Moving Target

faithcriticism

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 54; 146, Ecclesiastes 2:16-26, Galatians 1:18-2:10, Matthew 13:53-58


The church is an easy target. As a human institution claiming to represent Christ on earth, we paint that target on our own backs. Squabbling internally, failing to live up to our own standards, or engaging in outright corruption opens us to criticism from, well, everyone. Because we are human we are often hypocrites, and because we are Christian we are charged with combating religious hypocrisy. Unfortunately our historical response to criticism of that paradox has been to double down on our own righteousness, thereby making the target ever broader. Calls to return to vague “traditional values” may feel satisfying to internal hardliners, but for those who are outside the church looking in, it only reinforces their perception of hypocrisy.

If we are introspective, rather than defensive, about the health of the body of Christ, we just might conclude the honest and humble response to criticism is admitting we have always fallen short of our ideals. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul addresses a church that is only twenty years old. Already there is infighting between Paul and Peter over Gentile inclusion. Rival (he calls them false) interpreters of scripture and doctrine have infiltrated Galatia. He has to refute claims that he isn’t endorsed by Peter, James and other Apostles. A mere two decades in, the church was providing much of the same fodder for criticism it does today.

Maybe the church should be a target. Our promise is not that we are righteous, but that we are forgiven. Honest criticism can be the swift kick in the back door we need to remind ourselves. We need to own the infighting, particularly around matters of justice. A homogenized church at peace with itself is stagnant; a church in conversation with itself – even heated conversation – is making room for the Spirit to be heard. Intentionally or not, the message we send is: “We are better.” Nobody believes that, nor should they. The story we need to tell is: “We are no better, but God’s loving mercy redeems us.” When that is the story we also tell ourselves, it becomes true.

Comfort: Being honest about our failings is a testament to God’s love.

Challenge: When you hear criticism, of the church or otherwise, take time for introspection before defending yourself.

Prayer: God of forgiveness, teach me to tell the story of your love. Amen.

Discussion: What hypocrisies of the church bother you the most? Where do you find productive places to discuss your concerns?

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All Is Vanity

toil

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 57; 145, Ecclesiastes 2:1-15, Galatians 1:1-17, Matthew 13:44-52


Ecclesiastes is the story of a man seeking meaning in life.  The first chapter is titled “Everything is Meaningless” and the rest is about what you’d expect. The seeker does not find meaning in wisdom, pleasure, folly, toil, advancement, or riches. He concedes that wisdom is better than folly because your life will probably be more pleasant and longer. He advises readers to obey the king, keep their vows to God, make some friends, enjoy pleasure in moderation, remember God in youth, and (no kidding) diversify your portfolio. The third chapter has a passage about everything in life happening in its proper time (which many of us remember best as the lyrics of the lovely Pete Seeger song “Turn! Turn! Turn!”), but the bottom line is no matter what we do we’re all going to die, so all our efforts are no more than vanity.

Fun stuff, right?

But there is wisdom here. The author of Ecclesiastes could also have written Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff … and it’s all small stuff (actually by Richard Carlson). We worry a lot about things that don’t matter in the long run. We convince ourselves we’re in control of far more than we are, then berate ourselves for not doing a better job. We waste emotional energy comparing ourselves to others when the competition and its rewards are completely imaginary. We want life to make sense, so we tell ourselves stories to make it seem so, and when reality collides with our stories we lose faith.

Good things happen. Bad things happen. In the final analysis … there is no final analysis. At least not by human standards. Faith means trusting that no matter what is going on, God is present and constant throughout. Let’s try to remember that when it feels like things are falling apart personally, nationally, or globally. Jesus tells us worry never added a single hour to anyone’s life … but it steals plenty. Do what you can today; there will be more to do tomorrow, and other people to do it. Do it with faith and love. Everything else is vanity.

Comfort: True meaning is found by recognizing that we live in the presence of God.

Challenge: For a week (if you can), keep a log of how you spend your time, and how what you’re doing makes you feel. Review it for a stark evaluation of where your vanities lie.

Prayer: God, I am with you. Teach me I need nothing else. Amen.

Discussion: What parts of life don’t make sense to you? How satisfied are you with the idea from Ecclesiastes that they don’t need to?

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Run, Don’t Walk!

run fast

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalm 63:1-8 (9-11), 98; Ecclesiastes 1:1-11; Acts 8:26-40; Luke 11:1-13


The Acts of The Apostles, chronicling the formation and earliest days of the church, tells a story of an ever-widening circle of inclusion.

Philip the Evangelist was one of seven people selected by the Apostles to care for poor Christians in Jerusalem. One day, Acts tells us, an angel instructed Philip to go to a certain place. In that place was a eunuch who served as a court official to Kandake, queen of Ethiopia. The Spirit urged Philip to run to the chariot where the eunuch was reading aloud a passage from Isaiah. Philip offered to explain the passage, and the eunuch gratefully accepted. After Philip used this scripture to share the good news of Jesus, the eunuch was eager to be baptized. When they saw some water, the eunuch stopped the chariot, then Philip baptized him and went on his way leaving a joyous convert behind.

Because of their modified genitals, eunuchs were considered impure and therefore not allowed full participation in the life of the temple. They could wait in the outer courtyard with women and non-Jews, but not go in with the other men. Baptism, by contrast, signified full participation in the body of Christ. This man was a Gentile, African, and belonged to an “impure” sexual minority, yet because of Christ, Philip eagerly welcomed him. Before you say, “well of course,” remember we draw lines in the sand over Bible translations. This type of inclusion was – and still is – radical.

Who are today’s eunuchs? Certainly there are parallels with the exclusion of the LGBT community, and churches continue to be some of the most racially segregated institutions in America. In most places, bilingual church services – including sign language – are a rarity. The list goes on. Our exclusion may be less explicit, but our lack of inclusion speaks volumes. Where are the Philips running to greet them? Do we call these present-day Philips evangelists or heretics?

Did Jesus ever condemn anyone for being too inclusive? Rather than ignore our modern eunuchs, let’s run to them with the good news. The worst that can happen? Someone hears it.

Comfort: We’re all outsiders to someone. We’re all insiders to Christ.

Challenge: Start a discussion within your faith community about who you are intentionally or unintentionally excluding, and brainstorm ways to be more inclusive.

Prayer: God of love and abundance, teach me to see Christ in all your children.

Discussion: Who do you have trouble accepting into the body of Christ?

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Schadenfreund *

hotcoals

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 56; 149, Proverbs 25:15-28, 1 Timothy 6:6-21, Matthew 13:36-43


Schadenfreude is a German word which roughly means “finding joy in the misfortune of others.” It’s not generally used to describe being happy about random misery like starving children or disaster victims – there are other words for that, some of them in English – but reserved for the misfortunes of our enemies, rivals, or people who just plain irritate us. It’s not very Christ-like, but it’s human nature. When we want to think of ourselves as too enlightened for that sort of pettiness, we may call it “poetic justice.”

Proverbs 25:21-22 advises us: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the LORD will reward you.”

“What?!” you may be asking yourself. “I can please God and honk off my enemies at the same time?” Technically, yes. Once we’ve nursed a good grudge against someone – be it a person, nation, or rival bowling team – we don’t want them to reveal any redeeming traits, because that really sucks the joy out of hating them. It may even force us to examine our own motives. So loving your enemy (which is how you act toward them, not how you feel about them), while the right thing to do, may be exactly what they don’t want.

But how long is it possible to think of someone as an enemy if they continually show you kindness?  And how long is it possible to think of someone as an enemy if you see them hungry, thirsty, tired, and in need of all the same things you are? Unless one or both of you intentionally stokes those coals of fire, they will cool and vengeful kindness becomes simply … kindness.

By the time Paul quotes this verse from Proverbs in his letter to the Romans, Jesus has taught and shown us what it means to love and pray for our enemies. Revenge masquerades as human justice; God’s justice is about reconciliation and forgiveness, and he’s not above subverting our baser instincts to help us get there.

Comfort: You don’t have to feel good about your enemies to love them as Christ instructs.

Challenge: Examine how you treat your enemies or rivals in the workplace or social situations.

Prayer: Merciful God, teach me to love my enemies and take joy in their well-being. Amen.

Discussion: Where have you seen the healing power of reconciliation? Did one or more parties have to demonstrate worldly “weakness” but faithful strength?

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*not a misspelling; an attempt at a German pun

Mustard Seeds

weedlove

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 130; 148, Proverbs 23:19-21, 29—24:2, 1 Timothy 5:17-22 (23-25), Matthew 13:31-35


Have you ever heard someone say they love gardening because it brings them closer to nature? This is somewhat ironic, because manicured lawns and gardens are anything but natural. Nature is not tidy rows bent to human will; it is rambling and untamed. Gardeners fight nature with fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides to make sure desirable plants  thrive in an orderly fashion, and the plants they don’t value are removed or destroyed. Left to her own devices, nature would overrun most gardens and lawns with a beautiful and diverse ecosystem we call “weeds.”

When Jesus told the parable of the mustard seed – the tiny seed which grows into a great shrub to shelter birds – he wasn’t talking about mustard as a cultivated crop. In his culture, mustard was often a highly invasive plant species which was difficult to remove once it infested a field. Essentially, he was comparing his followers to a nuisance – to weeds.

The Kingdom is all about the humble persistence of small acts of faith. As much as the world tries to insist its structures are the right way to do things, followers of Christ appear and reappear like weeds to defy its exclusionary boundaries. And try as we Christians might to impose order and uniformity through religion, visionaries and prophets spring up among us to remind us God’s vision can’t be contained within ours. In the parable of the mustard seed, it is the nuisance shrub which becomes a great sheltering tree for those needing a safe place to roost. Does that sound like the church today? Or are we busy balancing the soil pH for roses because dandelions are too common and don’t look as pretty?

Gardens aren’t bad. Genesis tells us humankind began in a garden. They can be beautiful, functional, and therapeutic. They can also be expensive, time-consuming, and exhausting. A worship service is like a garden – carefully selected blooms of song, prayer, and scripture to inspire and nourish us. But we can’t spend our entire lives inside church. The Kingdom grows in the wilderness, a sprawling tree for all who seek God’s shelter.

Comfort: Your life doesn’t have to be pretty to grow in the Kingdom.

Challenge: Regularly examine your expectations about church and faith, and ask yourself how God has defied them.

Prayer: God of the garden and the wilderness, I will worship you and spread your love in all places. Amen.

Discussion: What scares you about wandering in the (actual or metaphorical) wilderness?

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Spiritual Mentors

neglectgift

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 36; 147:12-20, Proverbs 21:30—22:6, 1 Timothy 4:1-16, Matthew 13:24-30


Have you ever had a mentor – a person who is purposeful about guiding your development? Mentors come in different flavors. Many businesses offer mentoring programs because it helps them promote and retain good talent, as well as foster a sense of the importance of passing along knowledge and experience. Social programs for youth, such as Big Sisters or Big Brothers, offer mentor programs to young people who lack positive adult role models. Some mentors, particularly those in artistic communities, may be unofficial but still impart wisdom and raise the bar for young performers and artists through collaborative efforts.

Good mentors don’t try to create younger versions of themselves, or have preconceived notions of who you should be. They coach and guide you to explore the best path for  you, provide honest feedback, and get you to hold yourself accountable for your progress. They do more listening than speaking.

Have you ever had a spiritual mentor? Paul filled this role for his young protege Timothy. He offered Timothy advice and encouragement Perhaps more importantly he trusted him to act independently, and treated mistakes as an opportunity for learning rather than reasons for punishment. Our record of their relationship is through Paul’s surviving letters, which of course reveal only one side of the conversation. If he was like other successful mentors, Paul wasn’t pontificating because he liked the sound of his own voice (or of his scratching pen); he was responding to Timothy’s questions and concerns. An effective mentoring relationship depends very much on what material the student brings to the exchange.

Mentors themselves benefit from being mentored. There’s always someone we can learn from. It’s worth taking the time to invest in these relationships. Wherever we are on our spiritual journey, someone has already been through it. Their guiding hand can help us to navigate familiar territory, thereby freeing us to progress further and faster. The ultimate responsibility of mentors is to coach their students enough not to need them.

You could use a mentor. You could be a mentor. You could do both. A simple conversation gets the ball rolling.

Comfort: Seeking guidance is not a sign of weakness, but of maturity.

Challenge: When you are challenged in your faith or spiritual growth, don’t depend on only yourself to get through it.

Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for the wisdom of the collected Body of Christ. Teach me to listen to it, teach me to add to it. Amen.

Discussion: A mentor is generally not a direct superior or a parent. What are the advantages of picking someone who isn’t “in charge” of you?

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Poverty of Ideas

mockinsult.jpg

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 15; 147:1-11, Proverbs 17:1-20, 1 Timothy 3:1-16, Matthew 12:43-50


Americans have a schizophrenic attitude toward people living in poverty. On one hand we canonize Mother Theresa for her work with the poor, and missionaries who feed starving Ethiopian children. On the other, we tend to think less charitably of the poor at home, and frequently require them to justify their poverty because we just know someone somewhere is taking advantage of the “system.” Among Christians and nonbelievers alike, the poor are too often vilified rather than loved.

Do we honestly believe poor people “over there” are somehow different from or more deserving than people sleeping under bridges in Chicago? Poverty is a product of injustice and bad luck. America may have more resources and opportunity than many nations, but we can’t ignore the fact that social, political, and economic structures intentionally or unintentionally conspire against the poor. Jesus may have pointed that out once or twice.

We all know examples of people who’ve risen above – maybe we’ve done it ourselves – but lifting oneself out of poverty, especially generational poverty, usually requires exceptional talent. Hard work alone does not guarantee success. Your able body, sound mind, ethnicity, gender, and looks are all matters of chance helping or hindering  you. People who possess socially favorable variations of these traits have the opportunity to earn more, but do they inherently deserve more? We treat intelligence and strength – and the success they engender – as virtues, but they are unearned gifts God has entrusted to us to serve more than our bank accounts.We should all do our fair share, but Christ taught if we have two coats and our neighbor has none, we should give them one. Who among us dares volunteer to tell Jesus we know who is deserving and undeserving, and the poor but unexceptional just don’t make the cut? Yet we do that with our votes and checkbooks every day.

The problem of poverty is complex, but the solution is never to dismiss poor people as weak or lazy. Both Old and New Testament scriptures have very clear positions on loving the poor. Why look for so many reasons not to?

Comfort: Whatever your financial or social status, in God’s eyes and heart you are equal to all His children.

Challenge: Examine what biases, hidden or overt, you might have against the poor. How do you think Christ would respond?

Prayer: God of love, open my heart to those in need. Amen.

Discussion: In what ways do you think America effectively works to alleviate poverty? In what ways is it ineffective?

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No Noise is Good Noise

aptanswer

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 123; 146, Proverbs 15:16-33, 1 Timothy 1:18—2:15, Matthew 12:33-42


The mind of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil.

The ear that heeds wholesome admonition will lodge among the wise.

Those who ignore instruction despise themselves, but those who heed admonition gain understanding.

– Proverbs 15:28, 31, 32

The Book of Proverbs is a collection of pithy sayings, instructions, and poems from several sources. Chapters 10 through 22 are attributed to Solomon, but he probably did not author them directly. Proverbs contains many themes, and one of the most prominent is wisdom. A lot of this wisdom centers on the idea that, frankly speaking, we should know when to keep our mouths shut. In our culture, most conversations pretend to be exchanges of ideas, but we generally lack tolerance for the silence necessary to thoughtfully reflect on what someone is saying to us. Instead we fill “awkward” silences by speaking whatever comes to mind first. Often we are mentally formulating our response – or rebuttal – before the other person finishes talking. This is especially true when the discussion is about a disagreement, and we are more concerned with making our case – with winning the argument – than considering the other person’s view. Spirited debate can be invigorating, even fun, but how often are we listening to respond, rather than listening to learn?

When we receive constructive criticism, we don’t have to immediately reply with a defense; we can take time to mull it over. When someone is experiencing grief or pain, we don’t have to offer cliched sentiments because we feel we have to say something comforting; we can simply be with that person. When someone is telling us about their problems we don’t have to offer unsolicited solutions; we can support them better with open ears and open arms. In these situations and many more, taking time to think will improve what we have to say, or show us we needn’t say anything.

Listening without feeling a need to respond every time will make us better friends, better parents, better co-workers, and better followers of Christ. Don’t be afraid of silence; that’s when we can hear God speak.

Comfort: Being slow to respond is often a sign of depth, not ignorance.

Challenge: For the remainder of the week, whenever possible, count to five before responding – or thinking about responding – to questions, news, etc. Note how these pauses affect the conversations.

Prayer: Loving God, teach me to listen for you in the silence. Amen.

Discussion: In what situations do you find it difficult to hold your tongue, even when you know better than to speak?

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No Time Like The Present

honor and glory

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 135; 145, Proverbs 10:1-12, 1 Timothy 1:1-17, Matthew 12:22-32


Paul did not start out sympathetic to Christians. He was born to  Jewish parents with Roman citizenship, an unusual status. As a devout Jew he considered followers of Jesus a threat to the faith, as well as to the relatively secure status of Jews under Roman occupation. For years he persecuted Christians, literally hunting them down and delivering men and women for imprisonment and execution. As he wrote to Timothy: “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.”

Yet he was the greatest evangelist in the history of the church.

Can you imagine the resistance Paul faced from other Christians as he began his ministry? He was the embodied scourge of Rome across the backs of those who followed Christ. Why would anyone believe him when he said he was reformed? When our leaders – religious or otherwise – change their minds, we suspect insincerity and our suspicions are often confirmed. But Paul persevered despite his critics, including such important Christian figures as Peter. The zeal which had once driven him as “a man of violence” had been redirected.

If God could reform a villain like Paul, the rest of us should have great hope indeed.

When we try to change for the better, people will inevitably bring up our pasts and question our credibility. We may be embarrassed when that happens, but like Paul we can use that opportunity to testify to God’s grace. Whether we’ve decided to improve in a small way, like declining to indulge in office gossip, or in a more significant way, like seeking reconciliation with an estranged family member, our past does not need to be a source of shame. Rather, by humbly acknowledging our past sins – not excusing them – or getting “holier than thou” – we can speak a powerful truth about how God’s grace has transformed our present. Paul was humble, but not ashamed. Whatever your sin or past, God can do the same for you.

Comfort: God wants to free you from the prison of your past.

Challenge: Forgiving your own past is an important step in forgiving others.

Prayer: Merciful God, thank you for your gift of grace. May my life be a testimony to the power of your saving love. Amen.

Discussion: What parts of your own past have you not been able to forgive? Do you think you need to forgive yourself before you can believe God forgives you?

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Just Because

where-were-you

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, Job 38:1-11; 42:1-6, Revelation 19:4-16, John 1:29-34


Some questions have no answers, or at least none we can understand. Job was a righteous man who’d been greatly blessed by God; he had a large family, lands and livestock, and good health. When Satan (not the devil we think of, but a member of God’s court known as The Accuser) claimed Job would lose faith if God revoked his favor, God took the bet. He killed Job’s family and livestock, struck him down with terrible disease, and left him a ruined man sitting on a dung heap.

Job’s friends tried to explain why these terrible things happened to him. Saying he must have sinned, they blamed Job for his own ills, but he knew he was innocent. Like well meaning people who tell bereaved family members at a funeral “it’s part of God’s plan,” Job’s well-meaning friends didn’t manage to offer one comforting word. We all desperately want things to make sense, but sometimes they just don’t.

When Job finally gets to confront God, God’s response is pretty unsatisfying: “Where were you when I created the earth, the seas, and the heavens?” In other words: “know your place.” God doesn’t even feel obligated to disclose the wager. Sure God gives Job a new family and restores his fortunes, but can that ever make up for what was lost?

Is there any comfort to be found in this story? If we can let go of our need to explain everything, there is the comfort of a certain harsh wisdom. Sometimes disaster will rain down on you for no apparent reason. It won’t be your fault, and honestly there may not be a silver lining. Trying to assign it a purpose may leave you looking and feeling as ignorant as Job’s friends. We. Don’t. Always. Get. To. Know. However, we can know that in the midst of our worst times, and God is with us and rooting for us not to lose faith. If there’s a lesson to be learned, learn it. But don’t let your need to find one be more important than your need to trust God anyway.

Comfort: When bad things happen to you, sometimes it is the unknowable nature of the world, not a reason to believe you are being punished.

Challenge: When you can’t find meaning in tragedy, you may be called to make meaning from it.

Prayer: God, I will trust you always. Amen.

Discussion: What in your life doesn’t seem fair? If you stop insisting that it make sense, does that make it easier or more difficult to accept?

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