Relationship Status: It’s Complicated

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Jeremiah 4:9-10, 19-28, Romans 2:12-24, John 5:19-29


Emotions can be knotty experiences. Rarely are they tidy, discrete, easily identified conditions that we can distill to the smiley and frowny emojis punctuating our text messages. Usually emotions are interdependent and tangled and deep and as hard to unearth as ancient tree roots.

Anger may be the most complicated of all, because it is almost always a secondary emotion that develops as a defense against fear or pain. Anger, while not inherently bad, can be destructive in our relationships firstly because most of us are not skilled at identifying its true root, and secondly because we are not comfortable cracking the shell of anger to expose the soft underbelly of “weaker” emotions it protects. Divorces, for example, are so bitter partly because it takes a lot of anger to mask a lot of pain.

When Jeremiah describes God’s anger at Israel, he compares their relationship to unfaithful lovers or ungrateful children. The imagery communicates the anguish underlying God’s wrath. The Israelites have pained him in terrible ways. Damage in this relationship is deeper than a breach of contract between business partners, or resentment between master and servant.  God is not imposing a calculated transactional penalty like an employer docking wages or a bank revoking credit. He is mourning a broken relationship and its inevitable consequences.

Jeremiah’s call for repentance raises anger among the people. Their anger is a defense around their shame. Their shame comes from knowing they are not in right relationship with God. We repeat this pattern many times, in many relationships, with many people. Repentance means accepting we have been wrong at a level so fundamental we must change our way of thinking, and that is a fearful thing to do. If we respond to that fear with anger – by hardening our hearts – we have little chance of repenting.

To be in right relationship with other people, including ourselves, we must first be in right relationship with God. To be in right relationship with God, we must risk being vulnerable. That crack of vulnerability is all God needs to flood our hearts and transform our souls

Comfort: All your emotions are allowed.

Challenge: Don’t be afraid to explore emotions that make you feel vulnerable.

Prayer: Loving God, give me the courage and wisdom to know myself. Amen.

Discussion: How would you describe your relationship with your emotions?

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More Than A Feeling

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 33; 146, Isaiah 5:18-25, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28, Luke 21:29-38


Yesterday we looked at the relationship between God and humanity as a love story cycling from estrangement to reunion. Today’s reading from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians also addresses love, but more how to express the practical sort of love we are called to implement in our community. This type of love, also known as agape or charitable love, is not about affection, but about action. When Paul advises his audience not to repay evil with evil but to do kindness always, note he does not add “and you have to like each other while you do it.” One of the attributes of Christian love is that we strive do right by others no matter how we feel in the moment.

Our pop psychology culture emphasizes the preeminence of feelings. Reality shows and bad therapy model a brand of emotional purging that may be cathartic for us, but which may also leave many floundering in our emotional wake. Rising above our emotions may even earn us the title of “hypocrite.” We should be careful not to buy into the notion that our emotions define us or should define our actions. Good therapists and wise spiritual leaders teach us there is a deeper self that lies beneath our emotions. When Paul asks us to repay evil with kindness (and he asks us this because Jesus asked first), he is encouraging us to engage that deeper, truer self. The love of God that is the foundation of the deeper self may sometimes be experienced through emotions, but it precedes and follows any emotional expression, and it never promotes the self at the expense of others.

We act in love toward others because they are beloved of God, not because we are fond of them, or because charitable actions “feel” good. However, we can reap spiritual benefits from these actions, especially if our actions are loving when our gut is not. In a culture that encourages us to let feelings guide our choices, it’s easy to forget that our choices also mold our feelings. Acting in love transforms us into loving people who reflect the love of God. What more could we aspire to?

Comfort: You are stronger than a collection of feelings.

Challenge: Read some books or articles on managing emotions.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for giving me the ability to be better than I feel I am. Amen.

Discussion: What emotions do you have the most trouble controlling?

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Everything That Breathes

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, Joshua 1:1-18, Acts 21:3-15,Mark 1:21-27


Praise and worship are essential to our relationship with God. Psalm 150 exemplifies praise for its own sake – not because of what God has done for us, but simply because God is worthy of praise.

What do people value in a worship service? A majority of respondents to one survey claimed how it “made them feel” was most important. A close second was liking the musical style. Interesting results, considering the focus of our worship is supposed to be God, not ourselves and our preferences. It can be easy to confuse closeness to God with good feelings. Services crossing the line into entertainment (or even group therapy) facilitate such confusion. Emotions heightened through catchy music and enthusiastic crowds are a spiritual hit that fade quickly. Focus on God, rather than on how the experience makes us feel, provides a deeper connection.

Since worship services are often built around the attitudes and demands of the congregation, what is our responsibility? Well, we can set our hearts on God, regardless of whether a particular song choice “speaks to us” or drums up the warm fuzzies. We can set our minds on what we bring to worship, rather than what we take away. Many people stop attending services during times of personal crisis. Could this be because we associate worship with only good feelings, and feel pressure to put on a happy face? We can turn to many psalms as examples of praising through pain.

“Hold on,” we might say, “isn’t my church supposed to fulfill me in some way?” That’s an awful lot to expect from one hour-long service. We are more likely to find fulfillment through participation in the life of a church community. We often let feelings dictate our actions, though actions powerfully influence our feelings. Sharing community actions of justice, love and mercy is a natural extension of Sunday worship – a chance to open ourselves up to God working in our lives, and the lives of others. We don’t develop our spiritual muscles when the church hands us lightweight sentiment, but when we engage in genuine praise and worship and do the rest of the heavy lifting ourselves.

Comfort: Our faith is stronger than our feelings.

Challenge: At the next worship service you attend, be intentional in singing songs to God, and not just about God.

Prayer: Lord of Heaven and Earth, I praise you as creator of all. Amen.

Discussion: It’s entirely possible for a worship experience to be both emotionally moving and focused on God. Have you ever experienced a service or church that strikes this balance well?

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As we forgive…

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 88; 148, 2 Kings 9:17-37, 1 Corinthians 7:1-9, Matthew 6:7-15


If you found out you were going to die tomorrow, would you have time to forgive all the people who had wronged you?

When Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, he included “forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Some translations of this prayer use the word “sin” or “trespass” instead of debt, but the meaning is pretty clear; Jesus explains the prayer by telling them they will be forgiven in the spirit which they forgive.

That’s bad news for grudge holders.

The good news is forgiveness in this sense is not about how we feel – which is something we can’t control – but about how we act, which is something we can control. Like loving our neighbors doesn’t require any actual affection, forgiving our debtors doesn’t involve resigning ourselves to whatever trespass they’ve committed against us. In the long run for our own peace of mind and mental health it’s probably preferable to get to emotionally better places, but we don’t have to be there yet to do what Christ has us pray. Does that sound hypocritical? Christ’s instructions are indifferent to our emotions, so acting on those instructions when we don’t feel like it is not so much disingenuous as it is a testament to faithfulness.

Forgiveness is a vital component of faith. Jesus speaks of it many times. If withholding forgiveness can keep us separated from God, it must be sinful. Yet we seem to spend so much more time preaching, talking about, and judging each other on a list of Dos-and-Don’ts we can’t even agree on. We’re happy to quote Paul and tell fornicators and the sexually immoral they won’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but we don’t say much to address the people in the pews who refuse to let go of a neighborhood feud over fence height.

We love because we are loved. We forgive because we are forgiven. How we feel about it while we do it is not the point. How we feel about it afterward  might just nudge our hearts even closer to God.

Comfort: You are forgiven.

Challenge: You must forgive.

Prayer: [Recite the Lord’s Prayer]

Discussion: Does your ability to forgive someone depend on whether they seem sorry?

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God Will Wait

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, Deuteronomy 6:16-25, Hebrews 2:1-10, John 1:19-28


In church we learn to praise and worship our God. We thank God for the good things in our lives, and ask for his strength during the bad times. We admire people whose faith remains rock-solid  during times of crisis, and aspire to have that kind of faith ourselves. Expressing negative emotions about God, not matter how true, seems out of place in most Christian settings.

So let’s thank him for one more thing: the psalmists! They were not afraid to rail at God when things got tough. The author of Psalm 42 declares: “My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’” This psalmist is not afraid to ask: “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?” And these were not private episodes behind locked doors where the other faithful could not see and judge: they were public declarations recorded for the ages. If psalms of lamentation made it into the Bible, maybe it’s all right to express such feelings ourselves, even in public.

God is not a a fair weather friend who turns away when his feelings are hurt. During Rosh Hashanah, faithful Jews make atonement for their failings, but part of the tradition also involves calling God to account for the state of the world. The very name Israel means “wrestling with God.” We are not required to be always happy or even satisfied with God. It might be impossible, since we are built to be in a relationship with God, and all deep relationships at some point experience conflict.

An argument does not end a real relationship. Handled properly, it is a chance for learning and growth – though when we argue with God it is almost certainly we are the ones who need to grow. The psalmist closes by telling his soul: “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” If at this or any moment you are angry with God, it’s not the end of the relationship. God will wait.

Comfort: God’s grace will always outlast your anger, sadness, or fear.

Challenge: When you are angry with God, be honest about it; God already knows.

Prayer: Thank you God for the loving patience you show me always. Amen.

Discussion: Are you comfortable expressing anger at God to yourself? To others?

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