My Love is Your Love

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 22; 148, Jeremiah 5:1-9, Romans 2:25-3:18, John 5:30-47


My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.

These opening verses from Psalm 22 don’t inspire many feel-good sermons, yet they contain the essence of faith. The psalmist who wrote these words had a very realistic view of the world. He saw that evildoers often have the upper hand, and that the faithful suffer unfairly. He felt like a worm, like prey hunted by lions and trampled by oxen. Yet in his pain and despair, he continued to cry out to God. He continued to believe God would ultimately deliver him, as so many before him had been delivered.

The psalmist, despite his misfortune and persecution, refused to believe God was anything but just.

Many people believe personal wealth and comfort are signs of God’s favor, and that poverty and illness are signs of disfavor. If this was the case, why is it that God always seemed to be sending prophets to defend the widow and orphan against the abuses of the wealthy? Why is it the hypocrisy of the powerful elicits God’s wrath? The psalmist endures his troubles by trusting that God will ultimately prevail; his current status is not the barometer of a capricious creator’s mood swings, but of the corruption of the society around him.

When we cry for justice, do we think of it as something to be delivered to us or something delivered through us? It can be either or both, but if our cry for justice ends when our own bellies are filled while others remain empty, what we’re seeking isn’t justice. The psalmist’s hope for himself is inseparable from his hope for his community. He prays to belong to a kingdom that expects is citizens to feed the poor rather than despise them.

When we believe God is just, we behave justly. If we want to be the recipients of God’s justice; we must also be the instruments of it.

Comfort: God is always the source of justice.

Challenge: When you feel you are the victim of injustice, ask yourself how you are also part of changing that.

Prayer: God of justice, I seek your way for myself and my neighbor. Amen.

Discussion: What do you think is the relationship between sin and suffering?

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The Gospel Dance

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Jeremiah 1:11-19, Romans 1:1-15, John 4:27-42


Paul had been evangelizing for almost twenty years before he set his sights on Rome. Several Christian communities were established there, and he intended to visit with them on his way to Spain.  Since the early church was not in agreement on all matters, Paul wrote them a letter to make sure they understood his stance in advance of his arrival. We don’t know for certain whether he ever made it to Spain, but the epistle he wrote to the church in Rome is considered by many to be his masterwork. More than a mere introduction, it builds a rich and complex theology of salvation through Christ.

But Paul knew he didn’t know everything. Near the beginning of the epistle he writes:

For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you — or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.

When we share the gospel, we receive as well as give. Left to our own devices, we can make only so much spiritual progress. Despite our best intentions and discipline, in spiritual isolation our own biases eventually overtake us. Like a self-taught musician or artist, we won’t know what we don’t know. As part of a Christian community, we can challenge and be challenged, grow and foster growth. Reaching across Christian communities only multiplies that growth.

Not everything we have to learn will necessarily come from other Christians. When we share our personal stories and the Gospel story with non-Christians, we learn something from their responses, and also from our reactions to those responses. If someone reacts unexpectedly, negatively, or even violently to our efforts, our commitment to sharing the gospel may be revealed. Do we try to understand why? Do we insist on our own way? Do we examine our approach and motives? Do we resort to force?

The gospel is not a solitary endeavor. Sharing it is not the same as delivering a monologue about it. Letting it unfold between us and someone else is like laying out a dance floor where we move together under the light of Christ to the rhythm of the Spirit.

Comfort: You don’t have to know everything.

Challenge: Don’t be afraid to talk about the gospel with people who differ in good faith.

Prayer: Loving God, let me find the right words and steps to share the Gospel. Amen.

Discussion: Where do you find opportunities to grow your faith by sharing it?

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A Burden Shared

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Photo Credit: John (“Dad”) Schultz

Today’s readings:
Psalms 54; 146, Isaiah 48:12-21 (22), Galatians 1:18-2:10, Mark 6:1-13


When Jesus felt the disciples were finally ready to travel and spread his teachings, he dispatched them in pairs. He told them to bring nothing extra: no food, no luggage, no extra clothes, and no money. For shelter they were to rely on the hospitality of the communities they visited, and in its absence they were to rely on the open road. Though his commands sounded harsh, Mark reports the disciples had successful journeys depending only on the bare minimum.

As technology evolves, the “bare minimum” has become anything but: smart phones, tablets, fitness bands, bottled water, etc, etc.  Today we can barely imagine going on a mission trip without a GPS and the Bible on an e-reader. Imagine Jesus unpacking your purse or backpack or luggage and saying: “You won’t be needing this charger. Or this phone. Or different shoes for hiking and digging. Or this pencil. Or…” until eventually you have nothing but a walking stick, the clothes on your back, and a single companion.

Yet what a gift it is when two people are separated by no distractions and joined by a dedication to the Good News. On our own we can easily wander down the wrong path, but a companion keeps us accountable and on track. Our fear is less when someone has our back, and our strength is greater when we are responsible for and with another. Scriptures contain many examples of prophets and leaders who were at their best when they had a partner sharing the burden: Moses and Aaron, David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, Elijah and Elisha.

Relationships are formed in the absence of distractions. Being fully present with another person while you both are working for the Kingdom of God is a uniquely bonding experience. That work can be anything from digging wells in Africa to praying together for someone in need. It can’t be done as well if we are juggling unnecessary items that distract us from the task at hand. Jesus teaches us again and again that we don’t need possessions to be content. Even more he teaches us we do need each other.

Comfort: You are designed to go it alone, so don’t feel like you have to.

Challenge: Be intentional about being present to those around you, particularly during shared experiences such as meals or worship. This may mean putting away your phone, camera, or other distractions for longer than you’re used to.

Prayer: God of peace, shape me into a suitable companion for those who would walk with me to share your Word. Amen.

Discussion: Even within Christianity there are divisive factions. Have you ever found yourself joined in a common purpose with someone  you had previously considered an opponent?

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Branching Out

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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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Incarnate

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Today’s daily readings:
Psalms 2; 150, Zechariah 2:10-13, 1 John 4:7-16, John 3:31-36

Christmas readings:
Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98, Hebrews 1:1-4 (5-12), John 1:1-14


Many powerful words have been written about the coming of Christ into the world, also known as The Incarnation. According to Luke, angels appeared to announce the Christ child to the world and wise men traveled far to honor him. Every year the truths and traditions and myths and merriment surrounding that event remind us of its wonder. We celebrate it on Christmas with song, light, food, and gifts. 

Imagine being Mary or Joseph, and knowing you were responsible for raising the Son of God. Most new parents only feel like the fate of the world rests on their decisions. Imagine being in awe of the holiness of this child.

How many dirty diapers did it take to dull that shine?

The gospels say little of the childhood of Jesus. There was his Home Alone moment when his parents lost him for three days, but that turned out all right. Childhood and adolescence probably didn’t add much to his messianic reputation. Potty-training and nose-picking. Tantrums. Hormone-fueled moodiness.  Acne. By the time the adult Jesus attended that now-famous wedding in Cana with his mother, she certainly didn’t treat him like an ethereal, holy snowflake: “They’re out of wine. Do something already.”

And that’s the beauty of The Incarnation. It frees us to see the holy in the every day – in the muck and mire. Our solidarity with the poor, the ill, and the grieving doesn’t exist so we can bring holiness into their lives: our job is to see the holiness already there and join hands with it. We create beautiful physical sanctuaries to represent our love for our God, but they are incomplete without the grimy, sweat-stained, tear-streaked spiritual sanctuaries we build around each other. We are incomplete if we never share in the holy, stinking mess of each other’s lives.

A wise person once told me children are cute so parents don’t kill them as teenagers. Enjoy this Christmas, this newborn Christ. Let these memories and feelings sustain you when Christ is more demanding, even unpleasant. Maybe then when you search for the face of Christ in others, the holy will be easier to see.

Comfort: God is everywhere.

Challenge: Examine whether there are situations your faith leads you, but you avoid because they are impractical or messy.

Prayer: Glorious Creator, may I see Your face in all of creation. Amen.

Discussion: What parts of Christianity do you find difficult?

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Nuggets

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 18:1-20; 147:12-20, Isaiah 7:1-9, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, Luke 22:1-13


A popular nugget of folk-wisdom circulates among us. Wording varies, but the message boils down to: “People come into your life for a reason” or “to teach you lessons.” Maybe it’s true. It’s certainly comforting. But we want to be careful how we use it. If we look at people through a lens of “what purpose do you serve in my life?” they can stop looking like people with their own lives and agency and start looking like props in our personal story.

Another nugget suggests distancing ourselves from people who bring negative energy into our lives. If that energy manifests as abuse or manipulation, follow that advice. Flee. But for Christians to live lives of service … some negative energy is part of the package. Expecting people in genuine need – people living with serious physical, economic, social, or mental disadvantages – to meet our expectations of “positivity” doesn’t resonate with the Beatitudes blessing the poor and grieving. Many people are working so hard to physically or emotionally survive they can’t muster any more strength for our standards of positive – or sometimes even tolerable – attitudes. We serve them anyway, because they suffer and Jesus calls us to solidarity with the suffering.

When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, he sent Peter and John ahead to arrange a place for the Passover meal. He told them they would meet a man carrying a jar of water, and to follow him to a house where they would find a room available and furnished for their needs. We never learn the name of the man carrying water, or the man who owned the house, but both their lives were touched by Christ. They are not mere plot devices. The mission of Peter and John – of Jesus – was about just such people … people like us.

Isaiah and Paul are separated by about 700 years, but both address the need for communities to go through difficulty together, rather than going around it separately. God’s justice is bigger than any individual life. We experience it most fully when we share it with those who experience it the least.

Comfort: You are part of something bigger, in many small ways.

Challenge: Find ways to replenish your strength for when others may need it.

Prayer: Thank you, Loving God, for the gift of Community. Grant me the wisdom to feel blessed by both its benefits and its responsibilities. Amen.

Discussion: When do you find it most difficult to be charitable? What do you think that says about you?

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Gold or Sanctuary?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 12; 146, Numbers 35:1-3, 9-15, 30-34, Romans 8:31-39, Matthew 23:13-26


Jesus spoke harsh words against the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees. He called them “blind guides” – people pretending to lead but actually walking the faithful and converts alike off a spiritual cliff. He had no patience for a temple where gold and gifts were revered more than the sanctuary and altar that made them holy, where tithes of spices were more important than justice, mercy and faith. He compared them to cups polished on the outside, but filthy inside.

Today Jesus might not find coffers of gold and cumin in our sanctuaries, but he could find plenty to criticize. While there’s nothing wrong with a beautiful sanctuary – God himself directed the creation of a beautiful temple in Jerusalem – there is a problem when the image outshines the substance. A church is holy because of its character, not because of its “success.” The scandal of some churches – regardless of denomination (or lack thereof) – is not that their leadership sins, but that they collude to cover it up.

Looking the other way when our house of worship bullies, excludes, discriminates, exploits, ignores, or otherwise abuses people is never acceptable. Teaching a prosperity gospel that impoverishes the congregation while filling the pockets and three-car garage of the pastor is a betrayal of the gospel. Yet people turn a blind eye to wrongdoing in a misguided attempt to preserve the dignity of the church. Making an idol of the reputation of a corrupt institution to attract and retain members is like handing out candy you know is poisoned.

Better to worship in an outhouse crowded with the shopworn meek than a cathedral packed with gleaming hypocrites.

Christians are often taught to be nice to each other, but nice is not the same as just. Nice transfers abusive clergy without causing a commotion; just disciplines them. Nice prevents us from calling someone out for discriminating; just knows embarrassment is not worse than discrimination. Nice makes sure the cup is polished, just makes sure the contents are safe. We don’t need the world to think we are nice; we need to show the world that even when we are flawed, we strive for the just.

Comfort: You are allowed to speak up.

Challenge: Sometimes speaking up is hard; do it anyway.

Prayer: God of Justice, help us build a health church body. Amen.

Discussion: When have you spoken up, even though it might have been unpopular?

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The One and the Ninety-Nine

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 147:12-20, Numbers 12:1-16, Romans 2:12-24, Matthew 18:10-20Psalms 97; 147:12-20, Numbers 12:1-16, Romans 2:12-24, Matthew 18:10-20


“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.”
– Mr. Spock, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

“The needs of the one … outweighed the needs of the many.”
– Captain Kirk, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Humankind has always struggled to balance individual need against the need of the greater community. The modern tool of choice is economic system: capitalism, socialism, communism, etc. Lying along a continuum from individualism to collectivism, these models have achieved various levels of success – if measured economically. Measured spiritually, all fall short because they are not ends, but means. How do we approach this struggle of knowing what and when to sacrifice?

Sacrificial living does not necessarily lead to a literal cross. In the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd leaves behind ninety-nine sheep to find one. Fine if you’re the one, but most of us are among the ninety-nine left on the mountain. Do we grumble about being temporarily inconvenienced and blame the one’s misfortune on its own failure to keep up? Are we willing to sacrifice a little convenience so the one may survive? Often our answer depends on whether we’ve chosen freely or been coerced … but the shepherd doesn’t bother to survey the sheep.

Sacrifice is valued mostly via lip service. We “sacrifice” trips to the movies or our usual pricy selection at Starbucks to keep our debt down or to save for our children’s college. Rarely outside the military are we asked to make true sacrifices in the sacred sense of giving without expecting anything in return. Or maybe the opportunities are abundant but we value merit over mercy. Does the shepherd seem concerned with whether he is giving the lost sheep “a hand up or a handout?” Are we prepared to make the real sacrifices necessary to save the lost in our society? Because in the end, the hands up demand more personal cost in time, money and comfort than do the handouts.

When it’s our turn to be the one sheep, how will we want the ninety-nine to respond? That’s what we should be prepared to sacrifice.

Comfort: No matter how lost you feel, Christ is searching for you.

Challenge: Remember that lost sheep started out part of the flock. They are family, so their burdens are our burdens.

Prayer: Merciful God, I trust you to find me when I am lost. Amen.

Discussion: When you’ve felt lost, how did you know God had found you again?

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Why Thee?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 63; 149, Numbers 3:1-13, Galatians 6:11-18, Matthew 17:1-13
Evening Psalms 125; 90


Psalm 90 – the only psalm attributed to Moses – is written from the perspective of someone trying to make sense of it all at the end of a long life. The psalmist doesn’t sugar coat life’s difficulties. He prays the good days might at least outnumber the bad, and acknowledges that the lucky get 80 years of toil and trouble. Yet he prays for God’s work and its meaning to be manifest in the community.

The wise do not wait until the end of their lives to contemplate the meaning of work and suffering, nor do they wait until suffering is upon them. It’s tempting to keep the suffering of others at a certain emotional distance because identifying with it too closely forces us to admit it could happen to us. Distance feels safe, but leaves us ill prepared when God does not exempt us from disease, infidelity, loss, or other tragedy. Suddenly what we saw as part of God’s plan for another person becomes a crisis of faith in our own lives.

If we spend time now asking “Why them?” and “How would you have me respond?” we are less likely to be spiritually devastated when it’s inevitably time to ask “Why me?”

The psalmist doesn’t offer concrete answers to his questions, but the context gives us some clues about where those answers may lie. The questions are universal, and he asks them not about anyone in particular, but about the community. The work is not the work of any one person, but of the community. The meaning of the work transcends any single life or generation. Despite all Moses did to lead the Israelites, he never set foot in the promised land. Any satisfaction Moses gained from his efforts came from the knowledge he had played his role in the greater plan.

When it’s our turn to suffer – and we’ll all have our turn – the question “Why me?” overwhelms us if we can’t see ourselves as but one part of the whole of creation. If we’ve lived a self-centered life divorced from the story of the community, meaning will be difficult to find. Like words chosen by a skillful poet, each of us is complete, important, and beloved by God, but part of a greater work.

Comfort: You are an important piece of your community, supported by and supporting all the other pieces.

Challenge: See above.

Prayer: Loving God, grant me the patience and wisdom to encounter suffering with a heart of mercy and solidarity. Amen.

Discussion: What types of suffering do you identify with? What types do you find difficult to deal with?

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Feedback Loop

bear burdens

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 148, Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:14, Galatians 5:25-6:10, Matthew 16:21-28


A few days ago we considered how we might be receptive to criticism. Today let’s flip that script and think about how we can most constructively give feedback.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote: “[I]f anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” He also said we are called to bear each other’s burdens. As a culture we seem to have grown increasingly comfortable with providing immediate feedback via social media, comment boards, and even in person to strangers. Unfortunately, we are less adept at the “gentleness” part. Name calling, snap judgments, and attention-grabbing vitriol fill our internet, television screens, newspaper pages, and radio waves.

These types of reactions aren’t really about the other person; they are about satisfying our own sense of righteousness.

There are times when firm reactions are called for. When Peter tried to discourage Christ from his journey to the cross, Jesus responded with: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” This may sound harsh, but he spoke with unmistakable intent because what Peter was tempting him to do was unmistakably in error.  He explained what needed to happen in order to reconcile his disciples to the necessary future.

A single incident or flaw almost never defines a person. Peter was still Jesus’s rock. We need to remember that so we don’t seek mercy for ourselves but punishment for others. Bearing each other’s burden includes making an effort at reconciliation. Character assassination is not part of that process. Can we imagine Jesus launching a Facebook dogpile designed to publicly humiliate Peter? Naming hurtful behaviors is necessary, creating more of them is not part of the reconciliation formula. That may not seem “fair” by worldly standards, but Jesus teaches forgiveness and self-sacrifice, not retaliation.

If we aren’t in a position to offer restoration, we aren’t in a position to offer rebuke. Perhaps we can better use that time pulling the logs from our own eyes.

Comfort: Compassion and rebuke can coexist.

Challenge: If you have social media accounts, try not expressing negative opinions for a week.

Prayer: God of restoration, help me bear the burdens of my community with the help of your Spirit. Amen.

Discussion: When have your received or offered constructive criticism?

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