Take Care

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Devotional for Tuesday, March 31

Ephesians 2:1-10 (NLT)

Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus. So God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us, as shown in all he has done for us who are united with Christ Jesus.

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.


It’s good in any circumstance to pause and remember who we are and what we believe.

Most of you reading this can call yourselves children of God. That is, you have accepted the gift of God given through Jesus Christ. You have professed that you believe Christ’s death on the cross was real and effective for undoing all your sins. It was an act of faith on your part, made possible by the grace God always is pouring into a broken, sinful world. Even before we turn to God, he makes it possible for us to sense his divine presence.

You made that profession of faith, and God poured out his saving grace upon you, snatching you from the power of sin and death. God’s grace continues to bathe you in his life-changing love. As you stay engaged with God through the Bible, in prayer, and in fellowship with other Christians, you each day become more able to love as Jesus loves.

You are a truly blessed person—you have a unique joy in this life, in good times or bad, and eternal bliss and communion with God in the life to come.

Both you and I need to remember these glorious truths. When we are under stress and confused, it is distinctly possible we can stray from what we have become through Christ. Our routines are disrupted, our sense of security is strained or even snapped, and Satan, that “commander of powers in the unseen world,” will try to use the opportunity to pull us into sin.

I noticed a few years ago I had unconsciously shifted to a short farewell phrase: “Take care.” The phrase usually is spoken gently, but it is packed with meaning. Be alert, it says—watch out for pitfalls as you move through life.

I often was being literal when I said it to my children as they headed out as neophyte drivers, or when they went alone on an outing for the first time. “Take care to look both ways, take care to notice strangers around you.”

The phrase can be whispered to our own souls, however. We need to take care when we are frightened, lonely or bored. As we spend more time away from practicing our identity in a church community, worldliness in all its forms has more opportunities to come straight at us, even as we are supposedly isolated.

For example, think of the portal the computer, cell phone or television represents. Choose wisely what flows into your home from the world. That’s a message for all modern times, but particularly for right now.

Don’t let the world sully your clean clothes! We are God’s masterpiece! He has plans for us, meaning there is a future with him.

Lord, remind us through the day who we are. Amen.

Anticipation

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Devotional for Monday, March 30

1 Corinthians 11:23-26
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Confession time: I’m a little frustrated. If you haven’t figured it out by now, yesterday did not go as planned. We were supposed to have online worship at 9 a.m. and drive-in worship at 10:30 a.m.

Unfortunately, about 5 a.m. a wicked storm cut through Ten Mile, taking down trees and power lines. Guess what? You cannot get online without an internet connection, and you cannot broadcast an FM signal without electricity.

Sigh.

It’s safe to say I’m not the only one wanting things to be as they were. It’s likely that our world will never be the same as it was before the COVID-19 crisis, but much will be familiar after.

We’re going to need a way to mark a return to familiarity. Note the root of “familiar”—family. Brothers and sisters in Christ, I’ve made a decision regarding how we will mark that day.

Communion. The Lord’s Supper. Eucharist. Call it what you want; this will be our mark. It is possible that during this crisis, we may see some relaxing of church rules prohibiting online communion, allowing me to bless bread and juice you set out at home. It’s also possible to hand out sealed juice-and-bread kits in a drive-in church setting. But I think we’re going to forego such options.

Please understand, I love leading communion. It is one of a few pastoral acts that can bring tears to my eyes. I long for the experience. We’re going to save it, however, for when we are truly together, in the meantime anticipating it. 

As we wait for the day, know that there are other “means of grace,” places where God will always meet us and show us extravagant, undeserved love. Open God’s word and read. Take time to pray. Be in fellowship as much as possible online and on the phone (assuming there’s electricity and internet).

The day will come when we stand in our sanctuary together and break out the bread and juice—the body and blood—give our confessions, accept God’s forgiveness, lift up the Great Thanksgiving and partake. On that day, we will rediscover something like normal, and we will revel in it.

Lord, return to us the day of communion, that day of holy sacrament, very, very soon. Amen.

Under Water

Devotional for Saturday, March 28

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Psalm 107:28-30 (NRSV)
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he brought them out from their distress;
he made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they had quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven.

In yesterday’s devotional, I explored how to breathe during prayer, particularly when we find ourselves anxious. Today, I’m going to teach you a particular visualization technique to enhance your connection with God.

Put the two techniques together, and you have a form of meditative prayer, something a lot of people in our culture don’t practice regularly. Our other, more familiar ways of praying—where we speak our praises, thanks and petitions to God, perhaps focusing on Scripture or a devotional as part of the process—remain critically important to our prayer lives. You may find, however, that meditative prayer techniques are helpful in developing a sense of God’s constant presence.

There are uncountable ways to enter a state of meditative prayer. This is just one I like. I do not remember where I first learned it.

Imagine yourself sitting, standing or lying at the bottom of a deep, clear pool of water. (You should be in one of these prayer postures.) Here’s the good news: God has granted you the ability to breathe as comfortably and freely as a fish. Remember to breathe as discussed yesterday.

If this were a class in Zen meditation, someone might tell you to empty your mind. We’re doing the opposite. We want to be filled with God, and only with God.

As you begin, it helps to think of a word representing what you seek in that holy relationship. I’ve heard people make all sorts of choices: “peace,” “love,” “forgiveness” or “discernment,” for example. I’ve even heard people choose “Jesus” as their word, apparently as they tried to better fathom what it means to be in a personal relationship with God through Christ.

Go ahead and accept that random thoughts and worries will intrude on this time. We’re not going to fight them. Instead, take hold of what distracts you from God, examine the thought for a brief moment, and then release it, allowing it to float to the surface, far above you. Say your chosen word as part of the next exhale, and settle back into experiencing God.

That’s the technique. Simple, huh?

By the way, the more you do this, the longer you will spend in this state before deciding to resurface. In just a few tries, you may have a meditative prayer session where you are surprised at how long you’ve been “under”—half an hour or even an hour might feel like 15 or 20 minutes.

What’s important is that you find yourself deeply aware of God’s presence.

Lord, thank you for the ways you meet us in the midst of storms and in quiet places. Amen.

Life and Breath

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Devotional for Friday, March 27

The Bible has a lot to say about the not-so-simple act of breathing.

Genesis 2:7: Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

Ezekiel 37:9: Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”

John 20:21-23: Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Acts 2:2-4: And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

In Scripture, the source of life is God’s breath, which we also might think of as the movement of the Holy Spirit. (Both biblical Hebrew and Greek have a word that can be translated as “breath,” “wind” or “spirit.”) While it sounds like an ethereal lesson, we can live it out  in very practical ways, particularly in times of stress.

When I’ve taught people suffering from stress how to pray in a meditative way, the “how to breathe” part of the lesson has been critical. First, you have to position your body so your breathing is most effective. Seated or standing, your back and neck need to be straight, your shoulders squared and hanging from your collarbones as if on coathangers. If you need to lie on your back, relax into the floor, arms down and out slightly from your body.

From here, “breath prayer” begins to line up with core techniques I’ve learned from decades of martial arts practice, principles recently confirmed in books detailing how soldiers and police survive and control violent, high-stress situations. Breathing is automatic, but it can get out of control when the world becomes overwhelming. At such times, we have to take charge of our breathing.

Inhale through your nose deeply, slowly, expanding your lower stomach. Hold at the end of the inhale for a count equal to your time spent inhaling. Exhale through your mouth at the same rate, shrinking and pushing in your lower stomach. At the bottom of the exhale, hold for the same amount of time. Some people who teach this talk about using a “four count” for each step.

Be aware, if your heart is racing, your lungs will fight you at first, particularly as you hold at the bottom of your exhale. Stick with it. If you’re feeling panicked or anxious, repeating this type of breathing will calm you, center you, and allow you to turn to God.

Connecting to God through our breathing makes sense. Made in the image of God and granted the Holy Spirit through our belief in Jesus Christ, we have access to the source of eternal life. Think of deliberate, God-focused breathing as an unspoken prayer request: “God, renew in me what you have poured into the world.”

Peace be with you.

Lord, we thank you for the life you have breathed into us. May we use our lives to glorify you and to the benefit of your dawning kingdom on earth.

Escape for a Moment

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“Ezekiel Saw the Wheel,” William H. Johnson, circa 1944-1945


Devotional for Thursday, March 26

This crisis in which we find ourselves seems so exhausting, I think, because it lurks somewhere in our minds all day. In my case, it’s as if I have an annoying tickle in my brain.

The tickle is chronic enough that I am a bit shocked when I realize I’ve been unaware of COVID-19’s effects for a brief time. That moment usually comes in the evening, when Connie and I have finished watching a movie or a favorite television show, or if I’ve been reading a book of fiction. (I’m in the middle of a Louis L’Amour short story collection right now.) For just a little while, I get lost in whatever story is before me, but then I’m snapped back to reality.

As you might expect, I spend a lot of time in the Bible, but the tickle doesn’t usually go away during those times. The lessons of Scripture are so applicable to this viral outbreak and our fears that I cannot help but place the verses in our current context. And I am grateful for the answers the Bible gives regarding how to live in such times.

There is some “escapist” literature in the Bible, however, and I want to encourage you to find it. I’m going to point out a favorite one of mine—in fact, it’s so out of this world that some people avoid it. I prefer to relish it.

To get the full picture, you’ll need to read at least the first three chapters of Ezekiel, although you will miss much if you stop there. This essentially is the story of a prophet being called to his work, but in a most unusual way. If you’ve read much science fiction, the story may seem from that genre, although we are to understand it as a symbol-filled vision of God, who cannot adequately be described with words.

In Ezekiel’s vision, there are angels in the sky, steering what look like wheels within wheels, carrying above them what Ezekiel describes as a throne. And then there is the vision of the one upon it:

And above the dome over their heads there was something like a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was something that seemed like a human form. Upward from what appeared like the loins I saw something like gleaming amber, something that looked like fire enclosed all around; and downward from what looked like the loins I saw something that looked like fire, and there was a splendor all around. Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendor all around. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.

When I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of someone speaking (Ezekiel 1:26-28).

There’s so much more in the Book of Ezekiel. I’m simply trying to encourage you to take a little time apart from the world today. Read it. Get lost in it. There’s nothing wrong with a mental break from our day-to-day concerns.

I’m also curious what Bible stories you might consider escapist. By that, I mean you get so caught up in them you forget everything else for a time. Feel free to post your favorites in the comments section.

Lord, we thank you for the power of your word: its power to teach, its power to comfort, its power to enliven our imaginations. Amen.

How Will You Praise?

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Devotional for Wednesday, March 25

Psalm 146 (NRSV)

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

The Lord will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord!


It is important to lift up words of praise. Praise is not thanksgiving. Prayers of thanksgiving are important, too, but praise is when we exalt God just because.

God made us so we could bask in divine love and adore our Creator, declaring his loving nature. When we praise, we participate in a cycle designed to bring joy to all involved. When we fail to praise, we miss out on the benefits of that relationship.

“I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.” The psalmist doesn’t say, “I will praise God when life is smooth and I am happy.” We praise God throughout our lives, regardless of our circumstances.

For us to be fully what God made us to be, it helps to find our preferred ways to lift up praise. There are many praise psalms like the one above. Reading them out loud is a great way to praise God! Instead of giving you a list of praise psalms, I’m going to give you a challenge. Go through the psalms and see how many leap out at you.

Psalms were once sung. They still can be, if you use a resource like Julie and Timothy Tennent’s “Metrical Psalter,” which has become a regular resource for worship planning at Luminary.

And there are other ways we routinely praise God through music. Here’s a familiar one, courtesy our choir director, Roxanne Cabrera, and our pianist, Briana Wells:

 

So, a simple question: How will you praise God today?

Lord, you are mighty, you are holy, you are tender, you are loving. Praise the Lord!

Be Thou Our Vision

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Devotional for Tuesday, March 24

Revelation 22:1-5: Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

When we were able to worship together, those in attendance got a bulletin each week with our vision and mission statements on the front. It’s been my experience that if we looked at these statements at all, we tended to focus on the mission—what we do now as a church.

Now is a good time to focus on the vision, “A world conformed to Jesus Christ,” our final destination thanks to the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross. A time will come when “every knee shall bow and every tongue shall swear” allegiance to God (Isaiah 45:23; Paul quotes this passage in Romans 14:11). As followers of Christ, we know this is not a forced allegiance—the grace of God will be so magnificently revealed one day that no one will be able to deny who God is or what God has done for all humanity.

The above passage from Revelation 22 reminds us of the goodness of God. Life flows from the throne, and God makes healing readily available. Mired in the muck of disease right now, we should find the picture painted in Revelation more alluring than before. I want us to drink from the river, eat the fruit, and hand out the leaves to those in need.

At the same time, I have to acknowledge that God’s promises can seem distant, with all the substance of a mirage. It’s okay to acknowledge our frustration, as in the opening of Psalm 13:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

We don’t change direction, though. We walk toward the vision through discipleship and service. Our commitment to one another in the community known as church continues.

As followers of Christ, let’s sustain one another with this truth: God’s grace is with us. We will arrive, we will rejoice.

Lord, we recognize your goodness in your promises, promises fulfilled and promises to be fulfilled. Amen.


 

Choir Director Roxanne Cabrera and Pianist Briana Wells recently got together to record some of our favorites for online use. Here is their version of “Be Thou My Vision.”