Branching Out


Today’s readings:
Psalms 99; 147:12-20, Joshua 1:1-9, Hebrews 11:32-12:2, John 15:1-16

I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them
bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.
– John 15:5

This passage from John beautifully illustrates our relationship with Christ; he is central not only to our beliefs, but to our very lives. Separated from Christ, we wither and die. The passage goes on to describe branches that wither and are burned, and branches that thrive and bear fruit.

Yes the vine is central, but this metaphor also reminds us of the importance of Christian community. After all, when’s the last time you saw a healthy vine with only one branch?

It’s no coincidence that Jesus immediately follows the image of the vine and branches with a commandment for the disciples to love one another so much that they would lay down their lives for each other. Branches are interdependent; the health of each one positively or negatively impacting the health of the others. Apart from community, we are like single branches trying to survive on our own: it’s remotely possible, but the fruit we bear will likely be sparse and limited … and even then only if we can bear any at all before collapsing under our own weight or drying out from overexposure to the elements. A community of many branches anchored together in Christ provides the support and shelter to bear good fruit.

Our reading from John is paired with a passage from Hebrews that refers to a “cloud of witnesses” who fought, won, suffered, and died for their faith so that future generations would see God’s promise fulfilled. Not everything we plant is meant for immediate benefit. A grapevine can take up to three years to produce grapes, but those years without fruit are not without purpose. Roots must grow deep and the plant must mature. Older branches are pruned so the vine may thrive. By participating in the life cycle of a community we contribute not only to its present health, but help provide for the health of future branches.

Let us work toward the health of all branches, supporting each other and bearing the sweetest fruits together.

Comfort: We are not alone.

Challenge: Think about whether you are a positive or negative influence on your own spiritual community.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for the many branches and witnesses who have made your church possible. Amen.

Discussion: What kind of community do you prefer? For example, blending into a large congregation, being part of small groups, online groups, mission teams, etc.

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Moving Target


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 54; 146, Ecclesiastes 2:16-26, Galatians 1:18-2:10, Matthew 13:53-58

The church is an easy target. As a human institution making the bold claim to represent Christ on earth, we paint that target on our own backs. Internal squabbling, failure to live up to our own standards, and outright corruption opens us to criticism from, well, everyone.

Because we are human we are often hypocrites, and because we are Christian we are charged with combating religious hypocrisy. Unfortunately our historical response to criticism of that paradox has been to double down on our own righteousness, thereby making the target ever broader. Calls to return to vague “traditional values” may feel satisfying to internal hardliners, but for those who are outside the church looking in, it only reinforces their perception of hypocrisy.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t strive for Godly lives. Of course we should! But when we fail and are called out for it, our response should be to look inward as mature people of faith, not to lash outward like children shifting blame.

If we are introspective (rather than defensive) about the health of the body of Christ, we just might conclude the honest and humble response to criticism is admitting we have always fallen short of our ideals. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul addresses a church that is only twenty years old. Already there is infighting between Paul and Peter over Gentile inclusion. Rival (he calls them false) interpreters of scripture and doctrine have infiltrated Galatia. He has to refute claims that he lacks the endorsement of Peter, James and other Apostles. A mere two decades in, the church was providing much of the same fodder for criticism it does today.

Maybe the church should be a target. Our promise is not that we are righteous, but that we are forgiven. Honest criticism can be the swift kick in the back door we need to remind ourselves. We need to own the infighting, particularly around matters of justice. A homogenized church at peace with itself is stagnant; a church in conversation with itself – even heated conversation – is making room for the Spirit to be heard. Intentionally or not, the message we send is: “We are better.” Nobody believes that, nor should they. The story we need to tell is: “We don’t claim to be better, but God’s loving mercy redeems us.” When that is the story we also tell ourselves, it becomes true.

Comfort: Being honest about our failings is a testament to God’s love.

Challenge: When you hear criticism, of the church or otherwise, take time for introspection before defending yourself.

Prayer: God of forgiveness, teach me to tell the story of your love. Amen.

Discussion: What hypocrisies of the church bother you the most? Where do you find productive places to discuss your concerns?

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Body(building) of Christ

off the couch

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Isaiah 4:2-6, Ephesians 4:1-16, Matthew 8:28-34

One of Paul’s favorite descriptions of the Church is a body with Christ at its head. In his letter to the Ephesians, he explains how all the gifts of the community work together, just as all the parts of the body work together. He also says the Body of Christ needs to grow into maturity and unity. This growth requires exercise.

Why do we exercise our bodies? Is it just to look good, or is it to keep ourselves fit to accomplish more important tasks? Smart bodybuilders never sacrifice fitness for appearance. Lazy bodybuilders – and churches – do. It’s nice to show off our muscles – be they big biceps or beautiful buildings – but we should never prize them above the overall health of the body. Like healthy bodybuilders, healthy churches achieve results through hard work and good choices; shortcuts result in unsustainable outcomes and dangerous consequences. A body that serves no purpose but to promote itself is not a healthy one.

Bodybuilders are acutely aware of proper proportion. It is easy to focus efforts on areas that respond quickly, don’t tire us, or attract attention. Doing so exclusively, however, leaves key areas neglected. The boring parts are just as important. A church can have a dynamic and popular worship experience, but if it sucks away the energy that could go into mission, the body is out of balance. For bodybuilders such imbalance doesn’t just lose them tournaments, it increases their risk of injury. If the efforts of our Christian body are imbalanced, in the long run we hurt ourselves.

Prevention is the best way to manage injury and illness, but even the most diligent of us may get sick. When that happens, the worst thing to do is ignore it. Far too many people avoid the doctor because of embarrassment or fear. The body of Christ has the same tendencies. We often choose to protect our reputation rather than admit to real problems. Such behavior can be fatal. But it doesn’t have to be. Let’s be sure to take care of the Body in all the right ways!

Comfort: Flex the spiritual muscle you’ve been given – it’s important to the health of the body!

Challenge: Sometimes we think the things that are important to us need to be important to everyone. Try to understand what other people bring to the table that you can’t.What gifts might you undervalue or belittle?

Prayer: God of all good gifts, teach me to make choices to promote the health of the Body. Amen.

Discussion: What gifts – whether yours or someone else’s – might you undervalue or belittle?

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Sunday Schooled


Contemplating how much I still have to learn…

This past Sunday I went to a weekly church service for the first time in a long time. Several years ago I left a church in which I had been very active – board chair, elder, various other roles – for years. My departure was painful for me. There’s no need to rehash my reasons for leaving. When people ask me about why I don’t attend any more, I simply tell them it is no longer a good fit for me. My ego is not so big that I need my personal grievances to become theirs. Just because it’s not my community doesn’t mean I need to run it down to people who may need it to be theirs.


It was a tumultuous time for the congregation, and several other congregants also left during roughly the same period. For a few years afterward, I led a house church composed of other people who’d left, a few people who’d stayed, and some people who’d never been there. We interacted with other churches in the denomination and community, including the church most of us had left. Eventually the time for the house church ran its course, and it wound down and we dissolved it amicably. For me and others who attended, it was a time of grieving and healing – which, I believe, go hand in hand when we grieve well.

A friend who had attended both my former congregation and the house church invited me a few times to a church she had found. It was only a few years old. She liked the theology and the music. I checked out their web-site, and my first impression is that they are also involved in spreading the Gospel through service. That last bit is important to me; were I ever to consider “joining” a congregation again (I still think of myself as joined to the larger church as part of the Body of Christ), Gospel-centered service is in my top criteria.

I’ll check out a few more Sundays and other events to get a feel for the possible “fit” of this congregation. There’s another one that’s been piquing my interest lately, and I’ll want to visit it for a while also.  I’m in no hurry to make a decision, but a decision is inevitable.

The same friend has on numerous occasions reminded me of something I once said in a board meeting lo those many years ago: “I don’t know how to be a Christian without a community.”


Leadership positions are rewarding, but they can also be exhausting. This Sunday’s visit was the first time in almost ten years I had been in a worship service (this particular community called it a “gathering” in the apostolic tradition) where I wasn’t leading, facilitating in some way, or otherwise known to the congregation. Nobody was interrupting my worship experience by blurring the boundaries between “time to let you worship” and “time to complain about where Mrs. Smith set up the bake sale table.”

Except for my friend, I was completely anonymous. And I’m not sure how I felt about it.

I expected to feel relieved to experience the service in peace, but I also felt more than a little … let’s call it humbled, though it wasn’t quite so benign. These people were able to more than competently pull off an entire Sunday without needing anything from me. That was exactly what I thought I wanted to experience, but I was conflicted. What was going on?


Despite fantastic music and a terrific message, attending the Sunday gathering left me feeling … unsettled. All afternoon I reflected on why this might be so.

I’m not sure I figured it out, but a lot of old thoughts and emotions about my last church resurfaced. Whatever feelings of unease I brought into this new setting were undoubtedly related to my past experiences, but my problems with the old place couldn’t fairly be projected onto this new one.

So what to do? I needed to squarely face my own contributions to the prior experience, so as not to repeat them anywhere new.

Now I hadn’t acted with malice or carelessness. I really believe there’s nothing I need or needed to “confess” about my failings, yet there were some failings. And I think they’re pinned to leadership. More specifically, my suitability for the type of leadership I accepted.

I say “accepted” because it wasn’t anything I sought. In a small enough congregation, being reliable and competent and experiencing a few small successes is all that’s needed to get nominated to any number of positions.  And it’s flattering when people ask you to lead. If they ask enough times, you may even start to think you’re qualified.

But “accepted” is not passive. My initial hesitations were well-grounded, so I should have known enough to decline. Leadership comes in many flavors. Strategic leadership is not the same as project leadership. And if I’m honest with myself, I have some strong project leadership skills, but strategic leadership is not where I shine. There’s plenty of blame to go around when a congregation fractures, and I believe that’s the piece I need to own, the humble pie I need to swallow.

For a while I told myself I wouldn’t be sucked into leadership in any congregation I joined; that doing so was a sure road to dissatisfaction and stress.

It hadn’t occurred to me until now that maybe no one would ask. If that bruises my ego, Jesus and I need to walk it off.


Turns out experiencing a whole Sunday service that didn’t need me was humbling in a good way. It’s not necessarily comfortable, but it’s not the chafe of the ill-fitting strategic suit I’d mistakenly tried on.

Maybe, wherever I end up, they won’t need – or even ask! – me to lead anything. Undoubtedly there will be plenty of opportunities to serve. There will be times I’ll feel called to step up. And I’ll try to live out one of the best lessons I’ve picked up from mission trips: need is about the served, not the servant.

Ego is a tricky thing – especially when it disguises itself as service. The next leg of my faith journey seems to be a detour down Humble Highway.

Think I’ll take my time.


The Nitty Gritty


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Exodus 33:1-23, 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12, Matthew 5:17-20

In many ways, our culture teaches us to win at all costs. From underhanded but effective political tactics to reality television featuring treacherous alliances and double-crosses, we can easily find ourselves celebrating victory more than integrity. For Paul it was not so: he trusted the integrity of his message was itself enough to bring people to Christ. Yet even the church can succumb to a little bait and switch, exaggerating joys and minimizing challenges to get people in the doors.

When we try to make ourselves seem better than we are, ironically we undermine the Good News. “Sunday Best” doesn’t refer only to our attire – we bring our best attitudes, best behavior, and best versions of our lives. We often assume that everyone else’s “best” presentation of their lives is the whole truth when in reality they may be struggling as badly or worse than we are. Together we perpetuate the myth that Christians must be eternally cheerful and optimistic. The danger in all this window dressing is the subtle message that Jesus Club is meant for those who have it together, or who can get it together. Not only do we miss opportunities to support one another, we intimidate others from trying to join the body. Eventually the false front crumbles under the weight of our collective repression, and the world sees us as hypocrites.

What a relief it would be to share the gospel as Paul did! He admitted to being exhausted, mistreated, and quarrelsome. He bore his sufferings and flaws as a testament to Christ’s presence in his life. His message spoke to broken people who needed to know Christ … because he admitted he was broken and needed Christ. And not simply past-tense broken, but presently broken and constantly being saved. That friend undergoing an ugly divorce just might be more interested in hearing about how Jesus is with you as you battle depression than about the Jesus who blessed the congregation with the best bake sale turnout ever. When we stop showing people the Jesus we think they want to see, and show them the real Jesus in the trenches with us, the message is more than enough.

Comfort: God already knows your true self, so there’s no sense in hiding it from anyone else.

Challenge: Share your authentic self with your church family or faith community. In what ways does it help you, and in what ways does it help them?

Prayer: God of truth, I present my authentic self to you, knowing you are the answer to all my brokenness, and ask you to use it for your glory. Amen.

Discussion: In what ways does being honest about your life help you, and in what ways does it help others?

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Only Tenants


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab / window):
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Lamentations 2:1-9, 2 Corinthians 1:23-2:11, Mark 12:1-11

The Parable of the Tenants is a difficult story, which forces us to confront our unwillingness to put God’s desires above our own. A landowner entrusts his vineyard to tenants while he travels abroad. After the harvest the landowner dispatches servants to collect his share, but the tenants greet the servants with violence that ranges from beatings to murder. Finally the landowner sends his son, and they kill him too.

In the common interpretation of this story the landowner is God, the tenants are the appointed religious leaders, the vineyard is Israel, the servants are prophets of the past, and the son is Jesus. The leaders hold the people captive and forget the true head of the vineyard is God. They destroy any and all who oppose their claim to power, even those sent by the true owner. The death of the son foretells the crucifixion.

Contrast this parable with the second chapter of 2 Corinthians. The Biblical narrative tells us Paul visited Corinth three times. The first visit was to establish the church. The second one – which he refers to in his letter as “the painful visit” – was to reprimand church leadership for acting immorally. One man seems to have been particularly troublesome. In this letter, Paul says he is not going to visit again at this time precisely because he feels his corrections had been too harsh and wants to avoid causing any more pain for the church or himself. He asks the Corinthians to forgive the troublesome man and punish him no longer.

When Paul realized his approach was not true to his mission … he gave it back to God. A more stubborn man might have dug in his heels and justified his actions, maybe even returned to Corinth to double down. Paul knew spreading the Gospel was more important than defending himself. Refusing to surrender his plot of land might have broken the Corinthian church. Whether our plot is a ministry, a family, or an actual vineyard, we are all only tenants tending it best we can until the time comes to give it back to God.

Comfort: You don’t have to tend the whole world…

Challenge: … but tend your plot well and surrender it timely.

Prayer: Generous and loving God, teach me to care for your world as you have called me to do, and grant me the humility to change and grow with your seasons. Amen.

Discussion: When does your urge to punish endanger your willingness to forgive?

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Two Tents


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 62; 145, 2 Samuel 7:1-17, Acts 18:1-11, Mark 8:11-21

A man goes to a psychiatrist. “Doc,” he says, “you gotta help me. I can’t sleep. One night I dream I’m a wigwam, and the next night I dream I’m a tepee.” The psychiatrist thinks for a minute and then she says: “I think the problem is you’re two tents.”

Tents figure prominently in two of today’s readings. In Acts, we learn that Paul was a tentmaker by trade – though the word translated as “tentmaker” could also be interpreted as leather worker, tailor, etc. In Samuel, the time has come to plan for a temple, a permanent home for the God of Israel who has been traveling and living in tents for over 400 years.

There’s a subtle but important shift in thinking when our God stops wandering with us and puts down roots. We start to think of the Holy of Holies as a destination where once it was a traveling companion. The rest of the world, while still part of the miraculous creation, loses potential to become a temporary center of our faith.  Church becomes a place we go, rather than an inescapable community we are all called to carry through the wilderness.

Imagine being responsible for hauling God from place to place. Not in a Lost Ark face-melting kind of way, but in the sense of undeniable presence. Would your attitude toward school be different if God was waiting whenever you opened your backpack? What would work be like if unzipping your laptop case filled the room with a holy glow? How would you feel about your purchases at the mall if God got a peek when you opened your wallet?

Church may be a focal point, but God is present in all those places and more: every nook and cranny, every canyon and plain. Everywhere. When we open our doors, our mouths, or our wallets the God we worship can be seen. If what dwells in our hearts doesn’t align with the God who inhabits the world, we’re going to lose some sleep. But when it’s the same tent inside and out, our peace is secured.

Additional Reading:
For thoughts on today’s passage from Mark, see Here’s Your Sign, Curveballs, and So. Much. Bread.

Comfort: God is always with you.

Challenge: Pick one object – like your wallet, briefcase, etc – and for the next week each time you open it take a moment to be aware of the presence of God.

Prayer: God of all creation, I will worship you at all times and in all places. Amen.

Discussion: Where  or when do you most strongly feel the presence of God?

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… but she’s my mother.


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, 1 Samuel 17:50-18:4, Romans 10:4-17, Matthew 23:29-39

As Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem, he had harsh words for its citizens, especially religious leaders. He called them a brood of vipers. While they claimed they would never have mistreated the prophets as did their ancestors, he condemned their hypocrisy by saying they were “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”

Angry words, but also born of love. God often described Israel as his faithless bride, and Jerusalem was the heart of her rejection. Prophets and sages, though they spoke grim words of correction, were sent to save the people … a people whose behavior demonstrated they weren’t interested in saving themselves. Jesus wasn’t angered with Romans, Samaritans, or Egyptians because they had never followed God in the the first place, so hadn’t turned away; we aren’t pained when someone else’s spouse is unfaithful. Our hearts are not broken by strangers. Maybe that is why we react so strongly when the church we trust betrays us.

Augustine is credited with saying, “The church is a whore, but she’s my mother.”

Unfortunate sexist overtones aside, that’s an apt description for a complicated relationship. We can love someone or something and still be deeply troubled by it. When the church and her leaders act from a place of corruption, greed, protectionism, or prejudice our hearts are grievously injured. We can respond with denial, departure, or a third, more difficult option. Denial only lets things fester. Departure lacks resolution; a Christian who never steps foot in another church still has indissoluble bonds to the body of Christ. Remaining in covenant to love our church through her indiscretions but insisting on better, as Christ did, heals us both.

We can become discouraged. The mechanics of conception and prostitution are virtually identical, so we have to do the hard work of sorting intentions and motivations, work that leaves everyone involved feeling vulnerable. Yet as Jesus loves us despite our flaws to help us realize our potential in the Lord’s grace, so must we help the church transcend her sins to be who she claims to be.

Additional Reading:
For more on today’s passage from Matthew, see Give ’em a break… and Love Anyway.

Comfort: No one is beyond redemption if they are willing to accept it.

Challenge: Meditate on what struggles you have with the church, and how you choose to handle them.

Prayer: Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. (Psalm 139:23)

Discussion: What attracts you to the church or a congregation?

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!