Chaotic Peace

bruisedreed

Today’s readings:
Psalms 51; 148, Isaiah 42:(1-9) 10-17, Ephesians 3:1-13, Mark 2:13-22


Justice.

To twenty-first century, Western sensibility, that word implies a certain type of order: punishment for wrongdoing, restitution for injury, recovery of one’s property. We use it in an almost exclusively legal sense. Phrases like “economic justice” spark debate and raise complaints about wealth redistribution, entitlements, and merit. We want justice to be blind, orderly, and swift.

God doesn’t always do “orderly.” When Isaiah describes the arrival of God’s justice, the scene he paints is chaotic. God’s justice lays waste to mountains, cries out like a woman in labor, and turns rivers into islands. Yet his servant doesn’t raise his voice, break a bruised reed, or even snuff a faint wick.

As the embodiment of God’s justice, Christ upends the Pharisees’ expectations about the messiah. He tells crazy stories about patched-up wineskins. He dines with tax collectors and other “undesirables.” He eats and drinks more than they think a messiah should. When challenged about the company he keeps, Christ tells them straight up he is here for the sinners, not the righteous.

If we broaden our definition of justice to include building a world where the most vulnerable are taken care of, do we see justice reflected in our modern world? Do we spend our collective energies and resources primarily on punishing the guilty, or on helping transform desperate communities to foster hope and alleviate the poverty that leads to crime?

The latter often requires acts of civil disobedience outside the realm of the strictly legal. Susan B. Anthony, Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi each participated in non-violent protest in the name of justice. Each nudged their corner of the world into slightly better alignment with the kingdom of God, where the last are first and no opportunities denied because of gender, social status, or ethnicity.

We tend to think of blessed lives as quiet and orderly, but God’s justice scrambles our carefully crafted plans and lives. Followers of Christ spend time on the margins of society, living with and working on behalf of the disenfranchised. According to each of our means and talents, we work for the type of justice that seeks to include rather than exclude, to practice mercy rather than revenge, and to raise to messy life systems that are orderly but soulless. Justice does not lock things down; it cracks them open.

Comfort: We don’t have to crack skulls to open hearts.

Challenge: Read some biographical material about people who have engaged in non-violent resistance.

Prayer: God of peace, teach me to serve with love. Amen.

Discussion: Many Christians have differing perspectives on pacifism and non-violence. What’s yours?

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Breaking Barriers

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 97; 147:12-20, Isaiah 41:17-29, Ephesians 2:11-22, Mark 2:1-12


What do you get when you cross an argument about circumcision with a paralyzed man lowered through a hole in the roof? You get today’s scripture readings from Ephesians and Mark.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul addressed the reconciliation of Jewish (circumcised) and Gentile (uncircumcised) Christians. This was a major controversy within the early church, because Jews considered circumcision a sacred and necessary sign of their covenant with the Lord.  They weren’t yet convinced non-Jews could even be Christians, let alone disregard centuries-old tradition, but Paul taught them about the new life that unites all people who followed Christ.

In Mark, a paralyzed man had friends who wanted him to encounter Christ. They couldn’t get through the crowd surrounding the house where Jesus stayed, so they broke through the roof and lowered the man on a mat. Moved by their faith, Jesus told the paralyzed man his sins were forgiven. When the scribes questioned by what right he forgave sins, Jesus also healed the man of his paralysis as a demonstration of his divine authority (though one suspects the healing was on its way all the while).

And when we cross these stories, we see a consistent theme of how faith in Christ removes barriers between people. Paul said of Christ, “in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Because of faith, the paralyzed man’s friends broke through a physical barrier, and Christ broke through a religious barrier.

Religion can be the source of a lot of barriers. Jesus, the Apostles, and Paul spent decades tearing down the false barriers religion created between God’s children, but we’ve spent centuries building replacements. We try to wall God inside our creeds, denominations, and dogma. We convince ourselves it’s because we want to preserve something – our version of the circumcision, perhaps? – but in the end we use them to reinforce a tribal mindset declaring who is inside and who is outside.

Relationships – at least the kind Christ calls us to – are a lot messier than religion: they refuse to be defined by walls. All those stones Jesus discourages us from throwing? Let’s use them to build bridges instead of barriers.

Comfort: Christ is breaking barriers for us right now.

Challenge: Meditate on your beliefs. Which ones are walls, and which ones are bridges?

Prayer: God of all creation, let me build no obstacles where you would not have them. Amen.

Discussion: When have you found yourself excluded on “religious” grounds?

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Spit It Out

Spit

Today’s readings:
Psalms 46 or 97, 149; Isaiah 66:1-2, 22-23; Revelation 3:14-22; John 9:1-12, 35-38


Is mainstream Christianity too wishy-washy? Media hype about the “Culture War” between the faithful and the secular wouldn’t lead us to believe so. Conservative religious voices speaking out against abortion and same sex marriage are frequent, loud and shrill.

But in a time and nation where Christianity is by far the dominant religion and Christian businesses from dating services to investment firms flourish, are Christians really suffering from any threats or dangers we don’t fabricate ourselves? The only “persecution” we face in the USA is that people are free to speak against us if they so choose. Someone refuting our beliefs or calling us out for behavior they disagree with is in no way equivalent to oppression. Yet somehow we manage to convince ourselves we are victims, perhaps because on some level we know truly living one’s faith does invite persecution, but we don’t have the stomachs for the real thing.

The progressive church is not off the hook. Yes it frowns upon and occasionally speaks out against the more egregious activities of its conservative counterpart, but rarely since the civil rights movement of the 1960s does it insert itself in any meaningful way. Instead, content simply to disclaim the follies of its less sophisticated cousin, it leaves the secular culture to do the heavy lifting on progressive issues. Paralyzed by political correctness, it operates from a generic humanism wherein faith is at best charming, at worst pitiable.

Neither camp, though opinionated, is bold. Mostly they preach to their respective choirs. They are the lukewarm brew spit out by Christ. Passionate Christians cling to neither of these labels (nor a moderate one) because they are too busy feeding the poor, praying for their enemies, spreading the Gospel, and visiting the sick and imprisoned to worry about any politics that don’t hinder those efforts. Dedicating oneself to these works is still considered radical in all quarters because it is an implicit indictment of anyone not doing them. Christianity is the opposite of a cultural affiliation or confirmation (even its own): it is a light and fire that burns such distractions away.

Comfort: If your faith is somewhat lackluster, you’re not alone.

Challenge: Jesus wants you to do something about it.

Prayer: God, fill me with the faith and desire to do your will.

Discussion: Do you feel like you’re answering your Christian call?

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Servant Leaders

Today’s readings:
Psalms 46 or 47; 149; Isaiah 65:13-16; Revelation 3:7-13; John 6:15-27


What would you do if the public wanted to crown you king or queen? Would you embrace it? Would you run away? Jesus chose the latter. After he fed thousands of people with just a few loaves and fishes, they wanted to make him king – by force if necessary. He escaped to the mountain to be alone.

When God told Isaiah he was to be a prophet, Isaiah resisted. He declared to God all the ways he felt unworthy of being God’s voice. Many (most?) of the prophets chronicled in the Bible resisted God’s call. As far back as Moses, who tried to push the job off on his brother Aaron and blamed his speech impediment, the people God has chosen to lead have often shown reluctance.

When God knocks on the door, even to tell us we are fit to lead, we should be a little hesitant, maybe even fearful. The call is rarely easy. In his wisdom, God does not tend to choose leaders who are eager to embrace authority and power. Contrast this to our present-day system of secular leadership, where candidates spend millions of dollars telling you why they are unquestionably qualified for leadership, and their opponents barely deserve to participate in civil society. And religious leaders who seek power? We should always keep a critical eye on them.

Of course there are differences between people who seek power, and people who rise naturally to positions of leadership. For starters, the latter is much less common. The ability to acquire power is nothing like the ability to wield it wisely and justly. In hierarchical organizations, someone has to be at the top. The person who is the most eager, or eloquent, or assertive is not necessarily the best choice. The true sign of faithful leaders is not a desire to serve term of office but to serve the people who depend on them.

In God’s kingdom the last are first and the first are last. A true leader does not fear other leaders, but encourages them. A true leader does not control subjects, but empowers people. When we are called to leadership – by God, people, or circumstance – let us consider it humbly and prayerfully. When God calls us to lead, he calls us to serve.

Comfort: God equips those whom God calls to lead.

Challenge: Be discerning about who is a self-proclaimed leader, and who is actually qualified to lead.

Prayer: Merciful God, I will seek to follow the example of Christ, servant and Lord of all. Amen.

Discussion: Who are the leaders you trust?

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Humble Piety

Today’s readings:
Psalms 46 or 47; 147:12-20, Isaiah 65:1-9, Revelation 3:1-6, John 6:1-4


The Gospels may be “The Good News,” but many of the things Jesus taught us – or perhaps more accurately re-taught us – were good and old. Centuries before Jesus reminded the people of his day that true obedience to God meant embodying a spirit of mercy and justice – rather than mercilessly following the letter of the law – Old Testament prophets had tried to deliver the same message. Isaiah told the exiled nation of Israel she had lost God’s favor because of her “holier than thou” attitude (not even paraphrasing – see Isaiah 65:5). Their burnt offerings, once a pleasing fragrance, became a stench in God’s nostrils as they substituted superficial piety for love and mercy.

Flash forward 800 years, and no one seemed to have learned anything. The occupying force may have changed from Babylon to Rome, but the Jewish people still needed to hear they were like whitewashed tomb: dressed up on the outside, but decaying inside. Flash forward another millennium or two and – no surprise – followers of Jesus need to hear we might be a little too focused on displays of piety and not enough on mercy. Who are the prophets of the message this time? Certainly many voices from within the church, but more telling are the voices of outsiders looking in. Surveys consistently reveal that non-Christians perceive Christians as hypocritical and judgmental. When non-believers are filling in for Isaiah and Jesus, it’s time to take note.

Misplaced piety seems to be a chronic condition of the faithful. And lest we begin to feel too superior for reigning in our own pious impulses … that’s a form of it also. The good (old) news is that prophets speak because there is always hope we will listen and change our ways. Sowing mercy and justice is challenging work. It’s much more comfortable to check off lists and to follow familiar rules than to listen to the voices telling us we need to reevaluate what we think God wants from us – especially when that might mean others will look down on us. When we feel challenged, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Rev 3:6).

Comfort: God’s message to us has remained constant.

Challenge: We have to do the work of properly understanding it.

Prayer: God of Grace, teach me to be merciful.

Discussion: We are all sometimes guilty of hypocrisy. What do you do when you find yourself acting like a hypocrite?

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Ineffable

in-ef-fa-ble *
adjective
1. incapable of being expressed or described in words
2. not to be spoken because of its sacredness; unutterable

Applying words to God is a tricky business. Since God is infinite, any definition we construct is by definition insufficient. We write and speak about God, and around God, but the words we use are not God. Not surprisingly, some of the most powerful and revealing writing about God is not descriptive but poetic.

The psalmists and prophets were particularly gifted at painting their experience of God in vivid metaphors, some so strange as to be dreamlike. When discussing God as a saving force, Isaiah described a warrior with a breastplate of righteousness, a helmet of salvation, garments of vengeance, and a mantle of fury. God is infinitely more than a warrior, but for Isaiah this was an image that addressed the needs of the time. When we contrast that picture with Matthew’s picture of God as a mother hen gathering her chicks, it is apparent different metaphors for God serve different purposes.

One danger of metaphors is that we allow them to solidify into definitions. For example, God as “Father” is one of the most common metaphors, so common that many people take is as a firm definition. Many find this image strong and comforting, but to others who have not had good paternal experience it can be jarring, even alienating. While we should welcome the potential for growth that exists in grappling with challenging notions of God, when we insist on our own image of God is the sole defining one, we do a disservice to the God who is present for all people in all times and all places. Furthermore, we hamper our opportunity to experience God in ever richer ways by considering how God manifests to others.

The good news is that if no words are sufficient – all words are on the table. We may not be able to define God, but we can express our understanding of God in words and images that reflect our own experiences. We are not limited to existing, traditional terms that we find alienating or meaningless. To some people – people who feel the need to control the uncontrollable experience that is God – this notion is dangerous and heretical. But if our goal is truly to better understand God and not just to create a God in an image that is convenient for us, the work of doing so is holy.

Comfort: God can be present to us in many ways…

Challenge: … so we should stay alter to how God is present for other people.

Prayer: Ever-present God, though I may never succeed I strive to experience you as you are, not just as I would have you be.

Discussion: Are they any ideas of God you have abandoned or embraced?


* ineffable. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved January 08, 2013, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/ineffable

Epiphanies

CnCEpiphany

Today’s readings:
Psalms 72; 148, Isaiah 52:7-10, Revelation 21:22-27, Matthew 12:14-21
Epiphany readings:
Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12


Happy Epiphany! Today is the last day of the Christmas season. Our traditional reading is about the Magi: wise men who – led by a prophecy and a star – traveled from far lands to honor the infant Christ with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Some people wait until today to add the Magi to complete their nativity scenes and continue to display it until February 2nd, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord.

If you haven’t yet listened to “We Three Kings” this season, today’s your day!

But the story of the Magi has a darker side. On their way to Bethlehem, the Magi visited King Herod to ask where the newborn King of the Jews might be found. Herod, jealous and fearful, met with the chief priests and scribes to learn all he could about the prophesied messiah, and tried to pump the Magi for information. He told them “when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” In truth, he was less interested in homage than homicide. The Magi, warned in a dream not to return to Herod, went home by another route.

In our daily readings, the same crowd– still fearful of Jesus and all he represents – is conspiring to destroy the adult Jesus. For a time he goes underground, but continues his ministry of healing and justice. Jesus always is who he says he is; his enemies (and some of them claim to serve him) are not.

What exactly does “epiphany” mean? It is a moment of insight or revelation. One of the most important epiphanies in this story is when the Magi realize Herod’s intent differs from his words. We would be wise to follow their example. Often those who govern – religiously or civilly – publicly promote one agenda but follow another. From slapping misleading titles on legislation, to unnecessarily “protecting” a powerful group in order to suppress another more vulnerable one, to rewriting history that judges them unfavorably, people tell us what they think we want to hear in order to lull us into going along with something else. In his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell called it doublethink, and it empowered tyranny.

Some epiphanies are spontaneous. Others are the product of critical thinking. As followers of Christ, let’s strive to be like the Magi and stay ready for both.

Comfort: Jesus is always who he claims to be.

Challenge: Maintain a healthy skepticism of those in power, especially those who tell you what you want to hear.

Prayer: God of truth and light, I will seek to follow you always! Amen.

Discussion: What’s the last epiphany you had?

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Branching Out

vinebranches

Today’s readings:
Psalms 99; 147:12-20, Joshua 1:1-9, Hebrews 11:32-12:2, John 15:1-16


I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them
bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.
– John 15:5

This passage from John beautifully illustrates our relationship with Christ; he is central not only to our beliefs, but to our very lives. Separated from Christ, we wither and die. The passage goes on to describe branches that wither and are burned, and branches that thrive and bear fruit.

Yes the vine is central, but this metaphor also reminds us of the importance of Christian community. After all, when’s the last time you saw a healthy vine with only one branch?

It’s no coincidence that Jesus immediately follows the image of the vine and branches with a commandment for the disciples to love one another so much that they would lay down their lives for each other. Branches are interdependent; the health of each one positively or negatively impacting the health of the others. Apart from community, we are like single branches trying to survive on our own: it’s remotely possible, but the fruit we bear will likely be sparse and limited … and even then only if we can bear any at all before collapsing under our own weight or drying out from overexposure to the elements. A community of many branches anchored together in Christ provides the support and shelter to bear good fruit.

Our reading from John is paired with a passage from Hebrews that refers to a “cloud of witnesses” who fought, won, suffered, and died for their faith so that future generations would see God’s promise fulfilled. Not everything we plant is meant for immediate benefit. A grapevine can take up to three years to produce grapes, but those years without fruit are not without purpose. Roots must grow deep and the plant must mature. Older branches are pruned so the vine may thrive. By participating in the life cycle of a community we contribute not only to its present health, but help provide for the health of future branches.

Let us work toward the health of all branches, supporting each other and bearing the sweetest fruits together.

Comfort: We are not alone.

Challenge: Think about whether you are a positive or negative influence on your own spiritual community.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for the many branches and witnesses who have made your church possible. Amen.

Discussion: What kind of community do you prefer? For example, blending into a large congregation, being part of small groups, online groups, mission teams, etc.

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The Impotence of Power

Today’s readings:
Psalms 20; 147:1-1, Exodus 3:1-5, Hebrews 11:23-31, John 14:6-14


“By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.”

– Hebrews 11:24-25

Injustice demands reaction.

Do we pray about it? Discuss it with friends? Ignore it?

Or like Jesus and Moses, do we actively confront it?

Most approaches fall into one of two camps: working within the system, or working outside it. Depending upon the unjust “system” – which may be a government, church, business, or culture – our circumstances may determine which path is available to us. However, as a Hebrew adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter into the Egyptian ruling class, Moses had choices. He could have lamented but otherwise ignored injustice that didn’t affect him directly. He could have lived a comfortable “insider” life and used his influence with Pharaoh’s family to incrementally ease the injustice suffered by his people. Wisely, he chose to act as an outsider.

People in positions of power – boards, elected offices, etc. – often seek that power to change unjust systems. However, insiders can influence change only to the extent that those controlling the system will tolerate it. The more one works to change the system, the greater the risk of being ejected from it.

Even those uncorrupted by power frequently find themselves maneuvered into working to retain that power more than actually using it. The more they hold, the more reluctant they are to lose it. Can the rich and powerful promote justice? Only if it is more important to them than the wealth and power the possess. To truly use power to fight injustice, one must be willing to lose it completely.

What if we are on the outside? If we feel helpless because we lack institutional power, let’s look to Moses, Jesus, and the prophets as inspiration for the ability of outsiders to effect change. Having nothing freed them to say everything. Because they didn’t dedicate their resources to maintaining wealth and power, they could dedicate them to justice. Do our own attachments hinder our willingness to do justice?

Let’s remember, Moses had to descend from the mountain of power before he climbed the mountain of the Lord.

Comfort: You don’t have to be powerful to be full of power.

Challenge: List three ways you can influence the world around you.

Prayer: Merciful God, teach me to exercise power mercifully and for justice. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever solved a problem by giving up control?

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Quantum Leap of Faith

Today’s readings:
Psalms 98; 146; Genesis 17:1-12a, 15-16; Colossians 2:6-12; John 16:23b-30


Birthdays. Anniversaries. New Years.

Certain annual events just seem to invite us to simultaneously reflect on the past and dream about the future. Other unexpected, less celebratory events such as the death of a parent or the loss of a job, may trigger similar feelings for us. Anticipated or not, these times leave us in a sort of “in-between” state when we are not necessarily in motion but contemplating where have been and where we are going. They can be fertile times for resolutions, plans and convictions – some which will stick, and some which won’t.

While periods of planning and intention often serve a purpose, sometimes we settle for intentions rather than actual change. If we are really going to grow as people, eventually we need to stop planning … and start changing.

Other than the TV show, what do you think of when you hear the phrase “quantum leap?” Many people think it means a large change, but it’s actually a term from physics that means an immediate change from one state to another with no intermediate phases – no “in-between” time. The phrase also describes a phenomenon in thought where we jump from Point A (perhaps a problem we are trying to solve) to Point B (its solution) without discernible steps and connections.

Spiritual growth can occur like a quantum leap. When Abram accepts God’s promise to become the father of the future nation of Israel, he is immediately transformed into Abraham. Paul tells the Colossians that when they were baptised they were raised from death along with Christ – a change in state if there ever was one. The psalmist tells us “The Lord sets the prisoners free” and “opens the eyes of the blind.”

Abram to Abraham. Dead to living. Imprisoned to free. Quantum leaps.

There’s nothing wrong with making plans, but often when we are called to act in faith, plans mean very little. Abraham’s wife (who leapt from Sarai to Sarah) planned to grow old and die childless, and laughed when God told her otherwise. We all should be careful not to let our plans become impediments to our faith.

The psalmist warns us not to place our trust in mortal plans that perish but in God alone. It may be wise to look before leaping, but if we can’t … maybe God is calling us to make a quantum leap of faith from blindness to sight.

Comfort: With God’s strength, you can keep moving forward in ways that may surprise you.

Challenge: Pick something you’ve been planning to change, and actually do it.

Prayer: Wise and Loving God, I will trust in your ways.

Discussion: Can you remember any times you had an unexpected shift in attitude, belief, or habits?

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