Get Over It


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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It Takes a Village to Raise a Lazarus


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 146, Jonah 2:2-9, Ephesians 6:10-20, John 11:17-27, 38-44
Eve of Epiphany Readings:
Isaiah 66:18-23, Romans 15:7-13 

Is  faith sufficient as an individual experience, or does it need to be shared among a community of believers? When Jesus returned to Bethany because his friend Lazarus had died, the grief of Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus, was certainly shared. Neither knew what to expect, but they shared faith in Jesus. They only knew that in their time of great grief, they needed to be with him. Even after he told them he was the resurrection and the life, the sisters didn’t imagine he would bring Lazarus back to them. When he asked the mourners to roll back the stone covering the tomb, Martha said four days had passed and there would be a stench. Yet moments later Jesus commanded Lazarus to walk out of the tomb, and he did.

Jesus was the source, but it was a community that made his final sign meaningful.
Mary and Martha, each with an imperfect but united faith, together believed that whatever Jesus thought fit to ask, God would deliver. At least a few mourners must have volunteered to move the stone, as it was large and heavy enough to cover the mouth of a cave. The gathered crowd  listened to Jesus loudly giving thanks to God for their benefit so they might believe. Finally, Lazarus arose and returned to his friends and family, restoring their community.

Experienced in isolation, faith may be a comfort to us but it’s of little use to the greater body of Christ. When a community shares its faith – when one person answers Christ’s call to dive into the stench and darkness of tombs like poverty and disease, and another person trusts God to provide even when a loved one is caught in the hopeless living death of addiction, and the rest of us are inspired by and act because of their belief, and therefore sisters and brothers we thought lost forever return to us – that community finds new life as no individual could.

Faith requires community to achieve its fullest expression. Our own imperfect faith is a gift because it reminds us to seek others.

Comfort: When you have faith you are never alone.

Challenge: Explore a faith community that is unfamiliar to you.  Perhaps a charity, or another congregation. If you can, spend some time helping them with their mission.

Prayer: Thank you God for easing my burden by making me only one member of a larger body in Christ. Amen.

Discussion: What do you find most rewarding about community? Most difficult?

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Dress for Spiritual Success


Today’s readings (click below to open in new window/tab):
Psalms 111; 150, 1 Kings 3:5-14, Colossians 3:12-17, John 6:41-47

Whether you leave your house dressed in a bathrobe, a suit and tie, or a wedding dress, it’s the same you underneath. Despite employer dress codes, you are no less competent on casual Friday than you are when dressed for a board meeting at 8:00 a.m. on Tuesday. However there are times when what you wear is crucial. A nurse treating infectious patients must wear protective clothing. Hikers need footwear to provide both comfort and stability. Dancers are hindered if their clothes do not allow freedom of movement.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul says they should clothe themselves “with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” and “love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Some clothes communicate how we intend to interact with the world. Opposing teams and referees all wear different uniforms for a reason. Someone can say “I’m a professional football player” but until they’re suited up and on the field, they’re not playing professional ball. We can quote scripture and doctrine all day long, but if we haven’t put on a Christian attitude, why would anyone believe us?  Sure, meekness might itch a little and sometimes we can’t wait to slip out of that patience at the end of the day, but they are part of the dress code for the best job in the world.

The good news is, once you’ve broken them in, they are pretty comfortable. Kindness feels less like a tie choking off your breathing and more like a scarf keeping you warm. Humility changes from a girdle squeezing in your less virtuous bulges to a support that helps you keep your back straight and head high. None of us are able to display Paul’s list of virtues all the time, but the more conscious we are about putting them on, the more they become part of us, and the more prepared we feel.

These garments will protect you. They will provide comfort and stability. They will give you confidence to move freely in a world that doesn’t always understand what you’re doing. Dressing for success doesn’t have to cost a dime.

Comfort: Love of God and neighbor is the most beautiful thing you can wear.

Challenge: As you are getting dressed for the day, be intentional about putting on your garments of faith as well.

Prayer: Loving God, I will clothe myself in faith to please you and serve your world. Amen.

Discussion: What’s your favorite item of clothing and why?

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No Small Gifts


Today’s readings:  Psalms 48; 149, 1 Kings 19:1-8, Ephesians 4:1-16, John 6:1-14

The story of Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes appears in all four Gospels, and in the book of Matthew he repeats the miracle a second time. Christians and non-Christians alike understand references to this story. Some theologians interpret the miracle as Jesus magically increasing the supply of bread and fish, while others claim the real miracle is that Jesus inspired people to share with each other what they’d been hoarding.

A pivotal figure in this story is Andrew, the brother of Peter. When Jesus asks where they might buy food to feed the thousands of people gathered around him, the disciple Phillip says they couldn’t buy enough food with six months wages. Andrew, on the other hand, points out that a boy in the crowd has five loaves and two fishes but asks what good they would be among so many people. Why would Andrew have bothered to point out such a measly offering?

It seems that on some level, Andrew trusted Jesus to make do with what was available. On his own he would have never expected what he had to be enough, yet in the end he and the other disciples collected twelve baskets of leftovers.

How often do we feel like Andrew, looking at a seemingly overwhelming problem and wondering if our meager talents and resources could possibly help? In the face of need throughout the world, our ability to draw, bake, shingle a roof, or lend an ear might seem like a raindrop falling on a forest fire … but we should trust God to make do with what we bring to the table – because we bring the gifts he gave us. When hungry people are fed or cold people are clothed, does it matter whether it was supernatural or sharing and division of labor? No, because God’s grace drives the results.

Jesus sends us, equipped just as we are, to feed the multitude. Instead of saying: “This is all I have to offer…” perhaps we could pray: “Thank you Lord for blessing this small gift so that it may accomplish great things in your name.”

Comfort: Even when your gifts seem small to you, God can make great use of them.

Challenge: What talents have you been holding back because you think they’re not good enough? Find a way to put them into service for your community.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for giving me the gifts that are right for me best serve you. Amen.

Discussion: What do you think your gifts are?

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Character Roles


Today’s readings (click below to open in new window):
Psalms 96; 146, 2 Samuel 23:13-17b, 2 John 1:1-13, John 2:1-11

The gospel of Matthew tells us an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to stay with Mary because the child she was bearing, though not his, was conceived from the Holy Spirit.  Joseph has two more dreams in which angels tell him to flee to and later return from Egypt, and goes searching for a 12-year old Jesus who has wandered off to the temple. After that Joseph is absent except for a few passing references to Jesus’s parents. We don’t get to read much about Joseph, but we can infer a good deal about his character: he is kind, faithful, and trusts the Lord even under duress.

In cinematic terms we might think of Joseph as a supporting player. Joseph isn’t the quirky best friend or really even the love interest. He’s more than a sidekick, but after he fills his function in the story, he fades into the background. Like the movie industry, life often tells us we aren’t successful unless we get top billing. But there’s a reason supporting actors and actresses (and technical artists, costume designers, etc.) have their own award categories: they may not get all the glory but without them the story might not bet the same – or even possible. For every star with her or his name over the title, many others – sometimes numbering in the hundreds – had to perform their jobs well.

Maybe WWJD should stand for “What would Joseph do?” Jesus did whatever it took to fulfill his role as messiah. Only one of us gets that part. Joseph, on the other hand, had a much more attainable role. He humbly did as the Lord asked, and supported the mission of Jesus in a human but vital way. That we can do. That we must do.

Most working actors never land a starring role or command a seven-figure fee, but they are the bedrock of the industry. When we act with Joseph-like character, we are the bedrock of the ministry. We hone our craft of mercy, kindness, and justice not for the fame, but for the love of the work.

Comfort: God loves supporting players as much as stars.

Challenge: The next time you feel down about your contributions to the world, ask yourself whether you are judging by the world’s superficial standards, or by God’s eternal ones.

Prayer: Thank you, my creator, for whatever part you have built me to play. Amen.

Discussion: In group situations, are you more comfortable as a leader or a doer?

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Martyrs vs. Victims


Readings: Psalms 116; 149, 2 Chronicles 24:17-22, Acts 6:1-7, Acts 7:59-8:8

In Western Christian tradition, the day after Christmas is St. Stephen’s day. Stephen was the first deacon of the church, as well as its first martyr. False charges of blasphemy led to his death by stoning. Stephen’s story seems like an abrupt shift in tone from the Christmas story, but is it really?

The story of Christ’s birth has been sentimentalized and sanitized through centuries of carols, Christmas pageants, and whitewashed nativity scenes. Familiar and comforting now, the story was originally a radical one with unlikely characters and their equally unlikely circumstances. Christ’s birth heralded the beginning of a religious and political revolution, achieved through his own death.

When Stephen was appointed deacon, it was a risky endeavor. The Roman empire did not grant Christians the same religious latitudes as it did Jews. Like Christ, Stephen was falsely accused and was condemned by Jews rather than Romans. And like Christ, he asked for God’s mercy on his executioners.

We Western Christians can barely conceive the fear of being executed for our faith. Our squabbles with our culture occur because we fear losing our monopoly on power, not because we are being crushed by occupying forces. After Stephen’s execution the remaining apostles, though they were scattered and their homes were being ransacked, continued spreading the gospel. We boycott businesses that don’t meet our agenda and slap Jesus fish on our bumpers (without fear of persecution) and think we’ve served the Gospel.

We should give thanks we can freely exercise our faith, rather than exploit perceived slights to support our persecution narrative. In countries where Christianity dominates, the group we should be most critical of is ourselves. Christ, Paul, and the apostles preached to a church in danger of being wiped out before it began. Now we are more likely to do the stoning than to be stoned.

A strong faith understands the gospel is something to be proclaimed rather than something to be defended. Even when we are persecuted, we are victors not victims. The path we begin following at Christmas does not end with us assuming power, but confronting it.

Comfort: You are responsible for sharing the Gospel, but not for enforcing it.

Challenge: Pray for those who persecute you … but first be sure you’ve accurately identified them as persecutors.

Prayer: Deal bountifully with your servant, so that I may live and observe your word. (Psalm 119:17)

Discussion: Have you ever played the victim, only to realize later you were not?

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Christmas Every Day


Readings:  Psalms 2; 148, Micah 4:1-; 5:2-4, 1 John 4:7-16, John 3:31

Today is the day! The long-awaited Christ has come. We shout “Emmanuel!” because God is with us in the flesh. The spirit of this holiday is expansive enough to include many other traditions like brightly lit trees and gift exchanges which, while not uniquely Christian, reflect our joyous celebration.

Tomorrow, or maybe even as early as this evening, we will begin thinking about the clean-up. Most Christmas trees will be down before the new year begins; a few may make it until Epiphany – the day marking the end of the twelve day season of Christmastide. The annual “War on Christmas” will declare its annual 11-month cease-sire as merchants clear the way for Valentine’s Day and summer fashions. Many people who thought it was crucial for cashiers and baristas to say “Merry Christmas” during the entire season of Advent will stop caring on December 27th without realizing the irony.

The intense activity of Christmas – or at least the effort we invest in its more secular aspects – is not sustainable all year long. We may talk about keeping the spirit of Christmas in our hearts all year long, but we aren’t all that good at it. After the holidays, donations to food banks and other charities drop dramatically, but the needs they serve do not diminish. Christmas as a special day of celebration is wonderful, but Jesus did not remain an infant forever, and after Christmas the way we celebrate him must also mature.

We can bring light into dark places through acts of kindness and attitudes of love. We can offer gifts of time, talents, and money so we love people in need as children of God more than once a year. Instead of seeking meaningless offense at otherwise well-intended holiday greetings, we can speak loudly against words and actions of actual oppression and injustice. Like the infamous inn, our lives can become so full we turn away the arrival of Christ without realizing what we’ve done. We can create room by living as if Christmas is not the end of a season, but the beginning of a life where Christ dwells within and among us.

Comfort: Christmas is more than a day; it’s a life of hope, love, peace, and joy.

Challenge: Over the next 11 months, plan a monthly Christmas “celebration” to bring the light of Christ into places and lives that need it.

Prayer: [Read Psalm 96 or Psalm 98, aloud or to yourself].

Discussion: Do you have any Christmas traditions that you could revisit throughout the year?

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The Joy of the Unexpected


Readings: Psalms 18:1-20; 147:12-20, Isaiah 60:1-6, Galatians 3:23-4:7, Matthew 1:18-25

Every year at Christmas time we revisit the Nativity story in scripture readings and carols. The words and melodies bring us comfort and joy in part because they are so familiar and meet our expectations. This comfort in the familiar is kind of ironic considering the Nativity story itself is one of upended expectations and surprises.

First we have Mary, the mother of Jesus. Of everyone in the story, she has the most to be surprised about. No one expects a visit from an angel who announces God will create a child in your virgin womb. Then there’s Joseph, Mary’s betrothed. He doesn’t expect Mary to become pregnant, and he doesn’t expect divine intervention in the form of a dream telling him to stay with her. In an important subplot, we have Mary’s relatives Elizabeth and Zechariah. These two are both surprised by Elizabeth’s late-in-life pregnancy. All of these people have a trait in common (though Zechariah took a little while to come around): they all adapt to the unexpected. Every one of them had reasons to be doubtful, frightened, or resentful. Instead they chose to alter their plans to reflect their new circumstances, and thus ushered into life John the Baptist and Jesus the Christ.

The message of the Nativity is this: God enters the world in unexpected ways. If we insist on our own plans rather than God’s, we may never notice opportunities to share in the greater plan unfolding across history.

The unexpected can be frightening, but it is both inevitable and constant. When confronted with the choice to resist or embrace the unexpected, the former limits us, and the latter unlocks our potential. The quick decision to befriend a stranger we might have avoided may be where we both see Christ in action. An invitation to lead or serve in unfamiliar ways may reinvigorate a flagging ministry. An unplanned job termination may result in a meaningful vocation we never considered. It seems God rarely calls the prepared, but prepares the called. Let us joyfully meet Christ where he shows up, instead of missing him because we insist on looking only where planned for him to be.

Comfort: The unexpected is often a blessing waiting to be claimed.

Challenge: Ask yourself which of your plans are in conflict with God’s plans for you.

Prayer: God of mystery and grace, I will seek you wherever you lead. Amen.

Discussion: What unexpected event or encounter has influenced your life?

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The Jumble


Celebrating Christmas without observing Advent is like taking a victory lap before the race starts.

At least, that’s how I’ve felt about it for many years.

Most of the rest of the world – both secular and Christian – begs to differ. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, the whole country seems to flip a switch that turns on  the Christmas twinkle and bustle with Advent getting barely a nod from those chocolate-laced calendars which start on December 1st whether that’s the actual beginning of the season or not. Maybe we feel we’ve done enough Advent-ing when we hold off on dropping the Baby Jesus into the nativity scene until the morning of. Our Christmas expectations have grown so extravagant that we spend a liturgical season of solemnity with decorating, shopping, wrapping, baking, and singing when we could be mourning a broken world. Okay, not a great selling point, but it is why Jesus showed up.

I’ve been a lot more concerned with the War on Advent than the War on Christmas (which by the way was  decisively won by retailers decades ago – you might be glad to know Christmas won). I find a certain perverse glee in reminding people Christmas Day wasn’t a federally recognized holiday until 1870, and that in the 17th century Christians campaigned to keep Christmas celebrations illegal in several of the original colonies and in England.

For all their faults, Puritans really understood the importance of observing a Bleak Midwinter.

And yet ironically … I find being a prophet of doom about Advent does little to advance the pro-Advent agenda. So instead, I have come to realize – reluctantly at first and more gratefully these days – that in the midst of all that inappropriately-timed caroling (hey, I’m working on it!), people are indeed facing the brokenness in our communities and our world. They’re just not putting as somber a face on it as my narrow vision demands.

Charities of all kinds depend on the generosity that wells forth in the Advent/Christmas season for their very survival. In places of employment, colleagues take collections and pool resources to make Christmas day special for the less fortunate (whose wish lists often include household supplies and other things many of us can take for granted). The Marines deploy their Toys for Tots campaign to bring joy to children, and civilians make extra efforts to remember those deployed around the world under unthinkable conditions.

Are these kindnesses a bit of Advent-like awareness? Yes. Do they address the larger injustices that prophets like Amos and Isaiah – perennial Advent favorites – warn us about? Not as much as they could.

But it’s all a start. Despite my affection for a neatly structured liturgical calendar, Advent and Christmas and all those other seasons are not how life plays out in the real world. In the real world, every day – every hour – is a jumble of hope, joy, expectation, repentance, mercy and all the other things that make up existence. Advent preparation isn’t just for Christmas. And Christmas celebration isn’t just for December 25th.

That saying about having Christmas in our hearts all year around? It’s also true for the lessons of Advent, Easter, Pentecost, and every other season and holiday of our faith.

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

Our Daily Apocalypse


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 93; 148, Isaiah 25:1-9, Revelation 1:19-20, John 7:53-8:11

Isaiah 25 looks toward the day when “God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth.” Today’s reading from Revelation introduces John’s vision of Christ’s victory over the evils in the world. Both are standard Christmastide readings, as we celebrate Christ’s arrival in the world. To which victory of the Lord do these readings refer?

Ancient people read scripture with a different sense of time and meaning than we might. For example, we read the Lord’s Prayer as the present-tense: “give us this day our daily bread.” In Greek, this prayer uses the aorist tense, a kind of “once and for all” tense signifying not just the present, but the unfolding future as well. While Isaiah’s vision was about the eventual restoration of a Jewish people exiled in Babylon, early Christians co-opted it to tell of the coming Messiah. This approach might seem odd to modern sensibilities, but for people of the time it was part of understanding that God’s plan of salvation unfolds in the past, present, and future.

Isaiah 25 is an early example of apocalyptic literature. Revelation is also apocalyptic literature. Typical of the genre, both blur the lines between the past and the future. Apocalyptic literature is not so concerned with historical accuracy or specific prophecy as with the idea of the cosmic story of salvation. Time is fluid in these writings because God is always revealed anew to us, and the world is always being remade.

Apocalyptic literature invites us to dwell in the mystery of God’s unfolding plan, better expressed through visions and dreams than facts. The events have already happened, yet are still to happen. This paradox offers confidence that change will come, because it has come. During the Civil War and Civil Rights eras, African-Americans and their allies found inspiration in apocalyptic themes, which assured God’s eventual deliverance. Though mysterious, these themes were comforting.

If we read Isaiah only for the past, or Revelation only for the future, we miss the message of what God is doing today.

For additional thoughts on today’s reading from John, see Thud!

Comfort: God’s plan is unfolding—and we are part of it.

Challenge: Watch the news for modern stories of God’s deliverance.

Prayer: O timeless Creator, thank you for your people’s dreams and visions. Amen.

Discussion: Are you able to see Christ’s work as both complete and continuing?

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