God out of Nazareth

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab or window):
Psalms 97; 147:12-20, Genesis 4:17-26, Hebrews 3:1-11, John 1:43-51


Soon after Philip the apostle met Jesus, he found his friend Nathanael and said:”We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael replied: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Of course he was swayed once he actually met Jesus, but his initial skepticism is noteworthy.

The village of Nazareth did not have much of a reputation. It was small and relatively obscure. Suggesting the Messiah could emerge from Nazareth seemed ridiculous even to its own citizens, who repeatedly rejected Jesus and his teachings. Yet a Nazarene he was, defying all doubt and eclipsing all expectations.

It’s not fair, but the world pigeonholes people based on the circumstances of their birth. Inner city kids are thugs. Immigrants from the middle east are suspected terrorists. Women are less capable than men and men are less nurturing than women. Pretty people are stupid and nerds are lonely. Stereotypes  are endless. Like Nathanael we sometimes encounter someone who demolishes one of our biases, but many of them remain unchallenged. One might think that being subjected to a stereotype would make a person less likely to do the same to others, but it isn’t so. We all justify our own biases and the world is poorer for it.

Where is your Nazareth? It may be an actual place, like Detroit or Syria. It may lie in an opposing political or religious ideology. It could be buried in the pigmentation of someone’s skin cells.You may not be able to locate it easily, because it doesn’t necessarily stand out as a place you actively dislike, but perhaps a place you can casually dismiss. Nazareth is any place or circumstance you use as an excuse to invalidate a person or their voice.

Jesus overcame all the obstacles of his birth. So can we, because we are children of God. And we need to give others the same chance. Let us each work to examine and dismantle our prejudices so we can look at each other and see the face of Christ, Nazarene and Messiah.

Comfort: You are more than any label. You are a child of God.

Challenge: Ask a friend you trust what your biases are. Don’t argue with them about what they say, just listen with an open mind and heart.

Prayer: Loving God, teach me to see you in all people, even when I don’t want to.

Discussion: What biases have you formerly held which you no longer hold?

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Patterns

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 130; 148, Hosea 13:9-16, Acts 28:1-16, Luke 9:28-36


The human mind is wired to recognize patterns – visual, behavioral, and temporal. This trait is a survival mechanism: breaks from expected patterns alert us to potential danger. Now that most of us no longer need to detect predators on the savanna, our brains still want to impose patterns – that is, a sense of order – onto the thinPattgs we observe, regardless of whether it actually makes sense to do so.

The ship that was taking Paul to Rome ran aground on the island of Malta. The inhabitants offered hospitality to the stranded crew. As the new friends huddled around a fire on a rainy night, a viper which had been nesting beneath the fire tried to escape the heat by biting Paul’s hand. Paul shook it off into the flames, but the Maltese whispered: “This man must be a murderer; though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.” When Paul suffered no ill effects, they reversed their decision and declared him a God.

Confirmation bias – a warped adaptation of pattern recognition – is the habit of interpreting events to support what you already want to believe. The Maltese wanted to believe only the guilty were punished, so the bite indicated evil … until it didn’t, and they created an outlandish excuse that supported their assumptions. Religious and political affiliations virtually require confirmation bias to survive, though the threats they perceive are not physical, but ideological.

A sneaky byproduct of our environment, confirmation bias is much easier to recognize in others than in ourselves. We all would rather feel safe than threatened, so we are not inclined to question false but comforting assurances. Simply put, we like to be right.

Faith, however, does not need to be right. Instead of twisting truth to fit our preconceptions, it frees us up to meet the world as it is, because we trust that however the world is put together, God did it and is fully present in it. We can see the patterns behind the mere shadows of patterns, the ebb and flow of the Spirit through our world.

Comfort: Faith will get you through difficult truths.

Challenge: Pick a topic you feel strongly about. Speak with someone or read something that represents the other side. Try to find common ground based in truth.

Prayer: God of truth and wisdom, may my opinions be humble and my thoughts pointed toward you. Amen.

Discussion: Where might your blind spots be?

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Hear to Understand

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 67; 150, Joshua 24:1-15, Acts 28:23-31, Mark 2:23-28


We all like to think we are open-minded – that our beliefs and attitudes are the result of well-informed reasoning and thoughtful consideration. Unfortunately there are at least a dozen types of cognitive bias to which we are prone, and another three dozen types of logical fallacy which our biases urge us to ignore. Since human beings are largely irrational creatures, being an expert in bias and logic is no guarantee of solid reasoning; actually the smarter we are, the more easily we can justify our own biases by manipulating those very laws of logic.

When Paul went to Rome, many Jewish leaders there were willing to hear him out regarding the teachings of Jesus. He talked with them an entire day, into the evening, and when he was finished some believed and some did not. For those who did not, he shared these words from the Holy Spirit:

“You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.”

These leaders were not evil, or – like the ones in Jerusalem who had driven him to seek sanctuary in Rome – even hostile. They simply felt no compelling reason to change their minds. What was the difference between those who believed Paul and those who didn’t? One possibility: they couldn’t imagine being wrong about the faith they had been taught and known all their lives.

Flash forward two thousand years, and people are basically the same. We believe God is moving among us, but in ways tradition has taught us to expect. When the Holy Spirit inspires prophets to declare Christians must grow to be more inclusive and just … some people believe and some do not. Few people today justify racial, gender, or ethnic discrimination on religious grounds, but once it was more common than not. Forces seeking justice and inclusion endure, and those that focus on condemnation and exclusion are judged unfavorably by history. When we consider such divisions in the church today, we must prayerfully consider whether we are biased toward merely hearing and seeing, or whether we are truly open to understanding and perceiving.

Comfort: The Spirit is still moving us toward justice.

Challenge: Follow the links in the first paragraph of today’s post – they may just teach you to be a better thinker.

Prayer: Lord of Truth and Light, teach me to be humble and bold enough to hear your word anew, even when I think I already understand it. Amen.

Discussion: When is the last time you changed you mind about something important to you? What prompted the change?

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!