Covenant-First Window Devotional #5 – David and Goliath Window

On Mondays through the summer, I will be running a series of devotionals based on the stained glass windows at Covenant-First Presbyterian.   These devotionals originally ran in the Covenant Courier newsletter, and we are editing them for re-issue as a devotional later this summer.  All the photos are by our member, nature photographer Jerry Fritsch.  We invite you to come by the sanctuary and see the windows in person.

LowEastWall3Read: I Corinthians 1:26-31

Covenant-First’s David and Goliath window is nestled in obscurity on the Eastern lower wall, in front of the narthex.  This positioning means that it doesn’t get the brilliant sunlight.  When it is backlit, it is usually dim.  This is a shame, for it is a fine window.

The scene takes place mere moments after young David’s victory over the giant Goliath (I Samuel 17:50).  True to the story, the artist has portrayed David as unarmored and bearing only a sling and a bag of stones for weapons.  David is depicted in motion, running to the body of the slain Goliath.  David has eyes of steely determination, for the battle is not yet over.  The Philistine army still looks on, and at this point of the story, they have not yet fled.   This David is portrayed as running to meet the next challenger.

Of course, David, who was anointed as the next king in I Samuel 16, prefigures Christ.  The story of David and Goliath is not about how we can overcome our personal giants, but about how God provides for us a ruler and defender in his Son Jesus Christ.  Like David, Jesus does not fit our idea of the strong deliverer.  Neither was much when considered through the lens of power and position.  And yet David became the ideal king, presiding over a golden age in Israel’s history.  Jesus’ dying, rising, and ascending was the most important era of history – Jesus broke the curse of sin and heals the hearts of millions who follow him.  Not bad for a peasant carpenter.

Our passage for reflection reminds us that God’s persistent pattern is to use the humble and weak as His chosen instruments.  God consistently confounds our pride, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

Let us then place our trust less on our own plans and fix it more firmly on Jesus.  Let us consider more deeply the humility that God is working to build within us.  Certainly, let us be ready for action.  In the David and Goliath story, the army of the Israelites took off in hot pursuit of the fleeing Philistines – they were ready for action.  However our action is the clean up operation that takes place after our Savior, Christ, has already won the glorious and decisive victory.

Soli Deo Goria

Russell

 

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Tardis Theology #8 – In Which The Doctor Reflects On The Might Of The Small

20140326-192434London, 1941.  The Blitz.  Britain’s darkest and finest hour.

A dramatic setting for one of the finer pieces of television storytelling.  This two part series has received accolades from fans and critics, consistently ranking in the top 10 episodes of all time.  It also won the 2006 Hugo award for short form dramatic presentation.  It is both frightening and funny, action packed and thoughtful.  Christopher Eccleston enjoys some of his finest moments as the Doctor.

Early in the tale, the Doctor meets Nancy, a courageous street urchin who watches over all the other orphans wandering the streets of London, keeping them safe and making sure they get food.  The Doctor quickly discerns that Nancy knows secrets about the eerie alien-affected child that prowls the streets of London.  Nancy takes the Doctor to the barricaded hospital where he can learn more.  She then says she has to go to get some more food for the street children.

The Doctor looks at this strong young woman and reflects on how mighty things come in small packages:

“Amazing…. 1941.   Right now, not very far from here, the German war machine is rolling up the map of Europe.  Country after country falling like dominoes.  Nothing can stop it.  Nothing.  Until one tiny damp little island says ‘No.  No, not here.’  [Chuckles] A mouse in front of a lion.  You’re amazing, the lot of you….”

It’s a beautiful line.  Nancy, the underdog urchin, becomes emblematic of the fighting spirit of England, alone against all odds.  The Doctor concludes his speech, saying, “Off you go then, do what you’ve got to do.  Save the world”

This reminds me of how God seems to delight in using that which is small to accomplish great things.  We see it in the Mosaic Law:

“The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8)

The might of Israel is not founded in their size or resources, but in the overwhelming love of the Lord for them.

This delight in using the small and unregarded becomes a pattern in scripture.  Jesus doesn’t choose the powerful and the wealthy to be a part of his inner circle:  he chooses fishermen, rabble rousers, and outcasts.  Paul comments on how the early Christian communities were not made up of the wise and influential:

“Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” (I Corinthians 1:26-29)

Many times it is the weak who have the clearest view of God’s might.  It is often the poor who have the richest understanding of God’s goodness.  And the outcasts are at times the ones who experience the closest, most intimate relationship with the living God.


For Reflection:

Watch: Doctor Who, Season 1, Episode 9 “The Empty Child”

Read: Matthew 20:20-28, I Corinthians 1:18-31

Reflect:

1)  Compare Jesus’ instruction about “being first” with what is often portrayed in media.  What differences do you see.

2) How does Jesus’ humility teach you to about respecting others in humble position?  How does it teach you to grow in humility?

3) In what ways do you see the wisdom of the world being made foolish by God?

4) Jesus is our wisdom.  How does that truth shape how we assess others?  How does it shape how we assess what happens to us?  How does it shape what we choose to do?

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Covenant-First Window Devotional #4 – David and Harp Window

On Mondays through the summer, I will be running a series of devotionals based on the stained glass windows at Covenant-First Presbyterian.   These devotionals originally ran in the Covenant Courier newsletter, and we are editing them for re-issue as a devotional later this summer.  All the photos are by our member, nature photographer Jerry Fritsch.  We invite you to come by the sanctuary and see the windows in person.

LowNorthWall6Read: Psalm 121

This window, depicting David as a shepherd, is an interesting contrast to our window depicting David as a writer.  In the writer window, David stands tall and confident in the inspiration he receives from the Lord.  This window, however, shows David on a knee in supplication.  His sheep doze gently beside him, secure in his guardianship.

The superscription above the window quotes Psalm 121, one of the songs of ascent.  These were songs that were collected as pilgrim songs, to be sung on the journey to Jerusalem for the great feasts of Israel.   The Psalm begins with “I lift up my eyes to the hills,”  referring to the hills through which the pilgrims would travel – hills that could easily conceal bands of marauders.   These hills might also have hidden the forbidden high places where some Israelites went up to worship the old pagan gods.  The hills were foreboding places of danger.

David, on his knee, gives us the picture of one who faces danger.   He is one who is confronted with the uncertainty of the wilderness, not knowing from whence that danger will come.  He seeks the protection of the Lord.

And the Lord responds.   In this window, that response is in the clear image of the hand of the Lord coming down in answer to David’s prayer.  I find the image of that hand to be one of the most fascinating visual images in the sanctuary.  For some reason, it gives me great comfort to be reassured of God’s hand of providence extending in answer to earnest prayer.   Just as the sheep rest easy in David’s protection, so can David rest easy in the Lord’s protection.   Just as the pilgrims en route to Jerusalem rest easy in the Lord’s protection, so also can we rest easy.

We all are pilgrims in this world.   Though we may be settled in one place for our whole lives, we are still pilgrims.  We still face a world of danger and uncertainty.   We all have times in which we cry out “from whence shall my help come?”

May the confidence of the Psalm be our confidence – that our help comes from the Lord who neither slumbers nor sleeps.    Though we might not see a visible hand of the Lord, may we have the clarity of sight to perceive the effects of the hand of the Lord in our lives.   May we be sensitive to discerning God’s providence, even in times of fear and anxiety.   May we rest easy knowing that the Lord is our shepherd.

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The Power of a Clear Goal

(A featured post from my side-project blog, The Half-Marathon Project – following my experiences in training for a half-marathon this October)

Why a half-marathon? 

Because goals unleash energy.   

The more clearly defined the goal is, the more energy I feel to pursue it. 

For instance, for a long time, it has been my goal to increase my health.  We all know the benefits of good health: increased energy, better mood, better sleep, lower medical costs, longevity, better enjoyment of life.  But “increase health” is a vague goal – I need something more concrete.

For a long time, I tried using health measures to clarify my health goal: get cholesterol below 200, get my weight down to 180, maintain a healthy blood pressure.  These are good things to shoot for, but there is a problem with goals like this.   They will only motivate for a brief time.  Why?

They are uninspiring and drab.  They don’t reflect anything about me or who I am.   For longer term motivation, I need something that speaks to my heart.

The more personal a goal is, the more energy I feel to pursue it.  

Try this – transform your health goals by making them a unique expression of who you are.  Find an activity that you love: yoga, basketball, swimming, tennis, golf, etc.  Learn how that activity can be best used to promote your health, and then use that activity as the lynchpin for your health goals.  

I happen to love running.  I ran cross country in high school.  Running has been my default exercise.  I like being outdoors, I like the feel of running.  I like the excitement of a road race.  I enjoy that running is, for the most part, a singular sport, but it can be enjoyed in a very social atmosphere.  By using running as a way to ground my health goals, I not only have goals that are good for me, but goals that bring me joy and delight. 

It’s important to remember the larger purpose, though.  The purpose behind a goal affects the process by which you pursue that goal.  We can participate in a sport or activity for any number of reasons: it makes us more attractive, its a social outlet, it passes the time.  If your purpose is simply to make yourself better looking, then you may find yourself pursuing the goal in a way that undermines some other purpose, like health.  You may be tempted to take shortcuts such as crash diets or shady pharmaceuticals.  You might completely neglect nutrition altogether.  

When I remember the purpose, though, the goal unleashes greater energy to achieve the purpose.  Running brings me joy.  As I train for the half marathon, the delight in running that I experience makes me more likely to act on everything else I know about health: good nutrition, adequate sleep, stress management, etc.  

The more a goal is both challenging yet attainable, the more energy I feel to pursue it.  

A goal that I can accomplish today isn’t a goal, it’s a present reality.   Goals, by their very nature require effort.  They need to challenge us to change the present reality.  They also need to be attainable.  I could set my goal to qualify for the Boston Marathon.  That might be attainable someday; it might even be a really good long term goal.  But for me to make progress, I need something a little more achievable.  For me, the half marathon is a great distance – it stretches me beyond the 5k and 10k races I’ve done in the past.  It can be a stepping stone to bigger challenges later, but it is in the realm of possibility.

Put another way, you have to believe “yeah, I could do that.”   If you don’t really believe you can accomplish your goal then you’ll never summon the strength to endure the difficult times.  There will come a time when you just want to quit.  If you never really believed you could attain the goal, you will.

So my pursuit of a half marathon is in support of my overall hopes of improving my health, it is something I personally enjoy, and it is something I really believe I can attain.

What’s your goal?  How have your goals unleashed energy in your life?

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What is Christian Spirituality?

Detail of a stained glass of the Conversion of St. Paul St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Dayton OH Photo by Russell Smith

People ask very good questions.

Yesterday, one of our congregation members emailed me, asking, “How would you characterize Christian spirituality?”

There are libraries on this subject, degree programs requiring years of study, and licensed practitioners of “spiritual formation.”  Christian literature abounds with books by the giants of spiritual formation: Anthony of the Desert, Saint Benedict, Bernard of Clairveaux, Brother Lawrence, Catherine of Sienna, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and so many others.  It seems I should simply supply a reading list, for all these luminaries have so much more to say about the subject than I ever could.  I’m just a student.

However the question was “How would you …

And that makes all the difference.

Christian spirituality, in my understanding, is about relationship.

In theology we study about God.  In spirituality we experience God.  In theology we learn facts.  In spirituality we enjoy relationship.  This is not to disparage theology.  It is a vital and helpful discipline.  It is, however, a different discipline from spirituality.

As an example, consider our celebrity culture.  We can know a lot about our favorite sports star, musician, political pundit, etc.  We can read every book he’s written.  We can review the history of his work.  We can study every interview, parsing the language to ponder the hidden truths behind each turn of phrase.  In doing so, we can amass a lot of information that is helpful and right and good.  We can, from this information, glean how this celebrity might suggest we live, and we can, to the best of our abilities, live in that way (think Lance Armstrong’s “Live Strong” movement or Bono’s One campaign to end hunger).

We can do all of these things, and still not be in relationship with that celebrity.

What’s more, we can talk with people who have met the celebrity.  We can listen to firsthand experiences, people telling what a great guy he is.  We can listen to the intimate insights offered by some of the celebrity’s closest friends.  We can hang around these people so that their stories become our stories, and we feel like we’re part of the community gathered around this celebrity.

And yet, we still do not have a relationship with that celebrity.

Relationship requires that we somehow meet, person to person, and that we interact.

Relationship is about talking with and listening to.  With God, we call that prayer.  But prayer is tricky.  It is a skill that must be learned through practice.  We can read books on prayer, but if we never pray then we get nowhere.   When we try to learn by praying in groups, our prayers (or at least my prayers) often sound like they are for the benefit of the humans gathered about – as though they were the ones we need to impress.

Perhaps that’s why Jesus said to “go into your closet and lock your door and pray to your father who is in secret.”  Perhaps that’s why God drove Elijah into the wastelands to meet him alone on a mountain.  Perhaps that’s why God appeared to Moses in a burning bush when he was away tending the flock.  Because there is a part of Christian spirituality that must be done in solitude.  Person to person.

God speaks to each of his children in a slightly different ways.  Any parent of multiple children will tell you that they’re all different and they relate to those children in distinctive ways.   Why would God be any different?

At this point, the critics raise their voices and shout “mysticism!” and denounce spirituality as unbiblical.

Not so.

Christian spirituality, to be called Christian at all, must be founded on the bedrock of scriptures.  “All scripture is God breathed….”   God makes it clear that scripture is a starting place for knowing Him.

It’s just not the terminal place.

Daily communion with God, person to Person, creature to Creator, does not somehow negate scripture.  It makes scripture come alive.  In scripture I read, “the heavens are telling the glory of God.”  As I walk about my neighborhood, the Holy Spirit uses that scripture to prompt me to rejoice in the glorious sunset, to be still and marvel at the stars, to laugh at the falling snow, and to breathe in the sweetness of the spring rain shower.

In scripture I read “What is man that thou art mindful of him?…. You have made them a little lower than the angels.”  The Holy Spirit brings that scripture to mind and then asks, “now what do you make of this Downs Syndrome boy?  How do you approach this mentally disturbed woman?  Will you have patience with this cranky man?”

In scripture I read, “Be still and know that I am God.”  When I take the time to sit still and rest in that knowledge, God shows up to do all kinds of inconvenient things – convicting me of my own sin, comforting me in my sorrows, offering challenges to expand my ministry.  I don’t take those as authoritative “words from the Lord.”  Not every flush of emotion is a divine directive.  However, I think that the longer we walk with the Lord, the more we develop a “sanctified intuition” – the more we know when we can and can’t trust that inner pull.

Another caveat – to be truly Christian spirituality, there must be some community component.  There should be no Lone Ranger Christians.  God is Trinity – three persons.  Community is a part of God’s character.  Community is a part of how God shapes His people.  Christian spirituality oscillates between individual enjoyment of the divine presence and community enjoyment of the divine presence.  After all, “Wherever two or more are gathered….”

That’s a start, anyway.

But I’m just a student.  I’d love to hear other takes.  The comment box is open.

If you found value in this post, please share it with your friends, because it might bless them, and it’ll certainly encourage me.   Get encouragement in your inbox by clicking here to sign up for the Horizons of the Possible monthly e-newsletter.  You’ll receive a monthly digest of the best posts from the blog and the best photos from Instagram, as well as information about upcoming publications.  

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Covenant-First Window Devotional #3 – Ruth and Gabriel Window

On Mondays through the summer, I will be running a series of devotionals based on the stained glass windows at Covenant-First Presbyterian.   These devotionals originally ran in the Covenant Courier newsletter, and we are editing them for re-issue as a devotional later this summer.  All the photos are by our member, nature photographer Jerry Fritsch.  We invite you to come by the sanctuary and see the windows in person.

UpperSouthWall4Read: Luke 1:26-55

This window is surprising.  The superscriptions from Ruth 2:13-14 help us identify the figure on the left: Ruth the Moabitess, sickle in hand, having just gleaned barley.  Above her are Ruth’s words to Boaz: “Let me find favor, in thy sight, my lord.”  Boaz’s words of reply compose the superscription on the right: “Come thou hither and eat of the bread.”  However the figure on the right is not Boaz.

The crown and wings clearly identify this figure as an angel.  In his hand is a lily.  Artistically, the lily often symbolizes the threefold virtues of faith, hope, and love.  However, there is an old artistic convention of depicting the angel Gabriel as holding a lily when he visits Mary.  That seems to be the convention being visually referenced here.

Ruth receiving the kindness of Boaz and Gabriel announcing God’s choosing of Mary to bear Christ.  How do these two scenes relate?

First, they are both scenes depicting God’s favor and kindness.  Just as Ruth receives favor from Boaz, so Mary receives word of God’s favor toward her.  Both women question that favor (Ruth 2:10, Luke 1:24).  And both women humbly receive the favor granted them.

More importantly, however, both scenes point us to Christ.  The book of Ruth concludes with the genealogy showing Ruth to be the great-grandmother of king David.  This means that she is also an ancestor of Jesus.  She is one of three women mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.

Meanwhile, Mary’s scene is obviously about the coming of Christ.  Interestingly, though, her scene is riddled with backwards references to David:  Joseph is identified as a descendent of David (1:27), Gabriel says that Jesus will have the throne of David (1:32), and Mary’s song (1:46-55) is widely acknowledged as having deep roots in the song of Hannah in I Samuel 2:1-10 (remember that I and II Samuel are the epic story of the rise of King David)

As we gaze upon this window, let us consider anew how Christ is the full expression of God’s favor toward us.  Let us pray that we might humbly receive that favor, and that, like Mary, we might joyfully sing of God’s favor to us in Christ.

 

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Tardis Theology #7 – In Which Pete Tyler Discovers That Even The Biggest Losers Still Bear Great Dignity

vlcsnap-2013-10-30-17h55m31s243Every one yearns to be significant.

The world tries to tell us that we’re not.

Rose Tyler never knew her father, Pete.   He was killed in a hit and run accident when she was just an infant.  But all her life, Rose’s mother had told her what a great man Pete was.  In the episode “Father’s Day” the Doctor takes Rose back in time to the day that her father died, so that she could be with him and hold his hand.

But Rose can’t bear to watch her father die.   She saves him.

History changes.  Time is broken.  The world begins to unravel.

The Doctor is quite angry with Rose about her action.  She tries to excuse herself by saying that Pete wasn’t anyone important – he didn’t start a war or anything.  He was just an ordinary man.  The Doctor replies with a beautiful line:

“An ordinary man – that’s the most important thing in creation.”

There’s the biblical touchpoint – the great dignity of humanity.   Yes, we’ve already seen this theme earlier in Tardis Theology #2 (on the episode “The End of The World”).  There, we reflected on how, even though the Lady Cassandra had degraded her body and committed crimes of a heinous nature, she still had a basic human dignity of being a divine image bearer.

This episode, however, comes at the topic from a different angle.

We figure out that Pete Tyler is a schlub.  He doesn’t amount to anything.  He hops from job to job and dreams of making it big, but can barely make ends meet.   His wife doesn’t respect him; they fight continually.

What’s worse is that he knows it.  As the episode progresses, Pete figures out that Rose is his daughter from the future.  And he figures out that time is unravelling because he was supposed to die, but didn’t:

Pete: …I’m meant to be dead.  That’s why I haven’t done anything with my life.  Why I didn’t mean anything.

Doctor: It doesn’t work like that.

Pete:  Rubbish.  I’m so useless I can’t even die properly.

Do you hear the self-loathing in Pete’s lines?

But the truth is that the lowly and the losers, they too bear the image of God.  In fact, in God’s sight, they carry their dignity well.  Consider that Jesus enjoyed the company of outcasts like prostitutes and tax collectors (Luke 15:1-2).  Jesus said that the economically worthless gift of a poor widow had more spiritual value than all the big donations of the wealthy patrons (Mark 12:41-44).  Jesus instructed his disciples to be servant and to seek the lower place in the pecking order (Mark 10:42-45).

There are no losers in God’s eyes.  No waste-oids.  No schlemiels, fog-pates, or duffers.  Even the most lowly bears dignity.  Even the most insignificant has a contribution to make.

Pete Tyler realizes that his contribution is to save the world by going bravely to his death.  He’s thankful for the chance to  have seen Rose as an adult, and then he makes his contribution.  And saves the world.

Have you considered, then, your great dignity and your great worth?


For Reflection

Watch:  Doctor Who, Season 1, Episode 8 “Father’s Day”

Read:  Psalm 8, Mark 12:41-44

Reflect:

  • In what ways has poor self image hindered your ability to see your dignity?
  • Who are some of the “problem people” in your life? What would be like to spend more time reflecting on their dignity as a bearer of God’s image?
  • Who are the people in society who are not recognized for bearing God’s image?  How can you be a blessing to them?
  • What are some ways you can more intentionally honor the image of God in other people, especially the marginalized?
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