Cornered

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 123; 146, 2 Samuel 18:9-18, Acts 23:12-24, Mark 11:27-12:12


Have you ever heard the phrase “paint yourself into a corner?” It means to unwittingly trap yourself in a no-win situation, like a person who, while painting a floor, ends in a corner where they can neither finish the job nor exit the room without making a mess.

The forty or so Jewish men of Jerusalem who were committed to killing Paul painted themselves into a kind of reputational corner. They publicly took an oath not to eat or drink until they’d killed him. Unfortunately for them (though fortunately for Paul), Paul’s nephew overheard their plot and arranged to have Paul removed to Caesarea before they could act. Scripture doesn’t tell us what the forty-plus men did next, but oaths were serious business so they couldn’t break one lightly. Given the undesirable and unlikely outcome of letting themselves die of hunger and thirst, we might wonder how long it took each of them to break down and take that first bite after realizing they faced the choice of dying or becoming an oath-breaker.

Remember Galileo? The Church convicted him of heresy for promoting the idea that the earth revolved around the sun. They clung to a vision of the cosmos with the earth at the physical center, despite clear evidence to the contrary. The paint on the church floor dried for centuries before they managed to escape the corner of pride and willful ignorance.

When a cherished or comforting belief conflicts with undeniable reality, clinging to that belief doesn’t demonstrate strong faith; it illuminates a fear that God does not dwell in the truth. A round earth and a heliocentric orbit may have once felt like threats to the Christian worldview, but scientists of the church like LeMaitre and Mendel, who advanced the fields of physics and genetics, understood the discovery of new truths – even if they conflict with our current beliefs – leads us to greater understanding of God.

Let us never be so closed-minded that our thoughts and words conspire to trap us into a corner where our instinct to be defensive overrides our willingness to expand our understanding.


Comfort: Wherever the truth leads you, God is there. 

Challenge: Read this article about scientists who were also Christians.

Prayer: Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. (Psalm 86:4)

Discussion: Have you ever been afraid of the truth?

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Divide and Concur

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 135; 145, 2 Samuel 17:24-18:8, Acts 22:30-23:11, Mark 11:12-26


Paul was a shrewd man. When he was arrested and brought before the council in Jerusalem, he noticed some of them were Pharisees like himself, and others were Sadducees. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection, spirits, and angels but the Sadducees did not. This was an ongoing point of contention. By mentioning that he himself was a Pharisee on trial concerning the resurrection of the dead, Paul accomplished a couple things.

First, he managed to gain some sympathy from the Pharisees. Instead of outright condemning him, they began to wonder “What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” Second, he moved the focus off himself and onto the ongoing theological quarrel between the two sects. Their dissension became so heated that the tribune, fearing for Paul’s life, had him removed to the barracks.

For such supposedly smart men, the council members were easily led into unnecessary conflict. Maybe that’s because we are so easily swayed by people who we believe to be part of our “tribe” and so suspicious of people who are not. We tend to assume friends and colleagues who agree with us on one controversial issue – abortion, for instance – will also agree with us other issues – such as same-sex marriage. When we discover they disagree, it may be difficult to reconcile. Conversely if someone disagrees with us on one topic we may presuppose they will disagree with us on others, and when they don’t we have to adjust our thinking about them. If we are unable or unwilling to make those adjustments, we can end up turning a blind eye to the faults of those we initially agree with, and an equally blind eye to the virtues of people we first disagree with.

The good news is, we aren’t required to pigeon-hole anyone.

We don’t have to divide into tribes, and we don’t have to agree on every point to be one body. Yitzhak Rabin said, “You don’t make peace with friends. You make it with very unsavory enemies.” If we are to be blessed as peacemakers, loving through disagreement is an absolute necessity.


Additional Reading:
For thoughts on today’s reading from Mark, see Faith and Figs.

Comfort: Agreement is not necessary for peace. 

Challenge: Watch, listen to, or read something from a point of view you generally disagree with, but listen for points where you might be able to agree.

Prayer: Every day I will bless you, and praise your name forever and ever. (Psalm 145:2)

Discussion: When is the last time you found yourself surprised to agree with a person or group?

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Silence: Golden or Fool’s Gold?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 19; 150, 2 Samuel 17:1-23, Galatians 3:6-14, John 5:30-47


The phrase “silence speaks volumes” can have different meanings. There’s an active silence when we refuse to speak, leaving others to draw their own conclusions. Ask a child, “Are those your crayon drawings all over the wall?” and silence probably answers the question for you. This silence gives us a slight sense of control when speaking would be difficult.

Then there’s a passive silence, like when we hear gossip among friends, or racist remarks in the cafeteria. In that silence we relinquish control, and those who hear it – or rather, don’t hear it – are more free to interpret it as they will. Declining to participate may send a message that we don’t agree or approve, but it is just as likely (and arguably more so)  to be heard as indifference, assent, agreement, or possibly fear.

As far as we know, David’s trusted counselor Ahithophel kept his silence after David arranged for the death of Uriah so he might marry Uriah’s wife Bathsheba – who was Ahithophel’s granddaughter. (Yes, the book of Samuel should come with a scorecard.) Perhaps this is why, when David’s son Absalom took his father’s throne, Ahithophel so easily swapped allegiances and began to counsel Absalom. It’s not hard to imagine David never saw this betrayal coming.

Whether it’s in business meetings, friendly conversation, or important debates, we should be careful not to make assumptions about people’s silence. Doing so can lead to serious miscalculations. We should also be careful about our own silence, because people will fill in the blanks for us. We don’t need to weigh in with an opinion on everything (Proverbs tells us “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue”), but there are times when an assumption of agreement or neutrality is dangerous. Consider this quote from writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel:

Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.
Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

There is no such thing as “no news”; there is what people hear, and what they assume. Let’s be wise using both our words and our silence.


Additional Reading:
For thoughts on today’s reading from John, see Two Point Perspective.

Comfort: Your words can affect the world for the better. 

Challenge: Pray about when to speak and when to keep silent.

Prayer: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)

Discussion: When do you feel most free to speak up? When do you feel least able?

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Invitation: Preemptive Strike

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Earlier this week, I had a brief exchange with a stranger on Facebook.

He’d made a comment claiming that he couldn’t talk to liberals because as soon as they learned he was a Republican, they accused him of being a racist, anti-gay, hateful, gun nut. I responded that I am a liberal Christian and didn’t make any of those assumptions about him.

He replied, “Good for you for not being like all the rest of them.”

I don’t think he saw the irony of defending himself against stereotyping by promoting more stereotyping.

I’ve had similar online and face-to-face exchanges with people who claim Christians do nothing but promote intolerance and then dismiss countless examples of charitable and loving efforts as “exceptions that prove the rule” – which, by the way, isn’t really what that phrase means.

Right now we live in an atmosphere that promotes division. It encourages us to assign one label to a person – conservative, liberal, Christian,  atheist, feminist, socialist, capitalist, whatever – and assume they possess all the attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs of the most extreme people who claim those labels.

That there is some lazy thinking, and even lazier loving. It gives us permission to stereotype and perceive ourselves as victims of stereotyping at the same time. It even recycles language formerly associated primarily with racism, such as “That Joe is one of the ‘good’ ones.”

This kind of thinking is not fair or welcoming. We can’t express it in our churches and homes and expect anyone to take us seriously when we say all are welcome at Christ’s table.

On the flip side, we shouldn’t assume others are thinking that way. If you suspect someone may want to judge or stereotype you because they identify as liberal or conservative, don’t preemptively do their job for them by being pre-offended. Let them do their own dirty work of exclusion. Or – better yet – be pleasantly surprised that they don’t hate you because you’re different.

There will always be some people who want to deliberately exclude or oppress others, and we will stand up to such injustice.  There will be many more people – myself included – who will always be in a state of learning about how we can better relate to and learn from our fellow human beings.

At Christ’s table, we manage to put our differences on hold for the duration of a single, communal meal. One bite, one sip. Whatever else is going on in our lives, we find common purpose and need at Christ’s table. Can we take that moment and expand it? Throughout the week, can we preemptively assume we will accept and be accepted? We very well might do so and be wrong, but otherwise we will miss every chance to be right.

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

Just Like Us

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 104; 149, 2 Samuel 16:1-23, Acts 22:17-29, Mark 11:1-11


Political intrigue. Royal infighting. Double agents. Unchecked lust. Questioned loyalties. Revenge killings.

The story of David and his family could be the plot of a bestselling summer beach novel or a hit Netflix series. At any given point in the narrative, it’s hard to draw a firm line between the good guys and the bad guys. Sometimes they don’t even know themselves. When David’s bodyguards want to kill someone for cursing him, he stops them and says:

“If he is cursing because the LORD has said to him, ‘Curse David,’ who then shall say, ‘Why have you done so?’ […] My own son seeks my life; how much more now may this Benjaminite! Let him alone, and let him curse; for the LORD has bidden him.”

David is tragically flawed. So is Absalom, the son who betrays him. Both have complex motivations for their behavior. We can in turn find both of them completely sympathetic and utterly disappointing.

In other words, Bible Stars: They’re Just Like Us!

Past or present and undoubtedly into the future, humanity is what it is.

We can bemoan the state of the world and its inhabitants, or we can be grateful for a God who loves creation enough to work with us as we are. We will misstep; we will falter; we will do horrible things; but God will not give up on us – even when we give up on ourselves. For all his flaws, David remained a willing servant. Even during the time of his exile, he considered not that God had let him down, but that his desires might not be God’s will.

If God loves, accepts, and works through the frustrating brood that is humanity … so must we. No matter how much we anger and dumbfound one another, there really are no alternatives. Christ challenges us to do good to the people who are unlike us, the people who hurt us, the people who have nothing to offer us. Rather than denigrate others for their flaws and sins, let us embrace and uplift each other as God will always do with us.


Additional Reading:
For thoughts on today’s reading from Acts, see Citizenship.

Comfort: God loves us as we are and calls us to be more. 

Challenge: Try praying for your enemies, not to defeat them, but to bless them.

Prayer: Loving and righteous God, teach me to love as Christ loved. Amen.

Discussion: Does it comfort or trouble you that giants of the faith are very much like us?

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Usurpers

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 51; 148, 2 Samuel 15:19-37, Acts 21:37-22:16, Mark 10:46-52


Absalom’s seizure of his father David’s throne was what we might call a bloodless coup. In the nine years between the rape of Absalom’s sister Tamar by David’s other son Amnon (the event which effectively destroyed their relationship), their father-son dynamic went from estranged, to distant, to cool, and finally to enmity. Absalom used much of this time to win the favor of the people of Israel and quietly plot against his father, whom he knew would be reluctant to do him harm. By the time David and his court realized the inevitability of Absalom’s usurpation, they could do little more than  flee to the countryside.

Both small changes and veritable revolutions can catch us unawares – especially when we don’t want to believe they’re happening. Surely David, steeped as he was in a lifetime of political intrigue, should have seen the warning signs. Perhaps his desire to be reconciled with a son he loved clouded his judgment. That same fatherly love had caused him to stay the hand of judgment when Amnon did the unthinkable to Tamar.

None of us have a kingdom at stake, but we should always be alert for those who would usurp the Kingdom.   Who are these people? Politicians who pay lip service to Christianity to further unrelated – sometimes contrary – agendas. Religious leaders who for personal gain exploit our desire to be generous and charitable. Cultural figures who use their Christianity – conservative, liberal, or moderate – as a sword instead of a plowshare.

Absalom won the love of the people before dethroning their God-anointed king. Like the proverbial frog boiled so gradually it didn’t notice, they probably didn’t realize when or why they were in hot water. Our church, our community, and even our nation can shift around us if it does so by nearly imperceptible degrees which we find easy to ignore because of love and loyalty.

Our own well intended perceptions can be skewed by many factors. If Christ remains our benchmark – our plumb line – we will be able to spot intentions and actions which claim the gospel but do not square with it.


Additional Reading:
For thoughts on today’s reading from Mark, see Stop! Collaborate and Listen.

Comfort: Christ is our most reliable standard. 

Challenge: When you love or are loyal to something, don’t be afraid to be critical of it.

Prayer: Loving and righteous God, make your ways clear to me. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever been part of a community group whose character changed, or wasn’t who you thought they were?

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I Will Follow You (Wherever You May Go)

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 147:12-20, 2 Samuel 15:1-18, Acts 21:27-36, Mark 10:32-45


Jesus wanted the disciples to be prepared for what was to come. In very plain language he predicted his death three times, yet the disciples did not seem to understand. On the third occasion he said:

See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.

In the very next paragraph, “James and John […] said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’” They asked to sit at his right and left hands in paradise.  Jesus had to decline, but it seems gracious that he humored them at all considering what he’d told just them. One paragraph following the next doesn’t mean quite a bit of time couldn’t have elapsed between them, but asking favors after that seems a little … self-involved.

Yet we can all be self-involved. Our calling is to follow Christ and share him with others, but some of the most popular Christian books and preachers focus on the “name it and claim it” gospel which teaches what Jesus can do for us. Church is for worshipping our God, but we often choose one based more on how good it makes us feel than how it challenges us to grow in the radical love and humility Christ requests of his disciples.

We don’t find that “peace which passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) by praying for trouble-free lives, but by following Jesus wherever he leads, including enemy territory. And that “perfect love which casts out fear” (1 John 4:18)? It doesn’t sprout in hearts that play it safe; we first must face the fear of loving those we find unlovable.

Following Christ is its own reward. Step by step we are transformed and grow less concerned about what Christ can do for us, and more about how we can serve him.


Comfort: Following Christ transforms us. 

Challenge: Keep a journal about how following Christ changes you.

Prayer: Loving God, I set my face towards Christ. May my discipleship glorify your name. Amen.

Discussion: What’s the difference between a selfish prayer, and a prayer for yourself?

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Tradition!

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, 2 Samuel 14:21-33, Acts 21:15-26, Mark 10:17-31


Since Jesus first challenged the Pharisees and their application of the law, his followers have struggled with our relationship to custom and tradition. Some, like Paul, look beyond tradition to a wider ministry. Others like the church in Jerusalem have a harder time letting go. Today Christians don’t observe many Jewish traditions or customs, but we have added many of our own which can make us seem as rigid as Pharisees. How do we know when to hold on, and when to let go?

Paul’s efforts to gather Gentiles under the umbrella of Christ’s grace caused many to doubt his commitment to his Jewish identity. Like many efforts at inclusiveness, Paul’s acceptance of “the other” was interpreted by his existing community as a rejection. To assuage their concerns, Paul went through the Jewish rituals of purification, but he understood his salvation was in Christ, not ritual. Modern churches experience something similar when leaders reach out to new people with different customs. From new musical styles to liturgical revision to more inclusive language, some people will resist change – and possibly grace.

But change simply for its own sake isn’t good either. When Jesus, using wine as a metaphor, declares “The old is good,” (Luke 5:39) he is talking about the very old – the love and purpose of God that predate even the law. We tend to forget customs and traditions were once new, and after a time we may focus more on a tradition than its purpose. In some churches, a misstep during the offertory, a bungling of the Words of Institution, or an improperly stored card table can cause great consternation. When this happens, it’s time to examine whether our traditions serve the very old, or if we – like the Pharisees – have lost sight of their true purpose. In the latter case we do not necessarily have to change our traditions, but we do need to renew our relationship to them.

As faithful followers of Christ, we should respect what he respected, and challenge what he challenged. To do this well, we must know why we do what we do.


Comfort: Traditions can bring us much comfort and sense of order. 

Challenge: Question traditions that don’t positively inform your faith life.

Prayer: I will sing of your steadfast love, O LORD, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations. (Psalm 89:1)

Discussion: Families and groups of friends also form traditions. What are some of these traditions you value most, and why?

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Traditional Relationships

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, 2 Samuel 14:1-20, Acts 21:1-14, Mark 10:1-16


Time after time, Jesus taught his followers love, mercy, and justice supersede any technically correct but unjust applications of the law. He ate with “unclean” sinners (Mark 2). He violated Sabbath law to heal (Mark 3 and elsewhere) and declared the Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around. He declared all foods “clean” (Mark 7).  He criticized religious leaders for their hypocrisy (chapter all-of-them). Many felt like he was tossing out the rulebook. Until the Pharisees asked about divorce.

Suddenly Jesus was proposing stricter standards, saying Moses permitted divorce only because his people were stubborn and those who remarried committed adultery. Does this seem like an unexpected turn? Not if we understand that Jesus also calls us to integrity. At the time, a man could divorce his wife regardless of her wishes. After that he owed her nothing, and she could easily find herself begging in the street. Consigning someone to such a fate because someone else caught your eye was the opposite of merciful and just.

While modern divorce does not generally result in such extreme circumstances, it is always unfortunate. Society expects (insists?) divorcing parties to be antagonistic, or even vindictive. Yet as we do in all situations, we have the choice to act with integrity. For ourselves and our children, we should do our best to remember the other person is a beloved child of God, whom we once professed to love as well.

Integrity requires us to approach every potential relationship with respect. People don’t exist just to fulfill our temporary whims, needs, and desires. Before entering relationships, we are wise to be self-aware and transparent about how willing we are to commit. Half-hearted attempts to keep a marriage or friendship alive can be devastating to someone giving it their all and expecting we are doing the same.

Relationships of all kinds can strain and break, but as members of the body of Christ we remain united at some level. Even when we can’t stand each other – maybe especially then – the route of mercy and justice leads us home to wholeness.


Additional Reading:
For more thoughts on today’s reading from Mark, see Flip.
For reflection on today’s passage from Acts, see Horse Sense.

Comfort: You deserve to have healthy relationships. 

Challenge: Be wise about your commitments to people; mean what you say and say what you mean.

Prayer: How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! Teach me O LORD to make peace in my home. Amen. (based on Psalm 133:1)

Discussion: Some of us have many relationships of some depth, and others have a few relationships of great depth. Both are fine as long as we are honest about them. Which option are you prone to?

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House of Cards

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 145, 2 Samuel 13:23-39, Acts 20:17-38, Mark 9:42-50


We are a nation built on a house of credit cards.

Buy now, pay later. Ninety days same as cash. Getting what we want when we want it seems great, but the people who market credit to us (and it’s a product, not a favor) make more money when we can’t pay them back right away. It’s not called interest for nothing. Middle class households easily overextend themselves into bankruptcy, and between interest and fees poorer people borrow their way right into modern indentured servitude.

Delayed payments are always the most expensive.

It’s difficult to say whether David learned this lesson the hard way, or not at all. When David’s first-born son Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar, David was angry but did nothing because he loved Amnon. Tamar’s full brother Absalom spent two years plotting his revenge on Amnon. He invited all the king’s sons to a feast, and when Amnon was “merry with wine” he ordered his servants to strike Amnon dead. Afterward Absalom fled. It was three more years before he would reunite with his family, but even then the rift between them grew ever worse.

When we sin against others – as individuals, as families, as cultures, or as nations – we don’t do ourselves any favors by delaying payment in the form of repentance. Even if it seems we got away with it, the undercurrent is waiting to drag us down. Especially when it comes to past societal sins, we might want people to just “get over it” … but David could have told you how well that works.

If we sin at an individual level – abuse, neglect, greed, deception – we need to make individual repentance. If we sin at a societal level – systemic oppression, environmental devastation – we need to make repentance at a societal level. That can be tough pill to swallow, because we don’t always feel individually responsible. Yet scripture tells us time and again individuals rise and fall with their communities, regardless of personal culpability. That’s a pretty good reason to participate in the conscience of your community before the cards come due and tumble down.


Additional Reading:
For thoughts on today’s reading from Mark, see There is no eye in team Jesus.

Comfort: Repentance will set you free. 

Challenge: When repentance seems unfair, remember it is not about guilt, but healing.

Prayer: But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, so that those who love your name may exult in you. (Psalm 5:11)

Discussion: How do you feel about cleaning up messes you didn’t personally make?

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