Fear of Success

MuchRequired

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, Numbers 6:22-27, Acts 13:1-12, Luke 12:41-48


“Fear of success” doesn’t sound like something that should happen, but it’s a common psychological challenge. Success represents change, and there are numerous reasons we consciously and subconsciously fear change. In many ways failure can be less fearful because it means remaining in familiar territory.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus touches on what it means to succeed: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”

Does that kindle a little fear in your heart?

When we do well personally and professionally, we say we have been blessed. While that’s true, we also need to realize we have been burdened. Though it’s cliched, we need to ask ourselves whether we are paying it forward. The motto of the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA) is: “Lifting as We Climb.” This organization focuses its efforts on a specific community and profession, but  it embodies the responsibilities that come with success.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a wealth of money, time, or talent, but we must not get caught in the trap of thinking what we have earned is what we deserve. No matter how much success we earn, we fall short of “deserving” God’s love and mercy, yet God gives them to us freely. If Christ is our example, and he gave up his life for the salvation of our undeserving souls, how can we claim the right to hold on to anything we’ve earned? How can we look down on those who have not “earned” what we hold but they need?

Personal accountability is not something we impose on strangers (though we should expect and encourage it), but a standard to which we hold ourselves. It’s not measured by what we’ve socked away for retirement, but by how proportionately we’ve used what’s been given and entrusted to us to meet the requirements and demands of faithful service.

Success means change. If that change happens, and much is demanded of us, will we be more afraid of being broke or being broken?

Comfort: How you account for your generosity is between you and God.

Challenge: “Responsibility” can become an excuse for mean-spiritedness. When you are deciding whether to give time, money, or talent to those in need, consider what it says about your character as least as much as you consider theirs.

Prayer: God of mercy, teach me to use my gifts wisely and generously.

Discussion: How do you arrive at a balance between generosity and practicality? How concerned do you think Jesus is with the practical?

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The Handmaid’s Fail: Fundamental Errors of Mercy

Well that took a turn.

A couple days ago I had worked out in my head an outline for a post on Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. More specifically, about how some (self-identified) conservative commentators have characterized it as liberal fantasy and anti-Christian propaganda, or in an even further stretch as an indictment of the collectivism of the left. Due to the timing of its premier, many people all over the political spectrum have chosen to interpret the material as a comment on the Trump administration, though the first season of the series follows very closely the novel upon which it was based – and which was written during the Reagan Era. The author herself has said the Republic of Gilead (which she has named her dystopian America) is a product of neither conservatism nor liberalism.

I have recently become a big fan of the show and wanted to discuss the merits of its production and performance without bringing any references to the current administration into it at all. I thought reasonable people of different political and cultural understanding could discuss and recognize what seeds of this dystopia we could agree not to let root in America.

Then the Attorney General of the United States cited Romans to excuse immoral actions of the state.

My perspective took a turn. A hard turn.

Not Conservative

I’m what some might call liberal. And what others might call moderate. Unless someone far to the left of Rachel Maddow is elected president, I’ll probably never be labeled a conservative.

But I’m not so biased that I can’t admit none of the actual people I know who do think of themselves as conservative are represented by the fictional architects of Handmaid’s horrors. Sexual servitude is not a conservative value. Enforced caste systems are not a conservative value. Institutional hypocrisy is not a conservative value.

Traditional Western conservatism, like any political theory, has its pros and cons (which is which may vary by your personal outlook) but the people who truly study, understand, and embrace it are not by definition villains. Sure I could point to countless stories of conservative (or liberal) politicians and leaders caught up in scandals of corruption and hypocrisy, but that’s a product of politics and power, not conservatism.

The evil in Gilead is an entirely different beast.

Not Christian

To find an anti-Christian bias in Handmaid, I believe you have to watch with the assumption it exists, because – despite plenty of Old Testament quoting – it’s not there.

I’ve seen all the episodes (which is not necessarily true of everyone who chooses to comment in favor of or against it) and I’ve noticed the writers are very intentional about not having practitioners of the state religion of Gilead mention or quote Jesus. One scene in particular drives this home. Before dinner, a familiar grace is said: “Bless us O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which are about to receive from Thy bounty…” and then it stops. It lacks the traditional ending: “Through Christ, our Lord..”

You know who does mention Jesus? Offred/June, our series protagonist. She says a prayer of protection and blessing over the scene of a massacre, and ends it with “in Christ’s name. Amen.”

The character whose red uniform has been borrowed by “liberals” as a symbol of oppression speaks of Jesus and angels to commemorate and mourn the dead. The oppressors can’t seem to reconcile Christ to their theology. That doesn’t say to me the writers are interested in bashing Christianity.

What is it then?

So if Gilead isn’t conservatism or Christianity run amok, what is it? It is (and I’m certainly not the first to say this) a fundamentalist theocracy. And like real-world fundamentalist theocracies, it starts from a familiar scripture which it then cherry-picks and twists to support the absolute authority of its civic leaders – who of course manage to find excuses to exempt themselves from the burden of the rules they use to crush others.

And like many fundamentalist theocracies it exploits the fear surrounding crises both real (in the world of Handmaid, toxic pollution and global infertility) and imagined (people unlike us are the source of our problems). Regressive fundamentalism expresses a desire to “return” to a set of values and norms which never actually existed. The only Christ-related message Gilead seems to cling to is the idea of removing a body part if it causes you to sin, except a) they are literal about it in a way Jesus never intended, and b) instead of self-regulation it’s the state that enforces the lopping, chopping, and plucking.

So if it’s not really Christianity or conservatism, why is it interpreted so?

Fundamentally Ruthless

Fundamentalism is not limited to conservative religions or ideologies. It occurs anywhere people decide their specific point of view must be enforced at all costs. Dress, speech, and reverence of symbols is prescribed and not only can one be punished for failing to follow that prescription, one can be punished (often worse) merely for questioning the system. Questions are the most threatening things of all, because once we allow discussion and analysis of ideas, no fundamentalism survives.

Yet even in the United States there are people who promote and long for a fundamentalist theocratic state. There’s a call to return to Christian values, as if Christian belief and practice is monolithic and unchanged in its expression. For the record, it’s not and never has been. It started with Peter, Paul, and James in stark disagreement over many basic issues and is all over the map today.

But when it comes to fundamentalists, Christianity itself is almost beside the point.

Somewhere in the human psyche, there’s a desire for the seeming order that fundamentalism provides. Certain people rally around it because it satisfies a tribal instinct which requires the “othering” of both outsiders and insiders who question the tribe. The instinct is not partisan. It makes our problems about the failings of other people and minimizes self-reflection. Its application is necessarily ruthless. From shunning to honor killing, mercy is removed from the equation. 99% adherence is 100% insufficient.

This is the exact opposite of what Christ taught. He certainly never suggested Christianity be forced upon anyone. Yet in the United States, a country where freedom of religion is a guaranteed right, there is an ever louder voice wanting to prescribe speech (the “war on Christmas”) and reverence for symbols (if you kneel during the anthem “Maybe you shouldn’t be in this country.”) There’s no question there is also a fundamentalist strain of liberalism which needs to be checked (no matter what you think of Ann Coulter and her execrable ideas she has the right to express them), but it lacks the  coercive religious component which claims to add the fate of your eternal soul into the mix.

When relative moderates align themselves with extremists to achieve political or social goals, chances are more likely that the extremists will influence the moderates than the moderates will constrain the extremists. It’s a lot easier to irritate an extremist, and they’re more willing to walk away from the table. The concessions to civility and human rights that such an alliance requires are almost never worth it in the long term. Thus we have conservative giants like George Will bemoaning the current state of conservatism, the Republican Party and this administration in particular.

The Handmaid’s Trail

Which brings me back to our Attorney General (and Press Secretary) using Romans 13 to justify enforcing the unjust, state-sanctioned practice of separating children from their parents – while conveniently ignoring plenty of other verses specific to the treatment of aliens and refugees. Now that I’ve seen the connection to Handmaid, I can’t unsee it.

First, our government is not based on the Bible, or any religious text. Specifically. And intentionally. The individual constitutions of the first thirteen colonies were based in thirteen different (and conflicting) flavors of Christianity. To become a union (which was ironically opposed by English loyalists citing Romans 13…) we wisely ditched theocracy. Bringing it back is a Gilead-style move.

Second, Romans 13 is not a call to enforce unjust laws. Remember that Jesus guy? He was crucified for sedition. He refused to bend to the prescribed speech of the Roman empire. He violated Sabbath laws. He valued mercy and principle above fundamentalism and paid the price for it. Your hands aren’t tied by Romans 13 unless you want to call Jesus a bad example. You’ll never hear the Commanders of Gilead quoting Christ’s calls to mercy above law unless it serves their desires.

Third, it’s hypocritical. Administrations (local, state, and national) prioritize what laws to enforce and how to enforce them all the time. Nobody opposed to same-sex marriage cited Romans 13 when Kim Davis refused to do her legal duty as an employee of the state, or when Joe Arpaio defied the Supreme Court. Inconsistent and hypocritical application of scripture is Gilead 101.

Finally, throwing up your hands and crying “What can I do?” in the face of injustice – especially when you’re one of the few people in a position to do something about it! – is about as unchristian as it gets. You can choose not to do the unjust but legally required(?) thing and pay the price of following Christ’s merciful example. You can decry the horribleness of a situation, confess how you have contributed to it, and repent by finding another way. A difficult or unattractive option is still an option; choosing it when it’s the right one is a matter of character.

There is always the option to the do the right thing and look for another solution. Declaring “this is terrible but I have to because the law” – when it’s something you really want to do anyway (or not doing so will exact a price you are unwilling to pay) – and then improperly quoting scripture to justify it, is not Christian. It’s not conservative. It does not show integrity.  It is a dangerously fundamentalist theocratic thing to do. It’s one of the basic conflicts in every episode of Handmaid, most dramatically addressed when Offred/June and the other handmaids refuse to stone one of their own, while the representatives of the faith insist it must be done because it’s the law and order must be preserved. If there was only some way to know which side of that dispute Jesus might land on…

No Balm in Gilead

Does anyone believe Jesus would say “Keep locking up those kids. Blame your predecessors and the refugees for tying your hands. Just don’t cause them to stumble.” To me that’s begging to be fitted for a millstone collar.

There are lots of things Jesus has to say about what we might be doing in this situation. Things like doing good to your enemy, and taking care of the least among you, and welcoming strangers. None of them coincide with unnecessarily ramping up a program you claim to disagree with and causing additional trauma to already traumatized parents and children. None of them require adherence to unjust man-made laws. They do require creativity, compassion, and a willingness to lay our political (and sometimes physical) lives down to a higher purpose.

A Christianity that doesn’t inconvenience you but tells you exactly how to detain, punish, or oppress everyone who isn’t following the rules  isn’t Christianity. It’s fundamentalist theocracy. It’s a pious yet somehow Christless Gilead.

No matter our political stripe, we must resist the temptation to ally ourselves with fundamentalists and theocrats. Because once we ride such an alliance to victory, we’ll find that insatiable beast hasn’t been tamed … we merely happened to be going in the direction it wanted to go, and now we’re being dragged along for the ride and holding on lest we also be trampled.

The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t show us the end result of conservatism or of Christianity, but of fundamentalism. If we’re currently having as much trouble teasing those things apart as the Attorney General and his ilk would seem to hope, perhaps we should remember the whole premise of the Tale hinges on children being taken from mothers trying to survive desperate situations.

All legally.

And all declared the will of God.

Why Thee?

countdays

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 63; 149, Numbers 3:1-13, Galatians 6:11-18, Matthew 17:1-13
Evening Psalms 125; 90


Psalm 90 – the only psalm attributed to Moses – is written from the perspective of someone trying to make sense of it all at the end of a long life. The psalmist doesn’t sugar coat life’s difficulties. He prays the good days might at least outnumber the bad, and acknowledges that the lucky get 80 years of toil and trouble. Yet he prays for God’s work and its meaning to be manifest in the community.

The wise do not wait until the end of their lives to contemplate the meaning of work and suffering, nor do they wait until suffering is upon them. It’s tempting to keep the suffering of others at a certain emotional distance because identifying with it too closely forces us to admit it could happen to us. Distance feels safe, but leaves us ill prepared when God does not exempt us from disease, infidelity, loss, or other tragedy. Suddenly what we saw as part of God’s plan for another person becomes a crisis of faith in our own lives.

If we spend time now asking “Why them?” and “How would you have me respond?” we are less likely to be spiritually devastated when it’s inevitably time to ask “Why me?”

The psalmist doesn’t offer concrete answers to his questions, but the context gives us some clues about where those answers may lie. The questions are universal, and he asks them not about anyone in particular, but about the community. The work is not the work of any one person, but of the community. The meaning of the work transcends any single life or generation. Despite all Moses did to lead the Israelites, he never set foot in the promised land. Any satisfaction Moses gained from his efforts came from the knowledge he had played his role in the greater plan.

When it’s our turn to suffer – and we’ll all have our turn – the question “Why me?” overwhelms us if we can’t see ourselves as but one part of the whole of creation. If we’ve lived a self-centered life divorced from the story of the community, meaning will be difficult to find. Like words chosen by a skillful poet, each of us is complete, important, and beloved by God, but part of a greater work.

Comfort: You are an important piece of your community, supported by and supporting all the other pieces.

Challenge: See above.

Prayer: Loving God, grant me the patience and wisdom to encounter suffering with a heart of mercy and solidarity. Amen.

Discussion: What types of suffering do you identify with? What types do you find difficult to deal with?

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Feedback Loop

bear burdens

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 148, Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:14, Galatians 5:25-6:10, Matthew 16:21-28


A few days ago we considered how we might be receptive to criticism. Today let’s flip that script and think about how we can most constructively give feedback.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote: “[I]f anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” He also said we are called to bear each other’s burdens. As a culture we seem to have grown increasingly comfortable with providing immediate feedback via social media, comment boards, and even in person to strangers. Unfortunately, we are less adept at the “gentleness” part. Name calling, snap judgments, and attention-grabbing vitriol fill our internet, television screens, newspaper pages, and radio waves.

These types of reactions aren’t really about the other person; they are about satisfying our own sense of righteousness.

There are times when firm reactions are called for. When Peter tried to discourage Christ from his journey to the cross, Jesus responded with: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” This may sound harsh, but he spoke with unmistakable intent because what Peter was tempting him to do was unmistakably in error.  He explained what needed to happen in order to reconcile his disciples to the necessary future.

A single incident or flaw almost never defines a person. Peter was still Jesus’s rock. We need to remember that so we don’t seek mercy for ourselves but punishment for others. Bearing each other’s burden includes making an effort at reconciliation. Character assassination is not part of that process. Can we imagine Jesus launching a Facebook dogpile designed to publicly humiliate Peter? Naming hurtful behaviors is necessary, creating more of them is not part of the reconciliation formula. That may not seem “fair” by worldly standards, but Jesus teaches forgiveness and self-sacrifice, not retaliation.

If we aren’t in a position to offer restoration, we aren’t in a position to offer rebuke. Perhaps we can better use that time pulling the logs from our own eyes.

Comfort: Compassion and rebuke can coexist.

Challenge: If you have social media accounts, try not expressing negative opinions for a week.

Prayer: God of restoration, help me bear the burdens of my community with the help of your Spirit. Amen.

Discussion: When have your received or offered constructive criticism?

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Doubt, Pray, Love

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 26; 30, Ecclesiastes 11:1-8, Galatians 5:16-24, Matthew 16:13-20


No matter how strong our faith, we eventually have a day – or perhaps an achingly long series of days – when God seems far away. We don’t talk about those days much. Rather, we feel pressure to put on a brave face. Expressions of doubt during a Bible study prompt our friends to offer arguments for belief which are probably more about their reassurance than ours. A minor breakdown during prayer time is viewed as unseemly and inappropriate, maybe even fodder for parking lot gossip.

Loss and weakness are fine to discuss if we’ve already overcome them, but no one likes to watch the sausage being made. A story of beating a gambling addiction? Testify! A confession about how your ongoing blackout drinking leads to promiscuity? Better save it for the 12-step meeting. We talk a good game about brokenness, vulnerability, and healing but we really want to skip right to the “after” photo because the “before” mugshot is too upsetting.

The Psalms tell a different story. Many of them describe how we can be simultaneously faithful and in a wretched state. The author of Psalm 130 is crying out to God from the depths of despair. He recognizes his own failings and shortcomings. He finds himself unable to do anything but wait for the Lord and hope for the best. He still puts his trust in God but he’s not putting up a brave front.

Questions, moments of weakness, and despair do not demonstrate a lack of faith. They are the times that tell us whether we had any faith in the first place. Like the psalmist, sometimes the best we can do is beg God to get us through the darkness while we hunker down and hang on until daylight.

A healthy faith community will offer a safe space to rail against injustice, struggles, and the seeming distance of God. It will face darkness head on but shine a light into it. Since communities are made of people, the responsibility of creating such space then falls on each of us. We can be ourselves when we allow others to do the same.

Comfort: God is big enough to love you through your anger and doubt.

Challenge: It can be difficult to navigate when to express our pain and when to keep it to ourselves. Read this piece on how not to say the wrong thing.

Prayer: Loving God, my source of strength and security, thank you for weathering my doubts and fears. I will trust you to see me through this and all days. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever found relief after sharing something you had been keeping to yourself?

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A Little Yeast

solve through love

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 147:1-11, Ecclesiastes 9:11-18, Galatians 5:1-15, Matthew 16:1-12


Paul fought diligently to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. He argued with Peter and James that there was no need for Gentiles to observe Jewish laws, since Christ had fulfilled the law and freed us of its chains. Imagine his dismay when certain members of the church at Galatia –which he founded! – began teaching circumcision was a requirement.

Paul’s response may be summed up as: “You were fine when I left you – what happened?! If you require this one law for justification, you will effectively bind yourself to all of them, and Jesus’s sacrifice becomes meaningless for you. Stop listening to these bad apples; they are spoiling the bunch!” More specifically: “A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough.”

Jesus also compared bad teachings to yeast.  To appreciate the analogy, we must remember that during Passover Jews ate only unleavened (yeast-free) bread to commemorate their flight from Egypt; even a tiny bit of yeast could rapidly grow to contaminate the whole batch and  make it unusable. At first Jesus was irritated because the disciples thought his words about yeast were a rebuke because they forgot to bring the bread, so he explained exactly what yeast – the contaminated teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees – they needed to be wary of.

What varieties of yeast threaten our faith communities today? What elements which start out tiny can – if left unaddressed – spread to ruin the whole batch? They are numerous and extend beyond bad doctrine. Bullies become more bold when we fail to address them. Cliques can form almost undetected until they are exclusive enough to be hurtful. Apathy toward justice issues saps the sense of mission. Political litmus tests (spoken and unspoken) may start to send messages about who the “real” Christians are. Left unchallenged, expressions of bigotry taint the character of the congregation.

Ignoring a problem when it’s small so we can “keep the peace” only allows it to fester and spread. Peace is not the absence of conflict. It is the ability to resolve conflict through love. Let’s diligently pursue true peace before it becomes impossible to do so: once the bread is baked, the yeast can’t be removed.

Comfort: Conflict does not have to lead to division.

Challenge: When unhealthy behaviors threaten your community, speak up but speak up with love.

Prayer: Loving God, grant me the wisdom to know which battles to fight for the good of your gathered people. Amen.

Discussion: Are you helping spread any yeast by ignoring it?

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Feedback

 

improve

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 36; 7, Ecclesiastes 8:14-9:10, Galatians 4:21-31, Matthew 15:9-39


Imagine you are going to ask your employer for a raise or a promotion. You’ve prepared a list of all the reasons you think you deserve it. Are you also prepared to hear your boss share any reasons she or he feels you don’t deserve it?

What about when we decide to offer unsolicited criticism to a friend or coworker? Are we ready for them to return the favor?

Real-life conversations are not like those in a movie or television episode where someone gets to say their piece without interruption and leave the scene with a dramatic exit. When we initiate a challenging or difficult conversation, we should be prepared to hear what the other party has to say. Sometimes that means things won’t turn out the way we want.

The author of Psalm 7 knew this. When asking the Lord to save him from his enemies, he must have been certain of his own blamelessness to say:

O LORD my God, if I have done this,
if there is wrong in my hands,
if I have repaid my ally with harm
or plundered my foe without cause,
then let the enemy pursue and overtake me,
trample my life to the ground,
and lay my soul in the dust.

Fortunately for those of us less confident in our own righteousness, Christ teaches us that we are not caught in a cycle of tit for tat – that God’s mercy isn’t contingent on our blamelessness, but on our own willingness to show mercy ourselves. Unlike asking for a raise, when we ask God for forgiveness, we don’t need to build a case for it so much as humbly acknowledge and repent of our wrongdoing. When we feel convicted of our sins and failings, the Spirit isn’t trying to beat us down into a place of guilt, but to lift us up to a place of renewal.

Eventually we all need to face difficult truths about ourselves. The difference between the world and God is that the world wants you to improve before it can love you, and God loves and forgives you so that you can improve.

Comfort: God loves us despite our flaws.

Challenge: Ask a trusted friend to suggest a way you could improve, then pray about it.

Prayer: Merciful and loving God, thank you for loving me where I am today, and loving me enough to lead me somewhere better tomorrow.

Discussion: What flaw do you struggle to change?

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So You Had a Bad Day

badday

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 62; 145, Ecclesiastes 7:1-14, Galatians 4:12-20, Matthew 15:21-28


This quote from Marilyn Monroe is all over social media: “If you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.” It’s frequently used out of context when someone wants to deflect criticism of  their own bad behavior. We don’t like someone telling us our behavior is bad, or even unhealthy. We might think other people need to hear criticism (again, reference social media for scathing comments about the scandal du jour) but when it’s leveled against us we call it “judging.” Since Jesus told us “judge not” we toss that out as a conversation stopper.

Except we take that out of context too: Jesus didn’t render us incapable of moral evaluation, but reminded us to be merciful to others because we want God to be merciful to us. We are allowed to call out injustice, and to be called out for committing it. While how we behave on our worst days isn’t the standard by which others should judge us, it’s also not above legitimate criticism.

When Paul wrote to the Galatians about the importance of including Gentiles in the Christian community, he reminded them they’d met him during some of his worst days, a period when he suffered from an unidentified ailment. The specifics are unknown, but it seems his condition was, at the very least, unpleasant. He wrote: “though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.” Was this because Paul told them: “If you can’t handle my worst you don’t deserve my best?” No. It was because even at his lowest points, Paul focused first on delivering the gospel message. His weakness was not a source of shame, nor an excuse for behaving badly, but evidence that Christ helps us endure all things.

No matter what, the world will find reasons to criticize us. We all have weak moments and bad days, so sometimes the world will be right to do so. How we handle criticism of our worst days tells people more about our character and our faith than a hundred of our best days.

Comfort: Your worst days are some of faith’s greatest opportunities.

Challenge: It can be tempting and easy to use stress as an excuse to be dismissive or abusive. Remember that your bad day does not give you latitude to ruin someone else’s.

Prayer: God of mercy, teach me to be merciful. Amen.

Discussion: Are you able to take constructive criticism?

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Ordinary Blessings

reachesclouds

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 108; 150, Job 38:1-11, 42:1-5, Revelation 19:4-16, John 1:29-34


Divine intervention. We are taught in Sunday School to believe it looks like great reward or great punishment defying the laws of nature – like the parting of the Red Sea or the walls crumbling around Jericho; like the resurrection of Lazarus or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the case of Job, divine intervention felt both like punishment and reward: God stripped everything he loved and valued from him, then restored his fortunes because he remained faithful. Behind the scenes, the motivations for divine intervention in Job’s life weren’t really about him at all.

We should call God’s involvement in the life of John the Baptist a blessing – after all, he had the privilege of preparing Israel for the arrival of Christ – but his reward for faithfulness was execution. When we hear examples like this, does it diminish our enthusiasm for a divine hands-on management style?

What if divine intervention wasn’t always quite so … obvious? It seems counter-intuitive that God would create a universe in need of constant tweaking, but might it be possible that interaction with God is built into the fabric of creation? That we go through each day touched by God in small ways we may or may not notice? Not that the Spirit is some cosmic personal assistant saving us a good parking space or sparing us from the same financial woes someone else is suffering (though there’s nothing wrong with expressing gratitude for these situations).  Every experience we have is an opportunity to connect with God, but we must choose to make that connection.

When we don’t get that parking space or pay raise, are we just as grateful? When we compare our lives to peers we consider more successful than ourselves (never a good idea, but inevitable), do we acknowledge the blessing of an ordinary life?

Maybe divine intervention doesn’t look like God altering the world for us, but God altering us for the world.

We can’t all be leaders and prophets. We can all be followers of Christ. Surrendering our lives to God makes us the very instruments of divine intervention. If we want to see God at work in the world, let’s look inside first.

Comfort: God is available to us always…

Challenge: … but insisting on our own way can make God seem distant.

Prayer: Holy God, thank you for being present in my life even when I don’t feel you. Amen.

Discussion: In what ways do you feel God has changed you to better serve the world?

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Washing Our Hands of Mercy

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 122; 149, Ecclesiastes 5:8-20, Galatians 3:23-4:11, Matthew 15:1-20


Christianity has existed for almost two thousand years. Over the centuries it has evolved in some ways into something Jesus might barely recognize. Or maybe it evolved into something he would find all too familiar: an institution whose highest priority is too often its own preservation;  an institution that claims a scriptural basis but predictably twists that scripture to justify human preferences and biases. If that criticism sounds harsh, consider today’s reading from Matthew.

The Pharisees and scribes criticized Jesus and his disciples for not performing the traditional hand-washing before meals. Jesus countered by condemning them for using man-made conventions to help people shelter their money through the temple when they didn’t want to “waste” it taking care of their aging parents. The letter of the law permitted this practice, but undermined the spirit of the commandment to “honor thy father and mother.” When the disciples later expressed concern he’d offended the Pharisees, he said:

Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions […] These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.

Twenty centuries have accumulated a lot of traditions which obscure the message of Christ. Many of them were intended to guide us, but often we have let them come to define us. Rules and practices specific to a time or culture are revered like commandments not because they honor God, but because they honor our self-righteousness.

“We take communion the proper way. We baptize the proper way. We say the proper Sinner’s Prayer. We don’t do X, Y and Z…” Jesus does not ask us only to avoid sin, he asks us to love proactively. What good is not taking the Lord’s name in vain if we don’t speak that same glorious name in love to others? How well do we serve God by condemning abortion but neglecting the hungry children of single mothers?

Law and ethics are separate fields of study partly because you can observe the first without having any concern for the second. Our duty as Christians is to love God and our neighbors. Often our disagreements about how to execute that duty are based more in traditions and biases than in love. When we are quick to discipline or enforce in God’s name, but slower to demonstrate mercy, we disrespect God’s character. As Psalm 103:8 tells us, “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.”

Let’s demonstrate our love for God – and by extension each other – with both our lips and our hearts.

Comfort: God’s love is bigger than our traditions.

Challenge: Sometimes to love, we must unlearn.

Prayer: Loving God, teach me the humility necessary to follow your will instead of human laws.

Discussion: Have you had to discard any traditions or customs to better follow your faith?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people.