Sunday Schooled, Part 2: A Month (or Three) of Sundays


A little while ago I wrote about wanting to find a new church home, and my first experience in a long time of attending a church where no one knew me. I’d planned to attend the first candidate for a month to see what it was like, and ended up going for closer to three months.

I’m continuing to learn you can think a place is great and still not think it’s a good fit for you.

I try very hard to recognize the difference between “this is not good” and “this is not to my taste.” For example, when it comes to music I tend to enjoy neither opera nor screamo (for several of the same reasons actually), but that doesn’t mean they aren’t good. It can be tempting to dismiss something we don’t enjoy as not worth enjoying, as though we need to convince everyone else to justify or elevate our own tastes.

Another attitude I am less successful at curbing is being in “critic” mode when experiencing something a) I also do myself and b) no one has asked me to critique. I wasn’t as aware of this tendency until I started regularly attending civic theater performances and was seated next to some folks who fancied themselves “theater people.” And who knows – maybe they really were. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out why they bothered to attend when, judging from their ceaseless chatter during performances, local talent was never going to live up to their expectations. Apparently there is an exactly correct way to play Sally Bowles in Cabaret.

Of course the things we dislike in others are often things we dislike in ourselves, and upon some introspection it turns out I’m quite the unsolicited critic of spoken-word poetry, font use, and church services. But any more I try not to be.

So when I say this church may not be for me, I’m not saying it shouldn’t be for anyone, or even that it’s doing anything wrong.

The weekly message is on point and expertly delivered. The music is carefully curated and performed well. The pastors lead and speak with a mix of Biblical knowledge and humility I can embrace. And they may be actual mind readers because the things I didn’t like about how they served communion the first time I had it there were all remedied the second time a few short weeks later.

And yet…

I’ve been there at least eight times and no one has greeted me except at the door. This may be an intentional choice; many people don’t want to be invited to chair a bake sale (or even to stand as a visitor) the moment they dip a toe into the waters of a new congregation. As an adult, I recognize that I also have a responsibility to initiate conversations if I want to have them, but I am a lousy networker when I’m not on my home territory. You only have to open a conversational door a slight crack for me to find a way in, but I’m very unlikely to knock on a closed one. The pastors offer genuine invitations for anyone new to say hello after service, and while I am not at all intimidated by public speaking, I am anxious about introducing myself one-on-one. That’s my issue – not the church’s – so I’m not offended that no one has introduced themselves and I’m fully aware it could be remedied if I sucked it up and did something uncomfortable (I mean I have to do it all the time) … but after many weeks without a hello my gut isn’t convinced this is where I want to expend that type of energy.

To be fair the congregation does have opportunities for interaction. Most of them appear on the church’s two Facebook groups – one general forum and one specifically for invitations to group activities. The one with invitations (varying from local musical performances to trying new restaurants to in-home conversations) seems to get good responses. But again, this isn’t a great fit for me. Though there is a book study I have expressed interest in, showing up without a task or purpose to join a group of people I don’t know (and who likely already know each other) causes me a lot of stress. And maybe it’s just my age but relying on Facebook instead of potlucks doesn’t appeal to me.

At this point you may be thinking … “Um, aren’t these your issues?”

Absolutely they are. As a matter of fact, writing this has made me aware I have some serious tendencies toward introversion even though I can put on a chicken costume and dance on busy street corners to attract attention for a fund raiser (true story).

This church doesn’t need to do anything differently to accommodate me. It’s doing good work that seems to be a good fit for many people. Given time it might turn out to be a place I could call my church home. Maybe it would be a challenging and safe place for me to work through my anxieties about meeting other people. I might grow into it. Or out of it. But at this moment, the fit is off. There doesn’t have to be something wrong (and more importantly I don’t have to try to convince myself or anyone else there’s something wrong) with a place because it might not be for me.

So for now I’m going to view it as a non-denominational opera which I’m happy other people – many of whom I admire for their ability to appreciate it – can enjoy. In the meantime, I’m going to check out that Methodist club down the road for a month or so to find out if they’re playing a tune I can groove to.

Moving in the Direction of Justice


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, Joshua 2:15-24, Romans 11:13-24, Matthew 25:14-30

Have you ever heard anyone label a certain type of thinking or theology as “Old Testament” or “New Testament?” Sometimes we like to believe there’s an easy distinction, a clean break between the people of the law and the people of grace. However, many Old Testament prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, Micah, etc. – foreshadowed Jesus’s teachings by commenting on the need for justice and mercy over sacrifice. Conversely, we can be tempted to soften Jesus’ language to make him seem less OT and more WWJD.

Many, if not most, translations of the Parable of the Talents refer to the characters in the story as “servants,” but a more accurate translation is “slaves.” This is true for many Biblical passages in which the word “servant” appears. Some critics of Christianity use these passages as evidence Jesus condoned or even promoted slavery, especially since some Christians have made the same mistake.

Though we accept his teachings as universal, we understand Jesus was speaking to a specific culture at a specific time. So what can we make of problematic passages like Jesus’s casual references to slavery? First, many of the people in his audience were slaves. Using them as examples of righteousness elevated them spiritually beyond their societal stations, and was a revolutionary statement of their worth as children of God.

Second, Jesus is an example of a faithful life in the world as it is. When we acknowledge what we can do for the poor and oppressed today, we are not condoning or promoting poverty and oppression, nor are we foolish enough to pretend these conditions will cease to exist. Though Christ did not actively speak against slavery, the abolitionist movement sprouted from Christian churches. Third, as Paul says in several of his letters, in Christ there is no distinction between Jew, Greek, slave, free, male, female, etc. We are all slaves to each other and to Christ. Softening the language diminishes its radical message.

Slavery is certainly not the only difficult topic in the Bible. If we are willing to understand scripture in the larger context of the world and tackle its more challenging texts head on, our faith only deepens.

Comfort: God is present even in the most unpleasant places and times.

Challenge: Find out if there are an resources in your community to combat human trafficking. You may want to start at

Prayer: God of the Known and Unknown, let me know you as you are and not just as I’d like you to be. Amen.

Discussion: What Biblical passages make you uncomfortable?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 145, Joshua 2:1-14, Romans 11:1-12, Matthew 25:1-13

The book of Joshua jars modern Christian sensibilities – or at least it should.

Full of slaughter committed in the name of holy war, the Hebrew text frequently refers to kherem, a word meaning “to utterly destroy.” Try as we might, can we imagine Jesus commanding a group of Christians to annihilate not just one town but several down to the last woman, child, goat, and shed? Even for those who believe Jesus will return as a conqueror, that image should be disturbing. However we struggle with and maybe resist such ideas, grappling with them helps us grow in our understanding of human and divine nature.

When I was a kid, I watched Star Trek reruns every Saturday. I especially loved episodes that introduced new alien races. As I grew older, I noticed a disturbing trend. Each race seemed homogenous. They didn’t just have identical uniforms – they had uniform values, opinions, and attitudes. When we did meet aliens who were exceptions, what set them apart was almost always an embrace of familiar human values. Despite the intentional diversity given to the Enterprise crew by its creative team, the human tendency to stereotype the unfamiliar and exalt the familiar emerged.

When Joshua’s spies encounter Rahab in today’s reading, she is the exceptional alien. When she protects them – that is, when she embraces their values – she becomes sympathetic, so she and her family will be spared from the coming destruction. Even though she explicitly tells the spies there are other Canaanites who share her beliefs, those people are not even considered for mercy. If Joshua or his people had come to know other Canaanites as they had Rahab, how eager would they have been to embrace kherem? How does the narrative in Joshua compare with God’s earlier instruction in Exodus 22:21 – “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt?”

Clearly genocide is not an acceptable notion for modern Christians or Jews. While it is true God’s justice is beyond our understanding, any comfort – or even eagerness – some of us find in the notion of slaughtering God’s (which usually means our) enemies requires some serious reflection on our own hearts and motives. When reading Joshua, we must account for cultural context and seek out the theological themes underlying the story itself. Our reaction to its violence is an opportunity to reflect on how God wants us to relate to the alien today.

Comfort: No one is an alien to God.

Challenge: Who is your Rahab? On a bookmark-sized piece of paper, make a list of people who have defied your cultural preconceptions. Use it to mark your place as we read through the book of Joshua over the next couple weeks.

Prayer: God of the Known and Unkown, temper my judgments and cultivate my mercy. Amen.

Discussion: Who is your Rahab? Who has defied your cultural preconceptions? Did they influence your view of only themselves, or of many people?

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Everything That Breathes


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, Joshua 1:1-18, Acts 21:3-15,Mark 1:21-27

Praise and worship are essential to our relationship with God. Psalm 150 exemplifies praise for its own sake – not because of what God has done for us, but simply because God is worthy of praise.

What do people value in a worship service? A majority of respondents to one survey claimed how it “made them feel” was most important. A close second was liking the musical style. Interesting results, considering the focus of our worship is supposed to be God, not ourselves and our preferences. It can be easy to confuse closeness to God with good feelings. Services crossing the line into entertainment (or even group therapy) facilitate such confusion. Emotions heightened through catchy music and enthusiastic crowds are a spiritual hit that fade quickly. Focus on God, rather than on how the experience makes us feel, provides a deeper connection.

Since worship services are often built around the attitudes and demands of the congregation, what is our responsibility? Well, we can set our hearts on God, regardless of whether a particular song choice “speaks to us” or drums up the warm fuzzies. We can set our minds on what we bring to worship, rather than what we take away. Many people stop attending services during times of personal crisis. Could this be because we associate worship with only good feelings, and feel pressure to put on a happy face? We can turn to many psalms as examples of praising through pain.

“Hold on,” we might say, “isn’t my church supposed to fulfill me in some way?” That’s an awful lot to expect from one hour-long service. We are more likely to find fulfillment through participation in the life of a church community. We often let feelings dictate our actions, though actions powerfully influence our feelings. Sharing community actions of justice, love and mercy is a natural extension of Sunday worship – a chance to open ourselves up to God working in our lives, and the lives of others. We don’t develop our spiritual muscles when the church hands us lightweight sentiment, but when we engage in genuine praise and worship and do the rest of the heavy lifting ourselves.

Comfort: Our faith is stronger than our feelings.

Challenge: At the next worship service you attend, be intentional in singing songs to God, and not just about God.

Prayer: Lord of Heaven and Earth, I praise you as creator of all. Amen.

Discussion: It’s entirely possible for a worship experience to be both emotionally moving and focused on God. Have you ever experienced a service or church that strikes this balance well?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 63; 149, Deuteronomy 34:1-12, Romans 10:14-21, Matthew 24:32-51

vigilant (adj.): 1. keenly watchful to detect danger; wary; 2. ever awake and alert; sleeplessly watchful (

Are we vigilant about our spiritual lives? What might such vigilance look like? Jesus offered various examples of vigilant (and non-vigilant) people. Regarding vigilance he was speaking specifically of the day of judgment, but the lesson is applicable to other important events that will occur at an unknown time – including our own deaths.

Two workers in a field, but only one taken at the end. Two women grinding grain, but one left behind. A homeowner unprotected against thieves in the night. Jesus gives no details about what separates the field workers and women who are taken from those who are not. The homeowner has no way of knowing which night to stay awake to catch the thief. These examples tell us why we need to be vigilant, but not how. In a longer parable, he tells us about a good slave who is performing his job admirably while awaiting his master’s return, and a bad one who is wasting time and money that do not belong to him.

In a nutshell, vigilance is doing what we’re supposed to be doing, every day. None of the vigilant people are making extraordinary “holy” efforts. None are busy trying to figure out when the big event is most likely to occur. None are in a worship service others neglect. They are working. Grinding. Living.

Perhaps this is how we are to exercise vigilance: do our best to discern how God wants us to live, and make it our daily practice to do so. Waiting for the “right day” to stop gossiping or to start caring for the poor is a dangerous gamble: like the bad slave, we don’t know when our time might be up.

Many of us assume (with either fear or hope) that God’s demands will require extraordinary effort, and therefore put off our attempts to fulfill those demands until everything is in place. Does a preoccupation with extraordinary efforts distract us from the true vigilance of daily living? Instead of being overwhelmed, let’s find comfort in Jesus’s use of common laborers, rather than prophets or priests, as his examples of the vigilant. We don’t need to be scholars, seers, or sages to be vigilant. We just need to be the people God created us to be.

Comfort: God has given us lives that prepare us for His presence.

Challenge: At the end of the day, make notes of when you were and were not spiritually vigilant.

Prayer: Gracious and Merciful God, thank you for your presence in my daily activities. Amen.

Discussion: When do you feel like you’re living as God would have you live? How do you struggle with that idea?

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For Better or Verse


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 148,g Deuteronomy 31:7-13, 31:24-32:4, Romans 10:1-13, Matthew 24:15-31

What’s the number of your favorite New Testament verse? Only 500 years ago, that would have been a nonsense question. Before the 16th century, the New Testament was not divided into verses in any generally accepted manner. Before the 13th century, it wasn’t even divided into standard chapters! Today, we can scarcely imagine taking part in a Bible study without being able to flip to the proper chapters and verses on demand.

But do verses help or hinder our relationship with the text?

A devotional that depends on scheduled readings might seem like an odd place to bring up the dangers of versification, but today’s Epistle reading is a good example of the importance of context. Paul’s letter to the Romans is a rich and complex document. Each section builds upon the content of the previous sections. Today’s text continues Paul’s exploration of the continued role of the Jewish people in God’s plan for salvation. Out of context, it could be presented as an outright condemnation. As part of a larger document, it helps build an argument that God is the God of all people, whether Jewish or Gentile.

Beyond the immediate context of Romans itself, it helps to know Paul wrote this letter as Jews were returning to Rome after being expelled for five years by the Emperor Claudius. The church they returned to was increasingly Gentile in character. Part of Paul’s reason for the letter was to relieve tensions between clashing sects of Christianity.

Understanding the Bible involves more than memorizing verses and pulling out proof-texts. While verse identification is a helpful reference tool, it should not limit our study or – worse yet – reduce the Bible to a collection of favorite, context-free quotes. Reading the full text and exploring the historical context will provide a much deeper experience. Even lectionary readings might be enriched by looking back and reading ahead!

The New Testament was composed over decades by many authors, none of whom wrote their work in verses. When we try to read the text as they wrote it, our appreciation and comprehension can only grow.

Comfort: The Bible is greater than the sum of its verses!

Challenge: Before the end of the month, research the historical context of one of the New Testament books, and notice how it affects your understanding of the text.

Prayer: Gracious and Merciful God, we thank you for the living words of scripture. Amen.

Discussion: Do you have a favorite Bible verse?

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Give ’em a break…


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 147:1-11, Deuteronomy 1:1-18, Romans 9:1-18, Matthew 23:27-39

The twenty-third chapter of Matthew contains some of Christ’s most scathing criticism of the scribes and Pharisees. He compares them to whitewashed tombs – spotless outside but full of decay. He calls them a brood of vipers. He accuses them of building tombs for prophets they had murdered while they claimed “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets” … on one hand denouncing a murderous tradition while enthusiastically embracing it with the other.

This is the part where we can sit back, think of all the vipers in our own lives, and enjoy Jesus really letting those hypocrites have it!

Or is it?

Maybe this is the part where give the Pharisees a break. Or if not a break, a little empathy. If we look at them and say “that would never have been me!” we make the same mistake they did. Of course we like to believe that even under identical circumstances we would be different – better – than people who have made bad choices. For a few noble souls it may even be true. But most of us are not exceptional; we are doing the best with what we have, and failing more often than we’d like.

If we can entertain the idea that we might have been pharisaical … that if we’d been less privileged by intelligence or class we might have found ourselves in prison … that we might have been in the crowd that loved Jesus right up until it began shouting “Crucify him!” … we may find it a little easier to show compassion and forgiveness.

Romans 3:23 tells us all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Short is short and all is all: since the scale of God’s glory is infinite, our relative distance from it is irrelevant. Thinking other people’s sins are greater than our own robs us of compassion. Believing our sins are greater than other people’s robs us of hope. To be heirs of the kingdom, rather than heirs to the murderous tradition, we only have to believe Jesus died for all of us equally.

Comfort: Jesus offers forgiveness to everyone, including you.

Challenge: Jesus asks us to offer forgiveness to everyone, including ourselves.

Prayer: God of mercy, help me to keep a humble and loving heart. Amen.

Discussion: How do you think our secular culture influences our ability to feel compassion?

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Gold or Sanctuary?


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 12; 146, Numbers 35:1-3, 9-15, 30-34, Romans 8:31-39, Matthew 23:13-26

Jesus spoke harsh words against the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees. He called them “blind guides” – people pretending to lead but actually walking the faithful and converts alike off a spiritual cliff. He had no patience for a temple where gold and gifts were revered more than the sanctuary and altar that made them holy, where tithes of spices were more important than justice, mercy and faith. He compared them to cups polished on the outside, but filthy inside.

Today Jesus might not find coffers of gold and cumin in our sanctuaries, but he could find plenty to criticize. While there’s nothing wrong with a beautiful sanctuary – God himself directed the creation of a beautiful temple in Jerusalem – there is a problem when the image outshines the substance. A church is holy because of its character, not because of its “success.” The scandal of some churches – regardless of denomination (or lack thereof) – is not that their leadership sins, but that they collude to cover it up.

Looking the other way when our house of worship bullies, excludes, discriminates, exploits, ignores, or otherwise abuses people is never acceptable. Teaching a prosperity gospel that impoverishes the congregation while filling the pockets and three-car garage of the pastor is a betrayal of the gospel. Yet people turn a blind eye to wrongdoing in a misguided attempt to preserve the dignity of the church. Making an idol of the reputation of a corrupt institution to attract and retain members is like handing out candy you know is poisoned.

Better to worship in an outhouse crowded with the shopworn meek than a cathedral packed with gleaming hypocrites.

Christians are often taught to be nice to each other, but nice is not the same as just. Nice transfers abusive clergy without causing a commotion; just disciplines them. Nice prevents us from calling someone out for discriminating; just knows embarrassment is not worse than discrimination. Nice makes sure the cup is polished, just makes sure the contents are safe. We don’t need the world to think we are nice; we need to show the world that even when we are flawed, we strive for the just.

Comfort: You are allowed to speak up.

Challenge: Sometimes speaking up is hard; do it anyway.

Prayer: God of Justice, help us build a health church body. Amen.

Discussion: When have you spoken up, even though it might have been unpopular?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 62; 145, Numbers 32:1-6, 16-27, Romans 8:26-30, Matthew 23:1-12

We are a species driven by language. Some philosophers claim language is a necessary precedent to thought as we understand it. In Genesis, God speaks creation into existence. Is language also necessary for prayer? Paul would not seem to think so. He might even go so far as to suggest it could be an impediment to true prayer. He writes: “we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

As much as we rely on words to express our feelings, many of the emotions we experience are beyond them. How do we express these things? Sometimes through poetry, which subverts the definition of words to uncover what they cannot say directly. Or maybe through music which has the power to communicate directly with the body and bypass words altogether. And of course there is art of all kinds which recombines the intent of the artist and the perception of the viewer into an ever more powerful third experience which is shared yet unique.

Then there is prayer. In some circumstances it’s a set of shared words; in others, a shared silence. Sometimes it’s not shared at all. Prayer is a tool which – usually gently, but forcefully when necessary – pries apart the seams of hardened ego to expose our inner, vulnerable selves to the God who gives us life, meaning, and comfort. It re-establishes that connection through a language with a single, inexpressible word for everything that is: horror and beauty; grief and joy; rage and peace; pain and bliss. When we need to share these things with our God and don’t know how, the sigh of the Spirit is that word.

Never beat yourself up over not knowing the “right” way to pray. Paul admitted he didn’t. The Spirit is also known as the Advocate, or one who pleads on behalf of another. Whether you are expressing gratitude or anger, using words or not, the Spirit sighs on your behalf. Prayer is a decision to be in the presence of God. It’s simplest form: Inhale. Exhale. Be. Repeat.

Comfort: God knows what is in your heart, always.

Challenge: Even when you are angry with God, take time to pray.

Prayer: God of all that is, I come to you naked and helpless as a babe, trusting in your goodness and love. Amen.

Discussion: When do you find it difficult to pray?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 54, 146, Numbers 22:21-38, Romans 7:1-12, Matthew 21:23-32

Does a vision without a voice have any value? In the pre-civil rights era, many preachers in white churches personally believed in desegregation, but were reluctant to say so from the pulpit. They feared alienating their congregations and losing members. Not many years ago, during a panel discussion on whether to ordain gay clergy, several pastors said they personally supported it, but that taking such a stand would drive their congregations to either fire them or leave the denomination. Only one pastor in attendance had the courage to say: “Let them leave.” Personal convictions, especially regarding matters of justice, mean nothing if we remain silent about them

The difference between a pastor and a prophet is often their willingness to (pardon the language) piss people off. A pastor is beholden to an audience; if he or she drives members away, they will likely be fired or transferred. A prophet is beholden only to God and conscience. Telling people what they want to hear in order to remain in power is the purview of politicians, not clergy.

When the chief priests and elders asked Jesus by what authority he preached, he countered by asking them: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” They dithered among themselves, trying to determine which answer would cause the fewest problems: if they said “from heaven” they would have to admit they’d been hypocrites, but if they said “from man” the people who followed John might turn on them in anger. At no point in the conversation does it seem they asked themselves: “What do we believe is the truth?” They answered, “We do not know.”

No one can truly lead people they fear to displease. When our pastors and priests are willing to tell us something we won’t like – something that may even anger us – we are not obligated to agree with them, but it is an indicator of their integrity. And when we are called upon to lead, we must not equivocate, but instead be clear in our words and intentions. If we wait to take a stand until most of the danger of doing so has passed, we have done nothing at all.

Comfort: You can’t make everyone happy, so don’t try.

Challenge: If the just opinion is unpopular, speak it anyway.

Prayer: God of Justice, give me courage to serve you boldly. Amen.

Discussion: When do you regret not speaking up?

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