Cause and Effect

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 108; 150; Jeremiah 44:15-30; Acts 18:24-19:7; Luke 10:25-37


Baseball is notorious for its superstitions. Players (and fans) will eat specific foods, wear specific clothes (often without washing them), and refrain from haircuts, shaving, or even bathing once they believe a certain behavior has brought them luck. Performance may improve when someone feels confident or empowered, but the activities themselves have nothing to do with winning or losing (cue disapproving comments from dedicated baseball fans). Human beings are wired to draw conclusions from perceived patterns, but when these patterns are coincidental or casual we are noticing a correlation, not a cause.

The Jewish people who sought refuge in Egypt dedicated themselves to idolatry because of a correlation. When the prophet Jeremiah warned them to stop making sacrifices to the goddess Asherah, also known as the queen of heaven, they outright refused, saying:

We used to have plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no misfortune. But from the time we stopped making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her, we have lacked everything and have perished by the sword and by famine.

Jeremiah had a different take. He claimed the desolation and disaster which befell them happened because the Lord was no longer willing to tolerate their abominable behavior. We can also be a little too ready to draw conclusions, with a solid amount of certainty, which turn out to undermine our faith.

One example is the sense among many Christians (and frankly many non-believers as well) that poverty is a result of moral failing. Another closely related example is that good health is a result of strong faith. These types of assumptions contain at least two dangers. The first is that they teach us to think of people who suffer from misfortune as lacking faith and therefore undeserving of mercy. The second is that they leave us unprepared for our own times of trial; many people experience a crisis or loss of faith when the good luck they attributed to faith finally runs out.

Because thinking critically is difficult and time-consuming, we are prone to substituting correlation – superstition – for faith, even doubling down after a superstition has been pointed out to us. Yet under duress, one is easily unraveled and disproved while the other is not. Faith can stand up to scrutiny, so let’s be brave enough to challenge the idol of our own thinking.

Additional Reading: For thoughts on today’s passage from Luke, see Good Samaritan and One of the good ones…

Comfort: Faith withstands both criticism and superstition.

Challenge: Think critically about what you believe.

Prayer: Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard, who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip. (Psalm 66:8-9)

Discussion: Do you have any superstitions?

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Whaddya know?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 122; 149, 2 Kings 11:1-20a, 1 Corinthians 7:10-24, Matthew 6:19-24


In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul offers a teaching to men and women who have become followers of Christ, but whose spouses are unbelievers. He tells them not to divorce if the unbeliever still consents to stay together; indeed the unbelieving spouse is made holy by their union and may yet be saved. However if the unbelieving partner leaves, the believer is not bound by the marriage.

Paul makes clear to his audience an important distinction about this teaching and some of his others: it comes from him, not from God. Paul’s marriage advice was based on faithful conclusions he drew from his best understanding of Christ and the gospel, and undoubtedly he fully believed what he was saying, but he was still humble enough not to speak on behalf of God.

A lot of preachers – and for that matter a lot of lay people – fail to make that same distinction, even internally.

For example, we all know about television and radio evangelists, and local clergy as well, who just can’t seem to resist any opportunity to blame a natural disaster on some group of sinners. They will declare it the wrath of God or a message from Christ without any evidence beyond their own axe to grind. For purposes of this comparison it doesn’t even matter whether they are right: what matters is they don’t know whether they are or not, but claim it as if God told them personally. Talk about taking the Lord’s name in vain.

We can know better. More importantly, we can do better. Let’s never be so certain we know who God wants to punish that we don’t leave room for mercy. Remember Zoar? That’s the city God spared, but people who want us to remember (and misrepresent) only Sodom and Gomorrah don’t tend to bring it up. And then there’s Nineveh: God strong-armed his not-so-faithful servant Jonah into convincing them to repent when Jonah would rather have seen them destroyed.

Our national or cultural enemies – even the sinners we really think ought to – do not define God’s enemies. Our thoughts – even ones that seem soundly theological – are not God’s thoughts. We want to be very careful not to attribute our own words to God. Better to faithfully ponder and acknowledge how little we know for a lifetime than to try standing firm on nothing.

Comfort: Great faith doesn’t always have answers.

Challenge: Don’t try to make your biases into God’s biases.

Prayer: I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name. (Psalm 63:4)

Discussion: What’s the difference between admitting what we don’t know, and being the type of “lukewarm” believer Christ warns against?

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Inference Interference

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 57; 145, 2 Kings 5:1-19, 1 Corinthians 4:8-21, Matthew 5:21-26


Naaman was an Aramean warrior who suffered from leprosy. One of his wife’s servants was an Israeli captive. This girl told Naaman that a prophet in her land could cure his illness. With a letter and the good wishes from his own king, Naaman took “ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments” to the king of Israel. Did this generous tribute and simple request touch the heart of the king? Not quite.

When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”

And that sometimes seems to be the entirety of foreign relations in a nutshell. Personal relations, too.

Inference is a dangerous habit, but we do it all the time. Asking someone directly for clarification of their meaning or intentions should be simple, but we are uncomfortable asking and defensive when asked. Often we would rather just work off assumptions … which we’re not especially good at making. From being offended at unintended “tone” we’ve erroneously read into emails, to completely misreading the motives of foreign governments, inferences cause no end of unnecessary problems.

The prophet Elisha advised the king of Israel to take a breath; he would cure the Aramean commander’s leprosy. Then is was Naaman’s turn to be paranoid. When Elisha instructed him to bathe in the Jordan River, Naaman protested that the cure could not be so simple and prepared to leave. His servants asked him why he would have been willing to do something difficult, and rejected something easy.

If we would like transparency and trust from others, we must be willing to offer them first. Christ tells us before we offer a gift at the altar, we should reconcile ourselves to any brother or sister who has something against us. That’s not the same as forgiving something we have against them – the onus is on each of us to initiate peace whether or not we believe we are in the wrong. If we don’t know how, we can start by asking.

Comfort: Making yourself vulnerable is not a weakness.

Challenge: When in doubt, ask.

Prayer: Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. (Psalm 85:8)

Discussion: Have you ever made an assumption which led to unnecessary conflict?

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Silence: Golden or Fool’s Gold?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 19; 150, 2 Samuel 17:1-23, Galatians 3:6-14, John 5:30-47


The phrase “silence speaks volumes” can have different meanings. There’s an active silence when we refuse to speak, leaving others to draw their own conclusions. Ask a child, “Are those your crayon drawings all over the wall?” and silence probably answers the question for you. This silence gives us a slight sense of control when speaking would be difficult.

Then there’s a passive silence, like when we hear gossip among friends, or racist remarks in the cafeteria. In that silence we relinquish control, and those who hear it – or rather, don’t hear it – are more free to interpret it as they will. Declining to participate may send a message that we don’t agree or approve, but it is just as likely (and arguably more so)  to be heard as indifference, assent, agreement, or possibly fear.

As far as we know, David’s trusted counselor Ahithophel kept his silence after David arranged for the death of Uriah so he might marry Uriah’s wife Bathsheba – who was Ahithophel’s granddaughter. (Yes, the book of Samuel should come with a scorecard.) Perhaps this is why, when David’s son Absalom took his father’s throne, Ahithophel so easily swapped allegiances and began to counsel Absalom. It’s not hard to imagine David never saw this betrayal coming.

Whether it’s in business meetings, friendly conversation, or important debates, we should be careful not to make assumptions about people’s silence. Doing so can lead to serious miscalculations. We should also be careful about our own silence, because people will fill in the blanks for us. We don’t need to weigh in with an opinion on everything (Proverbs tells us “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue”), but there are times when an assumption of agreement or neutrality is dangerous. Consider this quote from writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel:

Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.
Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

There is no such thing as “no news”; there is what people hear, and what they assume. Let’s be wise using both our words and our silence.


Additional Reading:
For thoughts on today’s reading from John, see Two Point Perspective.

Comfort: Your words can affect the world for the better. 

Challenge: Pray about when to speak and when to keep silent.

Prayer: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)

Discussion: When do you feel most free to speak up? When do you feel least able?

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!