Choose Your Own Adventure

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, Isaiah 41:1-16, Ephesians 2:1-10, Mark 1:29-45


According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’s ministry quickly took off in a big way. In Capernaum he healed many people and drove out many demons, and word of his power spread quickly. Soon the entire city was at his front door. (Or more precisely, the door of Simon and Andrew’s place where he was staying.)  As he traveled with his disciples to spread his message to the neighboring towns in Galilee, “A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’”  And Jesus, moved with pity, said, “I do choose. Be made clean!”

Did Jesus ever choose not to heal? Did he ever choose to turn anyone away?

Some people may say yes. They may point to the rich young ruler who went away heartbroken when Jesus told him to sell everything he had and give the money to the poor. They remind us of the many people who abandoned Jesus after he presented them with a particularly difficult teaching. And they trot out the man who wanted to bury his father but was told to “let the dead bury the dead.”

Except Jesus didn’t turn any of those people away. They walked away. They chose to walk away.

Some preachers warn we soften the harsher truths of discipleship when we say Jesus accepted everyone. Maybe that’s so, but that doesn’t mean we should start deciding for ourselves whom Christ would reject, because we don’t know. A primary controversy of his ministry was based on fraternizing with “unclean” people the “righteous” people shunned. Once we decide we’re in the camp of the righteous, our view is skewed. Saul counted himself righteous and literally hunted Christians before he became the apostle Paul who wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

Rather than worry about other people’s choices, let’s direct our energies towards modeling our own choices after Christ. Without compromising our values, we can always find ways to choose mercy. Choose forgiveness. Choose to give the benefit of the doubt. Choose generosity. Choose to recognize dignity. Choose humility. Choose love.

Even when these choices are unattractive or difficult, they are still ours to make. The cost of making the right choices is a burden we voluntarily bear ourselves, not one we should force onto others.

Comfort: Jesus does not reject you.

Challenge: But that doesn’t mean you can’t reject Jesus.

Prayer: Loving God, help me make choices that reflect your love and righteousness. Amen.

Discussion: Have you made choices that other people have had to pay for?

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Evangelize vs. Evange-lies

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 42; 146, Isaiah 40:25-31, Ephesians 1:15-23, Mark 1:14-28


Evangelists have an image problem.

For many people, both inside and outside the church, the word “evangelist” evokes revival tents packed with fake healings and snake oil salesmen. The world of televangelism, with its shiny suits, big hair, and pledge drives for private jets, hasn’t done them any favors. The stereotype of the modern evangelist doesn’t have much in common with John the Baptist and his camel hair tunic. For as long as we’ve had religion we’ve had people trying to make a buck off faith and fear. That’s not evangelism.

When Jesus recruited his disciples, he did so with an eye toward the future and the evangelizing they would be called to do. Even in his day, people were wary of the clergy. Jesus didn’t start his search among religious leaders: he chose fishermen. These fishermen – Peter, Andrew, James, and John – were men of the world, hard-working businessmen who could get dirty when necessary and be salesmen when needed. If they had good news to spread – news good enough to make them leave their old lives behind – people would listen.

We are all called to evangelize, to spread the good news of the Gospels. Few of us are called to do it from the pulpit. Members of the New Monastic movement do it by becoming part of inner city communities. Jay Bakker – son of infamous televangelists Jim and Tammy – started Revolution Church in a bar where many patrons had fewer addictions, tattoos, and piercings than he did. Some people spread the good news through volunteering to help the elderly prepare income tax statements and others take youth to rebuild after disasters.

Real evangelists exist everywhere; you can recognize them because it’s obvious they’ve dropped their nets to find new lives following Christ.

Saint Francis allegedly said: “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” Less famously he also said:  “If God can work through me, he can work through anyone.” Each of us is equipped to evangelize the moment we have a story to tell.  Whether we share it through words or actions, it is a recognizably true story. The truth eventually withstands all image problems.

Comfort: Thanks to God, you have important truths to share.

Challenge: Ask friends how they’ve seen you share the Gospel; their answers may surprise you.

Prayer: God of the Good News, I will spread your word through the gifts you have given me. Amen.

Discussion: What’s your preferred way to share your faith?

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Many Waters, One God

Baptism of Christ, 1481-1483 - Pietro Perugino

Baptism of Christ, 1481-1483 – Pietro Perugino

Today’s readings:
Psalms 5; 145, Isaiah 40:12-24, Ephesians 1:1-14, Mark 1:1-13


The baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist is present in all four Gospels as the beginning of Christ’s ministry. Scriptures don’t tell us conclusively whether Jesus himself baptized anyone, but his disciples certainly did. Baptism in water – and later in the Spirit – is an essential element of the Christian tradition.

Yet somehow it’s one more thing Christians can’t agree on. Many denominations practice infant baptism. Others practice a believer’s baptism only for people who are of age and confess to salvation in Christ. Both find Biblical support for their position. Some others, particularly among Evangelical and non-denominational churches, don’t require it. Methods vary from sprinkling to total immersion. Beliefs about baptism range from an absolute necessity for salvation to a symbolic act of publicly acknowledging one’s faith. Beliefs about re-baptism are all over the map.

This devotional isn’t about convincing anyone about the meaning of baptism … but perhaps we can use it as a model to examine how we might reframe contentious conversations. Some people try to convince us their understanding of baptism is correct because they just have to be right, but many – particularly on the side of baptism as an absolute necessity – are actually adamant about their position because of love. If you believed you could save someone from death or suffering by pointing out the speeding train, wouldn’t you? And if you believed the train someone pointed out was a false alarm, would you be angry at them for being wrong or would you appreciate their concern?

No one wants someone else’s beliefs forced on them, but is it possible we can become so eager to take offense and to assume intent that we perceive every expression of a different opinion as a point to be argued?

Whether we choose to hear “your soul is important to me” or “you’re going to hell” is often a decision (sometimes unconscious) that makes a difference in how we respond. We can say “I disagree” instead of “you’re wrong!” We can listen. And if we believe it’s a matter of life or death, our most convincing evidence may be how we love.

Comfort: Disagreement without disrespect can be real…

Challenge: … but we might have to be less defensive for it to happen.

Prayer: God of Love, where this is discord, may I sow peace. Amen.

Discussion: When has changing your attitude changed a conversation?

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Waters of Baptism

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 104; 150, Isaiah 40:1-11, Hebrews 1:1-12, John 1:1-7, 19-20, 29-34

Baptism of the Lord readings:
Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17


John the Baptist dedicated his life to boldly preparing the way for the Messiah. Yet when Jesus came to be baptized, John hesitated and said he was unworthy – that Jesus should be baptizing him. Jesus reassured him all was as it should be. According to the Gospels of Matthew and John, the heavens opened, the Spirit came to rest on Jesus, and a voice declared, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

This story begins a consistent portrait of Christ throughout the Gospels. Though he is the Messiah, Jesus remains humble. Despite his disciples’ protests, he washes their feet at the Last Supper. As the crucifixion draws nearer, he doesn’t seek to be exempt from the laws or the courts. When we accept the baptism of the Spirit, we accept that to be our greatest, we must become the least.

Christ-like leaders – followers of Christ in general, really don’t expect special treatment, see themselves as above the rules, or shift blame and accountability. They don’t expect more of others than they do of themselves. Recognizing leadership as a servant’s burden, they accept the consequences of doing and saying the difficult but necessary things, and approach the role with humility rather than hubris. In baptism we are made equal, and whether our role is prince or pauper we are endowed with dignity and enslaved to service.

But equal in theory is not the same as equal in practice. John the Baptist, quoting the prophet Isaiah, says valleys must be filled and mountains leveled to make straight the path of the Lord. Justice doesn’t begin with equality, but with recognizing everyone doesn’t start from the same situation. Asking two people to each roll a boulder a mile sounds equal, but when one is facing uphill and the other down, it just isn’t so. Justice is never a simple declaration, but the difficult construction of a wide road, then the willingness to travel side-by-side.

The waters of baptism wash the scales of injustice from our eyes. Like Christ, let us see beyond a status quo that settles for fair into a future that is truly just.

Comfort: In Christ we are all equal.

Challenge: Each day this week, ask yourself how you can be a better servant.

Prayer: Bless the Lord, O my soul; praise the Lord! Amen.

Discussion: Have you known of examples of where treating people “fairly” is different than treating them justly?

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Stewards

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 46 or 97; 149, Isaiah 52:3-6, Revelation 2:1-7, John 2:1-11


Jesus performed his first public miracle at a wedding he attended with his mother. When Mary told him the wine ran out, at first Jesus replied it was none of his concern. Still Mary told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” After that, Jesus turned over a hundred gallons of water into surprisingly good wine. The servants who drew the water knew what happened, but the wine steward assumed the bridal party had been holding back.

A lot of the world is like that wine steward, ignorant of how Christ and his church are at work in the world, yet benefiting just the same. Christians hear a lot of criticism about the church. Some is justified, but a lot of people refuse to see the good the church does because they are committed to viewing it only through the lens of lurid stories of abuse and corruption. Others make over-simplified claims like “religion is responsible for more wars … blah blah blah.” We must be honest with ourselves about our flaws, but we should not be shamed about what the church is and what it does when we are actually following Christ.

Faith-based organizations feed, shelter, clothe, heal, rebuild, resettle, and otherwise positively impact the lives of hundreds of millions of people in need every year. The stereotypical “sermon before soup” model is not the norm for most of these institutions; we meet needs regardless of the particulars of someone’s faith. We should avoid engaging in pointless (and impossible to settle) debates about whether religious people are more or less generous than non-religious people, because we aren’t in competition. Our efforts, imperfect though they may be, help people who would otherwise suffer with no hope of relief.

The church’s primary business is spreading the Gospel, but the Gospel directs us toward service. That service benefits communities in ways many never (or refuse to) recognize. They focus on scandals and frauds rather than shelters and food pantries because not seeing the homeless and hungry begging on the streets doesn’t make news. We may be servants, but we can spread the Good News about where our good wine comes from.

Comfort: You and your church are not defined solely by your faults.

Challenge: Visit the web-sites of Church World Services, Heifer InternationalCatholic Charities, or Week of Compassion to read about the good work the church does, and how you might participate in it.

Prayer: God, may your people and church ever grow in love and generosity. Amen.

Discussion: Do you have a favorite faith-based organization to donate to or volunteer for?

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Homeland

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 111; 146, Genesis 28:10-22, Hebrews 11:13-22, John 10:7-17


“All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.”

– Hebrews 11:13-14

Do you feel like you have a homeland? For most of us, it’s the nation we live in. Or maybe, if you were born in a different land, it’s your country of origin. Some people feel an affinity for places they’ve only ever visited, or perhaps never been. For the faithful described in today’s passage from Hebrews, the homeland was a place which didn’t exist except as a promise from God.

As citizens of the Kingdom of God – a place which is very real yet not found on any map – perhaps we should always feel a little displaced. When we are too comfortable in an earthly kingdom (or republic or federation or whatever form that “kingdom” may take), we may confuse it with God’s Kingdom and begin to equate patriotism with fidelity to Christ. As a result we look at other nations – also full of God’s children – as morally inferior, and think of our own institutions as somehow divinely ordained.

Yes, there are a few Biblical passages that can be interpreted to mean worldly authorities have been ordained and placed by God, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be corrupted. Even the United States, which prides itself on religious freedom, was founded in rebellion against existing authorities, and is itself subject to very un-Christ-like behavior.

Any government claim to divine authority is dangerous propaganda created to convince us we shouldn’t question all-too-human authority.   When, during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said, “my greatest concern is to be on God’s side,” he wasn’t claiming God would back the winner, but that God’s purposes are greater than we can imagine. Though they may occasionally overlap, the concerns of an earthly nation are not equivalent to the concerns of Christ.

Our homeland is nowhere – and everywhere. We find it wherever we are by following Christ. Our responsibilities to God’s justice , peace, and love don’t fluctuate with the whims of nations, but our commitment (or lack thereof) to those responsibilities may be revealed when those whims are at odds with discipleship. Our flag is the coat we give to our neighbor, our anthem the words of forgiveness spoken to our enemies, our border the limitless reach of God’s love.

For additional thoughts on today’s reading from John 10, see Our Shepherd’s Voice

Comfort: Your citizenship in the kingdom of heaven is constant.

Challenge: Pay attention to discern when someone is trying to exploit your faith for personal or nationalistic purposes.

Prayer: God of all creation, my allegiance is to your Kingdom. Amen.

Discussion: What are the dangers of mixing national identity with religious identity?

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Reasonable Faith

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 48; 145,g Genesis 12:1-7, Hebrews 11:1-12, John 6:35-42, 48-51


 “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

– Hebrews 11:1

“Faith” is a loaded term. We can’t quite agree on its meaning, at least not like we can agree on the definitions of “waffle” or “goldfish.” Even when we use it in the sense of “Christian faith” or “Muslim faith” we can disagree on the very foundations of those phrases. Instead we tend to pack it with our own assumptions and experiences, often so much so that conversation about it may become practically impossible.

As long as we have it, is there any pressing need to define “faith?” Perhaps not in a manner that we would use to persuade someone, but there is benefit to at least giving it some thought. Otherwise we run the risk of letting others define it for us, possibly to the point of undermining it. Seminary is all about the foundations of faith yet pushes quite a few people from blind faith to no faith. One reason is because they’ve allowed others to define their faith in terms of Biblical literalism, unexamined mythologies, or other beliefs that simply refute reality. When those beliefs are challenged, faith in them crumbles.

Critics of religious faith have used Hebrews 11:1 (“the conviction of things not seen”) to portray Christians as deniers of fact and believers in fairy tales. These are not the qualities and essence of faith. Faith is a surrender, not of reason, but of the need to build a sense of purpose on nothing but what we can prove. Even the scientific method requires faith that the laws of the universe are, on some level, reliable and predictable. Human beings can’t function without faith in something.

Does your faith hinge on something that could be disproved? Then it is not faith. Does it require you to deny reality? Then it is not faith. Does it provide you with the assurance that – no matter what evidence you must accept, nor hardship you must endure – your life and all lives have meaning as part of a greater reality beyond immediate comprehension? Then it is faith. But don’t take my word for it.

Comfort: Faith is both personal and universal, something to treasure and something to share.

Challenge: Don’t be afraid of things that challenge your faith, but use them as opportunities to grow it.

Prayer: God of infinite imagination, teach me to see the deep truths of your amazing world. Amen.

Discussion: What challenges your faith?

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Everything Old Is New Again

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 98; 149, Isaiah 26:1-6, 2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2, John 8:12-19


Scripture challenges us to look at our fellow human beings from a different perspective that is often counter-intuitive to the one we are used to. In John and 2 Corinthians, Jesus and Paul tell us we need to stop seeing the world “according to the flesh” and start looking at it according to the spirit. Many people have interpreted this use of “flesh” to mean our bodies are evil, and somehow at war with our spirits—a sort of dualism that pits us against ourselves. Rather, Jesus and Paul use “flesh” as a metaphor for those things in the world and in ourselves that separate us from God. Sometimes that may mean our physical desires, but the desires themselves serve a purpose; our job is to direct them properly. Scriptures similarly use the word “world”—but God created and loves the world, just as he created and loves our bodies.

When Jesus tells us to see things according to the Spirit, what might that mean? It means we aren’t to judge anyone. Even Jesus—who is qualified to judge—has chosen to judge no one. This is a paradox of our faith: those who should not judge do, and those who might be worthy to judge choose not to. Of course we should be discerning in our associations, circumstances, and behaviors but judgment is strictly God’s purview. Any time we judge someone, we are seeing with the flesh, and not the spirit.

Paul tells the Corinthians that when we free ourselves from a human point of view, we will see Christians as new creations. The lack of judgment of others, from others, and of ourselves frees us to be entirely new. Ironically, it is this lack of need to conform to (or impose) worldly righteousness that transforms us into Christ’s righteous ambassadors.

In Christ we find not a religion—defined by those who measure up and those who don’t—but relationships. Immersing ourselves in Christianity takes courage, the courage of pioneers entering the wilderness of humankind and blazing trails to true relationship with others. Our true north is love. Our path is not the same as anyone else’s. Our adventure takes us places we can’t yet see.

Comfort: Your faith does not have to look like anyone else’s.

Challenge: When you judge people, forgive them and yourself.

Prayer: God of infinite love, lead me through the wilderness of faith. Amen.

Discussion: Are you more likely to judge others or yourself?

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Point of View

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 98; 150, Isaiah 62:6-7, 10-12, Hebrews 2:10-18, Matthew 1:18-25


Luke’s nativity story, which we read on Christmas, focuses on Mary, her faithful response to God, and her feelings about the birth of the Messiah. Now we read Matthew’s nativity story – a much shorter version which presents us mostly Joseph’s point of view. Reading both gives us a more complete picture of this story.

Luke says little about Joseph other than introducing him as Mary’s betrothed husband. He doesn’t mention Joseph’s internal struggles about the situation. Did Mary know about them? Matthew tells us that when Joseph learns Mary is pregnant, he decides to quietly divorce her. Under the law he would have been within his rights to punish her severely, but Matthew says Joseph is a righteous man with no desire to disgrace her. Perhaps Jesus remembered this bit of family lore when he stopped a crowd from stoning a woman caught in adultery.

An angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream, and explains the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Joseph stays married and raises the child as his own. This decision would have had repercussions long after it was made. People were just as skeptical of Virgin births and angelic dreams then as now. Gossip and whispers probably followed Joseph for a long time, though we don’t hear much more about him, except for how he keeps his young family safe.

Whatever your take on the virgin birth, this story can teach us a lot. We never really know how people arrive at decisions and situations. Our attempts to fill in the blanks are usually inaccurate at best, and judgmental at worst.

The person we think is a sucker for staying with a cheating spouse, or a young woman who got herself into trouble, or a hapless refugee family, has an entire backstory (or two, or twelve) that we don’t understand. They might not be raising the Messiah, but neither are we. Examining our own stories – the good and the bad – from different perspectives may just help us understand someone else’s story is not there for us to judge, but to hear. Joseph shows us righteousness is not always about seeking the fullest extent of punishment available under the law; it may just begin with taking time to learn the other person’s story.

Comfort: God knows your story.

Challenge: Think about someone you are prone to judge. How much of your judgment is based on what you know, and how much is supposition? Read this article on one school’s attempt to use restorative justice instead of defaulting to prescribed punishments.

Prayer: God of all stories, I will live my life for you alone. Amen.

Discussion: When have you found out your understanding of a situation was completely wrong?

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Don’t Shoot the Messenger

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 96; 147:12-20, Isaiah 12:1-6, Revelation 1:1-8, John 7:37-52


When we receive a message, we evaluate it from different angles. We consider the source, the delivery style, and the content. We may ask ourselves: Is the source reliable? Is the delivery sincere, sarcastic, or something else? Is the content believable? Because we are used to handling communications efficiently, we may also mistakenly assume we handle them competently. In most cases this may be true, but if we’re not paying attention we can be manipulated – or unwittingly manipulate the message ourselves.

In John 7 Jesus delivers a message meant for both the uneducated crowds and the highly educated Pharisees, to varying effects. The crowd loves him; the Pharisees want to find a reason to arrest him. At the very least they want to dismiss him because he comes from the backwater town of Galilee. When their fellow Pharisee Nicodemus points out that Jewish “law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing,” they suggest Nicodemus must be also be from Galilee to discredit him. While the Pharisees fume and fuss, they have no legitimate reason to reject the message other than “I don’t like it.”

How do we react to messages we don’t like? Does that reaction depend on the source? If we are told at work we have performed poorly, does our reaction depend on whether it comes from a co-worker, superior, or subordinate? Should it? Certainly we should be critical of messages we hear, but first we need to be willing to hear the content, regardless of the source. If our first response to a negative message or criticism is: “Who do you think you are?” … there’s a good chance we are unfairly negating a source to avoid unpleasant content. It is a human and understandable reaction, but leaving it unexamined diminishes our integrity.

This effect pervades all levels of society – families, businesses, government, religion, etc. Like Nicodemus, when faced with it we should challenge it. In a just society, valid content is considered fairly regardless of the source. Let’s welcome truth wherever it is found.

Comfort: Truth will serve you well.

Challenge: Pick a story in the news, and read different perspectives about it – particularly from sources you’re not prone to agree with. Do they reveal any truths?

Prayer: Loving God, help me to discern your truth amid all the noise. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever had to grudgingly agree with someone about information you didn’t like but was true?

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