Pastoral Relief and Retreat

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Wethersfield, CT, United States
I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.


Friday, June 28, 2013

A Woven Garland

Psalm 119:145-152
(the poem is an acrostic of the Hebrew alphabet, and this stanza begins with the letter Qoph)

With my whole heart I cry; answer me, O Lord!  I will keep your statutes.
I call to you; save me, that I may observe your testimonies.
I rise before dawn and cry for help; I hope in your words.
My eyes are awake before the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promise.
Hear my voice according to your steadfast love;
O Lord, according to your justice give me life.
They draw near who persecute me with evil purpose; they are far from your law.
But you are near, O Lord, and all your commandments are true.
Long have I known from your testimonies that you have founded them forever.

True to the poetic form it is set in, Psalm 119 weaves a poet’s garland together; a harmony of law and promise not found so close to each other in many other parts of Scripture, except in Jesus.

Many have observed that, with the exception of one verse (the way the verse numbers were added centuries later), every phrase of Psalm 119 mentions the Law of God in some way.  I disagree.  Every couplet adds to the garland, to be sure.  But we must differentiate between God’s Law and his Promise. 

Maybe the best way to look at the Psalm is by asking which phrases utilize the language of the courtroom and which are talking about God’s self-revelation.  Look at this brief passage again with the phrases dealing with Law indented:

With my whole heart I cry; answer me, O Lord!  I will keep your statutes.
I call to you; save me, that I may observe your testimonies.
I rise before dawn and cry for help; I hope in your words.
My eyes are awake before the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promise.
Hear my voice according to your steadfast love;
O Lord, according to your justice give me life.
They draw near who persecute me with evil purpose; they are far from your law.
But you are near, O Lord, and all your commandments are true.
Long have I known from your testimonies that you have founded them forever.

Back and forth the Psalmist goes between Law and Love, between Commandment and Promise, between that which is judged and that which is felt. 

In Matthew 8:1-4, Jesus heals a leper: When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him.  And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” 

This is a beautiful example of the harmony of Law and Love.  The leper takes no thought of the Law of God.  If he had, he would not have approached Jesus the way he did.  He was considered unclean, and even his presence in the crowd that day was forbidden.  Leviticus 13:44-45 says, "Now the leper on whom the sore is, his clothes shall be torn and his head bare; and he shall cover his mustache, and cry, 'Unclean! Unclean!' He shall be unclean. All the days he has the sore he shall be unclean. He is unclean, and he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp."

He was an outcast, pure and simple.   His approach to Jesus, therefore, is an emotional one: if you are willing you can make me clean.  “Jesus, if it is in your heart, overlook the Law just this once!” 

Jesus does what the man begs him to do.  Then, having dismissed the first requirement of the Law, he upholds the second: “Go, and show yourself to the priests as a testimony.”   This healing, like so many others done by Jesus, follows an unorthodox path.  Some have even commented that Jesus was, by the standards of the Pharisees, a law-breaker.   But I think Jesus was taking up, in himself, the garland of Love and Law found in Psalm 119 and applying it well. 


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Cupcakes for Cyrus

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped,
to subdue nations before him
and to loose the belts of kings…
that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I name you, though you do not know me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other,
besides me there is no God;
I equip you, though you do not know me,
that people may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is none besides me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other. (Isaiah 45:1-6, ESV)

Cyrus the Great presided over what was called the Achaemenid Empire (in the Bible, identified as the Persian Empire or simply “Persia”).  His was a great, expansive, and cultured empire.  While Cyrus conquered every nation he desired, expanding his grasp throughout the Middle East, Southwest Asia, and under his son, Egypt, he also respected the religions of the conquered territories and allowed them to keep their ethnic identity intact.  

Here in Isaiah 45 God rhetorically speaks to Cyrus.  However, Cyrus never learned the ways of Israel, nor is there any indication that he ever called upon the God of Israel.   However, Cyrus made two decrees with respect to the Jews.  The first ended the Babylonian captivity Nebuchadnezzar began, and the second encouraged the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple.  The Jews of Isaiah’s day revered Cyrus as a great and good king.    

That’s the backstory.  What I’d like to focus on is what God says to Cyrus.   He says, “I have grasped your right hand.”  This is a sign of friendship and of covenant.  Basically, God made Cyrus an instrument for the good of the region.  He also says, “I equip you, thought you do not know me.” 

God will use those who do not know him in order to bring his purposes about.  I don’t know what those purposes are, and I can’t predict how God will use a person who outright says he doesn’t want anything to do with God.  But this passage is clear: that person is not immune from God enacting his will through them.   This is easiest to see on the political stage.  I wonder out loud what God is doing in the Middle East today in places like Syria and Turkey; places that once belonged to Cyrus’ empire. 

Believer!   If God can use kings to bring about his purposes, he can certainly use lesser officials.  God can use governors, congressmen, mayors, assemblymen, even sanitation workers!  What we need to do every day is to interact with them and discover how God is working his purpose out.  By “interact”, I don’t mean that we picket or demonstrate only when we don’t like what they are doing.  I mean that just as your neighbor in church needs to know you care about them personally, so do your officials. 

The thing that strikes me about Cyrus is that he looked beyond the religious and cultural differences between him and his subjects and encouraged them in the pursuit of their God, even though he didn’t believe as they did.  Without watering down anything we believe as Christians, we can demonstrate to our neighbors and our leaders that we see them as people first.  Only after that will we gain an audience with the great and the small that from the rising of the sun and from the west, they may know that there is none besides God, the father of our Lord Jesus.

What do you suppose the staff down at town hall would do if you made them cupcakes and brought them coffee one afternoon… just so you could get to know them?


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Would you like that carved or molded?

[A tree] becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it [the tree] an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it [the tree] he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”
They know not, nor do they discern, for he [God] has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?” (Isaiah 44:15-20, ESV)

We live in a civilized culture.  We don’t make idols out of wood anymore here in the West.  You can see the sort of thing Isaiah is talking about if you travel to a place like Istanbul.  There, in the shops, you can pick up little carved ‘gods’.  But no one there actually believes in the power of Bes (the most ubiquitous of fertility gods, sold in most Turkish stores).  In fact, Turkey is a highly secularized country, and most of the Moslem majority there are adherents of Islam in name only.   We sell as mantle art or conversation starters things a previous generation feared and worshipped.

In his 1994 book, The Death of Common Sense, Philip K. Howard gives example after example of absurdities in contemporary life, culture, and law.  They are nearly always things that, to use the terminology from Isaiah 44, seem reasonable and righteous when held with the left hand.   But when transferred to the right, these same things seem perfectly ridiculous.   I’m staying away from giving any specific examples here because I know it would look like I’m up on a political soap-box when actually Isaiah has already said all I want to say. 

What is at the core of Western Culture is the notion that I will be satisfied with something – anything – other than God.  I will be independent.  I will be master of my own life.  I will chart my own course.   I have an unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  I, and no one else – certainly not God, determine what the content of that happiness is.  Just like the god Bes, we sell the notion of personal, individual liberty and happiness as the highest good on the shelves of all our stores. 

Is there not a dead idol, carved out of wood, or made out of plastic or silicone microchips sitting on my mantle, in my entertainment center, on my desk, or in my pocket?  Is there not a lie in my right hand?


Thursday, June 6, 2013

Deuteronomy 10:12-13

Today’s Readings:
With family: Deuteronomy 10; Psalms 94
In private: Isaiah 38; Revelation 8

Passage for Meditation: Deuteronomy 10:12-13
“And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good?”

This is one of two places where God says, “What does the Lord require of you?”  The other, more familiar place is Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” 

Is there something about the version in Deuteronomy we don’t like?  I know I don’t like the word “require”.  When someone tells me something is required of me, I really get quite defiant inside.  How dare you tell me I must do something!  Besides, the things God is asking in Deuteronomy are hard, if not down-right impossible to obey. 

·      How would it change my life if I really feared God (in the sense of awe-filled respect, not fear of punishment)? 
·      It would radically change my days if I purposed to walk in all God’s ways.  My Daughter-in-law recently told me about a book she read called, “A Year of Biblical Womanhood”.  You should read some of the downright comic ways people could apply the Scriptures.  Regardless, I wouldn’t want to have to defend that I’m really walking in the ways of God.
·      Love him?  That sounds a little bit easier.  All except for the part where loving needs to turn into action.  And do I really love the one who is unseen?
·      Frankly, if I really took “serve him with all my heart and soul” seriously, I wouldn’t have the time for a blog like this.
·      The part I really rebel at is the idea of keeping his commandments.  Did you know there are over 4000 times in the Scriptures where God tells us to do something? 

To quote my Jewish friends, “Oy.”

On the other hand, the way most churches are today, there’s nothing we require of our people.  The most we could say is that we require our people to affirm some basic statement like the Apostle’s Creed.   To our shame, the real “Oy” is not how much God requires of us, but how little we require of one another as believers.