Keep it in the Closet

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 145, Leviticus 16:1-19, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18


Other than during a tornado watch, when is the last time any of us prayed in a closet? Most of us would probably answer: “Never.” Yet that is exactly what Christ advised his disciples to do: “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Most translations use the word “room” but the Greek is closer to “inner room” – or closet. Of course Christ’s point was not the architecture, but the privacy. Even in Christ’s time, public prayer was often more a bid for the admiration of people, rather than communion with God.

We’ve all heard prayers that sound like the person praying was being paid by the word. Christ tells to pray privately, and not heap on words as if desperately trying to tip some divine scale. Ideally prayer is not a monologue, so it needs a lot of silent time to leave room for God.

When Christ says those who pray or give alms in a public manner have already received their reward, he is commenting on motive. People who make a show of piety in order to win admiration have their reward when someone notices, but not beyond.

On the other hand, going too far the other way and making a show of hiding our deeds is still missing the point. People seeking a relationship with God pray or fast only as an expression of their love for God, and attention (or its lack) doesn’t matter. God isn’t a trophy wife, so Christ teaches us to behave in ways that don’t sully the relationship by making it about other people’s opinions.

From the time we are assigned our first 200-word essay, we are taught the number of words we use is important. One of the toughest lessons for any professional writer is to cut, and cut again, until only meaningful words remain. Perhaps this is why writer Anne LaMott’s two favorite prayers are: “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Comfort: God knows what we need before we speak.

Challenge: Find an isolated place to pray.

Prayer: Compassionate God: help me. Thank you.

Discussion: What do you feel is the role of public prayer?

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Inside Out

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab / window):
Psalms 43; 149, Lamentations 3:37-58, Hebrews 4:1-16, Romans 8:1-11


How do you go on?

After one of your closest companions betrays your beloved teacher …
After fear has driven you to deny your friend and savior …
After the messiah to whom you dedicated your life lies in a tomb…

… how do you go on?

The disciples would have begun observing the weekly Sabbath shortly before sundown on the day of Christ’s crucifixion. Candles would be lit. Prayers would be said. Songs sung. Meals eaten. Outward signs of mourning were forbidden on the Sabbath. Everything would have looked normal on the outside, but inside … grief and chaos.

Whatever activity or (this being the Sabbath) inactivity occupied their bodies, the disciples’ minds must have been on the tomb, not far away, with a body freshly lain and a stone newly rolled across it. From the outside it would have looked like any other tomb, but inside … incomprehensible injustice.

The scribes and Pharisees, Herod and Pilate, and everyone else who feared or hated Christ’s teachings were settling back into a sense of restored order, perhaps even contentment that they had successfully squelched this would-be king and prevented rebellion. The world looked the same as it had before, with the same people holding power, but deep inside … the rules of victory were being rewritten.

We spend a lot of time in this state, appearing one way to the world while, for better or worse, experiencing a wholly different inner life. Holy Saturday represents the tipping point of that experience. On that day, the disciples were resigned to the calm and ordered injustice of the flesh, while their souls were in torment. After that day, they were willing to sacrifice themselves on the altar of the Gospel, because nothing could shake the peace they had found in Christ. What a remarkable change!

What state are we in today? Is our world orderly but our faith easily shaken? Is our world in turmoil but our faith a rock? Or are we somewhere in-between, living an extended Holy Saturday moment, broken but hoping despite the evidence that justice will reign?

On the outside today may seem like any other day, but inside …

Comfort: The story isn’t over.

Challenge: Sometimes we have to give up exterior respectability to find interior peace.

Prayer: God of hope, today we mourn the injustice of the world. Send us peace. Send us love. Send us Christ. Amen.

Discussion: When has your outward stability masked inward change?

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Holy Friday

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 22; 148, Lamentations 3:1-9, 19-33, 1 Peter 1:10-20, John 13:36-38

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


If “Good Friday” seems like an odd name for a day commemorating a crucifixion, understand that good used to mean holy. All over the world, Christians re-enact Christ’s journey to Golgotha (also called Calvary) and his terrible execution. From congregations reading the passion together, to prayer groups walking the stations of the cross in troubled neighborhoods, to entire towns becoming Jerusalem for the day, Christians feel compelled to relive the story.

Because we know how the story turns out, we may find it easy to judge the crowds whose cheers turned to condemnation, or Peter, who – as Christ predicted – denied knowing him not not once, not twice, but three times. Certainly we would not have shouted “Crucify him!” We could never deny him … could we?

Let’s assume we could. Actually, let’s assume we have – because it’s true. None of us lives perfectly. That being the case, isn’t it comforting to know the person Jesus hand-picked to found the church was as flawed as we are? Maybe that’s why in passion stories most of us play the angry mob: to be reminded each of us is in need of forgiveness, and so don’t have the right to judge anyone. Christ later assured Peter he was still loved, but surely the knowledge of that moment of fear, weakness, and betrayal never left him. And almost as surely that memory helped forge the compassion and mercy for others that would have been necessary to speak for Christ.

When we feel like judging, let’s remember Peter – weak, frightened, impulsive, imperfect Peter. Then let’s remember Christ forgave him, as he forgives us, and calls us to forgive. It was the sin of the world that Christ forgave on that cross, including the sin of our own imperfect mercy and tarnished compassion.

From noon this day until Sunday morning, the disciples were without Christ. They thought the story was over, and despaired. This holy Friday and Saturday, let’s contemplate what it would mean to live without hope of forgiveness for ourselves and others. Today Christ hangs on the cross. We shouted “Crucify him!” Now we weep.

Comfort:

Challenge: Pray for forgiveness.

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

Discussion: What does Good Friday mean to you?

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Where is bread and wine?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab / window):
Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Lamentations 2:10-18, 1 Corinthians 10:14-17; 11:27-32, Mark 14:12-25


Maundy Thursday is the day Christians traditionally observe The Last Supper, when we received the gift of communion from Christ. No matter our particular practices and beliefs around communion, all Christians can recognize it unites us across time and place. The significance of celebrating a salvation accomplished through a broken body and shed blood has been contemplated for lifetimes, yet its power and mystery are undiminished.

The book of Lamentations speaks of infants crying “Where is bread and wine?”as they faint weakly on their mothers’ bosom. These elements have been staples throughout recorded history. Their presence represents abundance, and their absence despair. The author, who was referring to physical bread and wine,  probably could not have imagined a crucified messiah. Yet in Christ’s sacrifice abundance and despair are united in a way that assures us the divine is present in all things, even the worst life has to offer. Even sitting at a meal with a friend you know will betray you to excruciating death.

Some days we can’t see the bread and wine.

Where are they when disease robs us of our comfort and dignity?
Where are they when senseless accidents rob us of our loved ones?
Where are they when the world burns at the hands of madmen?
Where are they when children are abused, abandoned, and sold into slavery?
Where are they when depression shrouds our souls in darkness?

They are at the communion table. The Lord’s Supper is powerful because it gives us a taste of bread and wine when we can’t find them on our own. It acknowledges that – right now – life is hard and tragic and seemingly senseless … but because that bread is Christ’s broken body, and that cup is filled with Christ’s shed blood, it reminds us God is present among us – and revealed – in life’s tragedy. Our pain is as real to God as it is to us.

We have been wandering the wilderness for so long we can’t see our way out. For now the bread may taste like ash and the wine like tears, but Lent always surrenders to Easter.

Comfort: God is present with you right now.

Challenge: Today, allow yourself to grieve.

Prayer: God, my creator, make known to me your presence. Amen.

Discussion: What does communion mean to you?

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Only Tenants

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab / window):
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Lamentations 2:1-9, 2 Corinthians 1:23-2:11, Mark 12:1-11


The Parable of the Tenants is a difficult story, which forces us to confront our unwillingness to put God’s desires above our own. A landowner entrusts his vineyard to tenants while he travels abroad. After the harvest the landowner dispatches servants to collect his share, but the tenants greet the servants with violence that ranges from beatings to murder. Finally the landowner sends his son, and they kill him too.

In the common interpretation of this story the landowner is God, the tenants are the appointed religious leaders, the vineyard is Israel, the servants are prophets of the past, and the son is Jesus. The leaders hold the people captive and forget the true head of the vineyard is God. They destroy any and all who oppose their claim to power, even those sent by the true owner. The death of the son foretells the crucifixion.

Contrast this parable with the second chapter of 2 Corinthians. The Biblical narrative tells us Paul visited Corinth three times. The first visit was to establish the church. The second one – which he refers to in his letter as “the painful visit” – was to reprimand church leadership for acting immorally. One man seems to have been particularly troublesome. In this letter, Paul says he is not going to visit again at this time precisely because he feels his corrections had been too harsh and wants to avoid causing any more pain for the church or himself. He asks the Corinthians to forgive the troublesome man and punish him no longer.

When Paul realized his approach was not true to his mission … he gave it back to God. A more stubborn man might have dug in his heels and justified his actions, maybe even returned to Corinth to double down. Paul knew spreading the Gospel was more important than defending himself. Refusing to surrender his plot of land might have broken the Corinthian church. Whether our plot is a ministry, a family, or an actual vineyard, we are all only tenants tending it best we can until the time comes to give it back to God.

Comfort: You don’t have to tend the whole world…

Challenge: … but tend your plot well and surrender it timely.

Prayer: Generous and loving God, teach me to care for your world as you have called me to do, and grant me the humility to change and grow with your seasons. Amen.

Discussion: When does your urge to punish endanger your willingness to forgive?

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Paulitically Correct

Today’s readings (click  below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 34; 146, Lamentations 1:17-22, 2 Corinthians 1:8-22, Mark 11:27-33


Remember the old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercials where one person walked down the sidewalk carrying chocolate, another person rounded the corner carrying peanut butter, and they collided? “You got your chocolate in my peanut butter! You got your peanut butter on my chocolate!” Then smiles as a voice announced: “Two great tastes that taste great together!” Religion and politics are the opposite of whatever that was: mix them together and it leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.

The chief priests, scribes, and elders of Jerusalem were politicians first and religious leaders second. When they asked Jesus by whose authority he cleared the temple of moneychangers and merchants, he responded with a question of his own: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” If they chose heaven, they would have to explain why they hadn’t believed him. If they chose human, the crowd would become angry. Their response did not hinge on what was true,  but on what was politic. We don’t even know what they believed, because they said: “We don’t know” – the “I do not recall” of its time. The political press conference hasn’t changed much since then.

Because their politics undermined their moral authority, Jesus did not feel compelled to answer their questions. Perhaps we should take a similar approach to modern day religious leaders who rely on popularity to maintain authority. Many a pastor – regardless of personal beliefs – has refused to challenge a congregation on issues of inclusiveness for fear people might object and leave. Such silence is almost always interpreted as consent for the status quo. Religious leaders – ordained or self-proclaimed – seeking political office must depend on popularity to succeed, and that often means sacrificing  integrity on the altar of electability.

Jesus did not compromise his mission, even as his followers turned on him. Paul may have adapted his style to suit an audience, but his message remained consistent. Neither dodged the difficult questions.  We are wise to reserve our respect for religious leaders who do not pander, but tell us what they believe. Even when we disagree, integrity is a foundation for building relationships.

Comfort: It’s all right to question religious leaders when you question their motives.

Challenge: God has given you the ability to think for yourself. Use it.

Prayer: God of wisdom, grant me ears to hear the words of the just and righteous. Help me turn away from voices that lack integrity. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever felt like you sold out your values?

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Lament

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Lamentation 1:1-2, 6-12, 2 Corinthians 1:1-7, Mark 11:12-25


The Book of Lamentations was written in response to the destruction of Jerusalem hundreds of years before Christ’s birth. We revisit it during Holy Week because its theme of spiritual self-destruction is timeless. The author(s) of Lamentations believed God allowed the ruin of his people and their land because they had abandoned God and sinned shamelessly. Exiled and oppressed, the Jewish people sought vainly for consolation and mourned their foolishness.

Our modern understanding of salvation and sin as personal episodes distances us from the experience of communal lamentation.

Every so often some televangelist blames a natural disaster on  the sin of a community, but they always seem to be disasters “over there” – in New Orleans, Haiti, or some other place the preacher doesn’t live, and they always seem to be sins the preacher doesn’t commit – or admit. But the biblical prophets tell us the sins which most angered God weren’t attributable to individuals, and the just weren’t spared the repercussions. Hypocrisy, mistreatment of widows, orphans, and the poor, and other injustices – these angered God. We can’t point to one person and blame them for the plight of widows and orphans, so it’s easy to blame “the system.” But what is the system if not the cumulative response or neglect of individuals?

Our choice is simple: Repent now or lament later. Do we really believe no spiritual implosion looms on the communal horizon when we let industrial toxins disproportionately poison the poor? Or when our justice system prioritizes revenge over rehabilitation? Or when the most popular religious voices are teaching us faith is a means to tap into God’s limitless ATM? When no one is accountable, everyone is responsible.

By the time Jesus starts flipping the tables in our temple, it will be too late. The system will implode. But beyond that horizon is the promise of resurrection. As God eventually returned a contrite nation to Jerusalem, Christ restores our contrite hearts to the kingdom. Jesus taught that when we pray, we should forgive so we can be forgiven. Let’s recognize what we as a community need to be forgiven for.

Comfort: Resurrection is always on the horizon.

Challenge: It’s tempting dismiss injustice as “that’s the way things are.” You can’t fight every injustice, but can you pledge some of your time, talent, or money to combating at least one that doesn’t impact you directly?

Prayer: God of Mercy, accept my sacrifice of a contrite heart. Open my eyes to the ways I carelessly or ignorantly neglect the least among us, for in your kingdom they are the greatest. Amen.

Discussion: How do you feel about salvation as a community experience?

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Unthinkable Donkeys

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Christ Entering Jerusalem by Ernst Deger

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab):
Psalms 84; 150, Zechariah 9:9-12, 1 Timothy 6:12-16, Zechariah 12:9-11, 13:1, 7-9


The Sunday before Easter is Palm (or Passion) Sunday, when we remember Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. At the height of his ministry and controversy, Christ entered the city riding a donkey, and the huge crowd gathered for Passover greeted him by throwing palm fronds on the path before him. This gesture was a sign of respect for victorious warrior kings … but that donkey told another story.

The prophet Zechariah wrote about the coming messiah as someone who would “command peace to the nations.” Traditionally a warrior king rode into conquered territory on an armored warhorse to signal his victory and dominance. A donkey, though, sent a message of humility. To a people hoping for a military savior to conquer their oppressors, this idea would have chafed. Yet Zechariah was not the only prophet telling the people of Israel to expect the unexpected. Christ’s reign was accomplished not only through peace, but through subservience, including submission to death on a cross. It was unthinkable. It certainly wasn’t what people wanted to hear, but prophetic voices told them anyway.

Like the Israelites, do we hope to assert our future through force? Every year churchgoers read the passion story and join our voices to those who shouted: “Crucify him!” By Easter we’re back to celebrating the resurrection, and little has changed. Rather than humbly live as we believe, we try to pass laws imposing our beliefs on the nation. We fail to speak truth to power – because in this time and place we are the power. All our talk of peace crumbles when we feel threatened; surely Jesus didn’t expect us to suffer for our faith when we could defend ourselves by going on the offensive?

Jesus enters the world through the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. Through our enemies. When we treat them with love we aren’t doing it on behalf of Jesus – we are doing it for Jesus. Christ reaches us not through merely unexpected avenues, but through unthinkable ones. Following Christ means choosing the donkey instead of the warhorse, even when that palm-strewn road leads to the cross.

Comfort: There are voices telling us how to follow Christ. We just need to learn to listen for them.

Challenge: Be careful not to confuse civic and secular authority with salvation and grace.

Prayer: God of Love, teach me the humble way of Jesus. Grant me ears to hear the truth, even when I don’t like it. Set words of peace and justice on my lips. Amen.

Discussion: What leaders appeal to your sense of anger, force, or division? When they speak, are you able to separate what you want to hear from the truth?

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Stop! Collaborate and Listen.

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab / window):
Psalms 43; 149, Exodus 10:21-11:8, 2 Corinthians 4:13-18, Mark 10:46-52


Mark tells the story of Bartimaeus, a blind beggar who was sitting by the roadside when Jesus passed by on his way out of Jericho. When he realized it was Jesus, he began to cry out to him, but many people tried to silence him. Mark doesn’t identify these people who “sternly ordered him to be quiet,” but the implication is they were following Christ. The blind man’s persistence paid off when Jesus stopped to wait for him, then healed him saying: “Go; your faith has made you well.”

Have we ever been one of the silencers?

During Sunday worship as we follow Jesus down the road from the first hymn to the eventual benediction and dismissal, we aren’t generally fond of interruptions. How would we react to a blind beggar shouting out in faith in the middle of that Sunday journey? To a crying baby and exhausted mother? To a grieving widower who sobs when the joyful song we sing reminds him of the wife he just lost? Annoyed or uncomfortable, we may say something directly or simply rely on the pressure of the group to impose silence on their obvious need. Either way, the message is clear: don’t interrupt.

Perhaps we justify our reacting by telling ourselves they should wait for a more appropriate moment to express their pain. Yet what moment could be more appropriate than a gathering of the followers of Jesus? In worship or in everyday life, following Jesus means stopping where he would stop. If we won’t respond to need and pain until a convenient break in the scheduled activities … we’ve marched Jesus right out of town.

We can’t run down every single side street searching for blind beggars, but we must be careful not to ignore or silence the needy along our path because we insist on maintaining an inflexible agenda. They are not in the way; they are the way. Worship is more than prayer and praise; it is any expression of love and gratitude for God and his creation. Sometimes an interruption is an opportunity to do our most meaningful worship.

Comfort: Jesus hears your cries, even when others seem to ignore or silence you.

Challenge: God’s plans aren’t always going to be your plans.

Prayers: God of Mercy, teach me to be merciful to those in need. Help me hear their cries as I trust you to hear my own. Let me respond with loving words and deeds. Amen.

Discussion:  Who do you think you have silenced, accidentally or intentionally?

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Get Over It

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab / window):
Psalms 22; 148, Exodus 9:13-35, 2 Corinthians 4:1-12, Mark 10:32-45


When Christians – or any other religions – gain secular power, trouble follows. Some Christians like to claim we live in a nation that is – or at least should be – Christian. What exactly does that mean? To which particular branch of Christianity do they refer? And most importantly what part of the teachings of Jesus leads them to believe political power is a good influence on Christian character – or vice versa?

Jesus tells his disciples repeatedly, they are to be servants as he is a servant. To be first, they must be slaves of all. We live in a time and place where practicing our faith does not threaten our well-being. On the other hand, having been told that we should expect persecution, we have greatly skewed our sense of what that means. Having no real reason to fear martyrdom, we behave as if any loosening of our grasp on power and control is a form of persecution. For evidence we only need look as far as the trumped up War on Christmas: how did temples to commerce become a battlefront for religious freedom? Then there’s the outrage over religious displays which have been removed from government property or – worse yet! – made inclusive. Government establishment of our religion makes us beholden to that government – the antithesis of what Jesus taught.

In twenty-first century America we simply don’t suffer serious persecution for our faith – unless allowing people to disagree with us or having our feelings hurt has become a form of persecution. Instead of railing against perceived slights, we should celebrate them! When we rub society the wrong way, we’re just doing our job. When we rub other Christians the wrong way, we’re probably earning overtime. Paul says: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” Does that sound like “Happy Holidays?” When we trade grace for outrage at everyone who doesn’t follow our beliefs, we demonstrate a faith too weak to handle the persecution ladled on those who truly spread the Good (but sometimes unpopular) News.

Comfort: Your faith doesn’t obligate you to be outraged over petty things.

Challenge: A lot of the things we think of as religiously sanctioned – think Christmas shopping – are really not.

Prayer: God of Mercy, help me to walk and speak humbly but confidently in your light. Amen.

Discussion: What things offend you more than they maybe should?

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