Category Archives: Family

a bruised reed he will not break

Gerard David, "Baptism of Christ", 1502 - 1508, Musee Communal, Bruge, Belgium.

Gerard David, “Baptism of Christ”, 1502 – 1508, Musee Communal, Bruge, Belgium.

Isaiah 42:1-9, Matt. 3:13-17
For Sunday, January 14, 2014
Epiphany, Year A, Baptism of the Lord

When I first read this week’s readings this phrase immediately jumped out:  “A bruised reed he will not break” (Isaiah 42:3).  The reason it jumped out (and I’m only sharing this with you)  is because I know I’m a bruised reed.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

How can a reed get a bruise?  This is where my wife would say, “You are so literal.”  Well, sorry, but that’s what the text says… literally.  Anyway, the picture is of a reed that has broken so that the top is dangling down.  Have you ever walked passed one of those?  There is an almost irresistible urge to snap it off.  That thing just shouldn’t sit there dangling!  It’s not right.  It actually feels good to snap it off, right?  Snap.  Ahhh….  All is right with the world.

Now, for you fellow literalists, the Prophet Isaiah is using this as a metaphor, which is a future of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not …. wait for it …. literally applicable.  Ohhhh….  okay then.  So what is the object or action here?  It’s weak or oppressed people.  Isaiah is saying this: “Even though it might seem the world is a harsh place that would be better off without you, there is a servant of God coming who not only does not concur, but when he comes is going to put you and your world right.  In other words, whatever your hurt, don’t despair, because hope is coming.  

My hurt is trauma from my childhood due to a mentally ill Mom.  Like a soldier who dives in the bushes every time he hears a loud noise, I am prone to similar subconscious emotional reactions.  I’ve been working through layers of this trauma my entire adult life.  It’s actually become a joy to see how deep this goes, how the Holy Spirit is at work doing healing within me, and how he’s using all of this to enable me to be a blessing to others, as a business consultant no less.  In fact, over the holidays I launched my own consulting practice called Quiet Waters Consulting.  The big idea is to lead others into the restoration that I’m presently enjoying as a result of the Spirit’s work within me.  As Psalm 23 says, “He leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.”

The truth is we are all reeds and we all have our bruises.  We are all broken, we are all oppressed, because we live in a world alienated from it’s Creator.  Yet hope has come in Jesus, God’s beloved Son, so take heart.  And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17).


Point to ponder:
Where have you or are you seeing the Holy Spirit at work within you to strengthen the reed that has been bruised?

preserve this our city

"Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel", Duccio, di Buoninsegna, -1319?, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

“Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel”,
Duccio, di Buoninsegna, -1319?, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Matthew 1:18-25 (Isaiah 7)
For Sunday, December 22, 2013
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A

I was fascinated to learn this week about Duccio’s “Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekial” (pictured above).  It’s a story that spans from the National Gallery of Art in present day Washington, D.C. all the way back to 14th century Tuscany, Italy, and the city state of Siena.

Duccio di Buoninsegna (say that three times fast) was a prominent Sienese artist with a reputation that extended as far as Paris.  His Siena studio received a commission from the government of Siena to create a magnificent altarpiece called the Maesta, that would serve as a crown jewel of the already famous and beautiful Cathedral of Siena.  The idea was to raise the profile of Siena, and it’s allegiance with the Roman Emperor, as against that of it’s archival Florence, which was allied with the Pope (1).

The Maesta (“The Majesty”) was intended to celebrate the majesty of God as revealed in the coming of Immanuel (Messiah as “God with Us”).   It was a stunningly beautiful free-standing sculpture 7′ high by 13′ wide consisting of many images.  The theme on the front was Mary’s role in Jesus’ birth while the theme on the back was the life of Christ.  The work en toto was the 13th Century equivalent of a modern cinematic blockbuster.  If you had the good fortune of walking into the glorious Cathedral of Siena, and then walking up to the alter to take communion in front of this even more glorious Maesta, it would be an experience of a lifetime.

Across the front of the base of the Maesta was a predalla, a horizontal band of narrative scenes.  Front and center on the predella was “The Nativity’.  It’s only 18″ tall and 34” wide, but it was the invitation to enter into the majesty of the larger work.  When you approached the Maesta this is where your eyes would go first.  Then you would be drawn into the majesty of the entire narrative until finally eyes moved above Mary’s own ascension into heaven and you were forced to contemplate your own mortality in light of eternity.  Mind altering, to be sure.

Duccio flanks the nativity scene itself with the Prophet Isaiah on the left and the Prophet Ezekiel on the right.  Each is holding a scroll.  On Isaiah’s scroll is written ‘ECCE VIRGO CONCIPIET & PARIET FILIU & VOCABITUR NOMEN EIUS EMANUEL’, Latin for “Behold a Virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Immanuel” (from Isaiah 7:14).   Right… , that certainly makes good sense.

On Ezekiel’s scroll, however, is inscribed  ‘VIDI PORTA I DOMO DOM CLAUSA VIR NO TRSIBIT P[ER] EA DOMIN SOLUS ITRAT ET IT P[ER] EA[M]’, for “I saw a door in the house of the Lord which was closed and no man went through it. The Lord only enters and goes through it” (Ezekial 44:2).   Wow, not the Ezekiel verse I expected.   Yet this was always the citation from Ezekiel that resonated with the Sienese, because for them, “the door” was Mary, and if it wasn’t for her, Immanuel could never have come into the world (2).

The Maesta was installed in the cathedral of Siena on June 9, 1311.  Here is how one participant described the event:

And on that day when it was brought into the cathedral, all workshops remained closed, and the bishop commanded a great host of devoted priests and monks to file past in solemn procession. This was accompanied by all the high officers of the Commune and by all the people; all honorable citizens of Siena surrounded said panel with candles held in their hands, and women and children followed humbly behind. They accompanied the panel amidst the glorious pealing of bells after a solemn procession on the Piazza del Campo into the very cathedral; and all this out of reverence for the costly panel… The poor received many alms, and we prayed to the Holy Mother of God, our patron saint, that she might in her infinite mercy preserve this our city of Siena from every misfortune, traitor or enemy.

Wow!  After reading that I need to see “The Nativity” in the National Gallery of Art in D.C.  And I need to see the parts of the Maesta that remain in Siena as well as the Cathedral itself.  What an incredible story God weaves over time and through nations.  Wouldn’t it be amazing to organize some Christian Worldview culture vulture trips for amazed people  such as us?

I love the last part of the description above.  “The poor received many alms, and we prayed to our patron Saint that she might in her infinite mercy preserve this our city of Siena from every misfortune, traitor, or enemy.”  My prayer today for the poor among us, for you and me, for our families, for our churches, for our cities, for our countries, and for our world is that God might do likewise for us.

Merry Christmas.

the chaff heap of history

Kandinsky, "Yellow, Red, Blue", 1925

Kandinsky, “Yellow, Red, Blue”, 1925

For Sunday, December 16, 2012
Zephaniah 3, Isaiah 12, Philippians 4, Luke 3
Third Sunday of Advent

At one of my sons’ request, we started meeting two weeks ago to discuss the key features of the Christian faith.  We agreed to use the Westminster Shorter Catechism as the basis for our conversations.  Catechisms aren’t popular these days in evangelical circles, maybe because they sound so Catholic.  Yet replacing “catechism” with “conversation”, what better way to ground ourselves in what we really believe than to ask questions and formulate answers?   A friend recently pointed out that 85% of all evangelical kids are presently abandoning their faith after high school.  Is this because the counter case is so strong, or because their grounding is so shallow?

The first question I raised for my son was, “What is the chief end of man?”  I asked him, “How do you think most people today would answer this?”  Without hesitation he answered, “To get more stuff.”

This week’s passages offer a sharp contrast to this “get more stuff” view of life.  There is a God who loves us deeply; at present we are under punishment as a result of our alienation from him; yet God himself is at work to remove our punishment and reconcile us back to him.  Zephaniah puts it this way: “Be glad and rejoice with all your heart . . . The Lord has taken away your punishment.  The Lord … is with you; never again will you fear any harm.”   Isaiah concurs: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid.  The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.”  Luke then puts a point on the decision before us either to accept or reject the offer of redemption God offers to each of us through Jesus Christ: “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.

If the Bible speaks truth, those of us choosing to live to “get more stuff” are going to end up on the chaff heap of history.  Deep down, if we actually stop to think about it, we already know this.  We also know there is something far better intended for us.  The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever.  It is the Advent of Jesus that has secured this end for each of us.

This is why the Apostle Paul could say to the Philippian Christians with such confidence and conviction: “Rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all.  The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything …  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

the community of the Trinity


Holy Trinity Icon (Moscow, Russia)

Romans 8:12-17
For Sunday, June 3, 2012
Trinity Sunday

One reason for each of this week’s readings being chosen is their shared focus on the Trinity.  Christianity is unique among world religions in claiming that God is both one and three.  He is one being in three persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This passage calls out each of these three persons explicitly.  The Father is mentioned in relation to God’s children calling out, “Abba, Father” (v. 15).  The Son is mentioned in relation to our being “joint heirs with Christ” if we would share both in his sufferings as well as his glory (v. 17).  The Holy Spirit is mentioned in relation to our being led by the Spirit (v. 14) and the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God (v. 16).

Just as we experience 3-way community with our mother and father so does God experience 3-way community with Himself.  We are not meant to live only for ourselves but for one another.  This is why Paul encourages us in this passage to put to death the deeds of the flesh (read sinful self-absorbtion) so that we will experience the true life of the Spirit which is infused with peace and joy.

Point to Ponder:
What is your fondest memory of time with your Mom and/or Dad?  How might that point to the peace and joy of living in the Spirit?

that can’t be right?

For Sunday, April 29, 2012
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 4:5-12 

That can't be right?

Last weekend I heard a National Public Radio broadcast on which a speaker was describing to a live audience that while he grew up in a church, in wrestling with his homosexuality the conclusion he had reached about Christianity was, “That can’t be right.”  The sympathetic audience cheered loudly.

Christianity was being portrayed as intolerant, out of touch, authoritarian, and just plain wrong.  How could a loving God condemn to eternal damnation a guy who is just trying to listen to his heart?

I thought back to that broadcast while reading Acts 4, one of this week’s readings.  The first century Christians were not operating within a friendly audience either.  Yet their focus was to teach and proclaim in Jesus the resurrection of the dead (Acts 4:2).  At the same time their ministry did not stop with words.  They had also healed a crippled beggar (Acts 3:1-10).  The powers of the day (the priests, captain of the temple guard, and Sadducees) were saying, “That can’t be right“, yet the early church’s ministry served to put a question mark on the end of the statement: “That can’t be right?”   The crippled beggar, now healed, was standing for all to see.  This made Christianity and the resurrection of Jesus most difficult to dismiss.

We need to prosecute the church’s ministry today likewise.  First, we need to teach and proclaim the resurrection of the dead in Jesus.  This life is not all there is and this life can be filled with peace and joy if we will only let God come in and redeem our brokenness and alienation from him.  Then, just as the apostles pointed to a cripple healed we need to point to crippled lives healed as well.  Maybe the healing will be physical or maybe of some other kind.  In my own case I would point to the healing that continues to take place in me since the childhood trauma of my Mom’s mental illness.

To the homosexual who was speaking on NPR and to his sympathetic audience I would like to put this question:  How do we knowwhat is really right and really true?  Is it really up to each of us to put our faith in the emotions of each of our hearts?  How sound is this approach, especially if our hearts have been corrupted, which seems most likely given the brokenness we see in the humanity all around us.  The Bible speaks to this: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.  Who can understand it?”  (Jer. 17:9).

So yes, one way to look at the speaker’s situation is to say, “My heart tells me I’m attracted to my own sex so to claim otherwise just can’t be right.”  Yet another way to look at it is this: “Maybe there is something wrong with all of us.  Maybe part of this often manifests itself as a warped sexuality that sometimes presents itself in the form of homosexuality.  Yet maybe this isn’t what God intended and really isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.”

Secular culture encourages us not to address this issue.  The famous Seinfeld episode puts it this way: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”  Christianity says something different: there is something wrong with that.  First and foremost, the plumbing just doesn’t work that way, does it?  Why is that?

That can’t be right?

Readers Corner: How do you think the church might best be good news to homosexuals?

a light for people walking in darkness

Vladimirskaya Theotocos, Orthodox Icon, 12th Century

For Sunday, December 25, 2011

Nativity of the Lord, Proper 1
(Isaiah 9, Psalm 96, Luke 2, Titus 2)

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”  So starts Isaiah 9:2.  We Christians were once “people walking in darkness.”  We were those “living in the land of deep darkness“.  This latter phrase could also be translated “living in the land of the shadow of death.”  But while this was true of us now a light has dawned.    This is why we light up our homes at Christmas.  As our exterior illumination dispels the darkness of December so does the presence of Jesus dispel the shadow of death that once reigned.

Christmas has always been a difficult time for me emotionally.  It’s because of the trauma I lived through as a child as we struggled to cope with my Mom’s mental illness.  I’ve come a long way in terms of being able to enjoy  the holiday, but for me, the light has only dawned.  We’re far from noontime.  Yet this is okay.  The important thing is that the light has dawned and will only get brighter as I continue on this journey with Jesus.

Psalm 96 encourages us to “worship the Lord in holy splendor.”  What might “holy splendor” really look like in my local church?  My mind immediately goes to the beautiful cathedrals I have experienced in both Russia and right here in Milwaukee.  Yet the wise men who were with Jesus had no cathedral and yet certainly there was “holy splendor” in their worship of the baby Jesus, despite the straw all around.  They brought frankincense and myrrh.  Have you ever worshipped amidst the aroma of frankincense and myrrh?  A personal confession: I burn these as incense at home and find them wonderfully calming, affirming, and stimulating.  Bring some to your pastor.  Enjoy some together: might this be a way to bring some holy splendor into your Christmas worship?

What a joy as well to read Luke 2 this week.  I call this the Linus chapter, because having seen Charlie Brown’s Christmas so many times, I can’t seem to hear the words any other way.  “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  No matter who is speaking them these are good words indeed, so Linus, thank you!

This week’s final reading, Titus 2, proclaims clearly and wonderfully what Christmas ought to mean for each of us who have come to the manger: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and wordly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly.”  What a far cry from the vision of the world, which might sound like this: “For Hollywood has appeared, calling us to live lives that are self-actualized, glamorous, and glitzy.”  The problem: once the sugar high wears off all we’re left with is lives that are “self-indulgent, superficial, and vapid.”  Are you ready for something different?  Let the light of Jesus dawn.

Point to ponder:
You are standing by the manger.  You look into the baby Jesus eyes.  He looks back.  In this moment, what is God saying to you?  How can the light of Jesus grow a little brighter in your life this week?


Duccio di Buoninsegna, “The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekial” (1937)
Andrew W. Mellon Collection
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

For Sunday, November 28, 2010
First Sunday of Advent, Year A
Whatever. This is the default posture of our secular age toward faith. The problem is that “whatever” doesn’t work in real life, and deep down, we all know it. If I’m mad at my wife, I can say “whatever”, but that’s not sustainable, and I know it. If one of my kids is going off the rails, I can say “whatever”, but that’s not the reality of the situation. I love my wife. I love my sons. I want things to be right between me and them. I want things to be right at work and at church too.

This Sunday marks a wonderful opportunity to replace “whatever” with something sustainable. How about this: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace and goodwill toward men”? This Sunday marks the move on the lectionary calendar from Year C’s “Season after Pentecost” (Ordinary Time) to Year A’s “Advent”.

What is “Advent”? Advent derives from the Latin adventus, which means “coming”. What is coming? Hectic days of shopping and family we don’t want to see. Only if what hangs over our existence is “whatever”. Let’s take that sign down and replace it with “glory to God in the highest” and just see what could be different.

Here is how “glory to God in the highest” sings through this week’s readings:

The mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established . . . and all the nations will stream to it. He will teach us his ways so that way may walk in his paths. Nation will not rise up against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord (Isaiah 2:1-5).

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem
May those who love you be secure
May there be peace within your walls
And security within your citadels (Psalm 122)

Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come (Matt. 24:36-44)

The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed (Rom. 13:11-14)

In response to “whatever” here was G.K. Chesterton’s reply:

“Any dead thing can float downstream. It takes a living thing to swim against it.”

Wishing you a joyous Advent Season.