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Sunday, January 26, 2020

down is up

Opening Prayer: Forgive me, O Lord, when I start to believe that life with you is about climbing up, rather than journeying down.  Give me the grace and the strength and the wisdom and the courage to follow you, Lord Jesus, wherever you may lead.  Amen.

Scripture: Matthew 16:21-28

Journal: What is the trajectory of your life these days, upward or downward?  How are you trying to ascend?  How is Jesus asking you to descend?  Will you?

Reflection: What a pivotal moment in the life of Simon Peter.  He has just made his profession of Jesus as the Christ, and has been rewarded with a new name and a new identity.  From now on his true name is no longer Simon Bar-Jonah, but Peter—the rock.  On top of that, he has just been given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, to bind and to loose.  What a huge responsibility!  Can you imagine being given such power and authority?  That’s probably why Jesus then began to tell Peter exactly what that meant, and exactly what it was supposed to look like. Because what it was supposed to look like was very different from what Peter imagined.
     In fact, life with Jesus often leads in the exact opposite direction of what we might expect.  Life with Jesus is about self-sacrifice rather than self-actualization.  In the kingdom of God, we find our lives by losing them.  Life with Jesus is about dependence rather than independence, about powerlessness rather than power, about stepping down rather than climbing up.  Life with Jesus is about descending rather than ascending.  In the kingdom of God, down is up, and Peter needed to learn that.
     That’s why Jesus immediately began to tell Peter, and the other disciples, about his suffering and death.  Almost as if to say, “Peter, this way you are on—this life of following me—always leads downward.”  
     But Peter had something very different in mind.  Peter was about moving up, ruling in power, and sitting on a throne.  He was like, “No Jesus, we are not going down, we are going up.  That’s the plan I signed up for.” 
     To which Jesus responded, “Get behind me Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.  The “things of men” are all about trying to move up, but I am about moving down.  And if you want to follow me, that’s where this life will lead. For down is up in the kingdom of God.  Are you with me?” 
     Well, are you?


Closing Prayer: Lord Jesus, I get it backwards so often.  Forgive me.  Forgive me when I make this life about me rather than about you.  Forgive me when I pursue praise and acclaim and admiration more than I seek you.  Forgive me when I try to climb up rather than following you on the downward way.  Help me, Lord Jesus, to always have in mind the things of God rather than the things of men.  Amen. 

Saturday, January 18, 2020

empty is full

Opening Prayer: Forgive me, Lord Jesus, that I am so full of myself that there is little if any room for you.  Help me, during this time, to open my hands and my heart, and give to you all of the things (both good and bad) that are filling me up right now.  For only when I am empty will you have room to move and work and act the way you desire to.  Lord, have mercy.  Amen.

Scripture: Philippians 2:5-8

Journal: What are you full of these days?  How do you need to empty yourself, in order to be filled with God?  What are the things you need to give to God today?  Release them, one by one, into his hands right now.

Reflection: Jesus emptied himself, and calls on us to do the same.  The King of Kings stepped down out of the throne room of heaven and came to earth, becoming a mere man.  The Lord of Lords set aside divine privilege and took on the form of the lowliest servant.  The Immortal God took off his immortality and took on flesh and blood.  The Eternal One stepped into the limits of time and space and became a helpless baby.  It is an emptying that none of us can fully understand or appreciate, but one we are called to emulate.  
     But we must understand that this emptying is not merely for empty’s sake; it is an emptying that is intended to make room for a filling.  Jesus emptied himself of self—if it is even possible to say that—in order that God could exalt him to the highest place and give him the name that is above every name.  
     In the spiritual life, emptying is always meant to make room for a filling.  We empty ourselves of self, not just so we will be empty, but in order that we might be filled with the life and love of God.  Fullness is God’s ultimate desire for us—as it was for Jesus—but fullness can only be arrived at by way of empty.  
     So by all means let us have the same attitude that was also in Christ Jesus, and let us empty ourselves in order that we may be full of God.  So full, in fact, that we overflow—with his life and love—into the lives of all who cross our paths.  That’s what the kingdom is all about.


Closing Prayer: Lord Jesus, in order to be full of you, I must be empty of self, and I can accomplish neither on my own.  Have mercy on me.  Give me the strength and the grace and the courage to empty myself that I might be full of you.  Amen.

Friday, January 17, 2020

low is high

Opening Prayer: My heart is not lifted up, O Lord, my eyes are not raised too high.  I do not occupy myself with great matters, or things too wonderful for me.  But I have stilled and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. (Psalm 131:1-2, ESV/NIV)

Scripture: Luke 18:9-14

Journal: Where and how do you try to elevate yourself?  What would it look like to actively seek to lower yourself instead?  How will you do that today?

Reflection: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable.”  Sort of grabs your attention right from the start, doesn’t it?  Definitely cringeworthy, probably because we each see that tendency in ourselves.  For in order to look down on someone else, you have to have raised yourself above them at some point.  The problem is that it’s usually a very subtle thing; we do it without even realizing it.  That is until we are confronted with it in story form, then it’s easier to see.
     So Jesus tells us a story.  He wades into the dark places of the heart with the light of truth.  He sets up a contrast that’s sure to get our attention and shake us up a little, if not a lot.  On the one hand there is a Pharisee—religious, pious, wise, right, and sure—who challenges each of us to acknowledge and examine the state of our own hearts, minds, and souls.  And on the other hand is the tax collector. A tax collector!  Of all things!  Jesus might as well have selected a scammer, a computer hacker, or a telemarketer.  Tax collectors were the scum of the earth in those days, the lowest of the low, the lostest of the lost.  And yet in this story, as is often the case with Jesus, the outcast is set up as the hero—the one who sees things as they truly are, rather than through the lenses of his own self-importance and self-righteousness.
     And the point of the story?  Simply that if you live your life trying to raise yourself up—trying to climb higher, in your own eyes or the eyes of others—you are setting yourself up for a fall.  But if you recognize your desperate need for Jesus, and your inability to make things (anything really) “right” on your own, then there is good space within you for God to come in and fill you with his love and mercy.
     For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.  Did you get that?  Everyone who humbles himself.  Not just everyone who gets humbled by life’s circumstances, but the one who humbles himself.  Those two are very different.  Humbling yourself calls for an active, ongoing process—the process of continually lowering ourselves.    
     The Greek word for exalt (hypsoō) means to elevate.  Which is a wonderful and terrible word, especially in reference to something we are trying to do to ourselves.  Jesus wants us to know clearly that everyone who tries to elevate himself will be humbled.  And the Greek word translated humble in this passage (tapeinoō) means to bring low.  Thus, if your life is about elevating yourself, you are in for a wild ride, but if your life is about bringing yourself low, then you are right where God wants you.  There is actually room in your life for God to move and to work and to act.  
     So let us always remember that in the kingdom of God things are often backwards: less is more, small is big, low is high, and last is first.  Only when we empty ourselves of self, can we possibly be made full.  Lord, have mercy!


Closing Prayer: O Eternal God, my heart is not filled with proud thoughts; my eyes do not look down on others; I don’t even begin to get involved in matters too big and too wonderful for me.  When I take this perspective—when I look at life through these lenses—it is easy for my soul to be still and quiet and at rest.  I don’t need to prove anything, I don’t need to constantly try to be any more or any less than who and what you created me to be.  It is so incredibly freeing.  It is like being a little child, held in the loving embrace of its mother—safe, secure, content, loved.  Help me to always operate from this place of wholeness and peace.  Amen. (Psalm 131, JBV, Jim Branch Version)

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

small is big

Opening Prayer: Lord Jesus, thank you that you are found in the small things.  Thank you that you came into this world as a baby, and you departed from it as a sacrifice.  There is so much we still need to learn from you.  Lord, have mercy.  Amen.

Scripture: Luke 13:18-19

Journal: How do you try to be big?  How is God calling you to be small?  How does God desire to express himself, both to you and through you, in small ways this day?  

Reflection: In the kingdom of God, small is big.  What starts out tiny and hidden and insignificant and unrecognizable, often grows into something so big and so beautiful that it offers life and love to all who come in contact with it, in a ways that the big and the brash and the arrogant and the visible simply cannot.  I think that’s because the small and the quiet and the humble offers room for God to move and to work and to act.  Whereas the big and the loud and the boastful takes up all the space itself.
     So let us be about the small things today: a kind word, a loving touch, a listening ear, a warm smile, an unseen act.  For these are the things the kingdom is made of.


Closing Prayer: Lord Jesus, help me to make this life about your kingdom, not my own.  Help me to be small so that you can be big.  Amen.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

less is more

Opening Prayer: O my God, Trinity whom I adore, help me forget myself entirely so to establish myself in you, unmovable and peaceful as if my soul were already in eternity. May nothing be able to trouble my peace or make me leave you, O my unchanging God, but may each minute bring me more deeply into your mystery! Grant my soul peace. Make it your heaven, your beloved dwelling and the place of your rest. May I never abandon you there, but may I be there, whole and entire, completely vigilant in my faith, entirely adoring, and wholly given over to your creative action. ~Elizabeth of the Trinity

Scripture: John 3:25-30

Journal: How are you trying to become great these days?  How is it getting in the way of what God is trying to do?  What would it look like to become less?  How would that offer more space for God, and others, to move?

Reflection: One of the great principles of leadership is that the best leaders don’t take up all the room, instead they create space for God, and others, to thrive and move and flourish.  John the Baptist understood that, how else could he have stepped aside so readily and made space for Jesus to take his rightful place in God’s amazing plan of redemption?
     You see, great leaders realize that they are not the point.  They fully embrace the fact that this life is not about them, but about God.  They willing cast the spotlight on God, and on others, because they realize that they are not the star of the show, they are not the center of attention, and they are not the bridegroom, but just the friend of the bridegroom.  Their job is simply to watch and wait and listen for the bridegroom, and when he arrives, to step aside.
     Thus, they prefer being hidden to being seen, being silent to being heard, and being small to being big.  In fact they seek to be small, so that God and others might be big.  That’s what true leadership is all about.  


Closing Prayer: Make yourselves small.  Make yourselves very small. ~Angela of Foligno

Monday, January 13, 2020

from he to you

Opening Prayer: Draw me, O God, into your great heart of love today, that I might know your love and your presence and your nearness and your provision and your peace and your comfort in a wonderfully intimate way.  Amen.

Scripture: Psalm 23:1-6

Journal: How does this Psalm invite you into deeper intimacy with God?  How does it encourage you to move from talking about God to talking to God?

Reflection: The true movement of prayer is always one toward deeper and deeper intimacy.  The more we pray, the more we are drawn into the very heart of the One who knows us best and loves us most.
     This spiritual dynamic is on full display in one of the best known prayers of all time—the 23rd Psalm.  This infamous prayer begins by revealing truth after truth about who God really is, but in the middle of the Psalm it takes a subtle, yet remarkable turn.  David, a shepherd himself, shifts from using the word he to using the word you.  David moves from simply talking about God, to actually talking to God, and invites us to do the same.
     And it is certainly no accident that this shift takes place just as David is talking about “walking through the valley of the shadow of death.”  For it is in the darkest valley that we need to not only know truths about God, but we need to experience the nearness and the presence and the care and the comfort of God personally. 


Closing Prayer: I love you, O my God; and I desire to love you more and more. Grant to me that I may love you as much as I desire, and as much as I ought. O dearest Friend, who has loved and saved me, the thought of whom is so sweet and always growing sweeter, watch over my lips, my steps, my deeds, and I shall not need to be anxious either for my soul or my body. Give me love, sweetest of all gifts, which knows no enemy. Give me in my heart pure love, born of your love to me, that I may love others as you love me. O most loving Father of Jesus Christ, from whom flows all love, let my heart, frozen in sin, cold to you and cold to others, be warmed by this divine fire. So help and bless me in your Son. Amen.  ~St. Anselm