If Paul could do it…

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 57; 145, Job 4:1, 5:1-11, 17-21, 26-27, Acts 9:19b-31, John 6:52-59


Lasting change is difficult to make. After we’ve found the motivation to make a positive change, we must struggle with a world inclined to keep us as we were. If we leave behind bad habits, friends who shared those habits may try to drag us back to our old ways for their own purposes. If we’ve repeatedly promised change only to let down our friends and family, they may view new declarations of change with understandable suspicion. Real change can’t depend on how other people perceive us, but on how we perceive ourselves.

When Paul did a spiritual 180 and started preaching in Jesus’ name, people who knew him were amazed at his radical change. Those in Jerusalem who did not want to accept his change plotted to kill him. On the other hand, when he joined the disciples “they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple.” Many of them had been evading him for some time, and only the testimony of Barnabas on Paul’s behalf swayed them.

Paul’s old associates were invested in keeping him the same, and the people he hoped to make his new associates weren’t ready to accept him. Despite these attitudes, Paul persevered because he was dedicated to God above all others. To a lesser degree, we may experience the same thing when we make a change. If we decide to give up gossip, for example, the friends we used to gossip with will undoubtedly feel snubbed when we decline to participate. Given our history, other people will find it difficult to trust us. The same would be true of addictions, lying, spitefulness, or any host of vices. A truly penitent heart will persevere in change whether other people accept the change or not; our relationship with God will sustain us.

We can’t change any mind but our own. When we know we need to make a positive change, we must be prepared to endure and overcome resistance, and not let that resistance discourage us. God doesn’t promise us ease, but to be with us through everything.

Comfort: When we change our hearts, God knows and accepts.

Challenge: Be supportive to someone who is trying to change.

Prayer: God of truth, in you I am made new every day. Thank you for second and third chances. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever made a change people chose not to accept or support?

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Expect the Unexpected

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 67; 150, Job 4:1-6, 12-21, Revelation 4:1-11, Mark 6:1-6a


No Bible stories are about God telling a prophet: “All is well. Carry on just as you have been.” Rather, He promises to make a childless, elderly couple the parents of a nation as numerous as the stars. He appoints an adopted Hebrew into the Egyptian royal house to free slaves. He transforms a persecutor of Christians into their greatest evangelist. These stories? There are plenty of them.

When Jesus preached to the residents of his hometown, “he was amazed at their unbelief.” They asked “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” This guy? They were actually offended by his teaching. Jesus as the messiah was doubly unexpected: both a hometown boy, and a preacher of peace.

Self-proclaimed messiahs before Jesus had led rebellions against Rome. The crucified bodies of these men and their followers literally lined the road to Jerusalem for miles. Another messiah promoting bloody rebellion was expected, but not needed.
We like preachers and teachers who comfort us. We are much more skeptical of radicals, of people who make us uncomfortable, of people challenging the status quo. But these are requirements for prophets. It’s their vocation to make us question our beliefs and behaviors. People in powerful or safe situations have little motivation to question a system that works for them. Instead, injustices are brought to light by those for whom the system is not working, or those who become willing to sacrifice the privileges the system affords them.

Is every outrageous character a prophet and every outlandish claim a prophecy? Of course not. But when God demands change, He demands it for the poor and oppressed, and their voices sound jarring, unsettling – even threatening – to those in power. They call us to recognize how our actions and beliefs negatively impact the lives of others. Sometimes the voice of God is still and small because it comes from those who have been silenced. Our modern prophets are not those who comfort us, but those who challenge us.

Comfort: God doesn’t challenge us to change because we have failed, but because we can succeed..

Challenge: This week, try to learn something from people who have made radical commitments to living out the gospel.

Prayer: God of growth, show me how I can change, and bless me with the courage to do so. Amen.

Discussion: Who has challenged you to change the way you understand the gospel?

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How dusty is your head?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 56; 149, Job 3:1-26, Acts 9:10-19a, John 6:41-51


Job’s three friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, having heard of his tragedy, arrived at his home to console and comfort him. They did so by acknowledging Job’s grief: “They raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads.” Afterward, and more importantly, “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”

Then Job, who was faithful but not superhuman, cursed the day he was born. Anger, grief, and confusion poured out of him. He did not reject God, but he was not afraid to demand an accounting for the injustice of the world. After this his friends thought they could best help by trying to make sense of it for him. If they had been as smart as they thought they were and kept silent, Job would have been about thirty-seven chapters shorter.

When we have a friend whose suffering is great, what is our first instinct? Many of us try to make the person feel better as quickly as possible. Others want to offer advice on how to solve or get past the problem. A smaller number suffer in solidarity. And a gifted few are willing to be present but silent. A wonderful ecumenical organization called Stephen Ministries trains people to be present for other people in crisis. Stephen ministers do not fix, and do not counsel. They listen and love.

In the next chapter, Eliphaz will offer Job some unsolicited advice. Like we might, he does this as much to reassure himself as to comfort his friend. The other friends will follow suit. This helps move along the book’s exploration of the nature of suffering, but it does more harm than good for Job. Listening is a gift anyone can give, even without formal training. When someone shares their suffering with us, sometimes the best thing we can do for them is to sit in the road next to them, and let the dust settle on our heads.

Comfort: Each of us can listen, and be listened to.

Challenge: The next time you have the urge to fix someone’s problem or give them advice, spend time just listening to them instead.

Prayer: God of renewal, thank you for ears that help others heal. Amen.

Discussion: Are you a fixer? Are you frustrated by people who try to fix? Both?

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Staring at the Son

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 130; 148, Job 2:1-13, Acts 9:1-9, John 6:27-40


Children instinctively avoid looking directly at the sun. In response to the painful brightness, they squint and close their eyes and turn their heads. Only during an eclipse do people need reminding how dangerous it can be to stare directly at it. The sun itself shines steadily. Our perception of its intensity is indirect, depending on atmospheric conditions. Out of self-preservation we respond accordingly.

Saul’s persecution of Christians was a response to the atmosphere around him. He was a faithful and (self-described) blameless Jew who sought to serve the Lord. To him, Christians were dark clouds threatening the safety and standing of the Jewish people within the Roman empire. He was not a poorly motivated cartoon villain like the Christian-haters often portrayed in Christian entertainment. He loved the Lord, and believed he was defending His faith and His people.

Then Saul saw the Son in all his glory.

On the road to Damascus, Jesus appeared to him in a flash of light and spoke so all nearby could hear. Saul asked who was speaking, and Jesus identified himself and told Saul to go into the city to await further instructions. Saul was struck blind, and remained so for three days.

Saul had been instinctively avoiding the overwhelming truth of Jesus. Finally forced to accept it, his world turned upside down. Saul was committed to the truth, but it took a miracle to help him understand the truth was more than he already knew.

Most people are committed to what they believe is the truth. Normally we are disinclined to seek truth where we don’t want to find it, especially if it will upend our reality. Christ asked: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Those we seek to reach often feel persecuted by Christians. So as the body of Christ, how do we shine brightly enough to reach people on their own roads? First we let go of the shadow of a false division between “us and them.” Then we let Christ’s love shine through until the people we meet can’t help but draw their own conclusions about its truth.

Comfort: A life lived in pursuit of Christ is a light in the darkness.

Challenge: When fellow believers choose to vilify rather than love, speak up.

Prayer: God of Mercy, may Christ’s light shine through me so others may know your love. Amen.

Discussion: In your experience, what are the most and least effective forms of evangelism?

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Praising through Pain

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 36; 147:12-20, Job 1:1-22, Acts 8:26-40, John 6:16-27


The Book of Job is sad, scary, and difficult: forty-two chapters tackling the big questions of why bad things happen to good people and in summary it concludes (spoiler alert!) you don’t get to question God. Its “happy” epilogue, if one thinks on it for more than a moment, is as horrifying as the rest of the story (replacement children? really?). But it drives home an important lesson many Christians would rather rationalize away: no matter how good or faithful you are, bad stuff can happen to you and you may never find a satisfactory reason.

By the end of chapter one, because of a wager between God and Satan, Job loses his oxen, donkeys, sheep, servants, camels, and children. Devastated by grief, he shaves his head, tears up his robe, and … falls to the ground in worship?

Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
may the name of the Lord be praised.

Have you known anyone to respond to a great loss – or a minor one for that matter – with sin  cere worship? Imagine comforting a grieving mother at a funeral by saying: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” A more common response is anger toward God, perhaps even a period of turning away. Yet Job does not hesitate to worship. A friend once said she gave daily thanks for both the good and bad things in her life. What a faithful prayer!

In all times, in all places, and under all circumstances, God loves us. It’s so very human to want explanations for suffering: God is testing us; God is refining us; God is punishing us. Maybe all of these are true and maybe none are. If there are lessons to be learned from our suffering, we should be open to them. But if there are none … God still loves us.

Worship always. If we must ask “What did I do to deserve this?” let the “this” be God’s undying, praiseworthy love.

For further reading on today’s text from Acts see Run Don’t Walk

For further reading on today’s text from John see Healthy Fear

Comfort: God is with you in good times and bad.

Challenge: Think back to a time you were angry with God. Offer Him now the praise you didn’t feel then.

Prayer: Creator and Redeemer, thank you for the love you bestow on me at all times. I am sorry for the times I couldn’t return it. I will praise you always. Amen.

Discussion: Everyone copes differently with grief. How do you?

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Money for Nothing

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 15; 147:1-11, Judges 18:16-31, Acts 8:14-25, John 6:1-15


The “prosperity gospel” teaches that if we give our resources (usually money) to God, God will reward us several times over in kind. Some preachers sell this idea through a basic list of proof texts, usually neglecting the proper context. Worse, they reduce faith to a transaction or formula ($1 x God = $10), and when people who faithfully put up money don’t realize a material return, their faith is called into question. Think about it: with all the spiritual difficulties Jesus assures us attend wealth, wouldn’t bestowing wealth almost be a punishment? Fortunately, Acts and John teach us some real truths about the nature of giving and resources in God’s kingdom.

When Simon, a magician-turned-convert, saw the apostles’ power to impart the spirit by laying on hands, he offered them money for the same power. Peter’s reaction is unequivocal: “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money!” Maybe Simon mistook the disciples’ practice of pooling resources for a membership fee, but his understanding of the relationship between faith and giving was seriously flawed. No one can buy grace or power. We do not give because we expect a return of wealth or status; we give because a relationship with God prompts generosity.

The miracle of the loaves and fishes is told in all four gospels. Beyond a sign of Christ’s power, this event teaches us no resource is too small in God’s kingdom. Like Andrew – who asked “But what are they among so many people?” – our expectations of God can be surprisingly low. Faith is not about outcomes, but trust. We should first have faith that when we act in God’s name, our resources will be abundant. This differs from the prosperity gospel because we believe God will use resources given in good faith to increase the kingdom, not our personal bank accounts.

“Believe and receive” is a misleading simplification of our faith in a God who provides for our needs. We are not called to a faith that bribes God to action, but to actions confident in a faith God has already provided.

Comfort: Our generosity is a grateful response to God’s generosity.

Challenge: Meditate on whether your giving fully reflects your gratitude.

Prayer: God of renewal, I offer generosity in thanks for your many gifts.. Amen.

Discussion: Money isn’t the only way people try to by favor. What other ways have you seen?

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Written Off?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 123; 146, Judges 18:1-15, Acts 8:1-13, John 5:30-47


After St. Stephen was martyred by leaders of a temple in Jerusalem, the eighth chapter of Acts tells us Saul – who would later become Saint Paul – stood watching and “approved of their killing him.” In the next chapter Saul will experience an astounding conversion, but before that happens he is a Roman Jew who persecutes and imprisons Christians. Can any of us imagine the person who is our greatest persecutor becoming our most ardent champion? Yet Christ made it possible for Saul. When Christ tells us to pray for our enemies, it’s not just to change their hearts, but to change ours as well. Because you never know.

In business, when customer debt is deemed uncollectible, the business has a few options. One is to write it off as bad debt. When this happens, the business can no longer consider that receivable an asset, though the business may continue to try to collect it or sell it off to a collection agency. Generally the business reports this event to credit reporting agencies, and the customer’s debt clings to them for years. A second option is to forgive the debt. The customer must be notified and the business can no longer try to collect. When Christ died for us, all our debts were forgiven … including Saul’s. That is why his past, once he accepted the notice he’d been forgiven, could not be held against him. That is why the present circumstances of anyone, including our persecutors and ourselves, do not give us permission to write them off. Because we never know.

When we write someone off, we say: “You no longer drag me down, but I retain the right to remind you and everyone else how you’ve done me wrong.” If we forgive them, we say: “I don’t like what you did, but it does me no good to waste effort on this debt. Go in peace and I’ll do the same.” Because of the cross, the decision has been taken out of our hands. After all, Jesus taught us to pray: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

Comfort: You aren’t responsible for judging all the wrongs of the world.

Challenge: Meditate on what debts you have trouble forgiving. Pick one to work on forgiving before the year is out.

Prayer: Lord of Healing, forgive me as I forgive my debtors. Amen.

Discussion: When customer debt is forgiven, it may be considered a form of income and therefore create a tax obligation. Do you feel that God’s forgiveness of our debts creates any obligations for us?

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Sax and Violence

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 135; 145, Judges 17:1-13, Acts 7:44-8:1a, John 5:19-29


Jazz musicians say the notes you don’t play are as important as the ones you do. In other words, a saxophone player improvising a riff is set apart by thoughtfully rejecting expectations and embracing alternative blank spaces.

The earliest Christians skipped a lot of notes.

Saint Stephen is widely recognized as Christianity’s first martyr. When he confronted the religious leaders of the Synagogue of the Freedmen in Jerusalem, Stephen reminded them how Israel had rejected the numerous prophets God had sent. He concluded by claiming Jesus was the latest, last, and worst example. The outraged leaders rushed him, dragged him out of the city, and stoned him. Stephen’s last words were: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

What notes did Stephen skip? The ones that might have soothed the ears of the temple leaders. Though the tales provided a familiar framework, the unfamiliar presentation turned the Jewish people from the heroes of their own story into the villains. Jazz can elicit many emotions, including anger, but its message is for those who have ears to hear.

He also skipped notes of violence. Neither Stephen nor any apostles responded to violence or threats with anything but prayer, forgiveness, and further conviction to spread the gospel. This absence of retaliation was undoubtedly as conspicuous as entire bars of musical silence. We don’t have to build an argument for general pacifism to see that when the first Christians were about the business of representing Christ, they did so without violence or even the implication of it.

We are a culture accustomed to violence. The more closely we associate the church with government, the more blurred the line between the business of the world and the business of Christ becomes. But defending a nation or a home is not the same as defending the faith. Violence was not an option Christ chose; at the very least it should not be our first. We always have the option to strike a violent chord, but when we claim to be about the Lord’s work, it matters which end of the spear we are on.

Comfort: We follow the Prince of Peace.

Challenge: This week seek out news and media about non-violent solutions to issues which have traditionally involved violence.

Prayer: Lord of Love, may there be peace in my mind, peace in my heart, peace in my hands, and peace on my lips. Amen.

Discussion: Do you have any personal experiences with the transformative power of preaching the Gospel through peaceful means?

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More Than Good Enough

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 19; 150, Judges 16:15-31, 2 Corinthians 13:1-11, Mark 5:25-34


Today we reach the end of the story of Samson. He has been unlikable, dull-witted, egotistical, impulsive, deceptive, a fatally sore loser, and more than a bit of a hound. In the plus column: he was physically strong because from birth he was consecrated to God as a Nazirite. His role as the God-appointed judge of Israel was “to begin to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines.” He accomplished his goal in spectacularly bloody fashion and died without revealing a single redeeming character trait. Charitably, he is not a poster child for righteousness. And that is why we should thank him.

If we can put aside our feelings about the violence of the story (although it may not bother some of us), we can take away an important lesson: God works with what we have to give. We may not have slain anyone because we lost a bet, or burned down entire farms because of a bad breakup, but we have plenty of our own flaws and self-destructive tendencies. God knows this, and is willing to work with us anyway.

It’s easy to think of ourselves or someone else as too flawed to be instruments of God. After all, God knows about the faults the rest of the world sees, and also those we manage to hide from everyone else. Shame, modesty, or both tell us we aren’t good enough to be of any real use to God. Judgment tells us someone else isn’t. When we picture a “servant of the Lord” that picture doesn’t usually include co-dependence, bad credit, or a pornography habit—all of which are small potatoes compared to Samson’s indiscretions. God will choose who God will choose, and our opinion doesn’t carry a lot of weight—especially when God chooses us. Moses tried to beg off because of a speech impediment, and Paul spoke frequently of an unidentified “thorn in his flesh” that kept him humble despite his importance.

We should try to correct our flaws, but rather than letting them define us, let’s try to see how God might be working in us, and in others.

Comfort: No matter how cracked, we are valuable vessels to God.

Challenge: When you find yourself judging someone, think about the hidden strengths God may have given her or him.

Prayer: God of healing, work through me as you will. Amen.

Discussion: Some psychological theories say the flip side of every virtue is a vice. Have you ever found that to be true?

For thoughts on today’s text from Mark, also see Go In Peace.

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Made Well

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 104; 149, Judges 16:1-14, Acts 7:30-43, John 5:1-18


If today’s reading from John had happened in the twenty-first century, someone would have captured it on smart-phone video and posted it to the internet with a click-bait title like: “Hundreds of people stepped right over this disabled man, but when a wandering stranger stopped you won’t believe what happened next!”

After arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus encountered a man who had been ill for 38 years. The man was waiting for a chance to immerse himself in a miraculous fountain. When Jesus asked the man if he wanted to be made well, the man talked about all the people who had obstructed him. This wasn’t exactly what he’d been asked, but in the end Jesus commanded him to take up his mat and walk away healed. Even though the man didn’t answer directly, the specifics of the question are important: “Do you want to be made well?”

Circumstances made it obvious the man desired healing. Jesus could easily have made some assumptions and healed him without asking. Instead, Jesus respected the dignity of his ability to choose — possibly the only dignity remaining to him. Only then did he intercede.

Sometimes we want God to just fix someone already. Maybe it’s someone else, or maybe that someone is us. When God doesn’t act on our schedule, we start thinking of ways to fix it ourselves. If Jesus gives us insight to the character of God, it seems God does not impose himself on us, but respects our ability to choose. People have to be willing to change – and that’s not always the same as wanting to. If we want to be made well — physically, emotionally, spiritually — God seems less interested in who we blame than in getting us on our feet. People step over us because they need healing too. Let’s not be so busy pointing fingers at the co-worker who wronged us or the parent who failed us that we don’t get around to saying “yes” to God. We may need God’s coaxing to rise up from our mat, but that first step is all on us.

Comfort: God respects your ability to choose.

Challenge: Say the serenity prayer.

Prayer: Loving God, open my eyes to the possibilities, and my feet will follow. Amen.

Discussion: What do you want to change about yourself? What do you want to change about someone else?

For further thoughts on today’s reading from John 5, visit Stepping Stone.

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!