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Daily Devotionals and Weekly Virtual Church Services

Special Immanuel Lutheran Church Page During the Coronavirus Outbreak

Daily Bread

For the safety of all in our ILC community and beyond, we have decided to forego all gatherings until further notice. In the meantime, we will provide Daily Devotionals and Weekly Virtual Church Services through this webpage. We encourage the congregation to use the posted devotionals to "virtually join together" in prayer, daily, at 9:00am.

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Monday, August 31 Devotional

Though the fig tree should not blossom, and there be no fruit on the vines, Though the yield of the olive should fail, and the fields produce no food, Though the flock should be cut off from the fold, and there be no cattle in the stalls...
Habakkuk 3:17

The prophet grieves over the demise of his people. No matter what he has said, nothing has helped; things have only gone from bad to worse. The people wouldn't listen; they refused to heed God's Word. They continued to dismiss the prophet's pleadings and went merrily and stubbornly about their pigheaded ways. The prophet himself was coming around to see what God could see all along: the end result of their insistence on turning their backs on the purposes of God and maintaining their godless ways. Their kingdom was finished. And if the people thought things were not good now, they'd be surprised to learn that matters could get much worse - and they would do just that. So, what now? How does one handle the news that the end of a chapter in your life is drawing to a close, when you cannot yet begin to think of how the next one will begin? In the above verse, the prophet describes a situation when everything in life is going poorly. The good times are gone. Only bad remains, and the promise of change and something better down the road is so far from becoming reality as to be meaningless. It's not a viable option to just wait it out. The question is: What will you do with what's before you right now, given no assurance that things will improve any time soon, if ever? How would you respond? How will the prophet conclude? The statement is trite but true: although we may not know what the future holds, we do know Who holds the future. And therein lies our hope. There is thus reason to rejoice even now, even in the midst of difficulty and struggle, even when no light can be seen at the end of the tunnel. For God is our light, and He will surely overcome all darkness. Our present chapter may end well. Or matters might continue to decline and this era may end up far worse than we imagined. While it's always good to maintain a positive attitude, it's inconsistent to do so with one's head buried in the sand. Baseless hope might serve to keep us calm for the moment, but it does nothing to still our anxiety. The confident confession, the foundation of our faith, the grounding of our hope, is in our loving and faithful God. He will certainly carry us through. The assurance of His abiding presence with us here and now and His sure promises of eternal life with Him in heaven forever sustain us in these days. The prophet inspires us with this truth: When all hope is lost, God yet remains. And God will never abandon His people.

Prayer
Faithful God, ever true: As I witness the foundations of my world giving way before me, my heart becomes anxious. Open my ears to hear Your Word, that comes to calm and still my innermost spirit. As Your people face an uncertain future, ground us in the certainty of Your everlasting care; grant us the assurance that You hold us in Your loving hands and You have control over our destiny. Encourage and embolden Your people to rise up for good in our present trials and in all the days that remain. Work Your will in us and through us, that Your plans and purposes might come to full fruition, to the praise of Your glorious name.
Amen


Sunday, August 30 Virtual Church Service ("Reminders of Human Civility")


Sunday, August 30 Devotional

... that no human being should boast before God.
1 Corinthians 1:29

Whether it's good looks or health, smarts or success, we human beings tend to take more credit for things than we deserve. It's a short step from this sort of smug, self-satisfaction to look to our neighbors and measure ourselves in comparison to them - and to judge ourselves better, more valuable, more deserving of anything and everything. This boastful pride sends us off in the wrong direction, and it sets us up for a fall. For there will always be someone who comes along to displace us - someone better looking, younger, stronger, smarter, wittier - and suddenly our generous self-judgment quickly plummets us into depression and despair. Boastful pride is a ditch any one of us can drift off the road and drive right into, if we become too enamored with the beauty or performance of our mode of transportation in this life: ourselves. But there's a ditch on the other side of the road, too. It also has to do with comparison to others: it laments the meagre helping we've been given by the gifting gods above. We might be obsessed with some aspect of our face or body (that we would quickly change, if we had the money and the guts to do so). We look at our past track record, see more failure than success, and judge ourselves unfit, unworthy and unlikely to do much better in the future. Ironically, we're fixated upon ourselves every bit as much as those who boast and brag of their superior status. And while they're likely to slide into the ditch of selfish pride, we'll just as likely slip into the ditch of worthlessness - and we will fulfill our own prophecy. But that can all change in a flash - for those in either ditch - when our eyes are lifted, and we come into an awareness of the presence of God. We see God in all His beauty, goodness and grace. The revelation readjusts our perspective to see the One who alone is worthy of our worship and praise. Experiencing the reality of the divine does nothing less than overwhelm us. We're fully caught up in the moment, and there's nothing else we can do but stand in awe before Him, humbled by His majesty and glory. Surprisingly, a rightful recognition of God's greatness does not leave us feeling less about ourselves. In fact, it produces in us what might be called proper pride, confidence that we are beings created by His loving hand, crafted by His gentle touch. Our confidence comes in our relation to Him and in the recognition that all of our gifting has been graciously apportioned to us by the One who loves us more than we will ever come to know this side of heaven, and measured out to us for His good purposes. On this Lord's Day we come into God's presence with great thanksgiving. For we see that the LORD is God - and that we are not. Paradoxically perhaps, this gives us the freedom to be all that God made us to be and to develop what God has given to us to its fullest potential. Doing so is an offering of praise. With eyes fixed on Jesus, we no longer need to look around to compare ourselves with others to see where we stand. For in the presence of the Almighty, we're joined by the community of God's people, united in purpose: to live for Him and to love in His name.

Prayer
Almighty God, what a wonderful privilege it is to come into Your presence to experience Your goodness and grace. When my eyes are fixed on You, I'm able to live my life with proper perspective. You bless me with confidence to live my life in fullness before You, to honor You in all that I say and do, to offer myself to You as a living sacrifice and as a holy offering. When I recognize Your presence, I no longer feel compelled to compare myself with others. Instead, You set me free to rejoice together with them in our common experience: blessed beings, created and loved by You. To You be all glory, honor and praise.
Amen


Saturday, August 29 Devotional

“The LORD is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble, and He knows those who take refuge in Him.
Nahum 1:7

A new prophet had come to town. The people of Assyria had heard stories about their ancestors being visited by a prophet of the LORD named Jonah. He had proclaimed destruction upon the city and the people who resided in it. There had been no hope given in his warning. But their great-great grandparents had taken his word to heart. And there followed a sincere soul-searching and widespread repentance. And a miracle had transpired: God looked upon them with favor and granted them a reprieve. The city and people were spared. They had an extension of their day, a new lease of life. But what could be said about this new prophet who had arrived at the city gates? He, too, had come with a warning. His message was similar to the prophet who had preceded him. He warned of certain destruction, almost as if he could envision the scene of their final day. And tenderness and compassion rose up in his words. Despite the certain conclusion of their kingdom, there was hope beyond. The prophet had spoken of the presence of a God who would be their stronghold in the midst of the coming storm, their source of refuge when there was no safe place left in the land. He even stated that this God of Judah was not unaware of them. In fact, he told them the LORD was not foreign at all, but was well-acquainted with all who called upon His name. As harsh as the message was that the prophet had to bear, he graciously held out hope for the people who would receive it. God is unyielding when it comes to a matter right and wrong, just and unjust. God does not cozy up to evil. But the heart of God, the center of God's character, is love, mercy and compassion. While evil can and does move God to wrath, evil also fills God's heart with pain. God loves His people and wants the very best for them. God disciplines only to bring correction - that roadblocks to His blessings might be removed. Death and destruction are never the final words. For the LORD is a God of renewal, redemption and resurrection. Many in the church today are seriously concerned about what the pandemic is doing to our fellowship. For many have become weary of computer screens and distanced virtual worship. Some are saying that we've been away for too long to simply come back. Some are wondering if these days will be the death knell of the Church. But the LORD is good. And our God who created once can create yet again. We can be confident that God can and will bring about a new creation in our day. And that all who take refuge in Him are, and will eternally be, safe and secure in His presence.

Prayer
LORD God Almighty, Ruler over all: I give You thanks that You hold all people and all nations in Your firm embrace. No matter how bad things get, no matter how big a mess we make of it, You are ever faithful and You continue to have mercy upon Your people. Strengthen us by Your Spirit to work for Your good purposes. Give us certain hope in You in the midst of these days. Encourage us with the confidence that You are fully apprised of our circumstances, that You know us intimately, and that You call us by name. May we find in You our refuge, for You are our stronghold and our deliverer.
Amen


Friday, August 28 Devotional

Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.
Romans 13:8

It is a burdensome thing to be saddled with debt. To have hanging over your head financial obligations that must be met, else they only increase and multiply your woes. My dad has often repeated to me what his own father had said to him: Only bet what you can afford to lose. When you enter into a contract with someone - when you want something now but don't yet have the money to pay for it and so borrow from someone who has - you agree to abide by the terms of repayment. And you're under obligation to keep your side of the bargain until full repayment is made. These are the rules, and it's a Christian's duty to abide by them. The apostle counsels avoiding being in anyone's debt, as far as possible. But we've become an impatient people, wanting what we want now. Too often we buy what we cannot afford, and we regret our purchase too soon. And because we can find ways to get it now and prevent any waiting time, the value of our desired possession is diminished. My grandmother, growing up in the days of the depression, learned to scrimp and save, to do more with less. Except for buying their home, there were not many options to get other things unless they had money in hand to make the purchase. To save up for something you wanted, to finally arrive at the day when you had enough money to buy it, and then to make the purchase: this brought satisfaction to buyers and encouraged them to take good care of that which was now in their possession. They learned the value of money. Something we're sorely lacking in our want-it-now, buy-it-now culture. Most of us have credit cards, and many do not pay them off at the end of the month. Ironically, we end up paying even more for those things we didn't have enough money to purchase in first place. And so we dig deeper the hole of debt. Owe nothing to anyone, Paul advises. Take control of your money, lest it become master over you. In the end, all that you have has been given to you in divine stewardship, and you've been entrusted with the responsibility of managing all that is under your care for God and His kingdom. The biblical mandate is to work hard to provide for yourself and those under your care. And there's more: For when all your obligations are met and all your debts are settled, there is yet one responsibility that remains: to love and care for your neighbor. As a member of God's family, as a part of His Church, you are to compassionately share the remainder of what you have with those who are in positions that do not allow them to do so. Loving one's neighbor extends well beyond financial assistance. God insists that we are under obligation to our neighbor to care for them, as if they were members of our own family. For in the ultimate sense, that's just what they are. God well knows that we're tempted solely to take care of ourselves and to let our responsibility end there. We want to live and let live. But we've been called into community, and it is both foolish and futile to defensively ask, Am I my brother's keeper? God has already answered that question, and the apostle echoes it here.

Prayer
Gracious heavenly Father, You've called me to faithfully manage all that You've entrusted to my care. You've called me to live and to interact with others with justice and in fairness. To pay workers fair wages and not to withhold from them that which is their due. Remind me always that my obligation to my neighbor never ends, that You've called me to love and care for all Your people, remembering that we're all children of God, living under Your tender care. May I be a useful instrument for Your divine purposes, this day and every day, to the honor and glory of Your holy name.
Amen


Thursday, August 27 Devotional

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Micah 6:8

One of the benefits of being a pastor is that people bring me food. There are many within the congregation who will think of me and my family when baking, canning, or gathering goods from their garden. A while back, a member of our community owned a brewery, and that was an unexpected and special blessing! Those who've been blessed with the gift of hospitality know well that food is an offering that is almost ubiquitously welcomed and almost always appreciated. In like fashion, the people of God have sought to present to their Creator animal sacrifice, grain offerings and oblations of oil and wine. The prophet speaks to this desire, asking what it might be that would bring pleasure to the God of all creation. What serves as a soothing aroma to the One who deserves the very best? The prophet settles on no outward offering that would obligate a person only on an individual basis without touching on their relationship with others. Do you really want to please God? Do you really want to align yourself with His will? Are you seriously intent on doing that which is good and right in God's eyes? Then here it is: do justice, love kindness and walk humbly. And know that when you do, God will be present with you and God will be pleased with what you're doing. Micah succinctly summarizes the intention of God for the behavior of His people. It's not rocket science. God simply wants His children to get along and to interact with one another respectfully. To recognize their connection to each another as fellow humanity, all living together on this planet, all loving created by a good and gracious God. We may want to do our own thing and worship God on our own, individually, with no regard for our fellow man. But we cannot have it on our own terms. Rightful worship cannot be given without a compassionate caring of God's dearly loved people. Love of God and love of neighbor are inextricably bound together. And it does not good to question the definition of neighbor in an attempt to limit our obligations. Jesus made it clear that in God's sight every fellow human being is our neighbor. And Jesus perfectly exemplified the prophetic pronouncement. The Word spoken became flesh for all to see. Follow His lead. It's as simple - and as difficult - as that.

Prayer
Almighty God, it is Your will that Your people interact with one another in loving, caring community. I'm so easily tempted to withdraw into individual worship. Help me to learn that You call me to actively engage with all of Your people. Strengthen my resolve to work diligently in ways that are fair and just. Soften my heart, that I might engage with others in kindness and with compassion. And remind me that I am not the center of my world, but that You are. May I offer You pleasing worship, as I fulfill Your will by interacting with Your people in accordance with your loving grace, to the honor and glory of Your holy name.
Amen


Wednesday, August 26 Devotional

And they prayed, and said, "Thou, Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show which one of these Thou has chosen..."
Acts 1:24

Last week was the Democratic Convention. This week the Republicans have taken the stage. Both meetings have been well crafted, and there have been many inspirational moments. However, while seeking to raise up their own party candidate, they've cast aspersions at the other. At each convention, prayers have been made to God in the name of Jesus. And at the same time, both sides have told us that if we want to protect our religious freedom, there's only one choice we have before us - and it happens to be the one represented by whoever is standing before the microphone at any given time. We've often seen this sort of posturing in other venues. Prayers made by athletes before competitions are admired by some observers, who feel a deeper connection to their heroes when we they sense a shared faith. Others view such actions as merely superstitious and silly. Still others are cynical and wonder if it is not all pretense, for show, a sinister appeal seeking to draw on the emotions and longings of the fan base, only to gain a larger following. And yet others see the public display as a prideful justification for any actions that follow, especially if the result is a game-winning home run or a touchdown catch, in which case the prayer suggests that the God of the universe has preferred them over all others who are on the field or in the stands - who had offered prayers to the contrary. What then shall we say about these things? This, at the very least: To use faith or religion to prop up your platform is nothing less than idolatry. God does not serve Caesar. Faith is not something to be pridefully prized and used as a tool to get you where you want to be. There are those who will point to the separation of church and state and insist that faith has no place at all in the public arena - especially in politics. And yet this compartmentalization of faith is also idolatrous, relegating God to certain segments of our lives but leaving Him out of the others. True faith informs all of who we are, all of what we do, and every way we interact with others. Holy Scripture urges us to pray for our leaders. We pray on behalf of all those entrusted to lead: for wisdom, humility, divine guidance and counsel, and strength to carry out the work before them. We pray that those who are elected will do so with a heart that seeks to serve God by serving God's people. We pray that our leaders will make sound decisions for the good of all whom they represent and will take special consideration for the poor, the weak and the those who have been too often overlooked. We, the people, will be the ones casting our ballots on November 3. Whether the candidates who have your vote win or lose, true faith compels you to pray that the leadership displayed by those elected will be in accordance with God's character and that the decisions made by them in their tenure will align with God's good intentions for all of creation. God calls us to rise above partisan politics, to dispense with delineations of us and them, and to see in each other our common humanity. While none of us is perfect, all of us have been created by the hand of God and, because of that, each of us has within us inherent dignity. To recognize the value of each human life and to interact with each other in ways consistent with that is to honor God. May God empower us to do just that, that we might come together to be a living display of His goodness and grace.

Prayer
Sovereign Lord, we pray that You would raise up leaders to faithfully serve Your people. Grant to all who have been elected to public office deep humility and strength to carry out their duties conscientiously. Save them when temptations arise to use their positions for personal gain. Keep them from abusing the power that has been entrusted to them. We know that our unity as a people will only be found in You. Help us to treat one another honorably and respectfully, recognizing the dignity of each human person created in Your image. And guide us all to the good and faithful stewardship of all Your creation.
Amen


Tuesday, August 25 Devotional

Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying...
Jonah 3:1

This verse speaks a wonderful word of grace and hope. And there's much that stands behind it. It speaks of failure - for this is not the first time God comes to this famous fish prophet. Jonah had quickly, decisively and adamantly disobeyed the call of God the first time God had come to him. He was not at all interested in the task God had arranged for him to do. Unlike other prophets, who were filled with self-doubt when they received their call from God, this was not the reason Jonah shied away his assignment. He well knew what God wanted him to speak, and he had no doubts about his ability to deliver the message well. Jonah's problem with the mission on which God would send him lay elsewhere. And Jonah had said no to God. He turned his back on his calling; he ran for his life. But God was relentless. And God would not give up on His prophet. There was a task to be done - and God knew Jonah was quite capable to accomplish it. But there was more: God also desired to do a work in the heart of His prophet. For Jonah was of the same ilk as the Pharisees who would come after him. He knew all about right and wrong, and he worked hard to keep God's law. He was honest to a fault, even to the extent of telling his fellow shipmates on a stormy sea that the life-threatening swells were all his fault, because he was running away from his God. That if they just tossed him overboard, the storm would cease. Jonah was intent on doing things right - the way they were supposed to be done. And as for those who were lax about God's law, those who were not as committed as he was to keeping God's rules of righteousness, those people bothered Jonah to no end. In the prophet's eyes, they deserved nothing but judgment, and he prayed they would get that which was their due - that they would reap what they were sowing. God knew his prophet needed to learn mercy, just as much as the Assyrians, the intended audience, needed to receive it. And God knew that it would not be an easy lesson for His prophet to learn. And there is yet another blessing in that which God would do through Jonah, a blessing the writer of this account knew was an important one for all the people of God. That blessing is for us, the readers of a new generation. As we consider Jonah's experience and what it tells us about the heart of God, we're confronted with own judgments, and we learn to align ourselves more properly with the good and gracious will of God. God comes to Jonah a second time. He doesn't give up on him. The assignment is not a new one. The message he's given is exactly the same. God gives Jonah another chance. Jonah's no did not negate God's yes. God's good and gracious will would be done, both in Jonah's life and in his ministry. Even so, God's will not give up on you. He will continue to pour out His grace upon you and forgive you. He lifts you up to walk into this new day. God is merciful; He is the lover of the undeserving. And the more you recognize that this is the basis of your relationship with your Creator, the more it will define your relationships with others. Every one of us longs not to be measured by our past mistakes. God extends that glorious grace to you now, and He invites you to do the same with others.

Prayer
Good and gracious God, You were patient with Your prophet when You called him to carry out Your divine and holy intentions. And the one who would deliver Your message would learn as much as those who would receive it. Continue to work in me, as a servant of Your Word, to align myself with Your truth and to practice what I preach. But most of all, may I learn to interact mercifully with others, realizing more fully each day how mercifully You have acted on my behalf in Jesus Christ my Lord. Thank You for Your forgiveness and for granting me the gift of this new day. May I live in Your grace and freely extend it to others, to the honor and glory of Your holy name.
Amen


Monday, August 24 Devotional

They brought to the Pharisees him who was formerly blind.
John 9:13

These words bear witness to transformation. From bad to good, from darkness to light, from death to life. In Jesus God's power to transform had come to earth and was on display for all to see and for some to experience. The formerly blind man was not only transformed from blindness to sight, he was changed from being apathetically passive to being passionately active. He does nothing to invite change into his life. He speaks not one word to the Nazarene miracle-worker. He makes no appeal to Jesus to have mercy upon him. Rather, he experiences the surprising presence and touch of Jesus who takes the sole initiative in altering his way of being in the world, by blessing him with life and life abundantly. More than a healing, Jesus imparts to the man something new and fresh, something never before experienced - for he had been blind from birth. And once this divine disruption does its deed, the man becomes a witness to what had transpired in him and for him by God's amazing grace. The word formerly has couched within it not only a story that will tell of what transpired between then and now. It holds life-giving promise for us who hear of it and gives us confident hope to recognize how God is working even now - and what God can do to effect change. For surely, there will come a time when we will look back upon these days in which we are mired and speak of them as formerly. Surely, God will faithfully bring us through this present darkness and safely escort us into the marvelous light of a new day. And then we, like the man formerly blind, will have our own stories to tell. The way we tell them cannot be underestimated. Our accounts of our experiences will have the power to influence generations to come, who will hear of our witness and be encouraged and emboldened to face their own hardships with the confidence that God is faithfully with them and will surely bring them, too, into a new day. May our eyes be opened to see the faithful activity of God in and through the human hands at work in these present crises. And may we bravely and confidently bear witness to God's activity, even now, in our lives and in the world around us. And until God ushers in a new day, may God grant us strength to fully invest ourselves in bringing about positive change in the lives of others. And may we be faithful to responsibly carry out God's gracious commission.

Prayer
Almighty and loving God, thank You for Your gracious initiative in the lives of Your people. Thank You for the demonstration of Your loving intention on our behalf, becoming incarnate on earth and offering Yourself in sacrifice for us, while we were yet sinners. Thank You for the courageous testimony of those who've faithfully witnessed to Your work in the world. I rejoice in Your transformative power in the world and in my life, to bring good out of bad, life out of death, and heavenly light into the darkness of our world. Empower me to work for Your good purposes for Your glory and for the good of Your people.
Amen


Sunday, August 23 Virtual Church Service ("Storming the Gates of Hell")


Sunday, August 23 Devotional

He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap.
Psalm 113:7

It's a smokey morning here in San Jose. Again. My weather app alerts me once more that there is Unhealthy Air Quality. We continue to be under a Spare the Air Alert, during which all wood fires are banned, in fireplaces and outdoors, and we're further encouraged to limit driving our cars. It's foolish to get outside and exercise in these conditions; doing so likely does more harm than good to one's body. Many will, for that reason, join me today in the decision to keep inside and stay put. The sacrifice is an easy one to make, considering what's happening on the other side of the mountains, both to the east and west. The fires continue to rage, consuming more acres and changing the course of people's lives. Firefighters are working around the clock in a desperate attempt to control the blazes. We hope and pray for kinder weather, even as we hear forecasts of the possibility of more dry lightning strikes in the coming days. Because of the ongoing urgency of this present crisis, we suspend for a time fully lamenting the loss of nature's beauty, of the redwood forests that have been the source of peaceful retreat and renewal for so many and for so long, now reduced to memories and ashes. It's hard to begin to pick up the pieces when the destruction is still in process. We're yet in the fighting phase; rebuilding will have to wait its turn. The word apocalyptic has risen to the fore in these days. For it appears that we're experiencing end-of-the-world, cataclysmic events. The word itself - apocalyptic - means revelation or unveiling. And, perhaps in that respect, the word is indeed appropriate. For these things have caused us many of us to take a good, hard look in the mirror and to take serious thought about the meaning and purpose of our lives and the value we place on people and possessions. And many of us are also moved to lift our thoughts heavenward, recognizing we do not have as much control over our lives as we thought we did. We realize anew how dependent we are on each other - and on God. The psalm from which the above verse is taken is a psalm of praise. In this short nine-verse song, that word praise is used nearly half a dozen times. You may well wonder why I've chosen a psalm of praise to accompany the events I refer to above. Because the psalmist does the same. It's where he sees God in the events around him. He doesn't blame God for the existence of the poor. He doesn't curse God for not using His almighty power to prevent the ash heap. Instead, he sees God as the One who raises up the poor and lifts up those in need in their times of crisis and sorrow. We do well to see things from his perspective and to recognize God's compassionate and redemptive activity. And when we choose to come alongside others in their pain, extend our arms in compassion, and offer a helping hand, we can be assured that we're participating in the good work of God.

Prayer
Good and gracious God, I'm at a loss to understand why bad things happen in our world. Help me never doubt Your lovingkindness and grace, open my eyes to Your redemptive work, and help me to respond to those who've experienced the ash heap with compassionate care and useful assistance. Assure me that when I respond in such ways, I'm participating in Your saving work. May I always live to praise You. Accomplish Your will and purposes in me and through me this day, for the honor and glory of Your holy name.
Amen


Saturday, August 22 Devotional

What the gnawing locust has left, the swarming locust has eaten; and what the swarming locus has left, the creeping locust has eaten; and what the creeping locust has left, the stripping locust has eaten.
Joel 1:4

Many of us can relate to the experience of the people in prophet day. They experienced a devastating plague, worse than any they could remember: “Has anything like this happened in your days or in your fathers' days?” Things were bad. Real bad. And these things would be remembered and recorded, that they might tell future generations about their harrowing experiences, so that the lessons learned would not be forgotten but passed on to their grandchildren as a living legacy. With all that has happened in our world, with all that is still going on, you might very well feel gnawed, swarmed, creeped and stripped. In a word: devastated. A deadly virus. A global pandemic. Economic hardship. Racial divide. Political polarity. Devasting fires. Suffocating smoke. You might well wonder what could possibly come next. These things might well have moved you to contemplate and ask that unanswerable question: Why? And whatever preliminary interpretation we might make to these events, at the very least it should cause us to stop and consider our ways. To make adjustments in our priorities. To take stock of the directions we're taking in life and the way we're treating others. Perhaps one of the best things that could come from this is that we rise above merely surviving these days and see in them opportunities to serve and care for others. To resolve that we will not be defined by these events but instead by what we make of them. The good news in Joel's day is that his generation lived to tell about it. The good news is there was an after. And the good that came out of their experience was: they recognized God was present with them and for them in the midst of it all and that God was faithful to save. Despite all they endured, they made the good confession that God was “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.” They came to know God as their Deliverer, even as they had learned about Him as the One who had delivered their ancestors from their own hardships. When we finally emerge from these things - and we will - may it be said of us that we kept our heads about ourselves and that we kept our faith in God. On the Other Side we will surely be more deeply grateful for the blessed gift of community; we will rejoice in human togetherness and touch. But now, let us pray for strength sufficient for the day. Let us keep our heads held high and encourage those who are unable to do so. Let us invest ourselves fully in carrying out God's good purposes of compassion and aid; let us care for one another by meeting pressing needs of body and soul. Let us not lose hope. And let us find in the LORD our God a refuge of safety in the midst of the storm, and a welcome place where there is room for all.

Prayer
Gentle, loving and compassionate God, with all that's transpiring around us, many of us find ourselves in well over our heads. Help us to know that we are not alone in these days, but that You are present with us in the loving community that surrounds us. Inspire and strengthen us to lovingly support others in their time of need. Show us all that You can do through us, when we come together as Your people. And teach us that we bring glory to Your name, when we serve all people with Your compassion and grace.
Amen


Friday, August 21 Devotional

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people.
Luke 1:68

Tens of thousands of people in neighboring counties have been evacuated as the fires continue to rage in the Santa Cruz mountains off the northwestern coast of California. There are some who are unable to help themselves and are dependent on outside assistance. Others refuse to leave, mistaken in thinking they know what's best for them, and need to be saved from themselves. Fire fighters and medical personnel are giving all they've got, working overtime to contain the conflagrations and to assist the endangered who lie in its path. They're responding for calls for help, but they're not always waiting for invitations. They're directing, guiding and, at times, insisting. Of course, their actions are made with no self-interest, and their coercion cannot be questioned. What they do is for the good of the people they're trying to protect and serve. It goes without saying that they deserve our full cooperation, support and prayers. We give thanks to God for those who help us when we cannot help ourselves… Old man Zechariah was struck speechless when he questioned the angelic messenger who had told him he would soon be a father and his aged wife Elisabeth would conceive and give birth to a son. They were reliving the experiences of their ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, who were both moved to laughter when they were first told that their senior living home would soon welcome a new life. After months of being mute, Zechariah's tongue was loosed, and his first words after the birth of his son John were words of rejoicing and praise. In his days of silence, he was blessed with visions of what was to come, and now he exulted to see it all begin to unfold. He saw the very beginnings of God's plan of redemption, and he realized his own connection in it. Even as God had acted in the history of his people and had rescued his ancestors from their Egyptian bondage, so God would do to it again. His son would be the prophet who would go before the Lord to prepare His way. Zechariah speaks to these future events as if they had already happened. Such is the conviction of faith in the One who is faithful to carry out what He has promised: The Lord comes to set His people free. He comes to save those who cannot save themselves. He comes in compassion, mercy and grace. And He comes in power. The Lord does what He has always done, for this is the character of God. Zechariah and Elisabeth were blessed with eyes to see what God was up to. But even they could not perceive the extent of God's plan. For it was not only His people Israel He had come to save. He had come to fulfil the promise made to their father Abraham, that all nations would be blessed through him. The One to be born from Abraham's line would bring blessing to all the world. His salvation would know no boundaries. And He would not stop - He will not stop - until every one of God's lost sheep is found and brought into His heavenly fold. Until that day, He's called you and me to be about His work of redemption, to communicate God's love and sacrifice and willingness to do whatever it takes to bring His people safely home.

Prayer
Almighty God, grow in me the conviction that You are my Creator and Redeemer and that I am eternally safe and secure in You. Thank You for taking the initiative and for coming to my rescue when I was unaware of the extent of the dangerous predicament of my sin. Thank You for saving me from myself. You have enlisted me in Your saving work. Grant me strength to work tirelessly for the salvation of souls, to communicate the good news of Your loving grace, which will stop at nothing until all Your treasured people are rescued and brought safely home. All praise, honor and glory be Yours, now and forever.
Amen


Thursday, August 20 Devotional

For Israel has forgotten his Maker and built palaces; and Judah has multiplied fortified cities. But I will send a fire on its cities that it may consume its palatial dwellings.
Hosea 8:14

It happened early on in the human story, and it continues to repeat itself in each successive generation. Way back in Genesis, Adam and Eve were not satisfied with their status as human creatures dependent upon God. They despised His Word, listened to another voice and, with self-interest front and center, took of the tree that opened their eyes to a an entirely new perspective. They got what they wanted, but the instantaneous thrill just as quickly dissipated. They had crossed the line, and they could not go back. They could not un-live their experience, and it set the human race on an ironic downward decent to self-glorification. Now we humans decide every day if we will work at constructing our own kingdoms or build the kingdom of God. The raising of the tower of Babel in an attempt to increase the human status is not a one-time event. Over and over again, we're tempted to add another story to it, to make a name for ourselves. We are insistent that nothing will be impossible for us and that not even God will not be able to stop us from reaching new heights and achieving all what we want. Jesus told us it is impossible to serve both God and mammon, but even the very best among us seems intent on proving Him wrong. The kingdom of Israel had turned their backs on God, time and time again. Sometimes they dabbled in the worship of others gods. Other times, they became fully apostate. What had started out as a kingdom composed of a united community where everyone matters had devolved and would, too soon, implode. There were the haves and have-nots, the rich and the poor. And whereas the leaders well knew by both conscience and covenant that they were morally obligated to care for the poor, the orphans and the widows (what Jesus would later call the least of these), they neglected the needy and passionately pursued personal pleasure. They were intent on constructing their own kingdom, and they turned their back on building the kingdom of God. Up went the palaces - and the dust from the construction settled upon the poor. Up went the security gates, to protect what they had built - from foreign invaders and from native no-goods who were envious of the goods they had amassed. The poor and needy contributed nothing to their kingdom. They were merely dead weight; and their voices were stifled and went unheard. But Hosea reminded those who flagrantly disregarded God's Word and proudly pursued personal gain and self-glorification that God saw the state of the needy and heard their cries. Those who falsely claimed divine approval and justification for their actions would be called to account. Their walls would be torn down and their palaces consumed. The Maker of all would make His ways known. The high and haughty would be brought low, and the downcast would be raised up with their dignity restored. So it has been, and so it will be. We neglect the lessons of the past at our own peril. The measure of a nation is how we handle the lowest and the least among us. Or as Jesus has said: The one who is greatest among you is the one who serves. To show strength in service is a shining example of God's purposes acted out in our midst.

Prayer
Good and gracious God, You are the Source of all that is good. You abundantly provide for the needs of Your people. Help us to manage well what You have entrusted to us. To distribute wealth in such a way that all have enough to meet their basic needs. Save us from the temptation to hoard. Create in us holy contentment. Fix our eyes upon You, and help us to order our days and our deeds in such a way that Your good purposes will be carried out on earth as it is in heaven, for the praise of Your glorious Name.
Amen


Wednesday, August 19 Devotional

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.
Matthew 6:19

Like many in the Bay Area, I awakened this morning to ashes. Because it was still dark outside, I didn't notice it, at first. It wasn't until I carried my work supplies to my truck that I observed the ashes on the windshield; then I suddenly realized they were everywhere. The sun rose reddish in the eastern sky, like some portent of a coming apocalypse, arriving before I was ready, waiting just outside on the front porch. Fires are burning and evacuation orders are in place for those living in the mountains east of Santa Cruz. Already present high anxiety in many has been pushed over the top. Where do you go when can no longer shelter in place, because the place in which you were sheltering is no longer accessible? What do you do when there's nothing left for you to do but flee? What's left when all you ever knew and loved is gone? We too easily settle into the temporal and mistake it for the eternal. Sometimes it takes the thievery of thieves and the destruction of moths and rust to remind us what's really important. Sometimes it takes significant loss to awaken us to what matters most. And if loss never comes, we continue to build our own kingdoms, appraising the stuff of earth much higher than we ought, and lose sight of eternity altogether. This is not to say God sends fires and causes destruction. They're simply a reality in the world in which we live. They happen. But God would certainly have us learn from them. And God would also have us act in the midst of them. For when all I have goes up in smoke, I recognize my dependence on the community that surrounds me. It's then that I learn how blessed I am to have neighbors who open their doors and welcome me as if I were one of their own. How else could I know the extent of their love and how far they would go to provide me with assistance and care? And it's in and through their actions that I get a glimpse of the loving hand of God and how He watches over me and provides, even in the loss of my earthly possessions. What steps can you take today to move some of your funds from earthly accounts to heavenly ones? To transfer your treasures from the temporal to the eternal? Your heart will follow your investment of time and treasure. Choose wisely. For the stuff of earth is too easily lost and can too quickly be reduced to ashes. Hold your loved ones tight and your possessions loosely. And know that the One who loves you most holds you in His loving hands and will be your protector and provider, this day and every day.

Prayer
Good and gracious God, in the midst of devastation, keep Your people safe. Protect and preserve Your loves ones in the places in which they abide. Even so, help us come to know that because of Your grace, our citizenship is in heaven and our Home is with You. In these days, help us to be good neighbors to all who are in need and to extend Your hand of love and grace, that others might come to know the depth of Your care and compassion. May You work in me and through me this day to accomplish Your good purposes, that Your will may be done, on earth and it is in heaven, to the honor of Your holy name.
Amen


Tuesday, August 18 Devotional

And hearing this, Jesus said to them, "It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners."
Mark 2:17

Jesus was crossing the line. Venturing across the aisle. Associating with the others. Those with stories. Histories. Scars. Those who stayed far away from temples and synagogues because they knew they wouldn't be allowed through the front doors if they did show up. So the temple of God had come to them. In Jesus they found Someone who would listen. They well knew the standards He espoused. And you can be sure that Jesus neither compromised His integrity nor condoned their sin. But with His presence among them they experienced a hospitality they had not enjoyed in as long as they could remember. Was it way back when they were children, living under mom and dad's roof? They had certainly not enjoyed this kind of reception from any other religious figure. It was an oddly satisfying experience: they sensed that Jesus already knew about them even before they began telling their stories. And yet He stayed. Spent time with them. Made them feel safe enough to share with Him all that was in their hearts and minds. Things they had not openly shared - ever, with anyone. He stayed long enough to learn the particulars, to hear the specifics. To get to know them. They couldn't put their finger on it, but there was something about Him that spurred them on to do so. They felt no condemnation in His presence. In fact, they found it surprisingly strange - and in the best way - that they wanted to lay bare their hearts before Him. Even more, because He was non-judgmental, they found their hearts softening in His presence - and changing. How to express what was taking place: Was it His mercy? His kindness? His compassion? Whatever it was, they were changed by His presence in their midst. Not because He had told them they must repent, or else. And yet, they felt it happening. And they welcomed it. Jesus didn't need to speak a word, for He was the Word, abiding in their midst. If there was ever a man so completely for others, it was He. He came to mend, to heal, to restore, to save. You've perhaps seen animals shying away from a veterinarian's touch or children cowering in the presence of those clad in white. Open wounds are painful and require a sensitive touch. Hidden wounds necessitate a gentleness that engenders trust, that one might believe the physician is not there to harm but to heal. The Pharisees were afraid that associating with sinners would make them look bad. That somehow they would be defiled by their uncleanness. But Jesus had said He was the light that had come into the world that no darkness could overcome. His purity, His holiness, His love: these were more infectious than any sin He would encounter. To follow this Messiah is to welcome the broken and to extend hospitality to those who are living under the sadly mistaken understanding that God has rejected and condemned them. Jesus doesn't come to take away life: He comes to bestow it in all its abundance. Even so, He comes to you today. Even so, He invites you to join Him in His Father's work.

Prayer
Holy God, Your people have consistently confessed through the ages that You are gracious and compassionate, merciful, and abounding in steadfast love. I thank You for Your miraculous incarnation, for giving the world a Living Example of Your character in Your Son, the Word of God made flesh. Continue to transform my understanding of Your intention on my behalf, that You do not seek to do me harm, but that You have come to abundantly bestow life - now, always and forever. Fill me with Your Spirit, that I might be about Your work this day for the sake of Your people and for the honor of Your holy name.
Amen


Monday, August 17 Devotional

O my God, incline Thine ear and hear! Open Thine eyes and see our desolations and the city which is called by Thy name; For we not presenting our supplications before Thee on account of any merits of our own, But on account of Thy great compassion.
Daniel 9:18

Daniel is considered one of the major prophets in the Bible. Since the designation is made solely according to the length of his writing, Daniel barely slides into the category. He's nowhere near as verbose as his fellow prophets Jeremiah, Isaiah or Ezekiel. But his contribution is an important one, nonetheless. I've been told that there's never anything wrong with a short sermon (as long as it's on point). Daniel learned the secret of saying his piece and then sitting down. In the passage above we overhear a prayer made by this man of God. His words give us insight into his character as well as peek into his theology. And his petition gives us something to contemplate, as we make our way through this coronavirus season. He appeals to God to open His eyes and His ears, to be aware of the precarious situation into which Daniel and his people have been cast. Their experience is nothing short of a lion's den or a fiery furnace; their lives are hanging in the balance. Surely the prophet knows God is fully apprised of their situation; his words merely express his own urgency. And his request is not for any personal gain or individual salvation; he makes his supplication on behalf of the city. Daniel is no desert hermit who's hidden himself away in a secret haunt far distant from his people. He's not removed himself from society or separated himself from others in favor of making a personal quest to seek spiritual enlightenment. His life and service are tied up together with his people; he's fully engaged in the experiences of his community and their welfare. Daniel may well be a prophet of God who spoke God's Word to His people. But here he plays a priestly role, as he presents his petition before God's heavenly throne on behalf of the people he serves. He pours out his heart before the Almighty on behalf of the city - and he gives us a shining example of our responsibility today as the people of God: to be fully engaged in the world and to work for its welfare; to throw in our lot with our neighbors and to labor with them, side by side, encouraging each another, building others up, having a positive influence wherever and however we can. This is the character of the prophet Daniel. And then comes a glimpse into his understanding of God: He humbly makes his plea before the Almighty. He's bold in his petition - not because he's merited the right to ask such things of God by means of his righteous deeds. Rather, he confidently appeals before the Almighty because he's convinced of God's great compassion. He's come to know it in his own life, and so he courageously entreats the One who has all power: to act in His own interests. In this way, the prophet teaches us what constitutes a truly powerful prayer. It's not our holy acts that earn us a hearing. It's not the wise words we choose to speak. It's coming to know the heart of God and aligning our prayers with His will. In this way, we declare who God is, we're mindful of His character, and we humbly make our appeal to the One who alone has power to bring about positive and lasting change. And until God makes His answer known or corrects our earnest entreaties, we move forward, we press on, we shine our light, working with all that is in us for the good of the community and for the glory of our God.

Prayer
Almighty God, You are fully attuned to our circumstances; You are thoroughly apprised of our hardships. We align ourselves with Your prophet Daniel in making our requests before you - not because we've earned the right to be heard or because we're deserving of reward; we come before You merely appealing to Your mercies and compassion. Look with favor upon Your people. Guide those who desperately seek remedies to combat the coronavirus that afflicts Your people. Raise up leaders whose hearts are set on serving Your people; depose those who selfishly seek personal gain. Open our eyes to Your truth and Your ways. And may Your will be done in us and through us, for the honor and glory of Your holy name.
Amen


Sunday, August 16 Virtual Church Service ("Getting to the Heart of the Problem")


Sunday, August 16 Devotional

And he cried out with a loud voice, as when a lion roars; and when he had cried out, the seven peals of thunder uttered their voices.
Revelation 10:3

I went to sleep in the Bay Area of CA and woke up in the Midwest. At least that's what it felt like. Last night we experienced unusual weather for midsummer, as lightening lit up the skies and the thunder shook our houses to their foundations. Common fare, I know, for Midwesterners, but worthy of note here on the West Coast. For most of us, it was not a good night for sleeping. But it gave us much to talk about in the morning - and I saw it all over Facebook, as people enthusiastically shared the sights and sounds they had witnessed in the early AM... I've been reading about the human responses to pandemics over the years. Many have seen in them God's wrath being unleashed upon the people. Others viewed them as apocalyptic events and connected them to end-time signs that will, one day, be revealed from heaven. Like the verse above, when the apostle John witnessed, while on the island of Patmos, one of his visions: a strong angel came down out of heaven and cried out with the voice of a lion, accompanied by seven peals of thunder. Now that's one mighty and memorable vision! There was no consensus among the religious-minded that pandemics were portents of last days. But what they all could agree on was that God was sovereign and that what the people were experiencing was an occasion that presented itself for soul-searching and put out a call for repentance. And if that's all that comes out of our current pandemic, it will not be time wasted… Last night's events brought to mind a weather man we had in San Diego back in the 70's. Then as now, there's not a whole lot to talk about when it comes to atmospheric changes that take place in what has been deemed America's Finest City. The message is pretty much the same, day after day. One day is much like the last - year-round. And because that is the case, the onus is on the messenger to make it all more interesting. The personality of the weatherman becomes paramount, since his message is rarely unexpected. But when what we have to tell is worthy of note - like last night's heavenly sound-and-light show - anyone can share their story, and when they do, they can do so with passion. There's no news so good and so great as the gospel. God's amazing grace poured out for us poor sinners. You needn't get too creative about telling it. For the message itself is one that can grab hold of a listener with the power of a mighty thunderstorm. And even as we've awakened to a new day and the storm has passed, so will this pandemic. God abides with us now, and God will be with us on the other side. Lift your eyes heavenward, and you will be inspired to give all you've got with all your might, to make the here and now a better place for everyone.

Prayer
Almighty God, You have all things in Your hands. When You display Your power in nature, it's easy for us to sit up and take notice. And it gives us a mere glimpse of Your marvelous might. What a comfort it is to know that You always use Your power for the good of Your people; Your will is not to crush us but to save us and to redeem. Help me to see Your wonderful works with eyes wide open. For I know that when I do, You will inspire me with words that are adequate to speak to them. All praise, honor and glory be Yours, now and forever.
Amen


Saturday, August 15 Devotional

Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy.
Ezekiel 16:49

It wasn't exactly what Sodom had been known for. The renowned reason given for their destruction and for the fire that had fallen from heaven was something else altogether. It had been easy for others to attach to them a label they would never stick to themselves; to designate a particular cause of their judgment when it was foreign, other, and could not be applied to the those who held the gavel in their hands. But the prophet wouldn't let them get away with it. He called Sodom their sister; he placed them in the same family. And he defined the guilt of Sodom as something not at all foreign, but quite familiar; and the prophet's audience was implicated in their judgment. Ezekiel, serving as God's mouthpiece, reminded the people: It's easy to speak with confidence when you're standing in an unassailable stronghold. It's easy to give yourself credit for your achievements, when you're enjoying your own security and you're safely situated within a gated community. It's easy to pat yourself on the back, as you recline, self-satisfied, delighting in the results of your good, hard work. It's easy from that standpoint to think you're more important and more valuable than others, and that those who've not been as successful as you have been are just reaping what they've sown, getting what they deserve. Good for you; too bad for them. You think there's little connection between you and those who've failed. There's no interaction. No community. And no understanding. It is a short step from here to designating them as subhuman. And if that's how you see them and judge them, you'll more easily justify treating them in inhumane ways; because, well, they deserve to be where they are and to live how they're living. Their current state: It's all on them. And it's no one's responsibility but their own to move them from where they are to a better place - it that's really what they want. Maybe if they wallow in it awhile longer, they'll get sick of being where they are and do something about it. This was the attitude of your sister, Sodom. And these were the reasons for their judgment, said the prophet. And their ways have been your ways… It makes me wonder how these things might apply to our own situation in modern America. I wonder about our divided and polarized nation. Designations of us and them. Rich and poor. And the gaps between us looming larger by the day. Racial divides. The breakdown of community. Pointed fingers are not helping. Self-acclamation and callous judgment of others only creates a deeper rift. We need a better perspective, a new vision. It's time to widen our circles. It's time for inclusion, not exclusion. It's time to inspire, not exasperate. It's time to repair our rifts and heal our wounds. When we acknowledge our own contributions to the problems and confess our guilt, God will certainly lead us into a new day. But if we persist in our self-justifications, continue to outsource our problems and fix blame on others, we'll all go down in flames together. Today is a day to come to our senses. Let us learn well from our sisters and brothers who have come before us.

Prayer
Gracious God, You have so richly blessed Your people. But we are prone to take Your blessings and run with them, neither acknowledging You as the Giver nor sharing our abundance with others. Open our eyes to our dependence upon You. Make clear to us our connection to others. Help us to live as Your servants and to accomplish Your good and gracious will for all of Your treasured people. May we all honor You with our words and in our actions. And may You have mercy on Your people and on Your land.
Amen


Friday, August 14 Devotional

When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained...
Psalm 8:3

"Wow! Look outside!" So the exclamation was made last night at our house after the sun had set and the heavens had taken on vibrant and glorious beauty, a skyscape that was changing, moment by moment. And then, before retiring for the evening, it brought me joy to see that others had posted photos of the sunset they had experienced the very same night, here in our city and in others. It seems that in these unusual days people have become more attuned to nature. Their eyes have been lifted heavenward. I find it interesting that the word in Scripture translated as heaven or sky is one and the same. It is what it is. Some see in it one of the wonders of the world; others see the glory of God. Some call it nature; others deem it creation. Some rejoice; others give thanks. But it's good thing, either way, that we're now more aware of the beauty around us. It's a good thing that our eyes have been lifted up to the above and beyond, that we might consider our being in the midst of it all. The great existential questions are raised: Who are we? Why are we? What does it all mean? When the psalmist takes a step outside and looks up into the nighttime sky, he's overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all. Of course, he does not understand its vastness - as well as we, today, who've been blessed with history, time and modern science. But he sees enough of what is out there to be awed by it all - and what it means for his own being. When he considers the glories of the evening sky, he marvels at his own life and his connection to everything else. He realizes both his significance and insignificance. He is wowed. As well he should be. And who among us has not experienced the very same thing? Whether or not one believes in One who is responsible for it all, it's good to be aware of the magnitude as well as the intricacy of the world and the universe of which we are a part. As much as it's possible to do so, it's good for us to take it all in. To consider the extent of what's out there, and then, also, to contemplate the precision of the human body and how we function. For when our eyes are opened to see the wide expanse of our world's wonders, how is it possible to be anything less than amazed by it all? Even an experience as (and I hesitate to put it this way) simple as a sunset: to witness its breathless beauty can move us to honest humility and exuberant expression. For in the experience we're indeed confronted with the holy, the pure, the exquisite. To express gratitude to our glorious Creator completes the experience. And to recognize the relationship that's been initiated by the One who's graced you with the miraculous gift of life and to know that your existence is not merely a senseless, meaningless happenstance, can inspire you to cherish your life, make the best of it and invest yourself fully, to add what you can to this incredible experience we all share on this planet.

Prayer
Almighty and Eternal God, I'm overwhelmed by the magnitude and majesty of Your creation. I'm humbled to be a participant on this earthly stage, and I thank You for the precious gift of life. Help me never to take for granted the gifts that You have given. Open my eyes to the beauty and glory that surrounds me. Lift my eyes heavenward, that my appreciation of Your manifold blessings might increase and my gratitude might be commensurate to the graces which You have bestowed. To You be all honor, glory and praise, here and to all to the farthest reaches of Your creation, both now and forever.
Amen


Thursday, August 13 Devotional

Therefore do not be anxious for tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Matthew 6:34

My grandmother was a dear and precious woman who had a heart of gold. She was a people-person who brought joy and positivity into any room when she entered it, and she was always more concerned about others than she was for herself. The cleanliness of her house was not high on her priority list, but her home was a sanctuary - a place that was safe, welcoming and peaceful. She was one of the few soulmates I've had in my life, and her inspiration has been unmatched. If she had a flaw (and I hesitate to focus on any negative aspect in one who has so fully captured my heart), it was her worry. If you looked up the word worrywart in the dictionary, you'd find a picture of my dear grandmother. As I look back on it now from a more mature and knowledgeable point of view, I wonder if what she experienced was not a physiological affliction that could have been helped by medication. I'll never know. But I cannot count the number of times I attempted to console her with the assurance that God was watching over her, that things would be all right, and that she needn't worry so much. The words of Jesus in the above verse speak well into our lives today. For what we're experiencing is so intense and severe that we may well call them worrisome or anxious times. Which is to say that we hardly have a choice about how we will react or respond to them. They are troublesome in and of themselves. And it becomes overwhelming when we concern ourselves with all that may happen in the days to come - and bring those concerns into this present day. Surely in these words Jesus is not advising that we go about our lives plan-free. Surely, He would affirm us making wise decisions today so that when tomorrow comes any hardships that might have been avoided will be. Indeed, Jesus has His feet set firmly in the ground when He declares that today has enough trouble of its own. His honest appraisal is refreshing and comforting, in and of itself. His counsel speaks to our focus and intention. Concentrate on what's before you. Do what you can about it on this day. And entrust the days to come - your future - into the hands of One who cares for you more than you'll ever know this side of heaven. While it's certainly good to prepare for what may come and to have contingent plans, many perceived or expected problems will simply fade away. And any time and energy you spend worrying about them is all for naught. Worry saps you from the energy you need to handle the tasks before you today. In the end, whatever happens, come what may, God will be there for you, and He will be watching over you in all faithfulness. You'll get through it. Don't let tomorrow's worry rob you of what is certainly more precious: the treasure and gift of today. God has awakened you to a new morning. Invest yourself fully into what you have before you. Throw yourself into it with all the courage and gusto you can muster. As you trust in God's presence and put faith in His watchful care, you'll relax in His goodness and rest in His grace. Doing so will not allow tomorrow's worry to drain you of today's energy; rather, your enthusiasm today will spill over into all of your tomorrows.

Prayer
Almighty, eternal and sovereign God, thank You for waking me to this new day and for the tasks You've placed before me. Grant me the strength I need to focus my energies on my work and to invest myself fully in it. Infuse my spirit with joy, gladness and positivity. Help me to influence others for good and to encourage them on their way. Comfort me with the assurance that my future is in Your good hands, and replace my anxious heart with the confidence that You faithfully provide for all my needs. May I live fully in Your peace today and be a refreshing and soothing presence in the lives of others, for Your glory.
Amen


Wednesday, August 12 Devotional

Thus says the LORD, "Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place."
Jeremiah 22:3

It has been said that one should keep religion out of politics and politics out of religion. The separation of church and state, and all that. Compartmentalize. Keep your hands to yourself. Stay off my turf. Believe what you want to believe, but don't try to force your ideology upon me or to persuade me that your ways are better than mine. Your personal faith is just that - personal. So keep it private and don't bother me or others with it… We're all familiar with the argument; we're well aware of the prescribed boundaries. But the prophets knew of no demarcation between faith and life. Faith was part and parcel, one and the same, intricately connected with both household happenings and community living. Jeremiah learned on the job. He was called by God to be His spokesman at an early age - too early, the prophet argued. And in this verse God had given him words to speak to the king of the land, the one who sat on the throne of David, the first and greatest king in the dynasty of the rulers of Judah. The prophet was no dreamer. He wasn't making these things up. And he wasn't theorizing. This was real life; these were the issues of the day. And what we find in these words is the conviction that these things matter - not only in their national politics and community living, but to the One to whom they owed their lives. Justice and righteous matter deeply to God, and God will not stand by and watch uncaringly. God is not unaffected by injustice. God opens the eyes of His people to see, piques their consciences and inspires them to act. My guess is that Jeremiah did not want to be the one to have to say these things to the king, to call him out on these matters. For Jeremiah's message was not just for future prescription; these were corrective measures that needed to be taken now. The powerless could not act; the voiceless could not speak. And those in power were prone not only to overlook them but to continue to press them down and tread upon them. The stranger, the orphan and the widow: they needed special attention. And because they were not getting it, they needed defenders. These words sound eerily contemporary. The biblical world is not so foreign or fantastical as one might think. The prophets are not so easily relegated as irrelevant. They had a powerful word to speak then, and their words are just as powerful when spoken into our world today. God will not have us sit idly by to watch injustice and oppression. We dare not claim independence, that we have no connection or responsibility to our neighbors, or limit those who fit into that category. We're all familiar with the Good Samaritan. We live in a global society. Our eyes have been opened, and it's too late shut them now, after all that we've seen. As long as there is injustice, oppression, violence and mistreatment in the world, God will continue to persist in righting the wrongs. And He wills to accomplish these things through you and me. Faith matters - not just for you, but for every life that touches your own. God calls you to take these matters seriously and to engage with others fully. This is the real work and will of God in our world today. So press on, beloved, and give it all you've got. Do the right thing - the God thing - and never back down.

Prayer
Good and gracious God, You care deeply about all of Your creation. When Your beloved people are mistreated, Your heart not only breaks, but You're moved to defend them. Open my eyes, that I might see clearly the needs of those around me. Grant me the boldness and courage necessary to step in when I see a need. Give me the confidence to know that You desire to work through me to accomplish Your purposes. And compel me to act for the good of all Your people, to the honor and glory of Your holy name.
Amen


Tuesday, August 11 Devotional

As the Scriptures say, "No one is righteous, not even one."
Romans 3:10

We've had a lot thrown at us in these past months, and for many it's been too much to handle. In a word: overwhelming. No matter how good you've become at juggling, it's hard enough to keep all the balls in the air without having one more being tossed your way. It may have come to the point that you simply step out of the way and let others catch what's being cast or simply let it fall to the ground. One of the many issues that have arisen concerns statues that had been erected for confederate leaders and recently removed because of what they represent. These actions have unearthed deep and strong feelings. Many want the statues to remain for their historical significance. We dare not pretend these things did not happen, they tell us, and we should not take measures to erase the past - lest we be doomed to repeat it. Others have simply grown used to seeing the statues that have “always been there” in their lifetime. They've become part of their own memories - of their walks and talks and picnics - and the monuments have little to do with the people they represent or their accomplishments. Removing the figures is nonetheless a painful tearing away of their own life experience, and they take their removal as a personal affront. And then there are those that affirm the presence of the statues because they represent white power, privilege and domination. And if they're not allowed to express themselves out loud in these days without recrimination, at least they have their convictions etched in stone and standing before them as a constant affirmation. And therein lies the problem and the reason for removing them. As a society, we're committed to encourage equality; we want to affirm the value of every human life. But then the question arises about the other historical figures. Which of them was free from oppressive behavior? What degree of purity is required to have a memorial erected in your honor? Perhaps it depends on what is determined to be at the heart and center of a person (as far as that is possible). How passionate they were about their beliefs. What was at the core of their convictions. Their raison d'etre. To be sure, if everything about a person's life - the sum total of all their words and actions - were gathered and gleaned and examined in detail, who would be left standing? Who has not done something shameful? Who has not sinned? Who had not done something that would not bring embarrassment and rejection if it were uncovered and put in the poorest (or brightest) light? Who has not made mistakes that have caused personal regret? You may struggle every day to separate actions from your personal history from who you are now, to excise your errors, to see yourself through different lenses, to redefine yourself as someone other than the one represented by your darkest day? We're about to see all of it unfold yet again, as the presidential marathon turns into a sprint. Sins will be uncovered. Names will be called. Accusations will be hurled. Mud will be thrown. And we will see that as much as we want to praise our living heroes or erect our dead champions on pedestals, all of them have feet of clay. It's a reminder to us all that life is complicated, that there is none that is righteous, and that we are - thank God - loved and saved by grace.

Prayer
Almighty, and all-merciful God, thank You for Your kindness and grace by which You interact with me, one who is sinful and unclean. Thank You for Your forgiveness. Help me to turn from my sin, and keep me on Your good path. Help me neither condone sin nor condemn by fellow sojourners. Help me to speak words that build up and encourage others. In everything I do, may I bring glory to Your name and serve Your people, that Your will be done in me and through me, on earth as it is in heaven.
Amen


Monday, August 10 Devotional

And the disciples were continually filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.
Acts 13:52

As an inflamed candle produces light that fills a room, so joy permeates a person's entire being. While happiness comes and goes depending on the circumstances, joy lingers. And holy Scripture bears witness that joy comes from the outside, a result of being touched by the Holy Spirit of God. At first glance and out of context, the verse above is a positive one. Joy is an inherently good gift that is always welcomed. For it to be a persistent and accompanying presence is something about which be give thanks. And the Holy Spirit - the living Wind and Breath that emanates from the sole Creator of all - is not a something to marvel or admire, but a Someone to praise as uniquely God. That this Holy Spirit of God would indwell the disciples, even as the joy the Spirit would saturate their souls, was certainly worthy of note. In the past, the Spirit had been known to come upon prophets and kings, but now the Spirit had been loosed to blow into and through all the people of God. And when we consider the specific context and the occasion regarding which this verse is given as commentary, it becomes even more meaningful. Paul and Barnabas were among the disciples referred to as those who were continually filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. They had just shared the good news of God at a venue in which nearly the whole city turned out. The locals had begged the disciples a week prior to return and tell them more about God's resurrection power and the gift of forgiveness. The word got out about their message, and there were some who were more than skeptical about these foreigners and the subject of their sermons. And they didn't cotton to the commotion the disciple had created, and they were present among the assembly the following week to let their minds be made known. After Paul and Barnabas had spoken their piece, the naysayers riled up a group that persecuted the disciples and ran them out of town. No matter. The word had been shared, the message had been spoken, and it caught fire among many in the mix. The persecution they endured could not quench the Spirit accompanying and empowering them nor the joy the Spirit had brought… There is an undeniable power that emanates from the throne of God. It's often quiet and humble, and it is persistent. It has the ability to turn lives around - to redeem, renew and restore. And it leaves joy in its wake. God is not stingy in the sharing of His Spirit. In fact, God is downright prodigal in doing so. God's Holy Spirit power works within God's people, establishes God's kingdom and builds and strengthens God's Church that will bear up against any and all persecution and will indeed endure and overcome any and all opposition.

Prayer
Holy Breath of God, blow into Your world and through Your people to bring about Your good and gracious will. Empower Your people for good. Strengthen them for all that they need to carry out Your work in this day. Sustain the weary, give courage to the fainthearted and infuse Your people with joy. Embolden us to be persistent and steadfast in our commitment to share Your good news of grace, in word and in action.
Amen


Sunday, August 9 Virtual Church Service ("What We Can Learn in the Midst of the Storm")


Sunday, August 9 Devotional

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
Isaiah 60:1

Each new morning is filled with the promise of God's presence. Although I've experienced many dawns in my lifetime, each one that comes is new, fresh and unique; and they continue to delight me and move me to wonder. I marvel at the earth and its creatures, as they awaken to the blessings each new day brings. All God's works come alive to rejoice at the goodness He imparts. You, dear reader, have been graced with the gift of this new day. The light of heavenly splendor has dawned upon you. You have been favored, because you've been included in this precious treasure called life. The rising sun is just one of many displays of the beauty and power of God. And its brilliance is evidence of a greater glory. In all of creation can be seen the fingerprints of God by those who have vision to perceive it. And once your eyes are opened to it, you cannot keep from shining. I do not deny that a pall has been cast over creation with the coming of COVID-19. But the goodness that persists far exceeds it. There are innumerable reasons to rejoice. Allow all the senses God has given you to be quickened, that you might perceive the glory of God that surrounds you. Have confidence that God Himself is present and know that you are not alone. You are safe because the One who watches over you is trustworthy and true. God has smiled upon you. Meditate on that truth until it resonates within you, releases the its joy and permeates your being. You are precious in God's sight. Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.

Prayer
Good and gracious God, I give You thanks for the glorious gift of this new day. Open my eyes to the wonders that surround me until my whole being exults in praise before You. Grant me the assurance of Your amazing grace and the certainty of Your abounding love. Work Your will in and through me this day, that Your ministry and mission might be accomplished in my words and actions. May my presence on the planet today testify to Your goodness and serve to make this world a better place, for the honor of Your holy name.
Amen


Saturday, August 8 Devotional

For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile - the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on Him.
Romans 10:12

Since the very earliest years of our life in this world we have been observers. It comes to us naturally, and it's also taught to us by our parents. We notice that which is unique in each person or object, and we learn to name the differences. By doing so we grow in our ability to distinguish between one and another, this and that. At the same time, values and feelings are attached to everything that enters our personal space: yes and no, good and bad, right and wrong. And so we learn to discriminate, to know what belongs and what doesn't, what matters and what can be discarded. There was perhaps no greater delineation in the life of the apostle Paul than that of Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised, people of the covenant and those who stood outside it. The truth was firmly established and engrained in him from his earliest knowledge of what it meant to be a human being; it was the primary lens through which he viewed all of life. The statement above in his letter to the Romans is more than significant - it is monumental; it is immense. Paul takes the foundational and firmly fixed categories and encloses them in yet a larger circle so that all are included within it. Surely Paul did not lose the near- native ability to distinguish between this and that. He well knew the difference between Jew and Gentile, and he was keenly aware that the same distinction was a matter of fact for his reading and listening audience. But what he emphasizes here is that when it comes to belonging to the only God and Creator of all, those differences do not matter. God abundantly blesses all who call upon Him. This is good news that leaves no one missing. It's a message filled with meaning for all who will hear it. This is evangelism (good news telling) at its best: God your Creator claims you as His own, and He will not turn you away. Like a loving and thoughtful parent who, after returning from time away, always has gifts to bestow at each reunion, God overflows with grace upon grace and lovingly extends blessing to all who will come to Him. None is excluded. All are welcome. God is faithful to His promises, and He will never break His covenant with His people. God's good intentions have not changed: He bestows rich blessing upon His beloved so that they might share it with others, that His goodness and grace might extend to the farthest reaches of His creation. Whether you are one who receives it directly from God or from others, you are an integral part of God's plan - to pass it on to others. There is good news for you today: The Lord is your God and you are His - uniquely created, one-of-a-kind and irreplaceable. In His love God freely pours out upon you blessings that will never be exhausted. Relish and rejoice in the marvelous grace you have been given, and freely share it with all.

Prayer
Gracious God, Creator, Redeemer, lover of my soul: I praise You for Your goodness, and I rejoice in Your grace. Thank You for the abundant blessings You have poured out upon me - life and health, bounty and beauty, family and friends, a loving community of brothers and sisters who support and encourage me and remind me that I matter and that I belong. Grant me the vision to see through Your eyes the unique qualities of each person, creature and thing, characteristics that make them precious in Your sight. Help me to fully appreciate the riches of Your grace, and then help me share them with others, that all of Your people might know how cherished and treasured they are by the One who matters most. With humble and heartfelt gratitude, I offer my service to You this day for the honor and glory of Your holy name.
Amen


Friday, August 7 Devotional

Comfort, O comfort My people, says your God.
Isaiah 40:1

It was something they never thought would happen, and it lasted beyond anyone's expectations. What they had hoped was a mere bump in the road ended up being an ever-increasing heave that would finally close the road forever. The blip on the screen became an event that would be well documented and would never be forgotten. Sound familiar? The Preacher of Ecclesiastes says there's nothing new under the sun. And although our experiences in 2020 are different from those of God's people in the days of Isaiah, they found themselves in a similar predicament with similar needs. They ached for hope - real hope - that their life situation would change, and for the better. They longed for the assurance that God had not left them. And now the prophet proclaimed what God had whispered in his ear: compassion, mercy, steadfast love. What the people needed is what God would give them - an inner strengthening, a revival of spirit, and hope for a new day. God sought to comfort the people He so loved, and He sent His prophet to announce it. And what about Isaiah? He had a long career serving as God's messenger, and it must have been a wearisome task to declare the words of warning God had given him to speak to His wayward people. Time and time again, he had called them to account. And in their pride, they could not and would not hear it. But the prophet was persistent, and he faithfully continued to speak the word that God had put in his mouth - the word the people needed to hear. And now God had given him a word of healing. Now God had given him a word of hope and a vision of a new day. What joy it was for him to share this good news after so many years of admonishing the people to reform their ways or reap the whirlwind! Change was coming. It might not happen tomorrow, but God was at work, and He would surely bring it to pass. In the meantime, the prophet assures the people that God is ever present in their midst and that He had surely not forsaken them. My people He had called them. Certainly, it brought comfort to the people that God has claimed them as His own. Even so, the prophet's words speak anew into our lives today of God's good intention for us. God's Word comes alive and becomes incarnate in our current crisis; it reminds us that God does not have it out for us and that we are not alone. God is faithful and true; He is our Savior and Defender, our Powerful Provider, and He will indeed usher us into a new and better day. There will come a time when we'll look back from the other side of this pandemic at what God has done. Then we'll have a story to tell, a witness to bear, of the wonder of God's work. In the meantime, as we continue to live on this side of our predicament, let us press on with hope and courage, and let us grow strong in faith. The day of river-crossing is coming. Let us live out these days in such a way that when we finally look back at them from the other side, we'll be able to do so with gratification. Let us do the work of God today, to bring others the peaceful comfort of God's presence and the confident hope that ours is a God who saves.

Prayer
Faithful and ever-living God, You continue to work for the good of Your people, bringing good out of bad. You continue to redeem us from our wayward ways. You faithfully pick us up when we fall and lovingly restore us to Your good path. Comfort me today with the assurance of Your presence, and give me the strength to live out these days with confidence, that I might one day look back with satisfaction on the steps that I have taken. Thank You for those who've faithfully reminded me of Your presence and Your good intentions for Your people. Help me to be Your messenger of comfort and peace today.
Amen


Thursday, August 6 Devotional

Greet one another with a kiss of love.
1 Peter 5:14

The man on the trail in front of me walked with both swagger and speed. I wasn't sure I would overtake him before I diverged from the path and turned toward home. He was clad in a red tank top, exposing his muscled arms and tattooed and tanned skin, which, along with his close-cut hair and ear piercings, gave him a rather formidable appearance. Because of our closely matched pace, I was able to observe in several instances his verbal encounters with people we met (he before I) who were heading in the opposite direction. It mattered not whether they were looking up or away, or whether they were smiling or downcast. In every case he initiated a confident and positive, "Good morning." I heard it half a dozen times before I caught up to him, separated at the appropriate six-foot span. I was not at all surprised when he spoke to me as well, while I walked alongside him: "It's good to greet people in the morning." "It adds a bit of good into the day," I responded. To which he affirmed, "Well, exactly." Down the trail a bit I thought, too late, of a better response I might have given: "It is the work of God." His was a welcome greeting, a simple action, an affirmation of community in these days of social distancing, disconnection and isolation. He took the initiative and refused to allow the several reasons for sadness to have the upper hand. His positive attitude was infectious. It helped to start my day in a hopeful way and set me on a good path, and I expect he did the same for many others. His presence in the world made it a better place. In the verse above, the apostle counsels a similar positive initiative for the Christian community. Such a greeting could not help but put things in a positive light and promote productive communal interaction. Moreover, this marks the last verse of Peter's first letter, and with these words he leaves the people on a happy note. Our greetings and goodbyes are important. On the one hand, they set the stage for any conversation that ensues; on the other, they leave us with feelings that linger and memories that may well last until such time as we shall meet again. Much like appetizers and desserts, that serve to make the main course more memorable. More than mere niceties, they're touches of grace, expressions of love from heaven come down. You have the power today to enhance the experiences of those around you. Take care how you craft your greetings and goodbyes; for in them, you may well do the holy work of God.

Prayer
Almighty and ever-living God, You have created in love, and You will bring all things to completion in love. In Your grace You took upon Yourself our human flesh and became incarnate in our midst. You revealed to us Your divine will and intention, and You showed us how to live a human life. Help me to extend Your goodness and grace into the lives of those I encounter today, and help me take care with my greetings and goodbyes, that Your will might be done in me and through me for the glory of Your holy name.
Amen


Wednesday, August 5 Devotional

For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.
John 13:15

For as long as I can remember, I've been fascinated with numbers. On one particular occasion my parents gifted me a clock radio that dropped digital metal cards in rolodex-type fashion. I was mesmerized by it, as I watched the numbers increase, minute by minute. There was something comforting about knowing what was coming next, and then observing it in action. My world made sense. I loved math in elementary school. One of the aspects that resonated with me then and now is that there was only one right answer to a problem. Guessing played no part in the process. I was taught to learn the rules, think logically, do careful work - and then check my work when I was finished. And when the problem was completed, I knew it was right. There was something deeply satisfying and fulfilling for me about that. And then things became more complicated. Word problems. We all hated them. Give me numbers, and I was fine. But ask me to apply the numbers to people and objects, require me to make these attributions on my own - that was much more challenging. There were examples given in the textbook at the beginning of every section. Studying the models was supposed to provide all that was needed to complete the word problems that followed. QED. Quod erat demonstrandum. Those letters would be listed at the end of the example, as if to affirm that the instructors had faithfully completed their part - and that it was now up to me to come up with the solution. Just follow the example. But it was never as easy as they made it sound. As more variables came into play, things became more complex - and I didn't like it. It made me uneasy. It was like reading a mystery novel with too many characters and too many possibilities. But life is often not as simple and easy as we'd like it to be. Jesus tells His followers in the above verse that He's given them an example. Having witnessed it, they were to go and do likewise. QED. What Jesus had done for them was to wash their feet. So… what did Jesus mean? How were they to follow suit? What were they supposed to do? Did Jesus intend that from now on they should be the basin-and-towel brigade? That they should literally wash each other's feet? If so, how often? And was this rule to extend beyond their group of twelve? Silly questions, I know. Questions a young math student might ask in frustration when given a real-life problem that wasn't as clear cut as he wanted it to be. But as the followers of Jesus continued to watch Him in action, they'd come to know His heart. They'd learn it was not just what He did but how He did it. His humility, His willingness to serve, His compassionate mercy, His love. His insistence on speaking the truth, defending the weak, calling out hypocrisy. Jesus would give them plenty of examples from which they could learn and after which they could model their lives. As I continue to listen and watch, I'm fascinated with the consistency of His words and ways, and I come to know the heart of God. And as I come to realize more fully that His actions were done also for me, I'm plugged into the power the propels me to follow the example I've been given by the One who always knew how best to address the situation before Him.

Prayer
Good and gracious God, thank You for the living examples You've given Your people, that we might learn of Your will and Your ways. Open my eyes today to see Your actions working in the lives of others. Open my ears to hear Your voice speaking in and through Your people. And may my words and actions serve to expand Your kingdom purposes, that Your love and grace might be extended to all Your beloved children, especially, this day, to the isolated, sad and lonely, to the honor and glory of Your holy name.
Amen


Tuesday, August 4 Devotional

And Israel said to Joseph, "I never expected to see your face, and behold, God has let me see your children as well."
Genesis 48.11

Feelings run deep in families. Emotions become impassioned. And the best and the worst can come out in them. We can find no better advocates than big brothers who stand up for us against the bullies in life. And yet siblings can be a source of jealously and a cause of contention. Israel was the new name given by God to Jacob. You may remember Jacob's early years, which included the betrayal of his brother, stealing both birthright and blessing. It caused a rift between them that separated the two for decades and infused deep mistrust that continued well beyond that. But the struggle between the brothers didn't come out of nowhere. Their parents had each had their favorite son, and the boys grew up in that unstable and divisive family. No surprise, then, that Jacob, woven into that same pattern, is unable to extricate himself from it and incorporates his own children into the same family quilt. He, too, will have his own favorite among his sons - and far from hiding it, he'll make it obvious to all the others. This serves to create envy among them, and deception and betrayal will continue their course in the next generation. Jacob's special son goes missing, and when evidence is brought to him, he quickly (and mistakenly) concludes the cause of his disappearance. His sons, knowing the truth, allow their dear father to believe that the prized son of his old age had been devoured by a wild animal. Years go by, and the sons who remain with their father see the grievous effects upon him and yet do nothing to break the bond of their brotherly secret. Things happen beyond their control, which results in a big family reunion in a foreign country that would become their new home. Not exactly what the brothers had envisioned in their retirement plans. And not at all what old man Israel expected to take place. But in this outcome, he sees the hand of God at work and the undeserved blessings bestowed upon him. Israel is graced with seeing his long-lost son again - and his children as well. He's comforted by his son's success, as every parent would be. And he's finally at peace. Israel bears witness that God is good, faithful and is always working to graciously bring good out of bad. We can expect the same to be the case when we're finally able to look back on this current crisis from the other side. We will see, as when turning over a tapestry, the wondrous work that God is making of this mess, and we'll be amazed at the finished product of God's creation. Will we ever be able to call what is happening now a beautiful thing? It's hard - if not impossible - to perceive it now. But God has the ability to work things out in ways that exceed our expectations; and, in His grace, He gives us much more (and much better) than we deserve. God brings renewal and redemption. As you invest yourself in that work today, you can be confident that no matter how things appear, your efforts are not and will not be in vain.

Prayer
Good and gracious God, You're always working to bring good out of bad, to renew and to redeem, for the sake of the people You call Your own. Thank You for Your faithfulness and Your grace. Help me to learn from the families of faith recorded in Scripture, that I might not repeat their mistakes but take with me the very best of what they've left in their legacies. Grant me an understanding of Your faithful and loving heart, for as I come to know Your good intentions, I will live in the sure confidence that Your good plans for me will finally come to fruition. May Your will be done in me and through me this day.
Amen


Monday, August 3 Devotional

For what thanks can we render to God for you in return for all the joy with which we rejoice before our God on your account?
1 Thessalonians 3:9

If it is a humble honor to have someone pray to God on your behalf in your time of need, it's a great delight when you're the reason for someone's celebration in God's presence. It's been said that the happiest people on earth are those who are filled with gratitude, and I don't doubt it for a moment. Their joy cannot be contained. And as it is expressed to those for whom and because of whom they are grateful, they create joy in those who receive the gift of their thanksgiving. In the great economy of God's kingdom, goodness is celebrated by all who invest in it. Is this not a helpful response to the widespread negativity and overwhelming dejection so many of us are experiencing in the public arena today? If goodness is given and gratitude for it is expressed, both donor and recipient are blessed. Moreover, the returning of thanks encourages the donor to continue to give. Having received a meaningful gift, one's heart is touched, softened, and moved to some extent in a positive direction. What life-giving words we read in the above verse. The occasion for it hardly matters. The expression of thanks is inspiring, even for outsiders not involved in whatever transaction has taken place. Witnessing such an event - even reading about it - stirs up the very best in us. It's easy to perceive that the author of these words cannot refrain from expressing himself. And words are hardly adequate to convey the joy he's experiencing. You can easily imagine what it would be like to open this letter and to read within it these words of thanks. They affirm that the gift given has hit its target; it was meaningful and well- received. The appreciation received brings satisfaction and blessing, and it serves as an encouragement to continue to find ways to further enhance the relationship. And love grows. Perhaps the evangelists can be excused for neglecting to include the teaching of Jesus on this subject, for they had different purposes and intentions in their writing. But Paul, the author of the above words, was well-acquainted with Jesus' instruction, and he shared them with others: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” The expression of gratitude is no small part of that blessing. Perhaps you'll be inspired today to be a donor. Or maybe you'll be the recipient of a gift. Or it may be that you'll participate in both ends of the enterprise. Whichever the case, may these words remind you of the power of giving thanks. Far beyond merely recognizing the gift, it encourages the one who has given it to carry on similar activity. And in in your expression of gratitude you remind yourself of the grace you've received, and you starve any selfish sense of entitlement. Employing these words and actions will assist in making our world a better place. How will you allow God to work in you and through you today?

Prayer
Good and gracious God, thank You for the many blessings You have poured out upon me. Thank You for the loving community that surrounds me and for the wonderful encouragement I've received from them. Make known to me the power that lies within me to encourage others. Teach me that I can bestow as much blessing as I've received, as I grow in my gift of gratitude. Keep my eyes ever fixed on Your grace. For as I'm reminded of Your goodness so freely given, how can I respond otherwise, except to pass it on? May Your rich blessings flow in me and through me today to affect the lives of others, for the honor of Your holy name.
Amen


Sunday, August 2 Virtual Church Service ("Leftover Blessings")


Sunday, July 2 Devotional

Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.
Psalm 122:2

I'm not one to frequent theme parks, but I well remember the anticipation that built within me the first time I got to experience Walt Disney's vision of the Happiest Place on Earth. I was impressed when our bus (not just any bus, mind you, but one of those fancy buses rented by the school district for this special occasion) exited the freeway and lumbered up to the massive parking lot. Then came the walk - better called a trek - so far from the entrance there were trams coursing through the acreage now and again to assist those who had difficulty managing the distance. And when we finally made our way within sight of the Magic Kingdom portal, we encountered something else the park was famous for: its lines. But this, too, added to our excitement. That mandatory wait gave us a chance to take it all in: we had finally arrived, surrounded by hordes of people, all wanting, like us, to get inside. Although I was not yet admitted, I knew I soon would be. I felt as lucky as Charlie, waiting to meet Willy Wonka and to be given a tour through the Chocolate Factory. But first I had to procure that coveted golden ticket. And once that was completed, we pushed through the turnstiles and our feet were finally standing on the inside. We were admitted. And now the exploration could begin! I trust you've had similar experiences and can identify with the emotions that fill your being on such occasions. Even so, those who made their way to the Holy City of Jerusalem, built on mountain heights, marked the completion of a sacred pilgrimage. Indeed, the people well know that God's dwelling place is in heaven. But the temple (located within the city gates) had been built for His name, and God had promised that His eyes would be on it forever. And although God could certainly not be contained, the people were confident they could have an encounter with the divine in that sacred space. What joy to enter behind the walls of the Holy City! What elation to pass beyond the gates of the temple courts! What a sacred honor! What a special privilege! A person could not help but be humbled by the grandeur and majesty of it all. It was an overwhelming experience to enter this holy space, to take their place where their ancestors had once come generations before them, and to bow themselves down before the Almighty in humble adoration. I firmly believe God is not tied to any one locality. And I firmly trust that I can meet God in our local congregational setting just as easily as I could meet God in that land called holy. But there's indeed something special about entering into that sacred worship space - and I miss it. I miss the gathering of people whose hearts are dedicated to the same purpose and mission. I miss the fellowship of family and friends and the memories of shared stories. Standing within those gates is to be in a safe and sacred space. When this present crisis concludes, place will have a deeper meaning for me. Because, of course, it's what happens in that space that makes it so special. God meets us there with His Word. God touches our physical being in water, bread and wine. And it's there that we take our united stand, to participate in the good work God has called us to do. How blessed we are that He has so graciously given us access into His holy presence. What joy to explore the riches of His kingdom together!

Prayer
Almighty God, thank You for the grace that You've extended to Your people - that You welcome us into Your loving presence. You not only richly bless us with Your goodness, You keep us safe from all harm and danger. As we await our entry into the heavenly Jerusalem and our eternal dwellings, remind us always of your faithful presence and provision in our midst. Your people rejoice this day, for You have claimed us as Your own. Strengthen us for service, that Your good and gracious will might be accomplished in us and through us this day, to the honor and glory of Your holy name.
Amen


Saturday, August 1 Devotional

Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men.
Colossians 3:23

Actions speak louder than words. This expression is sometimes taken up as a rejoinder to someone who's said something but doesn't follow through with his words or acts inconsistently with previous promises made. In biblical language: A tree without fruit is fit for the fire; faith without works is dead. There's been sharp disagreement throughout church history about the part works plays in our relationship with God. As vital as they are to responsible living in God's sight, it's supremely important to put them in perspective. We're not saved by good works; we are saved for them. We don't perform good deeds so that God will look favorably upon us and adopt us into His family; we do them because God has already claimed us as His own. God is the great initiator. God always acts first, and God acts in grace. We respond to God's grace by living our lives in accordance with God Word. This is not just a New Testament idea. God did not interact with His people in a certain way initially and then later change His mind in Jesus. This has always been God's modus operandi. The rescue of God's people from their bondage comes before the covenant at Sinai. The liberation comes before the law. The declaration of God that the children of Israel are His beloved treasure comes before God tells them how He expects them to live as a community in His sight. Indicative comes before imperative. God has set you free to do good works. God is not a taskmaster who loads you down with onerous burdens and compels you to do them in some vain attempt to earn your way into heaven. Rather, God has called you to engage in good works for the good of His creation and to benefit and bless others in need. When the apostle writes to the congregation in Colossae, he reminds them of what a faithful response to God's grace means and looks like. He encourages them to put their heart and soul into their work - to give it all they've got. To give their best efforts in whatever ways they're employed, as if God were their boss. He bids them to be a blessing of good example to their coworkers, to be responsible laborers who give no cause for concern but who can be counted on by their company to do their work well and lead the way for others. Your dedication should not be made for any earthly advancement, award or accolade. Instead, always present in your mind is the recognition that it is the Lord Himself you are serving in your work. Your responsible behavior, your good attitude, your ethics - others will see them and take note. And when your heart is in the right place, they'll not only see you, they'll see beyond you, through you, to the One who inspires you and in whose employment you are so actively engaged. Luther recognized the validity of serving God in all walks of life. One needn't be a priest to deal with sacred matters. Therefore, whatever you do, whether you're employed formally or informally, inside the home or out in the world, know that your work is truly essential in God's sight, and give it your all for His glory. As you do so, you'll be amazed at how quickly the hours pass by, and you'll accomplish your very best work. Most importantly, you'll honor the name of the One you've taken upon yourself.

Prayer
Good and gracious God, thank You for the work You've placed before me today. Help me to apply myself with a good attitude and with fullness of heart. May the grace by which I have been saved inspire me to give my very best in response to what You have first done for me. May my actions be consistent with my words, and may the example I give to others help them to see You more clearly and to be drawn to You and Your ways, for the honor and glory of Your holy name.
Amen


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