Heroes and Villains

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 33; 146 , Isaiah 1:21-31 , 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12 , Luke 20:9-18


Have you ever seen those online quizzes with names like “Which Seven Dwarfs character are you?” or “What comic book figure are you?” Generally they ask silly questions (while secretly gathering marketing information) then reveal why you are most like Bashful or Batman. Although meaningless and generic, the results never seem to be especially surprising. Most of us have a pretty good idea of who we are.

Parables are a different story. We think we know which character represents us because we want to identify with the lost sheep or the repentant sinner, but maybe that’s because we know which characters are “supposed” to be admirable. Take the parable of the Wicked Tenants, for instance. An owner leased his vineyard while he was out of the country. When he sent a slave to collect his share of the harvest, the tenants beat the slave and sent him back. They did the same thing to the next two slaves he sent. Finally he sent his son, whom they killed. The owner would come to destroy the tenants, and give the vineyard to others. With (very) little analysis, we can conclude the owner is God, the wicked tenants are the religious leaders He entrusted with His people, the beaten slaves are the prophets, the slain son is Jesus, and the new inheritors of the vineyard are Christ’s followers. Easy, right?

Not so fast. We don’t always get to be the hero.

Twenty centuries later, it’s the Christian establishment’s turn to work the vineyard of the Western world, and the powerful – or at least those who like to think they own everything – don’t tend to fare well in parables. On the whole, the church isn’t kind to prophetic voices of dissent. We declare them apostate or stop carrying their DVDs in our bookstores. When they demand too much inclusiveness, we’d rather leave them spiritually bruised and empty-handed than consider we may have erred by trying to assume ownership of the grace that is only God’s to claim. Today we are the tenants running amok. Whom are we beating?

Advent is the perfect time to try viewing yourself from a different perspective. If it turns out you’re The Evil Queen or The Joker, with grace you just might be able to turn that around before Jesus gets here.

Comfort: There’s time to change your story.

Challenge: Ask yourself who might see you as the bad guy, and whether they have a point.

Prayer: Oh Lord, teach me to be humble and help me to be kind. Amen.

Discussion: What fictional character do you relate to, and why?

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Flip The Mattress

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 122; 145, Isaiah 1:10-20, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Luke 20:1-8


As a mattress ages, it slowly loses its ability to properly support us. Even as it grows less and less physically comfortable, it grows familiar – more emotionally comfortable – so we work with what we’ve got. And while we learn to avoid low spots and bad springs, we wake up a little less refreshed every morning. Eventually, we arrange ourselves to fit the mattress when it’s supposed to be the other way around. Very often we wait until we are physically pained before going to the trouble of getting a new one.

Religion has something in common with a mattress: the very act of inhabiting it, distorts it. During Advent we read from the book of Isaiah because it calls God’s people to look at how they twisted their religion until it no longer supported their once vibrant, living faith. The sacrifices they once made to honor God became an abomination, because the people managed to follow the rules without showing compassion and mercy to the least among them. Over time, the people contorted themselves to rest on the comfortable parts of the law and avoid the harder demands of mercy, all the while failing to realize how seriously they were damaging the backbone of their faith.

According to Isaiah, the Jewish people were driven into Babylonian exile, despite ample warnings, because God withdrew his favor. During Advent, which is a time of looking both backward and forward, the words of Isaiah should prompt us to reevaluate how we live out our own faith. Are we relying exclusively on rules and ritual? These are not bad things, but alone they do not meet God’s expectations for us to seek justice and rescue the oppressed. It doesn’t take long for us to settle into a routine and forget why we adopted it in the first place. Does our faith practice refresh us to live in love, or does it only equip us to sleepwalk through life?

We can settle for a slowly dilapidating mattress, we can flip it over a little to see if that does the trick, or we can invest in reinvigorating it entirely. Faith doesn’t need to be reinvented, but every so often it does need to be refreshed. We are, after all, a resurrection people.

Comfort: In the end, renewal is more refreshing than it is inconvenient.

Challenge: This Advent season, look at how you might renew your faith practices. Consider participating in a Reverse Advent Calendar.

Prayer: God of all that is, may I never forget you are the reason for all I do. Amen.

Discussion: What are some habits or practices (religious or otherwise) you have abandoned or reworked because they no longer served a purpose?

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Blink and you’ll miss it.

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 24; 150, Isaiah 1:1-9, 2 Peter 3:1-10, Matthew 25:1-13


The world ended today. Did you notice? Probably not … if it wasn’t your world. But someone’s did. Someone’s divorce was final. Someone received a terminal diagnosis. Someone’s home was bombed to the ground with loved ones inside. The world ends every day.

We all long for a day when things will be just and fair and simply … better. We’ve never been patient about it either. Today’s letter from Peter dealt with both those who used the promise of Christ’s return for their own gain, and scoffers who said if it hadn’t happened yet it wasn’t going to – and only a few decades had passed since Christ was physically among them. Was the author’s response that to God “a thousand years are like one day” any more satisfying then than it is centuries later? It seems we are left to conclude that Jesus and those who claimed he would return are simply wrong. But if the world ends every day … maybe Jesus returns every day too.

Parables about the kingdom of heaven, like Matthew’s tale of the bridesmaids and the oil lamps, are never only about some future “rapture” or judgment; they also instruct us on what the kingdom is like right now. Unlike the foolish bridesmaids, we prepare for the groom’s return not just because we fear being excluded from the banquet, but because delays and midnight arrivals are par for the course. Jesus returns when someone accepts a 3 a.m. call from an abused spouse and offers a safe place to stay. Jesus returns when a Hospice volunteer sits with someone who is afraid. Jesus returns when combatants choose reconciliation over revenge. Our lamps must be filled with the oil of compassion and ready to light when the phone rings, the stranger cries, or the enemy uncurls a fist. Otherwise when Christ comes calling we – like the foolish bridesmaids – will be left in our own darkness, having missed the opportunity to join the groom and represent him to the world.

Today the world ended. Today Christ returned. If your lamp is full, you’ll get to see it all again tomorrow.

Comfort: Jesus returns every day.

Challenge: Look out for opportunities to show the Christ’s love to people in crisis.

Prayer: Loving and merciful God, I thank you for daily renewal. Amen.

Discussion: When have you felt like the world ended?

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Advent: A time for returning

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Hello. We haven’t heard from each other in a while. That’s my fault – for various reasons I haven’t been keeping the blog up for a while. I was contemplating resuming the blog as an Advent practice, but wasn’t sure. Advent is an important season for me – I love the idea of a season devoted to the idea of both commemorating and anticipating Christ’s arrival. Observing this season always deepens my relationship with God and Christ.

I wasn’t sure I was up to resuming the blog though. Then just today I received a notification that a blog I admire – Christianity 201 – had re-posted me and said nice things about the blog. I’m not 100% sold on the whole idea of “God moments” but that sure had the ring of one for me.

So for at least the period of this Advent, I’ll be revisiting the daily lectionary and reworking past devotional pieces. I’m excited to be returning to the blog to rework some past devotional for our Advent journey, and hope you find some meaningful time spent on the reflections offered here.

Peace and blessings to you this Advent season!

Moving in the Direction of Justice

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, Joshua 2:15-24, Romans 11:13-24, Matthew 25:14-30


Have you ever heard anyone label a certain type of thinking or theology as “Old Testament” or “New Testament?” Sometimes we like to believe there’s an easy distinction, a clean break between the people of the law and the people of grace. However, many Old Testament prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, Micah, etc. – foreshadowed Jesus’s teachings by commenting on the need for justice and mercy over sacrifice. Conversely, we can be tempted to soften Jesus’ language to make him seem less OT and more WWJD.

Many, if not most, translations of the Parable of the Talents refer to the characters in the story as “servants,” but a more accurate translation is “slaves.” This is true for many Biblical passages in which the word “servant” appears. Some critics of Christianity use these passages as evidence Jesus condoned or even promoted slavery, especially since some Christians have made the same mistake.

Though we accept his teachings as universal, we understand Jesus was speaking to a specific culture at a specific time. So what can we make of problematic passages like Jesus’s casual references to slavery? First, many of the people in his audience were slaves. Using them as examples of righteousness elevated them spiritually beyond their societal stations, and was a revolutionary statement of their worth as children of God.

Second, Jesus is an example of a faithful life in the world as it is. When we acknowledge what we can do for the poor and oppressed today, we are not condoning or promoting poverty and oppression, nor are we foolish enough to pretend these conditions will cease to exist. Though Christ did not actively speak against slavery, the abolitionist movement sprouted from Christian churches. Third, as Paul says in several of his letters, in Christ there is no distinction between Jew, Greek, slave, free, male, female, etc. We are all slaves to each other and to Christ. Softening the language diminishes its radical message.

Slavery is certainly not the only difficult topic in the Bible. If we are willing to understand scripture in the larger context of the world and tackle its more challenging texts head on, our faith only deepens.

Comfort: God is present even in the most unpleasant places and times.

Challenge: Find out if there are an resources in your community to combat human trafficking. You may want to start at traffickingresourcecenter.org.

Prayer: God of the Known and Unknown, let me know you as you are and not just as I’d like you to be. Amen.

Discussion: What Biblical passages make you uncomfortable?

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Alien

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 145, Joshua 2:1-14, Romans 11:1-12, Matthew 25:1-13


The book of Joshua jars modern Christian sensibilities – or at least it should.

Full of slaughter committed in the name of holy war, the Hebrew text frequently refers to kherem, a word meaning “to utterly destroy.” Try as we might, can we imagine Jesus commanding a group of Christians to annihilate not just one town but several down to the last woman, child, goat, and shed? Even for those who believe Jesus will return as a conqueror, that image should be disturbing. However we struggle with and maybe resist such ideas, grappling with them helps us grow in our understanding of human and divine nature.

When I was a kid, I watched Star Trek reruns every Saturday. I especially loved episodes that introduced new alien races. As I grew older, I noticed a disturbing trend. Each race seemed homogenous. They didn’t just have identical uniforms – they had uniform values, opinions, and attitudes. When we did meet aliens who were exceptions, what set them apart was almost always an embrace of familiar human values. Despite the intentional diversity given to the Enterprise crew by its creative team, the human tendency to stereotype the unfamiliar and exalt the familiar emerged.

When Joshua’s spies encounter Rahab in today’s reading, she is the exceptional alien. When she protects them – that is, when she embraces their values – she becomes sympathetic, so she and her family will be spared from the coming destruction. Even though she explicitly tells the spies there are other Canaanites who share her beliefs, those people are not even considered for mercy. If Joshua or his people had come to know other Canaanites as they had Rahab, how eager would they have been to embrace kherem? How does the narrative in Joshua compare with God’s earlier instruction in Exodus 22:21 – “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt?”

Clearly genocide is not an acceptable notion for modern Christians or Jews. While it is true God’s justice is beyond our understanding, any comfort – or even eagerness – some of us find in the notion of slaughtering God’s (which usually means our) enemies requires some serious reflection on our own hearts and motives. When reading Joshua, we must account for cultural context and seek out the theological themes underlying the story itself. Our reaction to its violence is an opportunity to reflect on how God wants us to relate to the alien today.

Comfort: No one is an alien to God.

Challenge: Who is your Rahab? On a bookmark-sized piece of paper, make a list of people who have defied your cultural preconceptions. Use it to mark your place as we read through the book of Joshua over the next couple weeks.

Prayer: God of the Known and Unkown, temper my judgments and cultivate my mercy. Amen.

Discussion: Who is your Rahab? Who has defied your cultural preconceptions? Did they influence your view of only themselves, or of many people?

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Everything That Breathes

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, Joshua 1:1-18, Acts 21:3-15,Mark 1:21-27


Praise and worship are essential to our relationship with God. Psalm 150 exemplifies praise for its own sake – not because of what God has done for us, but simply because God is worthy of praise.

What do people value in a worship service? A majority of respondents to one survey claimed how it “made them feel” was most important. A close second was liking the musical style. Interesting results, considering the focus of our worship is supposed to be God, not ourselves and our preferences. It can be easy to confuse closeness to God with good feelings. Services crossing the line into entertainment (or even group therapy) facilitate such confusion. Emotions heightened through catchy music and enthusiastic crowds are a spiritual hit that fade quickly. Focus on God, rather than on how the experience makes us feel, provides a deeper connection.

Since worship services are often built around the attitudes and demands of the congregation, what is our responsibility? Well, we can set our hearts on God, regardless of whether a particular song choice “speaks to us” or drums up the warm fuzzies. We can set our minds on what we bring to worship, rather than what we take away. Many people stop attending services during times of personal crisis. Could this be because we associate worship with only good feelings, and feel pressure to put on a happy face? We can turn to many psalms as examples of praising through pain.

“Hold on,” we might say, “isn’t my church supposed to fulfill me in some way?” That’s an awful lot to expect from one hour-long service. We are more likely to find fulfillment through participation in the life of a church community. We often let feelings dictate our actions, though actions powerfully influence our feelings. Sharing community actions of justice, love and mercy is a natural extension of Sunday worship – a chance to open ourselves up to God working in our lives, and the lives of others. We don’t develop our spiritual muscles when the church hands us lightweight sentiment, but when we engage in genuine praise and worship and do the rest of the heavy lifting ourselves.

Comfort: Our faith is stronger than our feelings.

Challenge: At the next worship service you attend, be intentional in singing songs to God, and not just about God.

Prayer: Lord of Heaven and Earth, I praise you as creator of all. Amen.

Discussion: It’s entirely possible for a worship experience to be both emotionally moving and focused on God. Have you ever experienced a service or church that strikes this balance well?

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Vigilance

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 63; 149, Deuteronomy 34:1-12, Romans 10:14-21, Matthew 24:32-51


vigilant (adj.): 1. keenly watchful to detect danger; wary; 2. ever awake and alert; sleeplessly watchful (dictionary.com).

Are we vigilant about our spiritual lives? What might such vigilance look like? Jesus offered various examples of vigilant (and non-vigilant) people. Regarding vigilance he was speaking specifically of the day of judgment, but the lesson is applicable to other important events that will occur at an unknown time – including our own deaths.

Two workers in a field, but only one taken at the end. Two women grinding grain, but one left behind. A homeowner unprotected against thieves in the night. Jesus gives no details about what separates the field workers and women who are taken from those who are not. The homeowner has no way of knowing which night to stay awake to catch the thief. These examples tell us why we need to be vigilant, but not how. In a longer parable, he tells us about a good slave who is performing his job admirably while awaiting his master’s return, and a bad one who is wasting time and money that do not belong to him.

In a nutshell, vigilance is doing what we’re supposed to be doing, every day. None of the vigilant people are making extraordinary “holy” efforts. None are busy trying to figure out when the big event is most likely to occur. None are in a worship service others neglect. They are working. Grinding. Living.

Perhaps this is how we are to exercise vigilance: do our best to discern how God wants us to live, and make it our daily practice to do so. Waiting for the “right day” to stop gossiping or to start caring for the poor is a dangerous gamble: like the bad slave, we don’t know when our time might be up.

Many of us assume (with either fear or hope) that God’s demands will require extraordinary effort, and therefore put off our attempts to fulfill those demands until everything is in place. Does a preoccupation with extraordinary efforts distract us from the true vigilance of daily living? Instead of being overwhelmed, let’s find comfort in Jesus’s use of common laborers, rather than prophets or priests, as his examples of the vigilant. We don’t need to be scholars, seers, or sages to be vigilant. We just need to be the people God created us to be.

Comfort: God has given us lives that prepare us for His presence.

Challenge: At the end of the day, make notes of when you were and were not spiritually vigilant.

Prayer: Gracious and Merciful God, thank you for your presence in my daily activities. Amen.

Discussion: When do you feel like you’re living as God would have you live? How do you struggle with that idea?

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For Better or Verse

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 148,g Deuteronomy 31:7-13, 31:24-32:4, Romans 10:1-13, Matthew 24:15-31


What’s the number of your favorite New Testament verse? Only 500 years ago, that would have been a nonsense question. Before the 16th century, the New Testament was not divided into verses in any generally accepted manner. Before the 13th century, it wasn’t even divided into standard chapters! Today, we can scarcely imagine taking part in a Bible study without being able to flip to the proper chapters and verses on demand.

But do verses help or hinder our relationship with the text?

A devotional that depends on scheduled readings might seem like an odd place to bring up the dangers of versification, but today’s Epistle reading is a good example of the importance of context. Paul’s letter to the Romans is a rich and complex document. Each section builds upon the content of the previous sections. Today’s text continues Paul’s exploration of the continued role of the Jewish people in God’s plan for salvation. Out of context, it could be presented as an outright condemnation. As part of a larger document, it helps build an argument that God is the God of all people, whether Jewish or Gentile.

Beyond the immediate context of Romans itself, it helps to know Paul wrote this letter as Jews were returning to Rome after being expelled for five years by the Emperor Claudius. The church they returned to was increasingly Gentile in character. Part of Paul’s reason for the letter was to relieve tensions between clashing sects of Christianity.

Understanding the Bible involves more than memorizing verses and pulling out proof-texts. While verse identification is a helpful reference tool, it should not limit our study or – worse yet – reduce the Bible to a collection of favorite, context-free quotes. Reading the full text and exploring the historical context will provide a much deeper experience. Even lectionary readings might be enriched by looking back and reading ahead!

The New Testament was composed over decades by many authors, none of whom wrote their work in verses. When we try to read the text as they wrote it, our appreciation and comprehension can only grow.

Comfort: The Bible is greater than the sum of its verses!

Challenge: Before the end of the month, research the historical context of one of the New Testament books, and notice how it affects your understanding of the text.

Prayer: Gracious and Merciful God, we thank you for the living words of scripture. Amen.

Discussion: Do you have a favorite Bible verse?

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Give ’em a break…

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 147:1-11, Deuteronomy 1:1-18, Romans 9:1-18, Matthew 23:27-39


The twenty-third chapter of Matthew contains some of Christ’s most scathing criticism of the scribes and Pharisees. He compares them to whitewashed tombs – spotless outside but full of decay. He calls them a brood of vipers. He accuses them of building tombs for prophets they had murdered while they claimed “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets” … on one hand denouncing a murderous tradition while enthusiastically embracing it with the other.

This is the part where we can sit back, think of all the vipers in our own lives, and enjoy Jesus really letting those hypocrites have it!

Or is it?

Maybe this is the part where give the Pharisees a break. Or if not a break, a little empathy. If we look at them and say “that would never have been me!” we make the same mistake they did. Of course we like to believe that even under identical circumstances we would be different – better – than people who have made bad choices. For a few noble souls it may even be true. But most of us are not exceptional; we are doing the best with what we have, and failing more often than we’d like.

If we can entertain the idea that we might have been pharisaical … that if we’d been less privileged by intelligence or class we might have found ourselves in prison … that we might have been in the crowd that loved Jesus right up until it began shouting “Crucify him!” … we may find it a little easier to show compassion and forgiveness.

Romans 3:23 tells us all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Short is short and all is all: since the scale of God’s glory is infinite, our relative distance from it is irrelevant. Thinking other people’s sins are greater than our own robs us of compassion. Believing our sins are greater than other people’s robs us of hope. To be heirs of the kingdom, rather than heirs to the murderous tradition, we only have to believe Jesus died for all of us equally.

Comfort: Jesus offers forgiveness to everyone, including you.

Challenge: Jesus asks us to offer forgiveness to everyone, including ourselves.

Prayer: God of mercy, help me to keep a humble and loving heart. Amen.

Discussion: How do you think our secular culture influences our ability to feel compassion?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!