Category Archives: Devotional

Jesus Meets Human Needs

As the Gospel of Mark unfolds, crowds are a big part of the action.  They form around him as he walks through streets, they seek him out when he wants to be alone, and they adore him up to the crucifixion–but that comes later in the Gospel.  In Mark 8 Jesus saw a crowd and he had compassion for them because they had been with him three days and yet they had nothing to eat.  Jesus worried that if they went away hungry they would faint. The disciples responded to Jesus’s command to give them something to eat saying, “where can we get enough bread to feed them?”

He told the crowd to sit down just as before.  And he took the bread as he had before—he took, he blessed, he broke and he gave. He also distributed the small fish they had as well. And all the people ate and were satisfied. We’ve been here before. You know what comes next, right, the picking up the leftovers—there’s gonna be 12 baskets full—no wait there were seven baskets full. And then then the counting—about 5000 right.  Wait, no, four thousand. The story at the beginning of Mark 8 is the feeding of the four thousand and Mark has already told the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand (Mark 6:30-44).

Feeding 5000

The story of Jesus feeding the five thousand is retold in all four Gospels.  Even the most skeptical biblical scholars believe that it goes back to an event in the life of the historic Jesus.  But Matthew and Mark both record a second feeding of the crowd.  The pattern of the story telling resembles their earlier tellings of the feeding of the five thousand.  So much so, that one wonders if they aren’t trying to hint at something with the way they tell the story.  When two stories in the Bible seem to be largely the same, we pay attention to the differences to understand what they mean.  The feeding of the five thousand belongs to Jesus’s ministry in and around his own home town.  The people he fed that day were his people.  But, the feeding of the four thousand takes place among a different people.

Jesus in Gentile Territory

The passage preceding this makes it clear that Jesus was working in the region of the Decapolis—the name of the region means ten cities though historians both ancient and modern stress it’s difficult to know which ten cities were referenced. The region was united not so much as a political entity as a cultural one.  Where the regions surrounding the Decapolis were committed to ancient forms of religion—primarily Jewish—and they struggled to maintain traditional ways of life.  The people of the Decapolis had adapted more readily to the Greek and Roman influence of the dominant powers of that day.

They were, as we would say, Hellenistic. They were gentile.  They were different. Even the numbers used in the telling of the story suggest this. Where in the feeding of the 5000 there are twelve baskets collected at the end to represent the 12 tribes of Israel, in the feeding of the 4000 there are seven baskets collected representing the seven days of creation (the days when all the world was created).  The number seven—an important number for both Jews and Romans.

Five thousand Jews fed—perhaps to represent the five books of Moses and the five divisions of the Psalms. Four thousand gentiles fed perhaps representing the four cardinal directions—North, South, East West.  The familiar pattern—he took, he blessed, he broke, he gave—was repeated.  Once with people who were familiar.  Once with people who were unfamiliar.  Once with people who were like him, once with people who were not like him.  Once with people who were close and once with those who were far away.

Jesus and the Other

Theologians have started to refer to those we encounter in these moments as “The other.”  The other could be someone who differs from us culturally or in terms of lifestyle or sexual orientation or skin color.  The other is that person who differs from us in some salient way. We need to think about our response to the other because the normal way to respond is with hostility. For we know the centuries upon centuries of hostility that have been fostered by a distrust, fear and animosity toward the other.  The Egyptians made slaves out of the descendants of Abraham living in their land, the Israelites left leaving a wake of destruction as they went.  They themselves once victims conquered and displaced peoples living in Palestine creating years of bickering and distress.  They themselves were conquered by Assyrians and Babylonians.  Then Greeks and Romans.  The fighting between peoples just continued.  The oppression of the Jews.  The Crusades against the Muslims.  The genocide of Native Americans.  The enslavement of African peoples.  North versus South.  Jim Crow laws and burning crosses.  Walls and barriers and lynchings and strife.  It’s déjà vu all over again.

And our culture of political correctness wants to suggest to us that we can pretend that there’s no such thing as “the other.”  Our culture wants to say that we are all one.  The invitation hymn of such a political correctness  is John Lennon’s Imagine.  “Imagine there’s no countries, It isn’t hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too/Imagine all the people/Living life in peace.”  The impulse behind this approach to the world is good. And so there’s an impulse to say—let’s just pretend that there is no other.  We are all just the same.  We can live in peace.

It’s a nice sentiment it just doesn’t work.  People are different.  Acting like everyone is the same is how you get restrooms that people in wheelchairs can’t use.  And other shortsighted solutions to deep seated problems. There are differences in the way we perceive time, in the way we regard elders, in the way we pattern our life.  The other exists and Jesus knew it.  It was a fundamental message for him.  It’s why he told the parable of the Good Samaritan the way he did.  Why he challenged the notion of what makes a person clean and what makes a person unclean.  Why he himself was resistant to helping a Syrophoenician woman and said unChristlike things to her and had to be persuaded to heal her daughter.  It’s why the early church wrestled with their own prejudices and met to discuss what it meant to baptize gentiles in the name of Jesus Christ.  Jesus’s approach to the other wasn’t to pretend like there was no difference.  Jesus’s approach to the other was to recognize their difference and go toward them and to offer them the same hospitality he had offered to those who were like him.  The people are not the same—but the same grace is offered to them all.

It should all feel very familiar to us.  At least those of us who have passed through the waters of baptism.  Who have said yes we accept the grace that Christ offers to us all.  Jesus wasn’t like us.  He was unlike us in so many ways.  He was sent from God.  Anointed by God uniquely.  He who had given voice to creation through whom all things had come into being.  God incarnate blessed to dwell with us.  He was not like us.  His life was uncommon indeed.  And yet this uncommon life came to us. He willingly loved and accepted us though we are not like him at all.  We are made from the dust and not from heaven.  Our lives have a definite beginning and do not emerge from the eternal horizon behind us.  Jesus acknowledged these differences, responded to them, and reconciled them.  The experience of Jesus encountering the other should seem familiar to Christians because in our otherness Jesus Christ came and had compassion, he stayed with us and taught us, and when our hunger meant that we were perishing Jesus took bread, he blessed it, he broke it, and he gave it to us.

Most of all we are sinners and he was not.   And God demonstrated his own love to us in this, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).  Jesus did not ignore the differences between us and himself.  Had he been able to ignore those differences he could have avoided the cross.  He came to proclaim peace to those who were near and peace to those who were far off and to bring them together and by the shedding of his blood to tear down the dividing wall of hostility that stood between them so that he might form one new humanity out of the pieces and to reconcile one reconciled humanity with God.

Encountering the Other

So, now we too encounter the other in our lives and face a choice of how to respond.  We can respond with hostility which is in our nature.  We can respond with the benign neglect which political correctness suggests is the way to peace.  Or, we can look at them with the compassion we have for the people we know.  We can see that they have hungers and needs and if those needs are not met they may also perish.  We can ask one another—what do we have to offer—and we can answer one another acceptance, understanding, welcome, accommodation, hospitality, trust and friendship–seven loaves of bread.  We can invite the other to sit down, to sit down with us.  We can take what God has given to us, give thanks for it and break it and share it with them—just as we have for the people we know, who are familiar, who are near.

Well That Was Embarrassing

I went to post something on this blog only to discover I had been locked out.  The license I paid for a year ago had expired and I didn’t receive or didn’t see a renewal.  I was going to say something about how Christian faith is something that involves practices.  Repeated and consistent practices–kind of like committing to writing a daily Bible study blog.  I was going to quote Madeline L’Engle who wrote, “The greatest potential violinist remains no more than potential unless the violin is practiced hour after hour, day after day.”  Case in point–the license lapsed over a week ago.  I didn’t notice because it had been over 2 weeks since I last posted and I had dwindled down to once a week before that.

Needless to say, I renewed for another year.  So, I’m back.

Psalm 34

The superscription identifies Psalm 34 as a Psalm that emerged out of David’s life when he feigned madness before King Abimelech.  The story reaches back for 1 Samuel 21:10–14. During the period of time when Saul was still king but David was rising to power, David fled from Saul into the Philistine region of Gath.  He was recognized in Gath and they detained him (see “in their hands,” 1 Samuel 21:13).  They probably intended to use David as a bargaining tool.  David pretended to be insane and the King dismissed him.  First Samuel calls the King Achish but the superscription calls him Abimelech.  Abimelech was King of Gerar when Abraham and Sarah were alive (Genesis 20). 

It is a personal Psalm with a public purpose.  The Psalm spoken in first person—“I” but is intended for the benefit of others—the humble (Psalm 34:2-3).  The Psalm has an element of wisdom literature introduced by a calling of children to him for instruction (Psalm 34:11-22).  “Fear of the Lord” or reverence, is a common theme in wisdom literature (see Proverbs 1:7-8). Fear of the Lord is a troubling thought to many Christians.  However, notice the relationship between fears—fear of the world vs. fear of the Lord.  If we think of “fear” as the emotion of having one’s attention completely consumed by something, fear of the Lord isn’t so much dread or terror as allowing the awesomeness of God to overwhelm the anxiety we have over stressors in life. A final element in which the Psalm resembles wisdom has to do with speech. Psalm 34:13 says, “keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies.”  This resembles the instructions given in Proverbs and James 3:1-12 concerning the proper use of our lips and speech.    

The Psalm looks back at times of distress.  Unlike a simple Psalm of praise, the Psalmist remembers the fears.  However, unlike a lament, the Psalmist’s deliverance has come and he praises the Lord.  Notice the contrast between vs. 15 and vs. 19. David does not suggest that the righteous never experience affliction.  Instead they experience deliverance.  The reward of righteousness during times of trouble is felt in the nearness of God through adversity.

Hurricane Clean-Up Buckets

First Christian Church in Arlington–the Church I currently serve–has been collecting, sorting, and transporting donated materials this week.  We have moved about six full truckloads, two 6’X12′ trailer loads, and two flatbed trailer loads in three trips this week.  We sent everything we had on Friday.  Thankfully, Carter Jr. High sent us a couple of PE classes to help us load.  When that was done, we said to ourselves, that we’d probably not need to take a trip on Saturday.

Then stuff started coming in.  One of our members has a lot of international contacts through his work.  This week he’s been running a go-fund-me account and raised $1500.  He used that to buy push brooms and the stuff for clean up buckets.  It was all there when I got back from lunch.  As were a couple of my members who went shopping for items.  Two more volunteers from the church showed up about 1:45 and then two more showed up with items they had collected at work.  I left them in the gym to sort things out and about 2:30 in the afternoon, my friend Kennedy Jones, pastor of Greater Community Missionary Baptist Church rang the doorbell.

He brought 100 clean-up buckets and about 60 hygiene kits.  Thankfully he also brought some volunteers to help unload.  because the buckets kept coming and coming and coming.

In the conversation and fellowship, Kennedy very quietly expressed his concern that we have an equitable distribution of resources.  Rather clumsily I asked if he wanted me to earmark these for areas that were predominantly African-American.  No, he said.  We–Greater Community Missionary Baptist Church–are part of the whole church and want these to go to whoever.  We just want to remind the whole church not to forget about some of the people we tend to forget about.

I agree and think this is about two concerns.  (1) Getting Resources into less affluent areas; and (2) Getting resources to the areas outside of Greater Houston—Corpus Christi/Rockport area to the Southwest of Greater Houston and the Golden Triangle of Beaumont, Orange and Port Arthur to the East.

Grace Crossing

We delivered the 100 buckets from Greater Community and the supplies that came on on Friday to Grace Crossing–a community Church of Christ–in Conre.  You can get their official information hereGrace Crossing is known for proactive community service and intentional efforts to bridge cultural divisions.
Work
They are doing several things, but right now they are working on gathering and distributing supplies.  The place people can connect immediately is with the Hurricane Bucket Challenge. I don’t know if the 100 buckets donated by Greater Community Missionary Baptist Church that we delivered today puts them in the lead, but we made sure to credit them to Grace Crossing.   They are the top donating congregation in our little pool.
The buckets given through this challenge will go out in a few ways:  (1) They will supply their ministry partners with buckets and the other supplies they have collected.  Grace Crossing has been helping affected families in Conroe but they have also been sending truckloads of supplies to an Inner-city ministry, a non-profit that helps women who are pregnant, and a company that put its salesforce to work distributing donated items throughout greater Houston, and a couple of local schools where a large portion of the student body lives in home that were flooded. 
(2) They are doing bucket brigades on Sundays for the next month.  Their members will enter affected areas and offer buckets, prayer, and information about working with FEMA and insurance.
Boundaries
Grace Crossing is committed to sharing with whomever without distinction based on race, religion or any other category that we use to divide people.  That said, they do have some geographic boundaries.  As Doug sees it, there are three areas of need–the Corpus Christi/Rockport area (southwest of Greater Houston); Greater Houston (The Woodlands to Galveston); and the Golden Triangle/Southeast Texas.  Their focus will be on Greater Houston.  Hopefully other churches will rise to the challenge the way grace crossing has and serve the affected areas around Houston.
Please pray for Grace Crossing’s work.  Please look at their website.  If you’d be willing to help facilitate getting stuff to him, please do.  The email for this ministry is icanhelp@gracecrossing.net

Psalm 38

This week I have been reading the penitential Psalms. These are Psalms that confess sin. The Psalmists attribute hardship to God’s punishment for sins. In the case of Psalm 38, it’s physical ailments. I don’t know what to do with Psalms like this that draw straight line correlations between sin and catastrophe. I believe in biblical authority, but I do not believe that God sends disasters in order to punish.

As I write this, the Coastal area of Texas has experienced the worst flooding ever. Lives have been disrupted and lost. A small number of people have used social media to claim that this is punishment for everything from Texas voting for Trump to same-sex marriages. I hear things like that and think, surely there is an even greater punishment for making loathsome statements while people are just trying to survive.

The Psalmist said “I” not “you.” The Psalmist interpreted their own experience. Trying to interpret someone else’s is usually where we make serious mistakes. In this life we can waste all our time on the unholy quest for the blame grail. It’s an illusive quest with a treasureless destination. We can point fingers at who did or did not do the right thing in response. Or we can acknowledge that there’s blame to go around and that none of us know how to respond. We can affirm, like the Psalmist, that our only ultimate hope comes from God.

Psalm 32

Psalm 32 is one of the seven penitential psalm.  This designation was given to it by the Church.  The designations in the biblical text say, “Of David” and “Maskil.”  A Maskil seems to be a literary or musical term.  I’m guessing it means that the song was written in the key of G (:

The psalm begins with a couple of beatitudes.  beatitude states a blessing or a condition of happiness.  “Blessed are. . . ” or “Happy are . . . ” is the normal translation/formula.  These beatitudes emphasize the blessing of forgiveness and restored innocence  (Psalm 32:1-2).

The second part of the Psalm–Psalm 32:3-5–emphasizes the damaging effect of withholding the Psalmist’s sin from the Lord.  It had both psychological and physiological effects.  The ancients understood intuitively what we are only recently rediscovering–that the Spirit, Mind and Body interact in dynamic and integrated ways.  Psalm 32:5 is the turning point in the Psalmist’s difficulties, “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”   It prefaces the promise in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.”

The Psalm then moves toward an instructive place.  The Psalmist instructs those who would listen about the necessity of listening.

Everything is Permissible but

Read 1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1

As a youth minister, one of the first challenges I confronted had to do with the difficulty of talking about purity.  The world my parents and church presented to me was morally unambiguous.  Right was right; wrong was wrong.  I do not know if they ever experienced the world with such clarity.  What I do know is that, the kids in my youth group, their parents and the adults around them did not understand the world in the kinds of discrete categories that delineated my life.  This is not to suggest that they were less moral.  After all, these were good West Texas folk.  They just didn’t seem to wrestle with the same elements.  They had less clarity and less guilt.  They had less rigidity and less shame.  It was both challenge and blessing.

There’s some terrifying aspects to moral ambiguity especially for someone like me who, were it not for very clear rules, would have tried everything imaginable.  Restraint is not in my hard-wiring.  It had to be programmed in post-production.  And it has had to be reprogrammed and reprogrammed.  Yet, as someone who did want to teach moral purity, I found I had to try to make the case moral purity.  And that meant more fully understanding my own worldview.  Sometimes failing to fully understand a worldview can lead to detrimental consequences.

Like the young people and their parents I encountered in my first youth ministry setting, the people in Corinth saw more ambiguity than did their pastor—Paul.  Meat that had been sacrificed to idols would be available in meat markets.  Some Christians said, “It’s just Bar-B-Cue. What’s the big deal?”   Others said, “It’s idolatry.  Don’t eat.”  The “no big deal” crowd had developed something of a slogan, “Everything is permissible” (1 Corinthians 10:23).  God’s grace meant freedom therefore everything is permissible.  Yet, Paul wrote to say in effect—sometimes failing to fully understand a worldview can lead to detrimental consequences.  So, Paul advocated for a more moderate approach to the issue by trying to help the Corinthian Christians understand the fuller picture.  Two big concepts he tried to get them to understand.

Concept #1—Seek what’s beneficial.  Paul adds an addendum to their bumper sticker.  “’Everything is permissible,’ but not everything is beneficial.”  Paul reminded them that they were to seek what was beneficial for others.  Yes, people had the freedom to eat whatever was placed in front of them.  After all, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.”  However, if eating would be detrimental (the opposite of beneficial) for someone else, then a person should abstain.  Why?  Why would a person avoid a good steak for the sake of someone else?  Because the fuller understanding of the Christian worldview meant seek the good of all and not just self-interest. Eating meat sacrificed to an idol could lead to the detrimental consequence of damaging another person’s faith. In Jesus’s words, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

Concept #2—Seek what liberates.  Paul repeats the Corinthians’ bumper sticker philosophy and adds another addendum.  “’Everything is permissible for me,’ but I will not be mastered by anything.”  Through faith we accept God’s will as the true means for human wholeness.  In the fuller understanding of the Christian worldview, a person recognizes that their life belongs to God and God alone.  Moreover, a Christian understands that living within the boundaries God has set is not a rigid and joyless life.  It is a life that truly frees.  The sin “that so easily ensnares” (Hebrews 12:1) promises freedom but leads to control.  The moral purity that seems like a burden gives us a route to independence from the things of this world and wholeness.

Advocating for Purity

Advocating for purity can be an expression of grace.

I have spent some time recently reflecting on the liturgical Psalms (Psalm 15 and 24).  These Psalms emphasize the importance of the purity of those who would enter into a worship space and worship the Lord.  Christians tend to fall somewhere along a continuum between stressing purity so forcefully as to be judgmental and so loosely as to be licentious.  Psalms like Psalm 15 and 24 lend  biblical warrant for the judgmental end of the spectrum.

The dangers of over-emphasizing purity have been experienced by many.  The over-emphasis on sexual purity can cause teens and young adults to hide their sexual experiences and sexuality questions from their parents and others who might be able to help them process.  It can lead to riskier behavior.  Also many people who grew up in sexually restrictive contexts admit struggling to enjoy sex even within marriage.  Having been told it’s bad their whole lives, it’s difficult for some to believe it’s good. Some people have so internalized moral sanctions against laziness that they do not know how to break and rest.  Ironically, they regularly violate the command about a Sabbath (the longest of the 10 Commandments) because they believe that to take a day off would be to give in to sloth. Similar kinds of dynamics can emerge around drinking, foods, finances, profanity, and pleasure.   An over-emphasis on purity can be damaging.

These negative consequences tend to make us resist discussing the importance of purity.  It can also make us fixate on sins we do not struggle with.  It’s very easy for me to rail against the evils of gambling and playing the lottery as I do not have any desire to gamble or play the lottery.  I find that what most well-intentioned folk do is simply avoid making anyone feel any sort of guilt because they know the negative consequences of guilt.  This pattern can be dangerous and even deadly.

There’s a wisdom to scripture and the Church’s commitments to purity.  Pleasures really can develop dangerous addictions.  We can in fact amuse ourselves to death.  At the beginning of Ethics Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a poem that included the line, “None learns the way of freedom save only by way of control.” I’m not sure who said it, but I agree with the sentiment, “I believe in taking a stand against sin.  I just believe in taking a stand against my own sin.”  So, I’d like to suggest a few things to think about in terms of how to think about purity without suffering the consequences of over-emphasis.

Understand the Difference between Regret and Repentance.
Feeling guilty doesn’t actually change behavior.  In fact, feeling guilty can convince people that they really cannot do better.  Repentance comes when we claim our power to change.

Look for the ways purity connects to wholeness.
When I asked my mother why we did not drink, she said, “Some people are predisposed to become alcoholic and other people are not, but you won’t know which one you are unless you start drinking.  I’d rather not take the risk.”  While her sons have learned that we can drink in moderation, the wisdom is still instructive.  When we treat things as vile in the eyes of God, our navigation of pleasure becomes overlayered with superstition.  When we think about what leads to wholeness we work toward best practices, moderation and health.

Embrace the encouraging force of forgiveness
I have heard countless people criticize the sort of church in which I grew up by saying we believed we could do whatever we wanted, go to church on Sunday, ask for forgiveness and do it all over again.  I never had that perception.  EVER.  But it did take me a long time to realize that God’s forgiveness does not excuse our sin.  God wants all to thrive, move forward, demonstrate good stewardship

Historical Psalms

Today instead of writing a normal Daily Bible study, I incorporated material from the past two weeks into a presentation through a Microsoft program called “Sway.”  Sway is very easy to use and yet provides some cool ways to present information.  Take a look and let me know what you think. 

Psalm 1

Psalm 1 is known as a "Wisdom Psalm." That is a categorization given to it by later interpreters not necessarily one it claims for itself. Even so, Psalms 1, 37, 73, and 128 resemble the Wisdom literature like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs.

The principle difference between the wickedness and righteousness within Psalm 1 is the approach each takes to instruction. The righteous embrace God's instruction; the wicked reject it. The Psalm begins with a beatitude (a statement about what it means to be "Blessed" or "Happy"). The beatitude describes the blessed righteousness as a three-part distancing ones self from wickedness. J. Clinton McCann of the The New Interpreter's Bible volume IV explains that the terms used in Psalm 1:1 get progressively more specific. "The wicked" is a general term for ungodly people. "Sinners" has the more specific meaning of those who miss the mark of meeting God's expectations. "The scoffers" are those who willfully reject instruction. This should not be confused with anti-intellectuals who can be problematic in their own right. The scoffers are those who regard faith instruction and consideration of God's commands as irrelevant or negligible. By contrast, the blessed/happy delight in God's law and meditate. Deep reflection on God's instruction marks the blessed; resistance to God's instruction marks the wicked.

The Psalm uses contrasting biological similes to describe the happy and the wicked. The reflective and teachable blessed one is like a great tree receiving sufficient nutrients from the river to also provide fruit to others. The Psalmist searches for the biological antithesis to the stable, rooted, and fruitful blessed one and finds this polar opposite in the chaff–the unusable husks of grain plants that are separated from the usable grain through the winnowing process. The wicked are light-weight. They are the barrier between the hungry and the foodstuff.

Verses 5-6 do not exactly parallel vs. 1 but there is some similarity between them. In verse , the blessed do not walk, stand, sit as the wicked do. The wicked do not stand (day of judgment), sit (in the assembly), and their walk "way" is destined to perish.