Generosity and Grace

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Today’s readings (click to open in a new tab/window):
Psalms 67; 150, Genesis 13:2-18, Galatians 2:1-10, Mark 7:31-37


When Jesus healed people, he didn’t treat just their physical ailments; he also acknowledged them in a way that restored the dignity they had been denied. Charity and mercy should not be top-down experiences where the more fortunate look pitiably upon the less fortunate. They are more like the closing of a circuit through which grace flows and connects us all in the Spirit.

It’s easy to squeeze the grace out of our generosity. We insist on knowing who is worthy of it. We decide what is best for people without getting to know them. If it gets uncomfortable, we distance ourselves socially and emotionally from the people we are helping. Sometimes we dismiss the efforts of people who take a different approach than we do. Our focus can be too much on how charity makes us feel, rather than on the need we are meeting.

How Jesus healed a man of deafness and a speech impediment (a common combination, since it is difficult to mimic what we can’t hear) is a wonderful model for works we do in Christ’s name. First, he didn’t try to determine worth or blame, but accepted a person who came to him in faith. Next, instead of making a public show of his kindness, he took the man aside, thereby giving him a choice of whether to tell his own story. Then Jesus literally got his hands dirty and put them on the man in an intimate way, because sometimes love has to be messy. All the while Jesus was prayerful, but confident that God would guide him. He comprehensively addressed both the root of the problem (the man’s deafness) and the symptoms (his speech impediment). Finally, after word of his generosity spread, Jesus humbly gave the glory to God.

Grace-filled generosity does not insist on its own way, but responds to the needs of others. Unlike enabling, it empowers recipients to make their own decisions about what to do next. Once someone’s ability to hear (or eat or sleep warmly) is restored, they are free to speak the good news as they will.

Comfort: Sometimes we offer assistance, sometimes we receive it, and at all times we are worthy of dignity.

Challenge: Do some volunteer work that allows you to interact with the recipients of the work. Try to see them not as people who need something you have, but as people who are equally in need of God’s gifts as you are.

Prayer: Gracious and generous God, I will do my best to give as you would have me do, not as my fears and doubts would. Amen.

Discussion: When you give someone a gift, what expectations accompany it?

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Sleeping with the Enemy

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Today’s readings (click below to open in a new window):
Psalms 56; 149, Genesis 12:9-13:1, Hebrews 7:18-28, John 4:27-42


How do we approach people we assume to be our enemies? Today’s readings feature two stories about people traveling through presumably hostile territory. They start with very different mindsets, and have very different results.

When Abram and his beautiful wife Sarai arrived in Egypt, he instructed her to pose as his sister so the Egyptians who wanted to woo her would treat him well. Otherwise, he feared, they might murder him to take her. Word of her beauty reached Pharaoh and soon she was living in his home. Displeased with this situation, God afflicted Pharaoh’s household with great plagues. His lie thus revealed, Abram was forced to flee with Sarai.

While passing through Samaria, Jesus stopped at a well. He had a very candid though compassionate conversation with a woman he met there. Once he revealed himself to be the messiah by showing he knew undisclosed details of her life, she was not afraid to challenge him about his relationship with non-Jews. After the people of her town heard her story, they invited Jesus to stay and he spent two days with them. As a result many Samaritans became believers.

Abram told an easy lie, and Jesus told hard truths. The Egyptians treated Abram well for a while, but no relationship was established. In the end, the lie forced him away. The Samaritan woman respected Jesus because he told the truth, and returned his frankness. The initial conversation between them does not read as comfortable, but in the end he formed an unexpected and important relationship with the Samaritan people.

The world tells us never to trust our enemies, and to do unto them before they do unto us. Jesus teaches and shows us another way. It is a more risky path, as we can never be sure of our enemy’s intentions, but it also opens a door to the possibility of reconciliation. If we refuse to hear someone’s story, or respond with judgment, that door stays closed. Being the first to offer a hand in peace is not a sign of a weak resolve, but of a strong faith.

Comfort: Jesus doesn’t want a relationship with your Sunday best, he wants one with your honest everyday self.

Challenge: Do you have any enemies you could get to know better? Try to do so.

Prayer: Prince of Peace, teach me the ways of peace. Amen.

Discussion: Who do you consider your enemies? How do you communicate with them?

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Worship Well

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Today’s readings (click below to open in a new tab/window):
Psalms 130; 148,Genesis 11:27-12:8, Hebrews 7:1-17, John 4:16-26


Samaritans and Jews shared common roots but also shared a bitterness – even a hostility – over religious differences. When Jesus passed through Samaria, he sat by a well to rest while his disciples went into town for food.  He asked a local woman for a drink of water, and as a result of the conversation that followed she recognized him as a prophet. Then, for the first time in John’s gospel, Jesus identified himself as the Messiah. John the Baptist and the disciples already believed this but, according to John’s narrative, Jesus had not confirmed it. So why would he choose to reveal himself openly to this non-Jewish woman in this non-Jewish place?

The well where they met was Jacob’s well, a site significant to both Jewish and Samaritan history. When Jesus said those who drank its waters would be thirsty again, but those who drank the living water he offered would never thirst again, he was saying eternal life was not found in or bound to any material source but in the truth. When the woman pointed out that Jews worship in Jerusalem and Samaritans on Mount Gerizim, he responded: “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem […], when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”  His words told her, and tell us today, God is greater than any constraints of tradition or culture.

What constraints do Christians place on God and worship today? We insist on creeds and denominations that are more products of political history than spiritual necessity. Within denominations we have yet more division among groups who believe they own more truth than others. Like a person who believes nothing exists beyond what can be seen through a single window, we can mistakenly use the Bible to limit our understanding of God rather than accept truth wherever it is found.

Unexpected revelation from God occurs not when we are certain and comfortable, but when we are questioning and in strange – perhaps enemy – territory. Sometimes we have to leave our temple or mountain to find where the living waters flow.

Comfort: God is greater than any box we try to put him in.

Challenge: Think critically about your own assumptions, including those taught to you.

Prayer: God of all creation, forgive me when I don’t love all you have made. Amen.

Discussion: What restrictions do you try to place on God? Who do you exclude as a result?

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Gathering the Sparks

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Today’s readings (click to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 36; 147:12-20, Genesis 11:1-9, Hebrews 6:13-20, John 4:1-15


Though Charles Darwin did not write On The Origin Of Species as an attack on Christianity, many people interpreted it that way. The controversy of the seeming conflict  between natural selection and Genesis was not limited to Biblical literalists, but was also a concern for Christians who were not in theory opposed to more scientific theories of creation. The real danger of Darwin’s theory was what it said about the nature of life: it was not powered by love and redemption, but by competition and dominance. What did this reveal about God?

Maybe nothing as startling as it seemed. Another Biblical myth – the Tower of Babel – tells us that when God felt humans were growing too powerful and unified, he destroyed the tower symbolizing their potential, forced them to speak different languages, and scattered them across the world. God forced diversity upon his creation, setting tribes at odds with one another. Whether we read Darwin or Genesis, competition and diversity are central to the story.

In the Jewish myth of the Shattering of the Vessels, when God says “Let there be light” he sends forth his divine essence in ten vessels. The vessels are too fragile and they shatter, scattering divine sparks across creation. It is the duty of humanity to collect these sparks and repair the world. Division and scattering seem integral to our creation stories. We recognize the world as broken, and long to restore it.

Now consider Jesus at the well, talking to the Samaritan woman. They are separated by language and culture. As a woman and a Samaritan she is no one Jesus should be talking to, at least by the dictates of his culture. Yet he stops to banter with her, not to preach but to make a connection. They join their sparks to repair one tiny corner of the creation.

Other animals may be shaped by their environments, but humans can choose to shape the environment instead. When we choose cooperation over competition, we help repair the world. Each spark we collect illuminates what it means to be created in the image of a creator. Our brokenness offers the potential to create something divine in a way unquestioned wholeness never could.

Comfort: Brokenness is not a final state; it is the beginning of reconciliation.

Challenge: We have busy lives, and ignore many of the sparks of creation. Where can you slow down and make connections?

Prayer: Lord, make me an instrument of your divine reconciliation. Amen.

Discussion: Are you by nature more cooperative or competitive? Why do you think that is?

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Decrease to Increase

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Today’s readings (click below to open in a new tab/window):
Psalms 15; 147:1-11, Genesis 9:18-29, Hebrews 6:1-12, John 3:22-36


The ministry of John the Baptist was a big success. Business was so good he had customers lined up from Bethany to Aenon, where he moved because it had more water to let him do his job. He had his own disciples and irritated all the right authorities. Yet when Jesus arrived on the scene, John willingly gave it all up. John knew something we often forget: successful ministry is not determined by numbers or longevity, but by how well it advances the message and mission of Christ. When John’s followers began flocking to Jesus, John didn’t start planning how to win them back. Instead he said of Jesus: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Christian ministry is not a competition, but our competitive nature can sneak into it. Choir solos, sermons, fundraisers, offerings, praise hands, potluck contributions – sometimes we can’t help comparing these things, especially if we are good at them. If healthy competition pushes us to do our best work, the ministry may benefit. When we start thinking of our collaborators as rivals, we do a disservice to everyone, and undermine the community and the ministry. Whether an individual or church, we let our lights shine to illuminate the love of Christ, not to put a spotlight on ourselves. Even if we are the very best at something, sometimes we must intentionally step aside to let others play their parts. Being our best – not the best – is what matters.

Mature preachers will say praise and criticism are the same. In other words, they hear feedback, but do Christ’s work for the sake of the work, not the reaction. Praise does not swell their heads, and criticism does not defeat them. This ego-free attitude requires cultivation, but our work will be the better for it. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a compliment for a job well done, but if our focus moves from Jesus to acquiring compliments (or members, or money, or readers), our work suffers.

For others to increase, sometimes we must decrease. But if we do it to help Jesus increase, we rise along with him.

Comfort: The best ministries are collaborations; you don’t have to do everything yourself.

Challenge: Whenever you feel competitive with someone, ask yourself whether it is healthy or unhealthy.

Prayer: Gracious God, teach me to appreciate the diversity of the Body of Christ. Amen.

Discussion: Where do you find yourself competing when you could be cooperating?

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Clashing Symbols

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Today’s readings (click to open in a new window):
Psalms 123; 146, Genesis 9:1-17, Hebrews 5:7-14, John 3:16-21


When the great flood ended, God made a covenant with Noah and his family never to drown the world again. He set his bow – the rainbow – in the sky to remind him of the covenant every time he gathered clouds. All who saw the rainbow were reminded of God’s promise not to destroy the world again.

Symbols are important to us. A simple image can evoke complex ideas, emotions, and memories. The most prominent Christian symbol is the cross. It reminds us of death and resurrection. It identifies fellow believers. It marks a spot where we can lay down our burdens. Like all effective symbols, it is easily recognized – two simple lines! – and is rich with meaning.

Corporations spend millions of dollars to develop recognizable logos that communicate the essence of their business and inspire loyalty. Who in America doesn’t immediately recognize the Golden Arches and what they stand for? We wear clothes with symbols to telegraph our status, cultural or counter-cultural affiliations, team loyalties, and peer groups. We exchange a lot of information in the shorthand of symbols.

How do we distinguish truly meaningful symbols from the visual noise bombarding us each day? Are religious symbols nothing more than a brand logo? Let’s consider the rainbow. It only appears in the rain, the very thing it is meant to protect us against. And what about the cross? It was an instrument of death, but it is now a symbol of new life. We revisit and ritualize these symbols because they are about transformation, and about movement from struggle to victory. The Nike swoosh can only aspire to such heights.

Let’s use our symbols wisely and appropriately. If the rainbow was in the sky 24/7, it wouldn’t be nearly as powerful. If we slap a Jesus fish or “John 3:16” on everything we own, its power to transport us to a deeper emotional or spiritual frame of mind is diluted, as is the message it sends to others. They are not like flags or team jerseys that define Team Jesus. The symbols of our faith should be like beacons inviting others home.

Comfort: The symbols of our faith can bring us comfort and help remind us of important things.

Challenge: Symbols can confuse or alienate people who don’t understand them. Be thoughtful about using them to welcome rather than to exclude.

Prayer: God of truth, help me to see beyond symbols to the truths behind them. Amen.

Discussion: What symbols are meaningful to you? Why?

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Born Again Identity

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Today’s readings (click to open in a new window):
Psalms 135; 145, Genesis 8:6-22, Hebrews 4:14-5:6, John 2:23-3:15


“Born again Christian.” It’s a phrase we’ve all heard, but it can mean many different things depending on our religious background (or lack thereof). It has its origins in Today’s reading from John, when Jesus tells the sympathetic Pharisee Nicodemus: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again” (John 3:3). The Greek wording could also mean “born from above.” The idea of a second birth is confusing to Nicodemus, and Jesus doesn’t really clarify it. For many Christians, this one ambiguous phrase found in only one gospel has become an extremely subjective litmus test for “authentic” Christianity.

The gospels use several images to describe the new life that comes from a relationship with Jesus. Why is this one definitive for so many people? Maybe because it implies the reality of a a complete do-over. Human beings are helpless at birth and depend on their parents for everything. When we surrender ourselves to Jesus, we re-learn how to live and depend totally on God’s grace to carry us through that process. Throughout our lives we find new reasons and new ways to surrender. Our rebirth is not a one-time event occurring at the moment of conversion or baptism, but a constant spiritual renewal.

There is beauty in the image of rebirth, but also a danger of exclusion. Lifelong Christians may never have had a distinct moment of  rebirth, so insisting someone must be “born again” can quickly turn to judgment. It is God’s job – not ours – to judge whether someone is sufficiently Christian.

Whether or not being “born again” is part of our theological vocabulary, renewal is part of life in Christ. Just as the birth of an infant can be simultaneously joyous and scary, so can the changes in our new lives. At times we will need to celebrate, at other times we will need support, and sometimes we will need both. Fellow believers may need the same from us. Our new lives are meant to be shared, so let us be present for each other in all the ways we can.

Comfort: In Christ our life is made new every day.

Challenge: If you don’t have a “born again” story listen to someone who does. If you do have such a story, listen to how someone born into the church experiences their faith.

Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for giving me a fresh start every day. Amen.

Discussion: What do you mean when you say “born again?” If it’s not part of your faith vocabulary, what do you think when you hear it?

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The Fine Line

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Today’s readings (click to open in a new window):
Psalms 19; 150, Genesis 7:1-10, 17-23, Ephesians 4:1-16, Mark 3:7-19


The line between faith an insanity can be hard to identify. When Noah heard the voice of God telling him to build an ark, he must have questioned which side of the line he was on. His neighbors, friends, and family – the ones who didn’t scoff at him outright – surely had questions as well. How must it have felt to explain the enormous construction project going on in his back yard? Following God’s orders very likely ruined his reputation as a stable individual. At least until the rains started.

Not everything God would have us do will make sense to the outside world – and maybe not even to ourselves. Showing generosity to people who haven’t earned it, granting mercy to those who have wronged us, taking in strangers – these things seem scandalous by worldly standards. When God “asks” us to do something – through intuition, conscience, or other means – are we strong enough to ignore the mocking, sometimes hostile voices discouraging us? We probably won’t be asked to accomplish something as huge as 1.5 million cubic feet of boat, but when we open ourselves to ridicule the burden may feel almost as enormous.

When Noah and his family closed the door of the ark, they had no idea how long they might be afloat or what their final fate might be. Following God often means the faith that we are doing the right thing must be sufficient to carry us through dark and confusing times. We want to be sure we are on the right side of that line between faithful and crazy, but we often don’t. When it comes to leaps of faith we can pray, discern, and hope … but we can never be 100% sure. If we turn out to be wrong, or if things just turn out differently than expected, listening to that voice the next time may be difficult.

Not every little whim is a calling from God, but sometimes we need to risk looking a little crazy. That’s OK. We may turn out to be the only one with the good sense to get out of the rain.

Comfort: Faith may ask crazy things of us, but God will see us through.

Challenge: Is anything you have left undone nagging at your conscience? If so, pray and meditate on what’s holding you back.

Prayer: All-knowing God, I will trust you even when I don’t understand you.

Discussion: What’s the most outlandish thing you’ve done on intuition? How did it work out?

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Invitation: The Bow Lady

Every December, for about the last ten years, some friends and I spend a Saturday volunteering at a Christmas “store” run by a local church for families in need. Parents, grandparents, and guardians can select gifts for children and pick up a Christmas dinner while children do crafts and pick out gifts in another part of the building. Most volunteers are either wrappers or personal shoppers guiding the adults. Since I’m not comfortable starting conversations with strangers, and because I worked in a luggage and gift shop for years, I try to stick to the wrapping.
The first year there, I met The Bow Lady.

She was wrapping at the same table I was, but most of her efforts were concentrated on selecting exactly the right bow to go with the paper. Now every hour each table had to wrap dozens of presents that came in all shapes and sizes – from decks of cards to bicycles. The donated gift wrap was a mishmash of colors, styles, and quality and the bows tended not to stick very securely, if at all. Bows were not most volunteer’s highest priority. Sometimes, knowing they were going to fall off anyway, we just tossed a bunch into the bag to apply at home.

But The Bow Lady wanted exactly the right bow on every gift. Not just the ones she was wrapping, but on mine and everyone else’s as well. At one point she removed the bow from a gift I had just wrapped, and replaced it with one she thought looked better.

“Please don’t do that,” I said, feeling miffed.

She didn’t, but she kept making suggestions and nudging bows toward us before moving on to another table.

Over the years, The Bow Lady has remained consistent in her quest for the optimal bow for every gift. She never seems to stay at any table for too long. She doesn’t seem attached to any of the other little groups from the many churches and organizations who volunteer. I suspect she’s associated with the home congregation, but I’m not sure.

All I know is, she’s there every year insisting you could be better about your bow choices.

She hasn’t changed. But this year – about nine years too late – I have.

It occurred to me, I am somebody’s Bow Lady. I undoubtedly have habits and behaviors of which I am unaware that have irked people for years. Sadly there are also behaviors of which I am perfectly aware that seem baked into my fruitcake; they are unappealing, but I am as yet powerless to change them. Those are the ones causing that little bit of shame; a sense of not belonging. I don’t know whether The Bow Lady is aware of how her behaviors can annoy others, but it can’t be easy not having a table to call home.

All I know how to do is show up and be me, and The Bow Lady knows how to show up and be herself. And she has shown up. Faithfully. For ten years. It took me this long to realize the ministry of the Christmas store – like every ministry really – is about more than its stated mission. We can’t compartmentalize how we show Christ’s love to others. The Bow Lady is not an obstacle or quirk to performing the ministry, because every ministry falls under The Ministry. I need to love her better.

And please don’t get the idea I think it’s only me ministering to her. She has, for ten years, patiently asked me to be more thoughtful about gifts I am wrapping under the banner of Christ. Okay that one time it was not so patient, but never once has she been unkind. She is ministering to me also.

We are all showing up as ourselves, discontent but powerless against our own quirks and flaws, hoping to be accepted, and not as loving as we could be.

But there is a table we can call home. It’s Christ’s table. The gifts prepared for us on this table are perfect and timeless. Christ knows us – warts and bows and all – and welcomes us. And he asks us to welcome each other. Warts and bows and all.

If we can do at Christ’s table, we can learn to do it a little better everywhere. Every ministry is just part of The Ministry.

I hope The Bow Lady is there next December. I think Jesus would like it if I invited her to our table.

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

It Rolls Downhill

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Today’s readings (click to open in new window): 
Psalms 104; 149, Genesis 6:9-22, Hebrews 4:1-13, John 2:13-22


“Tourist prices” have been a problem for as long as people have traveled out of town. For example, non-Jewish currency was forbidden inside the temple at Jerusalem, so pilgrims needed to exchange it with money changers in the temple’s outer court before purchasing sacrificial animals. Doves, lambs, and other creatures are difficult to travel with, so livestock merchants also set up shop there. Both money changers and merchants took advantage of captive customers by demanding high prices. When Jesus arrived at the temple, he was so outraged to find “a den of thieves” where people traded faith for profit that he fashioned a whip out of cords and drove them all out. Not only had commerce defiled the temple, the institution that was supposed to protect the people was exploiting them.

The faithful are called to steward our resources justly. That means more than tithing and charity. Wealth does not buy us the privilege to shift social burdens onto the poor. In his encyclical on the environment, Pope Francis describes how the poor are disproportionately affected by climate change and pollution. The wealthy consume resources and produce waste at a much greater rate than the poor, but poor communities are where we dump trash, manufacture toxins, and  ignore contamination. This burden shift occurs down the road and around the globe. Industries with environmentally devastating activities forbidden under national policies exploit poorer, unregulated countries. Many economic and social forces impact the differences between wealthy and poor communities, but property values are not Christian values. Living in a nice neighborhood doesn’t mean we deserve more justice. Faith calls us to deploy our resources in a way that protects the most vulnerable among us.

Are we in the outer court exchanging profit for justice, or are we working to make sure the poor – whom Jesus told us to serve – are at the heart of God’s kingdom? Rock bottom prices have high human costs. Pollutants we vote or litigate out of our back yards are forced into someone else’s. When the choices we make to better our lives negatively impact others, we need to make better choices. Maybe we can start by treating the poor as we would treat our own family … because Christ has made them so.

Comfort: Rich, poor, or in between, God’s justice is meant for all of us equally.

Challenge: Read about how the poor have been unfairly impacted by pollution in Ringwood, New Jersey (also known as Sludge City), Horlivka, Ukraine, or Flint, Michigan.

Prayer: Lord, help me to live justly, not just for my own righteousness, but for the love of your creation. Amen.  

Discussion: Where in your own community do you see links between poverty and injustice?

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