Bible Reading Plans

September 18, 2014

The best of intentions languish without a plan. My goal is very simple: to read a little bit of Scripture every day and keep acquainted with the whole counsel of God.  To this end, I offer the following recommendations among the many possibilities available these days. All links have been checked today so these are good to go. I start, however, with my favorite because it was devised by one of my favorite people, Dr. Dale Bruner, formerly of Whitworth University and now retired and writing commentaries in Pasadena, California. He sketched this reading plan out on a white-board one day, and it has stuck with me ever since.

Dr. Dale Bruner’s Two Year Reading Plan
Reading schedule covers entire Bible in two years (Genesis & NT twice, Psalms monthly), reading Monday through Saturday: NT Reading in the morning, five psalms at lunch time,* OT Reading in the evening. Sunday: A chapter from Genesis each week

09.17.19 Bruner Reading Plan cropped* On each date of the month, read the five psalms for the day in the following pattern:09.17.19 Bruner Psalms cropped

 

 

 

 

Other Personalized Reading Plans

My Bible Plans
http://www.mybibleplans.com/
You customize the plan: pick the segment of the Scriptures you want to read, in how many days, starting when; and it maps out the schedule. You can print out the schedule, or sign up to have it delivered by email each day. Uses the English Standard Version of the Bible.

M’Cheyne Bible Readings
http://www.edginet.org/mcheyne/
Four chapters each day, covering the entire Bible in one year. Two of these daily readings are intended for family reading, the other two “secret” (meaning “private; individual”). Various delivery formats available.

Blue Letter Bible
http://www.blueletterbible.org/dailyreading/
Takes you step by step through the process of registering for a personalized Bible reading plan. You can choose the translation you want to read, your general time-table (one or two years), and the layout: historically chronological, blended OT and NT, canonical (the order in which the books appear in the Bible), etc. For starters, I recommend the 1-year plan at http://www.blueletterbible.org/dailyreading/PDF/1Yr_OTNTPlan.pdf or the 2-year plan at http://www.blueletterbible.org/dailyreading/PDF/2Yr_OTNTPlan.pdf

Scripture Awakening—The Bible in 90 Days
http://scriptureawakening.com/b90/
This is a purchased guide for reading the entire Bible in three months. There are “best practices” for use of the material in small groups, church-wide reading commitments, etc. The claim is that it only takes up to 60 minutes of reading a day to cover Genesis to Revelation in 90 days!

Bible Gateway
https://www.biblegateway.com/reading-plans/?version=NIV
Various options for a daily email, which includes the full text of the day’s reading. The Daily Plans all start on January 1, but there are various options to choose from, such as “The Gospels in 40 Days.”

Ligonier Ministries Bible Reading Chart
http://visualunit.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/bible_reading.pdf
Stick this downloadable printout into your Bible and check off Book and Chapter as you read. Totally flexible.

Since we’re in September, I have decided to print out the Ligonier reading chart and start chipping away, generally along the lines of of a customized plan from My Bible Plans. Depending on how it is going, on January 1 I may start at the beginning with Bruner’s Plan . . . So, let’s see how this goes! What I do believe is this:

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

A Red Flag

September 17, 2014

Going back to my original list of “why I haven’t been blogging,” today I shall address the last one enumerated there:

I have not been “in the Word” as a daily or even regular spiritual discipline. I realize just how much the Scriptures are food for thought, and I haven’t been eating.

So, this is really a confession of sorts, but not a self-indulgent one, I hope. My aim is simply to articulate an experience that you may have had, too, and to respond to it.

My personal, spiritual disciplines of the traditional kind, especially Bible reading and study, have been shot to heck in the last few months. Maybe it started with the recliner-bound stupor, which made watching Netflix episodes of Foyle’s War (PBS) and West Wing (NBC) just about my speed. Then in April, on my just-deceased mother’s bedside, I found a J. A. Jance detective novel. I’ve now read ten of them! This is not high literature, even of the P. D. James caliber, but just fluff, fun fluff.

I was sharing this admission with a friend on Sunday, and he said, “You’ve taken a sabbatical!” That’s the positive spin on it, but I have to say, even on my sabbaticals in years past, Bible reading has always been a mainstay.

During this period, I have attended worship faithfully. I have prayed, if not systematically, at least regularly. I have even preached a few times and thoroughly enjoyed temporary immersion in God’s Word. I have counseled many, and brought Scripture into the discussion when appropriate. The Bible knowledge is all right there, ready to be accessed in vending machine fashion. And I certainly have continued to live the life shaped by an orthodox understanding of Scripture; I’m not falling off a wagon or anything. God’s presence has been encouraging throughout, though I have to admit a little more distant than what I was experiencing during my cancer treatment.

My appreciation for total depravity and the human propensity to self-deception (like Eve in Genesis 3) raise the red flag. This can’t go on too long, or I will miss something important or starve.

I love the title of Eugene Peterson’s book Eat This Book, in reference to the Scripture and taken from the Revelation to John:

So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, “Take it, and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.” So I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter. (Revelation 10:9f)

And of course, at a time of great temptation, Jesus relied on the ancient reminder:

One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew and Luke 4:4)

To read the Scriptures, to meditate upon them, brings life and clarity and direction. The Psalmist opens Psalm 1 with this joyful claim:

1          Happy are those
                        who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
            or take the path that sinners tread,
                        or sit in the seat of scoffers;
2          but their delight is in the law of the LORD,
                        and on his law they meditate day and night.
3          They are like trees
                        planted by streams of water,
            which yield their fruit in its season,
                        and their leaves do not wither.
            In all that they do, they prosper.

Even as I write this post with my Bible open to the Revelation 10 passage, I am again reminded that while the Word of God is sweet on my tongue, in the pit of my stomach I know that it calls me to teaching and prophetic ministry during a difficult time in the church’s history. Maybe my sabbatical has been a break not just from the Word but from the more unpleasant aspects of ministry, especially when the Word one preaches is not finding a hearing among one’s Presbytery colleagues.

The task before me now is to ingest and digest God’s Word as a steady diet. If I were half as attentive to spiritual eating as I am to physical eating, I would be well-fed and nourished for the work God calls me to do. But how does one get back to the table and feast once more? Some steps:

  • Confessional Prayer: Lord, work your will and way in me and make me hungry for your Word.

  • Discipline: Lord, I know I am going to need your prodding and your reminders. Bother me until daily reading becomes a habit once again.

  • Intention: Okay, Lord, I own this. I will not just “try” but with your help I intend to act.

  • Method: Lord, again with your help and the power of your Holy Spirit, I will pick a reading plan to get me in the habit, and trust that you will woo me with the wisdom, power, truth, and life of your Word.

As to “reading plans,” I’ve never been a fan of the Lectionary (too chopped up), preferring to read whole books at a time to keep the context and get the flow of history and theology. In the short term, I shall read Deuteronomy—a random choice, for now—since last week’s sermon came from this fifth book of the Pentateuch. Tomorrow, before leaving the subject of devouring God’s Word, I’ll share some of the various reading plans that are easy to remember and use. Are you with me?

Today I would like to develop further the idea I introduced yesterday of finding one’s voice. Isaiah 40:1-9 has spoken to me lately, and though the topic there is Jerusalem/Zion’s revival after a long season of disruption from Babylonian and Assyrian tyrants, there are parallels to today’s church and the role of prophet therein.

The passage begins with words of comfort, indicating to God’s Chosen that the worst of their captivity is over:

1          Comfort, O comfort my people,
                        says your God.
2          Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
                        and cry to her
            that she has served her term,
                        that her penalty is paid,
            that she has received from the LORD’S hand
                        double for all her sins.

Israel has been through the ringer, undergoing God’s judgment against her apostasy, her empty worship, and her sense of entitlement. But God is saying here, You have paid your debt and have entered a new season of reconciliation with God.

But now, some real work has to be done to rebuild the people of God:

3          A voice cries out:
            “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
                        make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4          Every valley shall be lifted up,
                        and every mountain and hill be made low;
            the uneven ground shall become level,
                        and the rough places a plain.
5          Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
               and all people shall see it together,
                        for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

In the wasteland of human hearts, a major construction project must be undertaken in order to welcome God back into residence among his people. Obstacles to the Lord’s full access must be removed, what is uneven must be paved level, and what is crooked must be straightened. From a spiritual perspective, what must happen is this: God’s people—including church people who have been wayward—must make preparations for another invasion. This one does not bring weapons of mass destruction but the full Glory of God’s Presence. Only those purified by the refiner’s fire will be able to withstand God’s Glory; that’s why God’s arrival is something that must be anticipated and prepared for. It is the role of prophet, ancient and contemporary, to speak the plan and call people to the work of preparation for the Lord’s coming.

There are always doubters in our midst, then and now:

6          A voice says, “Cry out!”
                        And I said, “What shall I cry?”
            All people are grass,
                        their constancy is like the flower of the field.
7          The grass withers, the flower fades,
                        when the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
                        surely the people are grass.

The question is whether mere mortals can muster the courage and the skill for the assigned task. How can inconsistent, fragile, temporary people make ready for God’s Glory? This voice says, Surely people are grass, which does not fare too well in drought and wind and wildfire (don’t we Californians know this?!).

If it were only up to us to make straight and level the road of life, we would fail. But there is hope, spoken by the voice of faith:

8          [Yes, indeed. . .] The grass withers, the flower fades;
                        but the word of our God will stand forever.

It isn’t your word or my word that will carry the message of hope and restoration to exiled people, it is God’s Word! God’s is the Word that stands forever, that cannot be shaken, and will be heard (eventually) by everybody! It behooves the prophet(s) in our midst, including me, to proclaim the Word of the Lord and bring that Word to life.

So how does that translate to blogging ministry? Denominational topics? I’m not sure the PC(USA) is out of the woods, yet, of God’s judgment for straying away from his Word and disregarding his law. Our tribe is still proving the existence of “total depravity” (a Reformation-era concept). It is very possible that in our lifetimes we could see the demise of the PC(USA) simply because it redefines itself to be people who write their own “word.” For this reason, “Comfort, comfort ye, my people” may not be the appropriate message to the PC(USA). The prophet may still have to name the sin and voice the warnings. When things happen (and I have a doozy from last week), I may not be able to avoid the admonitions and exhortations that rise to my mouth! On the other hand, I would really like to be able to point to those moments and occasions when God’s Glory breaks through or when God’s Word addresses life as I am experiencing it. For you, I hope that means encouragement for your effort towards spiritual restoration and rehabilitation—making paths to God straight and level.

So this is an invitation to embark upon this as a project God has given us, to let God’s Word inform and transform us in life and in death. That means reflecting on real life—however it unfolds—in light of God’s Word.

Losing One’s Voice

September 15, 2014

One of the interesting, and somewhat disappointing, developments of this summer has been trouble with my breathing apparatus. My lungs check out very well, indeed, but the upper airways (trachea and bronchi) are stiffening. This causes me to wheeze under certain conditions, and if you really listen, you can hear a slight whistle coming from just below my voice box. My radiology oncologist suggests the possibility that last Fall’s radiation treatments are now causing some scarring in those tubes. The matter is being investigated by my medical team, and I’m hoping there might be some sort of definitive treatment to correct the problem. We’ll see!

Miraculously, I am able to sing, and in fact have joined a choir. A week ago Saturday we experienced our first all-day “retreat” with this group, which entailed a lot of vocalizing (most of the day). By the end, I was afraid my voice was going to go completely. As a voice major, I know the best remedy for laryngitis is vocal rest and hydration, so I did the drill and averted disaster. The experience, however, gave me a handle on what has been going on with me in the writing department.

In late Spring, as I was coming out of the cancer tunnel and as the PC(USA) General Assembly was looming, I began to lose my writing (blogging) voice. It takes awhile to find one’s voice, that unique point of view, writing style, even that soul of a writer expressed in words. It was a new experience for me, having nothing to say! [Take her to the hospital! Mary has run out of things to comment upon!]

So, a little history: In the last year, I have picked up some new readers drawn to my experience of lung cancer. Many of you may not know that I had a “previous life” as a Presbyterian activist. As a minister member of San Francisco Presbytery and a national leader among evangelical/orthodox Presbyterians, I reflected on the politics, theology, discipline, and governance of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). My perspective was, and remains, theologically conservative, biblically anchored, and challenging to the emerging trends in my particular tribe of mainline Protestantism.

The year my tribe was ramping into the season known as “General Assembly,” held in Detroit in June 2014, I was out for the count. Undergoing rigorous treatment for lung cancer, having surgery to remove a lobe of my lung, and recovering in my recliner, my interest in denominational issues slackened under the constant effort just to stay awake. It’s amazing how an experience like this puts life in slow motion, reorganizes priorities, and takes the urgency out of some events.

During this time, however, I found my voice in reference to lung cancer and the spiritual life, and Bringing the Word to Life meant bringing the Scriptures to bear on prolonged illness, the possibility of dying, and the miracle of cure. The medications I took had one quirky side effect I wish I could have back: I was wide awake from 3 to 8 a.m. every morning, providing the perfect quiet and reflective mood for writing. But now that these drugs are completely out of my system, I am slogging away like everybody else, trying to find the time and the quiet to gather my thoughts. I can assure you, the joy of living is a daily gift now, and small pleasures are intensified. My batteries—physical and spiritual—are almost fully recharged at this point, and I’m ready to roll in the writing department.

So now the question is, should I go back to writing about denominational issues? All summer, I have felt the Lord urging me to silence on the PC(USA) topic, literally restrained from writing about the GA decisions of greatest concern to me. I watched the plenary sessions of GA on live streaming, took copious notes, stayed in touch with my colleagues on site. But when the decisions came down, it was as though I had lost my voice. I felt like I had given reasonable warning for years, as a prophet in the wilderness trying to wake people up to the disaster ahead. My warnings went unheeded; my logic was unconvincing; something “newer” and “better” was adopted. My point of view is now considered irrelevant, if not dangerous, to the thought police who are redefining “tolerance” even as they are redefining “marriage.”

My silence has not been due to fear. I am not afraid of what people think of me or my ideas. I don’t have anything to lose professionally. If there’s one thing I have learned in the last year, there is nothing to be afraid of when one is carried by the Savior.

My silence is not an indication I have given up. I do not plan to roll over and play dead while the assault upon a biblically faithful and historically orthodox theology continues.

My silence itself is not acknowledgment that I have lost a contest. I believe a contest has been decided, with erroneous teaching and an abandonment of the rules, but “losing” is not what has rendered me silent.

It is “the fear of the Lord” and his holiness and righteousness that has me standing in awe-full silence, for now. I don’t expect it to be permanent, but I do expect with vocal rest and hydration (drinking the Living Water), it won’t be long before the Lord will give me permission to bring his Word to life, be it in the PC(USA) or in other aspects of life yet to unfold.

Tomorrow, some thoughts from the Major Prophets.

I’m Back!

September 14, 2014

My dear readers, it has been over three months since I last blogged. Some of you have been asking if I am all right, and your concern has touched me and challenged me. Yes, I am just fine! Last week I had the six-month post-op evaluation of my condition, with CT scan and blood work, and I remain “cancer-free.” My strength is back and I have been remarkably busy enjoying life and catching up. Just normal life stuff, vacation, sorting and disbursing my deceased mother’s possessions, ¼-time work, things like that.

Only three reminders of my illness remain: 1) the VAP is still installed and won’t be removed for two years “just in case we need it again”; 2) nine hours of sleep is about right, still, and after a really big day I don’t just get tired, I crash; and 3) some breathing issues persist and investigation of their cause(s) continues.

Item 1 is simply a reminder of my mortality, which is not a bad thing.

Item 2 means I do not wake, bright-eyed and bushy tailed, at 3 a.m. anymore. All last year, 3 to 5 a.m. was my prime time for writing! Getting up at 7 a.m. has changed all that and I’m still trying to figure out how to get everything done in a day’s time, especially those activities that need to be done “first thing in the morning.”

Item 3 means I have been preoccupied with self-maintenance and medical detective work, attending a rigorous pulmonary rehab program, keeping a series of diagnostic and monitoring medical appointments, and exercising up to two hours a day.

The bottom line, though, is that I am now able to do just about anything physical I want to do, at sea level; I may be a little slower on the uphill, but I can get there. It gives me great joy to witness God’s creation in the quiet nooks and crannies of my town’s Open Space and even up high in the Sierra Nevada, where, after some acclimatization I can actually hike and breathe in the pristine air and soak in the silence.

My professional life is a mish-mash of interesting activities, including serving as a gap-filler, officially titled “pastoral associate” at the Lutheran church (ELCA) near my home. This is my day-to-day faith community and the context for exercising my spiritual gifts since returning from medical leave on June 1. But I have also been retained as counsel in some Presbyterian legal matters, which has required a bit of travel and intense days (the ones I crash after). I am still the Moderator of the Presbyterian Coalition, but expect to step down from that role as soon as our post-GA work is done, probably in October.

The question you have asked, though, is the one that has been in a “stuck” position since last April: “What is happening with your writing?” There are two sides to this question, my book-writing and my blog-writing. The first one I can dispatch easily. The book-writing is all in my head and not on paper, with the exception of Slaying the Beast, which is half done but has been dormant since June. Too busy, pure and simple, with other priorities and constant interruptions for Item 3 above.

The writing of the blog, however, has a much more complicated answer. I share some thoughts on this, finally, only because I believe my personal dilemmas might resonate somewhat with my readers. Today I will just list them, with the intent of unpacking each one in the coming week:

  1. I feel I have lost my voice, figuratively speaking.

  2. I have, at times, been overcome by sadness at events unfolding.

  3. Some of the interesting topics are so broad and global, I hardly know where to start.

  4. Some of my thoughts have been on topics that cannot be discussed because of confidentiality agreements. I won’t be saying anything more about this, for obvious reasons, but when I am “working on a case,” it dominates my thoughts and writing time.

  5. My illness, such rich fodder for spiritual reflection, is basically done and gone. Now what?

  6. I have not been “in the Word” as a daily or even regular spiritual discipline. I realize just how much the Scriptures are food for thought, and I haven’t been eating.

So there you go. God is stirring me up to repentance, re-engagement, and reflection. You’ll be the first to hear all about it.

Until tomorrow,
“Silent No More” Mary

 

The third mandate Jesus issued regarding the witness of his followers is found in John 13, right after Jesus washes the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. His humble and socially shocking demonstration apparently got a conversation going among the men. Jesus said to them (among other things):

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34f)

Jesus knew human nature pretty well to put his finger on the Achilles heal of many a church (and denomination). To state the matter positively, “The mutually lived-out heart love of Christians for one another will be the single greatest missionary force in the world.” (Dale Bruner, Commentary on John, 796). On the negative side, a lot of damage to our Christian witness occurs when, within the life of our congregations, we are unkind, rude, argumentative, or otherwise unloving. In every church I have served, my administrative assistant has been reduced to tears by the abusive incivility of callers who are members of the church! The wail always is, “But they are Christians; they’re supposed to be kind and loving.” Right on. So it hurts the Body when some find it justifiable to be condescending or demanding—not in the Spirit of Christ!

It is interesting that John focuses on Christ’s exhortation to his followers that they love one another. Matthew lifts up Jesus’ teaching about loving enemies (Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:43), and we certainly must do that. But John, in his gospel and in his letters, emphasizes the importance of loving one another as a sign of our faith’s genuineness and a requirement for our Christian witness. He is not saying, “Enjoy the love fest. Keep it to yourselves.” No, John’s Jesus is saying, “Love one another for the sake of others, so that nothing will obstruct their trust in Me.”

I checked in with my Coffee Ladies this week about this exhortation, and yes, sure enough, they each had a story of so-called Christians who turned them off to the church because they gossiped, bickered, or bad-mouthed others. It was truly a bummer to hear this. But when we do these things, we undermine and invalidate the gospel’s message; and who wants to take a chance on that kind of group?

The Apostle Paul is helpful here for describing love for the church. The famous 1 Corinthians 13 is not a passage about love in marriage, it is a description of what love is and is not in the life of the church:

06.13.14.Love Is Grid

In summary, love is not self-centered or insecure. Love extends tenderness to others, while abiding in God’s truth in full submission.

As many of my friends travel to Detroit today and tomorrow for the General Assembly of the PC(USA), which starts on Saturday, I am painfully aware that ours is a Christian tribe having trouble demonstrating love for one another. I do not think love, as Jesus promotes it, precludes honest and respectful debate. Nor do I think it is our prerogative to define for God and others what love is. Some “insisting on their own way” are saying to the church, “You must love me, and to do that you must accept my commitment to homosexuality. More than that, in order to love me, you must celebrate my commitment to homosexuality.” I do not think this is what Jesus meant by loving. Certainly one is to show utmost kindness and courtesy to the homosexually committed. There is no justification for rudeness or arrogance, which are unloving. But we are called to be patient (waiting for something yet to come), happy in the truth (obedient to the Word of God), willing to share the burden of others in the meantime, and hopeful for the transformation Jesus promises (new Life, free from sin).

So as you pray for the members of your own congregation and presbytery or district, could you also offer a prayer for the commissioners and observers as they begin to meet this weekend? “By this everyone will know that you are [Christ’s] disciples, if you have love for one another.” Make this a reality, Lord Jesus!

 

A recurring theme in the gospels, particularly in Jesus’ instruction to his disciples, is the attitude required to pursue God’s purposes. Here are a few samples:

When the ten heard [about the power squabble between the sons of Zebedee], they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:24-28; parallels in all four gospels)

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Matthew 16:24; parallels in Mark and Luke)

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. (John 12:24-26)

After [Jesus] had washed [the disciples’] feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. (John 13:12-16)

What are the words that jump out in Jesus’ teaching? Servant, slave, take up cross, die, wash feet. Jesus exhorts his disciples to follow in his footsteps to serve others, deny themselves, adopt humility, and act sacrificially. In other words, dear readers, Jesus is asking us to step out of the way and defer to his will and Way, for the sake of the Kingdom.

This servanthood we are called to adopt is a serious commitment to the Lord’s agenda at the expense of ours. Availability to the Lord 24/7 is a way of life, rendering service that is as natural as breathing. By adopting this mindset (as well as choosing this active service) we opt out of competition, because our aim is simply to place ourselves at the bottom rung of the ladder in order to support and lift up everyone else. While it may seem so self-defeating as to be impractical if not impossible, the Lord says that if we do this we will not be defeated but ultimately honored (by the Audience of One).

But it does require “dying.” Dying to self, dying to ego, really letting go of my way in deference to the Lord’s way and possibly yours, too. This is about as easy as the mental and emotional transaction required to give up sugar permanently or to decide never again to celebrate one’s birthday. There is no question about its difficulty in the flesh, but in the Spirit we are able to die to self in order to live for God.

So what would it look like if we put ourselves into the Lord’s service? This is possible, by the way, while maintaining whatever vocation the Lord has given you. Being on call for the Lord means, in simple terms, that we are open to the ministry opportunities as they arise in a day’s time, as we go about normal business. Serving Christ means being alert to the needs of people around us, particularly those who are overlooked or intentionally bypassed by most people. A cursory look at church history demonstrates that Christians have been the ones willing to die to self, decline a fat salary in some lucrative business, and adopt a need as God’s calling upon their lives. The missionary movement of the 19th and 20th centuries provide many examples in Asia and Africa.

I have mentioned in previous posts about my college roommate Alene and her husband Steve who minister in Bomet, Kenya. Well, another of my Stanford roommates Maci Berkeley now lives among and ministers to a tribe of northern Mexicans in the Sierra Madre Mountains who previous had no medical care whatsoever. About twenty years ago, she and her orthopedic surgeon husband Mike left a successful practice in Aspen, CO (let that sink in for a minute) to start a new clinic in this remote location sandwiched between the realms of two drug lords. Over the years, the Berkeleys have managed to arrange for the donation of medical equipment, pharmacy items, and even staff to run the place and now have a thriving practice among the poorest of the poor. Their ministry is amazing and at times dangerous, but they are making a difference and giving testimony to the health and justice of the Kingdom of God.

Sacrificial servanthood is a hallmark of Jesus followers. Unless a seed dies and is buried in the ground, it cannot sprout and bear fruit. May we all realize the impact of our baptism and our conversion, to see ourselves buried with Christ and, in the power of the Holy Spirit, risen to make visible the Kingdom for the glory of God!

Next post: The third characteristic of Christ’s missionary style, loyal love.

I am in a unique season in my life; I have good news to share with just about anybody who will listen. My glad tidings, as my regular readers know, is that after six months of messing around with a diagnosis of lung cancer and all its treatments (chemo, radiation, and surgery), I am now cancer-free with little expectation that it will come back. Disclosing this part of my story is coming very naturally as I am welcomed back to the grocery store where I have been a regular customer for sixteen years. My hair stylist gave me my first post-chemo haircut ten days ago, and he held onto every word of my account of the past seven months. The presumably Buddhist pedicurist was genuinely blessed when I said my doctors had God’s help to heal me. The list goes on and on. The power to witness has overflowed out of the intensity with which I experienced God in my life this year.

As we bask in the afterglow of Pentecost celebrated by the church this past Sunday, I am thinking about how that experience propelled 120 disciples out into the city of Jerusalem (Acts 2). The Holy Spirit had given them the power to witness, and their good news was that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead and was offering new life to anyone who would believe in him. Many of these disciples were hicks from Galilee, and yet God gave them the supernatural ability to communicate with everybody, even the international crowd. The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection simply rolled out of their mouths, and nothing could stop them from proclaiming and their audience from hearing.

Christians of our century, having been reminded of the mandate and power to witness by the feast of Pentecost, are urged to recognize the uniqueness of our calling. This is a good week to go over some of the aspects of our faith that make our mission not only distinct from the non-religious world but different from other religious groups world-wide. Jesus’ teaching leading up to his crucifixion pointed to his radical expectations. Particularly in the gospel of John, the last public discourses and private instructions he gave focused on how Jesus’ followers were to conduct themselves once he was gone from their sight (the “ascension” we talked about last week). I’d like to comment on three of these requirements for the missionaries Jesus sent out into the world by the power of the Holy Spirit.

First requirement: It is to Jesus, not ourselves, that we give witness. I’ve noticed over the years that church people are more apt to extol the virtues of their worshipping community than they are to extol the virtues of God. I think the psalmist really meant it when he wrote, “One generation shall laud your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts” (Psalm 145:4). When God has done something really cool, it’s hard to keep quiet about it.

And yet, many Christians are very quiet about Jesus. I can see a few reasons for this: 1) people experience Jesus as a quiet presence in the background of their lives, while in the forefront they are busy with other concerns; 2) people’s faith has waned since the first time they got to know Jesus by name, perhaps in childhood long ago; 3) people are afraid that sharing what God has done in their lives will be ridiculed or dismissed; 4) people have not actually experienced the presence of God at work in their lives, and therefore have nothing to say; and 5) people are worried that if they bring up God in conversation, somebody is going to ask them a question they can’t answer.

It is so much easier and more natural, they say, to talk about what’s going on at church or to invite someone to a concert happening there this weekend, or even to wax eloquent about feeling good and blessed without giving a hint as to the Source of that blessing. Right now, in the Presbyterian tribe, it’s easier to talk about hopes and expectations for next week’s General Assembly, which is a church activity, than to talk about the Lord of the Church himself.

Jesus made it quite clear that the outcome of our testimony would be God’s glory. Our job is to point people to what God is doing and to show gratitude for that. Of course it is possible that God is doing something in and through your church, and it is fair game to share that with others. But rather than praise the church, are we not called to praise God from whom the blessings flow and make know the mighty acts of God?

So, the first hallmark of Christian mission is that it is about Jesus, not about us. No other religious body lifts up the name of Jesus as Lord of all, head of the church, or shepherd of our souls. Some may acknowledge his teaching ability, his role as a prophet, or even his good and pure life. But nobody but the Christian bows and worships Jesus Christ as God-come-in-the-flesh to redeem the world. The power of the Holy Spirit gives us the ability to acknowledge the truth of biblical proclamation a d the mighty acts of God testified to therein. Given this first unique aspect of Christian mission, how are you doing talking about Jesus instead of yourself? What would equip you to do this better? Whom can you ask for help to develop skills or summon the courage for giving witness? Food for thought, and then power for action!

Next post: the second unique requirement for Christian mission, sacrificial servanthood.

Ministry without Power

June 6, 2014

As the church family awaits the celebration of Pentecost on Sunday, I have been reflecting on what it would have been like if the Spirit had not come as promised. From the testimony of the gospels and the book of Acts, we know that the disciples—waiting as instructed for “power from on high”—basically did nothing risky or bold in the interim. Unless you consider the nomination and election of a new elder to fall into that category . . . (see Acts 1:12:26).

I have two personal experiences to share that gave me an inkling of what it is like to minister without power. The first took place in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Pentecost Sunday, 1994. The pastor of the largest Presbyterian Church in Zimbabwe was called away on a family emergency the week before this holy day, and asked me to preach in his stead. I chose as my topic “The Power of Pentecost.” I climbed the staircase to the “birdcage pulpit,” and preached what was a good, solid piece of work on the Holy Spirit. But there was something wrong with the sermon; I did not feel the power of the Lord behind it. I told the pastor when he got home, and he solicited a few comments from parishioners. Their feedback affirmed my orthodox theology but acknowledged that the sermon was more treatise than testimony. Yes indeed, it is possible to preach “The Power of Pentecost” without power! I learned a big lesson that week: I need to take as much time preparing the preacher as I do the sermon.

The second story comes from the fall of 2006. It was late September and I was launching into the new “program year” at church, feeling by that time that my work there was drawing to a close. I had been applying for new pastoral positions for a few months, but nothing was materializing. It was a Saturday, and I was reading a New York Times article about women in the pastorate when God broke into my thoughts and out of the blue said, “Mary, your time at First Church is completed and I want you to move on. I am asking you to go before you have a new call in place. Trust me. And just to make sure that you do what I am requesting of you, I am withdrawing my power from your ministry.” It was so definitive and accompanied by the surety of God’s peace; I just knew I had to begin to take the steps to exit. And yes, God did withdraw his power from my work. I’m not sure the people knew this was happening, but I definitely felt it. God was calling out of me an obedience in one direction (exit) and making it clear that this was my only option. [For those with active imaginations, no, I was not being “chased out” by hostile elders; quite the contrary, things were sweet at the time.]

So what does that feel like, to be doing the Lord’s work without power? There is a sense of waiting, because one’s spirit knows that help is needed in order to have spiritual impact. There is a retreat into listening mode to hear how the Lord is redirecting one’s efforts. There is a summoning of a sense of duty to do the work faithfully without the consolations often present when power is flowing. There is a sense that one’s faith is being tested and that one’s motives are being examined (by God). And it becomes far easier to say “no” to the things that are counterproductive to God’s new plan emerging. But because ministry without power is not sustainable, a certain kind of misery also sets in, causing me for one to do a thorough “examination of conscience,” confession, and repentance. I think this is what Ignatius of Loyola had in mind for his spiritual exercises, which originally were designed to help disciples discern their vocational call.

I am happy to say that the mourning lasted only a little while, and in time the Lord rejuvenated me with his power and direction for the new life I have been leading since leaving that parish at the end of 2006.

Desiring the Lord’s power is not being selfish, it is an absolute necessity to rely on divine help to accomplish anything of lasting, eternal value. And so, in a very real sense, these days before Pentecost offer the simple reminder that we are to wait for the Lord’s power, stay in fellowship in the meantime, and with the help of fellow disciples to fully embrace the Lord’s energizing direction when it finally does come. It is not the time to barge ahead with our great ideas, our agendas, or our plans, without first asking God to confirm them by pouring out his Spirit and showing favor for those ideas, agendas, and plans that are actually his. [I am not saying that an idea that is popular is necessarily God’s will; I am saying that somehow we must sense God’s favor with an idea. I suppose this is a subject—that is, how do we detect God’s favor?—for another blog!]

We know what it feels like to force a size 10 foot into a size 7 shoe. If that is what you are feeling in the pursuit of some particular plan, may I suggest it might be time to check in with God about your reading of his will, and ask for wisdom and power to proceed in the right direction for the sake of his Kingdom.

Happy Birthday to Me!

June 5, 2014

Today is my birthday, and given the bout with the Beast this past year, one worth celebrating with gusto! We are having a few friends over to share dinner and birthday cake, and if family tradition prevails, I am entitled to special treatment all day. Actually, maybe all week—we try to stretch our luck as far as we can. Last year at this time, our kids were putting on for us a joint celebration of our milestone 60th birthday. Relatives and friends came from all over and made us feel very loved, putting us at the center of attention.

Those were the BC days; who could know that within three or four months, I would be so medically challenged and that every day would be a gift? Why should I get cancer? Unfair! Right?

After all, do we not deserve a long life without trouble? Am I not a special person around whom the universe revolves, if even for a day annually? Is it not true that “God danced the day I was born” and because of God’s great love and provision I can expect special treatment the rest of my life?

Well, yes and no. The sentiments I have expressed here come dangerously close to an entitlement mentality we find so irritating in others, even as we cultivate our own little universe personally. Such an attitude affects the way people relate to other while driving, while shopping, and yes, even while doing ministry. The fact is, we would love to get our own way, be deferred to, applauded and feted every day of our lives. Eve and then Adam showed this self-centeredness, King David even used it to justify his dalliance with Bathsheba. From a biblical standpoint, an entitlement mentality gets people into really big trouble because it comes from a need that can never be satisfied, even though we try.

Take biblical Israel as a case in point. A people of such humble beginnings—the first three generations of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob hanging on by a thread—grew into a great nation as promised by God. God loved them and protected them, ultimately bringing them into the Promised Land and establishing them not only as a tribe but a nation.

As they grew in numbers and prestige, during the golden age of monarchy led by Saul, David, and Solomon, they began to develop a mindset of greatness. The great blessing God poured out upon them was perceived differently than it was intended. God poured out his grace (undeserved favor) and commissioned them to become a blessing to the world around them (blessed to be a blessing, Genesis 12:1-3). But they hoarded the blessing in fat-cat fashion, neglecting the poor and looking down on the needy and vulnerable. The prophets continuously brought this sin of pride to their attention, but their largesse led to national disaster despite prophetic pleas and warnings:

            How the faithful city [Jerusalem]
                        has become a whore!
                        She that was full of justice,
            righteousness lodged in her—
                        but now murderers!
            Your silver has become dross,
                        your wine is mixed with water.
           Your princes are rebels
                        and companions of thieves.
            Everyone loves a bribe
                        and runs after gifts.
            They do not defend the orphan,
                        and the widow’s cause does not come before them. (Isaiah 1:21-23)

The basic spiritual problem of entitlement is putting oneself at the center of life and universe, displacing God from his throne. You understand that this displacement is only a delusion, as nothing really can take the place rightly occupied by God. God is sovereign. But we think we can pull off the great magic trick and live the self-created fantasy of a world that revolves around our desires, our preferences, our timetable, or our tastes.

But can you just imagine what kind of world we would be living in if every person thought he or she was the center of the universe? Taken to its ultimate expression of selfishness, our world would be dominated by wars, ecological calamity, and violence. Oh, what am I saying? This is the world we live in! Mercy me, do I harbor the same selfishness and entitlement that fostered all that?!

Jesus says to us, “Yes, I love you and have gone to great lengths to pour my grace into your heart. Yes, I created you uniquely and you have a special role to play in my Kingdom. But it is my Kingdom, not yours! In order for you to fully realize its benefits, you must die to yourself and follow me. If you do this, you will be amazed at the impact you can have on the world and the glory that will return to my Father!”

I don’t think I can stop my friends from singing “Happy Birthday” tonight and blessing me with their good wishes. But as a person desiring to follow Jesus, as I receive that blessing, I will be asking God to show me how I can turn it around to become a blessing to others. Rather than inflate myself with thoughts of “I deserve this,” may the Spirit of Christ within me enlarge and empower my service to others, for their sakes and not my own!