A Bruised Reed He Will Not Break

An Advent Devotion for December 10, 2017      

The Second Sunday of Advent

Read Isaiah 42:1-4

“A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” Isaiah 42:3

Today, your life might be tumbling, helter-skelter around you. You may simply be scrambling to find your way or afflicted with chronic pain. You may be feeling unfairly judged or criticized . . . hemmed in by circumstances which you have little control over.
Today, you may be buried by stress, heartaches, life’s sorrow and pain. You may be wondering what God has to say to you, in your pain. You may be asking what future you can you look to? You may be feeling like a “bruised reed, a dimly burning wick.”

I think of the people I know who have struggled with the same question. Illness, homelessness, chronic pain or botched medical care cause us to wonder where God is. I think of a woman who slept with a knife under her pillow, afraid of her husband’s anger. I think of parents who struggle with the chemical dependency or mental illness of a child, or who agonize over the too soon pregnancy of a teen. I think of couples where one spouse quits working in a marriage. Broken hopes and messed up dreams shatter our lives.

The book of Isaiah says of God’s promised one, “A bruised reed he will not break and a dimly burning wick, he will not put out.” The scripture tells us that in the midst of all that might consume our hopes . . . in those moments we feel God more by absence than presence, we have not been forgotten. God’s compassion is for people who are hurting, for all who have been battered and bruised by life. James Montgomery’s Christmas Hymn, “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed” reminds us that it was for the hurting and battered in life, that Jesus came.

“He comes with succor speedy
to those who suffer wrong;
to help the poor and needy,
and bid the weak be strong;
to give them songs for sighing,
their darkness turn to light,
whose souls, condemned and dying,
are precious in his sight.”

Prayer: God of Mercy and Compassion, In those moments when we wonder where you are, and if you care, send your messengers of love to us. Remind us through the scripture of your great care for us. May we see your hand in unexpected kindnesses, note and calls from friends, in the compassion of a stranger. Open our eyes to your mercies and kindnesses today. Amen.

Additional Advent & Christmastide Devotions can be found at:   Advent & Christmastide Devotions

Needing a Certificate of Martyrdom?

A magazine advertisement I once read offered a Frameable Certificate of Instant Martyrdom printed with these words: “The suffering you have had to endure at the hands of life has been almost more than any person can bear. Rarely has such a noble soul been forced to put up with such undeserved agony. In recognition of your extraordinary plight, the Church of World Peace hereby awards this ‘Certificate of Martyrdom.’ ” To receive this certificate” the ad read, “all you need to do is list in your letter three horrible events in your life, enclose $10, and you will have in hand something “to console your misery.”

The writer of Hebrews had a better solution for those times when we feel overwhelmed with the trials in our life. Its author suggests: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses … let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus.” (Hebrews 12:1) In our moments of discouragement, it is tempting to give up . . . Tempting to think of ourselves as the only one who has ever endured the loss, hardship or loneliness that we encounter.

The writer of the book of Hebrews points us instead, to the lives of our ancestors in faith who have walked in painful, difficult places before us. In spite of their trials, they continued to trust in God. Something in me soars whenever I read the eleventh chapter of Hebrews. . . “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen . . . By faith Abraham (and Sarah) obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going . . .all of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth.”

Within its long list of faithful are people who remained steadfast, continued in hope and believed that the final victory was God’s. “Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”

I generally gain some perspective about the time I reach these verses. Life can be difficult. Heartaches come. Our lives can get really messed up. Bad things happen to some very good people. Our hearts bleed when grief strikes and when grief strikes people we love. What gives me strength, and I believe gave our ancestors in faith strength, is  the assurance that even when life is hard, God is at work.  Troubles come.  But, in the midst of our trials God is with us to walk with us through them.

In your times of despair and doubt, when the race seems hard and you are weary  – Remember that there are those who have run before you on this journey of faith. Those so running would testify to God’s faithfulness and the wisdom of continuing the race. For they know in the deepest part of their being that the final victory is God’s.  Jesus said, “In this world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.”  John 16:33

Checking Pharaoh’s Power

Shiphrah and Puah are two of my favorite women in the Bible. They are courageous  midwives who defy Pharaoh. Their story is recorded  in the very first chapter of  Exodus.  Pharaoh had instructed them to kill every  newborn baby boy born to Hebrew women.   They not only defy him, but when asked to explain why they weren’t obeying – they use his own prejudices to explain themselves.

Who, but a person blindly prejudiced,would have believed their story?  The story about how Hebrew women weren’t made like Egyptian women that he knew and loved. No, they told Pharaoh,  the  Hebrew women had babies that came so fast the midwives never got to the woman  before the baby was born. This was especially true of their boy babies. It must have been hard to hide their laughter as Pharaoh swallowed their story.  They were, of course, only telling Pharaoh something he already believed.  Those  Hebrew  were different – not at all like him and his kind.

Life in Egypt had started well for the Israelites after Joseph literally saved the people of Egypt. An earlier Pharaoh was indebted to Joseph. He welcomed Joseph’s family  when they arrived in  Egypt, making a place for them.  They found a good place to raise their families. With the blessing of Pharaoh these new immigrants quickly became successful and prosperous. But, memories dim with time. New generations don’t recall details of an earlier one. Memories of Joseph and what he had done for Egypt faded, until eventually, a Pharaoh comes to  power who knows nothing of the story.

Not knowing the story, the new Pharaoh  is afraid of the Israelites. Fearful they will join in war against the people, he decides to contain the people he fears. This was the kind of reasoning that sent thousands of Japanese Americans into camps, causing them to lose their possessions, homes and livelihoods after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. It is what made German Americans suspect during the First World War. The root of all racism is fear – fear of a person not quite like ourselves. We either grow afraid of what we do not understand or seek to understand what we do not know. For the Israelites racism takes a sinister form. First the people are enslaved and put to the hard labor of building cities and monuments to Pharaoh. Eventually, Pharaoh devises a form of genocide, that will effectively rid the nation of Hebrews by eliminating every boy baby born. He assumes he will be able to assimilate females into the Egyptian world.

What Pharaoh was not expecting was the defiance of the two midwives, Puah and Shiphrah. They listen instead to a higher authority. Fearing God, they will not harm their patients or break their trust. Their moral code will not conform to the mind set of Pharaoh. Because the women stayed close to God, they were prepared when faced with the words of Pharaoh.  Puah and Shiphrah chose to live by a higher law. In the process they checked the power of Pharaoh and saved the lives of the children. William Sloane Coffin, wrote, “Fear distorts truth, not by exaggerating the ills of the world . . . but by underestimating our ability to deal with them . . . while love seeks truth, fear seeks safety.” –William Sloane Coffin, The Courage to Love (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), 60

Shiphrah and Puah risk everything. The story could have gone so  differently had they followed Pharaoh’s order – the destruction of our ancestors in faith. Instead,  these courageous women refuse to  violate the trust, faith, hopes and dreams of the people they serve. Throughout history there have been those who have chosen not to follow orders of a Pharaoh – choosing to be true to God instead. Members of the underground railroad helped escaped slaves find freedom. Others joined Ghandi’s long walk to the sea. Some sat at lunch counters in violation of unjust laws, refusing to leave during the Civil right era.  Shiphrah and Puah left us a legacy of courage, in checking Pharaoh’s power. They were life givers – giver’s of hope. Women of courage. Women of faith. Examples to follow.

Grasping Hold of the Vision

Grasping Hold of the Vision

IMG_7702“Where there is no vision, a people perish,” says the wisdom writer of the Biblical book of Proverbs to a son. (Proverbs 29:18a). The writer knew that vision drives our focus. When we invest in what we hope to accomplish – our energy, time and finances are directed that way. To have a vision on a personal level is to invest ourselves in something larger than ourselves. God gives us visions and dreams to follow. Much of the meaning and purpose God intends for our lives comes from committing ourselves to those visions. Which is not to say that every vision is easy to reconcile with our current situation. Our lives may require a radical reshaping if we are to prepare ourselves to follow. There may be an addiction to work through or schooling to get before we can embrace the journey God is leading us on.

I like what Woodrow Wilson said, “You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”

I was thirty-five, divorced, with seven children when the Call to Ministry hit me hard. It wasn’t that God hadn’t tired before that. From the time I was a teenager I felt a pull to go into the ministry. The years of college and seminary simply seemed too much. At intermittent times along the way, I continued to feel a sense of call to Ordained Ministry. But always there were complicating factors that easily convinced me that this was an impossibility.

I was, of course, only finding excuses not to pursue the call that God had set in my heart. Fortunately, God is not put off by our procrastination or our running away. God’s persistent call continues to follow us throughout our lives. And when we finally listen, it is amazing how God opens hearts to our need. What seems an impossibility becomes a path laid out for the future. Whatever dream it is that God is planting in your heart, may you be gifted with the courage to follow and the faith to trust God to take you into that tomorrow.

In a Multitude of Choices, Choosing the God of Life

A multitude of choices confront us each day. God calls us into service, but so many other voices make their claim on us as well. Whom and what have we really given our life to?

What is it that gets our attention?
Whose advice do we follow?
When we have to make a choice, what gets cut out? What stays in?
What are we committed to and how do we prioritize those commitments?
If all of our possessions were lost, what of value would be left for us?
What do our credit cards and checking account say of our values?
What do our politics say about our faith?
Does the living word of God, live in us to the extent that we place a priority on the words of Jesus?

The people of Israel had reached the edge of the Promised Land . . . that land which God had said, “flowed with milk and honey.” A land promised to the Israelites, when they were still enslaved in Egypt. Now was a moment of decision. Who would they be in that new land? Moses was gone. It was up to Joshua to lead the people into the land of promise. Forty years in the wilderness had shown Joshua a fickle side of their nature, when it came to following God. So, Joshua gathered the people of Israel. He reminded them that they were the people of promise, but warned them not to pretend to follow the Lord. It would be through this wandering people that God, would be made known to the world. Were they ready to accept their calling? Then Joshua demanded, “Choose you this day whom you will serve, God or some other . . .but for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Joshua 24:15

Joshua and his family knew that they could not live without God. They were acutely aware that in God were the answers to life and death. God was their source of hope and promise. Always, there would be false god’s beckoning. Popular culture would challenge their belief in a God of justice and mercy. Care for the orphan, widow and immigrant would be mocked and scorned. Enticements would encourage them to forsake God, but their decision was made. They would serve the Lord. They would not let any false gods usurp God’s place.

Centuries have passed since that long ago day, yet each of us faces that same decision which Joshua and his family did. Our life is written of such choices. “Choose you this day whom you will serve, God or some other . . .” Joshua 24:15

Looking at your life, your beliefs and your values, how close do they match the call of God? What do your Facebook postings say of your values? Today is a good day, to reexamine both faith and values. Have you fallen for some false god or have you chosen the God of life and promise.

The answer lies in each of our hearts and minds.

A Trip to the Headwaters of the Mississippi

Walking Across the Mississippi

Mississippi Headwaters

I just spent a few days with friends and some family at Lake Itasca State Park. Surrounded by trees, lakes and of course, the headwaters of the Mississippi River, it is truly a beautiful place. Here a small stream, coming out of Lake Itasca, makes its way through ten states on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. At the headwaters, people of all sizes walk across the Mississippi on rocks.

Down river, some of my family is planted along the Mississippi’s path. When I looked at that small creek, I thought of how the water would flow past Minnesota’s Twin Cities where I live, and on down to Winona where my daughter’s family lives now. The water continues to run past another daughter and her family in La Crosse Wisconsin as it continues to move towards the gulf. I wonder at the reality that something so small can become so mighty. By the time it reaches the homes of my daughters the Mississippi has widened and deepened. River boats and barges work the river. Yet, the water which is moved by mighty currents, had it’s start where I stood.

I’ve felt a pull to the river since I first drove along Hwy 61. With eagles soaring overhead and the crisp blue sky reflecting on the water, I am enamored by the Mississippi’s beauty. Through seasons of spring green and autumn colors, I marvel and revel in its contrast. In winter, there is a place of open water where the Chippewa River merges into the Mississippi. Even on sub zero days, eagles can feed and find shelter.

I’m reminded of God’s providence and care. The psalmist says of God: “Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young.” Psalm 84:3. God’s providence includes all of creation – even us. Some days I need to be reminded of this truth.

An Apology for a Former President

New York Times Columnist, Nicholas Kristof, recently offered an apology on behalf of the media to former President Jimmy Carter. Carter only served one term as president. It was a time of rapid inflation. World oil production was cut back because of the Iranian revolution leading to shortages, long lines at gas stations and high prices. The media never really took to Carter. His Southern background wasn’t a mix for Washington insiders. Jokes about peanuts were frequent. His presidency was covered by the media in a way that indicated that the Georgia peanut farmer, belonged back home on the farm.

But life for Carter since the presidency, has been an amazing story of living life with significance and meaning. Nicholas Kristof ended his July 9, 2015 apology to Jimmy Carter saying, “We in the snooty media world owe him an apology.” He pointed out that this former president has improved the lives of more people, in more places in the world than any other recent president.

From the time I first heard that former President Jimmy Carter led a Bible Study at his home church in Plains Georgia, it was on my bucket list of things to do. Which is how I found myself in that little church on a Sunday morning in June of 2012. Then, age 87, the former president was just back from monitoring the election in Egypt.

I discovered that Jimmy Carter exudes joy when he shares his deep faith. The day I visited, his Bible Study was based on the book of Matthew, that section where Jesus’s disciples ask him how to pray. Jesus in turn taught his disciples the prayer we know of as the Lord’s Prayer. Carter said he believes that when Jesus told his disciples to pray the words. “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” Jesus was asking them and us to envision the world God wants for us. “It certainly,” he said, “would be one of peace.” Then he told us what he has come to believe, that “peace cannot come apart from forgiveness.”

Carter said that the years of his presidency were those when he prayed most fervently with the most emotion because he felt an obligation to the American people to not make a mistake. Given political realities, we could argue about the success of his presidency, but I’ve always admired the way he chose to live after he left the white house.

Instead of sitting back and resting on some quite significant accomplishments in life, he decided to take that segment of life left to him and do whatever he could to make the world a better place. He created the Carter Center with it’s mission to “Wage peace, fight disease, and build hope.” He has frequently been invited to monitor elections around the world, to insure the integrity of those elections

He left us the day I visited with these words, “Our prayer should be to find out where we fit into the universe.” I think that last piece is one that is a lifetime quest. Where does God want us to fit into the universe? How does God want us to serve in this stage of each of our lives?