Saturday, December 22, 2018

Longest Night

Candle [dry gouache] by Julia Seymour
Life begins in the dark. 
Seeds, babies, resurrection- new life starts unseen.

It is unseen, but not without a witness. 
Divine eyes of love perceive all things. 

We sometimes think of our grief, our doubt, our pain as kinds of darkness. 
In darkness, the light looks different. 

In the dark, we dig deep for what is true- giving hope, strength, and peace. 
In the dark, we move slowly, easing forward by degrees. 

Seasons of darkness can break our hearts, 
Seasons of darkness teach us lessons that shape our living. 

Some nights are longer than others, 
But dawn comes- and not through our work or goodness.

It is the goodness of God that lives in the dark and the light. 
It is the goodness of God that carries us through all seasons. 

In doubt and in faith, in grief and in joy, in pain and in wholeness, 
Life begins in the dark. Light begins in the dark. 

And, in the light or in the dark, you belong to God. 
We belong to God. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Revelation Read-Along: Day 15

Reading: Revelation 12:7-18

Advent Theme: Adversity

An interpretation and re-telling of Rev. 12:7-18, Revised Julia Version

And then fighting began in the spiritual realm, near God’s throne. Michael, who is a leader among the angels, and the other angels fought against the Satan, the adversary of God’s will. The spiritual forces that oppose God’s will battled mightily, but they were defeated and they could not last near the throne of God. To be clear, the Satan is the same one who is sometimes called the Devil or by other names. The Satan works to deceive the world and there are spiritual forces- on many levels- that are willing to try to work against God’s purposes. At the end of the battle, the Satan and his minions fled back to the earth, to try to make trouble there.  

Then John heard a booming voice in heaven, stating clearly:

“It is the right time. Here are the saving power and everlasting leadership of our one true God. Here is the authority of his Anointed One, the Messiah. For the one who tries to make trouble for our friends, the saints, has been defeated. Oh, that sly one tried to present a case for how they were weak in faith, but they persisted!

The saints of God won by a three-fold victory. First and foremost, Jesus claimed them through his own blood. Secondly, their testimony was certain- identifying themselves with Christ. Lastly, they both lived and died in Jesus Christ. 

It’s too bad for those who will not do those things. The Satan is loose on the earth and is angry because he knows his is a losing battle.”

So, when the Satan realized his heavenly visa had been revoked, he stirred up trouble on earth. Eagles took away the woman whom Satan harassed so that she could rest in safety in a place apart from fear and pain. He still tried to whisper lies to her, lies that he sent in a variety of ways. Yet, God’s creation would not let the lies stand. The very soil and water of the earth witnessed to the power and majesty of God’s creative love and mercy. The lies of the Satan could not stand.

The Satan was mad. Stomping off, the Satan- the spiritual adversary of the Christ followers- vowed to make life hard for all who seek to live a life of faith and hope.

The Satan made a stand at the edge of the abyss and waited to for willing accomplices, with whom to wreak havoc.

Potential Takeaway: There are spiritual and earthly forces that oppose God’s will. The internal force of sin is a manifestation of the human desire for control and our struggle to understand that only God is God. And that God is good. A very real part of the life of faith is renouncing the forces outside and within us that seek to oppose God’s will for life and wholeness. 

Holy and mighty God, Your word is love and your gospel is peace. Yet the forces that oppose You do so with such violence that it can be difficult to walk a path of justice and peace-making. Guide me in following You, identifying Your work and word, and living into Your truth alone. Amen. 

Revelation Read-Along: Day 14

Reading: Revelation 11:15- 12:6

Advent Theme: Vulnerability

I am presently reading Where the Red Fern Growsout loud to my son. Since it has been years since I read the book, I had no memory of the theological thread through the book. God plays an influential non-speaking role in the story. The first appearance thereof is when Billy remembers a lesson he learned from his mother’s Bible reading to the family: “God helps those who help themselves.” My son’s own mother (me) had to pause to point out that the Bible doesn’t actually say that. 

Many people want to spend time and energy proving the thesis that God helps those who help themselves. I’m never sure what that’s a point to prove. Furthermore, there are plenty of people who do work hard, who live faithful lives, who invest toward helping others and who do not receive financial, physical, or mental reward. Matthew 5:45 notes that God makes the rain fall on the just and the unjust.

What does that have to do with this very odd juxtaposition of verses in the middle of Revelation? The angels and saints are praising God, saying that God’s kingdom shall be forever. There is storm from heaven, while on earth a pregnant woman is threatened by a dragon. The woman is swept away by God to the wilderness and the baby is safe as well.

One way to look at this imagery is that the pregnant woman represents the Christ followers. Bearing new life, they are vulnerable in the face of dragon that wishes to crush and devour them, snuffing out the new life and the growth it represents. God’s intervention in the metaphor indicates that John believes God will protect the groups of believers, perhaps even removing them to a safer place. 

Please note, though, that the believers cannot save themselves. The remove to safety, the sheltering, the protection- it comes from God at the Divine will. If the believers fight back against Rome- perhaps with swords- they will likely die. If they run away to hide, they may not be in a safe place or able to sustain themselves. They are to continue the work that John mentioned in their specific addresses, earlier in the book, and wait with attention for God’s guidance.

Potential Takeaway:  God cares for sparrows, ants, platypuses, and giant squids. God’s compassion isn’t waiting for the most assertive to gain access through the right combo of words and actions. It is present to all, poured out, actively on-going because that is God’s own nature. The next time you’re thinking, “God helps those who help themselves”- consider that might be a sign to slow down, reflect, and look for clarity and spiritual guidance. 

Merciful God, Your generosity knows no bounds. Your kindness lasts from generation to generation. Your divine help is called grace- unearned, unbidden, and poured out for all. Guide me into a deeper trust of Your provision and care. Amen. 

Monday, December 17, 2018

Revelation Read-Along: Day 13

Reading: Revelation 11:1-14

Advent Theme: Witness

I grew up in a Christian denomination that was focused on the conversion experience. The re-orientation of one’s heart toward Christ was the perceived moment of salvation. I serve, as a pastor, in a denomination that teaches that salvation is complete through God’s own work and that our responsiveness to that work is the life of faith. The “moment of decision” happens every day, multiple times, when we make the choices that indicate a life lived in imitation of Christ, serving others and the world that God made.

That being said, Western Christianity has shifted in the past centuries to make faith an intellectual pursuit, an issue of correct thinking and understanding. If there is anything that John the Revelator is trying to make clear, it is that the life of faith is not about mental comprehension, but about physical and spiritual witness to the Lamb (Christ) and against the beast (Rome).

Those whose words and deeds bear witness to Christ’s power and might may be martyred. They may die an ignominious death at the hands of rebellious and oppressive people, who are angry, envious, or simply depraved. Be that as it may, the ones who believe cannot allow their witness to falter.

As the imagery becomes complicated, pull back from the details. Look at the whole forest, not the individual trees. John has planted a grove of images that are meant to bear the fruit of faithful behavior in Christian community- mutual love, care for the outcasts, and worship of the one true God. Do you feel like you already read these points before? You did. Apocalyptic texts are repetitive because they are trying to send a clear message. John does not deviate from the form.

Potential takeaways: Even when things are confusing or busy, faithful living happens in all of our daily choices. What would Jesus have me do- in the store, at work, with my family, relaxing, or as a citizen? We all have work to do for God’s kingdom. Are we doing it? 

Dear God, what is the work that You would have me do? Guide me in stillness, that I may perceive Your voice, understand Your directions, and work toward Your perfect will. Amen. 

Friday, December 14, 2018

Revelation Read-Along: Day 12

Reading: Revelation 10 

Advent Theme: Mystery

In my class on parables, we memorized this poem by Emily Dickinson:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

The Reverend Dr. Fred Borsch (may he rest in peace and rise in power) impressed upon us the reality that parables are God’s truth told at a slant, in a disguise, because the flat-out truth of grace, the expanse of the kin-dom, and our absence of control in the situation would break people, including the one who was charged with bringing the message of good news. I don’t want to say we “can’t handle the truth”, but… 

I distinctly recall not knowing how to respond to a man who told me that God fully intends for us to comprehend all of the scriptures and to have complete understanding in this life, if we study hard enough and prove faithful and diligent. That may be so, but I don’t think I have that kind of works righteousness in me. In fact, I know I don’t. 

In chapter 10, John the Revelator is confronted with the reality that some of God’s words, works, and intentions are going to remain a mystery. They are not to be revealed. John, like Ezekiel and others, ingests the words of God and finds them sweet, even if they are not fully digestible. 

The truth told slant about God is that the Divine is mysterious. I know that 2 + 2 is 4. I can see it. I can make it happen. I do not take it on faith. God’s grace, providence, and wisdom- I do take on faith. I have seen signs and wonders that support the continuation in faith, like following a river that bends just beyond my sight. What I have beside me and behind me gives me enough guidance to keep moving forward toward what I cannot see and do not know. And I trust, without seeing, that God does know. 

Potential Takeaway: In the middle of the chaos of apocalypse, when all hell has broken loose because heaven is no longer holding it back, God does know. 

Holy Divine Mystery, You are the source and ground of my being. My heart is restless until it finds its home in Your everlasting peace. In times of mystery, strengthen my faith so that I may move forward in courage and trust in You. Amen. 

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Revelation Read-Along: Day 11

Reading: Revelation 9:13-21

Advent Theme: Recognition

Now things are getting scary. It’s hard to untangle meaning from these passages that tell about death and destruction coming from heaven. Not only do such passages seem to contradict the over-arching biblical theme of God’s mercy and desire for peace, but these passages also sew seeds of doubt in the heart of many who read them. “Am I in danger?”

Let’s deal with those two things separately, shall we? Firstly, what is the purpose of angels in most of scripture? They are created beings, like humans, but they do not live on the same plane as human beings and they appear to have different work than human beings do. In writing to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul has an awareness that those who follow the Lord will participate in the judgment of the world, including judging the angels.

Thus, when angels appear to be destructive, it does come from a heaven-sent directive. That being said, if the main work of angels is usually protective, instructive, and encouraging- it is possible to see “destructive” work as a withholding of their power, rather than unleashing it to a hard end.

Can I say this in a simpler way? I’ll try. Since much of Revelation is unveiling the results of human habits- wrong worship, oppression, failure to care for others and the world that God made- the destruction that we see at the hands of the angels may be caused because the angels are no longer intervening for the sake of the world. If the heavenly host stops doing their work, who knows what life in this realm might be like? 

Thus, John’s vision indicates that the trauma and pain that is happening to those in the Roman Empire is not because heaven is causing it to happen, but because heaven is no longer intervening to stop the full extent of destruction that humans cause to one another and the earth. 

As for the second question, should a believer be afraid? No. The early part of this book, as well as the rest of it, along with the whole Bible, indicates clearly God’s saving power and intentions. Those who are walking in the Way of Christ- in word and deed- have nothing to fear. They may struggle because others do not understand their commitments, but their eternal rest is secure because of Jesus. So, as the angels say, do not be afraid.

Potential takeaways: Pain and destruction in the world are not necessarily God “teaching people a lesson”. It may be the result of peoples’ choices and actions. When we who trust in God see these things, we are to lift up our heads, continue to speak peace, and work for the sake of our neighbors in generosity and kindness. 

Holy God, You have given angels work that is beyond my understanding. They are charged with the care of much. You have also given me work to do in my family, my neighborhood, and in the world. Guide all Your servants in the work you have put before us that we may do that which pleases You and brings peace to Your creation. Amen. 

Monday, December 10, 2018

Revelation Read-Along: Day 10

Reading: Revelation 9:1-12

Advent Theme: Long-suffering

There was a story about one of my professors in seminary. One day in chapel, he was scheduled to preach. The selected passage for the day was from Leviticus. He came to the front, read the passage to the assembly, closed the Bible, and said, “This is not the Word of the Lord for me.” Then he sat down.

I find myself doing the same thing in part of Revelation. John’s intense and purposefully chaotic metaphors about the locusts and the abyss, with a king called “Destroyer’, only confuse and frustrate me. There is nothing here that reveals Christ to me, stirs the joy of my salvation, or helps me in any of my vocations (wife, mother, sister, friend, daughter, pastor, neighbor, citizen,…). This is not the word of the Lord for me.

The books, movies, and other materials that seek to explain these parts of Revelation in detail exploit people’s fears and capitalize on the same. And when I say capitalize, I mean using fear to make capital, to get rich. This is precisely the kind of behavior that John warns the seven churches against. It is not a biblical interpretation that comes out of love and service; it is an interpretation that is borne out of a desire to get rich. This is not the path of the Lamb, the Way of Christ, the life of discipleship. 

To be clear, I am not saying that having money means that a person cannot be a Christian or even a good Christian. What I am saying is that there are several generations of alleged Christian apologists (explainers) who have expounded on the mysteries of Revelation to the great gain of their pocketbooks, but not to the end of actually making the world better by an outpouring of Christ-like behavior. This, to me, is like locusts- swarming on people, stirring up fear, not actually harming them- but making them quite miserable.

Potential Takeaway: When I speak as a Christian, it should be to make a situation better and for the benefit of all concerned. When I am the major beneficiary of what I say or do, I may not be imitating Christ quite as much as His love would compel me to do. And, sometimes, a particular part of the Bible may neither inspire devotion, historical understanding, or literary reflection. For a time it may not be the word the Lord is using in my life. And that’s okay. 

Dear God, Your Word is holy and good, but also mysterious. I struggle enough with what I do understand that I should not be anxious about the parts that are not yet clear to me. Guide me to a greater depth of faith and courage to live into what I do understand, following in the way of Jesus the Christ. Amen. 

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Revelation Read-Along: Day 9

Reading: Revelation 8

Advent Theme: Silence

The seventh seal brings silence in heaven. In John’s vision, there is a short pause in the midst of chaos for silence. More than simply the absence of sound, silence can be restful, healing, or useful for focus. This pause in the action allows the suspense to build.

Then the silence ends, the seven trumpets sound, and there is ecological destruction. When people want to take apocalyptic literature literally, they comb through history to match details to what they perceive to be prophecy. Instead, we remember that John is using exaggerated language to make a point and to refocus his audience on what is important.

By describing ecological disasters, John reminds his readers- then and now- that improper worship harms creation. When we worship world leaders, or profit margins, or our own brand, we lose track of God’s first gift to humankind- the invitation to be stewards of the earth. Improper worship means we are spiritually betting the farm that still belongs to our Divine Parent.

Revelation reminds the reader not that these things are happening, but that they can and will happen because of the poor stewardship of the powers and principalities of this world. It is up to those who would be conquerors, who seek to walk the Way of Christ, to work for the good of creation. 

Potential takeaway: How often do we remember that care for creation is the other half of our baptismal charge? We are sent out to “care for others and the world that God made”. Faithful living includes careful and judicious use of natural resources, respect for animals, and support for the vocations of farming, ranching, and fishing. Looking for God’s presence and guidance around our natural resources is part of what Christians are called to do- in all times and places. 

Holy God, Your farm is all creation. Guide me in the stewardship of the resources near me, that I may take seriously the role of being a co-creator with you in this world. I do not want to be lukewarm about your creation, but zealous in care and compassion for the world you have made. Amen. 

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Revelation Read-Along: Day 8

Reading: Revelation 7

Advent Theme: Courage

This is my favorite chapter in Revelation. There are verses in chapter 21 that I enjoy singly, but the wholeness of this chapter brings a particular kind of hope to my spirit and is food for my faith. In my opinion, I believe this chapter- along with Romans 9-11- is a particular antidote to the anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish thought that has long pervaded Christian teaching and action.

The specific numbers of the first half of the chapter clearly indicate John’s understanding that God has always intended to include Jewish people, as Jews, in the making of all things new. In the life of the world to come, these people- God’s first beloveds- will be present because of God’s promise to them and God’s own fidelity. There is no sleight of Divine hand to make them something other than exactly who they are, who they have been, and who God has made them to be.

The roundness of the tribal numbers is meant to create a visual of complete inclusiveness of generations, not to be a prescription for exactly how many people will be acceptable from each branch of Jacob’s house. This broad, but defined inclusion contrasts with the second half of the chapter, which widens the focus.

Beyond the Jews, there is a great multitude of people- an uncountable number. Not only is this a vast number of people, but they also cannot be identified by standard racial, social, or religious markings. They are from so many places and backgrounds that John cannot determine why they are there or who they are.

The elder explains that these are all the people who withstood tribulation. When the empire demanded false worship, when they were challenged with threats of war, poverty, and death, when they were tempted to be passive or lukewarm, they resisted. They overcame. These are the ones who were active- they washed their robes, meaning they made the choices and took the steps that revealed a life of Christ-like and Christ-approved actions. None of the great multitude is present around the throne because of intellectual assent to theological precepts. They are there because they followed the Way of the Lamb, whether or not they knew it. And, now, they will suffer no more. 

Potential TakeawayChristianity is a lifestyle—a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, and loving. However, we made it into an established “religion” (and all that goes with that) and avoided the lifestyle change itself. One could be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain in most of Christian history, and still believe that Jesus is one’s “personal Lord and Savior” or continue to receive Sacraments in good standing. The world has no time for such silliness anymore. The suffering on Earth is too great.”–  Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM

Holy and life-giving God, I am overwhelmed at your inclusiveness. You keep your promises from age to age, generation to generation. Your grace pours out and the Holy Spirit still brings in more and more people. Guide me in the Way of Christ, that I too may be found to have washed my robe in His blood, walked my steps in His way, and lived my days by imitating Him. Amen. 

Friday, December 7, 2018

Revelation Read-Along: Day 7

Reading: Revelation 6

Advent Theme: Hope

I can see from my blog stats that as the Revelation readings get more complicated, the number of daily readers has begun to drop off. Of course, that could also be related to the fact that it is a very full time of year and, in the northern hemisphere, it is darker for more of the day. Darkness itself is a time of rest and renewal, not an absence of light but an opportunity to perceive light in a different way. Part of my love of reading Revelation is that it is of a piece of the life-long work of trying to perceive light in different ways.

In chapter 6, we read about the opening of the seven seals. The seals will have parallels in the seven trumpets and the seven bowls. In terms of scriptural numerology, seven often appears to represent completeness. The original creation was described as happening in seven days and the making of all things new, a recreation, receives a kind mirror treatment.

As the seals are opened, we see the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” as they are often called. Interestingly, if we look closely at the images, the horsemen don’t necessarily come as a set of four, but instead as one and three. Christ is associated with the color white in Revelation. Use of the verb “conquer” is also almost always associated with those who persevere in faith. Therefore, the first horseman- the rider on the white horse- seems to be a metaphor for the gospel or the Spirit or even the Living Word, Christ’s own self, going into the world.

The riders that follow are war and violence (red horse), economic disaster and poverty (black horse), and death (pale horse). The implication could be that these follow behind the spread of the gospel, attempting to subvert its good work and to upend trust in the promises of Christ. The additional seals reveal the faithful who continue to pray and worship in the midst of the chaos, as well as the fear and cowardice of powers and principalities of the world as it was.

Trying to draw specifics out of this chapter is like trying to find the hidden image in a Magic Eye picture or a stereogram. Some people can do it, but most people can’t and it is only frustrating to try. In fact, I would tend to be suspicious of anyone who says they know how and when these things will happen since Jesus himself specifically indicates that no one knows except the Father (Matthew 24:36). 

Potential takeaways: Occam’s Razor is a philosophical principle which states that the answer that requires the least speculation is usually correct. The famous example is usually that if you hear hoofbeats, think horse before you think zebra. The Occam’s Razor of the human condition is that war, famine, and death are usually the result of world leaders and economic machines wanting power and control. To look at these things and to try to parse them for indications of matching John’s revelation is to hear hoofbeats and think, “Oh, boy! Zebras!” The purpose of apocalyptic literature is to stir our imagination. John’s purpose in using the genre is to stir our imagination and use that energy to drive us into proper worship in community and faithful discipleship in daily life. 

Holy God, when the activities of the world overwhelm me, I ask that You would guide my thoughts and concerns to a place of rest in You. Grant me the will and the ability to live a faithful life, in the midst of turmoil, and to resist being overcome by the forces that oppose Your true will for wholeness and restoration. In Christ’s name, Amen. 

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Revelation Read-Along: Day 6

Reading: Revelation 5

Advent Theme: Steadfastness

You did it! You read one of the most complicated chapters in the Bible, the pivotal chapter of Revelation, and you survived! Good work, friend. This is quite the roller coaster ride- a Lamb who bears the marks of slaughter who is also the Lion of Judah and the Root of David. Don’t try to picture a lamb/lion/root hybrid- you’ll get a headache.

What’s happening here? John, who is writing a book, is in the midst of a vision of heaven. In this heaven, there is a book (the scroll). This heavenly book is neither for John to write or to read. Instead, Christ has written this book and only he (Christ) is qualified to read it.

Even the heavenly elders, typically an exalted social position, and the powerful creatures that surround the throne cannot read the book. Instead, they carry the prayers of faithful people to the throne, where the aroma of the prayers, like incense, and the shape of prayers, like smoke, fills the air.

John’s vision includes a huge number of people, “ten thousand times ten thousand”, surrounding the throne as well. Every single one of these people, as far as John’s dreaming eyes can perceive, are praising the One who sits on the throne. Along with the elders, they sing songs of praise and thanksgiving.

There’s so much here and it is also acceptable to get very little out of it. This chapter contains details pieced from Daniel and Isaiah, plus what came through the Spirit and imagination to John as he wrote. It’s complex and concerted effort to explain it would dilute the powerful image that is intended to direct believers into correct worship.

Those who are trying to travel the Way of Christ must ponder what it means to believe in the worthiness of the Lamb Who Was Slain. Christian discipleship is not the lifestyle of the persecutor, but the lifestyle of the one who would lay down his life for his friend. It is a way of being that does not give honor to the emperor on the throne or the one who offers the most money, but the lamb who bears the mark of having been sacrificed. It is a humble and humbling way of life.

Potential takeaway: It is later in Revelation that we learn that inclusion in the heavenly scroll comes through Christ’s work, not our own. We will also learn that, while salvation is a separate issue, we will still have to account for our time and our talents. We often assume that orthodoxy(right belief) will get us into the heavenly crowd around the throne. The truth, though, seems to be that orthopraxy(right practice) and orthopathy(right emotions/feelings) are equally, if not more, important. Those gathered around the throne are not there because they imitated Christ in believing correctly. They are there because imitating Him led to worshiping the one true God, which led to changes in behavior, which led to sometimes being at odds with culture and community, which led to a connection with fellow believers, which led back to worship. 

Holy God, it is easy to follow Jesus when I believe doing so will save me from hell. It is harder, at times, to follow Jesus because doing so will guide me in saving others from hell on earth. I can only be strengthened for this kind of living through regular worship and connection with you. Help me to desire that and then to follow through on that desire. In Christ’s name, Amen. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Revelation Read-Along: Day 5

Reading: Revelation 4

Advent Theme: Praise

Let us return, briefly, to the concept of apocalyptic literature. Within this genre, the metaphors are never straight lines, as in A is used to described B. Instead, apocalyptic literature takes metaphor A and using it to describe what it would be like to braid hockey sticks and oranges. Wait, what? (Read it again.) The metaphors borrow from images that readers or hearers know and then combine them in a way that almost defies imagination. Thus, with a charged imagination and a small amount of heightened anxiety, the writer drives the audience back to a simpler concept that, ideally, they should be able to understand. 

Therefore, as we kayak the river of John’s revelation, don’t attempt to hang out in the rapids of his extreme metaphors. All it will do is spin you around and make you dizzy, providing little spiritual food and much mental frustration. Instead, let the current of the Holy Spirit carry you through the text, help you note the complex scenery, but bring you to the slower waters of the plain meaning of the text. 

“Plain meaning” is a phrase that comes from the early years of the (German) Reformation. Martin Luther and others asserted that descriptions in the Bible were meant to be accessible to people in every age. He was thinking in particular of the effort to complicate the parables in the gospels, making each and every aspect of the parable mean something that couldn’t reasonably be discerned from the text. When we come to Revelation, the plain meaning must be restricted to what we can clearly understand.

In our devotional reading, we look for how God is acting in the story and how God might want us to respond. In historical reading, we might use additional information to see how symbols of Rome- like dragons, the color red, or the seal of the emperor- were used during that time or look up how Christians in Asia were being treated at the end of the first century. In a literary reading, we would notice how the writer stirs up anxiety and soothes it, noting themes and recurring phrases. There is more that one way to correctly and spiritually use and learn from the written word.

What does this have to do with today’s reading? First, GOOD WORK for making it to Day 5! I’m proud of you! As we move ahead, this is where the book can really start to feel overwhelming, but remember the river metaphor. You and the Holy Spirit have got this!

As John begins to describe the scene in heaven, do not break down each aspect of the picture. We could, and people have, assign meaning to every single number and every single color. We could use Ezekiel, who has a very similar image of heaven (Ez. 1 and 10), and Daniel and parts of other books and hammer out exactly what we thinkJohn meant. That level of interpretation is possible, but not necessarily beneficial and may also not be truthful based on John’s intentions. 

So, the images of the animals, the crowned elders, and the throne give us a scene of heaven as a source of power and majesty. There are creatures beyond imagining and powerful leaders and natural elements- all of which yield to the power that is on the throne. From that throne comes life, creativity, and mercy. The heavenly throne has nothing in common with any throne that appears on earth. The correct response to this power and majesty is worship and praise.

Potential takeaway: The only book of the Bible that offers more phrase and images to Christian worship music and liturgy than Revelation is Psalms. The words of countless communion settings, stanzas of favorite hymns, phrases of needlepoint plaques, and the scenes of centuries of paintings come straight from John’s revelation. No hymn writer, painter, liturgist, or preacher can claim truthfully claim to understand all that is contained in this book. Yet, we cannot stay away because its mystery presses us toward the parts we do understand: the importance of worship, the need for community, the power of God. Can you let go of the need to comprehend every detail and just look at the bigger picture of the book? 

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come. Holy, holy, holy is the God who sits on a throne of power and yet comes to us as a helpless infant. Holy, holy, holy is the God who brought all things into being and yet permits us to be co-creators in the midst of it. Holy, holy, holy is the God whose everlasting arms provide shelter, rest, and strength for all of our days. Amen.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Revelation Read-Along: Day 4

Reading: Revelation 3

Advent Theme: Strength

Here’s a question: What should I do when it’s hard to read the scriptures? I mean, I understand the words, but the images and phrases are complicated and then my eyes are moving, but my head is somewhere else.

Answer: Firstly, you’re not alone. When I was in seminary and we had to read hundreds of verses a day to keep up in class, we often complained to each other. Professor Carolyn Sharp once said, “Remember, when you are serving a congregation, how hard it is to read the Bible and show kindness and sympathy to the people who are looking to you.”

Secondly, almost the entire Bible was written for the ear, not the eye. It is a visual presentation of an auditory message. Read it out loud to yourself or, better yet, use an app or a recording to listen to the Bible. I do that! I use the app “NRSV Bible for Everyone” on my phone (iPhone) because that’s my preferred translation. You can find almost any translation via app or CD, tape, or audiobook for download.

Third and last, pray before and after you read. God has given the gift of the scripture in the vernacular, our own regular language. Ask this same God to help you understand what you can handle at this time and to grow your understanding throughout your life.

Now, let us soldier on to chapter 3 and the churches at Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. The people at Philadelphia have remained faithful, despite struggle; however, followers of the Way of Christ in Sardis and Laodicea have slipped off the path. In Sardis, the Christians have abandoned the work of discipleship. The Philadelphians have become lukewarm, rather blah and blasé about Jesus.

You may have noticed the use of the word “conquer” quite frequently in these passages. In some church traditions, the phrase “overcomers” is also associated with Revelation and the members of these churches. What is being conquered or overcome if one remains faithful to life in Christ?

The Holy Spirit strengthens the faithful in bearing the spiritual fruits that Paul mentions in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When we bear these fruits, through the Spirit, we overcome their opposites- the withering weeds of hate, despair, war, frustration, meanness, pettiness, infidelity, harshness, and lack of restraint. Carrying the fruits of the Spirit into the world strengthens a believer to resist the pull of consumerism, impropriety, and idolatry. When we successfully resist, we overcome! We conquer for Christ!

Jesus, through John’s revelation, is speaking to the leaders of the churches, reminding them of the importance of their witness. They are meant to shine a light of hope and truth into a culture that treats the emperor like a god and orients all commerce, worship, and activity toward him (the emperor). That kind of idolatry is not acceptable if one has truly embraced the lifestyle of Christianity. The churches at Sardis and Laodicea must overcome the temptations to take what seems easier, yielding to the pull of the world’s priorities. They must refocus on God’s call and renewal, overcoming their dissipation and living a life that shows forth the joy of their salvation!

Potential takeaways: We are not really that different from these early Christians. The shape of modern life, particularly in the Western world, can pull us toward wanting more stuff, being busier, and creating idols of political, social, and entertainment figures that do not actually have any interest in our wellbeing. What do you need to do to overcome the temptations that are in your life? Are you lukewarm in your discipleship or faith? Are you weighed down with grief or doubt and need help to overcome? The same Christ who offers help to the churches in Revelation can help you and me- probably through one another. (Definitely through one another.) 

Holy God, all glory and honor belong to you. Through Jesus Christ, the pioneer of our faith, you have forged a path of joy and peace for me to walk. This path will take me to places where you have gifted me the ability to serve the needs I will meet. Your Spirit will also meet my needs on this journey. Strengthen me to overcome my own fears and world-weariness, that I may continue to find hope and good in this world, even as I know it has been established in the next. In Christ’s name, Amen. 

Monday, December 3, 2018

Revelation Read-Along: Day 3

Reading: Revelation 2:12-29

Advent Theme: Fidelity

Even though it may not seem like it at first glance, the churches at Pergamum and Thyatira are struggling with the same issue. Like Ephesus, there are false teachers in their midst. The false prophets here represent an even greater danger to those who are following the Way of Christ because they (the lying leaders) are attempting to equate Christian discipleship with the worship of the emperor or being in league with Roman power.

How can you tell? The metaphor of fornication and/or adultery, when used in scripture, is often used to depict unfaithfulness in the relationship of people to God. And, let’s be clear, God is never the party that adulterates the relationship. Yes, there are many times in the Bible when adultery is meant to indicate unfaithfulness in human marital relationships and fornication is used to refer to illicit or inappropriate sexual activity. That being said, the mention of Balaam is meant to remind those who hear this letter of the prophet in Numbers 25 who did cause some in Israel to go astray from proper worship of the one true God. 

Additionally, the use of the name Jezebel here is meant to prod a recollection that fear of a power and persuasive leader (2 Kings) caused apostasy, or abandonment of the faith, among some who had been faithful. The terms “fornication” and “adultery” in these verses underscore the reality that spiritual unfaithfulness has consequences. While Paul wrote to the Corinthians regarding eating meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8) and the relative safety of such a practice, the situation in Pergamum and Thyatira is at least half a century later, a totally different emperor, and a Christianity that is under attack in a new way.

In western English, we sometimes use the phrase “in bed with” as a business or civic term. “Well, if we can get a good interest rate, I don’t mind getting in bed with XYZ firm for this project.” So, while we might not use the term adultery or fornication in the business or civic world, we are familiar with sexual metaphors to indicate a partnership go well or going poorly. The false teachers among these churches may have been telling Christians that it was okay “to get in bed with” Roman power for whatever reason.

Potential takeaway: We can only truly worship one God. Relationships with our money, our stuff, our homeland, other people, even our church life can adulterate what is meant to be our primary allegiance- our relationship with our Creator. Is the voice you hear most often coming out of your television, from across the dinner table, through a radio or a telephone? What can you change in your life, if you need or want, to be sure that the voice you are listening to and for most often is the One that truly has your best interests at heart and is always faithful? 

Holy God, You have kept your promises from generation to generation. Throughout time and across lands, You have sent true prophets who revealed Your will and Your word. Then You sent the Son to make clear what people could not understand from the prophets. Guide us into true faithfulness to You, forsaking all others, for as long as we shall live and then beyond. In Christ’s name, amen. 

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Revelation Read-Along: Day 2

Reading: Revelation 2:1-11

Advent Theme: Faith

What’s a Nicolaitan? You ask good questions. From the text, we can reasonably assume that the Nicolaitans were teaching some version of the gospel or giving instruction in the faith that was contrary to 1) what John believed to be true or appropriate and 2) may also have been contrary to what the larger Christian community received and perceived to be true and appropriate.

How can one tell a false teacher or prophet? A false teacher tries to become the center of worship,
instead of focusing on God. A false prophet seeks his own gain, instead of working for the sake of community and the kingdom. The profit motive and inappropriate focus may not be clear at first, but the truth will always out.

The church in Ephesus is struggling to continue in faithful discipleship. They remain stalwart in testing false teachers, meaning they are oriented toward correct doctrine. BUT! It is not enough. In their focus on truthful teaching, they have fallen away from demonstrations of care and compassion. In short, they’ve started to be only hearers of the Word and neglected to be doers of the same. This is of great concern to John, who uses the metaphor of Christ walking among the lampstands to remind the church at Ephesus that Jesus is there with them.

The church in Smyrna is struggling with the forces that oppose God. These forces are recognizable by how they put up roadblocks to discipleship and faithful witness. The presence of suffering itself is not a signifier of these forces; however, persecution because of one’s good work in caring for others and God’s creation is a clear sign of potentially both the spiritual forces that oppose God and the powers and principalities of this world that can do the same. Smyrna is urged, as are we, to renounce these forces and to continue on with the work of care and compassion in community and of worshiping God in all times and places.

Potential take-away: In the season of Advent, many of the dichotomies of our present life are brought into sharp focus. We are surrounded by a “gimme” culture, which encouraged indebtedness and plays on insecurities around having the “right stuff”. At the same time, we are encouraged to give charitably, more than any other time of the year, even though need knows no season. What would it look like to step back from both of these things- to simplify both our giving and our getting? Would it feel like returning to “our first love”, God’s own love- which our Creator gives to us before we were even born?

Holy God, help me to pace myself in this season. More than anything, I ask for the gift of hearing Your voice and feeling Your presence. This may come through service, through worship, or in a still, small place where You reveal Yourself to me. Open my heart to perceive the Spirit of faith in this season. In Christ’s name, I pray. Amen. 

Psalm 25, Revisited

In Hebrew, Psalm 25 is an acrostic psalm. The beginning of each sentence forms the alef-bet down the page. 

I have re-written Psalm 25, in Revised Julia Edition, to be an acrostic of the English alphabet. 

All of my being belongs to you, O Lord, 
Because of this truth, I trust in You alone. Consent not that the forces that oppose You to triumph in my life.
Do not allow any of Your faithful people to become discouraged or embarrassed because of their hope in you. 
Educate me in Your ways, O Lord. Teach me the feel of Your road. 
First things first, and that must always be You. 
God of all things, You alone offer true wholeness and peace: salvation           
Happy is the one who learns this and waits for You. 
I beg you to continue in mercy and everlasting compassion, O Lord,  
Just as you did for Sarah, Ruth, and Hannah. 
Keep no mementos of my sins- against You or others.
Let Your own eyes of love be the lens through which You see me. 
Majesty is revealed through constancy and goodness, which certainly describes the Lord. 
Neglecting no one, the Lord offers guidance in faithful discipleship.
O God, those who are willing to listen will hear and receive Your guidance,
Patiently, the Lord corrects and guides the faithful to a holy life. 
Questioners find a way of surety and eternal mercy when they follow the Lord. 
Remember, O Lord, Your Divine reputation and forgive me all my many sins. 
Since we fear, love, and trust the Lord, we will not be without direction or help. 
Those who listen to God will find the justice, life-fullness, and family they desire. 
Ultimately, the Lord does not abandon those who want to be God’s people. 
Victory over sin and death belong to the Lord, who includes even me in that triumph. 
When You think of me, O God, pour out the healing you know I need in my whole being.
X-ray those who hate me, see their insides, and protect me from what may truly harm me. 
Yes, I seek a life of wholeness and self-control as I wait for you. 
Zion, the original people of Your heart, awaits Your redemption. Hasten to them, O God. 

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Revelation Read-Along Day 1

Reading: Revelation 1 

Advent Theme: Promise

What’s happening here? Someone named John is writing to at least seven churches, with which he has a relationship and has been seen in the role of teacher or leader. He writes that he has been exiled to the island of Patmos and the implication is that the exile happened because of his teaching and Christian leadership.

This is probably not the John who is Jesus’ beloved apostle. John is a common name and the writing apocalyptic writing. While some of the gospel accounts have apocalyptic elements, only Daniel uses this style of writing in the same way. In both Daniel and Revelation, apocalyptic writing uses sharp metaphors, strong descriptions, and a future tense to describe present realities. By present realities, I mean the present of the writers, not necessarily the present of the modern reader.
in Revelation is different from either the Fourth Gospel or the Johannine epistles. This John, the writer of Revelation, chooses to use the style of apocalyptic writing. While some of the gospel accounts have apocalyptic elements, only Daniel uses this style of writing in the same way. In both Daniel and Revelation, apocalyptic writing uses sharp metaphors, strong descriptions, and a future tense to describe present realities. By present realities, I mean the present of the writers, not necessarily the present of the modern reader. 

For example, the bit about the stars and the angels and the lampstands can be broken down and understood as how John the Revelator is describing the churches to whom he is writing, in east Asia, to themselves. They are lampstands, meant to shine Christ’s light to the world (see Matthew 5:16). They have heavenly guardians- angels- who guard and guide their work. The work of the churches is known in heaven and known on earth.

Look again at the description of the “one like the Son of Man”. The description is meant to boggle the mind. How does a voice sound like many waters? John is humbled by the self-revelation of the heavenly messenger and recognizes the power of the messenger’s words. The words are described as being like a “sharp, two-edged sword”. These words with cut in two directions, piercing human power and knowledge to reveal that it is God’s power and knowledge, revealed in Christ, that truly stands.

What are a couple things to take away from this reading? First, martyrdom or harassment do not come about by the mere fact of being a Christian. They are the result of the forces that oppose God resenting and trying to stop the fruits of discipleship- equality, community, and generosity in service to the one true God. Secondly, dramatic images are not meant to be found by readers then or now in exact replica. They are meant to be arresting to our thoughts and deeds, causing us to re-orient ourselves to the truth.

PrayerDear God, when the written word is confusing or challenging, it feels easier to turn away than to be uncomfortable. Guide me in faithful listening to your words. Help me to be not afraid, but to trust that You indeed hold all things in Your everlasting arms. Where the sword of Your truth pierces my heart, heal me and strengthen my faith. Amen.