Branching Out

vinebranches

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.

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  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!

Incarnate

1482727093017.jpg

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?

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  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!

Nuggets

1481223453616.jpg

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?

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  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!

Gold or Sanctuary?

20160629_082105.jpg

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?

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!

The One and the Ninety-Nine

ewe aint one

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?

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.

Why Thee?

countdays

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?

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.

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?

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.

Run, Don’t Walk!

run fast

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalm 63:1-8 (9-11), 98; Ecclesiastes 1:1-11; Acts 8:26-40; Luke 11:1-13


The Acts of The Apostles, chronicling the formation and earliest days of the church, tells a story of an ever-widening circle of inclusion.

Philip the Evangelist was one of seven people selected by the Apostles to care for poor Christians in Jerusalem. One day, Acts tells us, an angel instructed Philip to go to a certain place. In that place was a eunuch who served as a court official to Kandake, queen of Ethiopia. The Spirit urged Philip to run to the chariot where the eunuch was reading aloud a passage from Isaiah. Philip offered to explain the passage, and the eunuch gratefully accepted. After Philip used this scripture to share the good news of Jesus, the eunuch was eager to be baptized. When they saw some water, the eunuch stopped the chariot, then Philip baptized him and went on his way leaving a joyous convert behind.

Because of their modified genitals, eunuchs were considered impure under the Levitical code and therefore not allowed full participation in the life of the temple. They could wait in the outer courtyard with women and non-Jews, could but not go in with the other men. Baptism, by contrast, signified full participation in the body of Christ. This man was a Gentile, an African, and a member of an “impure” sexual minority, yet because of Christ, Philip eagerly welcomed him. Before you say, “well of course,” remember we still draw lines in the sand over Biblical interpretation. This type of inclusion was – and still is – radical.

Who are today’s eunuchs? Certainly there are parallels with the exclusion of the LGBT community, and churches continue to be some of the most racially segregated institutions in America. In most places, bilingual church services – including sign language – are a rarity. The list of human-made division goes on. Our exclusion may be less explicit, but our implicit lack of inclusion speaks volumes. Where are the Philips running to greet them? When we do encounter them, do we brand these present-day Philips as evangelists or heretics?

Did Jesus ever condemn anyone for being too inclusive? Rather than ignore our modern eunuchs, let’s run to them with the good news. The worst that can happen? Someone hears it.

Comfort: We’re all outsiders to someone. We’re all insiders to Christ.

Challenge: Start a discussion within your faith community about who you are intentionally or unintentionally excluding, and brainstorm ways to be more inclusive.

Prayer: God of love and abundance, teach me to see Christ in all your children.

Discussion: Who do you have trouble accepting into the body of Christ?

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.

Mustard Seeds

weedlove

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 130; 148, Proverbs 23:19-21, 29—24:2, 1 Timothy 5:17-22 (23-25), Matthew 13:31-35


Have you ever heard someone say they love gardening because it brings them closer to nature? This is somewhat ironic, because manicured lawns and gardens are anything but natural. Nature is not tidy rows bent to human will; it is rambling and untamed. Gardeners fight nature with fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides to make sure desirable plants  thrive in an orderly fashion, and the plants they don’t value are removed or destroyed. Left to her own devices, nature would overrun most gardens and lawns with a beautiful and diverse ecosystem we call “weeds.”

When Jesus told the parable of the mustard seed – the tiny seed which grows into a great shrub to shelter birds – he wasn’t talking about mustard as a cultivated crop. In his culture, mustard was often a highly invasive plant species which was difficult to remove once it infested a field. Essentially, he was comparing his followers to a persistent nuisance – to weeds.

The Kingdom is all about the humble persistence of small acts of faith. As much as the world tries to insist its structures are the right way to do things, followers of Christ appear and reappear like weeds to defy its exclusionary boundaries. And try as we Christians might to impose order and uniformity through religion, visionaries and prophets spring up among us to remind us God’s vision can’t be contained within ours. In the parable of the mustard seed, it is the nuisance shrub which becomes a great sheltering tree for those needing a safe place to roost. Does that sound like the church today? Or are we busy balancing the soil pH for roses because dandelions are too common and don’t look as pretty?

Gardens aren’t bad. Genesis tells us humankind began in a garden. They can be beautiful, functional, and therapeutic. They can also be expensive, time-consuming, and exhausting. A worship service is like a garden – carefully selected blooms of song, prayer, and scripture to inspire and nourish us. But we can’t spend our entire lives inside church. The Kingdom grows in the wilderness, a sprawling tree for all who seek God’s shelter.

Comfort: Your life doesn’t have to be pretty to grow in the Kingdom.

Challenge: Regularly examine your expectations about church and faith, and ask yourself how God has defied them.

Prayer: God of the garden and the wilderness, I will worship you and spread your love in all places. Amen.

Discussion: What scares you about wandering in the (actual or metaphorical) wilderness?

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.

Spiritual Mentors

neglectgift

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 36; 147:12-20, Proverbs 21:30—22:6, 1 Timothy 4:1-16, Matthew 13:24-30


Have you ever had a mentor – a person who is purposeful about guiding your development? Mentors come in different flavors. Many businesses offer mentoring programs because it helps them promote and retain good talent, as well as foster a sense of the importance of passing along knowledge and experience. Social programs for youth, such as Big Sisters or Big Brothers, offer mentor programs to young people who lack positive adult role models. Some mentors, particularly those in artistic communities, may act in a less official capacity but still impart wisdom and raise the bar for young performers and artists through collaborative efforts.

Good mentors don’t try to create younger versions of themselves, or have preconceived notions of who you should be. They coach and guide you to explore the best path for you, provide honest feedback, and get you to hold yourself accountable for your progress. They do more listening than speaking.

Have you ever had a spiritual mentor? Paul filled this role for his young protege Timothy. He offered Timothy advice and encouragement. Perhaps more importantly he trusted him to act independently, and treated mistakes as opportunities for learning rather than reasons for punishment. Our record of their relationship is through Paul’s surviving letters, which of course reveal only one side of the conversation. If he was like other successful mentors, Paul wasn’t pontificating because he liked the sound of his own voice (or of his scratching pen); he was responding to Timothy’s questions and concerns. An effective mentoring relationship depends very much on what contributions the student brings to the relationship; it is not a monologue by the mentor but a conversation fueled by the student’s questions, enthusiasm, and curiosity.

Mentors themselves benefit from being mentored. There’s always someone we can learn from. It’s worth taking the time to invest in these relationships. Wherever we are on our spiritual journey, someone has already been through it. Their guiding hand can help us to navigate familiar territory, thereby freeing us to progress further and faster. The ultimate responsibility of mentors is to coach their students enough not to need them.

You could use a mentor. You could be a mentor. You could do both. A simple conversation gets the ball rolling.

Comfort: Seeking guidance is not a sign of weakness, but of maturity.

Challenge: When you are challenged in your faith or spiritual growth, don’t depend on only yourself to get through it.

Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for the wisdom of the collected Body of Christ. Teach me to listen to it, teach me to add to it. Amen.

Discussion: A mentor is generally not a direct superior or a parent. What are the advantages of picking someone who isn’t “in charge” of you?

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.