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,

 

Practicing the Faith: Distressed Christians

 

Read: Matthew 14:1-21

But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and she pleased Herod so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” (Mat. 14:6-8, NRSV).

Tension crackles around the screen as we await the verdict of the expert. The program is the popular Antiques Road Show. The hopeful young couple fidgets nervously as the expert gets ready to announce the worth of Great-Aunt Gertie’s cherished dresser. “Five hundred dollars,” the expert says dryly, “though it would be worth ten times as much if you hadn’t refinished it.”

I’ve never understood this. Why is a dingy old piece of furniture worth more than one that has been restored to its original splendor? Even more puzzling is the practice of intentionally “distressing” new furniture to make it look old. When I’m lucky enough to have something new, the last thing that occurs to me is to go at it with a hammer.

The same peculiar logic seems to be at play in this strange sequence of stories in Matthew 14. While clearly “distressed” by the murder of John the Baptist, Jesus barely has time to grieve John’s grisly death. The crowds pursue him like relentless reporters, inflicting the suffering Savior with their own agenda.

Nobody could have blamed Jesus if he had told them all to go jump in the nearby lake. Yet, the Scripture says he “had compassion for them and cured their sick.” Then, not content to cure them, he fed them as well. Five thousand men plus women and children dined that day on what had looked like a meager meal: five loaves and two fish. Once again, Jesus transformed the situation, turning suffering into celebration.

The sequence of these stories is likely not an accident. Matthew seems to be trying to tell us something, not just about Jesus, but about the Christian life.

Think back to the beginning of the story. Jesus had just lost John—a close friend, a cousin, and the herald of the coming Christ. Yet, out of Jesus’ sorrow springs great compassion. Could his own sorrow have sensitized him to the suffering of those around him? As he looked out at the crowd through his own tears, did he see the tears of others? Did he understand that they had carried their friends and loved ones out into this secluded place, hoping to avoid the grief that he now knew?

Logic leads us to another more perplexing question: Did God design Jesus’ personal suffering to quicken his sense of compassion for others? For that matter, does God intentionally “distress” us to make us more valuable in the process?

If the book of Job could not solve the problem of human suffering in forty-two chapters, I’m certainly not going to try to do it in a few paragraphs. The question of “why bad things happen to good people” is far too complex for that. Yet, I will venture an observation based on the Bible and my own experience. Sometimes, by the grace of God, grief does beget compassion, and sometimes Christians who have been “distressed” by tragedy or hardship are made immeasurably valuable. The compassion they learn in the process is multiplied—like loaves and fishes—to heal and feed everyone around them.

Life doesn’t always work that way, of course. Sometimes “distressed” Christians simply turn bitter and are a bane to everyone around them, including themselves. Jesus must certainly have compassion on these wounded souls as well. But he must smile through his tears when one of these suffering servants grows through grief and becomes even more valuable because of it.

A couple I know lost their twenty-two-year-old son to cancer a couple of decades ago. To label their experience a blessing would be absurd. Yet, blessing has blossomed from it. In the years since their son’s death, they have been a haven of comfort and care for other “distressed Christians.” Many of us who have sought them out have been blessed by their compassion. They listen better than most people do. They aren’t afraid to cry, and they aren’t uncomfortable when others do. Perhaps best of all, they don’t try to make the tears go away with simple answers.

Do you know anyone like this couple? Has your grief ever made you grow?

Only God knows how and why this works. But we can be very glad that—in the mystery and mercy of God—it often does.

Ponder: Do you know anyone like the couple described above? Has your grief ever made you grow?

Pray: Meet us where we are, God of compassion, and transform our pain into blessing.

 

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.

 

 

 

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: Peeking at the Last Page

 

Read: Revelation 1:4-8

“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty (Rev. 1:8, NRSV).

I once heard theologian, Richard Mouw, make a shocking confession. He admitted that he often seeks relief from stress by burying himself in the pages of a murder mystery. While there is nothing so shocking in this, to hear him tell the next part, one would think he’d committed the murder himself. After making sure there are no witnesses, he peeks at the last page. He doesn’t need any more stress in his life, he explains guiltily. So he looks ahead just long enough to make sure that everything turns out all right. Once he’s sure that his favorite characters survive, he returns to watch the plot unfold, content to wonder how—and not whether—things turn out well.

In a very real sense, the book of Revelation functions the same way for believers. In the midst of injustice and pain and loss, we read Revelation and are reassured that God’s justice will triumph in the end. Everything will turn out all right.

Wait a minute, you may say. What is reassuring about a book so full of fire and brimstone? To hear the media prophets tell it, most of us are headed for hell, and Revelation is the road map.

Unfortunately, mainline Christian churches have largely relinquished the book of Revelation to preachers who fundamentally misunderstand the book (pun intentended). If we in the mainline had the courage to reclaim John’s ancient vision of Christ’s return, we might discover both comfort and courage for these uncertain times.

The first clue to unraveling this mystery is to stand where John stood when God first granted him this revelation. Exiled to the isle of Patmos “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (1:9), John feels the pain of the persecuted Church with peculiar clarity. From where he stands, hell is already here. The righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Yet, we do not sense despair in what he writes. Far from it. God has given him a peek at the last page, and he writes that vision down to give us all the same reassuring glimpse.

John begins his letter with grace and peace—a tough order under the circumstances (1:4). Yet, he grounds his confidence in Jesus Christ, the “faithful witness.” The Greek word for “witness” is martus, already well on its way to our word “martyr.” John is reminding Christians tempted to renounce their faith that Jesus was the martyr who was faithful to the bitter end. For people under so much pressure to save their skin at the expense of their soul, this reminder must have been both reassuring and challenging.

John also calls Jesus Christ “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (v. 5). This assessment also would have packed a rhetorical punch as a reminder that, all appearances to the contrary, Caesar would someday have to account for his actions to the King of Kings.

But the real reassurance comes in verse 7. “Look!” John shouts, pointing toward the heavens. “He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him.” This vision is of the triumph of God’s justice, a justice so clear that even the eyes of the executioners will see it. Power will change hands. As the prophet Amos puts it, “Justice [will] roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

Echoes of this expectation appear throughout Scripture. Isaiah 40:5 anticipates it with the words, “Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.” Psalm 75:2 hints, “At the set time that I appoint, I will judge with equity.” And Psalm 96 celebrates the moment when God will “judge with equity”:

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice.

let the sea roar, and all that fills it;

let the field exult, and everything in it.

Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy

before the LORD; for his is coming,

for he is coming to judge the earth.

He will judge the world with righteousness,

and the peoples with his truth.

(Psalm 96:11-13)

Everything about Christ’s return urges reassurance rather than dread for the believer. While many of us may not feel the threat of persecution in the same way the early did, we still feel the stress of living in a world where justice is mocked and there is often no reward for doing the right thing. “How long?” we still ask with the psalmist. “How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” (Ps. 13:2).

Not long now, the book of Revelation reassures us. Christ is coming. Christ is coming soon (Rev. 22:20).

Having had our peek at the last page, we can sigh and say, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

Ponder: Are you looking forward to the return of Jesus Christ? Why or why not?

Pray: Come, Almighty, to deliver…enter every trembling heart. (From the hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” by Charles Wesley).

 

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: The Problem with Pooh

 

Read: Genesis 1:24-31

God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day (Genesis 1:31, NRSV).

“The only reason honey is made is for me to eat it.” Thus sayeth the bear…Pooh Bear to be precise.

Far be it from me to pick a fight with Winnie the Pooh. I have spent many appreciative hours in the company of A.A. Milne’s quirky, cuddly character. Yet, at the risk of inviting irate letters telling me to pick on somebody my own size, I can’t help thinking that Pooh’s attitude is a bit problematic.

Does nature exist solely for us to consume it? No. No more than honey is made only for one hungry (albeit adorable) bear to eat it. Yet, judging from the way we have treated the world, one could easily come to that conclusion. To make matters worse, we have sometimes cited Scripture in defense of our actions. God’s command to “subdue” the earth and to “have dominion” over its creatures has often been taken as a license to ransack creation for our own ends.

If we look to the context of God’s command, this reading is a tragic misinterpretation. Just before the order is issued, humanity is created in God’s own image, which is hardly an insignificant detail, especially when one considers the loving majesty of the creation story so far. Each day is earmarked by some new miracle, sprung from God’s fertile imagination. As the parade of creation passes by, God sits back in satisfaction, pronouncing it good, good, and very good. To be created in the image of this God leaves little room for random acts of selfish appetite. So “dominion” must mean something else. Walter Brueggemann is surely on the right track when he suggests that “the task of ‘dominion’ does not have to do with exploitation and abuse. It has to do with securing the well-being of every other creature and bringing the promise of each to full fruition” (Genesis, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1982, p. 32).

As if to guard against sinister distortions, the Bible’s second creation story chooses its words very carefully. In Genesis 2 we read that God puts Adam in the garden and instructs him “to till it and to keep it.” If any doubt remains about the nature of our relationship to nature, this statement surely dispels it. We are to “keep” the earth even as a good shepherd “keeps” his sheep. If we bear in mind the model of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, we are reminded of just how selfless this job description is. Brueggemann again writes, “It is the task of the shepherd not to control but to lay down his life for the sheep (John 10:11).”

Still, if we are not careful, we could easily become ensnared in another misinterpretation of this ancient story. Notice, for instance, how easily we can discuss “nature” or “creation” as if we were somehow distinct from it. Nothing could be further from the truth, nor more dangerous to creation’s care. We may be created in the image of God, but we are still very much a part of creation, and our destiny is intimately connected to its own.

Perhaps another ancient story will serve to illustrate this point.

A Greeks tell the story of Erysichthon, a man who, without a qualm, cut down every tree in the sacred grove of Ceres to feed his own insatiable greed. Ceres “pondered how to make his death a parable of her anger,” and finally found the perfect way to make the punishment fit the crime. (Quotes are from Ted Hughes’ translation, Tales from Ovid, 1997).

She condemned Erysichthon to hunger—infinite, insatiable hunger. He devoured everything, even selling his daughter at the market “to feed the famine in her father.” But none of it, of course, was enough. Finally, when nothing else could satisfy his cravings, “he began to savage his own limbs. And there, at a final feast, devoured himself.”

This ugly end to an ugly story points out the peril of our aggressive and irresponsible attitudes. If we think we can continue to devour creation without finally devouring ourselves, then we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. When we savage creation, we savage our own limbs, and in a final feast, we threaten to devour ourselves. They don’t call us “consumers” for nothing.

Perhaps the only reason nature is made is not for us to consume it. Perhaps it exists to glorify God. Maybe when the trees of the field clap their hands, God sits back and smiles, thinking, “it is good, it is good, it is very good.” In any case, we must begin to think of our role in creation as one of responsibility rather than privilege. Pooh’s attitude may be perfectly appropriate for a young bear, but it is hardly appropriate for grown-up people. Particularly grown-up Christian people.

Ponder: How might seeing yourself as a part of creation influence your behavior?

Pray: Creator God, You made us and all that is, calling creation good.

Teach us again the nature of goodness.

Cultivate this fruit of the Spirit in our lives,

So that we may reflect your goodness and justice in the world.

 

From Eating Together Faithfully, a publication from Life Around the Table

 

 

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: The Calm after the Storm

 

Read: Mark 4:35-41

A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm (Mark 4:37-39, NRSV).

James and John stared ruefully into their half empty glasses. Being brothers, they were used to companionable silences, but this wasn’t one of them. They were still trying to puzzle out the events of the night before, and the silence hung sullenly between them. James finally blurted out, “I thought he was talking to us.”

“What?” asked John, startled out of his stupor.

“I thought he was talking to us. You know. When he sat up and shouted, ‘Peace, be still!’”

“Ha!” barked his brother after a suitably stunned silence.

Heads turned, and curiosity stilled the conversations of the other seaside diners. James hissed, “Be quiet. I don’t want to attract too much attention. Besides, it was a perfectly reasonable assumption. We’d just shaken him out of a sound sleep. And then you had to get all hysterical and accuse him of not caring that we were about to sink like a rock.”

“I was not hysterical. And I had to shout to be heard over the wind. And we were about to sink like a rock.”

“Hush!” hissed James again, trying to check his brother’s temper with his own. They weren’t called the “Sons of Thunder” for nothing.

“All right,” conceded John more quietly. “I guess I did go a little overboard when I asked him whether he cared.”

“I wish you wouldn’t talk about going ‘overboard,’” teased James with just the suggestion of a smile. At last the tension between the two was stilled.

The waitress brought their fish and chips. After an appropriate blessing, they munched companionably for a few minutes before John continued with a question. “What was the scariest part for you?”

“Funny you should ask,” mused James, pushing the crumbs around on his plate. “I know I’ve always had nightmares about drowning in a storm, but that wasn’t actually the part that got to me the most. It was when I realized that he hadn’t been shushing us at all. It was when everything went suddenly, deafeningly silent, and I looked around and realized that it was the storm he’d been shushing.”

The hairs on the back of John’s neck were standing at attention. “I know what you mean. That’s exactly what I was thinking. What’s scarier, after all—a storm at sea or someone who can calm the storm? With only a few words, no less!”

Both brothers were silent again. Finally James ventured, “What have we gotten ourselves into here?”

“Another good question, Brother,” responded John. “This is the first time we’ve had a nice, quiet meal in weeks. We’re traveling constantly. And sometimes I feel more like a body-guard than a disciple.”

“You’ve got that right,” replied James. The crowds are incredible…always pressing closer and closer. The only way to keep him from getting crushed is to put him in a boat just offshore. And sometimes I wonder whether that will protect him. It’s amazing what people will do just to be near him.”

At this comment they both smiled, realizing simultaneously that the observation could apply to them. They’d got to considerable lengths to be near him, too.

“It was a fine career in fish management we had going for us,” remarked John wryly. “Do you ever regret walking away from it?”

“Not ‘regret’ exactly. But I wonder a lot. Not just about whether we’re right to keep following him, but about who in the world he really is.” James paused for a moment before continuing in a hushed voice. “All day I’ve been remembering those verses from Psalm 89: ‘O LORD God of hosts, who is as mighty as you? You rule the raging of the sea…’”

“‘…when its waves rise, you still them,’” John finished the quote for him. The two sat staring at each other for a while, neither daring to follow the connection to its impossible conclusion.

John cleared his throat abruptly and pushed back his chair.

“No. Wait,” insisted James. “Who is he? What do you think, really?”

John answered vaguely, “I’m not sure. I’m not sure of anything these days, except that I’d follow him anywhere.” Then he turned on his heel and walked toward the door.

“Trust John to leave me stuck with the bill,” muttered James, throwing down a coin and rushing to catch up with his brother.

Ponder: What is the hardest thing about following Jesus for you?

Pray: Give us courage when we are afraid, gracious God. Help us to trust you even when we don’t fully understand…even when we can’t see what the future holds.

 

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,