To Serve and Protest


Today’s readings:
 Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Jeremiah 26:1-16 (17-24), Romans 11:1-12, John 10:19-42

What does loyalty look like?

To be loyal to people or institutions, do we have to defend them even when we think they are wrong? If we believe we belong to the greatest family, team, nation, or religion we understandably want to defend it from outside threats, but how do we deal with internal dissent? Is it possible to think something is great yet flawed – perhaps deeply?

The Jewish people comprised both a religion and a nation, two things which inspire intense loyalty. The prophet Jeremiah loved his fellow Jews and so spoke bluntly to them about the path of self-destruction they as a people were heading down. Because he dared to speak of Judah’s flaws, its officials decided to repay Jeremiah’s love and loyalty with a death sentence. By the (literal) grace of God he escaped, but another prophet named Uriah was not so lucky.

We look back on Jeremiah and Jesus and think how foolish were the people who did not heed them. Yet we are still not especially eager to hear criticism from people we don’t agree with. In the realm of politics, we prejudge legislation or even an idea based on which side proposed it, not on its merit. Progressive and conservative churchgoers follow a similar pattern. We spend a lot of time trying to convince, and very little trying to understand.

The truth is, the most revealing criticisms of our beliefs and behaviors will not come from the people who agree with us, but from the people who disagree. People can be patriotic, faithful, and loyal to the same institution and still disagree on many issues. Often it’s less a matter of disagreement than of perspective. We don’t improve when we listen to our cheerleaders; we improve when another team pushes us. If our solution to a serious challenge is to make sure the other team can’t play, we don’t improve at all.

To love a thing is to nurture it so it can grow beyond its flaws and weaknesses, and – if you can’t see them – to take a step back to make room for someone who can. Sometimes the greatest loyalty is risking exile.

Comfort: Disagreement, handled properly, strengthens a relationship.

Challenge: Listen carefully to criticism, and weight its merits before responding.

Prayer: Teach me, Lord, to walk humbly. Amen.

Discussion: When have you learned something about yourself from someone you didn’t agree 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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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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Everyone’s a Critic


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 104; 149, Zephaniah 3:14-20, Revelation 18:1-14, Luke 14:1-11

First-century Galilee, like all other Jewish provinces, was under Roman rule. Many of its affairs were still handled locally by a succession of Jewish governors (tetrarchs) descended from Herod the Great, also commonly called Herod. Herod Antipas was the governor of the Galilean province, where Jesus was most active with his ministry.

When some Pharisees warned Jesus that Herod was looking to kill him, Jesus did not seem at all intimidated. He said: “It is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem […] the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” Jerusalem, in the neighboring Judean province, was the center of Jewish political, cultural, and religious life. As is the case with many seats of power, it was prone to silence its critics – sometimes violently.

Members of an institution, especially if they feel attacked, are likely to defend it against critics both internal and external. For many of us, the fear of flaws being exposed (if only to ourselves and our peers) outweighs the legitimacy of the criticism. The church is as susceptible to this behavior as other institutions; church history, from the Vatican to countless televangelists to local congregations, is full of cover-ups and scandals. While scandals damage the reputation of individuals, cover-ups erode or obliterate the credibility and moral authority of the church itself.

If we listen to our internal critics – those who call out hypocrisy, ethics violations, inconsistencies, and other problems – we can correct ourselves before the whiff of decay attracts external critics, who are more invested in our comeuppance than our survival. Silencing them leads to an eventual implosion and leaves us nothing but spiritual rubble.

Let’s listen to the voices that make us uncomfortable. Let’s do some soul-searching to figure out whether our defensiveness is triggered because we think they’re wrong – or because we secretly don’t want to admit they are right. That might sound scary, but it’s incredibly liberating to truly know yourself and your own heart. Institutions and reputations can be undone, but no critic can destroy an honest relationship with our loving God.

Comfort: Integrity only improves your relationship with God.

Challenge: When people criticize you or your group, try to understand where they are coming from, rather than immediately responding or defending.

Prayer: Lord of Truth, help me to face truths no matter how difficult they may be to accept, for I know truth will draw my heart closer to yours. Amen.

Discussion: What is some of the best criticism you have received?

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The Peter Principle

1469066900563.jpgToday’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):

Psalms 36; 147:12-20, Joshua 9:3-21, Romans 15:1-13, Matthew 26:69-75

Have you ever been asked to provide an employment reference? One of the most common questions is: “Would you hire this person again?” Based on today’s reading from Matthew, if you were Jesus, would you hire Peter again? After all, he fell asleep on the job several times, and when the pressure was high he denied even knowing his boss. Yet Jesus named Peter the rock solid enough to found his church.

How do we feel about Peter denying Christ three times? We might like to think we would have been stronger, but we have the advantage of hindsight. More humbly, we might be grateful our performance hasn’t been similarly tested. We might find relief that, rather than place his trust in the perfect, Jesus placed it in those who loved him and whom he loved.

This was not the first or last time Peter would stumble. When an authority figure fails (or merely fails to please us), our reaction can be disproportionate. We expect them to know more, do better, and be stronger than we ourselves are. If they have purposely projected such an image, their failings invite that much more criticism. Maybe we become silently resentful of a minister who hasn’t provided as much attention as we feel we deserve. Maybe we gossip to our co-workers when our boss makes a mistake we could just as easily have made. Maybe we resent our parents because we simply know we could have done a better job.

No one is above honest criticism, but our standards should be fair to everyone. If today Jesus appointed any one of us to lead his church, that person would be a fool not to be more intimidated than honored. Positions of authority, handled responsibly, are enormous burdens. Yet the people who hold them are only people. Let us be at least as forgiving of them as we would like them to be of us. Our minister has overwhelming priorities. Our boss needs support more than criticism. Our parents are still growing as people. Peter needed a lifetime to grow into his job too.

Comfort: Jesus never expects perfection, only love.

Challenge: Ask a minister, employer, parent or other authority figure to describe their responsibilities to you.

Prayer: God of all Creation, thank you for the gift of forgiveness. Amen.

Discussion: Are you more, less, or equally critical of authority figures as you are of others?

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