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.


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Up to my neck in it

Psalm 32:6-8
Let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found.
Surely in the rush of great waters, they shall not reach him.  You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance.  I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.

When can the Lord be found?  Back before cell phones, I wouldn’t bother placing a phone call if I know the person wasn’t home.   I remember the days when there simply wasn’t a way of reaching someone if they were out.   You couldn’t leave a message.  There wasn’t even an answering machine there. 

Who are “the godly?”  How do they know (better than “the ungodly”) when to pray and find God at home?  

It seems to me that the key to understanding the first sentence is in the second.  A person who has lived around a river all their life knows when it is safe to cross the stream and when it isn’t.   Someone who simply walks up to the river and looks across to the other bank might say, “This looks safe to cross,” not realizing the bottom current is quite strong this time of year.  That person would be swept under and likely die.

The prayer made in the midst of crisis may be genuine.  But those prayers will never train a soul for righteousness.   A person who has made a habit of being with God on good days and bad makes quite a different sort of prayer when the crisis comes than the person to whom “God” is more a concept than a person. 

To a person whose soul has been trained in the ways of God, the sudden rush of water, the moment of life-changing decision may still come as a shock, but it doesn’t change a thing about that person’s life or relationship with God.  They are in constant dialog anyway.  Now is just another moment in that conversation.   There is no, “Where are you, God?”  For the “godly” are called that because they have been with God and know that as long as it is “today”, he may be found.   And for that person, even swept away to death, “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

A soul trained in righteousness knows Jehovah-Machsi (God, my refuge), Jehovah-Hoshe'ah (the God who saves) and doesn’t fear the flood.  For he is also Jehovah-Mephalti (God, my deliverer).   

This is a person who doesn’t just “end up” in the midst of a flood and hasn’t a clue how they got there.  This soul is taught and guided.   This is the person who is in the river because God told him to go there. 

What river has God told you to ford today or this season?  Go there and you will quickly find yourself up to your neck… in his presence.


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Don't miss this...

Hebrews 2:1-2
Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?

Do you ever put the TV, Radio, or Internet on and then get involved in something else and kind of forget that what you were mainly doing was watching your favorite show?  I have.  Because of this kind of multi-tasking, I’ve had to go back and watch a whole episode of some program again because I only caught the basic gist of what was happening.   I guess that’s why they invented TiVo. 

When I sit down with the Scriptures in the morning it is usually while I’m making my breakfast.  I accomplish this feat by “playing” the Lectionary texts on my computer.  David Cochran Heath calmly reads passage after passage to me in his perfect radio English voice.  I know, I know… I ought to lock myself in my prayer closet devote that time to the Lord.  It would be better for my waistline if I lay off the daily bread anyway.   I guess I’ve figured that hey, at least I’m spending time with God.   

Most mornings, when I get to the end of David’s dramatic reading, I pick a piece of Scripture to write on.  That’s how The Morning Watch gets generated. 

This morning I was at church by the time I found the time to run the mp3 of the Lectionary.  The only problem was that there was a lot of other stuff on my desk and my eye kept floating to one thing or another.  By the time David was finished reading, I heard him stop, and that’s what alerted me to the fact that I had totally missed what came between Psalm 26 and Hebrews 2. 

We know from Scripture that one of the results of Israel’s persistent disobedience to God came in the form of her desolation.  When Jesus stood and surveyed Jerusalem at one point he said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”  (Matthew 23:37-39 ESV)  These things were predicted by every prophet from Moses all the way down to Jesus., and still Israel played the prostitute.

When I multi-task I’m not giving God the chance to really speak to me.  As the writer to the Hebrews said, “we must pay much closer attention.”   Would you shut off the TV, the radio, the internet, your cell phone, and stop cooking, talking, working, and multi-tasking, if only so you don’t miss something really important… like… salvation?


Monday, February 11, 2013

What to do at Stop and Shop

Deuteronomy 6:10-15
“And when the Lord your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—with great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full, then take care lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you—for the Lord your God in your midst is a jealous God—lest the anger of the Lord your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth.

Nearly every day at some point I end up at our local Stop and Shop.  It is a terrible store.  Poorly managed.  The meats are second rate (I always drive the extra 4 miles to a local butcher shop so I can have really good meat), the produce is often wilted or on the edge, and the shelves are often kind of messy. 

I put up with it, though, because the next nearest Stop and Shop is an extra half-mile away.  And after all, time spent is inconvenience.  Right?  My daughter Beth calls this a “First-World Problem.” 

The Jews have a prayer they say at the beginning of every meal.  “Baruch atah adonai Elohaynu, melech ha'olam Hamotzi lechem min ha'aretz.”  “Praise to You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth grain from the earth.”  And similarly, “Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, borei p’ri hagafen.”  “Praise to You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who gives the fruit of the vine.”  Their tradition is to give thanks to the giver of the bread and the wine rather than to thank God for the bread and the wine as we generally do in Christian culture. 

The distinction is a small one, perhaps.  But try this exercise the next time you exercise the privilege of getting in your car and driving to the grocery store.  Walk the aisles, and with every item you pick up, say the appropriate blessing.  “Praise to you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, giver of olive oil… giver of Quaker Oats… giver of Eggland’s Best… giver of Cherry Garcia frozen yogurt!”  See if, by the time you’re done with your shopping list, you don’t get back in the car with the urge to say, “Praise to you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, giver of Fords and Hondas, Buick, Toyota, and Mitzubishi!” 

We are, of all the peoples who ever lived on the earth, least responsible for the production of the goods we consume.  Unless I put my mind, arms, and back to it, there is not much I will pass on to my children that I made with my own two hands.  My father was a woodworker, and many of the pieces in our home of origin were made by him personally.   My favorites are a sewing bowl, a simple standing lamp with a table the lamp rises out of, and a nightstand with drawer.  There’s no great styling in them, but they are examples of artistry I would not trade for far more elegant pieces.   And yet, when I think of even these, I am moved to say, ““Praise to you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, giver of sewing bowls, standing lamps, and nightstands.”

Why should I be thankful in this way?  Because none of this is mine by right.  All of it is a divine mercy, given to me by God because he loves his own and delights in giving good gifts to his children.  And if I had less?  Should I be any less thankful?  If I had nothing and had to labor with my hands as a subsistence farmer, would the fruit of the vine and the grain of the earth be any more my doing?

Baruch atah adonai Elohaynu, melech ha'olam…


Sunday, February 3, 2013

Spirit Anointed

“Spirit Anointed”:  Luke 4:21-30
And he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.

Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”
“I tell you the truth,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.  I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land.  Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.   And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this.  They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff.   But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.

Last week we saw the opening of Jesus’ public ministry from Luke’s point of view.  Jesus had recently been baptized by John, anointed by the Spirit, and had spent over a month in the wilderness being tempted by Satan.  Now, before moving on to Capernaum and the selection of the Twelve, Jesus pauses in Nazareth, the town of his youth, to deliver his first sermon, preached in the synagogue he had attended from the time he was a boy.

Remember also last week that Jesus was given the scroll of Isaiah to read.  The lion’s share of the Old Testament passages Jesus quotes during his ministry are from Isaiah.  In recounting this moment in the Synagogue, Luke has Jesus combining Isaiah 61:1 with Isaiah 58:6 to produce a slightly more condensed passage with the verbs all in the infinitive. 

Take the Scriptures, if you will, and turn again to Luke 4.  And let’s back up to verse 18.  Luke 4:18.  Listen to how he puts it one more time before we move into today’s passage.

Anointing of the Spirit
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The tradition in Jewish synagogues of Jesus’ day was that usually several people would go to the Bema – the platform with a large table -- to read.  They would be handed the scroll they asked for which would be taken out of the ark that forms the front wall, and it would be laid before them on the table.   There was already in Jesus’ day a kind of lectionary, a three year cycle of readings that was becoming popular in Synagogues throughout Israel and Judah.  So whether Jesus chose the passage himself or whether Isaiah 61 was the lectionary text that day, he unrolled the Scroll and began to read. 

When the reading was finished, the reader would sit on a chair placed behind the Bema and would deliver his interpretation or sermon from there.  This was how it was always done.  So the next words out of Jesus’ mouth are the introduction, at least, to his sermon, if not the entire message. 


“To bring, to proclaim, to release, to proclaim… Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  That is, Jesus went back to Nazareth, now anointed and set apart by God’s Spirit, to bring the good news that God’s Anointed – Messiah – had at last come.  That’s the Good News.  That’s the thing they had waited all their lives to hear.  That is what the Anointing of the Spirit always does.  It is the overriding theme of the Old Testament prophets, and especially Isaiah:  Messiah is anointed to bring restoration, salvation, and peace, first to Israel and then to the whole world.  There is no splendor in Israel apart from her Savior.  There is no nation apart from the presence of the shekinah glory of God. 

Pattern of Prophetic activities
Hear the pattern.  There are these four things the anointing of the Spirit will do through Messiah.  His ministry is “to bring, to proclaim, to release, to proclaim.”   The pattern of Messianic ministry and our pattern must be the same: Action; then word.  Action; then word. 

It was not the reading of the Scripture that fulfilled the prophecy from Isaiah.  It was the presence of Jesus, who had left Nazareth some time before and had gone down to Jericho where he was baptized in the Jordan, and had gone out beyond the Jordan into either Jordan or Syria, and was now on his way to Capernaum – Jesus had gone out of his way, if you look at it on a map, in order to bring Good News to those he grew up among.  

He begins his public preaching ministry by going one last time to the Jews; to the Synagogue; to Nazareth; to his very own family and friends.  When Jesus sits down to preach, he is absolutely correct in saying that today… here… in this place… by my presence… this 700 year old prophecy has been fulfilled.  He had come to be among them.  He was doing what every learned Jewish male was taught to do. 

It was his custom to go to the Synagogue and read the Scriptures publically.  What had changed since the last time he was in Nazareth was his Anointing.  Now he was fully empowered by God to fulfill his mission.  

And so we begin learn the pattern of Jesus’ prophetic ministry:  “to bring, to proclaim, to release, to proclaim…” 

Paul, writing to the church in Rome some 25 years after the Resurrection says this, “How… can they call on the one they have not believed in?  And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?  And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?  And how can they preach unless they are sent?

The pattern of Jesus’ prophetic ministry and that of the early Christians was going to be among; speaking with the authentic life of Christ and then to speaking the authentic words of Christ.  Only after that; only after Jesus had, in his own person, been good news to the poor and spoken of freedom for the captives – only then did he, and then they, restore sight to the blind, firm legs to the lame, healing to lepers, and end years of suffering for people with various afflictions; finally proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. 

The pattern of prophetic ministry today must be the same.  We, here who call ourselves by his name, Christ-ones; we who are of the Way of Jesus, are told to go out and BE authentically Jesus’ own people among the people of this place.  We are not like the rest of our neighbors, co-workers, and friends.  We are called to be so distinctively different that the sweet smell of Christ is left in the air wherever we go in this town.   Listen to what Jesus said to his disciples when he sent them out on mission:  “Go…to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay.   And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town.
 (Matthew 10:6-8; 14 ESV)

There is the pattern again:

Go… to the lost sheep.  Live among them and then
Proclaim… as you go. 
The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Emmanuel.  God is so close you can reach out and shake hands with him.
Heal… the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. 
If anyone will not…listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you
leave that house or town.

Bring, Proclaim, Release, Proclaim.  It is as natural as breathing.

Acceptance followed by rejection
There are two things to notice about Messianic ministry and the ministry of all who belong to him.  First, look at verse 22.  “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.” 

If you follow the pattern of Prophetic, Apostolic, Messianic ministry, the first reaction people will always have to you will be to speak well of you.  Christians in the second half of the 20th century in particular often got a very bad name for themselves because their first presentation was word and not deed.  I was part of that movement as a young Christian.  Door-to-door canvassing never worked.  If we had analyzed it, we’d have very quickly realized we were trying to bring the Words of Christ to people without first bringing them the Life of Christ.  No one will see Jesus in you if the first thing you do is present them with a Bible tract and a five-point Gospel presentation.  You have to live among them first.  You have to serve them first.  You have to love them first.

Equally wrong is the opposite conclusion other Christians made, that mission is all you have to be about.  Serving, helping, healing, and giving are not bringing Christ to the world.  They are merely evidences of human graciousness.  They are, or can be, godly – depending on your motive – but they themselves do not point a person to Christ.   

All spoke well of him because he had lived among them.  “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.  It is a rhetorical question.  Of course, they knew it was.  He had lived among them; worked among them; served among them; loved them.  But now, for the first time, here he was preaching in the Synagogue.   

For a moment, the people he had grown up among were thrilled because they were focused on the works.  And Christians who say they proclaim by deed and not by word are making no proclamation of Christ at all.   Will people love you for your charity and philanthropy?  Certainly.  And if Christ had then turned to the people and said, “Okay.  Now who wants to be healed?”  He’d have had them eating out of the palm of his hand.  They would have gladly anointed him king right then and there. 

But Jesus knew they needed to hear and embrace the truth before they could say Messiah had healed them.  Their arrogant belief that they were God’s only chosen was about to come back to bite them.  Jesus continues his sermon by saying, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”

Don’t miss what’s happening here.  This proverb is often misunderstood and misused.  Someone comes to you and says, “You need to stop doing this or that,” and your immediate response is, “Well, you self-righteous fraud!  Physician, heal yourself!”  What they mean is, you’ve got the same problem I’ve got.  What gives you the moral authority to speak that way to me?

But that’s not at all what Jesus is talking about here.  He quotes a familiar proverb because he is identifying himself as part of the community in Nazareth.  They wanted him to do in Nazareth what he had done in Capernaum.  But Capernaum was an area with a Jewish minority.  Nazareth was solidly Jewish.  They are saying, “Physician, come and heal your OWN!”  Do the magic.  Do the works. 

Jesus then references the two great early prophets of Israel, Elijah and Elisha, and demonstrates through their lives how it was always God’s plan that Prophetic, Messianic ministry was to go beyond Israel.  You cannot own Messiah for yourself.  He is God’s gift to the world. 

Church.  You cannot own Messiah within these four walls or on Sunday morning.  He is God’s gift to the world.  And Christ can do no great work among a people who do not see that the work begun in Galilee must extend to the “ends of the earth”; that the ministry of Messiah is always to the lost sheep of Israel, yes, but then to all the rest. 

As we come to the table this morning remember the pattern of Messianic ministry: Bring, Proclaim, Release, Proclaim, and listen carefully to the wonderful words our Reformation ancestors added after the words of institution. 

Bring, Proclaim, Release, Proclaim.  It is as natural as breathing.