Startled by Peace

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Daily readings:
Psalms 93; 150, Exodus 12:1-14, John 1:1-8, Isaiah 51:9-11, Luke 24:13-35, John 20:19-23

Easter readings:
Acts 10:34-43 Jeremiah 31:1-6, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Colossians 3:1-4, Acts 10:34-43, John 20:1-18, Gospel Matthew 28:1-10


Hallelujah! Christ is risen!

The tomb is empty, the cross undone. Where will we find him?

Mary Magdalene found Jesus just outside the tomb, though she mistook him for the gardener until he called her by name and she looked at his face. Cleopas and his companion found Jesus on the road to Emmaus, though for hours they thought he was a stranger. They recognized him once “he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” After he vanished, they went to tell the disciples all they had experienced. When Jesus just as quickly appeared to the Eleven and announced, “Peace be with you!” the disciples, believing they were seeing a ghost, were “startled and terrified” until he reassured them of his presence by showing them his hands and feet bearing the wounds of crucifixion.

It seems we find Christ when we look in the face of one we take for granted.

It seems we find Christ when we welcome and break bread with the stranger.

It seems we find Christ when we accept that the wounds he bore for us – even when we could not bear to stand by him – are not a cause for shame and fear, but a source of peace.

Is it Christ who startles us, or do we surprise ourselves when we discover he’s not trapped in the Bible, the church, or the places we look for him … but on the road and at the table beside us?  Like Mary, Cleopas, and the disciples, we won’t see him if we don’t expect him. Fortunately he calls to us, too.

When we hear our name called unexpectedly, conflicting reactions may arise. We can have glad anticipation that someone we want to see has found us, and we can simultaneously be anxious about why we have been singled out. When Christ calls to us from an unexpected place, he calls us to participate more fully in the body of the resurrection. That new life will look different from our old, maybe different enough to startle us, but it promises to be one of peace.

Comfort: Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

Challenge: Look for Jesus not just where you remember he was, but where he is and will be.

Prayer: Holy and Living God, I praise your name. Hallelujah!

Discussion: What startles you?

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In The Between

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 43; 149, Job 19:21-27a, Hebrews 4:1-16, Romans 8:1-11


How do you make use of “between” time, like time spent between destinations on an airplane or a train. Or Sunday evenings when – for practical purposes – the weekend is over but the work week has not quite begun? Or in the waiting room after you’ve watched a loved one rolled into surgery and the outcome is uncertain?

Some of us cope by filling those times with activity and finding comfort in productivity. Others use the time for quiet reflection, contemplation, or prayer. Still others take the opportunity to disconnect entirely, to quietly recharge like a fallow field awaiting the next season.

None of these ways is right or wrong, but if we find ourselves in a particularly stressful “between” time, we may have trouble appreciating people who prefer to pass that time differently than we would choose to. The one thing we have in common is the anticipation of a destination, even when we’re not sure where that destination might be.

“Between” times are particularly prone to stress when we don’t feel we have control over the outcome. A plane ticket has our chosen destination printed clearly on its face, but bypass surgery could end in a number of ways. After Christ’s crucifixion, the disciples found themselves waiting, but they didn’t know what for. Some fled. Some stayed in Jerusalem or nearby. A very few took his body to the tomb or later returned to prepare it for permanent burial.

What events are you between right now? Like the disciples, you may be struggling to understand how you have found yourself in this place, and wondering what happens next. During Lent we intentionally enter this space of waiting, but we know the destination. In everyday life, in the face of uncertainty, it isn’t usually a space where we want to linger.

If you can, take heart on this day of Vigil and know that in the waiting, in the tomb, in the world, something stirs. However you choose to endure, the God of the living moves in the darkness and will be revealed to you in the light. Dawn will come.

Comfort: God has not forgotten you.

Challenge: Attend an Easter Vigil service, or read this evening’s scripture for Easter Vigil.

Prayer: I wait for you, Lord. Always.

Discussion: What are you waiting for?

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The Bitter Cup

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Daily readings:
Psalms 22; 148, Genesis 22:1-14, 1 Peter 1:10-20, John 13:36-38, John 19:38-42

Good Friday readings:
Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Psalm 22:1-31, Hebrews 10:16-25, Gospel John 18:1-19:42


If Jesus was in danger, would you fight for him?

When the authorities arrested Christ, a disciple near Jesus drew a sword and severed the ear of the high priest’s slave. Jesus rebuked him: “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” In Luke’s gospel, Jesus heals the slave’s ear. In John’s gospel, Peter himself draws the sword.  In all four gospels, Jesus goes peacefully with the authorities.

This encounter happened only a short while – minutes perhaps? – after Jesus had left the Garden of Gethsemane resolved to follow God to his own death: “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

What if fighting for Jesus is what puts him in danger?

Ever since Christianity was adopted as the religion of the Empire, we’ve killed and died not just to enforce it among ourselves but to impose it on others. Demanding the greater portion of the population  become (or act like) Christians would have been unthinkable to Jesus and Paul. We were to be apart from the world, not its strongmen. Are we to spread the gospel far and wide? Absolutely. At the tip of the spear or gun? Absolutely not. What people do with the gospel message is completely beyond our control. Forcing compliance is a sign not of faith, but of fear. His executioners robbed Jesus of his life. When we weaponize Jesus because we fear people who don’t follow him, we rob him of love.

On Good Friday, of all days, let us reflect on what it means to do violence in the name of religion. Even self-defense is something we must consider in light of Christ’s message. Then there’s the emotional violence of rejection. And the violence of neglect. If Christ asked why we turned away or ignored the hurting stranger, who could feel comfortable explaining – to the one who sacrificed himself on a cross – there was a chance it wasn’t safe? Could we justify our willingness to punish people for not acting Christian, but not to risk laying down our own lives in love as Christ did?

Following Christ often means accepting the bitter cup when we would rather swing the sword. Going with him to the cross is how we unveil him to the world.

Comfort: …

Challenge: Identify the bitter cups you have been rejecting.

Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Discussion: How have you let fear override your faith?

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V Formation

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Jeremiah 20:7-11 (12-13) 14-18, 1 Corinthians 10:14-17; 11:27-32, John 17:1-11 (12-26)


When geese travel long distances together, they fly in what is called a “V Formation.” Each bird relies on the updraft created by the bird in front of it to travel more easily and for further distances. As the lead bird at the tip of the “V” tires, others rotate into the lead position. No one leads or trails for too long. Pilots flying in groups imitate this behavior for increased efficiency, and also because it allows them to keep other members of the group in sight.

Any single goose can fly, but staying safe and ahead of the encroaching winter requires a group effort. Any single Christian can believe all the “right” things, but justice, love, and mercy require meaningful interaction with others. The synergy of a food pantry staffed with multiple volunteers can accomplish far more than the self-contained efforts of an individual’s kitchen. A group speaking in unison against the injustices that create hunger in the first place is more effective than a collection of disjointed if well-intended messages. And a community of people preparing meals for a person or family in crisis provides not just food, but the invaluable assurance of a community in solidarity with the suffering.

Such efforts often begin with the idea or drive of a single person. If we are that leader, we need to recognize when we need to rest and let someone else lead the “V” for a while, or risk tumbling from the sky in exhaustion. If we are on the tips or in the middle of the effort, we must be prepared to step up when our time comes, knowing we will not be called to lead forever. Giving and receiving are both part of the faith experience.

When Jesus prayed to prepare his disciples for his death, he asked God that they might be made as one, knowing how much of their strength and grace resided in their ability to act together to bring about God’s realm. Let’s find the formation that helps us lift and be lifted.

Comfort: Dependence on community is a strength, not a weakness.

Challenge: In the next few weeks, ask someone for help even if you don’t need it.

Prayer: God of the journey, connect me to the people on my path. Amen.

Discussion: When do you feel the most supported by a community? The least?

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Rejoice Always

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Jeremiah 17:5-10, 14-17 (18), Philippians 4:1-13, John 12:27-36


Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Paul shares these words in the concluding paragraphs of his letter to the church at Philippi. He also exhorts them to rejoice, to be known for their gentleness, and to attain peace by making their requests known to God through prayer and supplication.

Notice that the keys to peace are found in our relationship with God and in how we engage our hearts and minds. Is this what the church seems to focus on today, or do we spend a lot of time worrying about what other “sinners” – Christian or not – are doing wrong? Certainly throughout his letters Paul offers advice on how to deal with church members who are damaging the community through sin or conflict, but these are exceptions – extreme examples. And in the case of non-Christians, Paul tells us to mind our own business. If we find ourselves preoccupied with (or worse yet, eagerly anticipating) how and when to condemn people or (lovingly?) kick them to the curb, maybe it’s time for some serious self-examination.

Lifelong self-examination is a vital component of following Christ. God doesn’t ask us to examine anyone else’s heart, because we can’t know it. The primary question on our minds should not be “Are other people following Christ?” Rather we should be asking “Am I still following Christ?” All else – evangelism, charity, loving rebuke of our fellow Christians – follow from this, and ranges from hollow to dangerous if we always assume the answer is “yes” without engaging in regular, humble reflection.

Paul asked Euodia and Syntyche, two feuding Philippian women, “to be of the same mind in the Lord.” His next words were “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Being of the same mind doesn’t mean being in perfect agreement. It becomes much easier to do when we each agree to focus on the one heart we can know, the one spirit we can convince to rejoice.

Comfort: The Lord is near.

Challenge: For a week or two, keep a diary documenting whether you spend your time thinking about the things Paul recommends, or about negative things. Meditate on what part your own thinking plays in your feelings of peace.

Prayer: Teach me, O Lord, to set my heart on what is good and right. Amen.

Discussion: What are some of your pet peeves, and what do they say about you?

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Dream of Wheat

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 34; 146, Jeremiah 15:10-21, Philippians 3:15-21, John 12:20-26


Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

The above words from Christ should be intimidating, even to devout Christians. When push comes to shove, most of us would rather not have to literally lose our lives to live our faith. We’d probably prefer not to lose anything else either – why would we? – but Christ calls us to do so. Very few face actual martyrdom, but all of us are called to die to ourselves. Short of actual death, what does that sacrifice look like?

In dying to ourselves, we release the death-grip we’ve had on the stalk because we’re afraid of hitting the ground. We sacrifice our own interests to embrace what God desires, not what we desire. Our essential self – the self that God created us to be – must surrender to holy and fertile soil to germinate into its full potential.

Does letting go sound like a scary proposition? When the grain of wheat falls into the earth, it is doing what it was created to do: bear abundant fruit. Specifically it provides more wheat. No one expects an olive tree or a grape vine to sprout from the wheat. The Apostle Paul – arguably the greatest example of conversion and repentance in scripture – remained himself even after he committed wholeheartedly to Christ. Paul’s intelligence, devotion, and ferocity weren’t destroyed; they were redirected and multiplied. Whatever your gifts are, God gave them to you to be used for His glory. Dying to ourselves means following the Christ who points those gifts in the direction of worship, mercy, service, and love.

A dream of material success, while not wrong in and of itself, does not lift us to spiritual satisfaction. Better to let the gravity of faith pull us toward God, where our dreams are redirected away from avoiding a solitary death toward embracing eternal life.

Comfort: Dying to self is rising to life.

Challenge: Ask yourself what gifts you are letting die on the stalk.

Prayer: Holy and Living God, I offer all that I am and I have to you. Amen.

Discussion: What gifts are you hoarding out of fear?

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The Truth and The Life

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The Raising of Lazarus by Jean-Baptiste Jouvenet, 1706

Today’s readings:
Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Jeremiah 11:18-20; 12:1-16 (17), Philippians 3:1-14, John 12:9-19


Poor Lazarus.

One might think being brought back from the dead by Jesus would set a person upon a joyous path, but the consequences were not all good. As Jesus’s friend, surely Lazarus must have felt conflicted that the miracle performed on him was the one that finally gave the Pharisees resolve to carry out their murderous intent. Furthermore, though his eventual fate is unknown, Lazarus also became a target of their evil designs; as long as he lived (again), he was a testament to Jesus’s true divinity, so they plotted to kill him, too.

People in power, especially when their grip on that power is tenuous, would often rather destroy the truth than let it change things. Ironically, that very inclination ultimately contributes to the demise of their influence. Sometimes it’s not even power that makes us hate truth, but fear – fear that we might be wrong. We fear that if we tug out one thread of our belief system, the whole might unravel. But God is bigger than a belief system.

The church condemned Galileo for promoting the truth of heliocentrism, yet God survived our travels to space. The church took evolution to court and despite the overwhelming evidence of the fossil record, God survived. The church as expressed in all denominations has been involved in enough cover-ups, scandals, and hypocrisies that it’s a miracle anyone darkens her doors, yet God survives.

When people like Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, or Berta Cáceres speak truth to the powerful, the fearful, or both … truth is assassinated, yet God survives.

God will outlast our beliefs, doctrines, and denials. This isn’t to say we can’t learn or know the truth, but that those who insist only they do – and who would force us to agree – are showing the weakness of their position. Truth-telling may require persistence, but it does not require force.

Christ himself does not force us to believe, but being his friend may put us in precarious circumstances. Whether being a friend to the truth means becoming a target or facing change, let’s remember that because Christ survives, we will too.

Comfort: God endures.

Challenge: Read about the life, work, and death of Berta Cáceres.

Prayer: I welcome your Truth, O Lord, whatever it may be. Amen.

Discussion: What truth have you discovered that has changed your life?

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Is God speaking your language?

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Today’s readings:
Morning Psalms 43; 149, Jeremiah 31:27-34, Romans 11:25-36, John 12:37-50


A United Church of Christ promotional campaign declares: “God is still speaking.” This message can be controversial, because many Christians who identify themselves as “Bible-believing” are not comfortable with the idea that the Bible is not the complete and solitary source of God’s truth. But what if God is not saying new things, but old things in new ways?

For many people, the King James Bible – deliberately written in language archaic even for its time – has relegated Biblical language to a time when “smite” and “begat” were common terms. Biblical imagery is full of references to ancient animal husbandry practices, arcane measurements, and cultures which no longer exist. But Biblical texts were written to be understood. The Hebrew texts were transmitted orally, which meant the language needed to be memorable and accessible. What good could a prophet do if his listeners couldn’t comprehend his words? Biblical authors used language and imagery appropriate to the time and setting to clarify, not obscure, and so should we.

When Jeremiah tells the Israelites they will once again plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria, he is telling people God restores them to wholeness. A more contemporary example of such restoration might be the end of apartheid and subsequent reconciliation in South Africa. When Paul wrote “out of Zion will come a Deliverer” he expected his audience would know what he meant without a study guide. When Jesus told his listeners “People don’t pick figs from thorn bushes” (Luke 6:44) he was speaking to people who actually picked figs. If he had been speaking in the modern Midwest United States, maybe he would have talked about blueberries and poison ivy.

The point is, God wants to be heard, in whatever ways we might be open to hearing. If we are really to see Christ in others, our vision can’t be limited to one translation. We can’t effectively speak Christ to others with words we wouldn’t use ourselves. We don’t want to study or create poor translations that betray the spirit of the Gospel just to be modern or politically correct, but we don’t want to reflexively reject the modern either. The living God speaks to us through living languages – and living people.

Comfort: God speaks to anyone willing to listen.

Challenge: Read a scripture translation you haven’t read before.

Prayer: God of freedom, thanks for the many ways you can be heard. Amen.

Discussion: What’s your favorite Bible translation and why?

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The Scent of Hope

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Today’s readings:
Morning Psalms 22; 148, Jeremiah 29:1 (2-3) 4-14, Romans 11:13-24, John 12:1–10


As Passover approached, Jesus and some of his disciples visited the home of Lazarus, the man he had raised from the dead. Mary, the sister of Lazarus, anointed Jesus’ feet with a pound of very expensive perfume, and dried them with her hair. Judas complained that the perfume could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor.  Jesus told him to let her be; the poor would always be with them, but he had only a short time left.

Jesus didn’t say, “I’m about to be crucified so I deserve some special treatment,” but defended Mary’s impulse to serve him. This wasn’t an impulse he indulged often. Only a few days later, he washed the feet of his disciples, despite their protests, to demonstrate servant leadership. He could have made the same point with Mary, but there was more going on.

Mary had purchased the perfume, which contained a fragrant herb called nard, for the purpose of anointing Jesus’ dead body. Perhaps she understood and accepted what was about to happen better than the disciples did.  But if it was for his corpse, why waste it on his feet?

Not long before, Jesus had instructed Mary and her sister Martha to open their brother’s tomb. Martha warned him there would be a stench, but instead Jesus called and Lazarus rose from the grave. It seems that at some point between the tomb and the visit, Mary understood what Jesus was about. If he had conquered death, what need was there to save the perfume?

Mary understood that the feeble efforts she might muster to make death more bearable – or for that matter to make life more bearable – were no longer necessary. In a very intimate manner, she showed how she understood that in Jesus there would never be the stench of corruption. Surrendering the perfume signaled that she had surrendered her own intentions to the fragrant hope found only through Jesus.

The scent of Mary’s hope filled her home. It can fill ours too. Let us deeply inhale that blessed scent as we surrender ourselves to our Savior.

Comfort: Our hope is greater than our own mortal plans; it is in Christ.

Challenge: Pray about what you have not yet surrendered.

Prayer: Merciful God, I surrender myself to Christ in all things. Amen.

Discussion: When do you feel closest to God?

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To Serve and Protest

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Today’s readings:
 Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Jeremiah 26:1-16 (17-24), Romans 11:1-12, John 10:19-42


What does loyalty look like?

To be loyal to people or institutions, do we have to defend them even when we think they are wrong? If we believe we belong to the greatest family, team, nation, or religion we understandably want to defend it from outside threats, but how do we deal with internal dissent? Is it possible to think something is great yet flawed – perhaps deeply?

The Jewish people comprised both a religion and a nation, two things which inspire intense loyalty. The prophet Jeremiah loved his fellow Jews and so spoke bluntly to them about the path of self-destruction they as a people were heading down. Because he dared to speak of Judah’s flaws, its officials decided to repay Jeremiah’s love and loyalty with a death sentence. By the (literal) grace of God he escaped, but another prophet named Uriah was not so lucky.

We look back on Jeremiah and Jesus and think how foolish were the people who did not heed them. Yet we are still not especially eager to hear criticism from people we don’t agree with. In the realm of politics, we prejudge legislation or even an idea based on which side proposed it, not on its merit. Progressive and conservative churchgoers follow a similar pattern. We spend a lot of time trying to convince, and very little trying to understand.

The truth is, the most revealing criticisms of our beliefs and behaviors will not come from the people who agree with us, but from the people who disagree. People can be patriotic, faithful, and loyal to the same institution and still disagree on many issues. Often it’s less a matter of disagreement than of perspective. We don’t improve when we listen to our cheerleaders; we improve when another team pushes us. If our solution to a serious challenge is to make sure the other team can’t play, we don’t improve at all.

To love a thing is to nurture it so it can grow beyond its flaws and weaknesses, and – if you can’t see them – to take a step back to make room for someone who can. Sometimes the greatest loyalty is risking exile.

Comfort: Disagreement, handled properly, strengthens a relationship.

Challenge: Listen carefully to criticism, and weight its merits before responding.

Prayer: Teach me, Lord, to walk humbly. Amen.

Discussion: When have you learned something about yourself from someone you didn’t agree with?

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