Healthy Skepticism

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, 1 Samuel 20:1-23, Acts 12:18-25, Mark 2:13-22


“But he seemed like such a nice guy!”

“I never thought she would do something like that…”

How often have we heard similar sentiments after someone has been caught doing something wrong? We even hear them expressed by family members who we believe certainly must have known better. In Nuts, when the main character reveals that her stepfather abused her, her mother insists, “I didn’t know.” She replies, “You didn’t want to know, Mama.” When we love someone, or are otherwise invested in them, we often “don’t want to know.”

When David told Jonathan his father Saul was plotting to kill him, Jonathan’s response was basically, “No way! He woulda told me!” As if the spear marks in the wall from the two or three times Saul had previously tried to kill him were just nicks in the plaster, and Saul’s fits of anger and despair were a minor tic. Because David persuades him their close relationship might prevent Saul from being completely forthcoming, Jonathan concocts an elaborate scheme to let David know whether his suspicions pan out.

We need to be healthy skeptics, even of people we love.

Is that a discomforting thought? If so, let’s keep in mind the difference between being skeptical and being accusatory. We don’t have to assume guilt to be curious.

Predators and con artists survive on charm and our aversion to unpleasant truths. This preference for pleasant denial is so powerful that in families, social circles, or organizations where a person asks questions or speaks the truth, that person is often branded the problem. Are we really more willing to risk neglecting victims of abuse and criminal behavior than to risk offending someone by frankly verifying their intentions? If it seems like a tough call, ask yourself which you’d rather explain to Christ.

We don’t have to believe every accusation by default, for that is also foolishness, but as Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “test everything, hold fast to what is good.” As Christians, we should be a safe place for people to share hard truths, even if we would rather not know them.


Additional Reading:
Read more about today’s passage from Mark in Gimme Some Skin.

Comfort: In the long run, an uncomfortable truth is better than a comfortable lie.

Challenge: Practice withholding judgment based on hearsay or opinion.

Prayer: Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us,  even as we hope in you. (Psalm 33:22)

Discussion: How do you think we balance love and skepticism?

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The Competition

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, 1 Samuel 19:1-18 (19-24), Acts 12:1-17, Mark 2:1-12


We are a competitive species. In business, politics, love, art, sports, entertainment – you name it! – we  love to rank and rate ourselves. Whether we want to have the number one sales in our region, achieve first chair in the cello section, or win the Super Bowl, our competition helps us thrive by showing us what is possible and inspiring us to do better.

Of course competition has its uglier side. When winning becomes more important than succeeding, we can be lured into underhanded tactics and unhealthy obsessions. If our self worth depends on being the best, it will be impossible to maintain. We can’t experience our present joy if on the way up all we see is someone in front of us, or if we once we get to the top we obsess over the person gaining on us.

Saul had what we might call an extremely unhealthy sense of competition. David’s great successes in winning both military victories and the hearts of the king’s family settled in the darker corners of Saul’s heart. The king began to see David less as an ally and more as a threat. His plots against David launched a vicious cycle as each backfired and the boy grew even more beloved. David’s achievements all brought glory and love to the house of Saul, but Saul only saw an opponent.

They say to be nice to people we meet on the way up, because we’ll meet them again on the way down. As Saul spiraled out of control and pursued David to kill him, he ran into a group of prophets and involuntarily began to prophesy with them. This recollects an almost identical incident when he was first called to be king. The earlier encounter raised his stature, and the later thwarted his purpose.

Competition is only half a coin. The other side is cooperation. Whatever we do, we do it not for our own glory but for God’s. Ultimately we are all on the same team, running the same race. If we win, it’s time to go back and help others cross the line.


Additional Reading:
Read more about Psalm 42 in God Will Wait and Deep Calls to Deep.
For additional readings from today’s passage from Mark, see Raise the Roof and Forgiveness First.
For more thoughts on today’s passage from Acts, see Timing is Everything.

Comfort: God wants you to be the best you, not the best everything.

Challenge: Make a list of things you wish you were better at. Meditate on whether being better at them also helps you serve God better.

Prayer: I will praise the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long (Psalm 146:2)

Discussion: Do you think of yourself as competitive? Why or why not?

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Extras: Read all about them!

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 145, 1 Samuel 18:5-16 (17-27a) 27b-30, Acts 11:19-30, Mark 1:29-45


Shortly after Jesus recruited his first four disciples, they all stopped at the house of Simon (whom Jesus would later rename Peter). Simon’s mother-in-law was sick in bed, so Jesus healed her. When her fever passed, the Gospel of Mark tells us, she began serving them.

Who doesn’t appear in this story? Simon’s wife, that’s who. The presence of a mother-in-law tells us she existed, but Mark makes no mention of her. Nor do any of the other gospels. Was she busy caring for her mother? Was she the tiniest bit annoyed her mother was expected to jump from her sickbed right into hostess duties? In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul mentions how she attended him in his ministry, yet he does not mention her name.

What must it have been like for her when her husband came home and said he’d quit his job to follow a revolutionary? That bombshell must have been unsettling at best. Given the station of women in the first century, her fate was sealed when her husband made this decision for their family.

No one’s journey unfolds in a vacuum. For good or ill, our decisions have repercussions for our loved ones. Our sacrifices become their sacrifices . While each of us is the star of his or her own life, there is no such thing as a supporting player: everyone is equally loved by God.

Simon’s wife had a name. And hopes for her future. And as full and rich an interior life as anyone. As we grow in our faith story, some characters will stand out, but most won’t. It’s how we treat the “background” characters that reveals our character. Do we think of them as mere functionaries, filling a role but without inherent value? Or are we looking for Christ among them, open to hearing their tales? There’s a rule of thumb that says how someone in a restaurant treats the servers is a better indicator of character than how they treat their friends. If in God’s kingdom the last are first, perhaps the extras have the real leading roles.


Additional Reading:
For additional readings from today’s passage from Mark, see Choose Your Own Adventure and Celebrity Gossip.
For more thoughts on today’s passage from Acts, see Lemonade.

Comfort: No life is too small to matter to God.

Challenge: Make a point of being respectful people whose business involves serving you, such as wait staff, tradespeople, etc. We are called to serve them also.

Prayer: Let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, so that those who love your name may exult in you. (Psalm 5:11)

Discussion: Have you ever felt dismissed? How did you handle it?

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… but she’s my mother.

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, 1 Samuel 17:50-18:4, Romans 10:4-17, Matthew 23:29-39


As Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem, he had harsh words for its citizens, especially religious leaders. He called them a brood of vipers. While they claimed they would never have mistreated the prophets as did their ancestors, he condemned their hypocrisy by saying they were “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”

Angry words, but also born of love. God often described Israel as his faithless bride, and Jerusalem was the heart of her rejection. Prophets and sages, though they spoke grim words of correction, were sent to save the people … a people whose behavior demonstrated they weren’t interested in saving themselves. Jesus wasn’t angered with Romans, Samaritans, or Egyptians because they had never followed God in the the first place, so hadn’t turned away; we aren’t pained when someone else’s spouse is unfaithful. Our hearts are not broken by strangers. Maybe that is why we react so strongly when the church we trust betrays us.

Augustine is credited with saying, “The church is a whore, but she’s my mother.”

Unfortunate sexist overtones aside, that’s an apt description for a complicated relationship. We can love someone or something and still be deeply troubled by it. When the church and her leaders act from a place of corruption, greed, protectionism, or prejudice our hearts are grievously injured. We can respond with denial, departure, or a third, more difficult option. Denial only lets things fester. Departure lacks resolution; a Christian who never steps foot in another church still has indissoluble bonds to the body of Christ. Remaining in covenant to love our church through her indiscretions but insisting on better, as Christ did, heals us both.

We can become discouraged. The mechanics of conception and prostitution are virtually identical, so we have to do the hard work of sorting intentions and motivations, work that leaves everyone involved feeling vulnerable. Yet as Jesus loves us despite our flaws to help us realize our potential in the Lord’s grace, so must we help the church transcend her sins to be who she claims to be.


Additional Reading:
For more on today’s passage from Matthew, see Give ’em a break… and Love Anyway.

Comfort: No one is beyond redemption if they are willing to accept it.

Challenge: Meditate on what struggles you have with the church, and how you choose to handle them.

Prayer: Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. (Psalm 139:23)

Discussion: What attracts you to the church or a congregation?

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Invitation: Fair

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Last weekend I attended our local county 4-H Fair. If, like me, you’ve never been an active participant in 4-H, the fair may be your only exposure to the organization. The fair is up for a little more than a week, and most of the vendors, rides, and attractions are part of a national circuit unrelated to 4-H. The heart of the fair – and the core of 4-H – beats in the exhibits of livestock, agriculture, arts, and skills demonstrated by young people who have worked hard all year to submit their entries. While 4-H has more members in urban and suburban counties, rural and farming communities have much higher participation rates.  American rural communities skew conservative in their politics and religion, but the organization itself focuses on values that cross the cultural divide.

For me this tolerance is most evident in the vendors exhibit hall. These groups are unrelated to 4-H, and while the organization doesn’t endorse any of them, it does have final say on who can or can not exhibit. Most of them are completely non-controversial, but you might also be surprised to find some of them under the same roof in Indiana. Local Democratic, Libertarian, and Republican parties all seem to think it’s a good place to recruit. A Right To Life group, The Gideons, and Planned Parenthood are all present. Event organizers are smart enough not to put them beside each other, but there’s room for all.

Nobody protests or taunts anyone. Everyone seems to understand we are there in common support for the youth and the program. The four Hs in 4-H stand for head, heart, hands, and health and for at least a week we manage to direct them toward the common good without betraying our values.

4-H is not a Christian organization, but it sure sets a fine example of gathering around the table. So many Christian congregations adopt a decidedly liberal or conservative stance – often based on the preferences of the pastor – that it doesn’t take long to figure out “All are welcome” really means “all are welcome … to be persuaded to our positions on social issues.”

Yet we can have wildly varying positions on many controversial topics and still be dedicated to Christ. Instead of splintering into narrower and narrower definitions of “acceptable” Christianity, maybe we could take a cue from 4-H. We don’t all need to stand next to each other on every issue, but we can coexist under the same roof without shouting each other down. We can find common values and use them to help young people become better citizens of both the world and the Kingdom. We can understand the beating heart of the church is in the fruit of the vine and the bounty of the harvest present on the communion table. We can realize letting someone in the door is not the same as endorsing their values … but helps us to live ours.

Our reasons for excluding each other are our reasons, not Christ’s. Let’s gather around the table to hear what Christ might have to say about finding reasons to be inclusive. It’s only fair.

May be the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

Fighting Fire with Marshmallows

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 63; 149, 1 Samuel 17:31-49, Acts 11:1-18, Mark 1:14-28


The outcome of the battle between David and Goliath is such a famous tale of victory for the plucky underdog that it doesn’t need retelling. What happened before, during David’s preparation for the battle, gets less press but has some good lessons for us.

When King Saul realized the young farm boy was determined to face off against the Philistine giant, he put David in his own armor and gave him his own sword to use. David, unused to the armor, couldn’t even walk in it, so he took it off to face Goliath with his staff, some stones, and a sling. To Goliath – and no doubt to seasoned warriors on both sides – this looked like foolishness.

David was smart. He knew he couldn’t survive by engaging on his opponent’s terms, and refused to be lured into them. Whether our battlefield is physical or intellectual, let’s be equally smart. For example, some segments of Christianity seem to be at war with science, and also seem to think the path to victory is to reinvent the the Bible as scientifically accurate. That’s not what it’s for, and trying to prove otherwise is a losing venture which only undermines its real value and purpose. There are no GMO fruits of the Spirit, so let’s trust what we grow is good enough.

David was also wise enough not to feel pressured into using the tactics of his allies when they didn’t fit the situation. It’s not that he wasn’t willing to listen; he did try on the armor before deciding it was a bad fit. He just knew from past experience what skills served him best. Sometimes people on our side of a divide think they need to employ the tactics of our adversaries to keep up or pay them back. That’s why fake news, name calling, and ridiculously broad generalizations are not the exclusive domain of any single political party … and why they result in so little progress.

Like our young shepherd-turned-hero, let’s trust in the strengths God has given us, the ones that come not from fear, but from faith.


Additional Reading:
For additional readings from today’s passage from Mark, see Fool Me or Evangelize vs. Evange-lies.
For more thoughts on today’s passage from Acts, see Astounding Gifts.

Comfort: With God’s help, no obstacle is too large.

Challenge: When you are engaged in conflict, especially if you have time to pre-plan, think about whether your responses lead to resolution or further conflict.

Prayer: Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands. (Psalm 90:17)

Discussion: When have you beat the odds?

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Angels in the Wilderness

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 148, 1 Samuel 17:17-30, Acts 10:34-48, Mark 1:1-13


Imagine that on your first day of work the boss introduces you to everyone by proclaiming how proud he is of you. Then he immediately assigns you to an extended gig at a remote branch to square off against a disgruntled former employee who now runs the competition. Per the opening chapter of Mark, that pretty much summed up Jesus’s first day on the job: John baptized him, God announced his favor from the heavens, “and the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” where he spent forty days grappling with Satan.

That’s the way life goes though. Just as we screw up the courage to make that change, or earn that promotion, or have that baby, we discover it comes with a new set of problems we weren’t anticipating. We start to ask if we weren’t better off before we got what we wanted. It doesn’t seem fair that doing everything right leads to more work. But if Jesus – in whom God was “well pleased” – was sent to suffer temptation in the wilderness, maybe we should realign our expectations and definition of success.

Doing good work – especially God’s work – does not guarantee ease. To the contrary, the Jews as God’s chosen people suffered tremendously, and Christian history is filled with martyrs. Our own callings vary, but all are real and we must engage with them. Accepting accountability – to our boss, our children, ourselves, or God – enlightens us to the brokenness in the world, and how much of it we are called to heal, prevent, or bear witness to.

The Spirit didn’t send Jesus into the wilderness alone: angels waited on him. We too have support available in our fellow Christians who share the same accountability. When times are tough, we remind each other why what we do is important. We help carry each other’s burdens. We listen. We cry. We are angels to each other.

Faithfulness doesn’t create suffering, but it does put us in touch with suffering that already exists. We can count on our God – and our angels – to see us through it.


Additional Reading:
For more on today’s opening chapter of Mark, see Many Waters, One God or Intersections.
For more thoughts on today’s passage from Acts, see Astounding Gifts.

Comfort: Even in life’s wilderness, you are not alone.

Challenge: Write a thank you note to one or more “angels” who have helped you through difficult times.

Prayer: To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul. (Psalm 25:1)

Discussion: What’s the worst job experience that someone helped you get through?

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Finding Jesus

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 116; 147:12-20, 1 Samuel 16:14-17:11, Acts 10:17-33, Luke 24:36-53


After his resurrection, nobody seemed to recognize Jesus. Mary visited his tomb, and until he called her by name she thought he was the gardener. Cleopas and his wife walked and talked quite a way down the road with him and invited him to dinner, yet didn’t realize who he was until he blessed and broke the bread. He stood among the gathered disciples, who were in the middle of talking about him yet did not see him, then startled them by saying, “Peace be with you.” After rising from the dead, the Word-Made-Flesh seemed far more recognizable by his words than by his flesh. While we might expect a resurrected savior to virtually shine in glory and triumph, it seems Jesus was almost … unremarkable. His body still carried the scars of the cross, but it no longer bore the burden, the weight of the world’s salvation lifted from his shoulders.

That’s often how it is with Christ. Someone unremarkable – socially invisible perhaps – escapes our notice until Christ says, “I am here. See me. Break bread with me. Share peace with me.” Only then do we realize Christ is among us and waits to be served in a food pantry, visited in the hospital, invited to Bible study, welcomed as a refugee, or loved through a bout of mental illness. When Christ says whatever we do for the least of his brothers and sisters we do for him, he’s not speaking metaphorically.

We worship Christ. Write many beautiful songs about him. Raise extravagant monuments and cathedrals. Conquer nations and claim to do it in the glory of his name.

But that’s not what he asked us to do. That’s all us.

Christ can be seen in the beauty of God’s creation, but his word echoes among the suffering and the needy, the lost and the lonely, the broken and the bullied. It echoes among the merciful and the humble and the generous and the kind. Let’s listen for his voice, because he’s not always going to be where we’re looking. He calls us to look where he is waiting.


Additional Reading:
For thoughts on today’s passage from Acts, see A Bigger Pan.

Comfort: Christ is in the ordinary as well as the extraordinary.

Challenge: Make a list of the things Christ asked us to do. At the end of each day for the next week, see how many you’ve done.

Prayer: O LORD I am your servant. Amen.

Discussion: In what unexpected places have you encountered Christ?

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Learning to See

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 147:1-11, 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Acts 10:1-16, Luke 24:13-35


“[F]or the LORD does not see as mortals see;
they look on the outward appearance,
but the LORD looks on the heart.”
– 1 Samuel 16:7b

An entire movie genre features attractive yet shallow young people learning to appreciate the inner beauty of their less attractive peers. The beautiful person usually doesn’t admit to themselves how they have fallen in love with someone who is – by Hollywood standards – not quite as beautiful (and very likely someone they have previously tormented) until after a dramatic makeover montage reveals hitherto concealed physical beauty.

What would happen without the makeover? Would the handsome jock remain in denial about his feelings for the nerdy writer who never discovered the right conditioner for her split ends? Would the popular cheerleader continue to friend-zone the bespectacled mathlete who otherwise won her heart?

Not that beautiful people deserve all the blame. The plain Janes and Jims in these movies aren’t falling over themselves to date average looking people. It’s still a real statement for a film to explore romance between two ordinary-looking (or – gasp! – slightly unattractive) people. And it’s not limited to romance. Action, science fiction, and horror movies often use the shorthand of physical appearance to indicate who the heroes and villains are.

As a culture we buy into these ideas. When we don’t like someone, we are much more likely to comment negatively on their looks or the way they dress – especially if they’re women – though it’s entirely irrelevant. Conversely, when we feel kindly toward someone, we are disposed to more favorably rate their appearance.

How do we learn to see as God sees? Maybe the trick is to love first, and see second. Psalm 139 says God knit and loved our inmost selves in the womb. Is it possible for us, limited by mortal understanding as we are, to decide to love people before we meet or even see them? First impressions may be visual, but we can control our first expressions toward someone. When the holy in us deliberately chooses to greet the holy in others, the scales of judgment fall from our eyes.


Additional Reading:
For thoughts on today’s passage from Acts, see Double Vision.
For more on Luke’s resurrection story, see Risen and Recognized.

Comfort: God knows your inmost self.

Challenge: The next time you are tempted to comment on someone’s appearance, ask yourself why you think it would appropriate to do so.

Prayer: Bless me, O LORD, maker of heaven and earth, of body and soul. Amen.

Discussion: How does getting to know someone’s inner life affect how you perceive their outer appearance?

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I was going through some old playlists, and rediscovered this beautiful song from Rosanne Cash. It reminded me of Friday’s post, Twists and Turns. Hope you enjoy.

God Is In The Roses