Radical Faith

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab):
Psalms 34; 150, 1 Samuel 1:1-2; 7b-28, Colossians 1:9-20, Luke 2:22-40


Today’s reading from Samuel introduces Hannah, one of Elkanah’s two wives. Hannah had no children, but Elkanah’s other wife did.  Like many women in her situation, Hannah was sorrowful about her inability to conceive. She went to the temple and prayed for a child. Because her lips moved but she made no sound, the priest Eli assumed she was drunk and reprimanded her, which was ironic because she had promised if God gave her a son she would dedicate him as a nazirite – a sect that abstained from strong drink. When God rewarded her faithfulness and she gave birth to a son, she followed through on that promise.

When we follow our faith, people may look at us like Eli looked at Hannah. Actions of faith may seem crazy even to other believers, especially if our actions disturb the status quo. The person who suggests displaying grace to those taking advantage of a congregation’s generosity is as likely to be mocked as thanked. Someone who quits a secure job to follow a risky calling will be judged favorably by critics only if the results are successful by standards the critics set. Any member of a denomination who decries its corruption or injustices – racism, sexism, clergy abuse, homophobia, fraud – risks rejection and attacks from both the leadership and the laity. Like Elkanah trying to comfort Hannah by saying “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” many people will pressure us toward quiet acceptance. And also like Elkanah, who already had children by another wife, people seldom understand the need for actions of faith against injustices which do not affect them directly.

As a childless wife, Hannah was distinctly disadvantaged in her culture. Our faith history, from Moses to Jesus to the Civil Rights Movement to today, is the story of God’s justice delivering the oppressed. It always seems crazy to those in power, because by worldly standards there’s nothing in it for them. For those of limited privilege, radical faith actions may be the only sane response. For those who enjoy privilege, some radical faith may be unexpectedly liberating.

Comfort: God desires the liberation of the oppressed.

Challenge: Ask yourself what injustices you tolerate – or possibly participate in – because they don’t affect you.

Prayer: Lord, help me to see the world as you do, especially the places I’m not prone to look. Amen.

Discussion: What convictions have you followed despite negative backlash?

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Character Roles

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new window):
Psalms 96; 146, 2 Samuel 23:13-17b, 2 John 1:1-13, John 2:1-11


The gospel of Matthew tells us an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to stay with Mary because the child she was bearing, though not his, was conceived from the Holy Spirit.  Joseph has two more dreams in which angels tell him to flee to and later return from Egypt, and goes searching for a 12-year old Jesus who has wandered off to the temple. After that Joseph is absent except for a few passing references to Jesus’s parents. We don’t get to read much about Joseph, but we can infer a good deal about his character: he is kind, faithful, and trusts the Lord even under duress.

In cinematic terms we might think of Joseph as a supporting player. Joseph isn’t the quirky best friend or really even the love interest. He’s more than a sidekick, but after he fills his function in the story, he fades into the background. Like the movie industry, life often tells us we aren’t successful unless we get top billing. But there’s a reason supporting actors and actresses (and technical artists, costume designers, etc.) have their own award categories: they may not get all the glory but without them the story might not bet the same – or even possible. For every star with her or his name over the title, many others – sometimes numbering in the hundreds – had to perform their jobs well.

Maybe WWJD should stand for “What would Joseph do?” Jesus did whatever it took to fulfill his role as messiah. Only one of us gets that part. Joseph, on the other hand, had a much more attainable role. He humbly did as the Lord asked, and supported the mission of Jesus in a human but vital way. That we can do. That we must do.

Most working actors never land a starring role or command a seven-figure fee, but they are the bedrock of the industry. When we act with Joseph-like character, we are the bedrock of the ministry. We hone our craft of mercy, kindness, and justice not for the fame, but for the love of the work.

Comfort: God loves supporting players as much as stars.

Challenge: The next time you feel down about your contributions to the world, ask yourself whether you are judging by the world’s superficial standards, or by God’s eternal ones.

Prayer: Thank you, my creator, for whatever part you have built me to play. Amen.

Discussion: In group situations, are you more comfortable as a leader or a doer?

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All Good Gifts

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Today’s readings (click to open in new window):
Psalms 96; 146, 2 Samuel 23:13-17b, 2 John 1:1-13, John 2:1-11

In the Gospel of John, Jesus performs his first miracle (John calls them “signs”) at a wedding in the town of Cana. At his mother’s urging,  he reluctantly turns water into wine because the wedding has run out. The chief steward of the reception, upon tasting the wine that was formerly water, tells the bridegroom: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” This tells us a lot about the nature of generosity and giving.

It tells us God’s gifts are top quality – always! When a prayer isn’t answered how we want or expect, or when God calls us to do something difficult or unpleasant, the problem is not with the gift. When we feel like asking “Is this really what you meant to give me, Lord?” the problem may lie in our perception. Not that every hardship is a gift in disguise; God certainly doesn’t give us cancer or domestic violence. But if we approach life as though the Spirit is nudging us toward wholeness, invaluable life lessons and spiritual riches abound. When someone gifts us with lessons – music, tennis, foreign language – the gift is only valuable after we have put the work in.

What about gifts we give? Do we hold back the good wine? While we can’t give beyond our means, we shouldn’t cheap out because we are giving to charity. We’ve all heard: “They should be grateful to get anything at all” and we’ve all seen 10 year old cans of cocktail onions on food drive collection tables. The point is not to judge the giving of others, but to be faithful about our own. We don’t know when someone is giving despite their own need, and we should be wise about stewarding our funds, but when we are giving in Christ’s name let’s keep in mind that in God’s eyes the recipients are no more or less deserving than we are. The good wine – or at least the best wine we can afford to share – is for everyone.

Comfort: God’s gifts to us are never lacking.

Challenge: For one week, set aside a food bank donation (in cash or kind) equivalent to your own lunches. At the end of the week, note whether the donation came out of your excess, or whether you had to scale back a little to give an equal amount. If your present circumstances don’t permit for donations, try splitting your leisure time evenly between your own activities and helping others.

Prayer: Lord, teach me to be generous, and to give with a loving heart. Amen.

Discussion: We can have complex feelings around gift-giving, especially when they feel obligatory, such as during the holidays. How do you feel about gift giving?

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Hands, Eyes, and Butterflies

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Today’s readings (click to open in new window):
Psalms 2; 145, Isaiah 49:13-23, Isaiah 54:1-13, Matthew 18:1-14


If your hand caused you to sin, would you be able to cut it off, as Jesus suggests in today’s passage from Matthew? Would you be able to pluck out your own eye to avoid damnation? More importantly, does Jesus actually expect us to do these things? Certainly not. If we heard of someone who mutilated himself for religious reasons, we would consider that person to be deeply disturbed, and rightly so. Most of us are not physically capable of such acts. What then might Jesus mean to tell us with such harsh imagery?

Hyperbole and extreme examples are teaching methods common to Jesus’ time. He didn’t intend to create a flock of one-handed, half-blind followers, but he does want us to understand true commitment means cutting out the parts of our lives that undermine or overshadow our relationship with God. Becoming part of God’s kingdom is a transformational act, and like butterflies emerging from cocoons, we must leave behind all that would hold us back.

As caterpillars metamorphose into butterflies, their bodies break down into imaginal cells – undifferentiated and similar to stem cells – and reform into something entirely new. When we truly embrace faith, or feel the call to a deeper level of it, our spirits need to undergo a similar process. All we have to work with are our original materials, but surrendered to God’s hands they can be repurposed and reborn. We won’t welcome every change, and some will even be painful, but we must be willing to rigorously examine the difference between who we are and who we are meant to become, and abandon the parts that either don’t fit or can’t be re-shaped.

God loves and accepts us whether we are in the caterpillar or butterfly stage, but God’s hope is that we fulfill our potential. One advantage we have over butterflies is our ability to metamorphose again and again, throughout our whole lives, each time getting closer to becoming our best selves. We don’t need to lose our eyes or hands, but we may need to remake them into tools of love and grace.

Comfort: God loves us when we try, when we fail, and when we succeed.

Challenge: Metamorphosis requires both time and energy. Assess the gap between who you are and who you believe God wants you to be, and set aside the time and energy necessary to create that change.

Prayer: God of life and change, teach me to be the person you created me to be. Amen.

Discussion: What are some of the most important positive changes you’ve made over your lifetime?

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Love One Another

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 34; 147:1-11, Proverbs 8:22-30, 1 John 5:1-12, John 13:20-35


Though the Christmas season lasts through Epiphany (January 6), once the celebration of the Nativity is over, the lectionary readings don’t waste any time getting back to serious business. The day after Christmas we read about the first martyr, and today we read about the Last Supper and the betrayal of Judas. Do we long just a little for an emotional break, a few days to bask in the glory of Christ’s birth?

Except that’s the thing: there really is no break. No matter how strong our faith, life is a mixed bag.

Take the Last Supper. Jesus knows Judas is about to betray him, and Judas knows it, too. But the Last Supper is also the origin of Communion, which unites us with Christians across time and place. And it also gives us these words from Christ:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Think for a moment what it means that this was a new commandment. What were the disciples doing during all the preceding years they’d been following Jesus? Were they surprised he felt the need to say it out loud to them? Perhaps it’s a lot harder to do – and comes a lot less naturally to us – than we think.

What a gift that commandment is though. When we practice it, that love is a constant, steadying presence in the ups and downs of life. When we practice it, that love helps us celebrate with each other, mourn with each other, and support each other through difficult times. More than agreeing with one another or liking one another, loving one another with the sacrificial love of Christ is a conscious choice. Whether we obey or disobey, it tells people whether we are disciples.

Life in Christ, at least in our present world, will always be a mixed bag. No matter our state, let us choose to love and be loved. Jesus said so.

Comfort: Christ’s love is constant.

Challenge: Listen to They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love.

Prayer: Merciful God, source of all love, teach me to love your children as Christ loves me. Amen.

Discussion: Are you able to love someone you don’t like?

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Martyrs vs. Victims

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Readings: Psalms 116; 149, 2 Chronicles 24:17-22, Acts 6:1-7, Acts 7:59-8:8

In Western Christian tradition, the day after Christmas is St. Stephen’s day. Stephen was the first deacon of the church, as well as its first martyr. False charges of blasphemy led to his death by stoning. Stephen’s story seems like an abrupt shift in tone from the Christmas story, but is it really?

The story of Christ’s birth has been sentimentalized and sanitized through centuries of carols, Christmas pageants, and whitewashed nativity scenes. Familiar and comforting now, the story was originally a radical one with unlikely characters and their equally unlikely circumstances. Christ’s birth heralded the beginning of a religious and political revolution, achieved through his own death.

When Stephen was appointed deacon, it was a risky endeavor. The Roman empire did not grant Christians the same religious latitudes as it did Jews. Like Christ, Stephen was falsely accused and was condemned by Jews rather than Romans. And like Christ, he asked for God’s mercy on his executioners.

We Western Christians can barely conceive the fear of being executed for our faith. Our squabbles with our culture occur because we fear losing our monopoly on power, not because we are being crushed by occupying forces. After Stephen’s execution the remaining apostles, though they were scattered and their homes were being ransacked, continued spreading the gospel. We boycott businesses that don’t meet our agenda and slap Jesus fish on our bumpers (without fear of persecution) and think we’ve served the Gospel.

We should give thanks we can freely exercise our faith, rather than exploit perceived slights to support our persecution narrative. In countries where Christianity dominates, the group we should be most critical of is ourselves. Christ, Paul, and the apostles preached to a church in danger of being wiped out before it began. Now we are more likely to do the stoning than to be stoned.

A strong faith understands the gospel is something to be proclaimed rather than something to be defended. Even when we are persecuted, we are victors not victims. The path we begin following at Christmas does not end with us assuming power, but confronting it.

Comfort: You are responsible for sharing the Gospel, but not for enforcing it.

Challenge: Pray for those who persecute you … but first be sure you’ve accurately identified them as persecutors.

Prayer: Deal bountifully with your servant, so that I may live and observe your word. (Psalm 119:17)

Discussion: Have you ever played the victim, only to realize later you were not?

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Christmas Every Day

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Readings:  Psalms 2; 148, Micah 4:1-; 5:2-4, 1 John 4:7-16, John 3:31

Today is the day! The long-awaited Christ has come. We shout “Emmanuel!” because God is with us in the flesh. The spirit of this holiday is expansive enough to include many other traditions like brightly lit trees and gift exchanges which, while not uniquely Christian, reflect our joyous celebration.

Tomorrow, or maybe even as early as this evening, we will begin thinking about the clean-up. Most Christmas trees will be down before the new year begins; a few may make it until Epiphany – the day marking the end of the twelve day season of Christmastide. The annual “War on Christmas” will declare its annual 11-month cease-sire as merchants clear the way for Valentine’s Day and summer fashions. Many people who thought it was crucial for cashiers and baristas to say “Merry Christmas” during the entire season of Advent will stop caring on December 27th without realizing the irony.

The intense activity of Christmas – or at least the effort we invest in its more secular aspects – is not sustainable all year long. We may talk about keeping the spirit of Christmas in our hearts all year long, but we aren’t all that good at it. After the holidays, donations to food banks and other charities drop dramatically, but the needs they serve do not diminish. Christmas as a special day of celebration is wonderful, but Jesus did not remain an infant forever, and after Christmas the way we celebrate him must also mature.

We can bring light into dark places through acts of kindness and attitudes of love. We can offer gifts of time, talents, and money so we love people in need as children of God more than once a year. Instead of seeking meaningless offense at otherwise well-intended holiday greetings, we can speak loudly against words and actions of actual oppression and injustice. Like the infamous inn, our lives can become so full we turn away the arrival of Christ without realizing what we’ve done. We can create room by living as if Christmas is not the end of a season, but the beginning of a life where Christ dwells within and among us.

Comfort: Christmas is more than a day; it’s a life of hope, love, peace, and joy.

Challenge: Over the next 11 months, plan a monthly Christmas “celebration” to bring the light of Christ into places and lives that need it.

Prayer: [Read Psalm 96 or Psalm 98, aloud or to yourself].

Discussion: Do you have any Christmas traditions that you could revisit throughout the year?

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The Joy of the Unexpected

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Readings: Psalms 18:1-20; 147:12-20, Isaiah 60:1-6, Galatians 3:23-4:7, Matthew 1:18-25

Every year at Christmas time we revisit the Nativity story in scripture readings and carols. The words and melodies bring us comfort and joy in part because they are so familiar and meet our expectations. This comfort in the familiar is kind of ironic considering the Nativity story itself is one of upended expectations and surprises.

First we have Mary, the mother of Jesus. Of everyone in the story, she has the most to be surprised about. No one expects a visit from an angel who announces God will create a child in your virgin womb. Then there’s Joseph, Mary’s betrothed. He doesn’t expect Mary to become pregnant, and he doesn’t expect divine intervention in the form of a dream telling him to stay with her. In an important subplot, we have Mary’s relatives Elizabeth and Zechariah. These two are both surprised by Elizabeth’s late-in-life pregnancy. All of these people have a trait in common (though Zechariah took a little while to come around): they all adapt to the unexpected. Every one of them had reasons to be doubtful, frightened, or resentful. Instead they chose to alter their plans to reflect their new circumstances, and thus ushered into life John the Baptist and Jesus the Christ.

The message of the Nativity is this: God enters the world in unexpected ways. If we insist on our own plans rather than God’s, we may never notice opportunities to share in the greater plan unfolding across history.

The unexpected can be frightening, but it is both inevitable and constant. When confronted with the choice to resist or embrace the unexpected, the former limits us, and the latter unlocks our potential. The quick decision to befriend a stranger we might have avoided may be where we both see Christ in action. An invitation to lead or serve in unfamiliar ways may reinvigorate a flagging ministry. An unplanned job termination may result in a meaningful vocation we never considered. It seems God rarely calls the prepared, but prepares the called. Let us joyfully meet Christ where he shows up, instead of missing him because we insist on looking only where planned for him to be.

Comfort: The unexpected is often a blessing waiting to be claimed.

Challenge: Ask yourself which of your plans are in conflict with God’s plans for you.

Prayer: God of mystery and grace, I will seek you wherever you lead. Amen.

Discussion: What unexpected event or encounter has influenced your life?

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Joy of the Ordinary

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Readings: Psalms 50; 147:1-11, Jeremiah 31:10-14, Galatians 3:15-22, Matthew 1:1-17

What does “joy” mean? For many people the word conjures heightened emotions like euphoria or ecstasy. Such emotional intensity is not sustainable for very long. Eventually mundane concerns like bathing and eating will pull us back down to earth. Joy in the Lord, as described in the readings from Psalm 147 or Jeremiah 31, can certainly have its ecstatic moments, but it is more about a state of existence in which the Lord’s justice is a constant presence in our lives.

The world needs extraordinary people: thinkers, creators, and innovators who lead us forward … but it depends on ordinary people. Some would claim wealth, fame, and other worldly successes are the result of favor from the Lord. The psalmist teaches us the Lord does not delight in extraordinary speed or strength (and by extension wealth or power), but in those who fear him and hope in his love. The world claims to admire those who lead lives of humble service, but in practice we rarely aspire to be them, because they resemble what the world calls failure. Jesus tells us the world will be turned upside down, and the last will be first. The world constantly tempts us to measure ourselves against “the first” so that our sense of whether we are happy becomes comparative and competitive. If our joy instead rests in being a delight to the Lord, and that means hoping in his love, then joy is available to everyone regardless of status.

When Jeremiah talks about joy in the Lord, he speaks of gathering the outcasts, healing the brokenhearted, and lifting up the downtrodden. The Lord intends ordinary lives to be joyful. Unfortunately God’s justice  is not the standard of most of the world, so when we hear “ordinary” the implication is often “less than good.” Advent reminds us that, while the world is a fallen place, we look forward to the time when it is restored. When God’s justice finally becomes our standard, ordinary will no longer mean uneventful, boring, or miserable, but full of peace and plenty. You are built for joy; don’t let the world talk you out of it.

Comfort: The joy of the Lord is available to everyone, including you.

Challenge: If something blocks your joy, it usually also stands between you and God. This coming month, identify and work to remove one roadblock between you and God.

Prayer: In you alone, O Lord, will I seek my joy. Amen.

Discussion: Do you think there is a difference between happiness and joy?

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The Joy of Being Wrong

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Readings: Psalms 33; 146, 2 Samuel 7:18-29, Galatians 3:1-14, Luke 1:57-66


Zechariah was a learned priest who kept God’s commandments. When an angel told him his elderly wife Elizabeth would have a baby, Zechariah was too smart to believe him. Displeased, the angel struck him mute. When the baby was born, Elizabeth named him John. This was a break from tradition, as there were no Johns in the family. The household looked to Zechariah to make the call. The “right” thing to do would have been to pick a family name, but Zechariah was no fool. He wrote down “John” and was once more able to speak. He had learned the pitfalls of having to be right.

Generally speaking, we are not rewarded for being wrong. To the contrary, we usually suffer some penalty, even if it’s just loss of face. Employers, children, friends, and church exert an enormous amount of pressure to be right. Of course “wrong” is never our goal, but being afraid to be wrong prevents us from taking chances – pretty much the opposite of faith.

In science, negative results provide good information, yet there is a bias against publishing them. Valuable lines of communication are cut off when we hide our mistakes. How much richer the world is when, instead of having to be right, we are open to learning! The need to be right – politically, morally, spiritually – closes us off from the insights of others, and those others are children of God with equally valid perspectives. We don’t always have to agree with them; abandoning the need to be right is not the same as always being wrong.

Perhaps the greatest downfall of having to be right is how it limits our vision to only the things we can conceive. Zechariah’s rejection of the unknown relegated him to the sidelines of the most important story in history. His decision to risk being wrong in the eyes of others put him back in the game. How many angels have we rejected? How many traditions have robbed us of faith? Sometimes being wrong is not an occasion for shame, but for joy!

Comfort: Only God is always right; the rest of us are allowed to be human.

Challenge: The next time someone offers an opinion you disagree with, listen to understand, rather than to argue.

Prayer: Loving God, I will seek to lean on your wisdom more than my own understanding.

Discussion: Have you ever been pleased to discover you were wrong about something?