March 31

Scripture reading for today:  Esther

Esther’s a long book so it’s probably okay if it takes more than a day to read, but I am going to keep this last devotional short in light of that, especially since I have written some mammoth devotionals lately.  It is sometimes difficult to tell why Esther is in the Bible and I will mention two quick things about the purpose it serves.

One, Esther is a realistic portrayal of how power actually functions in the world.  It shows the lack of fairness, and the corruptive influence power has on those who possess it. 

Second, it makes a passive statement about the way in which God appears and works in the world.  It does not take a close reading of Esther to realize that God does not play a role in the book.  He is behind the scenes, as it were.  We don’t have any help in Esther in figuring out what God does or does not like about this story though we trust his presence is with his people and we trust his lack of intervention indicates that nothing went wrong enough to be worth intervening. 

I think this is a good representation of how life is for the common person.  When I say this, I’m not referring to the actual happenings in the book itself but to the nature of God’s presence throughout the book.  We understand God’s presence is somehow there, though this is a struggle, but we can’t quite pinpoint it.  Sometimes we can after the fact.

Reflection:  What does it look like/how does it feel to submit yourself to the care and control of a God who is often behind the scenes?

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March 30

Scripture reading for today:  Exodus 32

When I was in seminary I heard an awful lot of different opinions on how to read and interpret the Bible.  I heard and read many different interpretations of many different passages.  There are, evidently, some Jewish scholars who believe that Abraham actually killed Isaac and that he was resurrected.  Some point out the fact that we don’t know which boy Abraham actually took up the mountain to sacrifice.  This is the type of stuff I had to learn to try to sort through and discern and figure out how I wanted to read and understand the Bible.  Everyone reads from a perspective and through a certain type of lens.  I had to figure out what mine was. 

One particularly interesting “new” reading (new is in quotes because it was only new to me) dealt with the golden calf in Exodus 32.  Commonly, we read this passage as the Israelites abandoning God in favor of lesser gods that they have made with their own hands, which is simply idolatry.  This is true, in a sense.  However, there seems to be more going on in this passage.  When Aaron presents the “gods”, he presents them as the gods that brought the people out of Egypt.  Are they changing their minds about who did that?  Then, in verse 5 we see Aaron announce that the next day will be a festival to the LORD.  When we see LORD in capital letters in the Bible, this is the holy name.  God’s name, only used of the one true God.  The God of Israel.  What is the deal?

Well, some argue that the Israelites are not worshipping the calf here per se.  They are scared because they are in the wilderness, without their leader, and without a physical representation of God.  Without these things, they can’t sense God’s presence, or perhaps think he’s altogether absent.  They make these idols not to worship some new gods but instead so that the one true God will come down and rest his presence upon these idols.  Then they will know where he is.  Verse 5 indicates this is the God they intend to worship.

If this is the case, then what’s the problem?  Well, a few things.  For one thing, we have the Ten Commandments.  Sure we’re not supposed to have any other gods before God, but I argued that wasn’t the issue here.  We’re also not supposed to build any representation of God (or gods) based on anything we see on earth, nor are we to bow to it.  The first problem here, then, is that the image of a calf does not suit our God.  It is not befitting.  God will not come and rest on an image of something that less than perfectly represents him. 

There are also issues of control here.  They are trying to control God’s presence, by making a place where they want him to rest.  There are also issues of faith.  God had brought his people out of Egypt, promised that they would be his people and that he would take care of them.  Yet, they’re scared when Moses is gone and they can’t tangibly see God’s presence.  The issues of God’s presence and faithlessness are themes throughout the OT.  We later see God’s presence in the ark, the tabernacle, the temple.  We hear God say several times in scripture that he will never leave nor forsake his people, and yet we see them doubt his presence often over history. 

Reflection:  In turning our lives over to God’s care and control, are we capable of maintaining faith in his continued promised presence?  When the Israelites are in the wilderness, or the exile, and they have no temple, no way to see God’s presence, they both struggle to find hope and yet hold on to hope at the same time.  Are we capable of mustering at least this much faith during our own times of doubting God’s presence?

March 29

Scripture reading for today:  Philippians 3-4

I’m going back to Philippians today because I like to finish books off whenever it’s close, convenient, what have you.  We’ve done some real damage to the various letters in the New Testament this month. 

Early on in chapter 3 you’ll notice some talk about circumcision.  If the Bible is not new to you then you’ll recognize that confrontation over circumcision litters the various letters in the New Testament.  Apparently, Paul is addressing the fact that certain people are requiring circumcision as an entrance requirement to becoming a follower of Jesus, to become a part of God’s people.  This follows in a Jewish tradition of being circumcised as a symbol of being a people set apart, committed to obedience to God in learning to know and do his will.  Paul uses his own circumcision as a way of addressing how this is wrong.  The only entrance requirement for God’s people is the commitment to his plans and purposes as revealed through his word and his son, Jesus.

Circumcision was, at one time, a positive symbol that was later distorted into a weapon used to exclude or keep people out.  When it comes to contextual issues like this, I often find it easy to say, “Wow, we may have our problems, but at least we don’t do THAT.”  However, I’ve found this view to be rather shortsighted.  Most communities have some form of “barrier to entry”.  Sometimes these are related to issues of status.  For example, some churches are so wealthy that anyone who doesn’t look wealthy won’t feel comfortable.  This could apply to issues of race.  It could apply to issues of politics. 

What about recovery communities?  Surely there are no barriers to entry here, we accept everyone.  Well, maybe.  I have noticed in recovery communities a tendency to wear different kinds of “badges of honor”.  Often, these deal with negative life experiences.  A strange sense of pride surrounds all of the terrible things a person went through that few others ever do.  Or that same sense of pride surrounds all of the terrible things that person did while stuck in the mire of addiction.  Such talk can lead to a feeling of division in the community for those who are not addicts, or for those addicts who simply have a different experience or way of perceiving their experience.

When we submit our lives to God’s care and control we give up our pride over things that make us qualified.  So, we give up our pride over the fact that we were once wonderful addicts who found a way out, which qualifies us to speak on addiction.  We give up our pride over the money we’ve earned.  We give up our pride over the degrees that we’ve pursued.  As members of the people of God we stand on a level playing field.  We are all the same height in God’s eyes. 

Reflection:  Give some thought to what might serve as barriers to entry in your various communities.  Can you recognize any?  If so, can you think of any ways to set about removing them?

March 28

Scripture reading for today:  Philippians 1-2

For the sake of today, I basically want to talk about one verse from this passage that gets an awful lot (probably too much) of attention.  Philippians 2:12 says, “Therefore, my loved ones, just as you always obey me, not just when I am present but now even more while I am away, carry out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” 

The reason this verse gets a lot of attention is obvious.  Anytime we start talking about salvation in a way that is alien, or unfamiliar, to the definition we’re used to it causes problems.  We’re used to thinking of salvation as something that God offers, and we receive it when we die.  Salvation is basically going to heaven.  I don’t think this is wrong, but I would suggest that it does not encompass the full extent of the term’s usage in scripture.  This passage is rather a good example of what I mean. 

We have to remember, as I mentioned earlier in the month, that each passage needs to be read in light of what comes before and after in the book.  Often times, authors of letters make arguments that start early in the book and continue to build throughout.  This book as a whole is a thank you note for a gift.  But, 1:27 is also an important verse that helps us interpret what follows.  In this verse, he’s more or less preaching the importance of unity within the congregation.  He’s telling the audience that living appropriately in light of their belief in the gospel means, in some sense, finding a unity of purpose.  This is the context in which we understand what follows.

When we see the author talking about working out salvation, it is not a verse dropped in amongst a bunch of others that has meaning on its own, instead the author is already describing the circumstances from which the audience needs to be saved.  Salvation certainly happens in a grand eternal sense, but we also need salvation from day-to-day types of circumstances as well.  Once “saved” in the eternal sense, we then participate in how this salvation plays out in our day-to-day lives. When “saved” in the eternal sense, we must display and experience this salvation within the community of other saved people.  In this context, this means seeking to find that unity of purpose as a community that we saw in 1:27.  Broadly speaking, these passages are calling these people, as a group, to find ways to live lives obedient to Christ together.

Reflection:  Often churches treat salvation and the Christian life as privatized issues.  Salvation is a one-time thing, once accepted, the person will go to heaven and the matter is done.  The Christian life is something you figure out on your own how to live, then you join a community for worship once a week.  What would it look like to treat salvation and the Christian life as corporate issues, issues we work on and work through together as communities?  Once again, I believe this is what is expected of us when we turn our lives over to God’s control.

March 27

Scripture reading for today:  Job 1-3, 40-42

Obviously, I have handpicked some passages to talk about in Job today.  As you’ll quickly notice, these are the first 3 chapters and the last 3 chapters.  I think they are the most crucial 6 chapters to understanding the work as a whole.  I’m having you read them as a way of familiarizing yourself with Job’s story, and knew I couldn’t ask you to read the whole thing.  If you have extra time during the week though, try to read (or skim) all of it. 

I’ll try to summarize even quicker than usual.  In the beginning of this story, we find Job, a righteous man who is blameless before God.  God even considers him so.  The accuser (or the satan) comes before God and God asks him to consider how upright and blameless Job is.  The accuser takes this opportunity to put Job’s faith to the test, evidently not believing that Job is earnest in his faith, as God protects him in many ways.  God then allows the accuser to bring some tragedy on Job, who does not swerve in his faithfulness.  The accuser then asks to take another shot, this time attacking Job’s physical well being, which was previously off limits, and God allows it.  Now Job has lost his family, home, wealth, and health.  Basically everything.  The next section is composed of a variety of speeches from a variety of characters.  We see Job say a variety of different things about God, constantly begging for the opportunity to plead his case before God.  We see Job’s friends consistently give him bad advice. 

Ultimately, we see God emerge from a cloud and call Job out, in a way.  He reminds Job that he is in charge and he makes the world run as it does and this is something Job knows nothing of.  Job relents and repents.  Job is restored.  Viewed in this simplistic way, it seems almost like the book is telling us that if we have faith God will protect us from harm.  Job isn’t restored until he repents.  However, we could also phrase this as, “Job repents before he is restored.”  Job is willing to acknowledge that, in some sense, he has lost perspective over where he stands before God.  He did not know he was going to be restored, or receive any kind of compensation for this.  We also do not know what Job repents from.  In spite of God’s speeches against Job, he ultimately tells us that Job has spoken rightly of God where Job’s friends have not.  What is the deal???  Ultimately, I think what this book shows us is that if we are going to submit our lives to God’s care and control that is exactly what we are doing.  We are not promised a certain type of reward for good deeds on this earth.  Just as we are not promised punishment for bad deeds on this earth.  I think, eventually, good and bad deeds will be rewarded or punished as necessary, but the story of Job shows us that life as part of God’s people does not follow a simple formula.  Job was a righteous man; God himself says so.  There was no reason for Job to be tested and yet he was.  Even in his testing Job, in some sense, speaks rightly of God.  I think this shows us that Job never wavers from his righteousness, even though perhaps he got a little cocky. 

Reflection:  So as you think about step 3, and what it means to submit your life and will to God’s care and control, consider carefully what you are getting yourself into.  This is not a life of flowers and rainbows and butterflies where we get a reward for every happy thought and good deed.  It’s a life of submitting to God’s control.  And, as we see in Job’s story, sometimes God turns his head the other way.  After all, he has a pretty big job (no pun intended) to do.

March 26

Scripture reading for today:  Deuteronomy 6-8

I wrote yesterday as if I was starting a series on John.  I do not intend to do that but, if you’re wondering, I am continuing to include it as part of my own daily reading.  Actually I’m pulling kind of a fast one by making you read Deuteronomy 6-8.  In these chapters we see words of warning, promise, advice, etc. from Moses to the people as they prepare for entering “the land”.  “The land” is a concept often mentioned but rarely discussed or explained when it comes to the Old Testament.  As such, I’m hoping to make a few comments on it today that I hope will help you as you try to read and engage the Old Testament and, subsequently, as you wrestle with submitting your life to God’s care and control. 

When I was growing up I never really understood why the land was significant.  It seemed to me like God wanted to use the promised land as a reward for stopping bad behavior.  It also seemed a bit like a second Eden, almost utopic.  And, obviously, it was a physical location.  These conceptualizations are not wrong, necessarily, but they do fail to fully grasp the land’s significance.  Old Testament understandings of God are often tied, in some sense, to land.  This is not because God simply has an affinity for agriculture but instead because it assures the people that their faith and God’s activity in the world is inherently tied to tangible aspects of life.  Land, for these people, cannot be conceived without accounting for social, economic, or political considerations.  More simply, the practical day-to-day lives of the people were inherently tied to land-related activity.  If their daily lives are inherently linked to the land, and God is seen in association with the land, then this opens the door for viewing God as a major player in every day life. 

The situation we find ourselves in today is quite different, isn’t it?  The people of the Old Testament found much hope contained in promises of land, and restoration to the land.  This is because the land itself held promises of prosperity and the notion that the people would not be under someone else’s rule.  But it also contained hope beyond these circumstances as they believed God would one day come into rule over the whole earth and that they would benefit from this.  And, as I said earlier, God’s association with land provides hope in seeing the correlation between God and every day life.  It is this last part that I believe is a great struggle for us today.  Many of us have inherited “deist” notions of God.  This just means that we may believe in God, in a way, but that he is distant.  He set the world in motion and now stands back to watch it go.  We no longer possess these notions of the land that open the door for us to hope, acknowledge, or see God at work in our every day lives in any kind of tangible way.  We do not even have a close parallel to “the land”.  Not only that, but when we speak of “the land” now we discredit its importance as something in which we still concretely hope. 

Reflection:  As we seek to submit our lives to God’s control, it seems important to actually view him as being “in control”.  Without something tangible to point to, such as the land, how can we view him as being tangibly in control?  How do we regain some of the hope the Israelites found in the land today?  What can we look to as confirmation of God’s activity in our everyday lives?

March 25

Scripture reading for today:  John 1-3

Just as I wished my sister a happy birthday on the fourth, I want to extend those same wishes to my brother Michael today.  Happy 21st, be safe, be smart. 

I’m beginning to take on the book of John as a bit of a personal project.  When it comes to my knowledge of and familiarity of scripture, John is one of my primary weaknesses.  When it comes to the gospel studies, you can almost take on Matthew, Mark, and Luke at the same time because they share so much in common.  However, when read together it’s not the similarities that stand out but the areas in which each book is distinct.  I celebrate these distinctions.

The book of John, on the other hand, remains quite distinct from these other three in many ways.  It is clear that John is telling the same story about the same person.  He speaks of Jesus Christ whose ministry was preceded and launched by John the Baptist.  He tells similar stories (such as healings, Jesus in the temple, feeding the five thousand, etc.).  However, the book also just maintains a different quality.  It is more overtly theological than the other gospels (though the other gospels are inherently theological).  It is highly metaphorical, maintaining such themes as “light vs. darkness” from start to finish.  It devotes far more attention to Jesus’ last days than other gospels.  In sum, it is simply distinct. 

What are we to make of the distinctiveness of each of the gospels?  I think this is an important question.  I think about it like this:  if someone asked Meredith, Michael, and I to write the story of our father, Pete, we would surely end up with different accounts.  Sure there would be similar stories, but they may appear in different orders and perhaps have a different tone depending on our distinct experiences.  It seems important, then, not to try to synthesize the voices too heartily but instead to allow the difference to shine through in order to have the fullest possible understanding of our father. 

I believe we should approach the gospels similarly.  Each story is crafted in a particular way to highlight particular characteristics of Jesus’ life, ministry, message, and implication.  If we allow these different voices to speak we may walk away with a fuller view of Jesus. 

 Further, I believe this speaks to the importance of diversity in a larger context, namely, in this case, within a given church community.  We all interpret the world through our own distinct lens shaped by our life experience.  No two are the same.  It is not necessary to always agree, but I do think it is important to allow room for a diversity of voices. 

I think the appreciation of diversity teaches us something about what it means to submit our lives and will to God’s control.  It teaches the importance of humility when it comes to dealing with other people and other opinions in the context of a community.  Often times, other people can assess our actions and motivations better than we can.  Seeking these voices can helpfully protect us from ourselves. Further, if we can acknowledge that everyone has a perspective, and no one knows the full truth of a situation, including ourselves, it can open the door for more gracious interpersonal interaction. 

Reflection:  How else do you see John as distinct from the other gospels (especially in these first three chapters)?  What’re your thoughts on diversity of thought within the church?  (I mean this in a broad sense, not just the interpretation of the Bible but in the life and action of the members of the church body.)