Friday, November 6, 2015


Recently, an acquaintance mentioned that another mutual acquaintance had asked him if I am "expecting," to which he replied that he did not know because, well, we're acquaintances and don't run into each other that often. I assured him that I am, and we had the normal " does your son feel about it...etc., etc., etc..." kind of conversation. Nothing about it struck me as very interesting, until just now, as I was thinking about what I might write for this blog, having not posted in 6 months, and as I was thinking that I will soon need to buckle down and write my portion of my church's Advent devotional booklet. In the midst of that thought process, the word "expecting" came to mind, and it just struck me as, well, kind of odd. I realize it's one of those colloquialisms that we all understand, but I thought I'd consider it literally for a moment...

So, to be silly, here are a few things I'm expecting:
1. I'm expecting that between now and April 20th (or thereabouts), someone I don't know well will think it appropriate to touch my stomach...and I will be tempted to punch that someone...
2. I'm expecting that in the next 5 months, I will have at least one more conversation with someone regarding considering a VBAC instead of a second C-section.
3. I'm expecting that the Duke Men's Basketball team will fare well again this year.
4. I'm expecting that I will preach several sermons without my shoes on this winter, for comfort's sake.
5. I'm expecting that I will recover enough from a recent back injury that I can once again take my dogs out for a walk...until the aforementioned C-section sets me back for 6 weeks again...
6. I'm expecting that I will get involved in some Facebook discussions I will regret.

But in all seriousness, here are a few things I wasn't expecting, in the process of getting pregnant:
1. I never expected it would take more than a year.
2. I never expected the depth of disappointment of negative pregnancy tests, again and again (and let's not talk about chemical pregnancies...).
3. I never expected to experience hot flashes at the age of 36, due to fertility-related drugs.
4. I never expected to be able to empathize even just a little bit with those I already knew who have struggled so much to have children of their own. (Which is not to say I fully understand their struggles!)
5. I never expected to feel so frustrated at what were most likely innocent comments, like, "Oh, when will Benjamin have a sibling?!"

Life is seldom anything that we expect, in case you hadn't recently noticed. I guess that's why that word is so interesting to me today. I expect certain things from certain people or events because that's how my life experience has gone or that's what I want to happen. Isn't is so difficult to realize quite what all we're expecting, sometimes?

When I was young, I believed that everyone went to church--literally, everyone. My family went to church--didn't all families go to church? It's a silly example, but it makes me think about things like perspective and frame of reference. It calls to mind the limitations that we have in our own individual experiences--we can only ever be one person and experience life from one person's point of view. That's always been disappointing to me. I'd like to know what it's like to grow up in a big city, in a neighborhood, in a house that has multiple stories--with a bedroom with a window seat (well, that's what I wanted when I was much younger). I'd like to be able to fully understand what life feels like for people who look different from me, for people who don't have the same advantages I have had, and maybe even for people who have more advantages. How often do I realize that what I expect from others is inherently related to my own life experience?

Sometimes I do realize that, and I might feel shame or frustration. I can't not be who I am...but how can I be so narrow-minded sometimes, so demanding, so unaware? At those moments, I probably expect more of myself than I am truly able to manage. But I guess that's where some other expectations that I have come in:
*I expect that God is showing me the grace to understand others more, day by day.
*I expect that God is at work, redeeming the crap in the world that I see and can't understand...and even the yucky stuff that I don't see and/or tacitly participate in...
*I expect that by continuing to be part of the church, broken though it may be, I will be a vessel for God to change the world.
*I expect that through the Holy Spirit's work in my life I will grow to have more compassion and grace toward all other people, that they might know God's love through me.
*I expect that I am moving toward Christian perfection and may be made perfect in this life (by God's grace, of course!). (Hey, I said it on stage before I got ordained, so I might as well mention it here!)

I could go on, but maybe you get the point. There are lots of things in this world that I know I am expecting and lots of things that I don't even realize I am expecting...but more importantly, there are those things I expect by faith--that I hope for, more than anything. Yep. I hope for those things. I don't just expect them. And that is much more important than what Duke's basketball team does this season. And that makes me think of Advent, too. We wait. We expect. Most of all, we hope.

Yep, I'm expecting. But I'm hoping for so much more.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

My Grandma

I've been thinking about my grandmother recently. Maybe it started because last week one day, I decided I wanted to wear a ring that had been hers (which took some time to find…), but maybe I'd been thinking about her before that, too. So here's kind of a belated Mother's Day tribute to my grandma...

My grandmother died in October 2003, during my second year of studying for an M.A. in English at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Her decline was long and gradual. At first, we thought she was just goofy sometimes, assuming the UFOs she claimed to see were planes landing at CVG, not too far from the retirement home where my grandparents lived. That was in the midst of watching the man she had loved since she was 8 years old lose a long, painful battle with cancer. Her grip on reality gradually loosened after that. The family laughed about it, most days.

Many folks share important life lessons they learned from their grandparents. The lessons I remember my grandma teaching my sisters and me seem perhaps less deep and inspired than lots of people's, but no less important. My grandma taught us how to play cards and cross stitch. And how to do everything properly. Everything. One summer, while we stayed with Grandma and Grandpa for an extended period of time, Grandma read Emily Post's Miss Manners to us every night before we went to sleep. We slept impressively well that summer...We joke about how Grandma always wanted things "as nice as they possibly can be," but I don't believe for a minute that we've ever stopped trying to make that happen!

I don't know what Grandma Betz would think if she learned I'm a pastor now. We never talked about such things, that I recall. I knew her political leanings--most people who knew her knew that! I knew about her prejudices and could tell you how much she was a product of her era. Despite being a whiz at math, she never held aspirations of a career that would put her brainpower to the kind of use we'd expect of a woman today. That was not what women did. She asked me one time if my sorority encouraged its members to diet--that was a fun conversation...

I wish I could say I knew much about her faith. I don't know exactly what she believed, except that she hated the hymn "Amazing Grace": apparently, she did not appreciate calling herself "a wretch." I do know what she did, though--how she practiced her faith. She went to church. She and Grandpa were always active in church, no matter where they lived. They sang in the choir. They participated in many ways. I remember attending some VBS during a summer when we stayed with them for a while. I can still picture the table my twin sister and I sat at, can vaguely see the face of the woman--a close friend of Grandma's--who taught us to memorize the 23rd psalm. I know Grandma and Grandpa prayed The Lord's Prayer every night before going to sleep. Did they recite the 23rd psalm, too? I can't remember. Maybe sometimes going to church was just the proper thing to do for them, but I know I don't think of my grandparents without also knowing how important church was to them.

I don’t recall many other life lessons my grandmother taught me on purpose. What I did learn from her, as I watched her grow older, as I saw her struggle with losing her health and her loved ones, as I heard about my uncle carefully watching over her and helping her narrowly miss being scammed by mail solicitations and telemarketers, as I saw her memory slip away from her, is how to be a pastor to people who are dying. I was never her pastor. I didn't even admit I was called to ministry until shortly before her death. What I learned from her, from how my family cared for her, from how she left us over a period of years, was what it is to watch life and death happening at the same time. There was grace in the way she handled herself, even when things were the most difficult. There was love from family and friends, even when she was most difficult. And there was laughter, even when "memories" were hard to find.

I'm rounding out 6 years of pastoral ministry now. I feel like I've watched my grandmother die again at least a dozen times, in the faces of older church members, some of whom I've gotten to know a little bit, and some of whom I arrived a little too late on the scene to really develop a relationship with. Here is the time of sitting with, of asking questions, of hearing stories, of appreciating reminiscences of lifetimes and struggles and victories I can hardly imagine. Here is the going along with whatever crazy stories come up this day, no matter how little reality is part of them. Here is the repeating a dozen times in 30 minutes who I am, vital information about me, why I'm here. And here is the waiting, the gradual slipping away, the transition so long in coming (most of which I actually missed with my grandma, as she was in Cincinnati and I was in Knoxville--phone calls from my mom sufficed for that part of the journey).

When I was in divinity school, during my summer internship, a man told me he didn't want me to go sit with his mother while she was dying because I was too young to have to deal with that sort of thing. He was so heartbroken that he couldn't bear to go there, himself. When I got to the nursing home, she had already passed. It wouldn't have been too hard for was the part of my grandma's passing I hadn't been there for--the actual end of it. This woman was a lovely woman--I knew that after only 8 weeks of being an intern there; I wish I had been there, but I know it must have been a beautiful moment when she reached the end of this earthly journey. I never really thought I'd deal with that sort of thing so much when I started the process to be ordained, but I have. A lot. Counting the words I shared about that woman who died during my summer internship, I've officiated at or participated as clergy in 37 funeral services. I know my grandma never planned to teach me anything about dealing with people who were dying, but I am so thankful that she did. I wasn’t there for much of the “heavy lifting” with her, but I experienced it through my older sister, my mom, and my dad, in the stories they shared. I learned how to deal with the dying while my grandma lived, and I am so thankful. She was a little bit kooky, sometimes. She wore way too much perfume (she had lost her sense of smell), and she talked to every inanimate object, it seemed. And she was proper—so very proper. And she loved us all, in her own proper way. And we loved her, too.

Thanks, Grandma. I miss you.

Monday, April 6, 2015

An Easter Sermon

Easter 2015
John 20:1-18
April 5, 2015

Do you like surprises? I wonder if Mary Magdalene liked surprises. I imagine her journey to the tomb in the pre-dawn darkness was not really that exciting. She could not have been expecting anything good to happen in that garden, least of all any surprises. It’s unclear why she was going to the grave, at least as John tells it, but the last thing she probably expected was to find it empty. She knew the situation—how much the religious leaders had hated Jesus, how they would go to any length to get rid of him. So when she found that the stone had been rolled away, her first thought was that this was one horrible surprise. Not only did those people have to stir things up to get Jesus killed, now they (or someone else) had broken into his tomb and taken the body. Where was the justice? How could this happen and make this horrible day even worse?
She raced back to tell the men. Surely, they would be mortified by this surprise, too. But they were not, it seems. They did run to look at the tomb, and their more thorough inspection than Mary’s showed them a grave that did not look robbed. They looked inside, and then they left. It’s kind of a strange story. We never quite get to know what they may have understood, or not. They didn’t even seem all that surprised by this strange surprise.
But Mary was. Whatever the men may have decided to go and do next, Mary remained in the garden, surprised and saddened by what she did not understand. And then, what she least expected to happen, did. And we don’t expect it, either, I suppose, if we really admit it. We pride ourselves on being reasonable people. We know how life and death work. What dies stays dead. Once the heart stops, it’s over. Once the lungs give out, it’s done. That is how living and dying work. No negotiating. No surprises. This is what we know.
This is what Mary knew, standing there, in the middle of a garden. Then, a man approached. She didn’t recognize him. [The narrator lets us know who it is—a surprise for us, but at least we’re informed!] She spoke to him; all she wanted was to know where she could find her Lord. She did not want any more surprises.
But then, what do you know?! Surprise! It wasn’t the gardener Mary was talking to, after all. And there was nowhere to look for her Lord, except right in front of her! There he was! Surprise! The one she had thought was gone forever was standing right there! Surprise!
The surprise was almost too wonderful to be believed! She had scarcely imagined this could happen! What was dead was supposed to stay dead, but oh how she had wished that he was not dead! She had left on Friday thinking this could not be possible—things could not end this way…and now, she knew things had not ended that way! Surprise!
Does Easter surprise us? Does it catch us off-guard? Are we so intent on looking for a Jesus we thought was dead and gone that we miss him standing right in front of us? This is the good news Mary experienced in the garden that day, that Jesus was right there with her, had not left her and the others alone after all, and was not overcome by the evil and sin of those in power. And this is the good news that we celebrate on Easter—not only that death is overcome, and not only that God does indeed reign over all things, but that we are claimed by resurrection, too. We are part of this story. We see the empty tomb. We see the risen Savior. Our names are called and we are invited to share the same news that Mary does: “I have seen the Lord!” What looks like the end is not the end, any more! Surprise!
Surprise! This is our story! This is the end of the story that we have been waiting for, for two days…for a week…for a lifetime! The ending is not what we had expected, perhaps. It doesn’t make sense, by the standards of science and biology that we know. Life doesn’t end with death, now. The dead doesn’t stay dead, now. The stone is rolled away. The tomb is empty. Surprise! Is this what you were looking for when you showed up? Maybe not…
Much of life actually does surprise us. Things don’t work out the way we want or expect. Life takes us by surprise. Death takes us by surprise. God doesn’t answer our prayers the way we want them answered. Sometimes, things fall apart. Sometimes, things hang together when we think it’s all over. Surprise! Often, we are reminded of how little we actually control, despite our best efforts to control it all! Surprise!
Easter is about surprises. The story is one big “Surprise!” right here at the end of it. Maybe it doesn’t take us by surprise any more—we’ve read and heard it for so long. Maybe it seems like it’s just another old, old story. And well it should be. Because it is the reason for our hope, the surprise that we depend on happening, the unexpected that makes all our endings less final. Death does not win. Evil does not prevail. Sin is not the victor. Surprise! Resurrection is possible! And we are resurrection people—we receive the promise of resurrection, even when we have “good Friday” days in our lives. Even when we stand looking into the grave, we are resurrection people. Surprise! The promise is ours, too, because we are claimed by Christ, the resurrected Christ, and we look forward to what life is like in resurrection, not death and dark tombs.
“I have seen the Lord!” Really? What are you talking about? That can’t be! But it is! Surprise! “I have seen the Lord!”
You have come to meet him here today…and surprise! He has come to meet you, too! Now, you go and tell others, “I have seen the Lord!” and don’t keep this surprise to yourself!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Holy Saturday

No one knows what happened during that one full day that Jesus laid in the tomb. Christian tradition states that he "descended to the dead" (though some of us leave that out of our version of the Apostles' Creed). Otherwise known as the harrowing of hell, this is when Jesus went to the realm of the dead and retrieved the souls of the righteous who had died since the beginning of time. This idea is based on verses from 1 Peter 3:

18 Christ himself suffered on account of sins, once for all, the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous. He did this in order to bring you into the presence of God. Christ was put to death as a human, but made alive by the Spirit. 19 And it was by the Spirit that he went to preach to the spirits in prison. 20 In the past, these spirits were disobedient—when God patiently waited during the time of Noah. Noah built an ark in which a few (that is, eight) lives were rescued through water.

Maybe you've taken time to wonder what, exactly, happened on that dark day so long ago. Maybe you've never really thought about it before. There's so little in scripture that suggests anything that happened on that particular Sabbath day that it's highly debated if the harrowing of hell may have occurred. Perhaps it's one of those questions we will just have to wait to have answered.

Whatever Jesus may have been doing in the tomb, those who had loved him surely spent that Sabbath day wrapped in the numbness and disbelief of those who grieve, having watched their beloved teacher wrapped in the clothes of death and laid in a borrowed tomb the evening before. We may feel their pain today, as we grieve something in our own lives. We may feel the frustration they had, of having to wait to finish the job of preparing and burying him properly. What do we feel is left undone this day? What are we waiting for, that we just want to get over with, but we can't do it right now?

Maybe Holy Saturday hasn't been part of your spiritual journey thus far. Making cinnamon rolls for the church's Easter breakfasts, practicing for sunrise services, and shopping for Easter dresses characterized most of the Holy Saturdays of my growing up years, once I was too old for Easter egg hunts. As far as I knew, Good Friday was over and all was about to be great, once Sunday came. Saturday just felt like the day in between. And I guess that's really just what it is. Holy Saturday: the day in between...but not a day to be ignored or skipped or rushed through for me, any more.

Presently, I'm sitting my church's sanctuary. Yesterday afternoon, a church member died. Tomorrow, we will baptize a baby. Today, I sit and wait. I have offered my congregation a space and time to make Holy Saturday part of their Holy Week observance. Several have come by. Some have shed tears as they walked through the Stations of the Cross that I taped up on the walls for today. Some have sat in quiet contemplation. (I wonder if the music I cued on my iPod was distracting to any of them...) I am thankful for this time. It is not wasted. If anything, it is spent in solidarity with the one who spent a whole day in the tomb, and with all who find themselves in tombs of any kind today. May we find that when tomorrow dawns, we may be surprised by grace once again, despite what today has held for us.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Good Friday

This liturgical year, we're concentrating on the gospel of Mark, so here are some thoughts I have from the crucifixion scene in Mark--Mark 15:16-47.

Of course, the irony is never lost on us, that the soldiers kneel before Jesus to honor him as a big joke, but we know the truth of the situation. I don't know if the whole scene, with the bogus trial and everything, where the charge is a truth that none of the people in power believe, is more difficult or less difficult for us who know the whole story to read through. It would be so much more comfortable to skip all the way to Sunday now, and not to go through the horror of today and the hollow sadness and loss of tomorrow. It's part of our story, though, so we read it and we live into it...and we learn from it. Many of us are not people in the habit of stopping and reflecting on our Good Fridays and our Holy Saturdays. There are new clothes to buy for the kids and there are Easter egg hunts; perhaps there is family in town or family coming for Easter. There is food to prepare, and Easter baskets, and all that other stuff. Heck, even though very few of those things are in store for me these next two days, I'll still be working on an Easter sermon, which will feel out of place...but one can't wait until Easter morning, especially when there is a sunrise service that needs a piano player...

What would happen if we could just stop and "be" on Good Friday and Holy Saturday? What would we feel? What voice would we hear? How would we respond?

What strikes me further about this scene in Mark is the complete misunderstanding of Jesus by so many people. It makes me wonder if we're not foolish to think we can understand Jesus so well today, as I feel like some people claim to do. With the Holy Spirit, we can certainly claim to understand much more than the disciples did, but how often do we really get it "right"? Would we have scoffed at him, too? (Maybe I'm selling us all short, though. If you ask my church members, they'll tell you I'm better at asking questions than answering them...)

There's much more that could be said on this Good Friday, but I will leave you with this. Perhaps you might share your thoughts below (if the comment feature is working properly).

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Maundy Thursday

Why can't we wash each other's feet?

I decided to read John 13:1-20 today, since it's Maundy Thursday. My understanding is that this day is so named because of Jesus' mandate ("mandatum" in Latin, which was somehow shortened to "maundy") to wash each other's feet in John 13. Jesus does also give the command that his disciples love each other in John 13.

It's the eve of the crucifixion. Jesus gathers with his disciples to share what he knows is one last meal with them. And they still don't get it. He's already told them--more than once--what's going to happen. What will it take for them to understand?

So he does something ridiculous. Maybe up to this point we could argue that all his talk of serving and love has been that--just talk (I don't think I'd actually argue that, but for the sake of this post, we could think about saying that...)...well, and some pretty impressive miracles, too, actually! To drive his points home that the disciples have to (1) be part of him and the Father and (2) love in a different kind of way than mere "earthly love," Jesus gets up and does one of the ickiest servant's jobs. In fact, even though we in our modern American culture have clean feet, for the most part, albeit perhaps slightly sweaty (I speak for myself, now!), we just don't wash each other's feet! We don't do it! If washing each other's feet is Jesus' real command, then we are not on board!

Nope. Not gonna happen, Jesus. My shoes are staying on and my feet are staying put. Who are we? Are we Peter--"no way, Jesus--you can't serve me by washing my feet!"? No, we're someone else--someone who wasn't even there, I guess. Sure, our culture is different, but we do plenty of other stuff Jesus commands (and some people claim Jesus commands things the gospels never even recorded!). Why can't we let our feet be washed? Why can't we wash each other's feet? What is so wrong with this command, this profound act of selfless love that we in America--except for a couple denominations that call it a sacrament--won't do it? Something to think about on this "Maundy" Thursday.

A Sermon for Holy Thursday

Here's what I preached for my church's Holy Thursday service this evening.

“Shovel It In”
Holy Thursday Sermon
April 2, 2015 
On this Thursday of Holy Week, maybe we’re used to hearing a scripture reading from the New Testament. We think about Jesus and his last meal with his disciples. This church has a history of remembering that meal with vivid and lifelike portrayal! Some traditions read about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet on this day, following his mandate in John 13 (where the name “Maundy Thursday” comes from). But we have just read from Exodus. Does it seem out of place to you? Is it a story you’re not so familiar with?
Maybe it is. But sometimes when we gather and remember the stories of Jesus, it helps us understand more when we also remember the stories Jesus knew. When Jesus and his disciples gathered in that upper room on the night before he was crucified, they would have shared together this same story. They were all there in Jerusalem to remember this story together. It was a yearly event—the festival of Passover. They sat together at table and recalled the story of their redemption. Each person had a part to play—the oldest said these words and the youngest said these words. There were symbolic foods and drinks, as well as the “real” meal that they shared. It all went by a certain script, as they relived the story of their people’s deliverance from slavery and into God’s hands.
            But we don’t observe Passover. What do we even know of Passover? Why do we care about this unfamiliar story? What does it mean to us, tonight, as we wait for what will come between now and Sunday?
            Well, Passover is about a meal—but not just any meal. It’s about getting together to share in a meal that means more than just food and drink. The Israelites were told what to eat, how to prepare it, what to do with the leftovers, and even how to dress and how to eat the meal. The date of this meal is to be marked and remembered each year; it is to become the first month of the year for them, even, Exodus tells us—it must be a big deal! The cuisine is specific: an unblemished lamb, unleavened bread (because there’s no time to let it rise), and bitter herbs. There is a sign for them to use—blood of the lamb is to be put around the door. And their attitude is to be one of urgency—“Shovel it in!” they are told! Something amazing and horrifying is about to happen, after you eat this meal—and then you will see your own redemption coming, out of what seems like horrible carnage.
            Yes, that’s the story of Passover: a story that is to be remembered yearly, at a gathering of all the people. A story that tells them who and whose they are—not some earthly Pharaoh’s chattel, subject to some Egyptian gods, but beings called children by the God of the universe—the God of Heavenly Forces—the God whose angel army strikes down those who stand in the way!
            So, let’s remember that story, even as we’ve gathered tonight on this Holy Thursday to remember another story, too. People may say there’s no need for remembering, for ritual—maybe ritual is useless and time-wasting. Maybe remembering all too often leaves us stuck in the past. Maybe what we’re doing here is pointless.
            Or maybe not. You see, we’ve come here to be together and to remember together for several reasons. We need each other. We need to come together and remember the old, old stories because all too often we are tempted to forget who we are—that we might just be enslaved in so many ways, like the children of Israel were.
            We remember because doing so connects us with other people around the world who may not be just like us, but who share this exact same story. Remembering connect us with the people of God—the body of Christ—across time and space. Our story is cosmic, not just a folktale of long, long ago!
            We remember because it connects us with God. How can we tell the stories of the God who calls us beloved without drawing closer to that God, who renews, sustains, and redeems us from the messes we all too expertly get ourselves into? We remember together because we need God—both individually and as a group.
            We remember and we share together in ritual because we believe that even through the very simple act of doing this again and again—gathering for a ritual meal often (at least once a month) and retelling the story of our faith during a week set aside (holy week)—God is changing us and the world around us, as we grow into this story and live out its meaning every day.
            But we are not people who have gathered tonight to remember only the Passover. We do not stand around a table, our robes on, our sandals fastened, our loins girded, ready to shovel in roasted lamb, bitter herbs, and flat bread. This is not the only story we have come to share.
            Tonight, we peek in on another Passover supper. We see a gathering in an upper room. But as we settle down to hear “the usual script,” something goes awry. The teacher—the leader—is not saying the right things. He’s not doing it right! Instead of remembering that first Passover, he messes the whole thing up!! He picks up that bread and he says, “This is my body, broken for you.” WHAT?! He picks up that cup of ceremonial wine and he says, “This is my blood, shed for you.” Wait, Jesus! You’re getting it all wrong! That’s not how the story goes! What’s gotten into you?!
            What is it that’s gotten into him? Is it the entry he made into town at the beginning of the week? Is it fatigue, from all that has been going on with the religious authorities? Is it fear? What is going wrong here?
            Well, as we understand it now, this Passover meal was not like all the others that had happened before. No, this Passover meal would change how a small group of people (which would soon grow to thousands, and more!) would think of Passover forever. Nothing would ever be the same again, after this Passover meal with Jesus!
            Sure, everything tasted the same. The meal was set the same as it had been every year of their lives. Everything started out “normal.” But now it was different. The lamb and the herbs took a back seat to the bread and the wine. Jesus took what was there and changed it. This Passover meal, celebrating a great day of deliverance for the people of God, turned in to something different, became a meal that was about God doing something new.
            For Jesus, there was urgency of a new kind. For all of them, there was suddenly an unknown they had never experienced before on Passover. They had thought they knew what was going to happen on this night, but boy, were they in for a surprise! Soon they would find out that nothing would ever be the same again. Something awful and horrifying would happen, like on that first Passover, but this time would be very different.
            It must have sounded strange to them—“this is my body” and “this is my blood.” How were they to know then, that what was about to happen would forever transform the lamb, the bread, and the wine, as they understood it? The bread. The wine. Jesus’ body and blood.
            What about the lamb? Well, yeah, then there was the lamb that was part of the Passover meal. That poor, sacrificial little lamb. An unblemished one, the Lord had called for, all those years ago. And if the cost of one was too great or one whole lamb was too much for a household, the people were to go in together, to share that expense. Lambs were precious. Unblemished lambs were indescribably special. Years and years after that first Passover, there would be a big business around the need for special, unblemished lambs. There would be shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over temple flocks at night. There would be lamb upon lamb raised carefully, just so that they could be offered up to God, as penance for the brokenness of a people.
            What about that lamb? Well, that lamb, the one whose blood protected the people from the angel of death, way back when, would become something else, or rather, someone else, with this “new” Passover meal. This new Lamb would be the one serving the meal. That is what had gotten in to Jesus. He knew what was coming. He knew the story of Passover all too well…and he knew how he was becoming the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. And he stood to tell his disciples, “Shovel it in! You don’t yet know what is about to happen, but you need the strength of my body and my blood, for the work for which you have been called and sent to do, and for the spectacle that you are about to witness. So shovel it in!”
            Approach this table tonight, remembering not just a meal that happened years and years ago, and not just a reenactment of that meal that went awry, when Jesus and his disciples met together on a fateful night in Jerusalem, about two thousand years ago. Approach this table tonight, remembering that you know who that Lamb of God is—you know what this story is all about—and you know that God offers you grace to get through the rest of this week, to share in the story with others, to come to the Table as those who need each other and need God’s grace more than we can say, and to face the truth of death and resurrection that comes with following Jesus. Hear now, the invitation:

Tonight we gather around the Lord’s Table. It’s a table so large that there’s room for all to come and share in this most holy of meals. Tonight let us break the bread of blessing and share in the cup of salvation.  Let us gather to remember and celebrate.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Day 37

One of the lectionary readings for this Sunday is 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, and my morning devotional suggested reading that today. I'm going to paste the whole passage below and then write some thoughts on it.

The resurrection

15 Brothers and sisters, I want to call your attention to the good news that I preached to you, which you also received and in which you stand. You are being saved through it if you hold on to the message I preached to you, unless somehow you believed it for nothing. I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins in line with the scriptures, he was buried, and he rose on the third day in line with the scriptures. He appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve, and then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at once—most of them are still alive to this day, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me, as if I were born at the wrong time. I’m the least important of the apostles. I don’t deserve to be called an apostle, because I harassed God’s church. 10 I am what I am by God’s grace, and God’s grace hasn’t been for nothing. In fact, I have worked harder than all the others—that is, it wasn’t me but the grace of God that is with me. 11 So then, whether you heard the message from me or them, this is what we preach and this is what you have believed.

Do you ever feel like you have believed for nothing? Do you get caught up in the debates and the fighting about whose belief is "right"? It's so tempting to do so. It's so tempting to use faith as a weapon because it feels better to be "right" than to be just about anything else. For all of Paul's work, for all the teaching that he did to bring people to Christ, what mattered most was only this gospel--this good news--"in which you stand": that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again.

That's the message Paul wanted the Corinthians to know. and he didn't care if they heard it from him or from someone else. That's the good news they were supposed to be living into and sharing with others, not debating about which teacher was the "right" teacher, or which spiritual gift is the "best" one, or any of that mess. It may be comforting to us that the people of the early church had just as many arguments as we do, but that doesn't mean we're supposed to continue to dwell in them and forget about the good news we have received and that we are supposed to be living, too.

Easter is almost here. Let's learn to stand in the good news, so as to proclaim it and be a church that believes it and isn't caught up in our own mess any more. I don't exactly know what that would take, but I have hope for resurrection, so I know it's possible!

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Day 36

Daniel 8:15-27--Vision interpreted
The messenger that interprets this vision for Daniel is Gabriel, which is kind of interesting. I guess Daniel really needs some help understanding this vision, and I don't understand why he goes into a trance. Have you noticed there's a lot I don't understand about Daniel? This is why I think it's important for us to study scripture together, and why I think commentaries and scholarship matter. Prayer and the Holy Spirit are important, too. Daniel needed someone else to interpret the vision for him, though, and he was supposed to be one of the people most connected with God in the whole kingdom.

Verse 17 shows that people have been predicting specifics of the end of times for a long time, but then verse 26 says it is "for days far in the future," so maybe it's not really that specific.

Even with Gabriel's help, though, Daniel doesn't feel that he understands the vision completely. He is sick for days and still feels very confused and worried about the vision. Is he worried because he doesn't understand? Is he worried because he doesn't want to have to tell the king? I am just not sure.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Day 35 (I think)

This is not gonna be very interesting...but here's all I have to say for today...Easter is coming...Easter is coming...

Daniel 8:1-12--Vision of a ram and a goat
Daniel describes this vision as taking place in a very specific place, and neither the name of the city nor the name of the river mean anything to me. My study Bible suggests the city of Susa wasn't actually big until after Belshazzar's reign, but its use could be symbolic here. Rivers are also symbolic in apocalyptic visions, apparently.

The vision starts out with a ram with 2 horns--so far, so good. It's a little weird that as he watches the ram, its horns grow and one is bigger than the other, but I can deal with that. I would think that a ram whose horns do that would be pretty powerful and just do what it wants. And then a really angry he-goat with one horn comes along and tramples the powerful ram.

...and then it gets weird...when more horns grow on the he-goat and the horns start causing all kinds of trouble. Have I mentioned that these are not my favorite parts of scripture to read??

Now, when verse 11 says the he-goat in the vision was "taking the daily sacrifice away from him and overturning his holy place," I do know enough about history to know that sounds like Antiochus IV Ephipanes, who desecrated the temple with unclean offerings to pagan gods. That's the only part of this vision that makes much sense to me, without the help of my study Bible.

Daniel 8:13-14--How long?
OK, I get that the two holy ones in the vision want to know why God lets this all happen. The one's response to the other, of 2,300 evenings and mornings seem pretty randomly specific.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Day 34

Daniel 7:9-14--Throne of fire and the human figure
Verse 9 describes God as the "ancient one" with "white hair," so maybe this is why there are so many pictures of God as some old white man with long white hair and a beard (a la the cover of Henry Blackaby's Experiencing God Workbook). I don't think that's quite what Daniel saw, though! I mean, there's lots of fire and lots of people there to serve him. It's a really impressive scene, not just some old guy sitting on a throne somewhere.

As for the other creatures, the bragging horn just sounds strange to me. I guess I've watched enough cartoons with my three-year-old that I've seen just about any object depicted with eyes and a mouth, so this shouldn't be that hard for me. It just sounds weird.

I wonder why Daniel doesn't tell us how the beast was destroyed. That seems like an important detail, but maybe we only need to know that it happened. It's interesting that the other beasts get to live, at least for a while, and the one beast is destroyed.

In case you're not going to go read these verses on your own, here's Daniel 7:13-14:
13 As I continued to watch this night vision of mine, I suddenly saw one like a human being coming with the heavenly clouds. He came to the ancient one and was presented before him.
 14 Rule, glory, and kingship were given to him; all peoples, nations, and languages will serve him. His rule is an everlasting one-- it will never pass away!-- his kingship is indestructible.
I think these verses are really fitting for this weekend, as we begin Holy Week tomorrow, with Palm and Passion Sunday. I can't imagine Christians interpreting this "human one" as anything other than Christ. I guess Daniel and the people of his day would see him as the messiah they were waiting for, which we say is Jesus, but of course Jews believe is still yet to come. How well do we live like we believe Jesus' reign is like this?

Daniel 7:15-28--Beasts interpreted
Daniel needs this vision interpreted for him, which is something new. It seems kind of strange to me that he is seeing a vision but he is actually in it in a way that he is able to ask one of the servants to interpret for him. My study Bible points out that he can interpret things to some degree, but as he gets deeper into the mysteries of God, he needs help understanding. I guess we can all relate to that!

The king discussed in this passage sounds like a really, really bad man. It's no wonder he's interpreted as Antiochus IV Epiphanes. He was apparently pretty rough on the Jews...

Friday, March 27, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Day 32 and 33

I didn't post yesterday, so here are some thoughts for yesterday and today.

Daniel 6:10-15--Daniel prays
I like that it tells us Daniel had an upper room. I mean, it may not be terribly important, but it does make me think of next week, when we'll talk about another upper room, anyway.

What do we think of the suggestion that Daniel prays three times a day toward Jerusalem? In his time and context, that would seem appropriate, but don't we get suspicious of people who pray multiple times a day, facing toward a particular place? Maybe we need to rethink that...

It tells us in verse 11 that the men all saw him praying, and I wonder if they just broke into his house, or what. Did they sneak up on him and leave quietly, or did they confront him so he knew they were going to the king? I'm sure he knew the situation well enough to know they were plotting against him by getting this edict made, anyway, but I'm still wondering about some of the details here.

Is it really a surprise that the king gets trapped by his own edict? I mean, he's also trapped by his own pride and vanity--how shocking! When you say, "Worship me, or else..." someone's gonna get stuck with the "or else," ya know? Maybe when you have the power of a king it's easy to forget that.

Daniel 6:16-24--Daniel in the lions' pit
OK, not that I didn't already know this story, but it continues to make the king look like a total jerk. On sort of a side note, why do they seal the lions' pit? Wouldn't that cause the oxygen to become depleted? Maybe that's irrelevant.

Anyway, the king admits that Daniel's God will save Daniel--even though the king wanted to be the only god--but then he worries and stews about Daniel all night and rushes to check out if he's OK the next morning--not very brave and kingly of him! Then, when Daniel is OK, he puts the bad guys and their wives and kids in there and they all die. I mean, it does prove that Daniel's being untouched by the lions wasn't just a fluke, but good grief! ...then the king won the award for most despotic ruler of the year...

It's interesting that Daniel still speaks with deference to the king after that. Wouldn't it be difficult to find a way to be even polite, let alone act like he's a great person? Maybe you just do that when you are talking to a king, especially a king like this.

Note that God is at work in a way that's not really surprising here, but is impressive. Just like this story sounds like what we've seen earlier in the book, so God again sends a holy messenger into the space of punishment to protect one of God's own people. That's pretty cool.

Daniel 6:25-28--A new decree
King Darius says, "I wish you much peace," in his edict for the whole kingdom. Really, Darius? You don't seem much like the peaceful type!

He kind of understands God, I think, but does he really believe what he says about God? It's hard to say.

Today I read Daniel 7:1-8, "Daniel's vision: four beasts." I don't really know what to say about this. With my study Bible's explanation of what everything in the vision stands for, I feel like I kind of know what was going on in this passage. It bears some resemblance to the book of Revelation. I've never been a huge fan of apocalyptic writing or of fantasy/science fiction literature, which is kind of what this seems like to me. I am tempted to switch to something else, at least until Easter, but I guess I'll stick with Daniel and see what comes of it for me. I think it is interesting that the people of Daniel's time would have understood the four beasts as four particular kingdoms that they already knew about, but we tend to take apocalyptic writing and assume it's about things today or things to come. I guess that goes back to one of those debates about scripture--does context matter, or not? I think it does, but that's just my opinion. Maybe having studied literature makes me biased. If we take Daniel and the prophets (and Revelation) as speaking more about the situations they found themselves in than about something that will happen at some "future" time, how does that change our interpretation? Just something to think about...

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Day 31

Daniel 5:17-30--Daniel interprets the writing
Daniel was fairly polite to Nebuchadnezzar, but he really gives Belshazzar the what-for here! Isn't it interesting that the prophets almost always had to confront pride, in one form or another, from one person or group or another? I guess that tells us something about humanity, not just people in the ancient near east.

I never realized that the saying, "You've been weighed and found lacking," or however you might say verse 27, is actually from the Bible (or I had forgotten that). I guess it does sound like a serious statement, but I didn't know how serious it was.

It seems very odd that Belshazzar gets told that he is going to lose his kingdom, and he still gives Daniel stuff and status. You would think if he knew anything about Nebuchadnezzar's story, he would have learned a lesson from that and would have repented and given honor to God. Instead, he doesn't really have time to figure it out after Daniel tells him what will happen because it does happen, that night! Talk about your quick consequences!

Daniel 6:1-9--Plot against Daniel
I'm confused about why Darius and Cyrus are conflated in the book of Daniel--my study Bible says that they are, at least. I thought that Cyrus was supposed to be a good king, but maybe I'm thinking of the wrong Cyrus. Maybe I need to refresh some of my Old Testament history...

This plot against Daniel seems pretty familiar--other people in the king's court get jealous of Daniel and they plot to get him killed. Religion is the only thing they can use to get him in trouble, which is pretty sad. Well, I guess it's not the only thing. They exploit the king's vanity and get him to sign an edict that will eventually get Daniel in trouble. It sounds a lot like the book of Esther. Actually, thus far, Daniel and Esther have several similarities. Why does someone in the foreign king's court always have it out for the Jewish person at court? It makes for some pretty interesting and intriguing stories, at least. What exciting thing will happen next?? Oh, yeah--the lion's den!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Day 30

Well, I was just about to sit down and watch some TV before going to bed, and then I remembered that I hadn't written a blog post for today yet! Argh! I don't forget to read and to take notes...I just forget to type it all here! Anyway, here's what I have for today...

Daniel 5:1-16--Belshazzar's party and Writing on the Wall
I don't know much about this Belshazzar guy, and it's kind of weird that he just shows up after we have these stories about Nebuchadnezzar, but you'd think that any guy who knows anything about any "gods" would know that something bad is going to happen when you take the stuff from one god's temple and use it to party. Of course, when that god happens to be THE God of the universe, you're kind of a little more in trouble than other gods. But then, he's had a lot to drink, so we could just give him a pass, right? Ha! Silly, silly people--partying with God's stuff!

But then, a random hand appears and writes on the wall. The king sounds a lot like Nebuchadnezzar then, when he just wants anyone to interpret the writing. He says, "If anyone can figure this out, I'll give them stuff." Then he gets really scared--scared sober, I guess! ;)

It seems weird that the queen shows up after that, but my study Bible says maybe she's the king's mother or grandmother. I guess it makes sense that she wouldn't be partying with the king and all his wives, etc. I kind of like that she's sort of the voice of reason here. All kinds of people in the royal court are all kinds of not very smart, but the old woman comes in and knows what's up.

Finally, Daniel comes in and he can interpret the dream, just like the queen said he could, and it sounds just like with Nebuchadnezzar. I wonder if Daniel got tired of all of this ridiculousness. I wonder if he ever played pranks on them...probably not. He seems like a straight-laced kind of guy, which is probably a better way to represent God, but still...

Monday, March 23, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Day 29

I almost forgot to blog!! Here are some thoughts for today...

It's impressive in Daniel 4:28-33 that Nebuchadnezzar not only shows how vain and ridiculous he is again, but that the consequences of his actions, directly from God, come so suddenly and with such depth. What happens definitely doesn't leave one wondering who was in control in this situation.

In verse 34, we suddenly hear from Nebuchadnezzar himself. He tells of what seems like a conversion story, when he finally learned his lesson that God is greater than he is. We would wonder if he really believes that, or if he'll forget it again, based on past experience.

This story makes me wonder what we can really believe about Nebuchadnezzar. Though my study Bible pointed out early on that the timing mentioned at the beginning of Daniel signals to us that it is a folktale, that is someone's interpretation, of course. We wonder how much of this is what Nebuchadnezzar was like, and how much might have been interpreted or added, to make a point for the people reading this years later. I studied literature for a long time, and I guess that's why it's never bothered me to think of the Bible as stories, to appreciate it for its literary value, and not to parse out fact versus fiction. We Christians debate the inerrancy of scripture. We make claims like, "The Bible clearly says..." Some have put so much time and energy into turning the book of Genesis into a science book to explain the beginning of creation. It seems as though in some ways, we prefer knowing the Bible to knowing God. We want to avoid remembering that the person or persons who translated our Bibles were not there when the scriptures were actually written, that we don't have any kind of "original draft" for the vast majority of scripture, and that every translation is also an interpretation.

What does this have to do with the story of Nebuchadnezzar? Well, I don't know that there was such an absolutely ridiculous king. It seems entirely implausible for a king to go wander out in some pasture somewhere for seven years, then return to his throne. Yes, I believe that everything is possible with God. I also believe that we learn a lot from Nebuchadnezzar's story, regardless of its factual truth. As Christians, we retell our story every year, through the cycles of the church year. In the retelling, new truth is revealed, new understanding given, and new calling received, among other things. Whether or not every detail is reported and is factual, we learn about who God is and who we are from scripture. We learn about the people who have known that God through the ages and about their cultures. We learn how to keep becoming the people God wants us to be. That seems more important to me than determining where the ark landed...but that's just me...

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Day 28

My daily devotional, Alive Now, directed me to the psalter reading for this week, which is Psalm 51:1-12. I decided to read the whole thing, and that gave me inspiration for a different kind of post than the ones I've been doing recently. I was feeling that my posts had gotten, um, not-so-inspirational and more like a book report every day, so this should be a good change. And maybe I'll take tomorrow off from posting, since it's Sunday...I mean, I will be preaching on John 12:20-33 and teaching on Joel 3:1-16, plus whatever I'm teaching for the youth Sunday School class, which I've temporarily forgotten at the moment. But then, Jeremiah 31:31-34 is the Old Testament lection for tomorrow, and maybe I'll post a little something about that...while I watch basketball. So many decisions to make...

Anyway, without further ado, some thoughts on Psalm 51.

You don’t want sacrifices.
    If I gave an entirely burned offering,
    you wouldn't be pleased.
17 A broken spirit is my sacrifice, God.
    You won’t despise a heart, God, that is broken and crushed.

                                                                     ~Psalm 51:16-17

I've read these verses lots of times. We read this psalm for Ash Wednesday every year (well, when the weather lets us have an Ash Wednesday service!). It's a good one to kick off the season of Lent. It reminds us that even those whom God calls "friend" can still do terrible things to others through their decisions and actions. As Christians, we know the truth of David's words about sacrifices. We know that physical sacrifices can't change our hearts to the righteousness God desires for/of us. Well, we say we believe that, at least. Living into that truth is far more difficult than confessing it with our lips, for me, at least. How much of my life do I spend pursuing works righteousness, cloaked in terms of "good works" and "loving my neighbor"? Both of those are ways that we show fruit of God's grace, and I don't want to look askance at either of them. I believe they are very important to growth in grace. What seldom occurs to me, though, is how often I might be offering those things to God in place of, not in addition to, a broken and contrite (or crushed, as the CEB says it) heart. Am I getting by without really turning to God with my broken heart and relying on God's healing in my life? When I preach about repentance, especially during Lent, how well am I doing at practicing what I'm preaching?

Well, the answers to these questions require a significant amount of introspection, which is something I'm not bad at, really. I tend to be fairly self-aware...but that doesn't mean I'm always honest with God, even if I am honest with other people. At my current appointment, I've realized the need for recovery ministry in the community. In this particular town, there are few churches that host opportunities for those affected by the rampant drug problem to come and experience healing. As I consider how my community (with my church) may be able to change that, I've been attending services at a recovery ministry 30 miles down the road, Recovery at Lebanon. While I've never experienced chemical dependency, I've experienced brokenness just like everyone else. And like most of us, I've learned to cope with it and keep it pretty well out of sight, except for when it's convenient. By attending worship services focused on recovery, though, I've been challenged to heal instead of cover up. I've been challenged to live even more into the belief that God really does love me and want me to be my best, not just to try to do the best I can on my own. I've been challenged to let God into my broken places more than I have before, and to rely on God for healing.

If you have any familiarity with AA, you know that the first of the 12 Steps is "We admitted we were powerless over our addiction--that our lives had become unmanageable." Recovery ministry adds "and compulsive behaviors" to "addiction" for this step, since many of us may not experience addiction, but we do experience behaviors that are harmful to ourselves and others. To bring this post back to Psalm 51, though, I think this is where David was, when he wrote verse 17. I think it's where we all find ourselves at times, when we are willing to admit that God is God and we are not. I don't mean this to say that everyone experiences addiction, but that part of our human condition is that we can't piece back together our broken parts on our own, no matter how hard we try. (Believe me, I've tried!) Today, can I stop trying to make all my other sacrifices enough and really offer to God my heart, as it is, and let God heal it? It's worth a try, eh?

Friday, March 20, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Day 27

Hey, Easter will be here in just over two weeks! Yay! I will take a break from blogging for a bit after Easter, but until then, here's my daily post...

Daniel 4:1-27 is what I looked at this morning.

1-8--Nebuchadnezzar's testimony
It looks like even after the three men survive the fiery furnace and Nebuchadnezzar decides their God is a really great god, he still doesn't get who God is! We're back to his dreams and Daniel, with this chapter, and he's so glad Daniel interpreted his dream, but he doesn't get that the one true God did it--he talks about "the gods" still.

9-18--Nebuchadnezzar's dream
This sounds like a pretty impressive dream. I don't know if it's really any more impressive than the first one, about the statue, but a huge tree would make for an impressive dream. You'd think the theme of destruction in his dreams might give him a clue about himself! My study Bible talks about Nebuchadnezzar's tree being "the world tree" that was a common idea in those cultures, and how arrogant someone would be to dream that he is the world tree.

19-27--Daniel interprets the vision
It tells us Daniel was shocked--I'm sure he was! How much did he probably hate having to tell Nebuchadnezzar that he actually was the tree in this dream, if he knew the idea of the world tree? But maybe it wasn't too bad, since he also got to tell him what was coming to him, symbolized by the tree being cut down. Nebuchadnezzar will be humbled, and according to that dream, it will take a lot to humble him. I don't think that's very surprising, considering what we've read so far!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Lenten Daily Post, Day 26

Daniel 2:36-45--The dream's meaning
For some reason, I find it hard to find the meaning of the dream that worrisome. The thought of four different kings to come doesn't sound like that big of a deal, but I think that's because I'm out of touch with what it's like to be a dictator, maybe. I mean, we're used to frequent changes of heads of state in our country, of course...

Anyway, it probably didn't sound good to Nebuchadnezzar.

Daniel 2:46-48--Nebuchadnezzar honors Daniel
So, Nebuchadnezzar doesn't seem all that upset by Daniel's interpretation. He just gives Daniel stuff and honors him. Weird. That dude is goofy.

Daniel 3:1-7--Gold statue
Nebuchadnezzar is not very smart, or not a good listener, or both. Daniel tells him God will destroy all these rulers, but Nebuchadnezzar just goes and builds a big gold statue of himself. And then all the people just bow down to the statue, like they're cool with whatever. I guess they felt coerced, or they were just mindless followers. This is the problem with despotic rulers and religion! (OK, there are lots of problems with despotic rulers and religion--Nebuchadnezzar embodies most of them!)

Daniel 3:8-18--Plot against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego
I have to admit, it's really difficult for me to read this story without thinking about the Veggie Tales version of it.

Anyway, jealous people tell on these three fellas, and Nebuchadnezzar gets really angry, which is not at all surprising. They say they will never bow down to his statue, even if he will kill them for it. So...

Daniel 3:19-27--Inside the furnace
I had forgotten the detail that Nebuchadnezzar's own men die when they put the three other men into the furnace, because of how hot Nebuchadnezzar wants it to be. What an idiot this king is! Of course, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego aren't harmed at all.

Daniel 3:28-30--Nebuchadnezzar praises God
And then Nebuchadnezzar praises God because he realizes that this God could save the three men...and he threatens everyone who doesn't worship his new God. Talk about someone with control issues!! I just can't wait to see what he'll do next...

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Day 25

Daniel 1:18-21--Result of the training
The four men--referred to here by their Hebrew names, incidentally (v.19)--are found to be the best of the bunch. Who is surprised?? But we do learn that "Daniel stayed in the king's service until the first year of King Cyrus" (v.21). Does that mean all four of them were there that long, or just Daniel? And why does it matter that he stayed until King Cyrus took over? This brings several questions to mind, but they are not terribly relevant to reading on in Daniel.

Daniel 2:1-13--An impossible challenge
Let's be honest, Nebuchadnezzar sounds kind of goofy. I guess the way the scripture tells it doesn't help, when it says, "The dreams made him anxious, but he kept sleeping." Umm...duh. And then he threatens his experts with death if they can't guess his dreams--that's kind of ridiculous!

Verse 7--What else would the people say? They can't tell him his dream! And then he accuses them of stalling in verse 8. Well, duh! What else are they going to say? So they spell it out for him in 10-11--they. can't. do. what. he. wants.

Now, verse 13 ratchets up the suspense because it finally lets us know that Daniel is involved in this. He and his friends are in danger because of this decree by the king. They might be killed, too! Dunh, dunh, duhhhh!

Daniel 2:14-23--God reveals the mystery
Daniel asks one of the king's servants in verse 15 why the king's command is so unreasonable--that's a good question! After he finds out the answer to his question, he tells the guys, and they all pray about it. God answers their prayers and tell Daniel what the king's dream is. See, prayer matters! And after that, Daniel praises God--that's important, too!

Daniel 2:24-35--Daniel recounts the dream
The king's official Arioch is so proud of himself that he claims he found Daniel...what a goober.

In verse 28, Daniel just up and tells the king that God's involved in this. That took some guts!

My study Bible points out that verse 30 tells us that Daniel is more about having special knowledge of God than it is about having faith in hard times, which is what some people say Daniel is about. I think that's an interesting point. I guess that is the way that we teach the stories of Daniel to children--that you just have to be brave and have faith, no matter what. God definitely does more than that in this book, though. Daniel finds favor with the king and saves himself and all the sages in Babylon because he knows God and God gives him special knowledge.

 We'll talk about the dream and what Daniel says it means next time...

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Lenten Daily Post, Day 24

Instead of just continuing on to Romans, which might have made sense, except for that one seminary class I took that made me never want to read Romans again, I decided to switch to the minor prophets. I'm writing and teaching a study on Joel right now, so maybe that's why the minor prophets seemed like a good idea, or maybe it's because I'm a "random-abstract" thinker, not a "concrete-sequential" thinker, according to my older sister...Anyway without further ado, let's begin with Daniel...

Daniel 1:1-2--Jerusalem taken by the Babylonians
So, God handed the king (who was not a very good king) and "some of the equipment from God's house" over to Nebuchadnezzar. That's a weird way to say it, but I guess it gets the point across that the writer believes God is the one running the show. My study Bible says that the timing is not quite historically accurate and that the writer is signaling that this is folktale or historical fiction, not exactly fact, by making the dating not quite right. That is an interesting claim, I think.

Daniel 1:3-7--Training for royal service
It sounds like Nebuchadnezzer is being nice by offering Daniel and his friends all this stuff, but he is also trying to completely change their identities, so that's not exactly "nice." It's a bit ironic, then, that we call Daniel by his Hebrew name, but we only remember he Babylonian names of the other three men. Maybe that makes sense because the book is named after Daniel, but would we get the meaning of the story even more if we remembered that Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego are not the Hebrew names of the other characters, and if we referred to them by their Hebrew names, instead?

Daniel 1:8-17--Testing
Verse 9 tells us that God made a special understanding between Daniel and the chief official, but even God's work didn't erase the fear of Nebuchadnezzer, it appears. So, Daniel finds someone else who's game to let him try his plan not to eat the king's food and drink the king's wine. We shouldn't at all be surprised that his plan worked--God is at work in mighty ways here, even though it happens under cover and God's name isn't really used that much by Daniel (yet). This is similar to the book of Esther, in some ways, and even to Acts, in some ways--God is showing up all over!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Day 23?

Acts 28:11-16--Paul makes it to Rome
This is some interesting travelogue information, which is maybe not what we expect to find in scripture. I'm more familiar with Italy than the other places Paul has been, so some of these place names have meaning to me. It's strange that Paul gets to stay somewhere by himself, when it seems like he was in custody back in Jerusalem and Caesarea. My study Bible says it's because of his status as a Roman citizen--at least that finally got him some good treatment, right?!

Acts 28:17-28--Paul meets Jewish leaders in Rome
In verses 17-20, I wonder if this is a strategic speech, or if Paul is just trying to convert people, or something else.

Again, we have Paul teaching and testifying for a long period of time, in verse 23, like he did earlier on, even though that was all night, not all day. Paul had some serious focus and stamina. As usual, some believed and some didn't, so Paul told them the Gentiles receive salvation even though Jews won't all listen. I wonder how they responded to that, but the writer doesn't say.

Verses 30-31 end the book, kind of abruptly. What's the rest of the story? Did Paul ever get to see Caesar? Nero was a pretty bad guy, so we might not expect that that went well.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Day 22 (A Day Late)

Yesterday was not a restful day in my life. Today wasn't, either, but it's Sunday, so that's pretty normal. Anyway, here's all I have to post from yesterday, and I will be taking today off from a new post. Back on track tomorrow...

Acts 28:1-10--On the island of Malta
I've been reading a lot about snakes in the Bible this week, oddly enough. This story fits right in with what I've read about for my sermon, since it's about snakes. It's kind of interesting and crazy how many stories of snakes there are, and this one is no exception. Paul gets bitten and doesn't get sick, so the people go from believing he must be a murderer to thinking he's a god--that's a bit much! After that, Paul heals all the people on the island that come to him. That's pretty cool. Then the people give them everything they need to finish their voyage, which I guess included a ship or a boat of some sort. That's a lot of stuff! We'll finish up the voyage next time...

Friday, March 13, 2015

Daily Lenten Post--Day 21

We're almost through Acts. Isn't that a shame? It gets really exciting sometimes!

Acts 27--Paul's voyage to Rome
Suddenly, there's a "we" in the story again. It seems odd at this point to note that "we" are with Paul, when he had seemed to be on his own through all the abuse and trials. Maybe it all works out, though, as apparently, people are allowed to accompany Paul to Rome. I'm pretty sure the police don't allow prisoners to have friends with them when they're extradited somewhere today, or to stop off and visit friends along the way. I know that prisoners had to have people bring them food and care for them, but I have a hard time envisioning what prison must have been like in that culture.

So, they get on a boat. In verse 11, I can't blame the centurion for believing the captain of the boat over Paul, can you? Was Paul being a jerk here, or are we to understand that he is led by the Spirit? I guess we should probably assume the latter, since we know that the Spirit's leading is a pretty significant theme in the book of Acts. I should also probably be a little more charitable toward Paul. I mean, he is, after all, the prime apostle that we in the Western church attribute our theology and doctrine to...

Anyway, Paul is right and the ship doesn't fare well. That was one serious storm, if they couldn't see the sun or the moon for "many days"! And then in verse 21, Paul starts talking to them all, telling them what is ultimately good news, but it doesn't sound that great, to start with. I wonder how they received this prophecy from a prisoner. They've been in this storm for untold time; they threw out the cargo and the gear; they haven't eaten for days. What did they all think of Paul??

I like verse 29: "they hurled out four anchors from the stern and began to pray for daylight"--I bet they did!!

In verse 31, Paul tells the centurion that "Unless they stay in the ship, you can't be saved." What does it mean that the soldiers have to stay in the ship in order for the centurion to be saved? Isn't that what the pronouns are saying here? That's really interesting...

We learn in verses 33-35 that they did have food. They didn't throw it all overboard until after Paul told them to eat something and then fed them. We might assume that the way they broke bread indicates that they had communion, but is that really a reasonable assumption to make, with a group of people who undoubtedly were of mixed faiths? It may be code for having communion, and it probably did remind Paul of times he had shared meals with groups of believers, but it may not have been communion, as we think of it.

So, they all manage to survive, but the soldiers want to kill the prisoners. Say what?! This is a crazy story! At least we are led to believe the centurion was a decent guy. What a long, strange trip, eh?

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Daily Lenten Post--Day 20 (Half way! Half way! Woohoo!)

Acts 26--Paul's defense before Agrippa
I wonder how much of Paul's story Agrippa knew or even cared about. Paul thought he would be sympathetic, so maybe he was. His response to Paul in verse 32 makes it seem like he might be willing to listen and change his mind, but he could be sarcastic, too. It's hard to say...

In verses 9-11, we learn more about Paul's persecution of Christians, and it sounds really serious. I guess that's not really surprising. It's no wonder that some Jews/Christians didn't believe his change of heart and lots of them didn't like it.

The account of Paul's conversion in verses 12-19 has some small changes from the other accounts of it. He gets a direct commission from Jesus here, which he hasn't mentioned before (verses 16-18). Interesting...

Festus really makes himself look like a fool by calling Paul crazy in verse 24. He should really learn to keep his mouth shut.

This passage's ending doesn't sound good for Paul. If Agrippa really doesn't think there's a reason to keep Paul incarcerated, does it matter that much that he's asked to see Caesar? Caesar doesn't have to know about it...

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Day 19

Seriously, parts of Acts read like some episode of Law & Order, or something...(well, I've never really watched Law & Order, but I have watched several detective shows that my husband likes, such as Forever and Backstrom...)

Acts 25:1-12--Paul appeals to Caesar
Here's what I thought as I read verses 1-10: "What is wrong with these people?? Why does truth not matter to either Paul's accusers or to Festus?? This must be how people feel who end up at the wrong place at the wrong time and can never prove their innocence to a system that considers them guilty by default, for whatever reason. We shouldn't be surprised that our justice system seems so messed up sometimes--it's based on the Roman system, that appears not to have worked very fairly, either--even for Paul, a Roman citizen!"

It's interesting that in verse 12 Paul is granted the opportunity to appear before Caesar because I wonder why he would want to do that. Is there any reason to think he will be treated fairly or listened to there??

Acts 25:13-27--King Agrippa informed about Paul
When Felix speaks to Agrippa, at least he gives a pretty fair and decent account of the situation. I wonder why Agrippa wanted to hear from Paul. It's good that Felix says he can't come up with anything good to charge Paul with, but it's pretty pathetic that he's already been treated so poorly when there is nothing to charge him with!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Lenten Daily Post--Day 18

Acts 24:1-23--Paul's trial before Felix
So, it's nice to see legal proceedings like you might expect them to happen. Interesting that the Jews' lawyer Tertullus calls Paul part of "the Nazarene faction"--that's a new name. Tertullus' explanation of the prosecution's position in verses 2-8 sounds reasonable...except that it's all lies.

Paul's defense in verses 10-20 is impressively short, considering some of his other speeches. He basically says that the Jews are lying about him, and I guess there's not much more that he could say. Who is Felix going to believe?? It's a bit surprising that we read in verse 22 that Felix "had an accurate understanding of the Way." Maybe he would have been sympathetic to Paul...if he had rendered a ruling.

So, Felix doesn't make any decision--way to go there, big guy--and says he'll wait for Lysias to show up from Jerusalem. Maybe it makes sense that he's going to hear Lysias' version of the story...except that Lysias never shows up and Felix just keeps meeting with Paul, hoping Paul will give him bribe money. Really? Bribe money? Because Paul has extra cash sitting around? And I'm sure Paul appreciated that Felix brought his wife with him, whom he'd apparently stolen from some other guy. Smooth. He just didn't get it. And then, after 2 years, he was gone and some other ruler came in, and still, Paul sat in prison, for no reason. Pitiful.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Lenten Daily Post--Day 17

I decided to type as I read this morning, instead of taking notes and finding time to type later...

Acts 22:30-23:11--Paul appears before the Jewish Council
Paul gets a little spicy here! I mean, if I were standing in front of a whole council of people and the high priest ordered them to hit me in the mouth, I think I'd have something to say about that, too, but he calls the high priest a name, and everything! And then he gets the whole council all riled up into a dispute and has to be taken away for his own safety. Is that what he meant to do? I don't know, but it worked!

Acts 22:12-35--A murder plot discovered
Seriously, didn't the Jewish leaders have anything better to do with their time than to plot to kill people? What's with these guys??

We learn in verse 16 that Paul has a nephew who is where he hears about this planned ambush. That's really intriguing. It's too bad we don't know anything more about Paul's family.

The Roman commander orders a whole lot of soldiers to accompany Paul to the governor, which my study Bible says is to show that he takes protecting a Roman citizen seriously. I wonder if he wanted to protect Paul that closely, or if he just felt it was his duty. He didn't hesitate to mistreat Paul before he knew he was a Roman citizen, that's for sure! There are so many interesting twists in this story! It's hard to tell who's telling the truth and who's lying! You know, they made a 14-episode mini-series about the Emperor Claudius's life...Paul's could be just about as interesting--and have more redeeming power to it, right?!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Third Sunday in Lent

Just a short little note for today...since it's Sunday...

Acts 22:1-29--Paul's defense
As Paul defends himself in front of the crowd in Jerusalem, most of what he says in verses 1-16 is recounting his conversion experience on the road to Damascus. Interestingly, in verse 9 he says that the people traveling with him saw the light but didn't hear the voice, which is the opposite of what it says in Acts 9, my study Bible points out. Paul gives some new information in verses 17-21, about a vision he had in the temple, which is pretty interesting. I wonder why we haven't read about this before in Acts.

As Paul concludes, the crowd does what we read about so often--they get violent and crazy and just about take care of Paul themselves. The officials get ready to start beating Paul before asking any questions until, uh-oh, Paul points out that he's a Roman citizen (v. 25). Oops! Why does this keep happening?! I wonder what news coverage of these events would look like today...something to think about...

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Day 16 (40 Days is a LONG time...)

Let me just say that this seemed like a much better idea before I actually had to do it. I don't mind taking notes on my reading, but blogging every day is not nearly as fun as I thought it would be...

Oh, and by the way, the section titles I use in my notes are usually what the Common English Bible uses.

Acts 21:1-17--Paul Travels to Jerusalem
At every stop Paul makes on the way to Jerusalem, people don't want him to go on because of what he's going to face there. It tells us that the Spirit lets the people know what Paul will face in Jerusalem, and the prophet Agabus even prophesies about how it will happen, but still Paul refuses to change his plans. Maybe Paul is just ready for it, but nobody else wants it to happen to him. (By the way, when Agabus uses his belt to show how he will be bound, the belt was probably more like a rope than the belts most of us wear.)

Verse 17 tells us they were welcomed warmly in Jerusalem, but we know that will change...dunh, dunh, dunnnn...

Acts 21:18-26--Meeting the Jerusalem church leaders
I don't really "get" this scene. Maybe I need to understand more about Jewish law or ritual, but it seems like they say, "Here, Paul, just do this ritual here, and that will prove to everyone that you aren't really teaching wrong things and that you are following the law." What was the big deal? Hadn't they already resolved this issue? And didn't Paul already know about the letter they mention to him in verse 25? Duh!

Acts 21:27-40--Paul seized by the people
Several things--
1. This is basically the same thing that happened so many other places. I don't know if we should expect it to happen more or less in Jerusalem.

2. In verse 29, the people assumed Paul had brought a gentile into the temple, but we all know what happens when we assume things...

3.  The Roman official arrests first and asks questions later. Good grief!

4. This passage does have some similarities to Jesus' trial, interestingly enough.

5. Is it really that difficult to tell the difference between an Egyptian and a Syrian? Maybe it is...I don't really know. But why did the Roman official assume Paul was this trouble-making Egyptian without finding out first? Giving law enforcement a bad name...geez.

I think we'll save Paul's defense in Acts 22 for another day. This is enough to ponder for today.