When a Poem Gets It Right

Today I read an excerpt from a wonderful poem called "Red Bird" by Mary Oliver. It reads

      Instructions for living a life...

          Pay attention.
          Be astonished.
          Tell about it..

With this in mind, now read Psalm 84:1-3 - "How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty!  My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young— a place near your altar, Lord Almighty, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you."

While worshiping, the Psalmist paid attention and saw a bird nesting in the temple near the altar. The Psalmist was astonished at the privileged position this bird had in the house of God.  He thought, "There is nothing better than this!" And then he told others about it. 

Here is hoping that this week you might have a moment where you see something about God/life/beauty/love ... that astonishes you and causes you to tell others about it.

Grace & Peace,

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Trespasses or Debts?

Yesterday at church, we said together the Lord's prayer.  Depending on which tradition in which you were raised, in the fourth line  of the prayer we either say, "Forgive us our debts" or "Forgive us our trespasses."

If you look in the actual biblical text, the Greek word opheilēma is almost always translated as "debts" and means "that which is owed."

But just after the Lord's prayer, Jesus says in vs. 14, "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."

This Greek word means to "go where we should not go, or do what we should not do."

I actually prefer trespass over debt in the Lord's prayer, because it connects me more readily and practically to what sin often is... in gossip, we go where we should not go with our words... in lust, we go where we should not go in our minds...in anger, we go where should not go in  our actions.

If confession is part of your daily or weekly routine, or if you say the Lord's prayer regularly - allow it to lead you to think about the meaning of the word trespass as a way of seeing  more clearly what sin is. 

In this way, we can stay within the bounds of what Jesus called "the narrow way."

Grace & Peace,

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Where to Begin

Most of us want a rich and deep devotional life.  Yet developing and protecting that life is difficult. You want to have a set time and structure, but life keeps getting in the way.

So we struggle with a guilt & frustration, and then find at some point we just get apathetic.

What should we do ... ?

My advice? Seek simplicity. Find a few small things that you can do daily, and which can be done even when schedules are disrupted.

For example, 

  • memorize the 23rd Psalm and prayerfully meditate on it 1x or 2x a day

  • use the Lord's prayer to structure a 5-10 minute prayer time.

  • do centering prayer as a way of getting quiet

I have been praying the daily office twice a day. The Daily office is a short service that takes about 10  minutes to pray through. There is a morning service or an evening service, but you can do it whenever. (I use an app to guide me - text me and I will share the app).

The point is to start small and simple, be flexible, yet committed and see if you can get a devotional foundation established that you can build on.

Grace and Peace,

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A New Year Ahead!

Happy New Year!

If you are like me, you may be spending part of the day thinking ahead to 2019, asking questions like, "What does the year ahead look like?"; "What goals do I have?"; "What do I need to change?" etc...

I stopped thinking about New Years Resolutions years ago, since  they seemingly were often nothing more than wishful thinking.

Instead, I have been thinking more about a "Rule of Life."

Usually when you talk about a rule of life you are referring to the basic disciplines a person commits to when he or she enters the monastic life. These are the common practices the whole community engages in, so that they have a shared spiritual and communal "way of life". We aren't in a monastic community so this is a bit harder, but the idea of a "rule of life" may be a way forward for all of us.

Here are then a range of questions you might ask yourself today in trying to develop your own way of life:

  • What are the basic spiritual, relational,  intellectual, physical exercises or activities  I need to always have present for me to be healthy?

  • What structures do I need to put in place? What commitments do I need to make?

  • What specific practices will help me grow in ways God wants me to?

  • How we I prioritize the important people in my life? How will  I prioritize my part of God's mission?

  • How will I pursue joy this year?

You  can see that things like exercise, going to church, reading, daily prayer, date nights, playing on a rec team, taking up a new ministry at church, could all be part of your rule of life.

On this first day of the year, take some time to sit with these questions and see how God might lead you to articulate a rule of life for 2019. 

Grace & Peace ,
Brad Swope

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Happy "Giving Thanks" Day

Tomorrow morning is Thanksgiving. Most of us have at one time or another, been sitting at the Thanksgiving table and been asked, "Share one thing you are thankful for." Around the table we hear people say things like, "family, "my job", "this meal" in a way that makes you think, "Everyone just wants to get through this so that we can eat."

So while this exercise can seem dismissive and disingenuous, here are five reasons why "giving thanks" is such an important spiritual practice that should get our full attention.

1) Giving thanks re-introduces God into the picture. The truth be told, none of us are self made people. Much of who we are and what we have is not something we can claim to have achieved on our own. Giving thanks can be a moment of humility where we recognize God's generosity to us.

2) Giving thanks is an exercise in perspective taking. It gets your eyes off you own problems, if only for a moment, and on to the blessings, gifts, and kindnesses given or shown to you.

3) Giving thanks is a away of seeing other people. We live so indifferently to each other. Noticing what people do for us and thanking them, is a way of seeing them.

4) Giving thanks helps us to not take things for granted. All of us are guilty of taking very precious things for granted - things like our eyesight, the ability to walk, the ability to speak, the freedom  to worship, the freedom to speak, the roof over our heads, the food on our table. Slowing down and naming these things is to bring what we take for granted and put it back in the "giving thanks" bucket.

5) Giving thanks is a way to feel loved.  If we have things to "thank" others for, be it God or family or friends or church, we can thus see, we are loved. (And who doesn't need to feel that more.)

Happy Giving Thanks Day.


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What Noise Costs Us

Isaiah 30:15 – “This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strengthbut you would have none of it.
Words. The world is full of them. Noise. You can hardly escape it. Clamor.There may be no better word that describes the din that constantly surrounds us. We all say we long for quiet. But do we?  

You wouldn’t be able to tell by our lives – the fact that we seem to always fill the space with noise - the TV on in the background, the car radio always tuned into our favorite station, Netflix or video games always available to fill the void if we are bored.  As well, noise can be the text messages, emails, & social media apps that clamor for our attention.  Any outside observer would say that we as a race seem afraid of quiet which is why we keep thing so noisy.  Is there truth to that?

The Psalmist God says, “Be Still and know that I am God”. Is it possible that we have no sense of God being with us because we are never still? Is it possible that we do not hear God’s voice because he can’t be heard over the racket?  Quiet is essential for us to know God and know ourselves.

Pay attention to how noisy your life is. See if you can introduce more quiet in your life. See what happens when you spend time reflecting, thinking, waiting, praying. See if God begins to seem more present and active in your life as a result.

Grace & Peace,

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Less Worry, More Peace

There is a price we pay for all the noise in our life… and the price is internal peace

With each passing decade, Americans are measurably more stressed, more anxious and more depressed. This is despite the fact that we, by and large, enjoy prosperity our grandparents couldn’t dream of.  Though I am sure our worried condition is due to many factors, I am also sure that one of the things that contributes is our cell phones.  

So each year, in the college class I teach, I give my students a challenge. For one month, for the first hour and the last hour of the day, they are not to access their cell phones/or the internet.  As you can imagine, this exercise is very hard for them. (Which is why I entice them with extra credit points).

But for those who take the challenge, after a few weeks of struggle, I hear them say things like, “It’s amazing, I am sleeping better” or “I find I am waking up happier” or “I find I am having deeper conversations with my roommate” or “I am enjoying the quiet more” or “I am finding a new desire to pray or read.” .

What they did was remove the stream of 24/7 information/social media/entertainment; and what they gained was space, and what they filled that space was things that created peace. 

Want to take the challenge?

Grace & Peace,

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Amuse vs. Re-Create

I want you to think about how you spend your down time. Two words help us explore this.  The first is the word amuse which literally means to “not think” (“a”= not, “muse” = “to think”).  To find amusement is to find things to help you escape and find distraction. The second word is recreate which literally means to “make new again” (“re”= “again”, create” = “make  new”)  To re-ceate is to find those things that renew you and give you joy.  

There is nothing wrong with amusement. It’s nice to escape. But amusement cannot do for us what recreation does. Recreation connects us to God, nature, other humans, beauty etc... Also, amusement is easier than recreation. Recreation usually requires something of you. You don’t just find yourself recreating– it usually needs to be planned for. This is why we usually find ourselves choosing amusement over recreation.  

So, according to these definitions, how much of your down time is amusement and how much is recreation? How much of it is simply mindless palaver and how much renews you?  Make a list of how you spend your down time. Is it balanced? Do you need to put more emphasis on being "recreated"?

Grace & Peace,

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How Much Time?

There was a famous experiment done at Princeton Seminary where students were asked to prepare a message on the story of the Good Samaritan and then told to give that talk somewhere across campus.

Some were told to hurry as they were late already. Some were told they had just enough time to get there. And some were told they had plenty of time to get there.

Then, in the middle of the campus, each student would encounter a bystander, who appeared injured and asked for their help.  As you might guess, only 10% of those “in a hurry” stopped to help, 45% of those “on time” stopped to help; and 63% of those “not in a hurry”, stopped to help. 

It was not the student’s upbringing, nor their religion, nor their character that predicted their response. It was simply, their sense of not having enough time. 

When we hurry, when we pack too much in, when we rush from place to place, we simply will not be able to see people and, when appropriate, respond to their needs.

A few years ago, I decided to build an extra 10 minutes “between” scheduled things, so that I could move with more leisure, and would have time in transition to respond to people. It has dramatically changed the quality of my time and my ability to see people and respond.

If you feel like you are constantly rushed, or have trouble being present to people, consider what ways you might use to relieve the time pressure you have built into your day.

Grace & Peace,

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What If Telling the Truth Causes Harm?

I wanted to do a follow up on yesterday's sermon on truth based on a few questions asked afterwards.  One question asked was, "What happens when telling the truth might hurt or harm someone?" Or rephrased, "What happens if truth telling introduces a moral dilemma?"  A moral dilemma is in fact, a choice between two competing (and apparently conflicting) moral claims.

- For instance, if you are living in WW 2 Europe and are hiding Jews in your house and the Nazi's show up and ask, "Are you hiding Jews?", the moral dilemma is between telling the truth and exposing those hiding to harm.

- A simpler version of this is if someone asks you if you think they look fat in this shirt or if you like their hair cut. To tell the truth may in fact hurt them.  So, what do you do when telling the truth could harm or hurt someone?

 In the former question, one might ask, "What is the most loving thing I could do? Or what would Jesus do if he were me?"  I think it is safe to safe that love is the highest ethic in NT ("over all these virtues, put on love" - Co. 3:14). It is hard to imagine that love would like like exposing those hiding to harm.

The second question is a little trickier. Do we owe those we love an honest response? I think the question we might ask is, "What are they really asking for. Do they just want a little affirmation or are they really asking your opinion?"  We could go further and ask, "Do we cause them more harm or future harm in not telling  them what might be a hard truth?"

At the end of the day, you are still asking the same question... What does love look like? And if you felt like the truth was called for, what would speaking the truth in love look like?

Well, after re reading this, I'm not sure how much further we've gotten in our exploration of truth... perhaps only that if your intent is to love, I believe God will give wisdom as to how to act in the most loving fashion.

Grace & Peace

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Hope ... Where It Should be Found

Hope" is an interesting concept. It means having a "favorable and confident expectation of something".  It is always connected with something future and something unrealized

You don't hope for something that is already secured or guaranteed. In fact, that which you hope for may not even be likely.

But there is something on which hope is based such that you still anticipate that the good you hope for will come to fruition.

Many of us have things in our lives that feel hopeless or devoid of hope (a broken relationship, a loved one who lives in dysfunction, an area of failure in our lives).

In these areas, those who are grounded in the belief in the God of the scriptures have an advantage. In areas that feel hopeless, our hope moves past the thing itself and unto the God who grounds all reality.  Our hope is placed ultimately in God, in his character, in his goodness, in his faithfulness.

Our hope then is that, in the end, God will make right that which is wrong, will restore that which is broken, will heal that which is wounded. While we long for our hope to be realized in our lifetimes, hope in God allows us to see even hopeless things, hopefully.

This has to be an an intentional act though, and it won't be done for you.  Observe the Psalmist when he says, "Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God,"

So today, in the areas you feel hopeless, shift your focus from the problem itself and onto God and see if hope at some level returns to you. 

Romans 15:13 - May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Grace & Peace,

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Bearing ... Not Being a Bear

With the advent of social media, instant news, and the politicization of almost everything, increasingly, it seems like everyone is carrying around this simmering anger under the surface, and it takes very little to set us off; like we have become people just walking around, waiting to be offended; we are spring loaded, ready to unleash a torrent of frustration at the slightest provocation

Compare this with the posture the apostle Paul suggests is appropriate for Jesus's disciples:

Col.  3:12 - Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Putting on kindness and compassion, being humble, being patient, bearing with each other, forgiving each other, loving each other...Where in this world do we see these things modeled? ... Who is available to teach us these things?

This is the way of Jesus. And thankfully, he can be our teacher. Jesus wants to train us to live as he did.

If you find anger, un-forgiveness, bitterness, irritation, or judgement are constant companions, invite Jesus to teach you a better way.

Grace & Peace,
Brad Swope

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Contagious Emotions

Have you ever noticed that emotions are contagious?  Like the common cold, we can pass them to others with even the briefest exchange.

If my child is irritable, my wife sad, my friend happy, or my parents discouraged, I can sense and take on their emotion without knowing it. 

This is especially true of negative emotions. One person's bad mood, can quickly put others in a bad moods as well.(When was the last time you said to someone, "I was having a good day until I talked to you".) This shows us just how much we affect each other.

Now emotions are the sort of things that bubble up from within and that you have very little control over... That is, initially.  You simply feel them.

But, we do have choices as to whether to nurse or challenge, or work through emotions, especially negative ones. In other words, we do not have to stay in the emotion we originally feel.

So then consider, if we are to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselvesdo we have a responsibility to try to work through our negative emotions so that we don't negatively impact those around us?  

Grace & Peace,
Brad Swope

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What is a Good Person? What is a Good Life?

The Greek philosophers used several questions to help their students think about how to order their lives.  They asked, 

1) What is a good person? How does one become a good person?
2) What is a good life?  How does one pursue a good life?

These philosophers believed that trying to answer these questions would lead people to pursue "arete" or virtue . It was through the pursuit of virtue that one achieved "eudaimonia"... which is translated as happiness, but is better understood as a life well lived.

Our forefathers had these very concepts on their minds when they wrote our founding charters (life liberty and the pursuit of happiness [eudaimonia]). They tried to set up the kind of country where, because of the freedoms afforded, a person could pursue virtue and thus develop a life well lived.

However, much has changed since then. These kinds of questions are never really addressed in public life anymore.  They are not talked about in school.  They are not pursued at home. They are not debated at city hall. They are not considered by the media or entertainment industry.

And we wonder about the moral decay of the culture or the lack of character in our leaders.

My model for goodness and the good life is Jesus of Nazareth. The  answer to, how to to pursue a good life, has to do with my becoming his student and learning to live my life as if he were me. 

As you think about your life, a simple question to ask might be, "How does my exposure to Jesus change how I live in the real world and the person I am becoming?"

Grace & Peace,
Brad Swope

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You Are Nobody's Savior

I learned an important lesson early in ministry that I think has application for all Christians. That lesson was that we are never called to be anyone's savior. 

Now you might be thinking, "No one would ever confuse you for a Savior, Brad." And you'd be right.

What I mean is, it is often very tempting, when you encounter a person in crisis, to want to "rescue" that person. The need is obvious, your  ability to meet that need is clear, so, in you ride on your white horse to the rescue.

But there is one crucial step missing. The missing step is to stop and ask God the question, "What are you asking me to do here?" God may have you meet the need right away; but he also might ask you to wait, watch and pray, before acting, so that when you do help, it really is a help. And sometimes, he won't direct you to act, but to pray.

Saving people is God's work.  We can play a small role in helping to address the need of a person in crisis. But God will always play the larger role.  He is the one in charge of His redemptive program, and he is the who who orchestrates people as part of his plan.

Seeing yourself as ONLY responsible to do the part God assigns you, keep you from hubris, protects you from burnout and shows you, as you wait, that God is on the job.

Remember even Jesus only  did what he saw the Father doing. That means he did not go out in front of what God wanted to do. And it meant, sometimes, he didn't do what others expected him to do

Grace & Peace,
Brad Swope

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The Person You Are Matters to God

Dallas Willard, in his book, Life without Lack, in speaking about spending time with Jesus on a day to day basis, gives this encouragement:

"We don't have to try to be someone we are not. Indeed, we cannot be someone we are not, and we won't find God's blessing there anyway, because God has yet to bless anyone except where they actually are.. We can become someone we are not, but we must begin with who we are now. You - the right now you - are the person Jesus desires to be with."

There is something comforting that I don't have to "get right" with Jesus before I approach him, that I can be with him even after a stinging failure. 

There is something comforting about the ability to be known and loved exactly for who I am and where I am currently, and that Jesus will, if I let him, take me from who I am now, to the person he wants me to be.

If you want evidence of this, just look at Jesus's interaction with ALL people in the gospels.

Grace and Peace,
Brad Swope

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The Balance Sheet in our Minds

Last week, I reached a point in dealing with one of my kids that most parents hope to never reach, but often do...Asking one of them to do something I needed them to do, and getting resistance, I heard myself say to them, "Do you know how much I do for you!"

What this statement revealed to me (and to them) was that inside my head, there was a balance sheet with a running tally on what I do for others and what they do for me.  In this case, I was looking at the ledger and seeing a huge imbalance, such that I felt I was owed something. And I was using that "imbalance" to get what I wanted....Yuck!

On its face, this statement is the very definition of conditional love... I love with the condition that it will be reciprocated in some way.

Aren't you glad that God does not at this way towards us? Aren't you glad that his love is never conditioned on our performance? It stands true, consistent, & unwavering towards us no matter how we act. 

In my life, I hope to learn to love more like God loves (this is costly, I know,  but so much truer and more beautiful)!

Grace & Peace,
Brad Swope

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Beginning Again

I made the mistake today of reading from my childhood bible, which was the Children's Living Bible, a paraphrase that is out of print.

I say mistake because when I read a portion of scripture in Matthew 5 that I was very familiar with, the Living Bible used words that made me stop and think about the meaning in a fresh way.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, "If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even scoundrels do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else?" CLB

Something about the word "scoundrels" made me pause, reread the words and ask, "Everyone really does love their friends? Can I honestly say I love people who aren't my friends?" 

I immediately thought about my neighbor who regularly yells at my kids if they get near her car when they play in the street. If I am honest, I don't really love her...

What would it mean for me to love this woman? 

Following Jesus should never be routine, and it should not be thought of as easy. Jesus always confronts us in our selfishness & lovelessness, and calls us to a higher way.

So are you ready to do a bit more than a scoundrel would?

(Also, if your reading is stale, maybe get out a different paraphrase and translation and see if it doesn't cause you to see new meaning in familiar texts.)

Grace & Peace,

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Was Abraham Saved?

I was reading an interview with a famous theologian and he was asked the question, "Was Abraham saved?"

The interviewer was not actually doubting that Abraham was in fact "saved"... he was exploring exactly how someone might be saved before the Incarnation (when Jesus came to live, die and be resurrected).  The theologian went on to talk about the act of believing God's promise and acting on it was in fact the way in which Abraham entered into the redemptive plan of God. 

While the discussion was fascinating to me, what was more interesting was how it revealed to me that we tend to treat Old Testament men and women as somehow less than us, and that somehow they experienced less of God. I'm not sure that is accurate.

If we believe this, we will tend to dismiss that they have anything to teach us... and thus we will tend to naturally treat the Old Testament as not that useful.

I think I might have a hard time in explaining to Abraham, David, Moses, Joseph, Deborah, Esther, and Isaiah that they and their experiences of God were less significant than my own.

Let's let the fathers and mothers of our faith, both those in the Old and New Testament, speak to us about the life of faith, about trusting God, and about how we can learn to experience more of his grace and peace in our lives.

Grace & Peace,
Brad Swope

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Is All Good from God?

I've been mediating on Psalm 16 for two weeks or so.  A portion of it reads:

2 I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing.” 
5 Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure. 
6 The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.

Is it possible to say that all the good things I have emanate from God?

Think about the implications of that statement... tasting a strawberry, smelling a flower, the sun on my face, a walk with my dog, a conversation with a friend, singing a worship song, being with my wife... all these good things emanate from a loving God who places them before my path.
Believing this would, I expect, give me a spirit of  ongoing and enduring thankfulness, something that I often lack.

Something to think about.

Grace & Peace,
Brad Swope

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