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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Feedback

 

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 36; 7, Ecclesiastes 8:14-9:10, Galatians 4:21-31, Matthew 15:9-39


Imagine you are going to ask your employer for a raise or a promotion. You’ve prepared a list of all the reasons you think you deserve it. Are you also prepared to hear your boss share any reasons she or he feels you don’t deserve it?

What about when we decide to offer unsolicited criticism to a friend or coworker? Are we ready for them to return the favor?

Real-life conversations are not like those in a movie or television episode where someone gets to say their piece without interruption and leave the scene with a dramatic exit. When we initiate a challenging or difficult conversation, we should be prepared to hear what the other party has to say. Sometimes that means things won’t turn out the way we want.

The author of Psalm 7 knew this. When asking the Lord to save him from his enemies, he must have been certain of his own blamelessness to say:

O LORD my God, if I have done this,
if there is wrong in my hands,
if I have repaid my ally with harm
or plundered my foe without cause,
then let the enemy pursue and overtake me,
trample my life to the ground,
and lay my soul in the dust.

Fortunately for those of us less confident in our own righteousness, Christ teaches us that we are not caught in a cycle of tit for tat – that God’s mercy isn’t contingent on our blamelessness, but on our own willingness to show mercy ourselves. Unlike asking for a raise, when we ask God for forgiveness, we don’t need to build a case for it so much as humbly acknowledge and repent of our wrongdoing. When we feel convicted of our sins and failings, the Spirit isn’t trying to beat us down into a place of guilt, but to lift us up to a place of renewal.

Eventually we all need to face difficult truths about ourselves. The difference between the world and God is that the world wants you to improve before it can love you, and God loves and forgives you so that you can improve.

Comfort: God loves us despite our flaws.

Challenge: Ask a trusted friend to suggest a way you could improve, then pray about it.

Prayer: Merciful and loving God, thank you for loving me where I am today, and loving me enough to lead me somewhere better tomorrow.

Discussion: What flaw do you struggle to change?

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Not So Obvious

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Leviticus 26:27-42, Ephesians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:41-46


Jesus certainly seemed to enjoy stumping the Pharisees. When he asked them whose son the Messiah was, they confidently answered “David.” But when asked them how David could call the Messiah “Lord” if he was also his son, they had no answer and were afraid to ask any more questions. What had been obvious to them moments before was no longer so. There’s a certain satisfaction in reading about Jesus puncturing the Pharisees’ balloon of smugness. Maybe that’s partly because at one time or another we’ve all been on the receiving end of something similar; we’ve probably also been on the giving end.

One of the words most likely to undermine effective communication is “obvious.” When something seems obvious to us, we treat it like an objective reality. If someone else can’t see or understand it, we question their powers of observation and / or comprehension. The truth is, we all bring different perspectives to life. Draftspersons create two-dimensional orthographic drawings and three-dimensional isometric drawings to illustrate the complete dimensions of an object. Without representation from all sides, otherwise “obvious” details are easy to miss. Consider a cylinder: from the end it looks like a circle, but from the side it looks like a rectangle. Both are equally true and equally incomplete. When we think something is obvious and someone else does not, it is not a reason for ridicule, but a signal that one or both of us could learn from an additional perspective.

Since we aren’t Jesus talking to the Pharisses, it’s probably better if we don’t get a reputation for providing withering responses to questions or different opinions. We might like to interpret that as people thinking we are clever, but it more likely means they think we are close-minded. You don’t have to shut down a co-worker, friend, or spouse too many times by arrogantly pointing out the “obvious” to them before the lines of communication collapse.

In any given situation, we may be seeing only the end of the cylinder. While it’s obviously a circle, insisting that’s the sole and obvious truth is a rejection of the glorious diversity God has created.

Comfort: Your truth adds to the sum of truth.

Challenge: Try to strike the word “obvious” from your conversations.

Prayer: Glorious Creator, open my mind to all the wonders of your creation. Show me the truths I can’t see from my perspective. Amen.

Discussion: When have you missed something which was obvious to someone else? And vice versa?

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The Message Is The Same

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Exodus 19:16-25, Colossians 1:15-23, Matthew 3:13-17


There’s an old marketing belief that prospective customers need to hear your message seven times before they become interested in your product. Given the scene at Mount Sinai in the days preceding God’s arrival, God may have been a marketing major. As God descended the mountain hidden by a thick cloud, He told Moses to keep the people off the mountain, lest they be destroyed by the very sight of God. Moses seemed a little confused when he replied: “The people are not permitted to come up to Mount Sinai; for you yourself warned us, saying, ‘Set limits around the mountain and keep it holy.'” The gist of God’s response was: “OK. Go get your brother. And keep the people off the mountain.”

God’s warning wasn’t a threat; to the contrary, He was concerned with the welfare of the people. The destruction was not a consequence of His wrath, but His mere presence. If this scene had been written for a movie today it would surely foreshadow someone’s ill-conceived attempt to approach the mountain, but Exodus doesn’t mention anyone disobeying the warning.

When Jesus asked John the Baptist for baptism, John was reluctant because he felt unworthy, but he quickly consented. “And when Jesus had been baptized […] suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'” Quite the contrast to Sinai, isn’t it?

Hearing from God can be terrifying, or it can be exhilarating. It’s terrifying when we realize charging that mountain may mean, for our own good, utter destruction of life as we live it. But when we’ve submitted ourselves to God, as John the Baptist had, God’s voice is reassuring and life-giving. Our perception depends very much on whether we are open to receiving the message … but the message is the same either way. God is always calling us to new life. Are we being dragged uphill against our will, or are we enjoying the mountain view?

Comfort: God’s message is always one of love…

Challenge: … but we may need to do some work before we can hear it.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for always reaching out to me. I will do my best to answer your call willingly and enthusiastically. Amen.

Discussion: Do you feel God speaks to you? If so, how?

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Sticks and Stones

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, Genesis 24:50-67, 2 Timothy 2:14-21, Mark 10:13-22


We all grew up hearing some variation on “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me.”

Turns out life is more complicated than childhood nursery rhymes.

Words are paradoxical things. While they are little more than scribbles or puffs of air we agree have certain meaning, they can actually contain immense power and create considerable harm. Laws and their consequences hinge on the order of words and the punctuation between them. Contracts can bind or fail based on a comma or its absence. Some words expressed too freely threaten the powers that be and become cause for censorship and prosecution.

Classes of people can be created simply because we impose upon them a word that describes a single one of their characteristics. Take for example the idea of people being “black” or “white.” We all started out the same color and became more varied through circumstances of time, climate, and genetics. Before we started to travel and become reacquainted with each other, we didn’t think of ourselves as white or black – we were just people. It’s such an inexact distinction that over time we had to invent yet more words (and legal categories) to describe people who didn’t fall neatly into one of those two categories. Yet those words – arbitrary and inaccurate as they are – have had a real and tremendous harm on the history and freedom of millions.

It seems the more we insist on parsing words, the less we agree on them. Take for example the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” It’s a simple statement in response to a documented and ongoing history of disproportionate violence against black people by authorities, yet many insist on reading something anti-white into it. We see an “only” at the beginning where there is none. We insist a “too” at the end would clear things up. We want to overwrite it with the essentially meaningless “All Lives Matter” because then we don’t have to face actual and specific problems.

In 2 Timothy, Paul advises the church to “avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening.” In other … words … getting caught up in semantics does no service to the church. Rather, it creates false divisions and distracts us from the central message of the Gospel. Schisms have occurred over such unnecessary distinctions. Scholars and theologians in their ivory towers may wage battles (both well intentioned and prideful) over such matters, but the rest of us could pretty comfortably stick with The Word of God – the Logos, the Christ – and loving God and loving our neighbors. Insisting on the “right” words – such as the Sinner’s Prayer to accept Jesus, or a specific Bible translation – alienates us both from each other and from unbelievers who look upon the petty squabbling (and therefore the faith) with justifiable skepticism.

Sticks and stones can break bones, but they can also build shelters. Are we using words to harm or heal? Are we twisting other people’s words to fit our own agendas and assumptions? When we speak, do people hear Jesus … or hear us trying to prove we hear Jesus (and forcing them to also)?

Let us pray for discernment about which words to embrace and which to let go, which to support and which to oppose. Let us be humble in wielding their power, as Christ calls the last to be first. Let our yes be yes, our no be no, and all our other words authentic and carefully considered.

Comfort: When words hurt, Christ is there to heal.

Challenge: Precise use of language is important for communication, but avoid nitpicking and dismissing people over semantics when you know their intent.

Prayer: God, may I be quick to listen and slow to speak. Amen.

Discussion: “Black Lives Matter” is often portrayed as an anti-authority movement because of a few sensationalized stories of people behaving radically under its banner. Early Christianity had the same reputation, and in later years after becoming the authority had a history of violence and oppression. How is any movement different from its best and worst examples?

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Putting the Math in Matthew

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 147:1-11, Ezra 6:1-22, Revelation 5:1-10, Matthew 13:10-17


In mathematics, a parabola is a type of symmetrical curve which can be described by an equation. The parabola has many real world applications, such as headlights, satellite dishes, artillery, and telescopes. Because of its symmetry and focal point, a parabola can both focus and amplify signals and energy.

In Matthew, Jesus tells many parables to communicate important lessons to his disciples. He commonly responds questions not with clear answers, but with stories. Unlike the straight line between a question and an answer, a parable throws us a spiritual curveball which offers more than a pat answer.

Not surprisingly, parable and parabola share a common source in the Greek word parabolḗ, meaning application or comparison.

When the disciples ask Jesus why he speaks in parables, he quotes Isaiah: “You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive” and so on. By including this reference, Matthew makes a case for Jesus fulfilling the prophecies foretelling the messiah. But speaking in parables simply to fulfill a prophecy seems pointlessly circular, and Jesus does not do things without a reason. The parables themselves provide unique value to his ministry.

A parable like the Good Samaritan – which was told in answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” – didn’t lay out hard and fast rules. The last thing the people needed was more legalism; they already struggled to live in the spirit of the law of Moses while abusing its technicalities. Parables forced them to spend some time in thought about how to live and why. When we’ve found our own path to an answer, we own it rather than treat it indifferently or resentfully.

We can be quick to identify with a particular character in a parable – usually the one who comes off best – but we gain a much greater understanding if we consider how we might be present in each of the characters. At different points in our lives we can be the prodigal son, the welcoming father, or the jealous brother. We can be the vineyard owner distributing wages, the resentful morning laborer, or the appreciative latecomer. Jesus doesn’t usually tell you which one you are – or even which one you’re supposed to be – so we are given the opportunity to explore multiple perspectives.

A parable, like a parabola, both focuses and amplifies a message. And like the infinite lines extending from each end of the parable, there is no end to how often we can revisit a parable for new insight.

Comfort: Complexity can be a good thing.

Challenge: Don’t be too quick to apply a one-size-fits-all worldview.

Prayer: Bless the Lord, oh my soul. Bless the Lord. Amen.

Discussion: When it comes to spiritual questions, do you prefer a straight-up answer or an invitation to explore?

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Heard

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 57; 145, Jeremiah 44:1-14, 1 Corinthians 15:30-41, Matthew 11:16-24


When people aren’t inclined to listen to us, how do we make ourselves heard?

Some of us raise our voices, which feels satisfying but can hand people an excuse not to listen.  Others speak more softly, which in many situations can draw people in, but is not foolproof.  A co-worker once told me she saves crying for when she needs her husband to really listen. Young children apply sheer persistence: “Mommy… Mommy… Mommy…”

The Lord, who wanted the people of Israel to repent of their idol worship and return worshiping the one who had delivered them from Egypt, tried variations on all of the above:

I persistently sent to you all my servants the prophets, saying, “I beg you not to do this abominable thing that I hate!” But they did not listen or incline their ear, to turn from their wickedness and make no offerings to other gods. So my wrath and my anger were poured out and kindled in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem.

The Lord wasn’t just angry about the idol worship. Even the sacrifices they did make at the temple were offensive as long as they forgot and neglected the widows and orphans among them to pursue their own pleasures. Because they didn’t want to hear they needed to change, they rejected the pleas and the shouts and – eventually – the disastrous signs from the Lord.

When we aren’t inclined to listen to someone, how do we justify ignoring them?

Being loud or angry doesn’t make them wrong. A softer approach doesn’t make them weak. An emotional response doesn’t mean they aren’t rational. And being annoying doesn’t invalidate their message. Even being wrong before doesn’t mean someone can’t be right later. As much as we might like it to be so.

Being heard and listening are both important skills to nurture. And one of the best ways to be heard is to make sure people know you are also listening. Important messages are seldom delivered in exactly the way we would like them to be. Listening now, even when we don’t care to, can save a whole lot of trouble later.

Comfort: You don’t have to say something perfectly for it to matter.

Challenge: Listen more than you speak.

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: What makes you not want to listen to someone?

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Playing in the Key of U

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 123; 146, Jeremiah 36:27-37:2, 1 Corinthians 14:1-12, Matthew 10:16-23


A piano has eighty-eight keys. Anyone can walk up to one and bang on them until sound comes out. Fewer can skillfully combine them to play an actual song. And fewer still can create something entirely new from those same eighty-eight keys. The same eighty-eight keys can produce a jarring jangle or breathtaking beauty. A toddler can find great joy simply making noise. Most people could pluck out “Chopsticks” or “Heart and Soul.” Only a talented few can create a song that is not only recognizable as music, but can make us experiences the story and emotions they have to share.

Paul used musical instruments as a metaphor for how we use our gifts to benefit our faith community.

If they do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is being played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves; if in a tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said?

He was speaking specifically about the difference between speaking in tongues, which usually benefitted only the speaker because no one else understood the language, and prophesying, which provided “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” Isn’t the principle true of any undertaking though?

If we pursue a ministry which appeals to us but doesn’t speak to anyone else, is it a meaningless noise? If we complete a difficult task at work or home, but nobody else cared whether it got done, what is there to crow about? Of course it’s fine – even important – to take time to do some things for ourselves, but when it comes to how we relate to our community, we need to be speaking the same language … or at least hitting some mutually recognizable notes.

Consider one small example. Many Christmas toy drives specifically emphasize the need for toys for older children, especially boys. Yet donations are overwhelmingly toys intended for young children, weighted toward girls, because many donors prefer to shop for them. Now there’s nothing wrong with any specific donation, but when a symphony is written in D major and a bunch of musicians play in F minor because of personal preference, the right music doesn’t get made.

Faithful use of our gifts involves more than doing what we find personally rewarding. It asks us to learn the songs in other people’s hearts too.

Comfort: You are part of a great and blessed orchestra.

Challenge: At least once, take time to volunteer with a charity that doesn’t “speak” to you. Pay attention to why it is important to others.

Prayer:  Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. (Psalm 86:4)

Discussion: Is there anything you do because it is important to someone else?

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. . .

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 19; 150, 1 Kings 19:8-21, Acts 5:34-42, John 11:45-57


When we find ourselves in a verbal disagreement, most of us have a natural tendency to raise our voices. As the discussion becomes more heated, we try to convince each other through sheer volume. However, many communication experts tell us the best way to be heard – in an argument, or whenever we need to emphasize a point – is to speak more softly. Doing so decreases aggression in others, and compels them to focus and listen.

The prophet Elijah learned God did not always speak through mountain-cracking winds, rumbling earthquakes, or roaring fires … but was also present in the still silence that followed. When Jesus needed to rest in God’s presence, he often retreated to quiet isolation. Paul exhorted the faithful to speak only those words that build up, certainly not the sort of words that are loud or argumentative. In a world where even religious voices are often shrill, are we placing enough value on silence?

Saint Francis of Assisi is sometimes credited with saying: “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” It’s not really his saying, but is very much in the spirit of his teachings. Our society emphasizes the persuasiveness of words (thus the steady appeal of talk radio and blogs), but relatively few people are “talked into” faith. We listen most eagerly to words that echo what we already believe. Attitudes and beliefs are changed most often by experiences. If we are to be the hands of Christ, perhaps those hands are most authentically experienced when they are offered silently in comfort or prayer.

Of course there is nothing inherently evil about words, even those spoken loudly if they are for a just cause, but we must remember they are merely symbols of the ideas they represent.  If they become a stumbling block, we can dispense with them. If our actions betray our words, we are better off not using them. If we want to teach someone about our faith, quiet, loving actions are a solid beginning. Jesus is the Logos – the Word made flesh: what other words could possibly serve us better?

Comfort: You can speak softly and still carry a big witness.

Challenge: In your prayer life, stop speaking long enough to listen.

Prayer: [Observe one full minute of silence] 

Discussion: What makes you raise your voice?

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Call-Out Culture

I haven’t posted other articles to my blog before, but ran across this and it fits really well with yesterday’s post about communicating versus pummeling. In my opinion, this exemplifies the kind of self-reflection we all need to engage in before engaging the world at large.

http://www.filmsforaction.org/articles/a-note-on-callout-culture/