Choose Your Own Adventure

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, Isaiah 41:1-16, Ephesians 2:1-10, Mark 1:29-45


According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’s ministry quickly took off in a big way. In Capernaum he healed many people and drove out many demons, and word of his power spread quickly. Soon the entire city was at his front door. (Or more precisely, the door of Simon and Andrew’s place where he was staying.)  As he traveled with his disciples to spread his message to the neighboring towns in Galilee, “A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’”  And Jesus, moved with pity, said, “I do choose. Be made clean!”

Did Jesus ever choose not to heal? Did he ever choose to turn anyone away?

Some people may say yes. They may point to the rich young ruler who went away heartbroken when Jesus told him to sell everything he had and give the money to the poor. They remind us of the many people who abandoned Jesus after he presented them with a particularly difficult teaching. And they trot out the man who wanted to bury his father but was told to “let the dead bury the dead.”

Except Jesus didn’t turn any of those people away. They walked away. They chose to walk away.

Some preachers warn we soften the harsher truths of discipleship when we say Jesus accepted everyone. Maybe that’s so, but that doesn’t mean we should start deciding for ourselves whom Christ would reject, because we don’t know. A primary controversy of his ministry was based on fraternizing with “unclean” people the “righteous” people shunned. Once we decide we’re in the camp of the righteous, our view is skewed. Saul counted himself righteous and literally hunted Christians before he became the apostle Paul who wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

Rather than worry about other people’s choices, let’s direct our energies towards modeling our own choices after Christ. Without compromising our values, we can always find ways to choose mercy. Choose forgiveness. Choose to give the benefit of the doubt. Choose generosity. Choose to recognize dignity. Choose humility. Choose love.

Even when these choices are unattractive or difficult, they are still ours to make. The cost of making the right choices is a burden we voluntarily bear ourselves, not one we should force onto others.

Comfort: Jesus does not reject you.

Challenge: But that doesn’t mean you can’t reject Jesus.

Prayer: Loving God, help me make choices that reflect your love and righteousness. Amen.

Discussion: Have you made choices that other people have had to pay for?

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Evangelize vs. Evange-lies

fishersofmen

Today’s readings:
Psalms 42; 146, Isaiah 40:25-31, Ephesians 1:15-23, Mark 1:14-28


Evangelists have an image problem.

For many people, both inside and outside the church, the word “evangelist” evokes revival tents packed with fake healings and snake oil salesmen. The world of televangelism, with its shiny suits, big hair, and pledge drives for private jets, hasn’t done them any favors. The stereotype of the modern evangelist doesn’t have much in common with John the Baptist and his camel hair tunic. For as long as we’ve had religion we’ve had people trying to make a buck off faith and fear. That’s not evangelism.

When Jesus recruited his disciples, he did so with an eye toward the future and the evangelizing they would be called to do. Even in his day, people were wary of the clergy. Jesus didn’t start his search among religious leaders: he chose fishermen. These fishermen – Peter, Andrew, James, and John – were men of the world, hard-working businessmen who could get dirty when necessary and be salesmen when needed. If they had good news to spread – news good enough to make them leave their old lives behind – people would listen.

We are all called to evangelize, to spread the good news of the Gospels. Few of us are called to do it from the pulpit. Members of the New Monastic movement do it by becoming part of inner city communities. Jay Bakker – son of infamous televangelists Jim and Tammy – started Revolution Church in a bar where many patrons had fewer addictions, tattoos, and piercings than he did. Some people spread the good news through volunteering to help the elderly prepare income tax statements and others take youth to rebuild after disasters.

Real evangelists exist everywhere; you can recognize them because it’s obvious they’ve dropped their nets to find new lives following Christ.

Saint Francis allegedly said: “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” Less famously he also said:  “If God can work through me, he can work through anyone.” Each of us is equipped to evangelize the moment we have a story to tell.  Whether we share it through words or actions, it is a recognizably true story. The truth eventually withstands all image problems.

Comfort: Thanks to God, you have important truths to share.

Challenge: Ask friends how they’ve seen you share the Gospel; their answers may surprise you.

Prayer: God of the Good News, I will spread your word through the gifts you have given me. Amen.

Discussion: What’s your preferred way to share your faith?

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Many Waters, One God

Baptism of Christ, 1481-1483 - Pietro Perugino

Baptism of Christ, 1481-1483 – Pietro Perugino

Today’s readings:
Psalms 5; 145, Isaiah 40:12-24, Ephesians 1:1-14, Mark 1:1-13


The baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist is present in all four Gospels as the beginning of Christ’s ministry. Scriptures don’t tell us conclusively whether Jesus himself baptized anyone, but his disciples certainly did. Baptism in water – and later in the Spirit – is an essential element of the Christian tradition.

Yet somehow it’s one more thing Christians can’t agree on. Many denominations practice infant baptism. Others practice a believer’s baptism only for people who are of age and confess to salvation in Christ. Both find Biblical support for their position. Some others, particularly among Evangelical and non-denominational churches, don’t require it. Methods vary from sprinkling to total immersion. Beliefs about baptism range from an absolute necessity for salvation to a symbolic act of publicly acknowledging one’s faith. Beliefs about re-baptism are all over the map.

This devotional isn’t about convincing anyone about the meaning of baptism … but perhaps we can use it as a model to examine how we might reframe contentious conversations. Some people try to convince us their understanding of baptism is correct because they just have to be right, but many – particularly on the side of baptism as an absolute necessity – are actually adamant about their position because of love. If you believed you could save someone from death or suffering by pointing out the speeding train, wouldn’t you? And if you believed the train someone pointed out was a false alarm, would you be angry at them for being wrong or would you appreciate their concern?

No one wants someone else’s beliefs forced on them, but is it possible we can become so eager to take offense and to assume intent that we perceive every expression of a different opinion as a point to be argued?

Whether we choose to hear “your soul is important to me” or “you’re going to hell” is often a decision (sometimes unconscious) that makes a difference in how we respond. We can say “I disagree” instead of “you’re wrong!” We can listen. And if we believe it’s a matter of life or death, our most convincing evidence may be how we love.

Comfort: Disagreement without disrespect can be real…

Challenge: … but we might have to be less defensive for it to happen.

Prayer: God of Love, where this is discord, may I sow peace. Amen.

Discussion: When has changing your attitude changed a conversation?

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Waters of Baptism

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 104; 150, Isaiah 40:1-11, Hebrews 1:1-12, John 1:1-7, 19-20, 29-34

Baptism of the Lord readings:
Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17


John the Baptist dedicated his life to boldly preparing the way for the Messiah. Yet when Jesus came to be baptized, John hesitated and said he was unworthy – that Jesus should be baptizing him. Jesus reassured him all was as it should be. According to the Gospels of Matthew and John, the heavens opened, the Spirit came to rest on Jesus, and a voice declared, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

This story begins a consistent portrait of Christ throughout the Gospels. Though he is the Messiah, Jesus remains humble. Despite his disciples’ protests, he washes their feet at the Last Supper. As the crucifixion draws nearer, he doesn’t seek to be exempt from the laws or the courts. When we accept the baptism of the Spirit, we accept that to be our greatest, we must become the least.

Christ-like leaders – followers of Christ in general, really don’t expect special treatment, see themselves as above the rules, or shift blame and accountability. They don’t expect more of others than they do of themselves. Recognizing leadership as a servant’s burden, they accept the consequences of doing and saying the difficult but necessary things, and approach the role with humility rather than hubris. In baptism we are made equal, and whether our role is prince or pauper we are endowed with dignity and enslaved to service.

But equal in theory is not the same as equal in practice. John the Baptist, quoting the prophet Isaiah, says valleys must be filled and mountains leveled to make straight the path of the Lord. Justice doesn’t begin with equality, but with recognizing everyone doesn’t start from the same situation. Asking two people to each roll a boulder a mile sounds equal, but when one is facing uphill and the other down, it just isn’t so. Justice is never a simple declaration, but the difficult construction of a wide road, then the willingness to travel side-by-side.

The waters of baptism wash the scales of injustice from our eyes. Like Christ, let us see beyond a status quo that settles for fair into a future that is truly just.

Comfort: In Christ we are all equal.

Challenge: Each day this week, ask yourself how you can be a better servant.

Prayer: Bless the Lord, O my soul; praise the Lord! Amen.

Discussion: Have you known of examples of where treating people “fairly” is different than treating them justly?

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Spit It Out

Spit

Today’s readings:
Psalms 46 or 97, 149; Isaiah 66:1-2, 22-23; Revelation 3:14-22; John 9:1-12, 35-38


Is mainstream Christianity too wishy-washy? Media hype about the “Culture War” between the faithful and the secular wouldn’t lead us to believe so. Conservative religious voices speaking out against abortion and same sex marriage are frequent, loud and shrill.

But in a time and nation where Christianity is by far the dominant religion and Christian businesses from dating services to investment firms flourish, are Christians really suffering from any threats or dangers we don’t fabricate ourselves? The only “persecution” we face in the USA is that people are free to speak against us if they so choose. Someone refuting our beliefs or calling us out for behavior they disagree with is in no way equivalent to oppression. Yet somehow we manage to convince ourselves we are victims, perhaps because on some level we know truly living one’s faith does invite persecution, but we don’t have the stomachs for the real thing.

The progressive church is not off the hook. Yes it frowns upon and occasionally speaks out against the more egregious activities of its conservative counterpart, but rarely since the civil rights movement of the 1960s does it insert itself in any meaningful way. Instead, content simply to disclaim the follies of its less sophisticated cousin, it leaves the secular culture to do the heavy lifting on progressive issues. Paralyzed by political correctness, it operates from a generic humanism wherein faith is at best charming, at worst pitiable.

Neither camp, though opinionated, is bold. Mostly they preach to their respective choirs. They are the lukewarm brew spit out by Christ. Passionate Christians cling to neither of these labels (nor a moderate one) because they are too busy feeding the poor, praying for their enemies, spreading the Gospel, and visiting the sick and imprisoned to worry about any politics that don’t hinder those efforts. Dedicating oneself to these works is still considered radical in all quarters because it is an implicit indictment of anyone not doing them. Christianity is the opposite of a cultural affiliation or confirmation (even its own): it is a light and fire that burns such distractions away.

Comfort: If your faith is somewhat lackluster, you’re not alone.

Challenge: Jesus wants you to do something about it.

Prayer: God, fill me with the faith and desire to do your will.

Discussion: Do you feel like you’re answering your Christian call?

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Breaking Barriers

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 97; 147:12-20, Isaiah 41:17-29, Ephesians 2:11-22, Mark 2:1-12


What do you get when you cross an argument about circumcision with a paralyzed man lowered through a hole in the roof? You get today’s scripture readings from Ephesians and Mark.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul addressed the reconciliation of Jewish (circumcised) and Gentile (uncircumcised) Christians. This was a major controversy within the early church, because Jews considered circumcision a sacred and necessary sign of their covenant with the Lord.  They weren’t yet convinced non-Jews could even be Christians, let alone disregard centuries-old tradition, but Paul taught them about the new life that unites all people who followed Christ.

In Mark, a paralyzed man had friends who wanted him to encounter Christ. They couldn’t get through the crowd surrounding the house where Jesus stayed, so they broke through the roof and lowered the man on a mat. Moved by their faith, Jesus told the paralyzed man his sins were forgiven. When the scribes questioned by what right he forgave sins, Jesus also healed the man of his paralysis as a demonstration of his divine authority (though one suspects the healing was on its way all the while).

And when we cross these stories, we see a consistent theme of how faith in Christ removes barriers between people. Paul said of Christ, “in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Because of faith, the paralyzed man’s friends broke through a physical barrier, and Christ broke through a religious barrier.

Religion can be the source of a lot of barriers. Jesus, the Apostles, and Paul spent decades tearing down the false barriers religion created between God’s children, but we’ve spent centuries building replacements. We try to wall God inside our creeds, denominations, and dogma. We convince ourselves it’s because we want to preserve something – our version of the circumcision, perhaps? – but in the end we use them to reinforce a tribal mindset declaring who is inside and who is outside.

Relationships – at least the kind Christ calls us to – are a lot messier than religion: they refuse to be defined by walls. All those stones Jesus discourages us from throwing? Let’s use them to build bridges instead of barriers.

Comfort: Christ is breaking barriers for us right now.

Challenge: Meditate on your beliefs. Which ones are walls, and which ones are bridges?

Prayer: God of all creation, let me build no obstacles where you would not have them. Amen.

Discussion: When have you found yourself excluded on “religious” grounds?

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Servant Leaders

Today’s readings:
Psalms 46 or 47; 149; Isaiah 65:13-16; Revelation 3:7-13; John 6:15-27


What would you do if the public wanted to crown you king or queen? Would you embrace it? Would you run away? Jesus chose the latter. After he fed thousands of people with just a few loaves and fishes, they wanted to make him king – by force if necessary. He escaped to the mountain to be alone.

When God told Isaiah he was to be a prophet, Isaiah resisted. He declared to God all the ways he felt unworthy of being God’s voice. Many (most?) of the prophets chronicled in the Bible resisted God’s call. As far back as Moses, who tried to push the job off on his brother Aaron and blamed his speech impediment, the people God has chosen to lead have often shown reluctance.

When God knocks on the door, even to tell us we are fit to lead, we should be a little hesitant, maybe even fearful. The call is rarely easy. In his wisdom, God does not tend to choose leaders who are eager to embrace authority and power. Contrast this to our present-day system of secular leadership, where candidates spend millions of dollars telling you why they are unquestionably qualified for leadership, and their opponents barely deserve to participate in civil society. And religious leaders who seek power? We should always keep a critical eye on them.

Of course there are differences between people who seek power, and people who rise naturally to positions of leadership. For starters, the latter is much less common. The ability to acquire power is nothing like the ability to wield it wisely and justly. In hierarchical organizations, someone has to be at the top. The person who is the most eager, or eloquent, or assertive is not necessarily the best choice. The true sign of faithful leaders is not a desire to serve term of office but to serve the people who depend on them.

In God’s kingdom the last are first and the first are last. A true leader does not fear other leaders, but encourages them. A true leader does not control subjects, but empowers people. When we are called to leadership – by God, people, or circumstance – let us consider it humbly and prayerfully. When God calls us to lead, he calls us to serve.

Comfort: God equips those whom God calls to lead.

Challenge: Be discerning about who is a self-proclaimed leader, and who is actually qualified to lead.

Prayer: Merciful God, I will seek to follow the example of Christ, servant and Lord of all. Amen.

Discussion: Who are the leaders you trust?

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Humble Piety

Today’s readings:
Psalms 46 or 47; 147:12-20, Isaiah 65:1-9, Revelation 3:1-6, John 6:1-4


The Gospels may be “The Good News,” but many of the things Jesus taught us – or perhaps more accurately re-taught us – were good and old. Centuries before Jesus reminded the people of his day that true obedience to God meant embodying a spirit of mercy and justice – rather than mercilessly following the letter of the law – Old Testament prophets had tried to deliver the same message. Isaiah told the exiled nation of Israel she had lost God’s favor because of her “holier than thou” attitude (not even paraphrasing – see Isaiah 65:5). Their burnt offerings, once a pleasing fragrance, became a stench in God’s nostrils as they substituted superficial piety for love and mercy.

Flash forward 800 years, and no one seemed to have learned anything. The occupying force may have changed from Babylon to Rome, but the Jewish people still needed to hear they were like whitewashed tomb: dressed up on the outside, but decaying inside. Flash forward another millennium or two and – no surprise – followers of Jesus need to hear we might be a little too focused on displays of piety and not enough on mercy. Who are the prophets of the message this time? Certainly many voices from within the church, but more telling are the voices of outsiders looking in. Surveys consistently reveal that non-Christians perceive Christians as hypocritical and judgmental. When non-believers are filling in for Isaiah and Jesus, it’s time to take note.

Misplaced piety seems to be a chronic condition of the faithful. And lest we begin to feel too superior for reigning in our own pious impulses … that’s a form of it also. The good (old) news is that prophets speak because there is always hope we will listen and change our ways. Sowing mercy and justice is challenging work. It’s much more comfortable to check off lists and to follow familiar rules than to listen to the voices telling us we need to reevaluate what we think God wants from us – especially when that might mean others will look down on us. When we feel challenged, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Rev 3:6).

Comfort: God’s message to us has remained constant.

Challenge: We have to do the work of properly understanding it.

Prayer: God of Grace, teach me to be merciful.

Discussion: We are all sometimes guilty of hypocrisy. What do you do when you find yourself acting like a hypocrite?

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Ineffable

in-ef-fa-ble *
adjective
1. incapable of being expressed or described in words
2. not to be spoken because of its sacredness; unutterable

Applying words to God is a tricky business. Since God is infinite, any definition we construct is by definition insufficient. We write and speak about God, and around God, but the words we use are not God. Not surprisingly, some of the most powerful and revealing writing about God is not descriptive but poetic.

The psalmists and prophets were particularly gifted at painting their experience of God in vivid metaphors, some so strange as to be dreamlike. When discussing God as a saving force, Isaiah described a warrior with a breastplate of righteousness, a helmet of salvation, garments of vengeance, and a mantle of fury. God is infinitely more than a warrior, but for Isaiah this was an image that addressed the needs of the time. When we contrast that picture with Matthew’s picture of God as a mother hen gathering her chicks, it is apparent different metaphors for God serve different purposes.

One danger of metaphors is that we allow them to solidify into definitions. For example, God as “Father” is one of the most common metaphors, so common that many people take is as a firm definition. Many find this image strong and comforting, but to others who have not had good paternal experience it can be jarring, even alienating. While we should welcome the potential for growth that exists in grappling with challenging notions of God, when we insist on our own image of God is the sole defining one, we do a disservice to the God who is present for all people in all times and all places. Furthermore, we hamper our opportunity to experience God in ever richer ways by considering how God manifests to others.

The good news is that if no words are sufficient – all words are on the table. We may not be able to define God, but we can express our understanding of God in words and images that reflect our own experiences. We are not limited to existing, traditional terms that we find alienating or meaningless. To some people – people who feel the need to control the uncontrollable experience that is God – this notion is dangerous and heretical. But if our goal is truly to better understand God and not just to create a God in an image that is convenient for us, the work of doing so is holy.

Comfort: God can be present to us in many ways…

Challenge: … so we should stay alter to how God is present for other people.

Prayer: Ever-present God, though I may never succeed I strive to experience you as you are, not just as I would have you be.

Discussion: Are they any ideas of God you have abandoned or embraced?


* ineffable. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved January 08, 2013, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/ineffable

Stewards

goodwine

Today’s readings:
Psalms 46 or 97; 149, Isaiah 52:3-6, Revelation 2:1-7, John 2:1-11


Jesus performed his first public miracle at a wedding he attended with his mother. When Mary told him the wine ran out, at first Jesus replied it was none of his concern. Still Mary told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” After that, Jesus turned over a hundred gallons of water into surprisingly good wine. The servants who drew the water knew what happened, but the wine steward assumed the bridal party had been holding back.

A lot of the world is like that wine steward, ignorant of how Christ and his church are at work in the world, yet benefiting just the same. Christians hear a lot of criticism about the church. Some is justified, but a lot of people refuse to see the good the church does because they are committed to viewing it only through the lens of lurid stories of abuse and corruption. Others make over-simplified claims like “religion is responsible for more wars … blah blah blah.” We must be honest with ourselves about our flaws, but we should not be shamed about what the church is and what it does when we are actually following Christ.

Faith-based organizations feed, shelter, clothe, heal, rebuild, resettle, and otherwise positively impact the lives of hundreds of millions of people in need every year. The stereotypical “sermon before soup” model is not the norm for most of these institutions; we meet needs regardless of the particulars of someone’s faith. We should avoid engaging in pointless (and impossible to settle) debates about whether religious people are more or less generous than non-religious people, because we aren’t in competition. Our efforts, imperfect though they may be, help people who would otherwise suffer with no hope of relief.

The church’s primary business is spreading the Gospel, but the Gospel directs us toward service. That service benefits communities in ways many never (or refuse to) recognize. They focus on scandals and frauds rather than shelters and food pantries because not seeing the homeless and hungry begging on the streets doesn’t make news. We may be servants, but we can spread the Good News about where our good wine comes from.

Comfort: You and your church are not defined solely by your faults.

Challenge: Visit the web-sites of Church World Services, Heifer InternationalCatholic Charities, or Week of Compassion to read about the good work the church does, and how you might participate in it.

Prayer: God, may your people and church ever grow in love and generosity. Amen.

Discussion: Do you have a favorite faith-based organization to donate to or volunteer for?

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