Whaddya know?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 122; 149, 2 Kings 11:1-20a, 1 Corinthians 7:10-24, Matthew 6:19-24


In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul offers a teaching to men and women who have become followers of Christ, but whose spouses are unbelievers. He tells them not to divorce if the unbeliever still consents to stay together; indeed the unbelieving spouse is made holy by their union and may yet be saved. However if the unbelieving partner leaves, the believer is not bound by the marriage.

Paul makes clear to his audience an important distinction about this teaching and some of his others: it comes from him, not from God. Paul’s marriage advice was based on faithful conclusions he drew from his best understanding of Christ and the gospel, and undoubtedly he fully believed what he was saying, but he was still humble enough not to speak on behalf of God.

A lot of preachers – and for that matter a lot of lay people – fail to make that same distinction, even internally.

For example, we all know about television and radio evangelists, and local clergy as well, who just can’t seem to resist any opportunity to blame a natural disaster on some group of sinners. They will declare it the wrath of God or a message from Christ without any evidence beyond their own axe to grind. For purposes of this comparison it doesn’t even matter whether they are right: what matters is they don’t know whether they are or not, but claim it as if God told them personally. Talk about taking the Lord’s name in vain.

We can know better. More importantly, we can do better. Let’s never be so certain we know who God wants to punish that we don’t leave room for mercy. Remember Zoar? That’s the city God spared, but people who want us to remember (and misrepresent) only Sodom and Gomorrah don’t tend to bring it up. And then there’s Nineveh: God strong-armed his not-so-faithful servant Jonah into convincing them to repent when Jonah would rather have seen them destroyed.

Our national or cultural enemies – even the sinners we really think ought to – do not define God’s enemies. Our thoughts – even ones that seem soundly theological – are not God’s thoughts. We want to be very careful not to attribute our own words to God. Better to faithfully ponder and acknowledge how little we know for a lifetime than to try standing firm on nothing.

Comfort: Great faith doesn’t always have answers.

Challenge: Don’t try to make your biases into God’s biases.

Prayer: I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name. (Psalm 63:4)

Discussion: What’s the difference between admitting what we don’t know, and being the type of “lukewarm” believer Christ warns against?

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As we forgive…

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 88; 148, 2 Kings 9:17-37, 1 Corinthians 7:1-9, Matthew 6:7-15


If you found out you were going to die tomorrow, would you have time to forgive all the people who had wronged you?

When Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, he included “forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Some translations of this prayer use the word “sin” or “trespass” instead of debt, but the meaning is pretty clear; Jesus explains the prayer by telling them they will be forgiven in the spirit which they forgive.

That’s bad news for grudge holders.

The good news is forgiveness in this sense is not about how we feel – which is something we can’t control – but about how we act, which is something we can control. Like loving our neighbors doesn’t require any actual affection, forgiving our debtors doesn’t involve resigning ourselves to whatever trespass they’ve committed against us. In the long run for our own peace of mind and mental health it’s probably preferable to get to emotionally better places, but we don’t have to be there yet to do what Christ has us pray. Does that sound hypocritical? Christ’s instructions are indifferent to our emotions, so acting on those instructions when we don’t feel like it is not so much disingenuous as it is a testament to faithfulness.

Forgiveness is a vital component of faith. Jesus speaks of it many times. If withholding forgiveness can keep us separated from God, it must be sinful. Yet we seem to spend so much more time preaching, talking about, and judging each other on a list of Dos-and-Don’ts we can’t even agree on. We’re happy to quote Paul and tell fornicators and the sexually immoral they won’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but we don’t say much to address the people in the pews who refuse to let go of a neighborhood feud over fence height.

We love because we are loved. We forgive because we are forgiven. How we feel about it while we do it is not the point. How we feel about it afterward  might just nudge our hearts even closer to God.

Comfort: You are forgiven.

Challenge: You must forgive.

Prayer: [Recite the Lord’s Prayer]

Discussion: Does your ability to forgive someone depend on whether they seem sorry?

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Pie(ty) in the Face

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 143; 147:12-20, 2 Kings 9:1-16, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18


If a Christian prays in a forest and nobody hears, does she or he make a sound?

Maybe the answer to that question is, “God hears either way.”

Jesus taught his disciples not to be flashy about their faith, unlike the people who fasted and made sure to look miserable, or the alms-givers who literally trumpeted about their gifts, or the people who offered long and loud prayers on street corners. Instead he instructed them pray privately, fast discreetly, and give secretly. Ostentatious faith gathers the reward of attention, but not a heavenly reward.

It’s once we leave the seclusion of the spiritual forest that we learn whether we’ve spent our time there wisely learning to live and spread the gospel, or simply trying to persuade God to notice us. Flamboyant demonstrations of faith move the spotlight off of Christ and onto us. The evidence of a heart transformed by Christ is in how we love people, regardless of whether anyone ever acknowledges or even knows we’ve loved them. Is it possible to spread a gospel containing the idea the last are first and the first are last if we always seem to be going for gold in the piety Olympics?

When Elisha dispatched a young prophet to tell Jehu in private that God had anointed him to depose King Joram and become the new king of Israel, Jehu played it down to his fellow commanders. He dismissed it by saying, “You know how those prophet types are!” but his colleagues forced a confession out of him. Though he died about 800 years before Christ was born, Jehu understood the power of spiritual humility.

In her song These Old Bones, Dolly Parton sings about a woman with a prophet-like gift for seeing the truth. The woman says, “But unless somebody just plain out and asked me, well, I just figured there ain’t no point goin’ around actin’ like you know everything, just ’cause you might.” Humble authenticity, not an overwhelming display, is the key to winning people over. Though our witness is certainly part of our evangelistic toolkit, the moral of our story is not “Christ saved me,” but “Christ’s sacrifice was for everyone.”

Comfort: You don’t have anything to prove to anyone.

Challenge: So stop trying.

Prayer: Lord where there is despair, let me sow hope. Amen.

Discussion: Where and how do you like to pray?

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War and Peas

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 65; 147:1-11, 2 Kings 6:1-23, 1 Corinthians 5:9-6:11, Matthew 5:38-48


The Arameans and the Israelites were frequently at war. Because the prophet Elisha seemed to always be one step ahead of the king of Aram, the king sent an army of Arameans to surround the city of Dothan, where Elishah was dwelling. As the army approached, Elishah prayed the Lord would strike them blind, and they were blinded. Then Elisha tricked them into believing he would lead them to the man they sought, but instead led them back to Samaria and the king of the Israelites. The Lord opened the army’s eyes and they realized the tables had turned and they were surrounded in the heart of enemy territory. The king would have been happy to kill the Arameans, but instead Elishah directed the king to unleash the full fury of … soup and salad.

That’s right, Elisha had the king invite the Arameans to a feast, and then release them to return home. Afterward “the bands from Aram stopped raiding Israel’s territories.”

Could this be the sort of thing Jesus was thinking of when he told his disciples, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?” In Luke’s gospel, it’s even expanded to doing good to them and lending to them without expecting a return. When’s the last time you lent something to an enemy?

Whether our enemies are personal, political, or global, one sure way to keep them enemies is to keep treating them as enemies. Elishah’s example, and Jesus’s words, are also echoed in Proverbs and other scriptures: “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.” Humanizing our enemies leaves them vulnerable to humanizing us in return, and that’s probably the last thing they want. Yet it’s the first step toward loving them.

Enmity may be forced on us by circumstances beyond our control, but how we treat our enemies is up to us. Whether you’re more motivated by burning coals or cooling tensions, loving our enemies is the path to eliminating them.

Comfort: You don’t have to return hate for hate.

Challenge: Invite an enemy to dinner.

Prayer: O divine master grant that I may not so much seek to be loved as to love. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever been shown kindness or love by someone you considered an enemy? Did it change you?

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Fair or Foul

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 54; 146, 2 Kings 5:19-27, 1 Corinthians 5:1-8, Matthew 5:27-37


Do you ever second-guess God?

Gehazi, the servant of the prophet Elishah, was not happy when Elijah accepted no gifts or payment for curing Naaman of leprosy.  “My master has let that Aramean Naaman off too lightly by not accepting from him what he offered. As the LORD lives, I will run after him and get something out of him.” Gehazi followed Naaman and pretended his master had asked for a tenant of silver and two sets of clothes to give to visiting prophets. A grateful Naaman threw in an extra talent and two servants. Gehazi hid away his loot, but Elishah knew what had happened. The displeased prophet declared Gehazi and his descendants would carry forever the leprosy that had afflicted Naaman.

We can become disgruntled when we think someone has gotten off too lightly. When success comes to someone who hasn’t paid the same dues we have, when punishment for wrongdoing is not as severe as we’d like, or when it feels like someone has “jumped line” and gotten something we “deserved” more, we may resent them, disparage them, or even try to sabotage them. Like Gehazi, we don’t always like the way our master shows mercy, and also like Gehazi we often think it’s our job to even the score when God has dropped the ball. Fair is fair, right?

Except Christ never teaches us to insist on fairness for ourselves, and certainly not to exact it at the expense of someone else. How God works in another person’s life is not the benchmark to which we should compare how God works in our lives. After all, some people have it worse than we do too, and we never seem to think fairness might involve moving downward toward those we believe have it worse instead of upward toward those we think have it better.

Mercy, by definition, is not fair. But if we claim to follow Christ, we must believe mercy is just – not only the mercy offered to us, but also the mercy offered to others, even mercy we would not ourselves bestow. When we accept that Christ has already redeemed us through the ultimate act of mercy, it becomes something we seek more to share than to acquire.

Comfort: You have been offered the ultimate mercy.

Challenge: When in doubt, ask.

Prayer: O divine master grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console. Amen.

Discussion: How do you react to being treated unfairly?

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Inference Interference

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 57; 145, 2 Kings 5:1-19, 1 Corinthians 4:8-21, Matthew 5:21-26


Naaman was an Aramean warrior who suffered from leprosy. One of his wife’s servants was an Israeli captive. This girl told Naaman that a prophet in her land could cure his illness. With a letter and the good wishes from his own king, Naaman took “ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments” to the king of Israel. Did this generous tribute and simple request touch the heart of the king? Not quite.

When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”

And that sometimes seems to be the entirety of foreign relations in a nutshell. Personal relations, too.

Inference is a dangerous habit, but we do it all the time. Asking someone directly for clarification of their meaning or intentions should be simple, but we are uncomfortable asking and defensive when asked. Often we would rather just work off assumptions … which we’re not especially good at making. From being offended at unintended “tone” we’ve erroneously read into emails, to completely misreading the motives of foreign governments, inferences cause no end of unnecessary problems.

The prophet Elisha advised the king of Israel to take a breath; he would cure the Aramean commander’s leprosy. Then is was Naaman’s turn to be paranoid. When Elisha instructed him to bathe in the Jordan River, Naaman protested that the cure could not be so simple and prepared to leave. His servants asked him why he would have been willing to do something difficult, and rejected something easy.

If we would like transparency and trust from others, we must be willing to offer them first. Christ tells us before we offer a gift at the altar, we should reconcile ourselves to any brother or sister who has something against us. That’s not the same as forgiving something we have against them – the onus is on each of us to initiate peace whether or not we believe we are in the wrong. If we don’t know how, we can start by asking.

Comfort: Making yourself vulnerable is not a weakness.

Challenge: When in doubt, ask.

Prayer: Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. (Psalm 85:8)

Discussion: Have you ever made an assumption which led to unnecessary conflict?

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Gift Receipts

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 67; 150, 2 Kings 4:8-37, Acts 9:10-31, Luke 3:7-18


Have you ever received a gift you didn’t request or want, but which you didn’t feel comfortable returning? Something like a piece of art which you really don’t care for, but made especially for you by a loved one. Or maybe you’ve been given a pet you weren’t ready for. Suddenly we have to decide whether that sculpture has to be on the coffee table all the time or just when Aunt Molly visits, and whether we can afford next month’s planned vacation and a pet sitter.

The prophet Elisha gave an unexpected gift to a Shunnamite woman who had prepared a place for him to stay when he traveled. The childless woman was past the age when she expected to bear children, but through the power of God Elisha told her she would conceive. When her son was older he one day returned from the field with a mysterious headache, and died sitting on his mother’s lap. The woman was left with anger and grief over the loss of something she had never expected to have. Fortunately, Elisha was able to restore the son to life.

A disciple named Ananias was given an unexpected vision from God. Saul of Tarsus, a persecutor of Christians, was laid up blind and Ananias was to visit him so his sight could be restored. Ananias’s response was basically, “Really Lord? This guy?” but God reassured him Paul was to be an instrument of great evangelism. Sight restored, Paul started with a bang and so angered the Jews with his preaching that they plotted to kill him. The disciples had to sneak Paul out of town in a basket lowered through a hole in the city wall. Paul would turn out to be a difficult gift to wrangle for years to come.

The more strongly we feel about respecting the giver, the tougher it is to deny a gift we didn’t want in the first place. Isn’t God the giver we respect the most? Not every gift we have from God will be one we desire. It may be inconvenient. Burdensome. Painful even. We need to figure out what to do with it anyway.

Making room for the unwelcome gifts along with the welcome teaches you not every gift is about you, but might be about the grace that is found in sacrificial love. If you’re not going to go out and get it for yourself, somebody has to give it to you.

Comfort: Every gift from God, even an unwelcome one, is a treasure.

Challenge: Ask yourself which of your gifts you are not using, and why.

Prayer: May God continue to bless us; let all the ends of the earth revere him. (Psalm 67:7)

Discussion: What’s the worst gift you’ve given? How did you find out it was a bad idea?

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Bad Judgment

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 56; 149, 2 Kings 2:1-18, 1 Corinthians 4:1-7, Matthew 5:17-20


Judgment is a difficult practice to avoid. We try, but it is a persistent demon. When we’re lucky we meet it face-to-face and recognize it for what it is. Though we might fail we at least recognize we aren’t to judge others for what we consider their faults and failures. But sometimes that demon comes at us sideways or sneaks up on us from behind. Isn’t judging someone’s behavior as good or worthy still a form of judgment? And isn’t claiming we would do better under the same circumstances a way of passing judgment on ourselves and others over things that are merely hypothetical?

When Paul learned the people of Corinth were practically looking for excuses to pass judgments on each other, he told them: “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” Paul offered himself as an example of someone who judged himself neither favorably nor poorly: he left that up to God’s final judgment, saying: “I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted.”

Living without some judgments is impossible. We have to decide – among many other things – whom to trust, whose company we should value and whose we should avoid, and whether someone’s behavior is helpful or harmful to themselves, us, and the community. The difference between lower-case, every day judgment and Judgment with a capital J is whether or not we approach it with an assumption that we understand more than we do. Other people’s motives, struggles, and limitations are largely not just unknown but unknowable to us. Only God can judge, because only God knows the entire truth.

It’s not our place to determine whether other people are using their gifts as well as they should or could be. It’s our job to figure out how we should be using our own gifts, and never be complacent about whether we are. Perhaps the most nefarious disguise Judgment can wear is a reflection of our own face, telling us what we’d like to hear.

Comfort: God will get around to judging what needs to be judged…

Challenge: … and very little of it may end up being to our satisfaction or expectation.

Prayer: I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation. (Psalm 111:1)

Discussion: When have you realized you judged someone wrongly or harshly?

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Fools for Wisdom

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 130; 148, 2 Kings 1:2-17, 1 Corinthians 3:16-23, Matthew 5:11-16


What does it mean to be wise? Unlike certain types of intelligence, wisdom is not something we can rate on a scale. Neither is it the same as knowledge, which we can acquire by the ton without finding an ounce of wisdom. The cliché that wisdom comes with experience certainly holds some truth, yet many people manage to experience decades without growing much wiser at all and some young people are what we call wise beyond their years. Though most of us would like to be wise, few of us would honestly describe ourselves as such.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul calls the thoughts of the wise futile. He advises them: “Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.” What could this contradictory message mean?

Worldly wisdom points toward wealth, power, security, and a legalistic kind of justice. God’s wisdom, expressed through the teachings of Christ, points toward humility, mercy, risk, and a kind of justice that is about serving those most in need. The worldly view is often more appealing, and the temptation to twist scripture to rationalize our own desires and prejudices is a strong one. When we interact with the world, particularly if we are called to lead in some way, we should humbly seek God’s will above our own. Our confidence is to be primarily in God, not in our own thoughts and desires. True wisdom tries less to impose itself and more to invite others along.

Acting out of God’s wisdom may make us look foolish to the world, but it also empowers us. When Jeremiah insisted he was too young to be a prophet, God told him: “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.” (Jer 1:7). Is there a sense of freedom in knowing we are not under pressure to be wise, but instead to be listening for and guided by God’s wisdom? After we listen we must still act with integrity, discernment, and accountability – as only a fool can do.

Comfort: Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6).

Challenge: Once in a while consider the possibility that you might be wrong about something you are sure about, and pray on that.

Prayer: Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
(Psalm 129:23-24)

Discussion: Who do you consider wise?

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The Church’s One Foundation

And while we’re on the topic of foundations: