“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.” Psalm 19:7 (NIV)
When I think about simplicity, I am reminded of my childhood. Not only did I have less inhibitions and worries, but I grew up in an environment that valued the simple. At a very young age, I began attending a summer camp in the Adirondacks. There was a lot of swimming, hiking and singing that was done with the intention of worshipping God on the home field – Creation. My parents and the staff there taught me to appreciate nature and God’s presence in it.
The first part of today’s verse reminds me of life. “Reviving” often means giving life to something that lacks it. This connects me to how spring brings life out of the death of winter. And, in other ways, we see this same thing in all the seasons. Today’s passage calls the Lord’s statutes and laws “perfect” and “trustworthy,” reminding me of nature’s systems and how they exist and seem to work quite smoothly even when my human mind cannot conceive why.
We have a lot to learn about God through nature. The seasons come and go as do our joys and sorrows. Winter storms are deadly but decorate the air and ground most beautifully. Death and decay are life processes, occurring regularly, but so are birth and renewal. In the same way, God changes and yet is constant.
When we next look at a songbird, a fallen tree or a patch of green earth amidst the snow, I hope we can find it in ourselves to think upon what God might be revealing about The Divine through creation. It is indeed simple, but perhaps, as the psalmist writes, we are made wise through it. I often find myself in awe as I walk quietly through the Adirondack woods. I am not sure if what I hear is the trickling of a creek or something more. Either way, I am grateful for the quiet Spirit that I find there and the things I might learn from it.
Lately I have found myself searching for a way to set the season of Lent apart: to make it significant, to honor the centuries-old tradition of this 40-day period of discipline. I must admit, sometimes it’s far too easy to let the days pass without giving a thought to any extra rituals. Sure, I have good intentions. Some years I come up with creative ideas for foods to give up, habits to change or daily spiritual practices to begin. But more often than not, when Ash Wednesday rolls around, I wrack my brain for ways to make Lent special – for a few minutes. Then, with a faint feeling of guilt, I think, “Ah, well, there’s always next year.”
How often does that apply to Christian faith in general? With the best of intentions, we try to observe traditions and follow the rules – but if we fall short, sometimes it seems easier to just give up. There are many reasons to become overwhelmed trying to live out our faith: Christianity has too much baggage, it’s too bureaucratic, too broken, too complicated. And on top of that, we’re supposed to take 40 whole days to contemplate our commitment to Christ?
In Goshen College’s Anabaptist-Mennonite History class with John Roth last semester, a word that came up over and over was renewal. Sometimes renewing our faith commitment means radical new ideas. But other times, it is in looking to more ancient traditions that we find our sense of identity and a refreshed energy. The Ten Commandments may seem like old news – but perhaps examining these verses with new eyes can bring the renewal we need. At its core, practicing faith means remembering our covenant with God: our mortal end of the deal is to keep these commandments. During this time of Lent, I invite us to return to this most ancient of disciplines – and God will show us steadfast love to the thousandth generation.
Then God spoke all these words:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
Goshen College’s Study-Service Term (SST) can be a simultaneously difficult and eye-opening experience. On SST, students spend three months in a developing country, where they live with host families, study language and history, and serve those in their host nation. During the 6-week service portion of my SST experience in Peru last summer, I found myself in the Andean city of Tarma, teaching math and English to sixth grade students. It was an assignment that often required all of my patience, but it was also perhaps the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.
I believe ‘wisdom’ is a fitting word to describe what I gained on my SST. This wisdom, however, was unlike anything I had learned in a classroom. It was a far cry from the physics formulas and programming syntax that usually fill my textbooks, and it was the kind of knowledge that required more than just my brain. The wisdom I found on SST was a wisdom gained through new experiences and unfamiliar situations. It was the result of careful observations and countless mistakes. It was wisdom bundled with love, patience and compassion.
This week’s theme is “Making wise the simple.” The Scripture verses this week show us a variety of ways that God reveals wisdom. This wisdom can come in the form of rules for our relationship with God or for our relationships with others. We are reminded that God’s wisdom is trustworthy and refreshing, even though it may be radically different from the wisdom that we encounter in the world around us. Like what I experienced on SST, it is wisdom that is intertwined with love and compassion. My simple notions of what it would be like to live in another country were transformed by the wisdom my experiences offered. As we approach Easter, this week’s Scripture prepares us to be transformed by the refreshing wisdom of God.
One year at summer camp, the theme was “take up your cross and follow me.” Cabins full of boys took turns carrying around a heavy, 10-foot cross wherever they went. Lugging it around was a challenge and it was fun.
As an adult looking back, the concept itself and the fun we had doing it makes me cringe. But what does Jesus really mean when he said “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me?” Should we strap giant crucifixes to our backs?
A friend recently sent me a prayer written by a student at St. Peter’s Seminary in Ankawa, northern Iraq, where Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) provides English teachers. The student is among the Christians who fled from Karamlesh, in Iraq’s Nineveh Plain, as the Islamic State group advanced.
“As you carried your cross, O Lord, we carried it too.
We lost everything except the cross hanging around our necks and in our cars.
We looked at this cross when we were forced to leave our houses.
It is the cross of the pain and the hope,
the cross of the sadness and the hope,
the cross of the resistance and the steadiness
of those who endure injustice but respond to it in love,
even when we feel that the injustice is increasing.
We carried this cross from our lands in Nineveh to other lands
and we still hang on to it.
In spite of all this, you can see the smiles on our faces;
you feel the goodness of our neighbors.
We are full of hope and trust in you O Lord.”
Here is a person whose life has been turned upside-down, yet still finds something to hold on to. But when our lives are comfortable, what cross do we bear? Maybe taking up our cross means a daily choice to remember those whose lives are upended by conflict, to love those who are hard to love, to serve others over ourselves, and to seek justice in an unjust world.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
“The law brings wrath.” It’s seems so harsh that Paul would say these words about commandments that Christians today carry as good and Godly things:
1) I am the Lord thy God.
2) Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
3) Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
4) Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.
5) Honor thy Father and Mother.
6) Thou shalt not murder.
7) Thou shalt not commit adultery.
8) Thou shalt not steal.
9) Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor
10) Thou shalt not covet.
Really? If I try and do all these things, it will bring wrath upon me?
Listen. These things are Godly, and they are good; however, not one person can live them out perfectly. Not one! And the only way to reconcile to God is through perfection!
This is what Jesus was talking about when he went up on the mountain to preach: “Not only should you not murder, if you’re angry with someone, you’re breaking that commandment! Also, if you even look at someone lustfully, you’re committing adultery!” Jesus understood that no human can live up to the standards of the law (Matthew 5).
Listen. So many people try to earn God’s favor, and they don’t even realize they’re doing it. Many Christians read the bible, go to church, pray, etc. but inwardly they’re still looking to the next thing to “rid themselves of.” “I just need to stop viewing pornography,” or, “I just need to start telling people about Jesus,” or, “I just need tell my wife I love her more.” These are things we think that will help “improve our Christian walk.”
Please! People! Stop! It’s not making your burden lighter! Remember. Jesus’ burden is light (Matthew 11:30).
Paul wraps up this passage in a very profound way: he brings it back to Abraham. This was the first man that God counted as righteous. Why? Because he had faith in God. Not because he didn’t sin. Abraham trusted God. When God wanted Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham agreed to do it, and was counted as righteous for it! Now that’s faith!
Some Christians preach: “If you stop doing these things… then you’ll have a better Christian life.” However, God simply says that if you start believing and trusting him, then his grace will save you because of Jesus Christ’s death. See!? Jesus lived a perfect life under the law, so that we don’t have to. We are now perfect, because we’re a part of Jesus’ perfection! This is living by faith.
Stop making rules!
Instead, recognize your perfection in Christ! Recognize that though your flesh is sinful and doomed for death, you are now living in the spirit—a child of God. Now that God is your heavenly father who loves you, all you have to do is love him right back! Isn’t that relieving? Rather than get in a daily routine, simply find ways to show your love for God, and he will be responsive, just like a loving Father would help his child in any way he possibly can.
Praise be to God!
The moment I would pinpoint as the most challenging of my entire life would be my first day as a camp counselor. It had been a very hot day with my group of nine 4th-6th graders, which included complaints, constant fighting for attention, and a quickly spreading epidemic of homesickness. Making one difficult decision after another left me exhausted. My friends, whom I had grown to rely on during orientation, were preoccupied with their cabins, all of which seemed to have relatively few issues. By the time “lights out” finally came, I curled up on my bunk and the pressure of my insecurity and doubts as a leader filled my chest.
It seemed like I had barely fallen asleep when a deep, building-shaking boom of thunder woke me up. Before I knew it, every girl was crying and yelling my name. I’m not sure how I figured out what to do or what I ended up saying, but after a few minutes the storm had passed and everyone calmly fell asleep. God heard my prayers and was there to give me the strength I needed to comfort my cabin. From that day on, I had a renewed confidence in my decisions and my abilities through the awesome power of God, making me successful and grateful as I continued to learn and lead throughout the summer.
Even when we are in difficult situations and feeling “upside down and inside out”, God is there to give us strength we don’t know we have. The fulfillment and joy as a result of these experiences are wonderful reminders of God’s presence. Praise be to God.
Human beings often have to check for themselves to see if something is true instead of taking someone’s word at face value. I remember standing outside the classroom door in high school many times waiting for the teacher to arrive. To make sure we weren’t standing outside the room for no reason, I would ask if the door was locked. Even if someone said it was, I would check the knob to be sure it was, in fact, locked. I didn’t trust their word.
Unlike those locked classroom doors, Abram has no way of double-checking to see if God’s word is true. He just has to wait and trust that he will be fruitful. It is easy to see why Abram is astonished, both he and Sarai are both nonagenarians and it would be a miracle for them to conceive a child of their own. Even so, Abram must trust that God will come through and that Sarai will be able to bear an heir.
Although Abram is not actually able to “check if the door is locked” like in my simple high school example, he still has to trust God’s promise. God gives a sign that validates God’s proposition. God changes Abram’s name (meaning ancestor) to Abraham (ancestor of many or a multitude). Sarai’s name is also changed to Sarah. Having a name change is significant because a name is something an individual carries with her or him everywhere on a daily basis. What reminders can we implement to remind us to trust in God everywhere and at all times?
God’s promise to the 100-year-old Abraham, to make him exceedingly fruitful, came as a surprise—even more so since his 90-year-old wife was to be his partner in fruitfulness.
A promise for fruitfulness can sound equally implausible in Northern Indiana at the end of February. Just when you’ve had it with snow gusts and sub-zero windchill, the Lenten season arrives—and you face another six weeks of winter, accompanied by a call to renunciation.
Yet somewhere under all that snow, the seeds of summer wildflowers are preparing with a deep chill to bloom in the spring. And somewhere, in another climate zone, oranges are ripening. A chosen Lenten practice can create space for listening to God’s presence in our lives—if we can only trust the promise enough to pause in our daily routine to connect with God’s abundance.
The other night I was driving through snow, hearing the wind whistling around my car, to pick up pizza for the editorial board of Red Cents, the literary arts magazine published by the English Department. I was thinking about the paradox of fruitfulness in winter. And then I discovered it in the situation itself. My students were giving freely of their dinner time to harvest the abundance of student creativity. When I arrived at Newcomer Center—a long, cold walk away from their cozy dorm rooms—with the warm pizza, the students were gathered in a circle, each reading a selection of other students’ writing, giving it their full attention.
Each of the writers had paused in their daily lives to channel a creative impulse. Each of the readers had paused to connect with the writing that impulse produced. If we pause to experience the presence of God in our lives, we can connect with the source of fruitfulness in any season.
Last Saturday morning I filled my husband’s weekly pill dispenser with the 15 different kinds of medicine he needs to take because of his heart transplant in 2011. A stab of panic struck when I found only two pills left in one of his two most important medicines. He must take this medicine every day for the rest of his life to stave off rejection of the transplanted heart.
Because the prescription had no refills left, we had requested a new one two weeks ago, but I now realized that we hadn’t received the pills in the mail as expected. What went wrong? It was a weekend. Could we really get more medicine by Monday?
You would think that after four years of exercising my “trust muscle” while dealing with my husband’s rare heart ailment, trust in God would come easily to me. But too often my first impulse in a crisis is still panic rather than trust.
Psalm 25 begins with the very words I needed: “To you, O LORD I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust.” These are the words we all need as we begin each day.
God is worthy of our trust because “all the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness.” Steadfast love and faithfulness are the hallmarks of the character of God, and God cultivates those virtues in us as we seek God’s paths.
With five phone calls last Saturday morning, the medicine we needed was waiting at our local pharmacy. And my “trust muscle” grew a little stronger.
To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;
do not let my enemies exult over me.
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.
for they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.
All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness,
for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
Floods, snowstorms, earthquakes and other natural disasters are no respecter of persons, flora or fauna. The innocent and guilty, young and old, saint and sinner, wild boar and pet dog, all and without distinction, get swept up in the floods of life. And yet, we all know that almost always there are the “lucky ones” who escape with life and limb. For the survivors, life begins anew.
The Bible’s flood story invites us to consider both sides of natural disasters, or, as they are sometimes called, “acts of God.” What does it mean when we happen to be among those protected in the ark? Or among those who, indiscriminately, perish? The biblical writer, at first, argues that the flood was due to the fact that “the wickedness of humans was great on the earth and the inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5). Later, the writer, using identical language, argues that the survivors after the flood were, in the end, just as corrupt as those annihilated by the flood (8:21). In an upside down and inside out sort of way, the survivor most changed by the flood seems to be God. In a beautiful spirit of divine contrition, God promises never to resort to such an all-consuming act of punishment ever again (9:11). God decides to make a new covenant with Noah and his family, with all creatures great and small, and with all future generations, too (9:12). Thousands of generations later, St. Peter suggests that God remained consistent with God’s forgiving, expansive, all-encompassing covenant with Noah and all creatures of the earth by offering an even more sweeping covenant through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus (1 Pet. 3:18-22).
The rainbow rising from the flood, then or now, sky-writes a sign of permanent warning that to blame victims of natural disasters as somehow deserving of their fate slanders “the everlasting covenant” made by God with “every living creature of all flesh” to never again make that judgment, ever. The rainbow rising from Lenten floods also proclaims that God, whose love is revealed in Christ, notices every wild sparrow that falls, grieves the loss of every family pet, abides with us through every heartache and defeat, and promises an Easter morning at the end of every rainbow.