Teach Us to Pray Series 2 – Confession

 

Video Link: Teach Us to Pray 5 – Confession* (This is a video of the reflection printed below.)

Read: Psalm 51

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me (Psalm 51:10, NRSV).

Sometimes, we just need to “come clean” with God. That’s why it’s such a gift to be able to confess our sins in prayer.

Technically, of course, nothing we say will come as “news” to God. Psalm 139 admits as much. It says, “Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.” So, confession is less about information than it is about reconciliation.

 

Probably the most well-known prayer of confession is Psalm 51. The first thing to love about it is that prayer is that it doesn’t beat around the bush. “Have mercy on me, O God,” it begins. “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” These are the words of someone who knows they are in the wrong, and can’t wait to get rid of the load of guilt they’ve been carrying around.

 

But when you think about it, even that is a victory of sorts. Too often we take refuge in denial. We blame others or make excuses. But not this psalmist. No, this psalmist admits his sin. “I know my transgressions,” he says, “and my sin is ever before me” (v. 3).

 

So, admitting our sin is the first step. But then, many of us get stuck. We get caught in such a whirlpool of guilt that we can’t escape. But that’s why confession really is “good for the soul.” “Create in me a clean heart,” the psalmist says. “Put a new and right spirit within me” (v. 10). And ideally, that’s what happens when we confess our sins. We get to start fresh. The whole premise of confession is that—even if we don’t have the strength to escape the whirlpool of sin—God has the power to pull us out. And God will if we confess in sincerity and truth.

So, if you long to “come clean” with God about something, Psalm 51 may help you. Of course, you don’t need a prayer that’s been written by someone else, but sometimes a “time tested” prayer of confession can help us to get started.

 

Here is another well-worn prayer from the New Zealand Prayer Book that you may find helpful. Notice that it uses “we” rather than “I,” which reminds us that some of our sins are things of which we are guilty together:

 

Merciful God,

We have sinned

in what we have thought and said,

in the wrong we have done

and in the good we have not done.

We have sinned in ignorance;

we have sinned in weakness;

we have sinned through our own deliberate fault.

We are truly sorry.

We repent and turn to you.

Forgive us, for our Savior Christ’s sake,

And renew our lives to the glory of your name. Amen.

 

And after you confess, remember these well-worn words of assurance from Psalm 103:

 

The Lord is merciful and gracious,

Slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…

As far as the east is from the west,

So far [does God remove] our transgressions from us. (Ps. 103: 8 & 12, NRSV)

 

So confess! It really is good for the soul.

 

Ponder: What sins would you like to “come clean” with God about? What’s stopping you?

Pray:  

Gracious God,

our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo.

Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear,

and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment.

Set us free from a past that we cannot change;

open to us a future in which we can be changed;

and grant us grace to grow more and more in your likeness and image,

through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.

 

(From the PCUSA Book of Common Worship Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993; p. 88.)

 

 

 

*This video was written and delivered by the Rev. Dr. Carol M. Bechtel, Professor of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan (Reformed Church in America). Dr. Bechtel is also the Executive Director of the American Waldensian Society. These videos were produced by the Chiesa Evangelica Valdese https://www.chiesavaldese.org/and filmed in the Cottian Alps near Torre Pellice, Italy in July of 2020.

 

 

 

 

Introduction to Teach Us to Pray Series 2

On my recent sabbatical in Italy, colleagues from the Waldensian church invited me to do a series of short videos on prayer. These reflections are a result of that invitation. Although they were written and filmed in the midst of the pandemic (July 2020), they are not “Covid-19 specific.” Still, knowing that they were created in that crucible may add a certain urgency—and utility—to them. I offer them to you here in the hope that they will help you to pray even as our world’s anxiety threatens to make our souls mute.

All of the videos were filmed outside my little lockdown chalet in the Angrogna Valley in northwest Italy, so at the very least, you can enjoy the scenery. And I hope you also enjoy the Italian subtitles. Learn Italian while learning to pray!

Still learning and still praying,

Teach Us to Pray Series 2 – Intercession

 

Video Link: Teach Us to Pray 4 – Intercession* (This is a video of the reflection printed below.)

Read: Psalm 72

May there be abundance of grain in the land; may it wave on the tops of the mountains; may its fruit be like Lebanon; and may people blossom in the cities like the grass of the field (Psalm 72:16, NRSV).

My great aunt Grace lived to be 100 years old. At her funeral, her family and friends talked about how blessed we were to have enjoyed a “century of Grace.”

I remember visiting her at the nursing home in the last years of her life. I asked her what she did to keep busy. Without a moment’s hesitation, she responded, “I pray for you all every day!” By “all” she meant everyone in her extended family. (There are a lot of us!) And I’m sure her prayers weren’t limited to just relatives.

I have often wondered what my life would have been like if Aunt Grace had not been praying for me. I’ll never know, of course. But I’ve never forgotten how seriously she took her “job.” Praying for others—interceding with God on their behalf—was her vocation.

Not all of us have that kind of calling—or perhaps that kind of patience. But neither will it “do” to pray only for ourselves! As we grow in our faith, the reach of our prayers should expand as well.

Sometimes it helps to have a structure that “prompts” these prayers. Aunt Grace used her family tree. Some people use the daily news or even their Facebook feed. Some churches publish “yearbooks” with lists of people for whom to pray each day. Use whatever method is most helpful for you. The important thing is to make space in your prayers each day—space in which you consciously pray for others—and intercede for the world.

Of course, praying like this isn’t something we do only as individuals. We can also join our prayers together—and intercede with one voice. So, even though there may be many people praying, we still say, “Lord, hear our prayer.” Singular. And that’s a powerful thing.

 

Ponder: What happens in your own heart when you pray for others?

Pray:  Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

(A traditional evening prayer from the Book of Common Prayer)

 

 

*This video was written and delivered by the Rev. Dr. Carol M. Bechtel, Professor of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan (Reformed Church in America). Dr. Bechtel is also the Executive Director of the American Waldensian Society. These videos were produced by the Chiesa Evangelica Valdese https://www.chiesavaldese.org/and filmed in the Cottian Alps near Torre Pellice, Italy in July of 2020.

 

 

 

Introduction to Teach Us to Pray Series 2

On my recent sabbatical in Italy, colleagues from the Waldensian church invited me to do a series of short videos on prayer. These reflections are a result of that invitation. Although they were written and filmed in the midst of the pandemic (July 2020), they are not “Covid-19 specific.” Still, knowing that they were created in that crucible may add a certain urgency—and utility—to them. I offer them to you here in the hope that they will help you to pray even as our world’s anxiety threatens to make our souls mute.

All of the videos were filmed outside my little lockdown chalet in the Angrogna Valley in northwest Italy, so at the very least, you can enjoy the scenery. And I hope you also enjoy the Italian subtitles. Learn Italian while learning to pray!

Still learning and still praying,

Teach Us to Pray Series 2 – Lament

 

Video Link: Teach Us to Pray #3 – Lament* (This is a video of the reflection printed below.)

Read: Psalm 13

How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? (Psalm 13:2a, NRSV)

I teach a class on the psalms at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. One of the things I tell my students is: The book of Psalms contains 150 of the best friends you’ll ever have. And the best of these best friends for me are the psalms of lament. These are psalms like:

  • 13, which begins “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” Or–
  • 22—which Jesus prayed from the cross: “My God, my God—why have you forsaken me?”

These are psalms that give us words to pray when we’ve run out of words.

One of the best things that anyone ever told me about the lament psalms is that they are “praise in a minor key.” Isn’t that great? Bernhard Anderson said that. Praise in a minor key. You know the difference between a major and a minor key. But, think about it: when you’re singing in a minor key, you’re still singing. That’s important. God want to hear our sad songs, too. We owe God that kind of honesty.

So, pray the lament psalms. They’re easy to spot. They’re the ones that begin by complaining! But you can also write your own lament. It’s easier than you think. It’s a three-part pattern: Protest, Petition, and Praise.

  • First you protest—lay out your complaints and your griefs before God. Don’t hold back. God can handle it.
  • Then petition God for what you want. Be bold—although it might also be a good idea to include “Thy will be done.”
  • Lastly—praise God for listening, for caring, and for considering your prayer.

I hope you’ll try this. It’s a pattern that’s worked for thousands of years!

Ponder: What do you want to complain about to God? What’s holding you back?

Pray:  O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

            Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely (Ps. 139:1 & 4).

Hear, now, my lament, which will not be “news” to you.

May it be the beginning of a candid and productive conversation.

 

 

*This video was written and delivered by the Rev. Dr. Carol M. Bechtel, Professor of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan (Reformed Church in America). Dr. Bechtel is also the Executive Director of the American Waldensian Society. These videos were produced by the Chiesa Evangelica Valdese https://www.chiesavaldese.org/and filmed in the Cottian Alps near Torre Pellice, Italy in July of 2020.

 

 

Introduction to Teach Us to Pray Series 2

On my recent sabbatical in Italy, colleagues from the Waldensian church invited me to do a series of short videos on prayer. These reflections are a result of that invitation. Although they were written and filmed in the midst of the pandemic (July 2020), they are not “Covid-19 specific.” Still, knowing that they were created in that crucible may add a certain urgency—and utility—to them. I offer them to you here in the hope that they will help you to pray even as our world’s anxiety threatens to make our souls mute.

All of the videos were filmed outside my little lockdown chalet in the Angrogna Valley in northwest Italy, so at the very least, you can enjoy the scenery. And I hope you also enjoy the Italian subtitles. Learn Italian while learning to pray!

Still learning and still praying,

Teach Us to Pray Series 2 – Gratitude

 

 

Video Link: Teach Us to Pray Video #2Gratitude* (This is a video of the reflection printed below.)

Read: Psalm 148

Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars! (Psalm 148:3, NRSV)

One of the best reasons to pray is simply to say “thank you” to God. And even on a bad day, there are a lot of things for which to be thankful. Sometimes, just remembering those things makes a bad day better.

We often make the mistake of thinking that prayer has to be complicated. But prayers of gratitude can be as simple as focusing for a moment on the thing for which we are thankful. I often imagine holding it in my hands—cherishing it for a moment in God’s presence. It’s a gesture that both acknowledges that you have received something from God as a gift, and that you are offering your thanks back to God for that gift.

One other thing. As we give thanks, I think it’s important to remember that our small prayers of gratitude are, in fact, joining with the praises of all creation. The psalms, after all, assume that every part of God’s creation has a “voice” with which to praise the Creator. We may not be able to hear that voice with our ears, but that doesn’t mean God can’t hear it.

Psalm 148, for instance, includes all sorts of things in its call to praise: human beings are included, of course—but so are the sun, moon, & stars—sea monsters, fire, hail, snow and frost—mountains, hills, fruit trees, and cedars—wild animals, cattle, creeping things and flying birds. You get the picture. So, when you pray, think of it not so much as a solo, but a symphony! That in itself, is something for which to be thankful.

Ponder: What makes you want to join the symphony today?

Pray:   

O Thou who by Thy touch give form

To all things and their polity,

Whose sight is light to all, draw thanks

From us as we draw breath from Thee.

 

A poem by Wendell Berry from This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems (Berkely, CA: Counterpoint, 2013) p. 341.

 

*This video was written and delivered by the Rev. Dr. Carol M. Bechtel, Professor of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan (Reformed Church in America). Dr. Bechtel is also the Executive Director of the American Waldensian Society. These videos were produced by the Chiesa Evangelica Valdese https://www.chiesavaldese.org/and filmed in the Cottian Alps near Torre Pellice, Italy in July of 2020.

 

Introduction to Teach Us to Pray Series 2

On my recent sabbatical in Italy, colleagues from the Waldensian church invited me to do a series of short videos on prayer. These reflections are a result of that invitation. Although they were written and filmed in the midst of the pandemic (July 2020), they are not “Covid-19 specific.” Still, knowing that they were created in that crucible may add a certain urgency—and utility—to them. I offer them to you here in the hope that they will help you to pray even as our world’s anxiety threatens to make our souls mute.

All of the videos were filmed outside my little lockdown chalet in the Angrogna Valley in northwest Italy, so at the very least, you can enjoy the scenery. And I hope you also enjoy the Italian subtitles. Learn Italian while learning to pray!

Still learning and still praying,

Teach Us to Pray Series 2 – Learning to Pray

 

Video Link: Learning to Pray* (This is a video of the reflection printed below.)

Read: Psalm 63:1-8

O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water (Psalm 63:1, NRSV).

Sometimes I think we make prayer too complicated. Maybe we think we have to be eloquent, or that prayer will only “work” if we have our hands folded in some formal pose. But deep down, I think we all know that prayer can happen in a heartbeat. I suspect that some of the most sincere prayers happen just that way—like signal flares shot into the night sky.

The disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray. But in a sense, it was the psalms that taught Jesus to pray. And many of the psalms read like candid conversations between friends. Of course, we only hear one side of the conversation—but there’s not much doubt that God is on the receiving end. And one suspects that the psalmists were listening as well as talking—straining to hear what God might be saying to them in return.

So, when you pray—don’t make it harder than it needs to be. And of course, different situation call for different kinds of prayers. “Emergency” prayers are one thing, but if that’s the only kind of prayer we pray I think we may begin to test God’s patience!

One of the biggest challenges is to make “space” for prayer. So many things clamor for our attention. Sometimes I feel like my brain is a bug in a jar.

Here’s a poem that helps me to prepare for prayer. It’s by David Adam:

I weave a silence onto my lips.

I weave a silence into my mind.

I weave a silence within my heart.

Calm me, O Lord, as you stilled the storm.

Still me, O Lord, keep me from harm.

Let all the tumult within me cease.

Enfold me, Lord, in your peace.

 

Then a few deep breaths, and I’m ready to pray.

Ponder: Is there anything you want to change about your own prayer life? If so, what might be your first step?

Pray: Teach me to pray, O Lord. Help me to make space for conversations with you.

*This video was written and delivered by the Rev. Dr. Carol M. Bechtel, Professor of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan (Reformed Church in America). Dr. Bechtel is also the Executive Director of the American Waldensian Society. These videos were produced by the Chiesa Evangelica Valdese https://www.chiesavaldese.org/and filmed in the Cottian Alps near Torre Pellice, Italy in July of 2020.

 

Introduction to Teach Us to Pray Series 2

On my recent sabbatical in Italy, colleagues from the Waldensian church invited me to do a series of short videos on prayer. These reflections are a result of that invitation. Although they were written and filmed in the midst of the pandemic (July 2020), they are not “Covid-19 specific.” Still, knowing that they were created in that crucible may add a certain urgency—and utility—to them. I offer them to you here in the hope that they will help you to pray even as our world’s anxiety threatens to make our souls mute.

All of the videos were filmed outside my little lockdown chalet in the Angrogna Valley in northwest Italy, so at the very least, you can enjoy the scenery. And I hope you also enjoy the Italian subtitles. Learn Italian while learning to pray!

Still learning and still praying,

Practicing the Faith: The Thing with Feathers

 

Read: Ruth 2:17-23

So she gleaned in the field until evening. Then she beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about an ephah of barley. She picked it up and came into the town, and her mother-in-law saw how much she had gleaned. Then she took out and gave her what was left over after she herself had been satisfied (Ruth 2:17-18, NRSV).

Can you imagine leftovers giving you a new lease on life? Difficult as this is to comprehend, it is precisely what happens in this passage.

Before her daughter-in-law Ruth shows up with nearly a bushel of barley and leftovers from lunch, Naomi is at the brink of despair. Her husband and two grown sons are dead, and she seems inclined to join them. Her bitterness boils over earlier in the book when her friends rush to welcome her home after more than a decade away. Hearing her name on their lips she snaps, “Call me no longer Naomi [‘Pleasant’]. Call me Mara [‘Bitter’], for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty” (1:20-21).

Well, not quite empty. In her acrid outburst, Naomi has overlooked her single most valuable asset: Ruth.

In the eyes of ancient Israelite culture, Ruth must have looked more like a liability. Ruth was a foreigner and thus suspect on the basis of both her nationality and her religion. There was also reason to suspect she was barren, given that she had not produced a child during her ten years of marriage to Naomi’s son (1:4-5). (Infertility was blamed on the woman in those days.) With no reasonable chance of marriage, Ruth must have seemed like dead weight around the neck of a woman who was already downwardly mobile.

This pessimistic assessment does not take into account God’s standards of measurement, however. Ruth rates high in a quality that is most often attributed to God in the Bible: steadfast love. In older translations, it is sometimes called “lovingkindness.” By any name, it is love that goes above and beyond the call of duty. Ruth shows this love when, in spite of Naomi’s orders to return to the security of her own parents, Ruth clings, terrier-like, to her mother-in-law. “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!” she insists in 1:16. “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried.” Ruth’s decision could well have led to a double plot in Bethlehem’s cemetery. Yet, God seems to have had other ideas.

While Naomi is content to sit home and wait for the grim reaper, Ruth wakes up early and goes out to glean. As luck—or Providence—would have it, she ends up in the field of Naomi’s relative, Boaz. Cousin Boaz notices Ruth right away and wastes no time issuing orders designed to guarantee both her safety and her success.

Thus, the leftovers. When Ruth returns from the field that day, she’s made a real haul. Naomi is quick to ask, “Where did you glean today?” When Ruth reveals the name of their benefactor, Naomi comes back to life. “Blessed be he by the LORD,” she exclaims, “whose kindness [steadfast love] has not forsaken the living or the dead!”

This outburst presents quite a contrast to her earlier one, which was so full of bitterness and blame. “What happened?” we may well ask. If you’ve ever experienced an ounce of Naomi’s bitterness, if you’ve ever shared a fraction of her despair, if you’ve ever entertained even for a moment the urge to shake your fist at God, then you’re going to want to know the answer to that question. What happened?

In a word, hope happened. And hope, as Emily Dickinson tells us, is

 

…the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul—

And sings the tune without the words—

And never stops—at all.

 

Why do I love that poem? Let me count the ways. First, I love it because it recognizes that hope is not some flimsy, ephemeral fantasy that we conjure up to make ourselves feel better. Hope is not something that we manufacture by thinking good thoughts or praying polite prayers. Hope is not the brave face we put on at the funeral home or the lawyer’s office. Hope is the tangible—albeit small—thing that flaps in fresh from its permanent perch at God’s altars and makes its nest right smack in the middle of our despair. And hope sings and sings and sings until, at the very least, we start humming along.

If Naomi had been given to poetry, she might have put it this way:

 

Hope is the thing with fiber

That your daughter-in-law brings home—

It trains its tongue around a name—

That says—you’re not alone.

 

OK, so she wasn’t Emily Dickinson, but the idea is the same. Hope is tangible. The grain had been sent from God. So had Ruth. So had Boaz. And in that moment, Naomi knew it. Knowing it, she exchanged her accusations for a doxology.

What would it take for you to do the same?

Ponder: What are the tangible signs of God’s steadfast love in your life? In the life of the Church? In the life of the world?

Pray: Send hope to make its nest in the middle of our despair, gracious God. Show us ways to share tangible signs of hope with others who are suffering.

 

This reflection is a lightly edited version of a devotional originally published in Life after Grace: Daily Reflections on the Bible © 2003 Carol M. Bechtel. All rights reserved.

 

 

“Practicing the Faith” Series

This series explores some of the things that Christians can expect once the first blush of belief has worn off. Contrary to the mistaken assumption that once we are “saved” we can sit back and relax, these reflections explore the hard work that awaits the believer on the other side of baptism. However, characters from Genesis to Revelation illustrate that practicing the faith is not just a responsibility but also a reward.

All of these reflections are “encore” performances from a book I wrote early in my career: Life after Grace: Daily Reflections on the Bible © 2003 Carol M. Bechtel. All rights reserved. I have edited them lightly, and chosen them with the current context in mind. I hope they have stood the test of time.

Shalom,

Practicing the Faith: Pirates and Christians

 

Read: Colossians 3:12-17

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience…Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God (Col. 3:12 & 16, NRSV).

What do pirates and Christians have in common?

This question is prompted by the classic VeggieTales song, “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything.” The song features a bunch of vegetables dressed up as pirates, sitting around in their recliners, singing a song about how they don’t do anything remotely pirate-like anymore. They brag that they never swab the poop deck and they never veer to starboard. In fact, they never sail at all. As they pass the potato chips, they break into their swashbuckling theme song:

We are the pirates who don’t do anything

We just stay home and lie around

And if you ask us to do anything

We’ll just tell you, “We don’t do anything!”

While this piece pretends to be just another “silly song with Larry,” it actually poses a fairly important question for Christians. Are Christians still Christians if they don’t do Christian “stuff” anymore?

Colossians 3:1-17 suggests that practicing the faith means more than just putting on a Christian costume. In this passage Paul urges us, along with the believers at Colossae, to cloth ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, peace, and above all, love. “Let the word of God dwell in you richly,” he says. “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Notice that the wardrobe Paul recommends is more than skin deep. Qualities like kindness and humility are not the kinds of things that we slap on with our makeup in the morning. They are built up from the inside out over long periods of hard labor, much like muscles in a weight room.

While they may masquerade as nouns, all of these qualities eventually behave as verbs. Patience, for instance, is an action word. A woman I know once told me that she had learned this lesson when going through a divorce, and she had the scars to prove it. Worried, I asked her what she meant. She explained—patiently, of course—“From all the times I had to bit my tongue!”

The pirate song reminds us that merely calling ourselves Christians is not enough. Paul reminds us that doing Christian “stuff” requires a lot of hard work. If we are to “let the word of God dwell in us richly,” more will be involved than what happens on Sunday morning. The labor will involve a lifetime of disciplined Bible study and prayer, of serious social action, and the kind of internal overhaul that only the Holy Spirit can help us undertake.

Of course, if we don’t like it, we can consider the alternative. We could become the Christians who don’t do anything. For those of us who opt for simply wearing the Christian costume and not doing any of the genuine Christian “stuff,” let me suggest the following theme song:

Refrain: We are the Christians who don’t do anything

                          We just stay home and lie around

                          And if you ask us to do anything

                          We’ll just tell you, “We don’t do anything.”

            Verse:   Oh, we never show compassion

                          And we never read the Bible

                          And we never pray the Lord’s Prayer

                          Or recite the hundredth psalm

                          And we never feed the hungry

                          And we never love our neighbor

                          And we can’t distinguish Esther from St. Paul.

Repeat refrain once more with feeling…and pass the potato chips.

Ponder: What impression would your non-Christian friends have of Christianity if your words and actions were the only thing they had to go by?

Pray: Forgive us when we fail to live our faith. Shape our lives to reflect your glory, your compassion, and your grace.

 

This reflection is a lightly edited version of a devotional originally published in Life after Grace: Daily Reflections on the Bible © 2003 Carol M. Bechtel. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

“Practicing the Faith” Series

This series explores some of the things that Christians can expect once the first blush of belief has worn off. Contrary to the mistaken assumption that once we are “saved” we can sit back and relax, these reflections explore the hard work that awaits the believer on the other side of baptism. However, characters from Genesis to Revelation illustrate that practicing the faith is not just a responsibility but also a reward.

All of these reflections are “encore” performances from a book I wrote early in my career: Life after Grace: Daily Reflections on the Bible © 2003 Carol M. Bechtel. All rights reserved. I have edited them lightly, and chosen them with the current context in mind. I hope they have stood the test of time.

Shalom,

Practicing the Faith: I Once Was Blind

 

Read: Mark 10:46-52

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside (Mark 10:46, NRSV).

I had been sitting on that roadside for years, begging and blind. The road was good for begging, as far as that goes, with a fair amount of traffic, especially around holy days. I could always count on those pious religious pilgrims to lighten their conscience along with their purse. That may sound calculating, but let’s face it: it’s a harsh world out there, especially of you are Bartimaeus, the blind beggar.

The world was never so harsh as on the day I was healed.

A large crowd was approaching, which was usually a good sign from my perspective. But my initial hopes were checked by the sound of the voices. This crowd was not just any crowd. They had an agenda. The tension was high, although the reason wasn’t clear. They sounded as if they couldn’t decide whether they were on their way to an execution or a party.

Then someone near me shouted, “There he is…the rabbi from Nazareth!” Suddenly I understood. I had heard about Jesus. According to some, he was a dangerous man to be with; but to listen to others, he was a dangerous man to be without. I hadn’t quite made up my mind yet. Or at least, I wasn’t aware that I had.

But then, I heard the sound of my own voice rising above the shouts of the people around me. I don’t know what got into me, but suddenly, what had started out as a prayer under my breath was a full-fledged shout. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

I’m not sure who was more anxious to shut me up. Some of the voices were familiar. My friends (such as I had) were embarrassed, I suppose, at my making such a fuss. But I think some of the people trying to shush me may have been his disciples. Maybe they thought my use of that messianic title, Son of David, would light the fuse under the procession’s powder keg. They could have been right, because some of the other voices began to turn really ugly at that point.

But then another voice carried across the crowd. Perhaps the reason I heard it was that its tone was so different. Or maybe it was because it was his voice. I guess I’ll never know. In any case, I was not calling him anymore; he was calling me.

It’s funny how accommodating everyone became all of a sudden. The very people who had tried to silence me just moments before were now shoving me forward. What were they thinking, I wonder? The religious authorities may have been trying to set a trap for him. His disciples were probably looking for a diversion. In either case, it didn’t matter. I followed the sound of his voice.

I was so intent on his voice, as a matter of fact, that I did something completely out of character: I threw off my cloak and hurried toward him. Normally, I would never have left my cloak, especially in a crowd like this. What were the chances that I would be able to find it again? And I can’t remember the last time I hurried like that, heedless of every obstacle.

The sudden stillness told me that I had found him. But then I might as well have been struck dumb as well as blind. I couldn’t find any words to say.

He was the one who finally broke the silence. “What do you want me to do for you? He asked. The question was so direct, it was disarming.

What did I want? For years I had prayed for the strength to endure my suffering…the grace to bear my blindness with a better attitude. But now…I guess I never expected God to show up in the flesh and ask me that question point-blank.

In a heartbeat I knew what I wanted. I wanted to be healed—really healed. And I knew that if I didn’t ask him now, I might never have another chance. I screwed up my courage and said, “My teacher, let me see again.”

Making that request was my last act as a blind beggar.

My faith has made me well, he says. If that’s true, then my sight bears witness to the fact that faith is a gift. But however the healing happened, I know that life after grace is going to be radically different. I have no choice now but to follow…even if the road leads to Jerusalem…even if the road leads to a cross. I once was blind, but now I see.

Ponder: What do you want God to do for you? What if God says no? What if God says yes?

Pray: “We cannot measure how you heal or answer every sufferer’s prayer; yet we believe your grace responds where faith and doubt unite to care” (from “We Cannot Measure How You Heal” by John L. Bell).

 

This reflection is a lightly edited version of a devotional originally published in Life after Grace: Daily Reflections on the Bible © 2003 Carol M. Bechtel. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

“Practicing the Faith” Series

This series explores some of the things that Christians can expect once the first blush of belief has worn off. Contrary to the mistaken assumption that once we are “saved” we can sit back and relax, these reflections explore the hard work that awaits the believer on the other side of baptism. However, characters from Genesis to Revelation illustrate that practicing the faith is not just a responsibility but also a reward.

All of these reflections are “encore” performances from a book I wrote early in my career: Life after Grace: Daily Reflections on the Bible © 2003 Carol M. Bechtel. All rights reserved. I have edited them lightly, and chosen them with the current context in mind. I hope they have stood the test of time.

Shalom,

Practicing the Faith: Hostages of Hate

 

Read: Luke 15:11-32

But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends (Luke 15:29, NRSV).

“Mom, Natalie hit me!” wailed the aggrieved voice from the family room.

The newspaper stirred slightly and the weary mother behind it sighed. Was it worth walking to the other room to referee? She hated getting caught in the middle of these things. Why couldn’t they work things out for themselves? Or better yet, not get into fights in the first place? She opted to stay where she was.

“Natalie, did you hit your brother?” she called.

“Yes, but he….”

“Did you hit your brother?”

“Yes,” the truculent voice confessed.

“Tell him you’re sorry.”

Silence. The mother lowered the paper and listened until, at last, she heard the barely audible apology. “Good,” she thought, going back to her reading.

But before long, the aggrieved voice piped up once more. “Mom, I don’t think she meant it!”

***************

Forgiving someone is much easier if we are sure that they are sorry. But more often than not, it’s hard to tell. Even if someone has said the words, we can never be sure it’s more than lip service.

The older brother in the story of the prodigal son is in a similar bind. Actually, he may have it even worse, since if we read the story carefully, he never actually hears his brother’s eloquent confession: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21).

Put yourself in the elder brother’s shoes. “Junior” had convinced their father to cough up his half of the inheritance, and then disappeared to do goodness-knows-what. All that was certain was that he, the obedient older brother, had been working hard on his father’s farm. In fact, he’d been coming in from the field when he heard the sounds of a serious party coming from the house. Who was it for? Why hadn’t he been invited?

He’d had to ask one of the servants what was happening. As if that hadn’t been humiliating enough, the servant had announced the “good news”:  Junior was back, and Dad had fired up the barbecue pit and hired a band.

Commentators have criticized the older brother for his arrogant and unforgiving attitude. Yet, we often overlook the fact that he is being asked to forgive without any certain knowledge of his brother’s repentance. From his perspective, the prodigal brother seems to have just shown up, acting as if nothing is wrong. How would you feel?

Most of us would feel anger…perhaps even hate. What’s more, since those feelings had probably been simmering for some time, the welcome home party would likely bring them to a rolling boil.

In a perfect world, every act of forgiveness would be preceded by a sincere apology. But the world does not always work that way. Victims of rape, abuse, and injustice have to go on living with or without the repentance of those who have hurt them. Sometimes death steps in and precludes the possibility of repentance, and the living victims are left with nowhere to carry their rage. Is any alternative available in such situations, other than to let the rage and resentment build to a boiling point?

Jesus showed us a more excellent, though by no means easier, way. As he was dying on the cross, he prayed this prayer for us, his executioners: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Notice that his forgiveness is not contingent upon our realizing the scope of our crime or asking for our victim’s forgiveness. He simply forgives.

Colossians 3:13 counsels us to forgive “just as Christ has forgiven you.” True, it isn’t easy. But it is better than being held hostage by hate.

Ponder: What is the hardest thing about forgiving for you? About being forgiven?

Pray: Set us free from all the thoughts, emotions, and memories that hold us hostage, gracious God. Help us to forgive as we have been forgiven.

 

This reflection is a lightly edited version of a devotional originally published in Life after Grace: Daily Reflections on the Bible © 2003 Carol M. Bechtel. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

“Practicing the Faith” Series

This series explores some of the things that Christians can expect once the first blush of belief has worn off. Contrary to the mistaken assumption that once we are “saved” we can sit back and relax, these reflections explore the hard work that awaits the believer on the other side of baptism. However, characters from Genesis to Revelation illustrate that practicing the faith is not just a responsibility but also a reward.

All of these reflections are “encore” performances from a book I wrote early in my career: Life after Grace: Daily Reflections on the Bible © 2003 Carol M. Bechtel. All rights reserved. I have edited them lightly, and chosen them with the current context in mind. I hope they have stood the test of time.

Shalom,

 

Practicing the Faith: When Believers Disagree

 

Read: Jeremiah 28

 “As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the LORD has truly sent the prophet” (Jer. 28:9, NRSV).

What happens when believers disagree? Tension mounts as each side defends its take on the truth. Both claim the Bible as the basis for their position. Feelings are hurt, friendships strained, and the body of Christ is battered and broken.

We don’t have to go far for examples, unfortunately. Disagreements about abortion, homosexuality, and the next election put believers at odds on a daily basis. Or perhaps we need go no farther than the divorce court or the dinner table for compelling examples.

No, we don’t lack examples. We lack guidance.

Some help may hail from an obscure passage in Jeremiah. The setting for Jeremiah 28 could not have been more explosive. Religion and politics were wound together to form the fuse that threatened to ignite all of God’s promises to the covenant people. King Zedekiah of Judah was under a lot of pressure to defuse the situation by rebelling against Babylon and throwing off the “yoke” of oppression that Babylon’s king had placed on the people of Judah. After all, Babylon had already taken captive many of the religious and civic leaders, and looted the temple of most of its treasures. The time was ripe for rebellion. Surely, the people of Judah could count on God to back their battle plans.

Enter the prophet Hananiah with just the words King Zedekiah was waiting to hear. “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel,” Hananiah proclaims confidently.

“Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the LORD’s house which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, says the LORD, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon (vv. 2-4).”

While the words may have been welcome to the king, they were oddly jarring to the prophet Jeremiah. They went against every word he’d had from the LORD. According to the revelations he had received, God had placed the Babylonian “yoke” on the people as punishment for their religious infidelity. God had even ordered Jeremiah to wear an actual yoke so that the prophet himself would serve as a walking reminder of God’s judgment (Jer. 27:2). Imagine Jeremiah’s dismay, then, when Hananiah announces the “good news.”

“Let him have it!” we, the readers, root. But Jeremiah doesn’t. Instead, he seems to step meekly aside. “Amen! May the LORD do so,” he says. “May the LORD fulfill the words that you have prophesied” (28:6).

Now it is our turn to be dismayed. Has Jeremiah suddenly undergone a personality transplant? The key to his baffling behavior is in what he says next. In words spiced with both skepticism and sarcasm, he suggests that the only way to tell who is right is to wait and see whose words come true. It is a fairly simple litmus test for true and false prophecy given in Deuteronomy 18:20-22. The only thing required is patience.

This story may seem like a long way to go for guidance on how to referee disputes between believers, but Jeremiah’s reaction is very telling. Until his words are vindicated by God through history, or until he receives another word from the LORD that contradicts Hananiah’s, he cannot be sure whose position is right. For all he knows, Hananiah may have a genuine word from the LORD. In the meantime, Jeremiah is free only to argue his position and point out the probabilities. Even when his adversary resorts to humiliation and violence (Hananiah actually takes the yoke from Jeremiah’s neck and breaks it), Jeremiah does not respond in kind. In what has to be one of the most frustrating phrases in Scripture, Jeremiah 28:11 tells us, “At this, the prophet Jeremiah went his way.”

Most of us do not receive direct revelations from God in the same way that the Old Testament prophets did. Moreover, many of our disputes involve multiple shades of gray. Yet, something can be learned from Jeremiah’s demeanor in this story. The next time we square off—especially with another believer—we would do well to remember Jeremiah’s refusal to claim a corner on the truth. Who knows? God may be speaking to our adversary too. Until we know for sure, perhaps the best we can do is to argue our case and simply walk away. Truth—like murder—will out.

Ponder: Think of disagreements you have had with other believers. Does this story make you wish you had acted differently? How might it impact your words and actions in the future?

Pray: Great God, your love has called us here, as we, by love, for love were made.

            Your living likeness still we bear, though marred, dishonored, disobeyed.

            We come, with all our heart and mind your call to hear, your love to find.

 

(From the hymn, “Great God, Your Love Has Called Us Here,” by Brian A. Wren.)

 

This reflection is a lightly edited version of a devotional originally published in Life after Grace: Daily Reflections on the Bible © 2003 Carol M. Bechtel. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

“Practicing the Faith” Series

This series explores some of the things that Christians can expect once the first blush of belief has worn off. Contrary to the mistaken assumption that once we are “saved” we can sit back and relax, these reflections explore the hard work that awaits the believer on the other side of baptism. However, characters from Genesis to Revelation illustrate that practicing the faith is not just a responsibility but also a reward.

All of these reflections are “encore” performances from a book I wrote early in my career: Life after Grace: Daily Reflections on the Bible © 2003 Carol M. Bechtel. All rights reserved. I have edited them lightly, and chosen them with the current context in mind. I hope they have stood the test of time.

Shalom,