to express his awe, the psalmist likes to describe creation itself at the psalter and singer—it is creation that is praising God.

This deep appreciation, respect, awe, and even reverence is unlike the many religions that have worshipped nature. Our scriptures even warn us against placing the creation in the position of the Creator. But I fear that as our living conditions, our occupations and our technology have removed us from intimacy with nature, we’ve learned to see creation without seeing God in his creation.

I was taught that Jesus Christ inhabits his people, that our bodies are the temple that house his presence. I still believe that. But as I learned to honor those created in his image, I forgot to look for God in the rest of his creation.

Our culture has certainly forgotten this reality. We call the world “natural resources” because that’s how we’ve used creation—as our resources for our purposes. We’ve used the earth, but not cherished the earth.

This all changed for me one day as I was reading from Ephesians. Have you ever had one of those moments when the words on the page jump into your life and the Holy Spirit changes the way you see the world? The Ephesian letter describes “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (4:6).

I was taught that God “stands apart” from his creation. That was a way of telling us that the Creator and the creation were not one and the same. But what I didn’t understand is that God inhabits his creation — he is “over all and through all and in all.”

I don’t want to see the earth as our landfill, our fuel, our building materials or even simply as our home. I want to see it as the dwelling place of God.

The Hebrew word, beth-él, means “house of God.” The temple was often referred to as the house of God. But you’ll also find passages where beth-él is referring to a larger house—creation itself. When we see the earth as God’s dwelling place and a place that is permeated with his presence, we’ll care for it like we never have before.

Pray: 

“O Lord, our Lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory
    in the heavens.
When I consider your heavens,
    the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
    which you have set in place,
what is humankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them?

O Lord, our Lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

 — Psalm 8:1, 3-4, 9 

 

Saturday, September 7

Read: Psalm 19:1-8

Consider: The Book of Genesis (the Book of Beginnings) teaches that God saw his creation, drank in its beauty, and called it good. And as we saw yesterday, our Old Testament teaches that the earth is the dwelling place—the house (beth-él)—of God. David proclaimed that creation sang its praise to God, that it could not be silenced. The creation praised the Creator. And our New Testament teaches that as you and I look out the window or walk in the grass or climb a mountain or swim in the Great Lakes, we can be assured that God is “over all and through all and in all” of creation (Ephesians 4:6).

So, let’s honor the Creator by caring for his creation.

We’ve been using a simple axiom as the backdrop of this week’s meditations — “Live simply so others can simply live.” This is so important to remember when it comes to creation care. As powerful nations continue to neglect stewardship of the environment, the poorest nations suffer the most. Much of our trash ends up in their countries. And, for a variety of reasons, the negative effects of climate change disproportionately impact poor nations.

So, what can we do? Isn’t this the domain of nations and governments? Well, yes, it’s going to take some bold initiatives from many nations. But God works in large and small ways. What if each one of us helped care for God’s creation by how we consumed products, by how we conserved energy, by what we did with our waste, by what we ate, by how we prayed, and by how we taught the generations to come to honor God and his creation? What if we simplified our lives to care for creation out of sheer love and appreciation for the Creator?

None of us seem to have many answers. But God’s love for and his inhabitation of his creation should be enough for us to love and cherish it as well.

Pray: If it’s warm where you are, take off your shoes and go outside. Feel God’s presence in the wind, the warmth of the sun, the rain, the clouds. Breathe, smell, feel and know God’s presence. If you’re not able to spend time in nature today, spend some time thanking God for what he has done and that his house of creation is also your dwelling place.

Simplicity — 5

Over the past four weeks we’ve looked at simplicity as an inside-out job. We’ve explored the issues of spiritual and mental clutter that come from misguided expectations and desires that are out of sync with God’s desires for us. We’ve tried to be honest about the idols that promise more as they steal our contentment, peace, joy and meaning.

I hope our spirits are changing. As we grow and learn, this week we begin to look at our outward habits. What does an integrated spirituality look like in the flesh?

 

Monday, August 26

Read: Philippians 2:12-13

Consider: In the past few weeks we’ve been considering the practice of Christian simplicity. And we’ve seen that this “practice” is not an isolated event or something we do from time to time. Simplicity is a way of life that liberates us. On this journey, we are increasingly freed from the things that distract us from the life that God has for us. And yes, it is a journey—a long, slow, wonderful, amazing journey. We’re all learning. We’re all novices.

I’ve tried to make the point that simplicity is an inside-out job. Simplicity, first and foremost, changes our values. That’s why we must explore our expectations and our desires. It’s why we must examine where it is that we look for peace, joy, significance and meaning.

But simplicity not only works from the inside-out, it also works from the outside-in. As we make alterations to simplify our outward lives, we’ll discover that we are not only clearing physical space, but we’re also creating space for us to thrive emotionally, spiritually and relationally.

As Christians, we believe that God incarnated himself—en-fleshed himself—in Jesus Christ. Following that, he incarnated himself in us by filling us with his Holy Spirit. Like Jesus of Nazareth, we are physical and spiritual beings. We don’t separate those realities. So, as we walk with Jesus, we allow him to change us inside and out, outside and in. Which comes first? Sometimes one, sometimes the other. Sometimes we believe ourselves into acting differently. Sometimes we act ourselves into believing differently. The important thing is that as we walk with Christ, we open our lives completely to him.

So, this week we’re going to look at two ways that simplicity is lived out in the nuts and bolts of daily life. We’ll look at our relationships with time and we’ll look at our relationships with stuff—money and possessions. And, like the inward work of simplicity, we’ll find ourselves with a renewed awareness of the Holy Spirit’s presence as we yearn to live as Jesus taught us to live.

Pray: “Lord, the old hymn says, ‘Oh, what peace we often forfeit.’ I don’t want to forfeit the peace, joy and wonderful relationships you have for me because my heart, my home and my calendar are so cluttered that they leave no space for the eternal. Help me to learn how to create space for my walk with you and my walk with the people closest to me.”

 

Tuesday, August 27

Read: Psalm 139:1-16

Consider: I have always been a very busy person. Too busy. As a husband, a father and a pastor, I never had a moment when I had nothing to do. There was always something to do—usually something that I thought carried a degree of urgency with it.

In my early years serving as a pastor, time was always in short supply. So, I began to read books on time management. In those days, the time management literature basically taught you how to be more efficient—how to get more done in less time. But that didn’t simplify my life. In fact, it complicated my life. I became more efficient, but that only opened the possibility of doing more. So, I tried to accomplish more, fulfill more requests, and move faster toward my goals. I wasn’t clearing space. I was just cramming more into it.

When we live that way, a host of bad things can happen. When we move at an unsustainable pace, we live in a manner that is contrary to how we were created. The most important things give way to what seems more urgent. We cannot quiet our minds to pray. Because we spend less time in solitude, we go weeks or months without thinking about real life issues. Because we live with a constant sense that we don’t have enough time, we begin to feel like we don’t have enough of anything. And then we lose our sense of gratitude. When our gratitude dissipates, so does our joy and our peace.

I used to get frustrated when people gave me one-liner advice. “You need to slow down!” “You should lower your stress level.” They made it sound so easy, but it felt impossible. People needed me. I had obligations—many that I did not choose—that couldn’t be ignored. How could I possibly slow down and reduce the stress in my life?

Of course, we’ve heard all the answers. “It’s a matter of priorities.” “You’ve got to learn to delegate.” “Every person has the same amount of time, it’s just a matter of using it wisely.” Those things are all true, but they’re much easier to say than to do.

I’ve been blessed. I never hit the wall. My busyness never put me in an emotional or spiritual crisis. But, I must admit, my approach to life did rob me. The joy of ministry was not as rich and deep as it should have been. I was so busy working for the Lord that I didn’t take time to feel the warmth of his embrace as he blessed my efforts.

I now realize that my problem was not the use of my time, but the way I viewed time. To me, time was a commodity. It was something to be utilized. It was a tool or a device to get things done and to live life correctly.

What I didn’t realize then, but I realize now, is that time is a gift.

Tomorrow we’ll think about how we might accept that gift.

Pray: “Thank you, Lord, for time. The psalmist said that you ‘ordained’ my days (139:16). The moments of this day—including this very moment—are gifts beyond my imagination. But too often, I don’t even think about them, much less thank you for them, as I wish I had more time. Today I want to find new ways to share these moments—these gifts—with the One who gave them to me.”

 

Wednesday, August 28

Read: Matthew 6:25-34

Consider: If you read the great spiritual writers of the past and the present, those Christians who teach us how live with a powerful sense of God’s presence, you’ll find many common themes. These mentors who help us in our spiritual formation have built upon the wisdom of Jesus and two-thousand years of experience in walking with him. In teaching us how to walk with Christ, they are schooling us in joy, peace, contentment, service, sacrifice, meekness, dependence, nonviolence (in word and action), and how to love like Jesus loves.

One theme that continually stands out to me is a simple truth about how to live so that we can be led by the Spirit of Christ—so that we can hear his voice. The great spiritual leaders of the Christian movement teach us to live in the moment—to live right now. Not yesterday and not tomorrow. But right now.

Richard Rohr calls it “the naked now.” Jean-Pierre de Caussade called it “the sacrament of the present moment.” Jesus simply said, “take no thought for tomorrow” (6:34).

Our first response is to put a bunch of qualifiers on Jesus’ teaching. We state that Jesus certainly didn’t mean that we shouldn’t plan for the future. We sincerely believe that in some ways we’re supposed to worry about tomorrow.

Well, let’s not qualify the life out of Jesus’ words. Let’s not try too hard to explain them. Let’s just hear them. Take no thought for tomorrow. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Live right now.

I’ll confess that, for me, this is probably the most difficult spiritual discipline. I’ve always been a worrier. Overcoming anxiety has been a constant challenge for me. I’ve tried a lot of techniques to quiet my mind and my emotions in times of high anxiety. So, believe me, I’m not simply throwing out some simplistic one-liner about being happy. This is about learning to sense the presence of God in this very moment, whether it is a good moment or one that is filled with stress and anxiety.

What does this have to do with simplicity? Everything!

Living in the present presence of God places everything in perspective. My possessions, my calendar, my responsibilities, my temptations, my search for meaning—my life—make sense in this moment when I seek his presence.

Yesterday I shared that for many years I crammed a lot of things into a limited span of time. Whether you’re cramming in too much work or pleasure or adventure or some destructive habits, something else will be forced out. And that something is usually the awareness of God’s presence in this very moment.

Simplicity of time comes with rejecting time as a commodity and understanding that it is a gift. And that understanding begins right now, in this very moment.

Pray: There are many prayers and spiritual exercises that we can use to develop the habit of living in the “naked now.” I would encourage you to explore them and to develop some of your own disciplines. A good place to begin is with the Lord’s Prayer. In it we’re not instructed to ask for anything in the future. Jesus tells us to simply ask the Father for what we need right now — “Give us today our daily bread.”

You may also want to read today’s passage—Matthew 6:25-34—every day until it begins to penetrate so deeply that it changes the way you think throughout the day.

And, by the way, you have everything you need for right now. Thank God and enjoy the moment. If the pain is too intense and the depression so deep that you can’t enjoy this moment, ask God to help you meet him there. Look for God in this moment.

 

Thursday, August 29

Read: Matthew 6:19-24

Consider: We can’t talk about simplicity without talking about our stuff—our money and our possessions. These gifts from God can enhance our lives and empower us to serve him with joy, or they can bury us to the point that they sap our energy by increasing our anxiety and stress.

There’s a simple axiom that we need to understand when it comes to our physical possessions — Everything that you own, to some degree, owns you.

That’s right. Our possessions make demands on us. They need to be stored, cleaned, maintained, insured, repaired, painted, refurbished, fixed again, and on and on. Now there is nothing wrong with owning stuff. We have legitimate physical needs. We own homes and cars and clothes and computers—things we really need and for which we are grateful to God. But we must be aware that too much stuff takes a toll on our time, our financial resources, our concentration and our emotional energies.

It’s also true that clutter is depressing. Just ask yourself how you feel when the house is cluttered. Then ask yourself how you feel when the house is uncluttered—the closets are cleared, the counters are clean, things are put in their place, you can actually see your tabletop, and the car fits in the garage.

Is there a spiritual truth behind this? Yes. Jesus said that what you treasure—what you store, hoard and keep for yourself—will demand your affection.

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (6:21)

Over the past few decades, American homes have been getting bigger. But the square footage hasn’t increased because families are getting larger. We build bigger houses because we need more space to hold all our stuff. (And then we rent storage facilities for all the stuff that won’t fit in our houses and garages.)

I know I’m painting with broad strokes. I know there are many good reasons for families to have large houses, and due to people’s circumstances or the businesses they own, they may need extra storage space as well. Families with small children have different needs than families with no children living in the home. People who are caring for an elderly parent have different needs than someone who lives alone. One size does not fit all. So, I’m not trying to be judgmental. But I am trying to say that most of us have a whole lot of stuff that we don’t need. And that’s not good for our souls.

Here’s a simple challenge. Today get rid of one thing you own. Donate a good shirt to an organization that will give it to someone who needs it. Donate one of your duplicates. (After all, how many TVs do you need? How many winter coats? What about the furniture in the attic?) Throw away clutter that has little potential to be used in the future.

Then do it again tomorrow. One thing. And the next day. And keep at it. The truth is that most of us have so many possessions that we could go months, or even years, getting rid of something every day without adversely affecting our lives. In fact, we would be enhancing our lives with increased freedom, because fewer things would be making demands on us.

Simplicity is a journey. Don’t be discouraged about the clutter in your home or on your schedule. Just take one small step today and thank the Lord that you’re moving in the right direction.

Pray: “Lord, sometimes I’m amazed at how attached I can get to my possessions. I don’t want to treasure those things that aren’t eternal. I want my time and energy to be spent loving you, loving my family, loving those in need, and loving life.”

 

Friday, August 30

Read: 1 Timothy 6:6-11

Consider: We’re talking this week about our relationships to time and our relationships to our possessions. Yesterday we considered how our possessions can make demands on us. The more possessions, the more demands. If we’re not diligent, we can spend an inordinate amount of time and energy on the stuff we own. Simplicity of heart and mind—which yields simplicity in possessions—can be unbelievably liberating in everyday life.

But it’s not simply a matter of de-cluttering, even though that is incredibly important. Christian simplicity also gives us an attitude—a frame of mind—with which to view our possessions.

It’s simple. I really don’t possess anything. Everything in my life is on loan from God.

The scripture teaches us that we are stewards—managers—of the material world that is created by God and is held in God’s loving hands. This was an image that the first century readers could easily understand. Very few of them were landowners. But some of them were stewards. The owner had entrusted his estate to their keeping. They hired, planned, planted, harvested and helped the land yield the rich results of the soil. They never considered themselves to be the owners. They were simply doing their master’s work.

This way of thinking is at the core of our Christian liberation from the tyranny of money and possessions. It’s all God’s. I’m simply charged with handling it responsibly. So, when I have too many clothes in my closet, it’s a no brainer. I’ve got to get some of those in the hands of people who need them. When I’ve been blessed with abundance, I get to ask God how he wants this money to be distributed. Should I send it to care for orphans in developing countries or do I need to buy groceries for the man down the street who is struggling to feed his grandkids?

This is one of the hallmarks of simplicity. Christian simplicity holds possessions loosely. We don’t worship them. We don’t look to them for security. We don’t even own them. For, as Paul said…

“We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.” (6:7)

If it’s all God’s, I’m free. If God owns my possessions, then my possessions don’t own me. Then I can give myself totally to the One who loves me and holds me in his hands.

Pray: “Lord, I don’t want ‘stewardship’ and ‘ownership’ to be abstract ideas or empty words. Teach me the freedom that comes from holding loosely to the things that aren’t eternal. And help my loose grip to result in generosity—generosity of spirit and generosity of the things you’ve entrusted to me.”

 

Saturday, August 31

Read: Matthew 11:25-30

Consider: When we follow the ways of Christ, we find ourselves living on another plane. No, we don’t live on a constant high. We can’t build our houses on the mountain top. We experience those heights from time to time, but we have work to do, and often our calling takes us to the valley. And sometimes life leads us to the darkest of valleys, what the psalmist called the “valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4). But we don’t take up permanent residence there either.

We live on a plane where we are liberated from the fear of the valley. We live on a plane where the joy is as real as it is on the mountain. This is a place where we find peace, contentment and joy while we serve and sacrifice. We have embraced a simplicity of life that has liberated us. We don’t have unrealistic expectations of life, but we expect and trust that God will supply all our needs. We don’t need to manufacture experiences to make us happy, because we find joy in the daily, continuous gifts we receive from the hand of our Creator. We have learned the “secret” of being content because we’re not looking for someone or something to give to us what God wants to give. And we’re learning to savor this moment—this gift we call time, because God has inhabited time and there we find him.

Okay, I realize that sounds a little lofty. Am I overstating reality? Yes and no. If I say that we have already arrived at perfect peace and joy, we have already learned how to be content in any and every situation, then, yes, I’m overstating it. But if I tell you that Christ is walking that way and he is saying to you and me, “Follow me. Walk with me. Learn from me,” then I don’t believe I’m overstating our call.

As we’ve been saying from the outset of our consideration of simplicity, the art of simple living is a journey. It is a long, slow, wonderful, amazing journey. And there is One who walks with us every step. Our embrace of Christian simplicity empowers us to see him and to hear his voice on this journey.

Every time I boot up my computer I see this image…

Holy Ground 3.jpg

I’ve placed it there to remind me of what God said to Moses when Moses encountered God in the burning bush.

“Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5) 

What made that place, on the far side of the desert, a holy place? It was the presence of God.

I’ve determined to go through life with bare feet. Of course, I’m not talking literally. I live in Michigan. But spiritually, I wake up each day and try to remember that I’m standing on holy ground. This place, this time, this life is sacred because God is here. I’ve determined that for me, the art of simple living is first and foremost the art of barefoot living—living with an awareness of God’s presence. Simplicity empowers me to know his presence and the knowledge of his presence simplifies my life.

Pray:“Lord, sometimes I feel your presence on the mountain. Sometimes I walk through the dark valley with no feeling, only hope. But most of my time is spent on the planes. I want to walk those planes with my shoes off, recognizing that I am walking on holy ground. Help me to clear the clutter from my path, so that I can know—whether I feel it or not—the sacredness of this life that is lived in your presence.”

Simplicity — 4

Monday, August 19

Read: Exodus 20:1-6

Consider: It may seem like a tangent, like we’re veering away from the main point. But we’re not swerving to the margins, we’re going to the heart—the essence—of our concern. In these weeks of considering the art of simple living, we’re going to spend a couple of days talking about one of the gravest sins addressed in the Bible. Now, hang in there with me. This won’t be guilt-inducing. It will be liberating.

I know we can’t really rank sins. We always want to, because we want to assure ourselves that we only participate in the minor ones—you know, a little gossip here, a short-term stinky attitude there. Nothing major. And even our larger sins are common ones, so we figure we’re no worse than anyone else.

Obviously, some sins are more grievous than others because of the resulting damage. So, don’t hear me being light-hearted about this. Sin has devastating consequences in our lives, our families and our world. But, because we can’t always understand intent and motive, we have a hard time ranking the sins.

Having said that, after decades of reading and studying the Bible, I have discovered a few things that seem to be especially offensive to God. If I were to judge them on the frequency with which they are mentioned, and the intensity of the words used by the prophets and by Jesus, a few things would rise to the top.

Jesus used his harshest words to denounce neglect of the vulnerable, and religious hypocrisy. (If you don’t believe me, read Matthew 23:13-33. Wow!) Of course, these sins are the very antithesis of Christ-like love—the essence of our calling. In the Old Testament, we see the same things expressed in different ways. Continually, Israel was called to care for the poor and oppressed, and the nation’s rulers and people were excoriated by the prophets when they neglected the vulnerable (particularly when they enriched themselves in the process).

But, there was a foundational sin that brought about these and all the other sins. Though using different words, Jesus and the prophets spoke clearly and forcefully about the sin of idolatry.

“Idolatry” is a word we don’t often use. But we sure know how insidious it is. The “idols” we create may not be the altars, sacred stones, Asherah poles and carved images described in Exodus, but our idol worship is just as devastating. It rips us away from all that God has for us and all that God wants to do in us and through us.

In today’s reading, God describes himself as “a jealous God” (20:5). That’s not the kind of jealousy that we experience. Ours is self-centered, insecure and pitiful. God’s “jealousy” is for us not to have our lives stolen from us while we’re bowing down to the wrong gods.

We’re going to see that simplicity breaks down the idols. And the destruction of our idols simplifies our lives.

Pray: “Lord, in the days to come, open my eyes so I can understand which idols are trying to seduce me—which gods are easy for me to worship. And help me today, and every day, to keep the most basic command of all, to have no other gods that stand beside or in front of you.”

 

Tuesday, August 20

Read: Exodus 34:10-14

Consider: The Bible doesn’t spell out a working definition of idolatry. That’s not the way our scriptures give us truth. We get it through story, image, metaphor and a vision of the God who came to us in the flesh—Jesus Christ. But since you and I are still influenced by The Enlightenment—the Age of Reason—we still think in systematic ways. So, my “definition” of idolatry is not taken from one particular verse or passage. It is simply my feeble attempt to describe what separates us from God.

I describe idolatry as looking to something or someone else to give me what God wants to give me. It may be security, peace, joy, significance or meaning. Those are things God wants for me. And God is able and willing to pour this grace into my life. But too often I look for those wonderful gifts from other sources.

Take, for example, significance. Have you ever, without realizing it, looked for increased self-esteem to give you a sense of significance? Again, without really examining it, you assumed that if you raised your self-esteem, you would have a sense of worthiness that would bring you real joy. (This was at the core of so much of the self-help literature of recent decades.) And how did we usually look for self-esteem in our culture? Well, we often looked for the approval and esteem of others, thinking that if they liked us more, we would like ourselves. Either that, or we looked for self-esteem and significance through accomplishment. Get that degree. Land the important job. Make a name for yourself in the community.

Crazy, isn’t it. We so easily make an idol out of how we are perceived by our culture. And, of course, our culture can never give us the sense of meaning and significance for which we were created.

That’s why God hates idolatry. He loves us beyond what we can comprehend, and he knows that false gods never deliver the goods. What is more, those idols steal from us what God is trying to give us.

We need to develop a healthy skepticism of the promises that pour into our consciousness every day from what scripture repeatedly refers to as “worthless idols.”

Pray: “Lord, the beauty of Christian simplicity is clearly seen when I compare it to the kind of lives we live when we’re chasing all the other gods. Thank you for loving me too much to give me over to those gods. Clarify my vision today, giving me eyes to see and ears to hear.”

                                     

Wednesday, August 21

Read: Matthew 6:19-24

Consider: Simplicity is not easy. Although we often use “simple” and “easy” as interchangeable words, following the path of Christian simplicity is not an easy thing, especially at the outset of the journey. It takes a reorientation of our thinking—what Paul called “the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). And it also takes some concrete action (which we’ll look at in the days to come).

The reason simplicity of heart and life is so challenging is that the pull toward idolatry is so pervasive and so subtle. As we’ve seen over the past two days, simplicity and idolatry are constantly at odds with one another.

To get a handle on it, yesterday I shared my belief that idolatry can be described as looking to something or someone else to give me what God wants to give me. I’m always trying to put things into words—to define and describe. But Jesus—the master communicator (the Word)—used a simple image to liberate us from the pursuit of false gods. He said…

“No one can serve two masters.” (Matthew 6:24)

Jesus was speaking to people who knew what a master was. A slaveowner came to their minds. And if they weren’t envisioning a harshly treated slave who was captured from another country, they were thinking about a destitute man who was working (perhaps along with his whole family) to pay off his debt and stay out of prison. In other words, the master had full power over the servant or slave. So, it was evident that, of course, you couldn’t serve two masters.

And then Jesus opened their eyes…

“You cannot serve both God and money.” (6:24)

The master owned the slave. So, if you’re serving money—or any other idol—you are owned by it. You are owned by what you serve.

We keep coming back to why God hates idolatry—why he is “a jealous God” (Exodus 20:5). Like any one of us, he would hate to see his children enslaved.

Pray: “Lord, as idolatry is honored by our culture, help me to see through the deceit of the false gods. Thank you for calling us to something bigger and better than these lesser masters can ever give. I’m amazed by your love.”

 

Thursday, August 22

Read: Matthew 6:19-24

Consider: Jesus called us to have “eyes that see” and “ears that hear” (and we’ve prayed for that this week). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explained why he repeatedly told us to keep our eyes open.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.” (6:22-23)

These words are sandwiched between Jesus’ teaching on what to treasure and his statement on the absurdity of trying to serve two masters. As we saw yesterday, this was a warning against being owned by something or someone other than our Creator. And Jesus spoke of this duplicity—the giving of ourselves to competing masters—as living in darkness.

Have you ever had so many things running through your mind that you felt helpless to focus on one thing? I think we’ve all had that crazy experience of lying awake at night, unable to sleep because we couldn’t quiet our minds. Our brains were on overdrive, but we couldn’t think straight. The sheer volume and speed of our thoughts kept us from really thinking through the issues that were bothering us. So, eventually we fell asleep only to wake up exhausted, and no closer to the answers we needed.

Now, I’m not calling stress-induced insomnia a sign of sin. I’m just using this mental picture to illustrate a spiritual reality. I think that kind of cluttered mental state is a good picture of the spiritual darkness that can descend upon us. If our “eyes are unhealthy”—if our spiritual vision is cluttered with competing values—we can’t really see anything at all.

So, Jesus teaches us to follow one Master. He tells us to “treasure” what is eternal and to let go of things that have no real lasting value. He teaches us to simplify our desires, our values and our love. And he tells us that, in so doing, our life will be “full of light.”

This light is not a reward that is dangled in front of our eyes to get us to do the right things. No, it is not something we earn. It is simply the result of removing the clutter that blocks the light.

Pray: Ask the Lord to help you discern if there are things that may be blocking the light. Are there competing claims on your affection? Are certain desires taking mastery over you—owning you? Are you trying to go two directions at one time? The beautiful thing is, if we are willing to obey, the Holy Spirit will gently reveal these things to us. And the Lord will empower us to walk into new light with him.

 

Friday, August 23

Read: John 4:23-24

Consider: As we’ve considered idolatry this week, we’ve looked at it from a couple of perspectives. We’ve seen it as the act of looking for good things in all the wrong places. Remember, idolatry is looking to something or someone else to give us what God wants to give us. It is the delusion that security, peace, joy, significance or meaning can be found anywhere else. That produces false gods.

We’ve also seen it in Jesus’ image of a person attempting to “serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). So, we don’t only have the issue of serving the wrong gods, but of serving too many gods. Masters are owners and God doesn’t want any person or thing to own us. He alone wants sovereignty over our lives, for he alone can be trusted because of his love for us.

But we haven’t looked at the main image of idolatry that is found throughout scripture—the image of worship. Idolatry is almost always described as worship. Sometimes it is the worship of “worthless idols” that are made by the hands of men. Sometimes it is the worship of God’s handiwork—worshipping the creation instead of the Creator.

So, as I have pursued the life of Christian simplicity, one of the things I’ve learned is the necessity of simplicity of worship.

Over the years, I’ve read about worship, thought about worship, gone to worship seminars, discussed worship with friends and co-workers, taught and preached on worship, and, oh yes, worshipped. And what I keep discovering is that worship has a whole lot to do with affection. The object of my true worship is also the object of my affection. What do we worship? We worship what we love the most.

Keeping that in mind gives us a purity and simplicity of worship that honors the God to whom we bow. We don’t perform worship to appease God or beg him for favors. That would be idolatry. We simply love God, which is what we do when we worship him “in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24).

This Sunday when you gather with the Body of Christ to worship the Father, keep it simple. Don’t worry about the kind of music you’ll hear or sing. Don’t look for an emotional experience. Don’t judge worship based on your preferences. Don’t worry about the “quality” of worship (this is, don’t worship the act of worship). Just love God. Bask in his love for you and your affection for him. Then do that in your time of private worship—your time alone with God. Then learn to do it every moment of every day.

Pray: “Lord, take me deeper. I want my life to be filled with acts of love and affection for you and for all who are made in your image. That is the worship you desire, and it is the worship I will to offer to you.”

 

Saturday, August 24

Read: James 4:7-8

Consider: The word “integrity” shares its Latin origin with the word, integer—a whole number. “Duplicity” is from the Latin word, duplicitās—being double. In other words, we use the concept of “one” to describe honesty and all that is good, while the concept of “two” is what we use to describe deception and corruption (as in being two-faced).

Duplicity is what James was talking about when he wrote, “purify your hearts, you double-minded” (4:8). In the Greek language in which James wrote his letter, the term “double-minded” can also be translated “two-souled.”

I share these fascinating words for a reason. For me, the concept of simplicity is increasingly associated with “oneness” and integrity. And I’m starting to see the clutter of the soul—the opposite of simplicity—as duplicity.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not judging anyone, nor am I disparaging myself. I’m not saying that, until we reach a certain level of simplicity, we’re being deceitful or dishonest. We’re all on a journey. We’re all learning. I have so much simplifying yet to do. I’m a novice.

What I am saying is that simplicity of heart and mind empowers us to live integrated lives—lives of integrity. Simple living has a way of purifying our motives, our desires and our joy. We’re free to love without calculating what we can get in return.

Soul clutter does the opposite. When I’m double-minded—or two-souled—my priorities are distorted. I am worried about things that don’t really matter, which makes me defensive and protective of the wrong things. I can begin to value what is cheap and de-value what is precious (Matthew 6:19-20).

In recent years, I’ve tried to learn from one of the great teachers of Christian simplicity, Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). His beliefs have been summarized in various ways. The one that resonates with me is that Francis approached life as one who was naked, little and poor.

Naked — nothing to hide

Little — nothing to prove

Poor — nothing to lose

To me, that’s the life of simplicity, integrity and freedom—a single-minded pursuit of God.

Pray:“Lord, I present my heart to you for your purification. Deliver me from double-mindedness and grant me a single soul with single-minded love for you.”

Simplicity — 3

Monday, August 12

Read: Philippians 4:10-12

Consider: When I read Paul’s words on the secret of contentment, I feel them deeply. It’s a mixture of, “I know what he’s talking about” and “I long to know that way of living.” I’ll be honest, too many times I’ve postponed contentment because I didn’t grasp the art of simple living.

Paul wrote about contentment in the middle of a letter that is known for and filled with joy. Now, as abstract concepts, I’m sure we could split hairs on the definition and peculiarities of contentment and how it differs from and relates to joy. But then, why would we want to talk about them in abstract, theoretical ways? When we think about contentment and joy, we don’t ask, “What?” We ask, “How? How can I know contentment and how can I experience joy?”

Because contentment and joy are bound together in our experience, this week we’re going to look at both as we continue to engage the journey of simplicity. As we grow in living the Christian value of simplicity, we will see results in every area of our lives. But some of the most profound changes we will experience will be in the quality and depth of our peace, contentment and joy.

Of course, the thing that strikes us about Paul’s words is that his joy and contentment were not dependent on his circumstances. He said…

“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances…I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation…” (4:11-12)

That’s remarkable! “Any and every” situation?

This is at odds with all that we’ve ever known. We spend our lives saying, “I’ll have joy when…” and “I’ll be content when…” When I’m done with my degree, when I get that job, when I get out of debt, when I can retire, when, when, when…

In other words, most people think—or at least, live as though—contentment and peace are achieved by engineering our lives into the best conditions. We believe the right circumstances yield security, contentment, joy and peace. And yet, we must remind ourselves that Philippians is one of the New Testament’s prison letters. That’s right, from prison Paul wrote, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.”

Pray: “Lord, I know you want me to grow. You want me to flourish. And yet, so often I think that can only happen in the right circumstances. Help me to understand that I can know real life ‘in any and every situation.’ Today I’ll ask you to change my circumstances. But please change me, so that, until my circumstances change, I will know your peace and contentment. Please do the impossible in me.”

 

Tuesday, August 13

Read: Philippians 4:10-13

Consider: Yesterday we marveled that, from prison, a man could say…

“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances…I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation…” (4:11-12)

I’ve read Philippians for decades, and I’m still blown away by those words.

The “secret” Paul learned had to do with this thing we’re calling simplicity. Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve laid some groundwork by considering simplicity of expectation and simplicity of desire.

Remember, stress (the kind of stress that destroys peace and contentment) is experienced in the gap between expectation and reality. Unrealistic expectations work to steal our contentment and joy, at times even consuming us with bitterness and self-pity. But simple—realistic—expectations bring us to reality and help us find Christ there. Knowing that this life will bring pain does not diminish us. It empowers us to journey with Christ through the pain.

Am I saying that Paul expected to go to prison? Well…yes. He said…

“Compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me.” (Acts 20:22-23)

Now, Paul did his best to stay out of prison. There is nothing wrong with trying to avoid disaster and striving to improve our situations. But, because he knew the cost of following Jesus, he was never surprised by what he had to endure. He didn’t sit in prison, increasingly consumed by bitterness, railing at his misfortune.

And his realistic expectations impacted his desires.

I think if I were in prison, my greatest desire would be to get out—fast! I would yearn to be released and vindicated. But Paul’s longing was for something much greater. In that powerful letter from prison—the letter of joy—Paul said…

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings…” (3:10)

His expectations were simple. He knew that following Christ would give him a life full of joy and a life full of trouble.

Simple expectations with a simple desire — “I want to know Christ…”

And the profound simplicity of his desire brought him to the point where he would say, “I’ve learned the secret…”

Pray: “Lord, too often I’ve looked for improved situations on the outside to give me peace and contentment on the inside. Of course, the perfect situation seldom arrives, and when it does, it never lasts very long. That leaves me yearning for circumstantial change rather than longing for you. Help me to make Paul’s prayer my prayer — ‘I want to know Christ’.”

                                     

Wednesday, August 14

Read: 1 Timothy 6:6-7

Consider: Every night I lay my head on the pillow and begin my final prayer of the day with these words…

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked will I return. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21)

Paul thought it was important to remind Timothy, his son in the faith, of that same truth. He said…

“We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.” (6:7)

Now, if we take that prayer or Paul’s words out of context, they may sound hopeless. What’s the use? Why am I working so hard? Why is life so tough? If it’s just a slog through a transitory existence, what’s the point?

But those are not the words of a cynic. They’re words of great hope, joy, peace and contentment. In fact, Paul was giving us great insight into simplicity. It’s the paradox that we must understand if we’re going to grasp Christian simplicity—less is more.

“Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world…”

Our “great gain” is found in our emptiness. Jesus taught this repeatedly, particularly in the first Beatitude — “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). Our emptiness is the space readied for his presence. The clutter of our expectations, our desires, our ambitions—the clutter in our souls—is the very thing that robs us of contentment and joy. When we simplify—when we choose to embrace our emptiness before God—we allow ourselves to experience the “great gain” of the knowledge of his presence.

Meister Eckhart, a thirteenth century Christian writer, was fond of saying, “The soul does not grow by addition but by subtraction.”

Pray: “Lord, I came into this world naked and empty-handed, and that is how I will enter the fullness of your presence when I leave the world as I know it now. Too often I’ve lost sight of that as I’ve tried to accumulate things—material things, reputation, honor, esteem and so much more. Lord, you are all I really have and all I really need. May I allow you to plant this truth deep in my soul, so that I will know the contentment and joy of your presence. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

 

Thursday, August 15

Read: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Consider: Words are funny. Words are strange. Words are powerful. I love words. They convey pictures and ideas. And sometimes they are used to communicate what is beyond our comprehension. Words like “love” and “faith” and “God” are meager vehicles for what they are trying to convey.

This week we’ve been talking about contentment and joy. But contentment is not a thing. Even though we speak of “finding” contentment, it really isn’t some thing that can be grasped. Even though we “look” for joy, it’s not something that can be pursued—though we often try to chase it down, tackle it and hold on to it.

No, contentment, joy and peace are not entities that God doles out to us if we ask for them in the right way or work hard enough to earn them. Those words are simply inadequate descriptions of a relationship that the New Testament describes as Christ in us and us in Christ. We do not pursue contentment and joy. We open our spiritual “eyes” to see and our spiritual “ears” to hear, then we begin to know the reality of Christ’s presence in us and the reality of life in him.

I believe this rut—thinking of contentment and joy as things—causes us to read some portions of scripture through the wrong lens. Today’s passage is an example.

“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances…” (5:16-18)

If you read this as three rules to follow so you can gain peace and joy, those words will seem shallow. You’ll feel like a hypocrite rejoicing and giving thanks when you’re wounded and devastated. You’ll feel like those words don’t relate to the real world. In fact, you may even feel angry with God that he would expect you to rejoice when the world—your world—is falling apart before your eyes.

But these are not words that deny reality. They open us to reality. No, I can’t give thanks that my loved one died. But I can believe and see that, in my profound grief, God kept his promise, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). I may not be able to rejoice that I’m in a dark place right now, but I can be grateful that “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…you are with me” (Psalm 23:4).

Our act of giving thanks is not an attempt to appease God, or even an attempt to manufacture a certain emotion within ourselves that helps us cope with life. No, it is an act of opening our eyes and recognizing the reality of God’s presence with us. A person who is never grateful loses touch with reality.

When we dispense with trying to grasp joy or peace or contentment, we just may simplify our spirits enough to receive the gift of his presence. Then we’ll see again that less is more. Our emptiness makes his presence a reality.

Pray: Throughout this day, allow those words to sink deep into your soul — “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances.” Don’t use it as a mantra or as an attempt to lift your emotions. Don’t “pray continually” with words. Simply ask the Lord to help you open your spiritual senses to his presence and to reality. That’s prayer. And give God thanks for his presence in all circumstances” regardless of whether you can thank him for all circumstances.

 

Friday, August 16

Read: Philippians 4:10-13

Consider: Let’s return to the passage we looked at on Monday and Tuesday. We need to dwell a little longer on the grace and power of the Spirit’s work that taught Paul contentment “in any and every situation” (4:11-12).

Paul wrote about “the secret” of that kind of contentment. Of course, he was speaking in a figurative manner. It was not a secret to be hidden, but a secret to be shared—simple truth that changes everything.

But you’ll notice that he didn’t say that he discovered the secret or happened on it by accident. No, he said that he learned the secret of being content” (4:12). That rings true for me, because on my journey, contentment has never come naturally. I must learn it. In fact, I must learn it every day.

We all learn in different ways, and sometimes we do learn things by accident. (We usually refer to those instances as the times we “learned it the hard way.”) But our best learning is our intentional learning. Even when I learn from my mistakes, I usually learn the most when I consciously look for what I can learn from the messes I’ve made.

So how do we learn this secret? What disciplines or actions do we need to take?

Speaking from my own experience, there are two things I’m trying to learn about living a joy-filled, contented life. First, I’m learning to simplify my desires. The wrong desires, too many desires, or inappropriate intensity of lesser desires can make contentment impossible. So, I must discipline my mind and ask God to mold my heart so that I may desire what he desires for me. Remember the secret of simplicity—less is more.

Secondly, I’m trying to grow in my continual awareness of God’s presence. The more we know his presence, the more we experience his peace. And the more we live in peace, the more we long for his presence. So, we can partner with God by using spiritual disciplines of subtraction to raise and enhance our sense of his presence. But remember, we’re not earning contentment. We’re learning the secret of contentment.

Pray: “Lord, to know your presence is the meaning of prayer. It’s not my words that matter, but my awareness of you. Help me to make this day a prayer. And as I live one day at a time, I’ll trust you to make my life a prayer—a celebration that God is with us.”

 

Saturday, August 17

Read: Genesis 28:10-16

Consider: What brings you joy? Well, that probably depends on how you define joy.

I used to differentiate between joy and happiness. I thought happiness was fleeting because it was based on short-lived experiences. I spoke about joy as something deep in our souls, something that would outlast happiness.

Well, there’s probably some good truth there. After all, the joy of salvation is more important than the happiness of ice cream. But I really think I was missing something very important. What we may consider to be small joys—moments of happiness—really are amazing gifts from God. I call them eternal moments. And on my journey to fully embrace Christian simplicity, I’m discovering the importance of the simplicity of joy in those moments when eternity enters time.

I know this is going to sound like a cliché—you know, “stop and smell the roses”—and I really don’t want to come off sounding schmaltzy. But, we all know that the complexity of our lives—the clutter of our days and the clutter in our souls—keeps us from seeing, hearing and experiencing daily gifts from God, which in fact, are the very presence of God. We don’t stop to listen to talking children or laughing toddlers. We don’t go outside to watch sunsets. We don’t smile when we see teenagers or elderly people holding hands. We don’t dance at weddings or cry at funerals. We don’t even savor our food because we’re snarfing it down while we drive. God keeps showing himself to us and keeps pouring beauty into our lives day-by-day and moment-by-moment, but we’re too busy to see it. Far too many times I lived like Jacob who said, “The Lord was here, and I didn’t even notice” (Genesis 10:16—my paraphrase).

I keep discovering that joy is offered to me every day of my life. If I can have eyes to see and ears to hear, I’ll encounter God more often than I ever thought I could. The great saints of the past would say that this is the essence of Christian spirituality. A saint is not someone who accomplishes great things or someone who is naturally more “holy” than others. The great saints were simply people who saw God every day, every moment in everything that surrounded them. And that sense of God’s presence revolutionized their lives and made them agents of grace in a broken world.

I’ve tried to make this a spiritual discipline—a lovely, wonderful discipline. I used to actually put it on my to-do list (what an un-saintly thing to do). Every day my list had an entry that said “DSTBYJ”—which meant, “Do something that brings you joy.” It was my way of reminding myself to look for God in the small things. It may be getting up early enough to watch the sun rise. It may be stopping by my favorite coffee shop and savoring a beautiful mocha latte. It may be taking my wife to lunch. It may be playing with my grandkids. It was usually something so simple that no one would notice it but me.

I use different reminders now, but I’m finding that what had to be intentional is beginning to become more habitual. Oh, how I long for the habit of seeing God and dwelling with Christ every moment.

I challenge you to do the same. Don’t make it complicated. Most days you won’t have time to go rock climbing or fishing. Those are good, but it’s important to learn how to find joy in the daily, simple things, because there is where you see God. So even if you are going through the darkest of times, look for God in smallness—in the places where you least expect to see him.

Pray:“Lord, I realize that finding daily joy starts with daily thanksgiving. So today, I will have eyes to see, ears to hear and a heart that says, ‘Thank you!’ Amen.”