Spiritual vs Religious

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S (Scripture): Psalm 51

15

Lord, open my lips,

and my mouth will proclaim your praise.

16

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.

18

Do good things for Zion by your favor.

Rebuild Jerusalem’s walls.

19

Then you will again want sacrifices of righteousness—

entirely burned offerings and complete offerings.

Then bulls will again be sacrificed on your altar.

O (Observation): The psalmist is living in a time that is after Jerusalem has been sacked by foreign powers. Perhaps the people of God see this as part of the fact that they have steered away from God. But the psalmist knows that – even while in their time of trial – God still listens.

The Law guided God’s people as they transitioned from slavery in Egypt into living in the Promised Land. But somewhere along the way, God’s people lost sight of the purpose of sacrifices.

The sacrifices were a way of acknowledging that God is sovereign and rules over all. The produce of the land and the animals sacrificed all belonged to God already. The sacrifice acknowledges that the individual is giving to God what is already God’s.

God’s people lost sight of these things…to the point that the psalmist recognizes this: If God doesn’t have all of me – my broken spirit – then God doesn’t need my animal sacrifice. God wants my heart and contrition, first.

Then…having given my broken spirit to God, who can heal me…then, and only then will God go back to accepting my sacrifice.

A (Application): Are you Spiritual or Religious? This question popped up a few years ago as people started leaving “The Church” in search of something that truly affected their lives for the good. The Christian Church in America had perhaps become more religious – focusing on rites and rituals and putting forth truths and knowledge between “right and wrong” – and had become less concerned about the spiritual aspects of our lives – like having a heart receptive to loving God and neighbor, discerning one’s purpose, discerning God’s presence in the world. In other words: just follow these steps and you’re “in.”

The Church is great at rituals and rites and declaring truths…and pointing out others’ wrongs. Has the Church become a place where we only foster these practices?

What about the Church raises the Spiritual aspects? Are we finding meaning and solace when we worship and gather? Are we sensing what direction God is leading us?

Seems to me that the Church can be both Spiritual AND Religious. The hard part is that to be both, it takes a contrite heart, a broken spirit, as mentioned in today’s psalm. The positive aspects of Religion include being connected to a larger body of people, being connected to God, and being connected to traditions that are meaningful and remind us of our connection to God. The Church can be spiritual by reminding us that God is present in and around us. And perhaps when we start drifting too much into the “religious” category, without regard for the “spiritual,” maybe it is time to step away from the rites and rituals…and find ways to BE with God. That can start with a humble heart.

P (Prayer): Lord, you know our Spiritual and Religious selves. Gather us in to see how we can find meaning and insight in our rites, rituals, and traditions. Amen.

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Moving Through the Fear

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S (Scripture): Mark 4:35 Later that day, when evening came, Jesus said to them, “Let’s cross over to the other side of the lake.” 36 They left the crowd and took him in the boat just as he was. Other boats followed along.

37 Gale-force winds arose, and waves crashed against the boat so that the boat was swamped. 38 But Jesus was in the rear of the boat, sleeping on a pillow. They woke him up and said, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?”

39 He got up and gave orders to the wind, and he said to the lake, “Silence! Be still!” The wind settled down and there was a great calm. 40 Jesus asked them, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?”

41 Overcome with awe, they said to each other, “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!”

O (Observation): Jesus felt the crowd pushing in, so he and the disciples got out on a boat so that Jesus could talk to the crowd from out on the water. Their next move – that evening – was to cross the Sea of Galilee to head into Gentile territory and to other encounters.

Jesus crossed loads of boundaries, but even before they fully cross the sea, they encounter another border – the winds and storms churning up the sea. Jesus is asleep, while the disciples are fearing for their very lives! Doesn’t Jesus care? Of course he does…he’s just not afraid.

Jesus tells the storm to muzzle itself. It does. Then, they were overcome with awe at Jesus. In this case, awe could also be “fear.” They feared Jesus. (Not in a horror-film sense…but in a “he ain’t from around here” sense.) Like…he just might be what he proclaims to be – the Son of God!

And in their fear…they still follow…

A (Application): Fear is not necessarily the opposite of faith. Although cowardice could be a lack of faith.

We may fear the Lord…but that may be irrelevant. The point is this: what do we do in the face of that fear? Dr. Meda Stamper (Minister, PCUSA) says this:

“What seems to matter is what we do in spite of or because of that awe (of the Lord).”

We have moments / days / weeks / months / years in which we may be fearful. Yet we are encouraged to move forward. Fear is a liar. Fear makes us false prophets. Fear challenges our faith. And yet, laying down our lives, moving through the fear… into the unknown…that can be transformative.

More from Dr. Meda Stamper:

Even when we make it through the storms, following Jesus may well take us straight into encounters with the worst pain and suffering of the world, the places where Jesus’ powerful touch is most needed.

And

crossing to the other side at Jesus’ command may try our faith, but it also puts us in a position to experience the stilling of our storms, the restoration of the broken and the marginalized, and the transformation of death to life.

P (Prayer): Lord, carry us through our fears. Show us the transformative power of your Kingdom…turning death into life…fear into hope. Amen.

The Leper

Content Warning: I make comments about self-harm and death by suicide in this blog post. If that is a negative trigger for you, please act accordingly. Maybe re-join me tomorrow, or simply prepare yourself. Peace!

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S (Scripture): Leviticus 13:45 Anyone with an infection of skin disease must wear torn clothes, dishevel their hair, cover their upper lip, and shout out, “Unclean! Unclean!” 46 They will be unclean as long as they are infected. They are unclean. They must live alone outside the camp.

O (Observation): I almost think that the ancient priests of the Hebrew people were to act like healthcare advocates. All of this stuff about skin disease…you wouldn’t believe it was in the Bible unless you read it for yourself!

It’s there though…in ink : )

The unclean persons – unclean with skin disease – were not only to separate themselves from the rest of the worshipping community, but then also – if someone was close to them in proximity – had to shout: “Unclean! Unclean!”

Imagine that…

Ritual cleanliness was this a way to keep diseases from spreading, but the social impact was much much worse than the physical.

A (Application): Social / Emotional health is a BIG concern these days. Kids cut their arms to show they are hurting. Kids take pills to put themselves out of their own misery. They feel so trapped. They don’t know what else to do.

Who is listening to them?

Who are they listening to to make them feel that way? Is it parents? Social media? Cohorts? Friends? Movies? Society as a whole?

To be an outcast – whether you perceive this in yourself, or if you have actually been pushed aside – is a terribly lonely state of being. Connection is very important for us to be healthy. Connection leads to understand and sympathy.

Jesus healed lepers. Not all appreciated it, but he did it nonetheless. He wants all to be in fellowship with one another. Jesus told the apostles they had the power to heal, and they did. But it soon stopped. We just couldn’t believe it was real.

Jesus believed it, though. And he lived it.

Are you the leper? Are you seeking healing? Are you seeking community?

P (Prayer): Lord, keep us in your care. Bring us together. Amen.

Ready or Not, Here I Come!

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S (Scripture): Mark 4:1 Jesus began to teach beside the lake again. Such a large crowd gathered that he climbed into a boat there on the lake. He sat in the boat while the whole crowd was nearby on the shore. He said many things to them in parables. While teaching them, he said, “Listen to this! A farmer went out to scatter seed. As he was scattering seed, some fell on the path; and the birds came and ate it. Other seed fell on rocky ground where the soil was shallow. They sprouted immediately because the soil wasn’t deep. When the sun came up, it scorched the plants; and they dried up because they had no roots. Other seed fell among thorny plants. The thorny plants grew and choked the seeds, and they produced nothing. Other seed fell into good soil and bore fruit. Upon growing and increasing, the seed produced in one case a yield of thirty to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of one hundred to one.”

10 When they were alone, the people around Jesus, along with the Twelve, asked him about the parables. 11 He said to them, “The secret of God’s kingdom has been given to you, but to those who are outside everything comes in parables. 12 This is so that they can look and see but have no insight, and they can hear but not understand. Otherwise, they might turn their lives around and be forgiven.

13 “Don’t you understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? 14  The farmer scatters the word. 15  This is the meaning of the seed that fell on the path: When the word is scattered and people hear it, right away Satan comes and steals the word that was planted in them. 16  Here’s the meaning of the seed that fell on rocky ground: When people hear the word, they immediately receive it joyfully. 17  Because they have no roots, they last for only a little while. When they experience distress or abuse because of the word, they immediately fall away. 18  Others are like the seed scattered among the thorny plants. These are the ones who have heard the word; 19  but the worries of this life, the false appeal of wealth, and the desire for more things break in and choke the word, and it bears no fruit. 20  The seed scattered on good soil are those who hear the word and embrace it. They bear fruit, in one case a yield of thirty to one, in another case sixty to one, and in another case one hundred to one.”

O (Observation): A confusing word from Jesus leaves the disciples a bit puzzled. Instead of trying to see this as insider information, Jesus is reminding these disciples that just because one is “on the inside” (that is, one who loves and fears God) does not mean that insiders get an advantage over others. Jesus doesn’t say the disciples are good soil. They might be the soil / ground in any of these 4 situations.

Jesus quotes Isaiah 6 here, reminding the original hearers that Jesus’ story is not his own, but God’s. After all, Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of God. He is simply helping to usher it in amongst God’s people while in the flesh.

Jesus says that the Kingdom comes, regardless of the state in which it is received. Humans are not in power over the soil / ground in which they find themselves. This is Good News for the oppressed and downtrodden. They just might be the good soil. And this is a word of caution to the haughty and the proud, for they just might be the path, the rocky ground, or the weeds.

A (Application): Why does this have to be so complicated? Can’t we just know? Not according to the Gospel of Mark!

Mark 1:1 – “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, God’s Son.” This is how the Gospel of Mark starts. The Good News is coming. Salvation is coming. And no one can tell – not even the disciples – who can receive this Good News. The eyes and ears of the best of us can be covered up. We can all become blind to the Good News, even though we claim it every week.

We have all been surprised at one time or another in whom the Word takes root. We are also surprised – at times – that the Word does NOT take root in others. We just don’t know. So, we hope. We pray. We remain humble and glory in the fact that some who embrace the Word are fruit coming forth 30-fold, 60-fold, 100-fold.

That kind of growth is beyond our comprehension, but at least we can give thanks when it does happen.

P (Prayer): Lord, you usher in your Kingdom, whether we are ready or not. Bring it! Keep bringing it! May we have ears to hear. Amen.

What Does God Require?

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S (Scripture): Psalm 50

7

“Listen, my people, I will now speak;

Israel, I will now testify against you.

I am God—your God!

8

I’m not punishing you for your sacrifices

or for your entirely burned offerings,

which are always before me.

9

I won’t accept bulls from your house

or goats from your corrals

10

because every forest animal already belongs to me,

as do the cattle on a thousand hills.

11

I know every mountain bird;

even the insects in the fields are mine.

12

Even if I were hungry, I wouldn’t tell you

because the whole world and everything in it already belong to me.

13

Do I eat bulls’ meat?

Do I drink goats’ blood?

14

Offer God a sacrifice of thanksgiving!

Fulfill the promises you made to the Most High!

15

Cry out to me whenever you are in trouble;

I will deliver you, then you will honor me.”

O (Observation): What does God require? What is the list of things needed to please the Lord?

This one thing: give thanks to God.

Acknowledge that all we have and all that we are come from God. God is our protector through the joys and challenges of life.

A (Application): (See “Observation”)

P (Prayer): Lord, your requirements are good. Help us to follow them. Amen.

Hold on Tight? Or Hold on Loosely?

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S (Scripture): Mark 3:1 Jesus returned to the synagogue. A man with a withered hand was there. 2 Wanting to bring charges against Jesus, they were watching Jesus closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. 3 He said to the man with the withered hand, “Step up where people can see you.” 4 Then he said to them, “Is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they said nothing. 5 Looking around at them with anger, deeply grieved at their unyielding hearts, he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he did, and his hand was made healthy. 6 At that, the Pharisees got together with the supporters of Herod to plan how to destroy Jesus.

O (Observation): Jesus challenges the long-accepted policy of the Church: no work on the Sabbath (aka “The Lord’s Day”). That’s all good and well, considering God rested one day during “creation week,” and so the Church must, too! No work! Not even a healing!

Well, Jesus was wondering about this man he encountered near the synagogue. This man had a withered hand.

Jesus then quickly works towards challenging the notion behind the Sabbath: to do good or evil? Is the Sabbath meant to save or kill?

The leaders of the Church had this notion that clarity of and intellectual understanding their religion was paramount. That living out the rules of the faith (adhering to the Law) was WAY more important than the object of their faith: God.

Jesus chose life on that Sabbath day. A challenge to the rules of the understanding of their religion…but a choice for life, nonetheless.

A (Application): What is the goal of the Christian faith? Is our goal to believe so clearly the rules God wishes us to follow? Is our goal to be the embodiment of God on earth? Are these mutually exclusive goals / ways of being?

Today’s text makes us think about our goals of our faith. What is more important? For Jesus to heal this man with a withered hand? Or for Jesus to follow the Law?

I think this text is more about Jesus making a point about the use of the Law, rather than establishing a new custom to follow. In other words, we could take what Jesus does and establish a new Law: we must heal one person on the Sabbath, very week! That would be great, but I think Jesus was doing was less about establishing a new religious custom, and simply trying to open up the minds of the church leaders.

Jesus was helping to bring sight back to the church leaders. He was tying to help them see God is as much about healing and wholeness as God is about rest. Loosening the grip of the Law allowed for new life that day for the man.

What is it that we hold onto of the faith? What beliefs do we hold as important in our lives? Do those beliefs ever get in the way of God’s mercy being poured out? Do we hold fast to some ideologies so tight that miss the opportunity to welcome someone into our faith community?

P (Prayer): Lord, we seek your will to be clear today, so that we might welcome in all who seek your healing. Amen.

Bonus: 38 Special’s “Hold on Loosely” : )

Give for Water

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S (Scripture): Psalm 49

5

Why should I be afraid in times of trouble,

when the wrongdoing of my bullies engulfs me—

6

those people who trust in their fortunes

and boast of their fantastic wealth?

7

Wealth? It can’t save a single person!

It can’t pay a life’s ransom-price to God.

8

The price to save someone’s life is too high—

wealth will never be enough—

9

no one can live forever

without experiencing the pit.

10

Everyone knows that the wise die too,

just like foolish and stupid people do,

all of them leaving their fortunes to others.

11

Their graves are their eternal homes,

the place they live for all generations,

even if they had counties named after them!

12

People won’t live any longer because of wealth;

they’re just like the animals that pass away.

O (Observation): The psalmist – a seemingly poor person – considers a rich person (who indulges in the lifestyles of the rich) to be an abomination. The psalmist points out that no amount of wealth actually makes them superior – after all, when they die, what will become of their wealth? It will go to their heirs. And what will be their eternal home? Their grave.

A (Application): We are so caught up in vanity these days. Latest cars. Biggest houses. Why?

Most folks living in these huge homes or latest model cars cannot afford them. So why do we go for them? Status? Power? Wanting to “fit in”?

I know this sounds judgmental, but I really struggle with vain wealth, when 663 million people are drinking dirty water…yet so many of us are wealthy…something is not right.

What can we do? How can we be about the ongoing work of Jesus?

Simple: give. Give and give and give some more.

For my 40th Birthday, I’m thinking of doing something big (big for me)…I’m going to seek funds to establish a simple water well through the ELCA Good Gifts program ($2,500). As I get closer in, I’ll advertise a link and invite as many people as possible into my campaign.

I hope that folks can help out as I put this effort together to support others whose basic need of water has escaped them to this point.

Maybe this is what the psalmist intended all along…that we might read this Psalm and wonder our place in it all.

P (Prayer): Lord, thank you for granting me the opportunity to give and encourage others to give, as well. Amen.