Best Day Ever!

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness! -Lamentations 3:22-23

My daughter, Junia, is four. Lately, she has a favorite phrase: “Best Day Ever!” Once, she declared eight days in a row “Best Day Ever!” She has exclaimed this phrase on days that included ice cream cones and zoo visits, on days that included ten hours in the car, and on days that held nothing particularly memorable at all. Every day, it would seem, is a candidate for “Best Day Ever!”

It’s an attitude that I envy. There is so much that can ruin a day. There are the so-called “first world problems:” running out of coffee, forgetting your lunch, all the good parking spots being taken, or your favorite show getting taken off Netflix. There are bigger problems: conflict at work or home, unexpected bills, or depression. There are problems so big we stare at them without any idea what to do next: wildfires and droughts pressing the question of climate change, the news coming out of Afghanistan, or a pandemic that is resurging right as we thought we were past the worst of it.

It would be easiest to say that it’s just because she doesn’t watch the news, or pay bills, or worry that makes a four-year-old so able to declare any or every day “Best Day Ever!” What does she really know about it, anyway? Her troubles are small and easily resolved by the adults around her. Why shouldn’t she be joyful? 

Attributing an attitude of joy to a life free of trouble, however, creates an even stickier problem. Our lives will never be free from trouble, sorrow, and stress. Life always includes pain, and anyone who says otherwise is inevitably selling something.

However, our faith tells us that life is not only pain, trouble, and problems. It’s not even primarily those things, though it might feel that way sometimes. Instead, our faith declares that each morning brings God’s love and mercy, fresh for the day ahead. Every sunrise, even one covered by clouds, is a sign of God’s faithfulness. Joy isn’t a matter of circumstance, but perspective. 

With the right perspective, we begin to realize that with God, the Best Day Ever is every day. Any day that God is faithful, keeping God’s promises to love and care for us, is a Best Day Ever. Any day that God’s steadfast love comes to us is a Best Day Ever. Any day that God’s mercies don’t cease is a Best Day Ever.

God, thank you for your mercy, your steadfast love, and your great faithfulness. Give me the perspective to see these gifts each day. Amen.



Imitators of God

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

-Ephesians 5:1-2

When was the last time you played Simon Says? It’s a simple game: the leader tells you what to do, and you do it. The only catch is that if the leader doesn’t say “Simon says” at the beginning of the instruction, you definitely don’t do whatever it is. If Simon says jump, you jump. If Simon says clap your hands, you clap. If the leader says simply “touch your knees,” you better not! It’s a silly game, but one that kids often love because it’s so easy—and because it’s fun to copy the the leader.

Kids often copy their role models, whether it’s a parent, teacher, older sibling, or friend. They learn habits, good and bad, by imitation. If a parent supports a particular sports team, odds are that their kid will, too. If a teacher shows their love of reading, students often follow suit. From vocabulary to hobbies to values, kids imitate the people around them. It’s like Simon Says, but on a much larger scale.

Of course, it isn’t just children who imitate what they want to be. Adults copy one another, too. The whole advertising industry thrives on adults seeing something they want their life to be like and hoping that buying the right car, watch, medication, or haircut will lead to satisfaction. Rows of self-help books at Barnes & Noble feature inspirational authors who turned their lives around, and so can you, if you just follow their advice to the letter. At least, that’s what they say.

Everybody is imitating somebody. Who are your role models? Who are you copying? For the followers of Jesus in Ephesus, they needed a reminder to check their role models and make an effort to imitate God. In particular, this letter urged them to be like children, imitating God’s love in their lives.

That’s a serious challenge. Imitate God like a beloved child imitates their parent, and live in love. Don’t live in judgment, or guilt, or competition. Don’t live in doubt, or worry, or fear. Don’t live in anger, or greed, or pride. Live in love. Settle into love. Put down roots in love. Copy God, whose love for us was so great that Jesus Christ gave up everything so we could be called beloved children of God.

It’s like Simon Says: God says love. God says love. Again, and again, God says love.

God, make me an imitator of you. Let me copy your love like a child copies their parent. May my whole life be lived in love. Amen.



Faith Like a Child

Jesus said, “I assure you that if you don’t turn your lives around and become like this little child, you will definitely not enter the kingdom of heaven.” -Matthew 18:3

Last week, Resurrection Lutheran held our annual Vacation Bible School. Kids and adults came together to grow in faith, putting on the armor of God to face all of the day’s challenges. They saw how their faith connected not only with worship and Bible study, but also with crafts, science, and games. This week, seven of our students are at Lutheran Lakeside Camp, immersed in the theme “PROMISES>PROBLEMS,” reminding them that God’s promises are always greater than the problems we face.

Did you participate in VBS or church camp as a child? I’m guessing that if you did, it was memorable. There is something about these experiences that makes an impression. An article about the impact of church camps put it this way: “Campers … are immersed in a faith-forming environment in which the songs, games, and activities become part of a theological playground. They do not just study God or take in information about God, as they might be asked to do in confirmation class or listening to a sermon in church. Instead, they experience a life that is caught up with and dependent on God’s ongoing activity in the world.” (Episcopal Teacher, 2017)

Life that is caught up with and dependent on God’s ongoing activity in the world. That’s a pretty good definition of Christian discipleship, actually. Faith isn’t just taking in information or agreeing to a set of belief statements. Discipleship isn’t some kind of self-improvement journey to get better behaved. It’s an everyday awareness that there is a connection between “blessed are the peacemakers” and being the first person to apologize. Between “love your neighbor” and making sure everyone is included. Between “you shall not bear false witness” and speaking well of people, even the ones you don’t like much. Between “I am with you always” and God being present in even the very worst moments of our lives. 

Kids have a knack for doing this. They don’t compartmentalize their lives like adults, who make clear lines between church, work, home, and play. Kids see the connections between their faith and, well, everything else. They see “God’s ongoing activity in the world” at all times and in all places. Maybe that’s what Jesus was really getting at with his disciples when he told them they needed to be like a little child to enter the kingdom of heaven, and when he taught them to pray “your kingdom come on earth as in heaven.” 

God’s kingdom isn’t far-off, saved for an afterlife of paradise, but here and now, if we have eyes to see it. When we become like children and see that God is active in every part of our lives, we realize that we’re already living in the kingdom of heaven. All that’s left is to look and see what God is doing as we live each day as God’s children.

God, make me like a little child. Show me where you are already active in the world, so I can see your kingdom of heaven come on earth. Amen.



God’s Strength

Be strong in the Lord, and the strength of his power. -Ephesians 6:10

About a month ago, my car had a flat tire. I had driven over something that punctured the tire, and it went flat in my garage. It seemed like the logical solution was to change the tire and take the flat into a mechanic to see if it could be repaired or replaced. You might be thinking to yourself, “Surely she did not attempt to change the tire by herself, despite never having changed a tire before in her life.” If you are thinking that, you would be wrong.

I most certainly did set out to change the tire by myself. I dug out the spare and the jack and the tire wrench from the trunk. I figured out the jack and got the car up a few inches. And then I began to remove the lug nuts. I say “began” because despite all the effort I could muster, I only managed to remove three of the five. Three out of five is a fine record for a baseball series. It is not much help with changing a tire.

As I stood in my garage, willing the last two lug nuts to come loose, I realized that my I, determined though I was, had no more chance of getting that tire off than making myself fly. My own strength couldn’t get the tire changed. I needed help.

Life is full of moments like that, isn’t it? We think our own strength will be enough to get us through our problems, even though any spectator would correctly guarantee that it isn’t. We try to power through when we should ask for help. We ignore the signs that we’re failing under the load. We believe that we can do it on our own, despite all evidence to the contrary. Whether the problem is physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual, asking for help is usually our very last resort.

I suppose that’s the reason the Ephesian Christians needed to be reminded to be strong “in the Lord,” not in their own power, but rather in God’s. No matter how strong they were, no matter how determined or gifted, they needed the reminder that it was God’s strength, not theirs, that would make the difference.

Where do you look for strength when you realize you need more than you have? Look to God. God’s strength is perfect and powerful when ours is insufficient. This is especially true when facing up against guilt, worry, temptation, perfectionism, or fear: God’s strength is the strength we need.

God, strengthen us with your power. Teach us to rely on you, not our own strength. Amen.



A Light to My Path

Your word is a lamp to my feet

   and a light to my path.

-Psalm 119:105

Our Bibles are full of poetry, advice, community guidelines, letters, and history. These words have been passed down for millennia, beginning as oral accounts or worship resources, then finally being assembled into the Bibles we know and use about 1700 years ago. Because we trust that God speaks to us through the words of our Bibles, we often call the Bible the “Word of God.” 

Sometimes the words we encounter in the Bible are straightforward and easy to understand across the centuries: “You shall not steal” comes to mind. Often, though, we need context to make sense of a world very different from our own. Knowing more about the people who first spoke and wrote these words helps us to hear what God is speaking to us today.

Take the poetry of Psalm 119:105. God’s word is compared to a lamp, lighting the walker’s path. Here’s the thing about walking in the night three thousand years ago in Palestine (or anywhere, for that matter): it was truly dark. There were no street lights. No warm glow spilled out of open windows. Certainly no one could pull a cellphone out of their pocket to light up the path. If you didn’t bring a light, you didn’t have a light.

Do you carry God’s word with you wherever you go? A lamp in the house is no help on a dark path. It needs to be close by to do any good. That’s another thing about the lamps they used three thousand years ago: they were not floodlights. A lamp offered just enough light to take the next step clearly. God’s word doesn’t illuminate our whole lives from start to end, convenient as that would be. When God’s word is close to us, though, it offers the light we need to take the next step. Then, once that step is taken, the light of God’s word with us illuminates the next step, and the next, and on and on until we reach our journey’s end.

God, let your word always be near me to guide me and give light to each step I take. Amen.



Ordinary Blessings

The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD look with favor upon you and give you peace. -Numbers 6:24-26

I was recently gifted a book called Ordinary Blessings, written by ELCA pastor Meta Herrick Carlson. It is full of blessings for, well, all the ordinary moments in life. There is a blessing for grocery shopping, a blessing for paying bills, and a blessing for decluttering. There are blessings for moments less frequent but equally ordinary: for a sleepless night, for sitting near small children on an airplane, for moving, for planting a tree. There are blessings for terrible, tender moments: for divorce, infertility, overdose, trauma. There’s even a whole section of “blessings for b-list holidays.”

My current favorite blessing from the book is called “For Bare Feet.” It begins: “Let them callus in summertime, a reunion with the texture of the ground, and feel the temperature of the earth. Let them cool off in the river, the sand coating them until grains dry in the warm air and fall away…” Can you remember the last time your bare feet soaked in fresh water? Did it feel like a blessing?

I used to think that sacred and ordinary were opposites. Sacred was holy and separate, distinct from the mundane, everyday stuff of life. The more I study of the Bible and experience of life, the more I see that the two are connected. God has always cared deeply about every aspect of people’s lives. The food we eat, the relationships we make and tend and break, the work we do, the rest we take: these matter to God. Jesus blessed people wherever he met them. Nothing is too ordinary for God.

If God cares about this everyday stuff (and God does), then so should we as God’s people. We can offer bold blessings over our mundane moments, good and bad and indifferent, reminding ourselves that God’s presence and concern are with us wherever we are.

Wherever you are, whatever you do, whomever you’re with: God bless you and keep you, God smile on you with overflowing grace, God look tenderly and compassionately at you and give you peace. Amen.



When God Says No

Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. -2 Corinthians 12:8-10

As a child, I was taught to pray to God for anything I needed. I prayed for the food I would eat, the challenges of school, and also, with some frequency, for a pony. While I can confidently say that God provided for me, through my parents with food to eat and through my teachers with everything I needed to learn, I never once got a pony. Cocker Spaniels are cute and all, but they are not ponies. What happens when God says no?

Like any child asking their parent for something, we children of God don’t always ask for what is good for us. My children have asked me to eat a whole quart of ice cream in one sitting, to buy the entire Lego aisle, and to wear the same clothes four days in a row without washing, just to give a few examples. To each of these and many other outrageous requests, I have offered a firm “No.”

God says no to plenty of prominent, faithful people in the Bible. Moses asked to enter the Promised Land, and God said no. David begged God to heal his sick son, and the child died. In the verses above, Paul recounted that when he asked God to take away some unknown trouble, God’s answer was no. Paul understood that this “no” from God was for the sake of Christ’s power dwelling more perfectly in Paul’s weakness.

It seems backward, really. How could the heart-felt prayers of such faithful people receive a “no”? How could Paul say that he is strong when he is weak? How, for that matter, can Lutherans say that we are both sinner and saint all at once? How could Jesus say that the first would be last and the last would be first? Like this: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” (Isaiah 55:8)

The answers we get to our prayers are not the answers we expect when we expect God to act according to our ways. Or, to put it another way: God always acts like God. We always act like God’s children. Sometimes, that means we ask for what we don’t need and what might even hurt us. When we do this, God does what any good parent would do: says no. We might not like it. We might pout. We might even throw a temper tantrum. As I say to my children when they turn to such tactics: the answer is still no.

When God says no, I hope you don’t pout too often. Instead, let those “no”s be a reminder to trust that God’s ways and thoughts and plans are different from ours. That God’s ways and thoughts and plans are good, even when we don’t like it. That God’s power in Jesus Christ may show up all the more strongly in your life when God says no.

God, I know that your ways are not the same as mine. Even so, I struggle when I hear you answer “no” to my prayers. Dwell in me with Christ’s power, so that my weaknesses may show your strength and I may trust you more. Amen.

 



Joy in the Morning

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name. For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. -Psalm 30:4-5

There’s something about the morning that puts our problems into perspective, isn’t there? The things that seem most dire at midnight become manageable under the light of the morning sunshine. Even when things are so bad that you cry yourself to sleep or wake restless at three in the morning, the fresh light of dawn brings joy.

Like all living things, we humans need sunshine. We need it for our bodies to thrive. We also need it for our spirits. These long summer days are a gift from God, giving us the opportunity to soak in the joy and life that comes with each fresh new morning.

The psalmist who wrote Psalm 30 saw that morning joy, and, more importantly, saw that it is God who should be praised for the joy each morning brings. The new light of the morning was a reminder that joy, like God’s gracious favor, was a gift brought daily to God’s faithful people. Martin Luther, borrowing from his experience as a monk, taught everyday people that they should begin each day by thanking God and then going to work “joyfully.” (Yes, even on Mondays.)

When you wake in the morning, and the sunlight comes through your window, do you give thanks to God? When joy rises with the sun, do you sing God’s praises? Try it. A day that begins with joy sets the tone for all that follows. 

God whose favor lasts a lifetime, I thank you for each new morning. Renew my joy with every sunrise, that I may give you thanks and sing praise to your holy name. Amen.



Rock Bottom

Help, God—I’ve hit rock bottom!

    Lord, hear my cry for help!

Listen hard! Open your ears!

    Listen to my cries for mercy.

 

If you, God, kept records on wrongdoings,

    who would stand a chance?

As it turns out, forgiveness is your habit,

    and that’s why you’re worshiped.

 

I pray to God—my life a prayer—

    and wait for what God will say and do.

My life’s on the line before God, my Lord,

    waiting and watching till morning,

    waiting and watching till morning.

 

O Israel, wait and watch for God—

    with God’s arrival comes love,

    with God’s arrival comes generous redemption.

No doubt about it—God’ll redeem Israel,

    buy back Israel from captivity to sin.

-Psalm 130, The Message

 

Rock bottom. The NRSV, the translation we usually use in worship, says “the depths.” Some people call it “the pits.” Anne of Green Gables says it’s the “depths of despair.” I’ve heard it called a “dumpster fire.” Whatever you call it, you know the feeling of being there. When nothing can possibly get worse, when you’re at the end of your rope, when your life begins to feel like it belongs in a blues ballad or at least a sad country song. That’s where Psalm 130 begins.

After all, from the depths, what is more natural than to cry out for help? 12-Step programs and other recovery resources often state that somebody has to hit rock bottom before they start to look for help. It’s not just true for addiction, but for all kinds of trouble: financial, emotional, job, relationships, health. Most of us would rather risk crashing than ask for help. Rock bottom.

Sometimes we end up in the pits through no fault of our own, watching helplessly as everything goes wrong around us. Whatever we might pretend about being in control of our lives, deep down we know that much is beyond our ability to manage.

However we end up in the depths of despair, one thing is sure: we need a way out. A dumpster fire is no place to linger. 

Out of the rock bottom depth, the psalmist calls to God for help. 

And then they wait.

As they wait, they trust. They remind themselves that God will come with love and redemption. That’s what God has done every other time they’ve been in the pits. Why should this time be any different? God will surely rescue them. That’s just what God does. 

That’s not all, though. Having reassured themselves that God will arrive with love for them, the psalmist reassures everybody else in the pit that God is most certainly coming to redeem, no doubt about it.

When you’re in the depths of despair, this psalm is for you. Whatever has brought you to rock bottom, cry out to God and trust that God is coming for you with forgiveness, love, and redemption.

God, when I hit the bottom and life is a dumpster fire, I wait for you. Restore me with your forgiveness, revive me with your love, and redeem me with your mercy. Amen.


Sabbath

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. -Exodus 20:8-11

Something about the month of June always makes me feel ready to take a rest. The school year comes to an end, and student and teachers alike rejoice at the last day of the semester. In Iowa, the planting season comes to an end, and farmers rest while seeds germinate and grow. In the Church, the season of festivals comes to an end, and worshippers settle into the long green “Season After Pentecost,” sometimes called “Ordinary Time.”

As Christians, we have a special relationship with the idea of rest: God calls it Sabbath. God offers Sabbath to the people of God as both gift and command. Out of every seven days, God says, one should be set aside for rest. What’s more, says God, the day of rest isn’t just for the well-off, but for everyone: adults and children, slaves and immigrants. Even the donkey should get a day off!

The idea of Sabbath runs counter to our culture of side hustles and 24-7 availability. Many of us were taught that our value lies in what we accomplish or that hard work is its own reward. God, contrary to our constant work, work, work, shows us the example and gives us the command to rest. Not the kind of rest where you’re just going to fold that load of laundry while you watch a movie, but the kind of rest where you truly do nothing but refresh your spirit. 

The kind of rest you get in a hammock, for instance. Have you ever tried to bring your work with you into a hammock? Trust me, it does not work. At best, the hammock gets crowded and uncomfortable. At worst, that hammock flips and unceremoniously dumps its occupant and all their stuff out on the ground. You cannot multitask in a hammock. You cannot multitask a Sabbath, either. The Sabbath is “holy,” or, in other words, “set apart for something special.” It can’t be multi-tasked AND specially set apart. Sabbath is for rest and restoration.

When did you last take a whole day out of a week to do only things that refresh your spirit? When did you last keep the Sabbath? Maybe June can be a reminder month for you as it is for me, that we all need rest. Maybe you can lay in a hammock, listening to the birds and watching the clouds float past, giving thanks to God for Sabbath.

God of rest, thank you for the gift of Sabbath. Help me to rest when I need it, and to see a rhythm of rest and work as your good and holy plan for human flourishing. Amen.