Stepping Stone


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


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.


O’ Night Divine…

The last few years, as I’ve fallen more in love with Advent, I’ve had a personal rule about Christmas carols: I don’t play them until the 25th, but I’ll enjoy them if you put them on in the car, or they’re playing somewhere I happen to be. After all it’s my “rule” not yours.

A few weeks back I heard a vocal performance of “O Holy Night” that really moved me, and I’ve been humming it ever since. One particular phrase from it keeps coming back to me: “O’ night divine, o’ night when Christ was born.” We don’t really know what date Christ was born. December 25th is liturgically convenient, not historically accurate. So really… Christ could have been born any night of the year. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could commemorate Christ’s life every day… just in case?

We interrupt our regularly scheduled Advent broadcast … or do we?


As we embark on the the fourth and final week, I want to acknowledge I’ve received some questions about the Advent themes and the “traditional” order they’ve fallen in. For some people and traditions the themes of Hope, Love, Peace, and Joy are familiar, but the expected order is different. For others the actual themes themselves may vary.

It’s all OK.

Traditions like Advent wreaths, candles, and the season itself don’t exist for our slavish dedication. They are rituals we have created to periodically remind ourselves of certain aspects of our faith. The point of them is not whether the pink candle is for Joy or the fourth week is for Peace, but to help us reflect on our need for Christ to enter our lives and the world.

Maybe mixing it up is a good thing. When people ask whether I get tired of reading the same scriptures every year, of hearing the same story of Jesus being born,  or of celebrating them same seasons over and over, my answer is always: “No, I don’t, because even though the stories don’t change, I’m in a different place in my life and faith journey, so I am always hearing and learning something different.” Mixing up the weeks of Advent provides another opportunity for fresh perspective, while at the same time providing a familiar and comforting framework.

In a couple days our readings will include the Magnificat, the words of Mary as she praises God for using her as a vessel to redeem her people. Mary’s prayer speaks new messages to me every time I read it. It doesn’t change, but I do. For some people though, it will be the same every time, and that’s fine. They made need a slight change to hear new meaning, and an unexpected difference in the order of themes or a fresh Biblical interpretation like The Message may provide the catalyst.

So if your regular broadcast of Advent has been interrupted, I hope that has helped you see, hear, feel, consider, and learn new things. Christ enters the world in unexpected ways. Expect that.


Prepare Ye!

Speaking of preparation, here’s a flashback that always makes me feel joyous.

Peace as Preparation

Today’s readings: Psalms 18:1-20; 147:12-20, Zechariah 4:1-14, Revelation 4:9-5:5, Matthew 25:1-13


In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus relates a parable about ten bridesmaids – five foolish and five wise. They all take lamps to meet the bridegroom, but only the wise ones take supplies to keep the lamps burning when the bridegroom is delayed. The foolish bridesmaids ask the other for oil, but the wise ones are wise enough to say no because they’d all be unprepared. The foolish bridesmaids leave to buy oil and return to find the bridegroom and wise bridesmaids have left them behind.

It’s not difficult to imagine the foolish bridesmaids thought of themselves as unlucky, or victims of the wise bridesmaids’ stingy nature. Very often what we call poor luck or unfairness is our own lack of preparation. How do we properly prepare for the kingdom of God?

By not giving away more oil than we can spare. That doesn’t mean a lack of generosity; we should be generous of spirit and wallet. The oil we need to keep topped off is the energy to stay vigilant for the presence of Christ in the world. Many things conspire to steal this energy if we allow them: demanding jobs,  busy social schedules, housekeeping, and so on. None of these things is inherently problematic – they are  mostly good! – but neither is any of them our true purpose. If we don’t learn to say “no more oil for you, foolish bridesmaid” the energy left over for worship, charity, and our relationship with God can quickly dwindle to nothing. And by the way, if we think of those as “left overs” the reserves are already below acceptable levels. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36)

Preparation means laying the groundwork for our whole lives, not just our spare time, to serve God. When we carefully steward our resources, we have enough energy to seek Christ and our peace in him. We must fill and refill our own lamps through prayer, service, rest, and worship.The wise will not save us from ourselves. Have you checked your oil lately? Tomorrow could be too late.

Comfort: It’s okay to do less so you can be more.

Challenge: Take an inventory of your obligations and eliminate the ones that drain your oil.


Peace as Silence

Today’s readings: Psalms 50; 147:1-11, Zechariah 3:1-10, Revelation 4:1-8, Matthew 24:45-51


A popular acronym advises us to THINK before we speak –  to ask ourselves whether what we are about to say is true, helpful, inspirational, necessary, and/or kind. THINK may seem cliched, but it’s still excellent advice. Psalms 50:19-20 speaks to us today when it says:

“You give your mouth free rein for evil,
and your tongue frames deceit.
You sit and speak against your kin;
you slander your own mother’s child.”

Our current cultural mix of traditional and social media pushes us to opine on the latest news before it’s fully reported, to become outraged over (non?) events we really know nothing about, and to offer our often uninformed commentary in formats that remove the social buffers normally keeping us civil. The rapid-fire sarcasm and verbal slugfests that pass for dialogue and entertainment frequently have no purpose but shouting our own opinions and displaying our own cleverness.

Fortunately we do have the ability to turn it off. Simply deciding not to respond to every opinion we hear or read can be a solid start. Many people never quite get that concept: they will continue to respond as long as someone else continues to antagonize them. Withdrawal from a contentious non-productive exchange of spoken words, texts, or comment sections is not some admission of defeat.  Consciously moving away from violent noise and into silence is an affirmation of peace.

At other times the conversation we need to end is the one we’re having with ourselves. Negative self-talk damages our spirits, and we may need a great deal of counseling to learn to stop it. Wordy prayers that run on and on are not a conversation with God – they are a monologue of doubt and desperation.

Silence, both external and internal, makes space for Elijah’s “still small voice” of God. It gives our thoughts room to expand and mature. It teaches us what is important and what is fleeting. When we regularly seek the peace of silence, we are better prepared when it is time to speak up for matters of justice, mercy, and love.

Comfort: God waits for us in the silence.

Challenge: Find time each day to meditate, unplug, or make whatever arrangements you need to enjoy a period of auditory and mental silence.

Peace as Surrender

Today’s readings: Psalms 33; 146, Zechariah 2:1-13, Revelation 3:14-22, Matthew 24:32-44


We are not generally fond of the term “surrender” unless it is preceded by “never.” Surrender implies loss, weakness, and cowardice. We lionize those who fight to the death rather than wave the white flag. Our concept of surrender is almost exclusively military, understood in terms of victory or defeat … and ignoble defeat at that.

Maybe that is why we struggle to surrender to God. When we end a prayer for a new job or a good health report with “if it’s God’s will” … doesn’t a small part of us hope God is taking the hint? Truly surrendering to God’s will is a terrifying prospect. One critique of Christians is that we show weakness of character by claiming everything is God’s will to dodge responsibility. Might it be closer to the truth to say we are good at paying lip service to God’s will, but not so good at actually accepting it? Can we really even claim to understand what “God’s will” means? In reality, it takes much courage to surrender ourselves to God; to do so is to risk total annihilation of our own identities.

Except it never seems to turn out that way. When we truly make the effort to surrender ourselves – or even one tiny problem – to God, we find our burdens lightened and our real selves rising to the surface. Does “the effort to surrender” sound like an oxymoron? Isn’t surrender the opposite of doing something? If you’ve tried it, you know it’s not just an effort but an ongoing effort. When we learn to surrender daily, we finally find peace.

Psalm 33 tells us great armies, superior strength, and the mightiest resources ultimately do not save us. Our victory – our peace – lies in trusting the Lord. It’s so easy to convince ourselves our own plans must be God’s plans, and then because we can’t tell the difference, our disappointment robs us of our peace. C.S. Lewis said of prayer: “It doesn’t change God – it changes me.” Let us pray with an attitude of surrender, and trust God to reveal to us our best and most peaceful selves.

Comfort: We can trust that God accepts our surrender with our best interests at heart.

Challenge: What is one problem you need to surrender to God? Put in the work to let it go.

Come Thou Long Expected Jesus

This is my favorite type of Advent music, simple and reflective.