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Love, Actually

February 10, 2020

I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws .  .  . I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.”  (Deuteronomy 30: 16, 19-20).

In the movie, Love Actually, the protagonist’s opening remarks are “When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.”  Yes and no.  We see many expressions of love in February—valentines and hearts are prominently featured.  The heart emoji is a shorthand symbol for affection and love used in texts and emails.

Superficial expressions of love are all around—in movies and books, on billboards and in magazine ads–but meaningful, everyday expressions of love and concern for our fellow man, not so much.

Luther included a heart in his seal because “[O]ne who believes from the heart will be justified” (Romans 10:10).  We consider our hearts to possess our truest and purest emotions and beliefs.   The heart of a matter is the central or critical part.

And love (or the lack thereof) is at the heart of how we interact with others and conduct our everyday lives.  For that reason, genuine love for each other should be at the forefront of our thoughts every day, not just in February.   Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ . . . And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  He said that the entire law is fulfilled when you follow those two commandments (Matthew 22: 37-40).

The Scripture texts for next Sunday juxtapose the benefits of loving God and following his commandments against the chaos wreaked when we stray from the path God has laid out for us.[1]

The Old Testament text sets the contrast out clearly: “I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws  .  .  . I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.”  Deuteronomy 30: 16, 19-20

The Psalm describes the benefits and blessings that follow from loving God, and following his commandment to love others, which sums up all of the commandments: “Blessed are those whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord. Blessed are they who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart.” (Psalm 119: 1-2).

And in contrast, Matthew quotes Jesus’ teaching describing the chaos and curses that ensue when we stray off the path and ignore the commandment to love others.  Jesus isn’t telling us to literally take out our eye or chop off our hands.  He is using metaphors to warn us to remove the things from our lives that cause us to wander off the path.   Remove those things from your life that distract you from your true purpose: to love God with your whole heart and soul and to love others as yourself.

Many negative behaviors result from our failure to follow God’s command to love him and others. We become angry, impatient, unkind, envious, boastful, proud, disrespectful, self-absorbed, angry, slanderous, unforgiving, untrustworthy, divisive, despairing, and lazy—in short—the opposite of Paul’s description of the love that comes from loving God: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians, 13: 4-7).  Love promotes peace and harmony.

Paul explains that we are God’s workers in his field: “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth .  . . For we are God’s fellow workers.  You are God’s field” (1 Corinthians 3: 8-9).  We are the raw materials through whom God works.  We are the field.  We are his fellow workers: “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth .  . . For we are God’s fellow workers.  You are God’s field” (1 Corinthians 3: 8-9).  We can create beauty in our plots by nourishing those around us, providing food, shelter, and comfort for our families and others by using our God-given gifts and talents. We can thrive in our fields. Or we can reject what God has offered to us and let our fields go to seed.  God gives us a choice, as Moses noted over three thousand years ago.

God is the one who makes it all work.  When we follow his commandments to love God and others, God blesses us with the fruits of the Spirit that create peace, beauty and artistry in the gardens of our lives.

Love builds up, it unifies.  Japanese theologian, Kasuko Koyama wrote: “Love is committed to encourage the good and discourage the bad to grow anywhere. It is the mind of God at work . . . The love that does not heal is not love.”

Choose to heal with your words and actions.  Choose to use your words and actions to build others up.  Let your words be balm to the hurting souls of those who hear them—salve to their despairing hearts and open wounds. Choose love.

Prayer:  God of love and mercy,  we sometimes wander from the path you have set before us—the path that leads to beauty, peace, and joy.  We fall back into thinking of ourselves as having superior knowledge and insight, and we stray from our intention to rely on you and to love you with our whole heart and soul, and to love others as ourselves. Forgive us and help us stay on the path that leads to loving you and others every day.  Amen

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture readings for the Sixth Sunday After the Epiphany are Psalm 119:1-8; Deuteronomy 30: 15-20; 1 Corinthians 3: 1-9; Matthew 5: 21-37.

 

You Can’t Con God

February 3, 2020

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.” Isaiah 58: 8

The movie “Catch Me If You Can” (2002) is based on the autobiography of Frank Abagnale, who pretended to be an airline pilot, medical doctor, and lawyer. He conned scores of people and wrote millions of dollars worth of phony checks over several years before being caught.

The Scripture texts for this week[1] compare pretend faith to authentic faith.  Isaiah warns that authentic faith is not demonstrated by shows of fasting, attending religious services, donating money, and listening to Scripture readings.  It’s more than pretending to be “religious.” He describes the person who puts on a pious fasting face, all while he is seeking his own pleasures, oppressing his workers, and picking fights: “Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and fight . . . fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high.” (Isaiah 58: 3b-4). Others may be fooled, but not God. He will not listen to phony attempts to appear righteous.

Paul continues this theme in the epistle lesson, when he tells us that God knows what is in the heart and soul of every person. You can’t con God:  “For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him.” (1 Corinthians 2: 10-11).

Continuing his “Sermon on the Mount” teaching on a hillside near Capernaum, Jesus taught that those who avoid God’s laws will be “called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them . . . will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5: 19) The lesson is clear:  if you don’t just talk the talk, but instead, walk the walk– obeying God’s law and approaching him with humility–you will be blessed.

Sometimes people aren’t who they claim to be.  We get the wool pulled over our eyes from time to time. It’s disheartening to realize that the person that you thought you could depend on didn’t have your back, or piled on to undermine you.  But we learn in Scripture, that if our faith is sincere, God has our backs: “Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Isaiah 58: 8.

God blesses those who turn to him with a sincere desire to learn the truth. He blesses those who humble themselves before him. You can’t con God, so don’t try.  Instead, turn to him with an open heart, and he will be with you—guiding you, teaching you, helping you, healing you, and loving you.  God is with you and has your back.  You can count on it.

Prayer: “Almighty God, who is beyond the reach of our highest thought, and yet within the heart of the lowliest; come to us, we pray, in all the beauty of light, in all the tenderness of love, in all the liberty of truth. Mercifully help us to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with you.  Sanctify all our desires and purposes, and upon each of us let your blessings rest, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Prayer from South Africa

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for the Fifth Sunday After Epiphany are Psalm 112:1-9; Isaiah 58:3-9a; 1 Corinthians 2: 1-12; Matthew 5: 13-20.  A version of this blog was published on this website on January 30, 2017.

Simple Truths

January 27, 2020

What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8

Sometimes a sermon strikes a chord deep within our souls, and the words spoken stay with us for days, weeks, months, or even years.  Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount[1] was such a sermon.  It is one of the best-known and remembered of his teachings–particularly the introduction, called the Beatitudes (Matthew 5: 3-12).  Dr. Bill Creasy explains that Jesus undoubtedly delivered this teaching so many times that his followers were able to recall it years later.

We recently stood with Dr. Creasy and other pilgrims on the hill known as the Mount of Beatitudes, which is located at about 11 o’clock on the Sea of Galilee.  The area is near Capernaum, Jesus’ home base during his three-year ministry.  This particular part of the hill was a favorite spot for Jesus to teach because of the acoustics of the place.  Jesus would have stood at the base of the natural amphitheater on the hillside to speak up to his audience.   A person speaking in a normal voice can be heard in that spot by many people.  A sound engineer tested the acoustics and said that it has the same acoustics as the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.  The breeze comes off the Mediterranean, over Mount Arbel and carries sound up to that amphitheater, serving as a natural amplifier.

Dr. Creasy explains that Jesus’ introduction to his teaching consists of nine statements, each of which has a built-in apparent paradox or contradiction. And each statement builds on the last.

For example, when Jesus said “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he was referring to the person who has a gaping hole in his or her heart—a hole that can only be filled by God.  Recognizing that the heart yearns for and needs God is the first step to loving God.  It is the first of a series of verses (Matthew 5:3-6) also blessing those who mourn, who are meek, and who hunger and thirst for righteousness—which all describe what our posture before God should be.  We should recognize that the hole in our hearts can only be filled by God; we should mourn the absence of God; we should humble ourselves and thirst to be close to God—to see his holiness. Meek does not mean weak in this context.  Jesus is referring to the person who is humble before God by choice.

The next three verses (Matthew 5: 7-9) are a call to action.  Jesus explains what we must do for others: be merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers. We respond to God’s mercy by being merciful to others.   Being pure in heart means that we come to God because of who he is, not for what he can do for us.  And we are called to do our best to mediate disputes–to resolve our differences instead of escalating them.

Jesus brings it home by emphasizing that those who are insulted and persecuted because of him [Jesus] are blessed, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matthew 5: 11).  Jesus is not saying that you will be blessed if you are insulted and persecuted because you are an evil person and deserve it.  He is saying that if you are insulted and persecuted because of him, you will be blessed.  We are sometimes insulted but rarely persecuted in our country on account of our faith.

The freedoms we enjoy as Christians in our country hit home on Sunday when a woman from China was baptized in our church.  She and other Chinese Christians, experienced persecution by the Chinese government on account of their faith.  In the last few years, the Chinese government has implemented even greater restrictions on Christians, including imprisoning some believers and restricting the sale of non-government approved Bibles.  Bibles can no longer be purchased online.  The government’s stated goal is to promote “thought reform” by “retranslating and annotating” the Bible to point out commonalities with socialism.

Jesus emphasizes that point and went even further in saying that if you are insulted and persecuted on his account, “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5: 12).

These simple but profound truths are the stuff of which faith is made.  Micah summed it up eloquently: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8.

In the epistle lesson, Paul describes the reaction of the Jews to the idea that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah.  They expected the Messiah to be a powerful ruler who would sweep them to victory and slay their enemies.  The idea that Jesus, born of peasant parents in a cave or crude stable, was to be their Messiah, was simply unbelievable to them—a foolish idea. But Paul admonishes that “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  He 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.” (1 Corinthians 1: 27-28).

The religious leaders of the day should not have been surprised, because the importance of humility before God is a theme that had been preached for centuries (e.g., Joshua 7:6; 2 Kings 5:9-15; Psalm 8:3,4; Psalm 131:1).

What does God require of you?  He asks you to recognize and follow the simple truths of faith: to love justice; to practice kindness and mercy; to be humble before God; to recognize the God-shaped hole in your heart; to seek him with all of your heart, soul and mind; to love others; to live peaceably with your neighbors; to love Him for who he is—all-knowing, all-powerful, everywhere, eternal, holy, merciful, sovereign, loving, forgiving–our guide, our Savior.

Prayer: God of love and mercy, we recognize our poverty of spirit, mourn that poverty, and recognize our position before you—our Almighty God.  Fill us with your righteousness, and help us to show mercy, to seek purity of heart, and to reconcile with others.  Bless us and all who are insulted or persecuted on your account. Amen

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for the Fourth Sunday After Epiphany are Psalm 15; Micah 6:1-8; 1 Corinthians 1: 18-31; Matthew 5: 1-12.  Note: Excerpts from this blog were published on this website on January 29, 2017.

A Light Has Dawned

January 20, 2020

Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan–The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. (Isaiah 9: 1-3a).[1]

Next week’s Old Testament reading has great meaning to me, having just returned from a trip to Israel with our favorite Bible teacher, Dr. Bill Creasy–his 62nd teaching trip to Israel.  God’s light dawned on us day-after-day as we traced the footsteps of Jesus.  During our first full day in Israel, we traveled the modern highway equivalent of the Via Maris, or Way of the Sea, referenced by Isaiah, from Tel Aviv to Caesarea Maritima, and then into “the land of Zebulun” where we had lunch in Nazareth, visited the Church of the Annunciation, and drove through Cana to our hotel on the Sea of Galilee.  A light dawned in each of us during the days that we followed in Jesus’ footsteps.  It was the Christ light that we saw in the faces of many that we met, and in the faces of our fellow travelers.

The Via Maris, or Way of the Sea, was a major trade route in ancient times, that went from Damascus in present day Syria (northeast of Israel), through the areas of Naphatali and Zebulun near the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus lived in Nazareth and Capernaum, and down through the coastal plain adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea.

The Way of the Sea is referenced by Isaiah in this week’s Old Testament text: “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan–The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned (Isaiah 9: 1-3a).  Jesus was the great light who would come from the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphatali—he was the light that dawned.  He left his imprint throughout the land of Israel—especially around the Sea of Galilee where he healed, taught, and preached for three years– and in Nazareth and Jerusalem.

In the context of Isaiah’s day, the source of hope (the “great light”) was that God intended that a king in David’s line would one day rule over a restored Israel.  Once this occurred there will be no more gloom—those who live in darkness will recognize the light of the Messiah. He foretold that a light would dawn in the land of darkness. The area next to Galilee on the Via Maris (“road along the Sea”) will be honored by his presence: “But there’ll be no darkness for those who were in trouble. Earlier he did bring the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali into disrepute, but the time is coming when he’ll make that whole area glorious— the road along the Sea, the country past the Jordan, international Galilee” (Isaiah 9: 1, The Message.)

On our seventh day in Israel, we visited Ein Gedi, the box canyon near the Dead Sea where David hid out from King Saul for 10 years.  We hiked up to a waterfall in the canyon and explored some of the rocky terrain that David traversed during his 10 years there.  At one point during the hike, we entered a short, dark tunnel with a stream running through it. We couldn’t see in front of us, the rocks were uneven, and the ledge that we were walking on narrowed to just a few inches wide.  Some in our group called out, “I can’t see anything!”  Our first reaction was to pull out our cell phones and turn on the flashlight function.  I can imagine David and his men in the tunnel creeping along trying to find their footing without the benefit of a flashlight.  But in his great faith and dependence on God, David described God as the light that guides him: “The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27: 1).  He knew that God is the light at the end of the tunnel.

How many times in our lives do we find ourselves calling out in the darkness: “I can’t see anything! What should I do?  What is my next step?”  At times during our Holy Land journey, as we traversed slippery rocks and steps or wound our way on darkened, uneven streets, we found a hand reaching out to help us get through a dark place, a tricky step, or uneven surface.  And isn’t that just like God?  He sends his helpers, his angels, to watch over us to show us the way.  God is the light that shines on us during life’s darkest days, giving us hope and showing us the way to safety.

Matthew quoted Isaiah to confirm the accuracy of Isaiah’s prophecy that the Messiah would hail from the areas of Naphatali and Zebulun near the Sea of Galilee. He reports that after John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus traveled to Galilee in accordance with Isaiah’s prophecy that the Messiah would come from that region, and began to preach: “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matthew 4: 17). It was the Jewish custom to avoid using the word “God” out of reverence and respect for God. As a Jew, Matthew followed this custom, and referred to the kingdom of God as the kingdom of heaven. Jesus was not referencing a place where people go after death, but rather the coming of the revolutionary kingdom of God.

The Messiah was expected to usher in a kingdom that would overthrow the oppressors of the Jewish people.  Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom was at hand, and the people had better get their act together and repent!  The meaning of repent is to turn around—to change direction. Jesus was telling them to turn their lives around and follow God.

Paul tells us, “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1: 18).  Put another way: “The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hellbent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation it makes perfect sense. This is the way God works, and most powerfully as it turns out” (The Message).  Just as Jesus called on the people of his day to turn around from their evil ways, so he still calls to us to turn our lives around from the foolish, destructive behaviors we so often fall into, and turn our eyes toward him. He invites us to walk away from the darkness and into the light.  For God is light; in him there is no darkness. You cannot stumble or fall when you are walking in the light—when you are walking on the path that God has illumined for you.

Prayer:  Father, light our path with your Word. Guide us, teach us, lead us to the light and away from the darkness of our lives. Send your Spirit and your angels to lead us away from the narrow ledges, precipices, and ditches of prejudice, gossip, anger, hate, jealousy, impatience, self-recrimination, despair, and regret.  Lead us back on the path to you.  Help us walk through the dark tunnels of our lives toward the dawn, to new beginnings, toward your light.  Amen

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for next Sunday, the Third Sunday after Epiphany, are Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1-9 (10-14); 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-25.

Life Matters

January 6, 2020

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made . . . “ Psalm 139: 13-14.[1]

My great-grandmother, Anna, had a twin brother who died shortly after birth.  The story of the death of Anna’s twin brother resonated with me because I have a twin brother.  David and I were my mother’s third pregnancy; she didn’t know that she was pregnant with twins.  Even though her pregnancy lasted a full nine months, the old-fashioned doctor who delivered us hadn’t listened for heartbeats during her pregnancy.  Four minutes after David was born my mother was surprised to hear the doctor say “Bring another basket,” and I was ushered into the world.

These stories came to mind when I read about a woman who lost her twin brother before she was born.  Sarah Smith explains that she survived an abortion because the doctor thought that he was finished after he aborted Sarah’s twin brother. A few weeks after the baby boy was aborted, Sarah’s mother felt her abdomen move, and she realized that she was still pregnant.  Like my mother, she hadn’t known that she was pregnant with twins.  She went to the doctor and told him that she wanted to keep the second baby.  Sarah survived because the doctor did not know she was there (“God Hid Her,” The Colson Center for Christian Worldview, 21 Days of Prayer for Life).

Sunday, January 19, 2020 is National Sanctity of Life Sunday marking the 47th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade.[2]  Wherever you stand on the abortion issue, it is worth taking the time to take a closer look at the relevant facts. The booklet 21 Days of Prayer for Life is a prayer guide for individuals and groups to pray for all victims of abortion—the unborn, expectant mothers and fathers in crisis, grandparents, those emotionally suffering from abortions they had, and others.

The following is a summary of the booklet’s four primary arguments in favor of the pro-life position.

The Bible Affirms Life.   Scripture confirms that we are made in God’s image: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness . . .So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1: 26-27, see also Genesis 9: 5-6, James 3:9).  Humans are valuable because they were made in God’s image, not just because of what they can do.  And because they are made in God’s image, intentionally taking innocent human life is wrong (Exodus 23: 7; Proverbs 6:16-19; Matthew 5: 21).  Abortion is forbidden by Scripture because it is the intentional killing of an innocent human being.

Abortion is not specifically mentioned in Scripture because it was unnecessary to explain the importance of human life in the culture for several reasons: (1) Children were viewed as a blessing, while infertility was a curse (Psalm 137:3-5; Genesis 20: 17-18; 1 Samuel 1: 6; Genesis 30:1, 22-23); (2) One’s bloodline lived on through one’s descendants; (3) Continuing the family line was essential for national security when a group was surrounded by hostile nations; (4) Having children was a sacred responsibility; (5) The early Christians in Jesus’ time were largely Jewish, who understood the Scriptural command against killing innocent people.

Science Affirms Life.  The developing embryo is different from other bodily cells.  Dr. Maureen Condic, Assistant Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah explains that starting with conception human embryos function as organisms: “Embryos are not merely collections of human cells, but living creatures with all the properties that define any organism as distinct from a group of cells; embryos are capable of growing, maturing, maintaining a physiologic balance between various organ systems, adapting to changing circumstances, and repairing injury.  Mere groups of human cells do nothing like this under any circumstances.”

Logic Affirms Life.   David Boonin, a proponent of abortion, describes photos of his son Eli on his desk, and the photo of Eli he keeps in the top drawer of his desk. The picture in the desk drawer is sonogram image taken 24 weeks before Eli was born.  Boonin says, “The sonogram image is murky, but it reveals clearly enough a small head tilted back slightly, and an arm raised up and bent, with the hand pointing back toward the face and the thumb extended out toward the mouth. There is no doubt in my mind that this picture, too, shows the same little boy at a very early stage of development. And there is no question that the position I defend in this book entails that it would have been morally permissible to end his life at this point.”

But does body size or stage of development determine whether a human can be killed?  Infants are less developed than teenagers, but do they have less value?  Embryos are dependant on their mothers for survival, but infants are also dependent on their parents for a long time. The child and teenage brains are not fully developed, but do they have less value? The logical answer to these questions is that the size of the human, the stage of development, the degree of dependency, or the environment (womb v. world) does not determine the humanity of a person. Therefore, if it is immoral to kill a person after he or she makes the eight-inch journey from womb to world, then it is immoral to kill a person who hasn’t yet made that journey.

Chuck Colson made the argument against the use of abortion as a social policy: “The logic that supports abortion as a ‘useful social policy’ to prevent the birth of ‘defectives’ or to reduce welfare and crime, applies with equal force at all stages of life.  If the body is merely an instrument of the self, if it has no inherent dignity, then we are free to dispose of it at will—or others are free to dispose of it for us.” (Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcy, How Now Shall We Live? (1999) Tyndale Publishing Co., p. 118).

Founding Documents Affirm Life.   Some of our most important historical documents (Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”) have their roots in the biblical concept of the imago dei—that we are created in the image of God.   If those who support pro-life positions are irrational for basing their arguments on a Creator, then our founding documents and others, are irrational as well.  The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence starts as follows: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  The first of the inalienable rights is the right to life.

This short discussion of issues is not intended to gloss over the very difficult burdens women carry with respect to all abortion decisions, including those where the pregnancy resulted from rape and incest or where the health of the mother is truly at risk.  About 20 years ago I wrote a short play called “Life Matters,” performed by teenagers in our congregation on Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, discussing various difficult issues relating to the importance of preserving human life.  One of the characters, Nicole, addresses the question of the health of the mother: “There are no easy answers in those situations. But we don’t throw out speed limit laws because someone may have to break the speed limit to get to the hospital for an emergency!  I think that we can have laws against abortion that carve out reasonable exceptions and still protect life in the womb.”

Another character, Meg, closes her argument with a quote from Deuteronomy: “God said, ‘This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live . . .”  (Deuteronomy 30: 19-20).

If you believe that life matters, that we are created in the image of God, and that each life is precious, you will want to assist those who are struggling with an unexpected or unwanted pregnancy.  If you are pro-life you already have heart for those who are making difficult pregnancy choices.  You may wish to get involved in a local crisis pregnancy center to help women in crisis and their families.  In addition to offering medical services for expectant mothers, the centers assist the women with infant needs.  These centers also often offer counseling services to help women who are having difficulty recovering from the emotional after-effects of abortion.

You can make a difference by donating your time and other resources to helping women and men in crisis due to an unexpected pregnancy, and by helping their precious little ones.  Last week we considered Isaiah’s statement that God called him before he was born.  God calls out to the unborn to claim them as his own. You can help protect these unborn children to ensure that they have an opportunity to live out God’s purpose for their lives. If you share the belief that God has a purpose for each of us that was in place before the moment of our birth, then you will want to help pregnant women in crisis and their babies.

Prayer:  Father, as the Creator of all living things, you chose to create humans in your image.  Thank you for blessing us with the gift of life and for giving us an eternal soul.  Help us to protect and preserve life in every way we can.  Each embryo carries your stamp.  Each embryo contains the potential to live a life according to your special plan for the person that embryo will become.  Protect the unborn.  Be with, help, and comfort all expectant mothers and fathers in crisis, grandparents, those emotionally suffering from abortions they had, and others.  In your name we pray. Amen

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] This blog was originally published on this website in 2017 in substantially the same form. I am republishing the blog with the dates changed to reflect the passage of time.

[2] In summary, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Roe v. Wade (1973) that in the first trimester, a woman can make the decision with her physician to abort for any reason without interference from the state.  In the second trimester, the state can pass laws to regulate procedures related to maternal health.  In the third trimester, the state can restrict or even ban abortion except where it is necessary to preserve “the life or health of the mother.”

New Things for a New Year

January 6, 2020

“Now I will tell you of new things even before they begin to happen.” (Isaiah 42:9)

“See, I am doing a new thing!” (Isaiah 43:19)

We are not only embarking a new year, but also upon a new decade.  This new decade begins with Isaiah excitedly declaring “Now I will tell you of new things even before they begin to happen” (Isaiah 42:9).  Each new year ushers in a spirit of optimism, of hope.  As we look back on the past year and note the wonderful blessings of the year, we also recall the pain that comes with living, and we hope that some of the sources of that pain will be alleviated.  But don’t dwell on the past–  look ahead to what God has in store for you in the coming weeks and months!

As we look ahead, we have hope for the coming year— hope that our fractured country will be less polarized in this presidential election year than in the last; hope for peace between nations and in families; hope for prosperity in the land and in our family finances; hope for good health in the coming year;  hope for healing in our families, in our churches, in our communities, and in our nation; hope that we and our children will use our God-given gifts productively and in accordance with God’s will.

Our Old Testament reading excites us about the possibilities of the new decade.  A new start.  A new beginning.  And no matter how broken or bruised or burnt-out we are, God is there to pick us up and to carry us on. He will not step on us or break our spirit (“A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.” Isaiah 42: 3).  That is the hope that we see throughout this week’s Scriptures.[1]

We have reason to be encouraged in our church. We are welcoming Ken Frese, our transition pastor, who has committed to leading our flock for the next year during our transition between pastors.  We are deeply grateful that he identified us as his flock while we searched for a shepherd.

Just as God is doing a new thing in our faith community, so he declared about 2700 years ago that that he would be doing a new thing in the Jewish faith community:  Isaiah foretold the coming of the Messiah –“my servant . . . my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.” (Isaiah 42:1).

This Sunday’s Old Testament lesson is sometimes called the Servant Song. Through God’s servant, Jesus, all people can share in the mission of bringing “light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring the prisoners from the dungeon.” (Isaiah 42: 6-7).  This prophecy came to fruition when Jesus began his ministry at his baptism: “the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and a voice from heaven said, This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’” (Matthew 3:16-17).  Jesus was the new man in town.  He revitalized and renewed the faith community of his day, and continues to work in our faith communities through his Spirit.

Paul reminded us “Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” God promises to do a new thing this year in your life.  Are up for the challenge?  Will you chuck the bottomless bucket of excuses as to why you can’t (or won’t) hop on the path to renewal that God has laid out for you?  Don’t dwell on the past. Look ahead to what God has planned for your life if you will open your heart to him.  Ask him to guide you to the unique path he has forged for only you, the path that is waiting for your footsteps.  Don’t think you’re up to it?  God does.  And he will lead you to it in baby steps.

Think God’s way is boring and restrictive?  Nothing could be further from the truth.  God’s wisdom is infinite. His creativity is unlimited.  His love for us is constant and unchanging.  His ideas and plans for us are so much bigger than our puny brains can fathom.  God’s path is always exciting, new, and innovative. Will you listen to the still small voice that appeals to your God-given gifts and talents, and break out of your comfort zone– the rut you have fallen into–and answer the challenge?  Will you say, “Here I am, Lord, use me?” Will you answer the call?  Will you let God do a new thing in your life this year?

Prayer:  Lord, I’m here today with open hands and an open heart, ready to answer your call.  Guide me to do a new thing in your name in the beginning of this new decade.  Open my eyes to the doors you are opening around me. Open my heart to follow new roads in your name.  Give me the courage to walk those roads and to pursue the new things that you are guiding me to do.  Help me in the days ahead as I face tough choices and challenging situations.  Help me to depend on you to help me and to come to you for guidance, strength, and protection. Bless me in all tasks that I undertake in your name, and help me be a blessing to others each and every day, and to bring honor to your holy name.  Amen.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for the Baptism of Our Lord are Psalm 29; Isaiah 42:1-9; Romans 6: 1-11; Matthew 3: 13-17.  Another version of this blog was originally published on this website on January 8, 2017.

Seek Wisdom, But Don’t be a Wise Guy

December 30, 2019

Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. Your commands are always with me and make me wiser than my enemies.” (Psalm 119: 97-98).

“Don’t be a wise guy,” is a phrase used to warn someone away from being a smart aleck—someone who thinks he or she knows more than others.  It is also used to refer to members of organized crime. There are bands, groups, organizations, pizzerias, and television shows called The Wise Guys.  Most of the uses of the term are negative.  But while being a smart aleck should not be our goal, Sunday’s Scripture texts give us solid reasons to seek wisdom.[1]

God offered to give Solomon anything, and Solomon asked for a “discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.” (1 Kings 3:9).  He asked for discernment or wisdom. He didn’t ask God to do his job for him—he asked for the wisdom to do his job.  Solomon was just 20 years of age when he ascended to the throne. He recognized that his youth was a drawback: “I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties” (1 Kings 3:7).  He wisely realized that he needed to get some wisdom—and fast! Solomon set a good example for the leaders of any organization.  Leaders of churches, organizations of all kinds, cities, counties, states, and countries should constantly turn to God to ask for help in carrying out their duties. They should avoid being a “wise guy” (or gal), and ask God for the energy and the ability to help govern wisely and fairly.

The psalmist wrote of the joy of meditating on God’s law: “Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. Your commands are always with me and make me wiser than my enemies.” (Psalm 119: 97-98) He cites three reasons for meditating on God’s Word: (1) It gives one greater insight; (2) it gives one greater understanding; and (3) it keeps one from evil paths.  One needs insight and understanding in working with people to solve the problems of an organization.  A leader must set an example of diligence and have the insight to effectively discern the talents and abilities of those in the organization, and put those talents and abilities to work to carry out God’s purposes.

As in all things, Jesus was the gold standard in setting an example of how to seek wisdom: go to the source—the Word–and talk to those who know it best. Luke tells the story of how the 12-year-old Jesus went out of his way to be with the rabbis: “After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answer” (Luke 1: 46-47). Jesus put himself in the company of those who knew the Torah the best, and questioned them about it, amazing them with his understanding. Luke mentions twice that Jesus “grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him” (Luke 1: 40) and “Jesus grew in wisdom and statute, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 1: 52).

Paul reminded the church in Ephesus and he reminds us that we have been redeemed by God’s grace; our sins were forgiven through Christ’s blood, and in God’s great wisdom and understanding, he made this known to us: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, . . . “ (Ephesians 1: 7-9).

Wisdom does not come from men. It comes from God.  Don’t be a wise guy or gal. Don’t think that you know it all and can do just fine on your own.   Instead, lean on God.  Seek God’s wisdom so that he can direct your steps and help you gain understanding and avoid treacherous paths.   When you pray for God’s guidance and for discernment through the Holy Spirit, you can count on God to provide you with the wisdom you need.

Prayer: Father, you know the decisions and challenges that I am facing today. Forgive me for trying to figure everything out on my own.  Send your Holy Spirit to energize me, to guide me, to give me direction, to move me toward your perfect plan.  Amen

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

 [1] The Scripture lessons for next Sunday are 1 Kings 3:4-15; Psalm119:97-104; Ephesians 1:3-14; Luke 2:40-52.