Saturday, February 28, 2015

Changing Subjects (February 28, 2015)

Changing Subjects
John 4:1-26
February 28, 2015

Has it happened to you?  Someone confronts you with some the truth about yourself, and you get uncomfortable.  You want to duck into the nearest corner, but there is no place to hide.  You try a different tactic--you try to change the subject.

That took place during Jesus' conversation with the woman at the well.  Jesus made the unnamed woman face up to her complicated past.  She knew that everything Jesus said to her was true.  She couldn't deny it.  But she didn't really want to discuss it, either.  So she changed the subject.  "I see that you are a prophet" (verse 19) and she proceeds to ask a question about one of the issues that divided Jews and Samaritans.  A classic diversionary tactic!

Lent is a season for confronting some of the uncomfortable truths about ourselves.  We don't do this to wallow in guilt about our past.  Our time of confession is more about acknowledging who we are in the present so that God can transform our present and guide our future.  

So often, we speed through our Prayer of Confession so we can get away from the truth about ourselves.  We are invited, however, to use this time to allow the life-transforming power of the Holy Spirit to work in our lives.  Instead of changing subjects, we allow the Spirit to change our hearts.

A Prayer:  Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.  Amen.  (Psalm 51:10)

Friday, February 27, 2015

Increasing and Decreasing (February 27, 2015)

Increasing and Decreasing
John 3:22-36
February 27, 2015

Did anyone every pass you by?  Maybe it was for a promotion, a new job, a solo or a position on a team.  It hurts.  If you know that the other person was better qualified, it still hurts.  Even if you are happy for the other person, it still hurts.  They increase and you decrease.

I often wonder how John the Baptist felt about Jesus' growing popularity.  After all, John was the one who came first, preparing the way.  Yet many of his own disciples left John to follow Jesus.

In our Gospel Lesson today, some of John's disciples reported to him that Jesus, the one who John had just a few days before, now was baptizing and "all are going to him."  (verse 26).  The Gospel doesn't tell us how John felt internally; but we do hear John's words of response, "He must increase, but I must decrease." (verse 30).

It takes special grace to accept that someone else may be called to increase while we decrease.  There are times that we feel called to compete, to work our way to the top.  But there also is a time to step down.  "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven." (Ecclesiastes 3:1).  The key is to discern God's will for our lives, moment by moment, and submit to His will.

And yet, whether we are increasing or decreasing, we are invited to recognize God's presence.  We also are called to recognize in this season of Lent that Jesus Himself recognized His mission to decrease, to the point of death, so that we might increase into that life called eternal life.  He "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross."  (Philippians 2:7-8).  

Because Jesus was willing to decrease, "God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name..." (Philippians 2:9).  

Let this same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus!

 A Prayer:  Give me a humble heart, O God.  Amen.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Being "Spirit Born" Is Like a Flashlight (February 25, 2015)

Being "Spirit Born" Is Like a Flashlight
John 2:23-3:15
February 25, 2015

Today's Gospel Lesson is Basic Christianity.  But in this Lenten Season, it is good to remind ourselves of the basics.

As a kid, I would occasionally shine a flashlight into the darkness of the nighttime sky.  I would be amazed to think that, at least in theory, the light from that little flashlight would travel on forever.  At least it would travel until something blocked it.  That ray of light had a beginning point but no ending point.

When Jesus met Nicodemus under the cover of darkness, He offered a number of phrases that may have been among the most quoted in the entire Bible:  "No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above" (John 3:3) and "God so loved the world ..." (John 3:16).  It seem ironic that so many people speak of being "born from above" as the means for attaining eternal life after we die; I think Jesus also was focusing on life while we are living.  Just as the flashlight is the beginning point of the ray of light that goes on forever, being born from above is the beginning point of the journey to the kingdom of God that we call eternal life.  Eternal life is not the destination; it is the journey itself.

The question then becomes, how do I become born from above?  If we were talking about physical birth, then the question becomes laughable.  We are not born because we ask to be born; we are born because our parents gave us life.   In our spiritual birth, the same principle is at work.  We receive the gift of life from our Father in Heaven.  "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 3:23)  We don't receive this gift because we ask for it; we receive it because of God's gift.  “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9).  When Jesus says in John 3:16, "so that very one who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life," He is not creating a new test that we must pass in order to receiving the gift.  He simply is telling us to "believe" (i.e., to trust) in the Son to give us this gift of spiritual birth.

Of course, we still have the problem of brokenness in the spiritual world--what the theologians call sin.  Sin in our lives can block our spiritual journey, much like a cloud can block the free passage of a ray from my flashlight.  To enable the light to continue on its journey, we need to remove the obstacles that block it.  To enable our spirit to continue on its journey, we need to remove the brokenness and sin that block us.  Here, we receive the promise that “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9).

So our spiritual birth marks the beginning of a journey that is not focused only on some point in the distant future; our journey begins now.  Every moment of that journey is sacred.  Every moment is part of that gift of God that we call "eternal life."

That is Basic Christianity.  May your light so shine!

Loving God:  I accept your gift of life today.  Shine in me!  Amen.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A World Worth Saving (February 24, 2015)

A World Worth Saving
Philippians 2:5-11
February 24, 2015

During the Season of Lent, our Monday night Bible Study is reading a book by George Hovaness Donigian entitled A World Worth Saving:  Lenten Spiritual Practices for Action.  Donigian wrote this book as a call to action--to put our Lenten spiritual disciplines "into action that demonstrates God's love and mercy for the world."  (p. 19).

Donigian's point is certainly Wesleyan.  John Wesley taught the importance of engaging in both deeds of piety and deeds of mercy in our spiritual journeys.  But Donigian really caught my attention with the rationale he used for using Lent as a call to action.  Donigian asserts that "God believes the world is worth saving; the world is worthy of redemption." (p. 18).  To support his point, Donigian quotes from John 3:17:  "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."

I have been letting those words sink into my consciousness during the past twenty-four hours.  It can become so easy to grow despondent over the current situation in the world and to wonder why God doesn't just chuck it all and start over yet again.  But Donigian reminds us that God believes that the world is worth saving.  God didn't just stop with wishing that the world would change.  God took action--action so beautifully expressed in an early Christian hymn recorded in Philippians 2:5-11

Let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

God took action, and God invites us to take action too.  But first, we assert the basic premise:  God thinks that the world and everyone in it is worth saving.  Look at the news and name the issue and the person, no matter how offensive, no matter how much their values conflict with ours, no matter how much they seem to threaten us and our way of life.  Jesus died for them, because He believed that they were worth saving.  Jesus died for members of ISIS, for revolutionaries fighting in Syria, for tough-talking leaders in North Korea, for politicians on both side of the aisle, for thugs on the street, for homeless huddled around a camp fire.  He thought that they were worth saving.  

He died for you and for me too, because he thought we were worth saving.

In our Bible study, we will be talking about ways that we can put our spiritual disciplines into action. You can join us, if you like--we meet on Mondays at 7:00 pm (we also start with a Fellowship Supper at 6:15 pm, if you are available).  But our task this week is to pray--to pray with the news in front of us, to make a list of the situations in the world that distress us, to pray for God to show us the ways he is present even in the middle of the chaos, and to show us how we too can love those for whom Jesus died.  

Donigian closes his first chapter by inviting us to meditate on the words of a hymn.  It seems like a good way to close today's devotion:

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul,
what wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
to bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
to bear the dreadful curse for my soul.

[USA folk hymn, "What Wondrous Love is This," in The United Methodist Hymnal, (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 292.

Donigian's book is published by Upper Room Books, Nashville, TN.  (c) 2013.]

Monday, February 23, 2015

Do Whatever He Tells You (February 23, 2015)

Do Whatever He Tells You
John 2:1-12
February 23, 2015

You probably have heard and read many times the story of the Wedding at Cana.  It might be good to refresh your memory and turn to that story again to see what fresh insights God has for you on this first Monday in the Season of Lent.

Some words jumped off the page at me.  In verse 5, Jesus' mother says to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."  

It seems so obvious.  "Do whatever he tells you."  Yet how many times do we struggle with this simple suggestion.  Why is this so difficult for us?  I can think of a few reasons.

First, we struggle to hear what Jesus is telling us to do.  We like to look for certainty; but in the world of the spirit, instruction is given to us more subtly.  Jesus is not with us physically; but He has sent another "Comforter," the "Spirit of Truth," who speaks to our spirits.  In order to hear for the whisperings of the Spirit, we need to be able to let go of our own agendas and expectations and listen for the interior promptings nudging us, urging us, calling us to God's plan for us.

Second, we need to let go of the baggage that weighs us down.  One reason for the Lenten discipline of sacrifice is to enable us to let go of things that get in our way and distract us from hearing the voice of God.  

Third, we need to remember who is in charge.  As long as our own ego is driving our behavior, we will struggle against direction coming from Someone else.  Using a very different metaphor, one hymn writer described the process of yielding to God's will in this way:

Have thine own way, Lord!  Have thine own way!
Thou art the potter; I am the clay.
Mold me and make me after thy will,
while I am waiting, yielded and still.

[Adelaide A. Pollard, "Have Thine Own Way, Lord," in The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 382.]

Let's also remember who spoke these words at the wedding at Cana.  John's Gospel never mentions her name, but identifies her as the "mother of Jesus" (verse 2, 5).  In Luke's Gospel, we find the mother of Jesus demonstrating in her own life what it means to submit to God's will when she tells the angel, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." (Luke 1:38).

In this Season of Lent, I am being challenged to listen even more closely to what Jesus tells me to do, and then to do it.  I hope you will join me!

A Prayer:  "Here am I, the servant of the Lord.  Let it be with me according to your word. "  Amen.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Good News for Lent (February 22, 2015)

Good News for Lent
Mark 1:9-15
February 22, 2015

Mark is the “USA Today” version of the Gospels.  You don’t get many details—Mark is in a hurry so he “immediately” gets to the point.  (You will notice that Mark frequently uses words such as “immediately” or “at once.”  Time is important to him.)  Jesus is baptized.  There is a voice from heaven, affirming Jesus with those words, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Mark’s baptism story doesn’t end with doves and voices.  Jesus doesn’t get time to savor the moment.  Mark tells us that “At once, the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan.”  (Mark 1:12-13).  Once again, Mark gets right to the point.  We don’t hear the details of Jesus being tempted to turn stone into bread or jump from the pinnacle of the Temple or to bow down before the Tempter.  We get the abrupt transition—“At once, the Spirit sent him out into the desert”—and we get the headline informing us that Jesus was tempted.

Although the abrupt transition and the limited details may seem puzzling at first, I noticed something this week that I might not have noticed if Mark had given us more detailed information.  I noticed the link between Jesus’ baptism and His testing.  At His baptism, Jesus received clear affirmation of His identity as the Son of God.  It was an intense moment, to be sure, but it also was an intimate moment.  A moment in which the Father affirmed His love for His Son, and that His Son brought Him joy.  At His temptation, the sense of affirmation, the spiritual mountaintop that Jesus experienced at His baptism, His sense of identity, was brought into question.  He moved from “Really!” to “Really?”  From exclamation to question mark.

It seems that we become more vulnerable to testing when we finally begin to make progress.  It’s happened in my life.  Perhaps it has happened in your life, as well.  Maybe it happens because we let our defenses down.  Maybe our pride makes us think that we are stronger than we really are.  Whatever the reason, there is a real danger that in our moments of spiritual consolation, we are in great danger.

Mark does not give us the details about this time of testing.  He simply tells us that Jesus was tested. For Mark, the details were less important than the reality of the testing.  Yet, there is an important message in the details.  To get the additional details, we have to turn to Matthew.  When we do, we see that the three temptations did not tempt Jesus to commit evil; rather, the three temptations challenged Jesus’ identity that had just been affirmed in His baptism:
  •       If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”  (Matthew 4:3).
  •        If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down” from the highest point of the temple. (Matthew 4:5).
  •        And then, trying to induce Jesus to violate the most sacred element of the Torah, Satan tempts Jesus to trade away all that He has been given for material kingdoms of the world that the tempter can give Him. “All this I will give you … if you will bow down and worship me.”  (Matthew 4:9).  Satan is asking Jesus to trade away His birthright, to give up his identity, just as Jacob asked Esau to trade away his birthright for a bowl of stew (you can find this story in Genesis 25:29-34).  Jesus refused!  Instead, Jesus went on to proclaim the Good News.  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14).

 In our Journey with Jesus, we see a direct progression from baptism, where Jesus’ identity as the beloved Son of God was affirmed, to wilderness, where His identity was challenged and questioned, to proclamation, where having overcome the challenges and questions, Jesus went to work proclaiming the coming Kingdom of God.

As you reflect on your own journey, perhaps some reflection on some questions might be in order:

1.     In what areas of your life are you most vulnerable to times of “testing?”  What does “wilderness” mean to you?  Are there times that you feel more vulnerable than others?
2.     What strategies to you use to keep strong during times of testing?
3.     How do you respond when you fail?

For me, the key is to find, even in the middle of our times of trial, reminders of who we are.  During the season of Lent (and beyond, as well), I invite you to surround yourself with reminders of who you are.  Remember always that you are a Child of God!  When we fail, we find that just as the Father of the “prodigal” son kept watching the horizon to see his son return (see Luke 15:11-32), our Heavenly Father is looking for us and calling for us to come home.  This is Good News for Lent.  Thanks be to God!

Pray:  Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  Amen.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

A Lenten Devotion: The Parable of the Soil (February 21, 2015)

A Lenten Devotion:  The Parable of the Soil
Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23
February 21, 2015

On this first Saturday in Lent, I was reading from the “Parables of Lent” that many of us are using as a Devotional Guide this year during Lent.  Today’s reading is commonly known as the “Parable of the Sower.”  I think of it today, however, as a Parable of the Soil.  Even though you many know this parable quite well, I invite you to take a few moments to read it again—maybe even to read it out loud—and listen for fresh insights that God may have for you today.

We all know the punch line to this parable:  “as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”  (Matthew 13:23).  It occurred to me, however, that the good soil did not choose to be good any more than the rocky soil chose to be rocky or than the soil hardened into a pathway chose to be walked upon.  Is the soil responsible for its own condition?

It’s worth pointing out here that Jesus told parables to explain aspects of the Kingdom.  There is a danger in trying to extend any parable beyond the specific point that Jesus was making. 

In the case of the Parable of the Soil, it would be a mistake to conclude that because I find myself hardened by life, I bear no responsibility for tending my own soul.  I should point out quickly that it would be just as much a mistake to claim credit for finding that you are good soil—but that is a lesson for another day.

I suspect that we find elements of all four types of soil in ourselves.  We have our areas in which life has walked on us, and we feel hardened.  We have rocky areas in our lives.  The soil of our lives is mixed with areas that cannot be penetrated.  We have our thorns—weeds that try to choke out the life within us.  But we have good soil too—placed within us because we are children of God.

The season of Lent gives us an opportunity to tend to the soil of our lives.  We are given the tasks of plowing, hoeing, cultivating, fertilizing, watering and weeding our own souls.  We do this by listening for the Word of God, receiving that Word into our lives, and yielding ourselves to the transforming work of God.

What kind of soil are you?  That is the wrong question; because we are all types of soil.  The better question is this:  what steps are you taking to cultivate the soil of your life? 

Pray:  Create in me a clean heart, O God.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Lenten Devotion: John's Testimony (February 19, 2015)

A Lenten Devotion:  John's Testimony
John 1:29-34
February 19, 2015

As we noted on Tuesday, the Gospel of John has some legal overtones--with various witnesses testifying to the identity of Jesus of Nazareth.  Today, we read the testimony of John the Baptist.  (Note that we are referring to two separate people named John--John the Baptist is different that John the Evangelist, for whom the Gospel is named.)

John the Evangelist quotes John the Baptist's testimony about Jesus.  "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him ...  And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God."  (John 1:33, 34)

In our Lenten Journey with Jesus, what can you testify concerning Jesus?  We don't have the physical presence of Jesus among us.  But if you don't think you have much to testify to, consider these questions:
  • Can you give witness to One who has given you a sense of meaning and purpose in your life?
  • Can you give witness to One who has given you a moral compass, a sense of right and wrong, and a sense of what it means to live in peaceful relations with those around you?
  • Can you give witness to One who has loved you even when you did not deserve to be loved?  Who, although you cannot fully understand it, has brought you assurance that God has forgiven your brokenness and wants to change your life?
  • Can you give witness to One who has remained at your side through sickness and health, through life and death, through joy and sorrow?
  • Can you give witness to One who invites you to love God with all your entire being and to love your neighbor as yourself?
You may wonder if that is a special enough witness.  Can you imagine, though, how different our world could be if everyone could witness to Jesus' presence in their lives in these ways!  What a difference it would make if all of us could exclaim, with John the Baptist, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!"  (John 1:29).  

We have good news that can change the world!  Let's share the news!

Pray:  "I want my world to know; the Lord of love has come to me.  I want to pass it on."  

(Kurt Kaiser, "Pass It On," Copyright (c) 1969 by Communique Music, Inc.  Reprinted in The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville:  The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 572)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Devotional: Lord, Have Mercy (February 18, 2015)

A Devotional:  Lord, Have Mercy
Luke 18:9-14

Today, we begin a new phase in our Journey with Jesus.  We begin the Season of Lent, a time of preparation for the week of ultimate giving--Holy Week.

In today's Gospel Lesson, Jesus tells a simple story about two people praying.  One was a Pharisee; the other was a tax collector.  

The Pharisee was proud of his accomplishments, and it is hard to blame him.

The tax collector, on the other hand, kept repeating over and over, "God be merciful to me, a sinner!" (verse 13).

Of course we praise the prayer of the tax collector and we point to the overtly prideful conduct of the Pharisee.  But in our everyday living, who do we pattern our lives after?  Humility is not a virtue that our culture celebrates.

The call to the Season of Lent is not a call to show off our piety.  It is a call to grace--but our ability to appreciate that grace depends upon our recognition of our own sinfulness.  We do not receive grace because we deserve it; God offers us grace, even though we don't deserve it.

I invite you to a season of discovery.  Six and a half weeks of discovering how much we don't deserve God's love.  In the process, we will discover just how much God loves us anyway!

God, be merciful to me, a sinner!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Today's Devotional: Who Are You? (February 17, 2015)

A Devotion:  Who Are You?
February 17, 2015—Mardi Gras!

Mardi Gras.  “Fat Tuesday.”  A time that we associate with parties and parades and maybe just a touch of decadence.  Perhaps a “safe” way to let loose one more time before the austerity of Lent begins.  But perhaps it also can be a time for thanksgiving—of turning our hearts and minds to the One who gives from His abundance.  Let’s spend a few moments with God!

1.              Read:  John 1:19-28.  This lesson tells the story, from John the Evangelist’s point of view, of the ministry of John the Baptist, preparing the way for Jesus.  Today, let’s focus on the question that the Pharisees ask John in verse 19:  “Who are you?”
2.              Reflect: 

The Pharisees sent some priests and Levites to investigate who John the Baptist was.  They asked John the question a question that philosophers and theologians have asked for thousands of years about people and about themselves.  “Who are you?”

The question is asked early in John to establish a theme that will be carried throughout the Gospel.  Who are you?  Or, more particularly, “Who is Jesus?”  Amy Jill-Levine points out that John’s Gospel is reminiscent of a trial, with an interrogation focusing on the identity of Jesus of Nazareth.[1]

Today, we find John the Baptist in the witness stand.  Who are you?  Very quickly, John points away from himself so he can give testimony to Someone else who is to follow him.  Someone so special that John feels unworthy to even untie his shoes. 

Who are you?  We have lots of ways to identify ourselves.  We can use political parties, places of birth, nationalities of our parents, relationships to parents, siblings or children, religious affiliation, schools attended and favorite sports teams to describe who we are.  Recent news reminds us that it can be risky to define who we are. 

As we prepare for our Lenten Journey with Jesus, how are you prepared to answer the question, “Who are you?”  How do you define yourself?  Are you able to look to Jesus, the one whom the Epistle to the Hebrews describes as “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2)?

3.              Pray: 
“Lord, I want to be a Christian...
Lord, I want to be more loving...
Lord, I want to be more holy….
Lord, I want to be like Jesus in my heart.”[2]

Copyright © 2015 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

Graphics from,

[1] Amy Jill-Levine, “Notes on John 1:19-34” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 2003), 1909.
[2] Afro-American Spiritual, “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian,” printed in The United Methodist Hymnal, (Nashville:  The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 402.