Stepping Stone

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Today’s readings: Psalms 98; 147:12-20, 1 Kings 3:5-14, James 4:13-17, 5:7-11, John 5:1-15

Faith is, among other things, a path to wholeness. We may feel we walk it alone, but fellow travelers always accompany us. Therefore we need to be mindful of both the destination and our conduct along the way. On his path Jesus encounters a sick man who has been waiting 38 years to get into a pool with alleged healing properties. When Jesus asks if he wants to be made well, the man replies: “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” In 38 years not one person headed to the same destination for the same purpose had offered to help him. Worse, they had stopped him. These people were probably not malicious, but in their desperation and single-mindedness paid him no regard. Instead, he became their stepping stone.

How do we treat our fellow travelers? What goals are we so focused on that we can’t see the need around us? Perhaps we give others what we want them to need, instead of what they really do. Or maybe our need for a perfectly executed church service results in a less meaningful one. Our best intentions to create an inclusive, mission-centered, welcoming community will be short-sighted and potentially hurtful if we can’t place our personal goals in the context of the gathered faithful. Maybe we’ll make it to the pool, but what will we leave in our wake?

On the other side of this equation, today’s story teaches us our wholeness does not ultimately depend on our fellow travelers, but on God’s endless mercy. When Jesus tells the sick man to take up his mat and walk, the lack of mercy from everyone else becomes irrelevant. The beauty of the healing is lost on his fellow travelers who are more concerned he is carrying his mat in violation of Jewish sabbath law. Eyes set upon their own ritual holiness, they attack the uncontrollable divinity in their midst. Sometimes the most important part of our faith journey is the detour.

Comfort: We are never alone in our faith journey.

Challenge: We are never alone in our faith journey.

Out of Thin Air

Today’s readings: Psalms 93; 147:1-11, 1 Kings 17:17-24, 3 John 1-15, John 4:46-54

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Why do miracles happen? American Christianity often portrays them as rewards for diligent prayer and great faith. The Gospel of John tells a different story. Jesus performed seven miracles – John called them “signs”- before he was crucified. The second was the healing of a royal official’s son. The official met Jesus in Cana, about 25 miles southwest from where his son lay dying in Capernaum, and asked Jesus to save him. While Jesus did heal the official’s son, his initial response seems almost perturbed: “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” Jesus was coerced by his mother into the first sign at the wedding in Cana, grumbled about the second, and things didn’t improve much for the next five.  When he raised Lazarus, he wept over his friends’ lack of faith. According to John, signs were performed for the unfaithful.

For some people, faith in God rests on miracles. Jesus, on the other hand, treated miracles as necessary disturbances to the natural order used to persuade people.  God’s presence is not extraordinary, but an ongoing relationship during ordinary life. Like air, it is a life-sustaining presence constantly surrounding us and within us. We don’t normally think about air unless we can’t breathe. John’s Jesus delivers miracles like he’s performing spiritual CPR on those who can no longer inhale God’s presence on their own.

Isn’t it better not to need it in the first place? Like air or water, our spiritual environment can become polluted. Sometimes we trash it ourselves, and sometimes we are downwind from the spiritually toxic. When our faith feels choked off, it may be time to start cleaning up and preventing more damage. This could be a slow process: anger, hate, greed, fear, and poisons like them take time to remove. They are dangerous and unpleasant to handle, but with God’s help handle them we must. The alternative is spiritual suffocation.

Still prefer to wait on a miracle? Neither miracles nor CPR are a permanent fix: if our habits don’t change, our old problems will return. God is always present; live clean and breathe deep.

Comfort: God is as close as the air we breathe.

Challenge: Take an inventory of what’s polluting your spiritual environment.

Holly and Ivy

One of my favorite Christmas carols (still eight days left!) is The Holly and the Ivy, and Natalie Cole does a beautiful version. While I was searching for a version to share, I noticed many comments about the pagan symbolism of holly and ivy. Some were informative and some, from both Christians and non-Christians, were less than kind. As with all things, each person approached the conversation with a personal bias. I like to think of this song as an example of how our different experiences can inform each other, rather than shout over each other, especially in a season where so many cultures celebrate holidays.

 

All Good Gifts

Today’s readings: Psalms 96; 146, 2 Samuel 23:13-17b, 2 John 1:1-13, John 2:1-11

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In the Gospel of John, Jesus performs his first miracle (John calls them “signs”) at a wedding in the town of Cana. At his mother’s urging,  he reluctantly turns water into wine because the wedding has run out. The chief steward of the reception, upon tasting the wine that was formerly water, tells the bridegroom: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” This tells us a lot about the nature of generosity and giving.

It tells us God’s gifts are top quality – always! When a prayer isn’t answered how we want or expect, or when God calls us to do something difficult or unpleasant, the problem is not with the gift. When we feel like asking “Is this really what you meant to give me, Lord?” the problem may lie in our perception. Not that every hardship is a gift in disguise; God certainly doesn’t give us cancer or domestic violence. But if we approach life as though the Spirit is nudging us toward wholeness, invaluable life lessons and spiritual riches abound. When someone gifts us with lessons – music, tennis, foreign language – the gift is only valuable after we have put the work in.

What about gifts we give? Do we hold back the good wine? While we can’t give beyond our means, we shouldn’t cheap out because we are giving to charity. We’ve all heard: “They should be grateful to get anything at all” and we’ve all seen 10 year old cans of cocktail onions on food drive collection tables. The point is not to judge the giving of others, but to be faithful about our own. We don’t know when someone is giving despite their own need, and we should be wise about stewarding our funds, but when we are giving in Christ’s name let’s keep in mind that in God’s eyes the recipients are no more or less deserving than we are. The good wine – or at least the best wine we can afford to share – is for everyone.

Comfort: God’s gifts to us are never lacking.

Challenge: For one week, set aside a food bank donation in cash or kind equivalent to your own lunches. At the end of the week, note whether the donation came out of your excess, or whether you had to scale back a little to give an equal amount. If your present circumstances don’t permit for donations, try splitting your leisure time evenly between your own activities and helping others.

Hands, Eyes, and Butterflies

Today’s readings: Psalms 2; 145, Isaiah 49:13-23, Isaiah 54:1-13, Matthew 18:1-14

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If your hand caused you to sin, would you be able to cut it off, as Jesus suggests in today’s passage from Matthew? Would you be able to pluck out your own eye to avoid damnation? More importantly, does Jesus actually expect us to do these things? Certainly not. If we heard of someone who mutilated himself for religious reasons, we would consider that person to be deeply disturbed, and rightly so. Most of us are not physically capable of such acts. What then might Jesus mean to tell us with such harsh imagery?

Hyperbole and extreme examples are teaching methods common to Jesus’ time. He didn’t intend to create a flock of one-handed, half-blind followers, but he does want us to understand true commitment means cutting out the parts of our lives that undermine or overshadow our relationship with God. Becoming part of God’s kingdom is a transformational act, and like butterflies emerging from cocoons, we must leave behind all that would hold us back.

As caterpillars metamorphose into butterflies, their bodies break down into imaginal cells – undifferentiated and similar to stem cells – and reform into something entirely new. When we truly embrace faith, or feel the call to a deeper level of it, our spirits need to undergo a similar process. All we have to work with are our original materials, but surrendered to God’s hands they can be repurposed and reborn. We won’t welcome every change, and some will even be painful, but we must be willing to rigorously examine the difference between who we are and who we are meant to become, and abandon the parts that either don’t fit or can’t be re-shaped.

God loves and accepts us whether we are in the caterpillar or butterfly stage, but God’s hope is that we fulfill our potential. One advantage we have over butterflies is our ability to metamorphose again and again, throughout our whole lives, each time getting closer to becoming our best selves. We don’t need to lose our eyes or hands, but we may need to remake them into tools of love and grace.

Comfort: God loves us when we try, when we fail, and when we succeed.

Challenge: Metamorphosis requires both time and energy. Assess the gap between who you are and who you believe God wants you to be, and set aside the time and energy necessary to create that change.

Radical Faith

Today’s readings: Psalms 34; 150, 1 Samuel 1:1-2; 7b-28, Colossians 1:9-20, Luke 2:22-40

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Today’s reading from Samuel introduces Hannah, one of Elkanah’s two wives. Hannah had no children, but Elkanah’s other wife did.  Like many women in her situation, Hannah was sorrowful about her inability to conceive. She went to the temple and prayed for a child. Because her lips moved but she made no sound, the priest Eli assumed she was drunk and reprimanded her, which was ironic because she had promised if God gave her a son she would dedicate him as a nazirite – a sect that abstained from strong drink. When God rewarded her faithfulness and she gave birth to a son, she followed through on that promise.

When we follow our faith, people may look at us like Eli looked at Hannah. Actions of faith may seem crazy even to other believers, especially if our actions disturb the status quo. The person who suggests displaying grace to those taking advantage of a congregation’s generosity is as likely to be mocked as thanked. Someone who quits a secure job to follow a risky calling will be judged favorably by critics only if the results are successful by standards the critics set. Any member of a denomination who decries its corruption or injustices – racism, sexism, clergy abuse, homophobia, fraud – risks rejection and attacks from both the leadership and the laity. Like Elkanah trying to comfort Hannah by saying “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” many people will pressure us toward quiet acceptance. And also like Elkanah, who already had children by another wife, people seldom understand the need for actions of faith against injustices which do not affect them directly.

As a childless wife, Hannah was distinctly disadvantaged in her culture. Our faith history, from Moses to Jesus to the Civil Rights Movement to today, is the story of God’s justice delivering the oppressed. It always seems crazy to those in power, because by worldly standards there’s nothing in it for them. For those of limited privilege, radical faith actions may be the only sane response. For those who enjoy privilege, some radical faith may be unexpectedly liberating.

Comfort: God desires the liberation of the oppressed.

Challenge: Ask yourself what injustices you tolerate – or possibly participate in – because they don’t affect you.

Martyrs vs. Victims

Today’s readings: Psalms 116; 149, 2 Chronicles 24:17-22, Acts 6:1-7, Acts 7:59-8:8

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In Western Christian tradition, the day after Christmas is St. Stephen’s day. Stephen was the first deacon of the church, as well as its first martyr. False charges of blasphemy led to his death by stoning. Stephen’s story seems like an abrupt shift in tone from the Christmas story, but is it really?

The story of Christ’s birth has been sentimentalized and sanitized through centuries of carols, Christmas pageants, and whitewashed nativity scenes. Familiar and comforting now, the story was originally a radical one with unlikely characters and their equally unlikely circumstances. Christ’s birth heralded the beginning of a religious and political revolution, achieved through his own death.

When Stephen was appointed deacon, it was a risky endeavor. The Roman empire did not grant Christians the same religious latitudes as it did Jews. Like Christ, Stephen was falsely accused and was condemned by Jews rather than Romans. And like Christ, he asked for God’s mercy on his executioners.

We Western Christians can barely conceive the fear of being executed for our faith. Our squabbles with our culture occur because we fear losing our monopoly on power, not because we are being crushed by occupying forces. After Stephen’s execution the remaining apostles, though they were scattered and their homes were being ransacked, continued spreading the gospel. We boycott businesses that don’t meet our agenda and slap Jesus fish on our bumpers (without fear of persecution) and think we’ve served the Gospel.

We should give thanks we can freely exercise our faith, rather than exploit perceived slights to support our persecution narrative. In countries where Christianity dominates, the group we should be most critical of is ourselves. Christ, Paul, and the apostles preached to a church in danger of being wiped out before it began. Now we are more likely to do the stoning than to be stoned.

A strong faith understands the gospel is something to be proclaimed rather than something to be defended. Even when we are persecuted, we are victors not victims. The path we begin following at Christmas does not end with us in power, but confronting it.

Comfort: You are responsible for sharing the Gospel, but not for enforcing it.

Challenge: Pray for those who persecute you.

Christmas Every Day

Today’s readings:  Psalms 2; 148, Micah 4:1-; 5:2-4, 1 John 4:7-16, John 3:31

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Today is the day! The long-awaited Jesus has come. We shout “Emmanuel!” because God is with us in the flesh. The spirit of this holiday is expansive enough to include many other traditions like brightly lit trees and gift exchanges which, while not uniquely Christian, reflect our joyous celebation.

Tomorrow, or maybe even as early as this evening, we will begin thinking about the clean-up. Most Christmas trees will be down before the new year begins; a few may make it until Epiphany – the day marking the end of the twelve day season of Christmastide. The annual “War on Christmas” will cease hostilities as merchants clear the way for Valentine’s Day and summer fashions. Many people who thought it was crucial for cashiers and barristas to say “Merry Christmas” during the entire season of Advent will stop caring on December 27th without realizing the irony.

The intense activity of Christmas – or at least the effort we invest in its more secular aspects – is not sustainable all year long. We may talk about keeping the spirit of Christmas in our hearts all year long, but we aren’t all that good at it. After the holidays, donations to food banks and other charities drop dramatically, but the needs they serve do not diminish. Christmas as a special day of celebration is wonderful, but Jesus did not remain an infant forever, and after Christmas the way we celebrate him must also mature.

We can bring light into dark places through acts of kindness and attitudes of love. We can offer gifts of time, talents, and money so we love people in need as children of God more than once a year. Instead of rebutting “Happy Holidays” with “Merry Christmas” we can speak loudly against words and actions of actual oppression and injustice. Like the infamous inn, our lives can become so full we turn away the arrival of Christ without realizing what we’ve done. We can create room by living as if Christmas is not the end of a season, but the beginning of a life where Christ dwells within and among us.

Comfort: Christmas is more than a day; it’s a life of hope, love, peace, and joy.

Challenge: Over the next 11 months, plan a monthly Christmas “celebration” to bring the light of Christ into places andlives that need it.

The Joy of the Unexpected

Today’s readings: Psalms 18:1-20; 147:12-20, Isaiah 60:1-6, Galatians 3:23-4:7, Matthew 1:18-25

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Every year at Christmas time we revisit the Nativity story in scripture readings and carols. The words and melodies bring us comfort and joy in part because they are so familiar and meet our expectations. It’s kind of ironic that the Natvity story itself is one of upended expectations and surprises.

First we have Mary, the mother of Jesus. Of everyone in the story, she has the most to be surprised about. No one expects a visit from an angel who announces God will create a child in your virgin womb. Then there’s Joseph, Mary’s betrothed. He doesn’t expect Mary to become pregnant, and he doesn’t expect divine intervention in the form of a dream telling him to stay with her. In an important subplot, we have Mary’s relatives Elizabeth and Zechariah. These two are both surprised by Elizabeth’s late-in-life pregnancy. All of these people have a trait in common (though Zechariah took a little while to come around): they all adapt to the unexpected. Every one of them had reasons to be doubtful, frightened, or resentful. Instead they chose to alter their plans to reflect their new circumstances, and thus ushered into life John the Baptist and Jesus the Christ.

The message of the Nativity is this: God enters the world in unexpected ways. If we insist on our own plans rather than God’s, we may never notice opportunities to share in the greater plan unfolding across history.

The unexpected can be frightening, but it is both inevitable and constant. When confronted with the choice to resist or embrace the unexpected, the former limits us, and the latter unlocks our potential. The relationship with a down-on-her-luck stranger we befriend rather than avoid may be where we both see Christ in action. An invitation to lead or serve in unfamiliar ways may reinvigorate a flagging ministry. An unplanned job termination may result in a meaningful vocation we never considered. It seems God rarely calls the prepared, but he prepares the called. Let us joyfully meet Christ where he shows up, instead of missing him where we planned for him to be.

Comfort: The unexpected is often a blessing waiting to be claimed.

Challenge: Ask yourself which of your plans are in conflict with God’s plans for you.

Joy of the Ordinary

Today’s readings: Psalms 50; 147:1-11, Jeremiah 31:10-14, Galatians 3:15-22, Matthew 1:1-17

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What does “joy” mean? For many people the word conjures heightened emotions like euphoria or ecstasy. Such emotional intensity is not sustainable for very long. Eventually mundane concerns like bathing and eating will pull us back down to earth. Joy in the Lord, as described in the readings from Psalm 147 or Jeremiah 31, can certainly have its ecstatic moments, but it is more about a state of existence in which the Lord’s justice is a constant presence in our lives.

The world needs extraordinary people: thinkers, creators, and innovators who lead us forward … but it depends on ordinary people. Some preachers claim wealth, fame, and other worldly successes are the result of favor from the Lord. The psalmist teaches us the Lord does not delight in extraordinary speed or strength (and by extension wealth or power), but in those who fear him and hope in his love. The world claims to admire those who lead lives of humble service, but in practice we rarely aspire to be them, because they resemble what the world calls failure. Jesus tells us the world will be turned upside down, and the last will be first. The world constantly tempts us to measure ourselves against “the first” so we can tell whether we should be happy. If our joy instead rests in being a delight to the Lord, and that means hoping in his love, then joy is available to everyone regardless of status.

When Jeremiah talks about joy in the Lord, he speaks of gathering the outcasts, healing the brokenhearted, and lifting up the downtrodden. The Lord intends ordinary lives to be joyful. Unfortunately God’s justice  is not the standard of most of the world, so when we hear “ordinary” the implication is often “less than good.” Advent reminds us that, while the world is a fallen place, we look forward to the time when it is restored. When God’s justice finally becomes our standard, ordinary will no longer mean uneventful, boring, or miserable, but full of peace and plenty. You are built for joy; don’t let the world talk you out of it.

Comfort: The joy of the Lord is available to everyone, including you.

Challenge: If something blocks your joy, it usually also stands between you and God. This coming month, identify and work to remove one roadblock between you and God.