Seventy-Seven Times


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 51; 148, Numbers 13:1-3, 21-30, Romans 2:25-3:8, Matthew 18:21-35

A slave owed his king an unpayable sum. The king decided to sell the slave’s family to collect the debt, but the slave begged for mercy. The king felt pity, released him, and forgave the debt. As the slave walked away, he met a second slave owing him a hundredth of what the king had forgiven. He demanded payment, and when it wasn’t forthcoming he had the second slave jailed. When the king learned this, he revoked his mercy and had the first slave tortured until he paid.

This parable was how Jesus answered Peter’s question: “how often should I forgive?” The story tells us whatever debt we feel someone owes us, God has already forgiven us a debt a hundred (or more!) times greater.

“Tough love” gets tossed around quite a bit. We seem to be firm believers in the power of consequences. It may be fine for parents fostering  the values of children, or managers coaching employees, but the further removed we are from someone personally, the less applicable it becomes. How easy it is to withhold mercy under the pretense of not enabling someone.

By the time we meet most people, life has had its way with them. They behave in ways they have learned best help them physically and emotionally survive. It’s arrogant to assume we would fare better under similar circumstances, and more arrogant to think our petty disciplines will change them.

Should we hand cash to gambling addicts? No. Should we allow co-workers to abuse us? Nope. But when someone is hungry or hurting, we should transcend our grievances to feed and care for them. We can’t fix people – they need to initiate that themselves – but we are called to show mercy to the broken, for we ourselves are broken and beneficiaries of the mercy of God.

Jesus didn’t instruct us to parent everyone. He did instruct us to forgive and love. A crust of bread offered to a starving thief doesn’t condone thievery; it says we trust in something greater we hope to share. Whether he hears that is not up to us.

Comfort: You aren’t responsible for parenting the world.

Challenge: When you feel like someone needs to suffer consequences, ask yourself why.

Prayer: Merciful God, guide me as I seek the balance between mercy and justice.

Discussion: Mercy is a personal matter, but it can seem at odds with civil justice. Have you struggled with this tension? Or do you disagree with the premise?

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Rod and Staff


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 23; 149, Exodus 13:17-14:4, 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:10, Mark 12:18-27

Psalm 23 is arguably the most recognized psalm in the psalter. It chronicles the typical day in the life of a shepherd and flock, through danger and safely home again. The metaphor of Christians as sheep may seem less than flattering; author Russell Banks once observed sheep were only slightly more intelligent than lawn furniture. Critics of the faith have said it accurately describes mindless followers, but the metaphor is not so much about following as about the relationship binding a shepherd and his flock.

At the end of the day, a shepherd uses a rod to count and inspect each sheep for injuries, a practice known as passing “under the rod.” The rod can also be thrown in front of a sheep to startle it back on course. Although other images of rods, such as “spare the rod and spoil the child” and Proverbs 13:24 (“He who withholds his rod hates his son,
But he who loves him disciplines him diligently.”) are more about discipline, the audience of this psalm knew the rod was not used to strike, but to tend.

Impulsive pursuits may leave us stranded in a spiritual bramble. We get caught up following other sheep and find ourselves in unfamiliar or even hostile territory. We tangle ourselves in gossip at work or church. We feel pressure to overspend in order to keep up appearances with friends and neighbors. As a result, we feel lost, overwhelmed, or out of control. At these times, depending on our relationship to our shepherd can literally save us.

To Jesus’ contemporaries the rod and staff were symbols of loving authority. When he called himself the Good Shepherd, Jesus was telling his listeners, “I have your best interests at heart, and often that will require a course correction.” Are we challenged when trying to integrate the ideas of “love” and “authority” into a unified whole? Have we learned to picture the rod in Jesus’ hand as an instrument of punishment or nurture?

We may not be immediately comfortable accepting the humility necessary to admit we need shepherding, but eventually we realize it is a true blessing that our God does not send us alone into the wilderness. Following Christ will always lead us home.

Comfort: Christ seeks to rescue every sheep, no matter how lost.

Challenge: If possible, visit a meditation labyrinth (or use a finger labyrinth). As you move to the center, meditate on a problem that has you feeling lost. On the way out, ask God to lead you home, and give thanks for Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

Prayer: Merciful and loving God, always lead me home to you.

Discussion: How do you feel about being disciplined? How do you react to it?

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Looking for Loaves in All the Wrong Places

nutritional content

Today’s readings (click below to open in a new tab/window):
Psalms 122; 149, Genesis 18:1-16, Hebrews 10:26-39, John 6:16-27

Carbs are the enemy of faith.

After miraculously feeding five thousand people with only five barley loaves and two fish, Jesus and his disciples waited until evening and moved across the Sea of Galilee from Tiberias to Capernaum. By morning the crowds had found them. Jesus declared to them: “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” The people craved the bread, yet didn’t understand the root of their hunger.

If we have poor eating habits, we often aren’t able to distinguish between cravings and hunger. We know we want something and turn to sugary, fatty foods for a quick fix. They are tasty and relieve our immediate needs, but only for a short time. The more we try to satisfy our hunger with carbs and fat, the more we crave, and in the long run we feel worse. Dieting often fails because instead of making a true lifestyle change as nutritionists advise, we turn to short-term solutions which focus on weight instead of health. When our goals are met, we drop our vigilance and unhealthy habits creep back in. It’s not entirely unlike a cycle where we berate ourselves for our sinfulness and try to overcome it through own strength rather than Christ’s, only to find ourselves in the same place when we can’t resist the cravings.

What’s the nutritional content of our faith? The prosperity gospel teaches us if we say the right prayers or tithe the right amount, we will be rewarded with material goods. Some churches are all about the entertainment value of a worship service because they value high attendance over deep experience. Designed for high volume and low quality, these are more business model than ministry – fifty million served, but not called to serve. Christ calls us to a lifestyle change. He doesn’t tell us what we want to hear or what makes us feel good; he tells us about the food of eternal life. Jesus’s lean meats and broccoli may not sound as much fun as hot fudge Sundays, but he’s saving our lives.

Comfort: The more faithfully we follow Christ, the less we crave the things that don’t feed our spirits.

Challenge: Clean your spiritual cupboard; meditate on discarding teachings that prey on your cravings and filling yourself with those that satisfy eternally.

Prayer: Lord, I will rely on your strength rather than my own. Amen.

Discussion: What do you crave that you know isn’t good for you?

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Tax Reform


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 88; 148, Nehemiah 9:26-38, Revelation 22:6-13, Matthew 18:10-20

Today’s passage from Matthew has been embraced by Christians as a model for discipline within the community. Jesus offers the disciples a model for addressing when a member of the church sins (or in some translations, more specifically “sins against you.”)

First, talk to the person one-on-one in a spirit of reconciliation. If that doesn’t resolve satisfactorily, have the conversation again but this time with the addition of one or two witnesses. If there’s still no repentance, take it before the church “and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In Acts and Corinthians we can read about how this model plays out.

And yet…

Bible scholars are divided on the authenticity of this passage. It’s unusually prescriptive for a saying of Jesus. It refers to a church which, while Jesus may have foreseen it, did not yet exist. It takes a shot at tax collectors as worth shunning, yet Jesus and his disciples shared meals and went to the homes of tax collectors. And perhaps most tellingly, it is immediately followed by Peter asking Jesus if forgiving someone seven times (which seemed generous compared to the rabbinical standard of three times) was sufficient, and Jesus answering we should forgive seventy times seven times.

The reality is, if someone threatens the well-being of a community from within, we may need a loving yet firm way of dealing with it. Forgiveness is not a blank check for endless tolerance of the unjust. The process described in Matthew gives multiple opportunities for repentance and reconciliation – and also allows for the chance the accused might actually be the wronged party. It discourages overreaction and public shaming. Like an employer’s performance improvement plan, it’s not primarily intended to be the way of driving someone out, but of finding a way to keep them in the fold. But like an improvement plan, it can be misunderstood, misapplied, and abused – especially when expulsion is the predetermined outcome.

What about more personal disputes? We like having an option to take people to task; Jesus is more about curbing that than endorsing it. We are less fond of forgiving them more times than we can count (OK yes, one could theoretically count to four hundred and ninety, but it’s a symbolic number). Just because a disciplinary process is available to use doesn’t mean we are required to use it. Shy of physical danger, it is entirely conceivable for two people who don’t get along, even if one has been wronged, to peacefully coexist in the same congregation. That’s pretty much the definition of forgiveness. And it seems most of Jesus’s teaching put the responsibility on us to make the sacrifice of peace rather than demanding it of someone else.

When someone owes you a sin tax, you are within your rights to follow the collection process to the bitter end. The whats, whys, and hows of it are between you, your debtor, and God. Just keep in mind that Jesus taught us to pray to be forgiven our debts as we forgive our debtors. There will be an audit.

Comfort: Forgiveness has more reward than cost.

Challenge: Being within your rights is no guarantee you are right.

Prayer: Merciful and loving God, teach me to focus more on what I owe than what is owed me. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever experienced someone being ostracized from a community? How did it make you feel?

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Just five more minutes, Jesus…


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 88; 148, 1 Kings 5:1-6:1, 6:7, Acts 28:1-16, Mark 14:27-42

Are you a fan of the snooze button? Do you crave those precious extra minutes under the covers after the alarm goes off? Or maybe you are the snooze alarm when your children or spouse make it your responsibility to get them moving by asking for “just five more minutes.” Perhaps you belong to that increasingly rare breed who wake up refreshed and – miracle of miracles – don’t need an alarm.

Whatever your situation, research shows that using the snooze alarm leaves you feeling less rested. Once you’ve been jolted awake, the sleep cycle doesn’t continue, it reboots.

At the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter, James, and John did some notorious snoozing. As Jesus remained resigned to God’s will but prayed desperately that the cup of the crucifixion might pass him by, his friends couldn’t manage to stay awake. Three times he woke them, and they didn’t know what to say to him.

Only hours earlier he had predicted that in the hour of his death they would desert him, and Peter declared “Not me!” Yet even in this matter of sleep the disciple’s weak flesh overrode his willing spirit, a foreshadowing of the greater desertion to come. Jesus, fatigued and frightened, had to rouse them to accompany him in his last moments of freedom.

The trick to avoiding the snooze button is to develop healthy sleep patterns. If you don’t have them, you have to work at retraining your body and mind – or flesh and spirit, if you will. Developing healthy spiritual patterns can be similar. If we don’t have them, when life’s alarms go off – alarms like death, illness, betrayal, and tragedy – leaning  on faith may seem more an effort than a comfort.

Despite Christ’s warnings, Peter wasn’t ready in the garden. He wasn’t ready at the crucifixion. But after Christ returned from death? Reboot. His flesh and spirit finally knew true rest in the embrace of Christ. We too can find that strength-building rest if our faith is not merely a series of reactions to alarms, but a healthy, regular pattern of renewal that helps us stay spiritually awake.

Comfort: You can find rest in Christ. 

Challenge: Read this article on improving your sleep, and see if you can make any changes that might help.

Prayer: Merciful God, let me rest in your arms and find strength for my days. Amen. 

Discussion: Do you get all the sleep you need? Why or why not?

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Stay Hungry


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 36; 147:12-20, Hosea 13:4-8, Acts 27:27-44, Luke 9:18-27

We complain when we’re cold, hungry, thirsty, tired, or in pain but no one ever complains: “I’m just too … satisfied.” Yet satisfaction – or perhaps more accurately self-satisfaction – led to the downfall of the nation of Israel.

Through the prophet Hosea, God shared these words with Israel: “When I fed them, they were satisfied; they were satisfied, and their heart was proud; therefore they forgot me.” In other words, God provided for them in their time of need. They were provided for so well, they started to take it for granted. Eventually, because they were without need, they forgot about God altogether.

It’s a common story, really. When we are in need or distress, we pray and demand to know: “why do I deserve this?” When God provides, and our bellies no longer ache from hunger or our hearts from sadness, it’s easy to forget where we started. We take it for granted. If part of God’s blessing required hard work from us, we may start to give ourselves a little more credit for our own success than is due – and judge others who haven’t made it as far. Sure, we say we know we owe everything to God, but do we really? When is the last time we had a well-stocked kitchen, a happy marriage, and a stretch of good health and asked: “Why do I deserve this?”

Maybe we should stay a little hungry. The spiritual discipline of fasting involves a physical hunger, an unavoidable pang we can use as a reminder to focus our attention toward God. Whether it reminds us of our own dependence, or of the needs of those who hunger not by choice, it teaches us humility and gratitude. Other disciplines – study, solitude, service, etc. – also lift us from a state of oblivious contentment and help us not to take God for granted.

Let’s sacrifice a meal, a lazy Saturday morning, or twenty dollars to a higher cause. It’s all right to feel a little deprived of the more worldly satisfaction they might have provided. That pang reminds us to focus on what’s important.

Comfort: Gratitude will improve your mood.

Challenge: Make time daily to thank God for what God has provided.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for all the  blessings in my life. All glory and honor is yours. Amen.

Discussion: What do you take for granted?

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