Spiritual Leprosy: A Devotional

St. Francis and the leper

The person who has the leprous disease shall . . . remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.          Leviticus 13:45-46 (NRSV)

Skin diseases were serious business for the ancient Israelites, but what could it have to do with us today? We’ve conquered most ailments that plagued them, including Hansen’s disease, aka leprosy.

Beyond offering thanks, we can take it to a spiritual level.

Leprosy is an infectious disease that, besides causing skin sores, also causes nerve damage in the sufferer’s arms and legs. This nerve damage means that people with leprosy do not feel pain in those areas. People with leprosy often lose fingers, ears, even feet because of serious injuries they couldn’t prevent because the pain didn’t register.

What, then, is spiritual leprosy?

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ . . . we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit.     2 Corinthians 12:12-13 (NLT)

We have spiritual leprosy when we do not feel or acknowledge the pain in (what we see as) our body-of-Christ extremities: fellow believers who are different from us (whoever the majority “us” is in your part of the kingdom), either in looks, upbringing, worship style, socioeconomic status, political affiliation, developmental ability, country of origin.

Spiritual leprosy looks like dismissing a fellow believer’s experience out of hand. It looks like turning a blind eye to injustice. It looks like self-justification for our lack of compassion or action. It looks like blaming the victim. It looks like glee at the downfall of Christian leaders. It looks like that favorite term of the prophets: hardheartedness.

It’s dangerous for the same reason physical leprosy was so harshly dealt with in ancient times: because it spreads. And the more it spreads, the more disfigured our Christian communities become: less hospitable to the widow, the orphan, the stranger at our gate, not to mention the hungry, the jailed, the immigrant, the broken.

Plow up the hard soil of our hearts. Help us to listen wholeheartedly. Help us to not see our part of the body of believers as more important than another part. And thank you, Lord, for Jesus. He was not afraid of lepers. He touched them. He healed them. May he heal us, too.

 

 

Always replenishing. Never stagnant: a devotional.

Jesus replied, “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.”

“But sir, you don’t have a rope or a bucket,” she said, “and this well is very deep. Where would you get this living water?…

Jesus replied, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life” (John 4:10-11,13-14).

To our modern ears, Jesus takes this conversation to a spiritual level right away, and we chuckle a bit because the Samaritan woman doesn’t get that Jesus isn’t talking about physical water anymore.

But we’re the ones who don’t get it.

Living water was a category of water.

image of Ein Prat from http://www.tiuli.com/
image of Ein Prat from http://www.tiuli.com/

Still water referred to open pools fed by seasonal rains, or by springs. Those fed by seasonal rains would eventually dry up.

Cistern water came from seasonal rains directed into chambers dug out of the rock and sealed with plaster. As people used it and the water level went down, the remaining water often became stagnant and bitter.

Well water was groundwater accessed by a tunnel and brought up with a rope and jar. Wells could go dry during a drought.

Streams (aka nahals and wadis) were natural water courses fed by seasonal rains, so they varied, depending on the season, from rampaging to trickling to dry.

Rivers flowed constantly but had seasonal changes as run off from winter rains made its way down the mountains. Depending on the size of the river, it might dry up during a drought.

But a spring was different. Its water was always running or bubbling or gushing at regular intervals. Always replenishing. Never getting stagnant. Providing fresh, living water.

In normal times, access to a spring meant the difference between subsisting and thriving; in times of drought, it was the difference between life and death.

All of these associations would have run through the Samaritan woman’s mind when Jesus took the conversation to a spiritual level — he is the source that never stops giving life.

 Whether you are diving in, scooping out one handful, or staring at it, this living water is always there. Ready for you.

She was a survivor: A devotional

“Please, sir,” the woman said, “give me this water! Then I’ll never be thirsty again, and I won’t have to come here to get water.” (John 4:5, NLT)

Jesus is sitting at a well in Samaria (modern-day northern West Bank) when a woman comes to draw her water. It is noon. The heat of the day. No clouds anywhere. Usually, people filled their water jugs first thing in the morning, before it got hot.

So why is this woman getting to the well so late?

Jesus gives us a hint during their conversation:

you have had five husbands, and you aren’t even married to the man you’re living with now (v.18).

Now it makes sense. Why invite the judgment of other people, with their nasty looks or their refusal to look at her at all, if she didn’t have to? Perhaps she was also ashamed. Perhaps she was afraid people might stone her for her sins.

So when Jesus brings up living water, water that could take away her thirst, she jumps at it. No need for water would mean no need to see any of those people: problem solved.

Of course, Jesus is talking about the kind of thirst that she has been trying to satisfy with all those husbands — thirst for love, for acceptance, for security.

But let’s not slut-shame her like her fellow villagers did. Perhaps she was raped and her rapist paid her father rather than marry her, and then people treated her like she was a prostitute. Perhaps she was widowed young and then married a couple of her dead husband’s brothers, and then his family rejected her when she didn’t have children and her own family wouldn’t take her back. Women then had few options.

Whatever else she was, she was a survivor.

What was her reaction to Jesus’s frankness?

The woman left her water jar beside the well and ran back to the village, telling everyone, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did! Could he possibly be the Messiah?” (v.27-28)

She ran towards the very people she’d been working so hard to avoid. Towards. And didn’t shy away from her reputation.

Jesus didn’t add to her shame — he gave her the living water of perfect love and acceptance.

What are you avoiding? What are you ashamed of? What are you thirsty for?

Acts of Creation: A Devotional

An image of a person kneading and pulling at bread dough.Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was excellent in every way. (Genesis 1:31)

The beginning of a new year is a good time to look at the beginning of everything, when there was “a formless mass cloaked in darkness” (Gen. 1:2) and, out of that, God created our world and made men and women in His image. However it happened, God had His creative hand in everything from massive hulking mountains to delicate designs etched inside seedpods to the complex system that is a human being.

God said the same thing about each thing: It is good. Until the moment when He looked back on it all and He said it was excellent in every way.

Excellent here doesn’t mean perfect, flawless, or the best of its kind. It doesn’t mean that each thing met a high artistic standard. It doesn’t mean each thing was a model of efficiency. It doesn’t mean someone else with more authority or knowledge looked at each thing and approved of it. Those are things we mean by excellent.

I think it’s something more basic: both the work of creation and the things He created gave God a deep sense of satisfaction, of rightness. Of joy. And because we are made in the image of a Creator God, satisfaction, rightness, and joy are available to us when we create.

Creative acts don’t only belong to what we call “the arts.” Even if we don’t ever do anything someone else would call “artistic,” we create our lives.

Thinking differently than the culture you grew up in or that you live in now is a creative act. Making an unexpected connection between things that seem unrelated is a creative act. Trying something new to you is a creative act. Finding a solution to a problem is a creative act. Working out how to be a follower of God is a creative act.

They’re creative acts because they require imagination. Any time you can imagine yourself and your life as different than they are at this moment, that’s profoundly creative – an image-of-God act.

So create a life that’s satisfying, right, and joyful. It may not look like the lives your family members or childhood friends build. It may not be approved of by everyone you know. At times, it may feel like a formless mass cloaked in darkness. But follow God’s creative spark and it can be excellent in every way.

That’s not how you’re supposed to do it

Jacob, Ephraim, and Manasseh (17th-century painting by Guercino)

But Jacob crossed his arms as he reached out to lay his hands on the boys’ heads. So his right hand was on the head of Ephraim, the younger boy, and his left hand was on the head of Manasseh, the older … “I know what I’m doing, my son.” (Genesis 48: 14, 19)

Jacob was 147, blind and dying. It was time to deliver his parting blessings to his children and grandchildren – a holy and emotional moment.

While blessing the two sons of Joseph, his favorite son, he crossed his hands. In ancient Israel, the right hand was the “good” hand (maybe because they wiped after going to the bathroom with the left hand?), so it represented the greater blessing. The younger son was about to get the blessing that was supposed to go to the older.

Even though he, himself, was a younger son who’d eclipsed his older brothers, Joseph didn’t like that one bit. He grabbed his father’s hands and tried to rearrange them to the expected position. But Jacob said it was no accident.

Which follows a pattern in their family.

Isaac was Ishmael’s younger brother, but Isaac inherited Abraham’s household. Jacob was Esau’s younger brother, but he tricked Esau out of the blind Isaac’s blessing. Joseph was one of Jacob’s younger sons, yet his brothers bowed down to him.

In theory, any son could succeed his father as head of household; in practice, it was considered the oldest son’s legacy. But over and over in the Old Testament, a younger son received the greater blessing.

That’s interesting, but what does that have to do with us?

God is not bound by our norms. There are different norms now, depending on where you live, but our societies and cultures still have expectations and molds they expect you to fill depending on your gender, education, neighborhood, racial or ethnic identity, wealth or poverty, physical prowess or disability, intellectual capacity, etc. God has always called people to bust through these molds, and blessed the people who did, in His name.

Even religious cultural norms. God is not bound by those, either.

You might be the one being told, “That’s not how you’re supposed to do it.” If so, you’re hopefully flush with passion and leaning on God’s guidance for how you’re working out your faith.

But what if you’re the one saying the confused and anxious, “That’s not how you’re supposed to do it”? What if you’re Joseph, the once-rebel who now has a stake in maintaining the cultural status quo?

There is anxiety for both the rebel and the gatekeeper, but the same path is open to both of them. Pray. Read the Bible. Pray some more.

It takes a lot of trust to not be threatened when God calls someone to behave in a different way than your cultural norms dictate. Just as it takes a lot of trust in how God is leading you to oppose your dominant culture. Trust that God knows what He’s doing. Because He does.

for when you enter the darkness

And Moses entered into the deep darkness where God was. (Exodus 20:21, NLT)

In the few months before this moment, the Israelites had experienced the 10 plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the daily gifts of manna and quail, water pouring from a rock, and a miraculous defeat of the Amalekites. They were camped at the base of Mount Sinai. Moses was getting a workout, climbing the mountain to talk to God, going back down to tell the people what God said, taking what the people said back up the mountain to God, and then back down, etc.

It didn’t take much of this before God decided to speak to the people directly. He became present on the top of Mount Sinai in a thick cloud accompanied by thunder, lightning, earth shaking, and fire.

What was so important that God wanted to thunder it to the people directly? The Ten Commandments, with their four ways to love God and six ways to love people. The Israelites hadn’t been in charge of themselves for many, many generations, and they needed guidance at the most basic of levels, but they were too terrified to hear anything straight from the Lord Himself, so Moses went into the deep darkness where God was to listen to the rest of what God wanted to say.

Deep darkness. Where God already was.

Biblical darkness is usually a metaphor for the sin or death or evil that God’s light illuminates. Over and over, the Bible tells us that God is the light, that God brings light, that what God illuminates itself becomes a light. Later in Exodus, we learn that Moses’ face glowed so much from all the time he spent in God’s presence that he had to wear a veil so as not to freak the people out.

But here, God is in the deep darkness. And Moses joined Him there. God didn’t need to make the darkness light to be present there.

Sometimes we enter times and places of darkness, whether emotional or physical. And we feel like God can’t be there because we feel no light penetrating. But God can be present in the deepest darkness – already waiting for you. He may bring His light, or He may just be with you. But God is there.

This is the one…and those other ones, too

davidanointedbysamuel-durasynagogue-syria-1400

Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The Lord has not chosen these.” So he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?”

“There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.” (1 Samuel 16:10-11, NLT)

Samuel was in Bethlehem on a secret mission to anoint the next king of Israel. All he knew was that it was one of Jesse’s sons. When Samuel asked to see them, Jesse proudly paraded his sons before the prophet.

Except he didn’t.

One son didn’t even get called in. It could’ve be funny; after all, a man with 8 sons could be forgiven for forgetting one. It could’ve been that Jesse thought David was too far away.

Or it could’ve been an indication of David’s low value to his father.

Imagine you’re David. You’re working alone in the hills when two of your brothers arrive and tell you to go to town because the prophet is asking for you, and is making everyone wait for you. It’s amazing, confusing, wonderful, terrifying. On the way to town, your brother sneers. “Father almost forgot about you.”

Was it a surprise? Or was it just one more time you’d been passed over?

And then God said, “This is the one” (1 Sam 16:12). Samuel anointed David.

David’s beginning is not so promising, but as king, he united Judah and Israel, established Jerusalem as the political and religious capital, and expanded Israel’s borders with his more organized military. But knowing how things end doesn’t negate how much it hurts to be habitually passed over.

How is the beginning of your story? Have you been passed over? Forgotten? Discounted?

“The Lord does not look at the things people look at… the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). God sees you. He does not forget you, or discount you, or pass you over because of your external packaging. God looks at you and thinks, “This is the one.”

That sounds lovely, but what about David’s brothers? God saw their hearts and rejected them, didn’t He?

Yes — for a job so difficult it was almost impossible. Whether you get a big, impressive job in the kingdom or not, God always chooses you to do what’s right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8). You are always the right one to do that.

For when being chosen isn’t enough

Painting from Saint Isaac's Cathedral, Saint Petersburg
God Appears to Moses in Burning Bush. Painting from Saint Isaac's Cathedral, Saint Petersburg.

“But Moses pleaded with the Lord, ‘Oh Lord, I’m just not a good speaker. I never have been, and I’m not now, even after you have spoken to me. I’m clumsy with words.’” (Exodus 4:10, NLT)

You’d think it would be amazing to hear directly from God that He’d chosen you to lead His people, that it’d instantly erase all your doubts about yourself — but it didn’t work that way for Moses.

This was his fourth objection to the job. God tried pointing out that, since He was the one who made mouths and made people so they could speak, He’d tell Moses what to say and help him say it, but Moses still begged God to send someone else. God was angry, but He caved. Moses’ big brother Aaron became the public speaker, with Moses feeding Aaron the words God fed him. It was a little convoluted, but it worked.

Until, after about six weeks in the desert, Moses didn’t need it anymore.

The Bible is silent about this transition. Did Moses just get used to public speaking? Did watching God come through with the unimaginable over and over get through to him?

Or did Moses maybe never really have a problem?

The Israelites weren’t shy about criticizing Moses and complaining about other things, but we have no record of the people jeering at Moses for how he talked or blaming his halting speech for their failures.

It’s at least possible that Moses believed something about himself that wasn’t true, and that kept him from accepting that he was the kind of person God would call – even as God was right there, calling him a leader. Even as God was right there, promising to help Moses lead.

Do you believe something about yourself that might not be true? Do you believe that something basic about yourself (shyness, hyperness, age, gender, poverty, physical or intellectual ability, etc.) disqualifies you from serving God? Do you ever think, “Someone like me could never…”?

God is always choosing you, and constantly offering His help. Sometimes, that’s enough to dissolve your insecurities. Sometimes, it isn’t, and, like Moses, you need time — but it’s time to learn while serving. Moses didn’t figure out his issue by practicing alone with his sheep. You don’t need to have yourself all straightened out first. Get moving, work some modifications … until, one day, you won’t need them anymore.

For When You’re Stuck

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why are you crying out to me? Tell the people to get moving!'”
(Exodus 14:15, NLT)

The Israelites had no practice being hopeful.

They’d been slaves in Egypt for enough generations that nobody remembered being free. After the 80-year-old Moses showed up and told them God would save them, their slaveholders got even more brutal. Not to mention their anxiety during each of the ten plagues – Will Pharaoh let us go this time? What is he going to do when he figures out that we aren’t just praying in the desert for three days?

So when they stood on the edge of the Red Sea, stuck between the deep water and Pharaoh’s fast-approaching army, they panicked. Even knowing that God kept them safe while the Egyptians’ food supply disappeared via disease, insect swarm, and hail, while the Egyptians were tormented by frogs, gnats, flies, boils, darkness, and death – even knowing all that, they had a crisis of imagination. They couldn’t see how God might get them out of this, so they turned on Moses, blaming him for getting them in worse trouble than they’d been in as slaves.

What does God do in response? He tells them to get moving.

God tells them to get moving before He tells Moses the plan.

Who among them could’ve imagined that God would move the pillar of cloud to hide them from the Egyptians, shift the Red Sea to form a path they could walk through to freedom, and then collapse the water to drown the Egyptian army? Nobody. But God wanted them to take a step in faith, in hope, in trust before they knew how He’d save them.

Sometimes you are stuck. Anxious. Panicky. In a crisis of imagination. Crying out to God and blaming everyone you can think of.

Instead of waiting until you know exactly how it’s all going to play out or which path is clear, try taking a step. You don’t have to feel hopeful. You don’t have to know how God is going to work it out. You don’t even have to be less afraid. But whatever situation you feel stuck about, there’s always a small step you can take, a way to get moving. Take it. And watch God run with it.