Dream of Wheat


Today’s readings:
Psalms 34; 146, Jeremiah 15:10-21, Philippians 3:15-21, John 12:20-26

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

The above words from Christ should be intimidating, even to devout Christians. When push comes to shove, most of us would rather not have to literally lose our lives to live our faith. We’d probably prefer not to lose anything else either – why would we? – but Christ calls us to do so. Very few face actual martyrdom, but all of us are called to die to ourselves. Short of actual death, what does that sacrifice look like?

In dying to ourselves, we release the death-grip we’ve had on the stalk because we’re afraid of hitting the ground. We sacrifice our own interests to embrace what God desires, not what we desire. Our essential self – the self that God created us to be – must surrender to holy and fertile soil to germinate into its full potential.

Does letting go sound like a scary proposition? When the grain of wheat falls into the earth, it is doing what it was created to do: bear abundant fruit. Specifically it provides more wheat. No one expects an olive tree or a grape vine to sprout from the wheat. The Apostle Paul – arguably the greatest example of conversion and repentance in scripture – remained himself even after he committed wholeheartedly to Christ. Paul’s intelligence, devotion, and ferocity weren’t destroyed; they were redirected and multiplied. Whatever your gifts are, God gave them to you to be used for His glory. Dying to ourselves means following the Christ who points those gifts in the direction of worship, mercy, service, and love.

A dream of material success, while not wrong in and of itself, does not lift us to spiritual satisfaction. Better to let the gravity of faith pull us toward God, where our dreams are redirected away from avoiding a solitary death toward embracing eternal life.

Comfort: Dying to self is rising to life.

Challenge: Ask yourself what gifts you are letting die on the stalk.

Prayer: Holy and Living God, I offer all that I am and I have to you. Amen.

Discussion: What gifts are you hoarding out of fear?

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Is God speaking your language?


Today’s readings:
Morning Psalms 43; 149, Jeremiah 31:27-34, Romans 11:25-36, John 12:37-50

A United Church of Christ promotional campaign declares: “God is still speaking.” This message can be controversial, because many Christians who identify themselves as “Bible-believing” are not comfortable with the idea that the Bible is not the complete and solitary source of God’s truth. But what if God is not saying new things, but old things in new ways?

For many people, the King James Bible – deliberately written in language archaic even for its time – has relegated Biblical language to a time when “smite” and “begat” were common terms. Biblical imagery is full of references to ancient animal husbandry practices, arcane measurements, and cultures which no longer exist. But Biblical texts were written to be understood. The Hebrew texts were transmitted orally, which meant the language needed to be memorable and accessible. What good could a prophet do if his listeners couldn’t comprehend his words? Biblical authors used language and imagery appropriate to the time and setting to clarify, not obscure, and so should we.

When Jeremiah tells the Israelites they will once again plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria, he is telling people God restores them to wholeness. A more contemporary example of such restoration might be the end of apartheid and subsequent reconciliation in South Africa. When Paul wrote “out of Zion will come a Deliverer” he expected his audience would know what he meant without a study guide. When Jesus told his listeners “People don’t pick figs from thorn bushes” (Luke 6:44) he was speaking to people who actually picked figs. If he had been speaking in the modern Midwest United States, maybe he would have talked about blueberries and poison ivy.

The point is, God wants to be heard, in whatever ways we might be open to hearing. If we are really to see Christ in others, our vision can’t be limited to one translation. We can’t effectively speak Christ to others with words we wouldn’t use ourselves. We don’t want to study or create poor translations that betray the spirit of the Gospel just to be modern or politically correct, but we don’t want to reflexively reject the modern either. The living God speaks to us through living languages – and living people.

Comfort: God speaks to anyone willing to listen.

Challenge: Read a scripture translation you haven’t read before.

Prayer: God of freedom, thanks for the many ways you can be heard. Amen.

Discussion: What’s your favorite Bible translation and why?

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The Scent of Hope


Today’s readings:
Morning Psalms 22; 148, Jeremiah 29:1 (2-3) 4-14, Romans 11:13-24, John 12:1–10

As Passover approached, Jesus and some of his disciples visited the home of Lazarus, the man he had raised from the dead. Mary, the sister of Lazarus, anointed Jesus’ feet with a pound of very expensive perfume, and dried them with her hair. Judas complained that the perfume could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor.  Jesus told him to let her be; the poor would always be with them, but he had only a short time left.

Jesus didn’t say, “I’m about to be crucified so I deserve some special treatment,” but defended Mary’s impulse to serve him. This wasn’t an impulse he indulged often. Only a few days later, he washed the feet of his disciples, despite their protests, to demonstrate servant leadership. He could have made the same point with Mary, but there was more going on.

Mary had purchased the perfume, which contained a fragrant herb called nard, for the purpose of anointing Jesus’ dead body. Perhaps she understood and accepted what was about to happen better than the disciples did.  But if it was for his corpse, why waste it on his feet?

Not long before, Jesus had instructed Mary and her sister Martha to open their brother’s tomb. Martha warned him there would be a stench, but instead Jesus called and Lazarus rose from the grave. It seems that at some point between the tomb and the visit, Mary understood what Jesus was about. If he had conquered death, what need was there to save the perfume?

Mary understood that the feeble efforts she might muster to make death more bearable – or for that matter to make life more bearable – were no longer necessary. In a very intimate manner, she showed how she understood that in Jesus there would never be the stench of corruption. Surrendering the perfume signaled that she had surrendered her own intentions to the fragrant hope found only through Jesus.

The scent of Mary’s hope filled her home. It can fill ours too. Let us deeply inhale that blessed scent as we surrender ourselves to our Savior.

Comfort: Our hope is greater than our own mortal plans; it is in Christ.

Challenge: Pray about what you have not yet surrendered.

Prayer: Merciful God, I surrender myself to Christ in all things. Amen.

Discussion: When do you feel closest to God?

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 43; 149, Jeremiah 23:9-15, Romans 9:1-18, John 6:60-71

After Jesus declared that those who ate his flesh and drank his blood would have eternal life, murmuring broke about among the Jews. Many struggled to understand his meaning. Others said more directly: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Jesus replied: “Does this offend you? […] The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” As a result, many disciples turned away from him.

We can draw a couple lessons from this.

First, be careful about pledging yourself to a person or cause. Once you’ve jumped on a rolling bandwagon, it will be difficult to jump off with dignity while it’s still moving. Eventually preachers, politicians, denominations, parties, etc. will take a stand you can’t agree with. Pragmatism, pressure, and pride regrettably sway people who want to retain influence. If you followed them out of a sense of tribal loyalty, you may feel betrayed by that difference in opinion, possibly needing to turn away from them entirely. It’s wiser to attach ourselves to issues and principles rather than affiliations so we feel free to agree or disagree with a person or group without feeling conflicted.

Second, God is going to make demands of us we won’t like. In such cases, our own opinions and preferences matter little. As God said to Moses, and as Paul recalled in his letter to the Romans: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” In other words, it’s God’s show to run, not ours. The consequences of doing the right thing may seem mysterious or unfair, but since our one true loyalty lies with God, we still need to do it.

We don’t know something is right and true because our favorite preacher or candidate said it; hopefully we select our favorite preachers and candidates because they try to speak what is right and true. Whether we hear something we like or something we don’t, these words of the Twelve remain our clear standard: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Comfort: Jesus offers the words of eternal life.

Challenge: We must accept them even when they seem hard.

Prayer: Lord, teach me to lean not on my own understanding, but to trust you with all my heart. Amen.

Discussion: Does your faith ask anything of you that you don’t particularly enjoy?

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Tearing down or building up?


Today’s readings:
Psalms 43; 149, Jeremiah 13:1-11, Romans 6:12-23, John 8:47-59

Upon passing a site undergoing renovation, a quick glance may not reveal whether it is in the stages of demolition or construction. They can look similar for a long time. The church has been undergoing renovation for centuries, and to bystanders (and members) the status may not be quite clear.

What do we think when we hear someone described as “religious?” Even if we consider ourselves religious, we may not automatically assume that person is similar to us. Increasing numbers of Americans—including those who regularly attend Christian churches—identify as “spiritual but not religious” to avoid the stigma of religion. For their book unChristian, David Kinnamon and Gabe Lyons surveyed a group of young Americans—Christians included—and 85% or more described Christians as hypocritical and judgmental. 70% described them as insensitive to others. We can be reasonably skeptical about statistics, and some of the authors’ conclusions about how the church should respond are debatable, but are the results surprising? Not really.

As the church, let’s follow Paul’s advice to the Romans and spend less time denouncing the world and each other, and more time building each other up. When people hear “Christian” they should think of people who share with anyone in need, who visit the sick and imprisoned, and who love God with “gladness and sincerity of heart” (Acts 2:46).

If Christianity is known mostly for the things Christians won’t do and the people they won’t embrace, whose fault is that? If our main concern is moralizing when we are as prone to sin as anyone, why wouldn’t the world see us as hypocrites? Some people will always be intractably bigoted against the religious, but our reputation is our own responsibility. We can change the perception of the world by choosing to build rather than demolish. This broken world needs people who participate in mending it, not in grinding it into irrecoverable pieces.

Early Christians stumbled and lost track of the Good News when they began judging each other. Maybe we can avoid the same mistakes by asking not who is sinning, but who is hungry, ill, poor, or unloved.

Comfort: If you’re doing what’s right, the world’s judgment doesn’t matter.

Challenge: Be a builder, not a destroyer.

Prayer: God of creation, help me represent my faith well. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever caught yourself being a bad representative of Christianity?

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Idle Hands


Today’s readings:
Psalms 43; 149, Deuteronomy 7:17-26, Titus 3:1-15, John 1:43-51

In his letter to his associate and friend Titus, Paul asks him to instruct the church in Crete on proper behavior for the faithful. He wants them to be obedient, courteous, and gentle, and wants them to avoid quarrels, gossip, and division. Regarding unbelievers – each of them a possible convert of course – he wants the faithful to be patient, “[f]or we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another.”

See what he did there?

Paul was anything but naïve. He knew professing faith in Christ did not immediately transform a person into a saint. If it did, he wouldn’t have had to send instructions from afar. He was experienced enough to know his flock needed constant tending. By first appealing to the church’s better nature and describing the lives he hoped they would lead, he let them know he had faith in their potential. Though he attributed the less desirable behaviors to unbelievers, it was a subtle reminder to the church that they were not so different as they might like to pretend.

Throughout the letter, Paul suggests the “people learn to devote themselves to good works in order to meet urgent needs, so that they may not be unproductive.” The doing of good works is a benefit not just to the recipient of the work, but also to the giver. Our actions influence our attitudes, and one way to cultivate a spirit of charity is to act charitably. Even when our spirit resists – maybe especially then! – acting in ways that demonstrate a love for God and his creation will help nourish those feelings within us.

Proverbs 16:27 says: “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop; idle lips are his mouthpiece.” To be our best selves, we need to be intentional about how we spend our time. If we don’t fill our days with what is meaningful, we leave the gate open for the meaningless or harmful to creep in and take root. Being productive in the way Paul suggests helps grow God’s kingdom both within us and without.

Comfort: Faith is a journey. Learn from today and be better tomorrow.

Challenge: Do an informal time study of your week. Is your time going where you think it should?

Prayer: Gracious God, teach me to fill my days with what is good and pleasing to you. Amen.

Discussion: What is the difference between relaxation and idleness?

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Choose Your Own Adventure


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, Isaiah 41:1-16, Ephesians 2:1-10, Mark 1:29-45

According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’s ministry quickly took off in a big way. In Capernaum he healed many people and drove out many demons, and word of his power spread quickly. Soon the entire city was at his front door. (Or more precisely, the door of Simon and Andrew’s place where he was staying.)  As he traveled with his disciples to spread his message to the neighboring towns in Galilee, “A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’”  And Jesus, moved with pity, said, “I do choose. Be made clean!”

Did Jesus ever choose not to heal? Did he ever choose to turn anyone away?

Some people may say yes. They may point to the rich young ruler who went away heartbroken when Jesus told him to sell everything he had and give the money to the poor. They remind us of the many people who abandoned Jesus after he presented them with a particularly difficult teaching. And they trot out the man who wanted to bury his father but was told to “let the dead bury the dead.”

Except Jesus didn’t turn any of those people away. They walked away. They chose to walk away.

Some preachers warn we soften the harsher truths of discipleship when we say Jesus accepted everyone. Maybe that’s so, but that doesn’t mean we should start deciding for ourselves whom Christ would reject, because we don’t know. A primary controversy of his ministry was based on fraternizing with “unclean” people the “righteous” people shunned. Once we decide we’re in the camp of the righteous, our view is skewed. Saul counted himself righteous and literally hunted Christians before he became the apostle Paul who wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

Rather than worry about other people’s choices, let’s direct our energies towards modeling our own choices after Christ. Without compromising our values, we can always find ways to choose mercy. Choose forgiveness. Choose to give the benefit of the doubt. Choose generosity. Choose to recognize dignity. Choose humility. Choose love.

Even when these choices are unattractive or difficult, they are still ours to make. The cost of making the right choices is a burden we voluntarily bear ourselves, not one we should force onto others.

Comfort: Jesus does not reject you.

Challenge: But that doesn’t mean you can’t reject Jesus.

Prayer: Loving God, help me make choices that reflect your love and righteousness. Amen.

Discussion: Have you made choices that other people have had to pay for?

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 111; 146, Genesis 28:10-22, Hebrews 11:13-22, John 10:7-17

“All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.”

– Hebrews 11:13-14

Do you feel like you have a homeland? For most of us, it’s the nation we live in. Or maybe, if you were born in a different land, it’s your country of origin. Some people feel an affinity for places they’ve only ever visited, or perhaps never been. For the faithful described in today’s passage from Hebrews, the homeland was a place which didn’t exist except as a promise from God.

As citizens of the Kingdom of God – a place which is very real yet not found on any map – perhaps we should always feel a little displaced. When we are too comfortable in an earthly kingdom (or republic or federation or whatever form that “kingdom” may take), we may confuse it with God’s Kingdom and begin to equate patriotism with fidelity to Christ. As a result we look at other nations – also full of God’s children – as morally inferior, and think of our own institutions as somehow divinely ordained.

Yes, there are a few Biblical passages that can be interpreted to mean worldly authorities have been ordained and placed by God, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be corrupted. Even the United States, which prides itself on religious freedom, was founded in rebellion against existing authorities, and is itself subject to very un-Christ-like behavior.

Any government claim to divine authority is dangerous propaganda created to convince us we shouldn’t question all-too-human authority.   When, during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said, “my greatest concern is to be on God’s side,” he wasn’t claiming God would back the winner, but that God’s purposes are greater than we can imagine. Though they may occasionally overlap, the concerns of an earthly nation are not equivalent to the concerns of Christ.

Our homeland is nowhere – and everywhere. We find it wherever we are by following Christ. Our responsibilities to God’s justice , peace, and love don’t fluctuate with the whims of nations, but our commitment (or lack thereof) to those responsibilities may be revealed when those whims are at odds with discipleship. Our flag is the coat we give to our neighbor, our anthem the words of forgiveness spoken to our enemies, our border the limitless reach of God’s love.

For additional thoughts on today’s reading from John 10, see Our Shepherd’s Voice

Comfort: Your citizenship in the kingdom of heaven is constant.

Challenge: Pay attention to discern when someone is trying to exploit your faith for personal or nationalistic purposes.

Prayer: God of all creation, my allegiance is to your Kingdom. Amen.

Discussion: What are the dangers of mixing national identity with religious identity?

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Love One Another


Today’s readings:
Psalms 34; 147:1-11, Proverbs 8:22-30, 1 John 5:1-12, John 13:20-35

Though the Christmas season lasts through Epiphany (January 6), once the celebration of the Nativity is over, the lectionary readings don’t waste any time getting back to serious business. The day after Christmas we read about the first martyr, and today we read about the Last Supper and the betrayal of Judas. Do we long just a little for an emotional break, a few days to bask in the glory of Christ’s birth?

Except that’s the thing: there really is no break. No matter how strong our faith, life is a mixed bag.

Take the Last Supper, for example. Jesus knows Judas is about to betray him, and Judas knows it, too. But the Last Supper is also the origin of Communion, which unites us with Christians across time and place. And it also gives us these words from Christ:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Think for a moment what it means that this was a new commandment. What had the disciples been doing during all the preceding years they’d been following Jesus? Were they surprised he felt the need to say it out loud to them? Perhaps it’s a lot harder to do – and comes a lot less naturally to us – than we think.

What a gift that commandment is though. When we practice it, that love is a constant, steadying presence in the ups and downs of life. When we practice it, that love helps us celebrate with each other, mourn with each other, and support each other through difficult times. More than agreeing with one another or liking one another, loving one another with the sacrificial love of Christ is a conscious choice. Our obedience to that commandment – or our disobedience – tells people whether we are truly disciples or merely parrots of the Word.

Life in Christ, at least in our present world, will always be a mixed bag. No matter our state, let us choose to love and be loved. Jesus said so.

Comfort: Christ’s love is constant.

Challenge: Listen to They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love.

Prayer: Merciful God, source of all love, teach me to love your children as Christ loves me. Amen.

Discussion: Are you able to love someone you don’t like?

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Be Prepared


Today’s readings:
Psalms 24; 150, Isaiah 13:1-13, Hebrews 12:18-29, John 3:22-30

As we reach the mid-way point in our season of Advent, today’s scripture readings appropriately focus on preparation.

Psalm 24, written a thousand years before Christ’s birth, uses the metaphor of a king returning victorious from battle to describe the Lord assuming his place among his people. Not written about Jesus specifically, this psalm sets the stage for the hoped-for Day of the Lord.

Isaiah also describes the Day of the Lord (prophetically speaking, there were several such days), but from a differing viewpoint. Rather than describing a glorious victory, Isaiah warned the Babylonians of the destruction awaiting them for turning away from God and oppressing God’s people.

The letter to the Hebrews, written after Christ’s death, warned its audience to listen for the word of God so they would be prepared for Christ’s return. Its author claims that on the Day of the Lord his voice will shake heaven and earth, and he will return like a “consuming fire” burning away unrighteousness.

Our passage from John is more gentle. It tells us how John the Baptist willingly stepped aside when Jesus – the one for whom he had been preparing the way – began his ministry in earnest. John was content to have played his role faithfully, and sought no further adulation. Unfortunately, retirement would not be kind to John; because he had angered too many powerful people by telling the truth, he would soon be executed.

As common-sense as “failing to plan is planning to fail” may sound, we also have to accept that events of our lives, community, and globe are frequently unpredictable. The Jews and Babylonians, despite prophecy, weren’t ready for what happened. The audience of Hebrews was preparing for Christ’s literal return, but had to keep going when that didn’t happen. Like John the Baptist, we must be content with having faithfully done our part. We can’t control whether the world responds accordingly. When the Day of the Lord seems distant and unrighteousness all too near, our best preparation occurs in our own hearts, where God provides us the faith and strength to face what we must.

Comfort: Relying on God is the best preparation …

Challenge: … but be ready for God to ask you to do some challenging things.

Prayer: Loving God, I have prepared for you a room in my heart; may you dwell within me always . Amen.

Discussion: Isaiah and Hebrews both mention mount Zion – Isaiah as a spot of military-like victory, and Hebrews as a place triumphant through grace and mercy. How do you think about these contrasting visions of the Day of the Lord?

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