No apologies. Sort of.

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, 1 Samuel 1:21-2:11, Acts 1:15-26, Luke 20:19-26


When someone criticizes your faith or religious beliefs, what is your first reaction? What about challenges to other beliefs, like politics, music, or sports? Most of us instinctively want to defend our position. This isn’t by default a bad response, but it probably shouldn’t be our only response. Eager as we might be to “enlighten” the person who disagrees with us by exposing them to a torrent of fact, idea, and opinion, such a defensive reaction does not send a message of confidence. To the contrary, it often comes across as desperate, or even self-delusional.

This need to convince others – or maybe ourselves? – that we are right keeps Christian bookstores in business. Their shelves are stocked with volume after volume of apologetics ( defenses of and arguments for the Christian faith) supposedly meant to arm the well-meaning Christian against non-believers, especially smart ones who push (shudder) science. Careful study of these books on creationism, biblical inerrancy and gospel reliability reveals they are mostly meant to help Christians convince ourselves we haven’t backed the wrong high horse. Being knowledgeable about our faith, its tenets, and its history is a good thing – a scripturally sound one actually – but there’s a fine line between defending the faith and becoming defensive about it. If our faith balances on an intricate and delicate house of Bible flash cards atop brittle doctrine, its eventual fall is only ever one firmly slammed door away.

Listening to challenges and evidence with an open mind isn’t equal to admitting we are wrong; a firmly founded faith will withstand a little rough weather. If the scribes and priests in today’s passage from Luke had been willing to hear the criticisms Jesus gave in his parables, they might have appeared less foolish and actually learned something. When God speaks to us through others, it’s rarely to say “Keep on doing what you’re doing.”

Testimony is more effective as an invitation than a lecture or subpoena.  Should we develop a coherent understanding of our beliefs? Certainly. Yet the foundation of faith and faith shared rests not on our own understanding, but God’s.

Comfort: Our love of God speaks volumes more than our explanations of God.

Challenge: When someone disagrees with you, listen first to understand, and respond only when the situation requires it.

Prayer: God, I love you with all my heart and all my mind. Amen.

Discussion: What’s something you believe that you can’t prove? Why do you believe it?

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Hannah and Her Sisters

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 145, 1 Samuel 1:1-20, Acts 1:1-14, Luke 20:9-19


The Book of Samuel begins with the story of his mother, Hannah. One of Elkanah’s two wives, she was distraught because she had not borne any children while his other wife had. Elkanah loved Hannah dearly. When she wept and would not eat, he asked, “Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

Reading this passage, I could not help but think of several women friends who have no children, some by choice, some by circumstance, and some by disappointment. As a man, this is not my territory to map. As a friend, I hope to pass on some of what they’ve trusted me enough to share.

“How many children do you have?” seems to be a go-to question between women getting acquainted at work or in social settings in the way sports establishes common ground between many men. Usually it starts a conversation about something people love and have in common, but for some it is a complex, even painful, question. If you’ve lost a child, you may struggle for an appropriate answer. If you answer you have no children, especially if it’s not by choice, you need to brace yourself for the inevitable “I bet you’d make a great mother” or other well-meaning phrase which implies your hope for a fulfilling life ultimately relies on motherhood. Confidently stating motherhood isn’t part of your plan can unnerve people who consider it a sacred duty.

Hannah, through prayer and supplication, eventually has a child she dedicates to the service of the Lord. Many women won’t have, or want to have, the same outcome. While motherhood is a beautiful vocation, women are more than extensions of their children (or their husbands … even if he seems worth ten or more sons). A life without children, while it may contain a specific kind of grief, is not a consolation prize.

Children are a source of joy, but they are not the only source. Let us learn to see God fully at work in all lives and to value people for who they are, not who we think they need to be.

Comfort: Failing to meet people’s expectations is not failing to meet God.

Challenge: Remember that your dream is not everyone’s dream.

Prayer: Gracious and loving God, teach me compassion and empathy. Amen.

Discussion: How can we be more sensitive and inclusive about the topic of children?

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Breaking The Cycle

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, Exodus 6:2-13; 7:1-6, Revelation 15:1-8, Matthew 18:1-14


The “cycle of poverty” describes how the experience of poverty, usually over several generations, alters people’s perceptions and behaviors such that they can not find a way to escape it. Culture, education, and economics can also work against people caught in the cycle. Some exceptional people manage to break out, but more often people need the grace of intervention. Intervention vs. charity is sometimes described as “a hand up instead of a handout.” It’s a catchy saying, but implies people are more in control of their circumstances than they actually are.

Not everyone agrees with this viewpoint. Some insist we can all pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and failing to do so illustrates a lack of will and/or character. However, the Book of Exodus seems to sympathize with the damage inflicted by such a cycle.

When God sent Moses to tell the captive people of Israel they would soon be set free, “they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.” Was God’s next step to lecture the Israelites on their character and willpower? No. It was to send Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh, where they could makes foundational changes on a systemic level.

“But those were slaves, not the poor,” we might argue.

The distinction between slavery and poverty is not as sharp as we might like it to be. The hard truth is, the wealthy have greater freedoms – including the freedom to make good economic decisions, hire good legal representation, etc. – than the poor have. We can stereotype welfare queens and panhandlers, but does anyone believe they weren’t also once children with dreams to be doctors or artists or astronauts? Dreams don’t die, they are suffocated by injustice.

Jesus declared “Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks” placed before children. He was speaking of spiritual stumbling blocks, but poverty and its associated injustices affect both the physical and spiritual well-being of children. He told the story of a shepherd seeking one lost sheep out of a hundred; how would he feel about the one billion left behind to poverty (fifteen million of them in the United States)?  What we do about poverty and how we think about the poor matters to God.

None of us can solve poverty, but we can change how we understand it and how we approach it. We are all accountable for our choices, but we are all also accountable for helping make sure those choices are available to everyone.

Comfort: Needing help does not make you weak or sinful.

Challenge: When you are tempted to blame people for their circumstances, remember some of the bad decisions you’ve struggled to overcome.

Prayer: Loving God, help me to be generous and wise, to meet needs that will change people’s lives. Amen.

Discussion: When have you asked for help? If you’ve needed help but not asked for it, how did you feel about getting it – or not getting it?

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Invitation: Daylily

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In the late spring of every year, the daylilies start to appear in the back yard. I’m no gardener, but I do enjoy the beauty of flowers and these ones, with their brilliant orange glow, pop like slow-burning fireworks of joy.

Aside from an occasional watering when the weather grows unseasonably hot or dry – which I’m not sure they even need – they require no effort to maintain. These beauties were here when we got here, and unless someone purposely tears them out, they will long outlast us. Given the short lifespan of any individual flower, that seems a little mystical.

Of course the desirability of any plant is subjective to the grower. I’ve heard people say daylilies are “just this side of weeds” and “invasive nuisances.” Still, I get excited when I see them appear in a corner of the yard where they hadn’t been before. They may be my favorite kind of drop-in guests.

The more there are, the brighter the glow. When the sun hits the yard at just the right angle, it puts me in mind of the holy fire of Pentecost, a season we are in the midst of at this moment.

Maybe we can take some invitational inspiration from the daylily.

It doesn’t appear because of anything elaborate we’ve done – no special programming, no fancy greenhouse. It appears because its nature is to bask in the sun for the short time it has on earth, and it thrives when we accept it for who it is and offer assistance during tough times.

Daylilies are as common as the dirt they grow in, but God has seen fit to imbue them with striking beauty. There may be fancier plants in the garden, more serious subjects which require elaborate knowledge and constant care to grow, but we miss a lot of grace if we choose to equate common with nuisance, or if we devote all our attention to the “important” blooms and never look around at what we’ve been given freely. When they show up uninvited in the odd corner where they aren’t “supposed” to be, could it be a misplaced sense of control that compels us to reign them in rather than marvel at their resilience?

People are going to show up at Christ’s table uninvited. We might prefer them to have been better tended, more holy and less common in appearance or demeanor, closer to some design we had in mind, but God puts them where God will. Our job isn’t to weed them out, but to find the Christ in them and offer spiritual and physical nourishment as needed. Viewed from just the right angle, even the most common flower glows, and the more who gather around Christ’s table, the brighter the glow.

Who are we to determine who deserves to bask in the Son? Let us be gardens of welcome.

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

Getting Engaged

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 63; 149, Song of Solomon 5:10-16; 7:1-2 (3-5) 6-7a (9); 8:6-7, 2 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 20:1-8


Paul’s relationship with the church in Corinth was a rocky one. In his letter known as 2 Corinthians, Paul encourages and scolds, loves and mocks, thanks and threatens, delights and defends. Naturally written from his perspective, this epistle still includes clues about his contributions to the friction. Yet in conclusion, Paul writes with all sincerity: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”

How often do we hear such words spoken today between opposing interests? To the contrary, traditional and social media by design encourage not reconcilation across disagreements but confirmation of our existing beliefs and biases. We can find television networks that tell us what we want to hear and marginalize those who disagree. The feeds of most popular social media sites follow algorithms engineered to categorize us into ever narrower groups for marketing; the intention may not be to divide us, but division is at the least a problematic side effect.

Paul had many disagreements with members of the Corinthian church, including their lack of basic respect for him. Yet he remained committed to them as fellow Christians bound in common faith and community. He understood that neither the things that deserved his praise nor those that needed correction completely defined them. Paul remained engaged with them in an honest and loving way, though he knew not all of them were presently willing to return the favor. He had enough faith to believe his persistent love would lead to reconciliation, and enough wisdom to know that wouldn’t necessarily mean complete agreement.

How willing are we to engage with people who disagree with us – religiously, politically, culturally, etc – not to argue or defeat, but to actually interact with them as human beings instead of representations of a particular category? Paul could easily have left the Corinthians to the care of those he called “Super Apostles” (akin to today’s televangelists), but then everyone except those willing to exploit division would have lost. People can’t see us for who we truly are until we show up.

Comfort: God does not see us as labels.

Challenge: We should not see each other that way either.

Prayer: Gracious God, source of all love, teach me to love all your children, as they are my brothers and sisters. Amen.

Discussion: Is there any category of people you dismiss out of hand?

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Things That Make For Peace

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 148, Song of Solomon 2:8-13; 4:1-4a, 5-7, 9-11, 2 Corinthians 12:11-21, Luke 19:41-48


Let’s consider these words from Jesus which he spoke as, weeping, he approached Jerusalem:

If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground […] because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.

This prediction came to pass about 40 years later when Rome crushed a Jewish rebellion and burned the temple. Interesting history, but history and prophecy also usually having something to say to us in the present if we really listen.

How are we failing to recognize “the things that make for peace?” Despite admonitions from Jesus to turn the other cheek and do good to those who persecute us, we remain adept at rationalizing violence, war, and revenge (masquerading as justice). Jesus said love your enemies and hate your family. When we decide which of his teachings were hyperbole and which he meant us to put into literal action, why don’t these ever seem to be the latter? The things that make for peace aren’t about correcting or controlling outside factors, but about making the personal sacrifices necessary for peace. If someone decides that means going off to war we write patriotic songs about it, but if another decides it means refusing to go to war (and risking imprisonment) we toss out slurs like coward and traitor. Following the Prince of Peace may not make us absolute pacifists, but we must face the emotional and physical violence we excuse – even celebrate – in our own lives.

Ignore the things that make for peace long enough, and when we need them they will be hidden from us in a blindness of our own choosing. The world has enough people, Christian and not, justifying why we don’t have to love self-sacrificially as Christ commanded. War and hate thrive regardless of whether we support or participate in them. Peace does not.

Comfort: Peaceful actions are a sign of strength.

Challenge: When you find yourself looking for reasons to justify violence, look just as hard for reasons not to.

Prayer: Prince of Peace, create in me a loving heart and thoughtful mind. Amen.

Discussion: When do you think violence is justified? How does that fit with your understand of Jesus’s teachings?

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Thorn In My Side

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 116; 147:12-20, Song of Solomon 1:1-3, 9-11, 15-16a; 2:2-3a, 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, Luke 19:28-40


Have you ever heard the expression “thorn in my side?” It means a persistent, often painful difficulty. We get this phrase from the Apostle Paul, who wrote to the church in Corinth:

Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

We don’t know the exact nature of Paul’s metaphorical thorn. His ailment could have been physical, spiritual, or emotional. Whatever it was, he had to learn to live with it. Paul chose to accept this thorn as an instrument of humility, one that kept him from becoming too full of himself.

We all suffer from something (or maybe several somethings) we’d rather be rid of. From ADD to sexual temptation to lumbago, everyone has a weakness. Paul provides an example of how we might approach such weakness in a positive way. Rather than become resentful or defensive about it, we can let it serve as a reminder to be charitable toward the struggles of others. When we see someone wrestling with the same demons we do, we can judge them (though we are really judging ourselves) or we can be empathetic and supportive. If someone struggles with an issue that gives us no problems at all, we should remember another person might easily pluck out a thorn that has rooted deeply in our own flesh.

“Power is made perfect in weakness” because it illustrates how God is never limited by the same things we are, but also because our weakness, properly considered, tempers our pride.

Our thorn – perhaps from the same branch that circled the head of Christ – is a sign that true love for the suffering is never pity, but solidarity. Though we don’t have to enjoy our weaknesses, let us give thanks for the blessings of humility and love that wouldn’t exist without them.

Comfort: You are not defined by your weakness.

Challenge: When you see others struggle, especially with something you’ve overcome, remember your own thorns.

Prayer: Thank you God for teaching me to rely on you in all things. Amen.

Discussion: How do you react to your own weakness?

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Failure is Not an Option

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 147:1-11, Deuteronomy 31:30-32:14, 2 Corinthians 11:21b-33, Luke 19:11-27


In the parable of the ten minas (a unit of currency worth about four months’ wages), Jesus tells the story of a wealthy land owner who entrusts one mina each to ten servants before he traveled abroad to have himself appointed king (an unpopular idea among his subjects). Upon his triumphant return, the newly appointed king summoned his servants to find out how they had handled his money. The first one had earned a tenfold return, the second a fivefold return, and the third had buried it and returned it without increase. The king gave the first servant ten cities, the second five cities, and took the mina away from the third to give it to the first.

This parable was about how Jesus’s followers should invest their time and talents while they waited for the eventual arrival of the Kingdom. We hear about the results of three servants, but what of the other seven? Specifically, what do we think would have happened to a servant who made an honest effort to increase his or her mina but lost it all? The king says that those who have nothing will lose even more … but is he talking about money? After all, this is a parable about faith.

We might find a clue in the master’s response: “I will judge you by your own words.” If we, like the third servant, live timidly because we believe in a tyrannical, petty God, that is the God we will experience. But if we trust God and the gifts given us, and use them boldly, we will find they increase. And in the event of failure, we must continue to trust. Trust approaches failure like a comma that gives us pause to gather our thoughts, rather than a period that completes our sentence. Trust in God means failure, even unto death, is never the final state.

Let’s make confident, risky investments of the gifts God has entrusted to us. We will inevitably experience failures, but if we are to be judged by our own words, let us speak of a merciful, loving Lord.

Comfort: Faith in action is faith multiplied.

Challenge: On scraps of paper, write down things you are afraid to do, but think you should. Put them in a bowl, mix them up, and commit to doing the one you pull out at random.

Prayer: My Lord and Savior, I will trust you with all my mind, heart, and soul. Amen.

Discussion: What fears stop you from doing the things you want to?

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The Sarcasm Chasm

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 12; 146, Deuteronomy 30:11-20, 2 Corinthians 11:1-21a, Luke 19:1-10


Do you have any friends who describe themselves as “fluent in sarcasm?” It’s a popular phrase. Some people describing themselves this way  do indeed understand the definition and subtleties of sarcasm, but others use it to excuse a general attitude of – for lack of a better term – meanness. Sarcasm, irony, and snark seem to have become the default mode of communication for many people, often as a substitute for wit – which itself has become more of an end than a means. All these tools can be used to make effective points and observations, but only when they are used strategically. We may enjoy rough and tumble banter with our friends, but constant, almost competitive sarcasm erodes actual communication and civility. Sincerity has almost become countercultural.

Paul was not afraid of employing sarcasm, but he did it sparingly and effectively. When members of the church in Corinth started falling for flashy and gimmicky preachers claiming to represent Christ but really representing their own self interests, he sarcastically referred to himself as a fool.

For you gladly put up with fools, being wise yourselves! For you put up with it when someone makes slaves of you, or preys upon you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or gives you a slap in the face. To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that!

Imagine how the people of Corinth must have sensed his frustration in these biting words! Paul can get away with it because most of the time he is sincere – almost painfully so.

Proverbs 15:4 tells us “The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit.” Ecclesiastes 10:12 says “Words from the mouth of the wise are gracious, but fools are consumed by their own lips.” Perhaps the key to effective sarcasm is recognizing the difference between using it to make an actual point, and using it to make ourselves seem clever at another’s expense.

The capacity for language is a gift from God. So is humor. Let’s use them both in ways that build each other up.

Comfort: You don’t have to be clever to be loving.

Challenge: Go on sarcasm fast for a day. Or, if you are not prone to sarcasm, think about constructive ways to respond to it.

Prayer: God in my mind, God in my heart, God on my lips. Amen.

Discussion: Do you have any thoughts on the use of sarcasm in our current culture?

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Speak No Evil

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 62; 145, Deuteronomy 30:1-10, 2 Corinthians 10:1-18, Luke 18:31-43


The Apostle Paul was well aware that, despite evangelistic success, he could be unlikable. In his second letter to the Corinthians – a church he was persuading to give generously to a cause they did not totally support – he preempted their objections.

I do not want to seem as though I am trying to frighten you with my letters. For they say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.” Let such people understand that what we say by letter when absent, we will also do when present.

In stark contrast to his fiery letters full of conviction, many people found the man himself physically unimpressive and not especially eloquent; less a butterfly treasured for his charisma than a gadfly to be endured or shooed away. People of passion – today we might call them activists or missionaries – can often seem annoying. Their dedication (or single-mindedness, if we are less kind) chips away at our comfort and conscience. Perhaps it is their indifference toward popularity and appeal that makes them more effective at changing the world for the better.

There may also have been some truth to the accusations that his letters were stronger than his tongue. It’s human nature to be a little bolder when we are separated from our audience by time, space, and the written word. Browse almost any online forum to see just how bold it can get. Paul and his contemporaries certainly didn’t have social media as we think of it, but in their own way his letters went viral as they were read multiple times to entire congregations.

History teaches us Paul’s deeds backed up his words. Our own Christian commitment should direct us to keep our attitudes in check even when we feel emboldened by distance or anonymity. Do our comments on the internet, or the tone we direct at customer service representatives, reflect what we would say in person if Jesus was listening? We know they ought to. Let’s try to be as self-aware as Paul, dedicating our words and actions to Christ with equal conviction.

Comfort: Angrier words are not always more effective words.

Challenge: For a few days, pretend Jesus is in earshot of everything you say.

Prayer: My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord. Amen.

Discussion: What prompts you to lose your composure?

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