The Gospel Dance


Today’s readings:
Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Jeremiah 1:11-19, Romans 1:1-15, John 4:27-42

Paul had been evangelizing for almost twenty years before he set his sights on Rome. Several Christian communities were established there, and he intended to visit with them on his way to Spain.  Since the early church was not in agreement on all matters, Paul wrote them a letter to make sure they understood his stance in advance of his arrival. We don’t know for certain whether he ever made it to Spain, but the epistle he wrote to the church in Rome is considered by many to be his masterwork. More than a mere introduction, it builds a rich and complex theology of salvation through Christ.

But Paul knew he didn’t know everything. Near the beginning of the epistle he writes:

For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you — or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.

When we share the gospel, we receive as well as give. Left to our own devices, we can make only so much spiritual progress. Despite our best intentions and discipline, in spiritual isolation our own biases eventually overtake us. Like a self-taught musician or artist, we won’t know what we don’t know. As part of a Christian community, we can challenge and be challenged, grow and foster growth. Reaching across Christian communities only multiplies that growth.

Not everything we have to learn will necessarily come from other Christians. When we share our personal stories and the Gospel story with non-Christians, we learn something from their responses, and also from our reactions to those responses. If someone reacts unexpectedly, negatively, or even violently to our efforts, our commitment to sharing the gospel may be revealed. Do we try to understand why? Do we insist on our own way? Do we examine our approach and motives? Do we resort to force?

The gospel is not a solitary endeavor. Sharing it is not the same as delivering a monologue about it. Letting it unfold between us and someone else is like laying out a dance floor where we move together under the light of Christ to the rhythm of the Spirit.

Comfort: You don’t have to know everything.

Challenge: Don’t be afraid to talk about the gospel with people who differ in good faith.

Prayer: Loving God, let me find the right words and steps to share the Gospel. Amen.

Discussion: Where do you find opportunities to grow your faith by sharing it?

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Evangelize vs. Evange-lies


Today’s readings:
Psalms 42; 146, Isaiah 40:25-31, Ephesians 1:15-23, Mark 1:14-28

Evangelists have an image problem.

For many people, both inside and outside the church, the word “evangelist” evokes revival tents packed with fake healings and snake oil salesmen. The world of televangelism, with its shiny suits, big hair, and pledge drives for private jets, hasn’t done them any favors. The stereotype of the modern evangelist doesn’t have much in common with John the Baptist and his camel hair tunic. For as long as we’ve had religion we’ve had people trying to make a buck off faith and fear. That’s not evangelism.

When Jesus recruited his disciples, he did so with an eye toward the future and the evangelizing they would be called to do. Even in his day, people were wary of the clergy. Jesus didn’t start his search among religious leaders: he chose fishermen. These fishermen – Peter, Andrew, James, and John – were men of the world, hard-working businessmen who could get dirty when necessary and be salesmen when needed. If they had good news to spread – news good enough to make them leave their old lives behind – people would listen.

We are all called to evangelize, to spread the good news of the Gospels. Few of us are called to do it from the pulpit. Members of the New Monastic movement do it by becoming part of inner city communities. Jay Bakker – son of infamous televangelists Jim and Tammy – started Revolution Church in a bar where many patrons had fewer addictions, tattoos, and piercings than he did. Some people spread the good news through volunteering to help the elderly prepare income tax statements and others take youth to rebuild after disasters.

Real evangelists exist everywhere; you can recognize them because it’s obvious they’ve dropped their nets to find new lives following Christ.

Saint Francis allegedly said: “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” Less famously he also said:  “If God can work through me, he can work through anyone.” Each of us is equipped to evangelize the moment we have a story to tell.  Whether we share it through words or actions, it is a recognizably true story. The truth eventually withstands all image problems.

Comfort: Thanks to God, you have important truths to share.

Challenge: Ask friends how they’ve seen you share the Gospel; their answers may surprise you.

Prayer: God of the Good News, I will spread your word through the gifts you have given me. Amen.

Discussion: What’s your preferred way to share your faith?

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Spit It Out


Today’s readings:
Psalms 46 or 97, 149; Isaiah 66:1-2, 22-23; Revelation 3:14-22; John 9:1-12, 35-38

Is mainstream Christianity too wishy-washy? Media hype about the “Culture War” between the faithful and the secular wouldn’t lead us to believe so. Conservative religious voices speaking out against abortion and same sex marriage are frequent, loud and shrill.

But in a time and nation where Christianity is by far the dominant religion and Christian businesses from dating services to investment firms flourish, are Christians really suffering from any threats or dangers we don’t fabricate ourselves? The only “persecution” we face in the USA is that people are free to speak against us if they so choose. Someone refuting our beliefs or calling us out for behavior they disagree with is in no way equivalent to oppression. Yet somehow we manage to convince ourselves we are victims, perhaps because on some level we know truly living one’s faith does invite persecution, but we don’t have the stomachs for the real thing.

The progressive church is not off the hook. Yes it frowns upon and occasionally speaks out against the more egregious activities of its conservative counterpart, but rarely since the civil rights movement of the 1960s does it insert itself in any meaningful way. Instead, content simply to disclaim the follies of its less sophisticated cousin, it leaves the secular culture to do the heavy lifting on progressive issues. Paralyzed by political correctness, it operates from a generic humanism wherein faith is at best charming, at worst pitiable.

Neither camp, though opinionated, is bold. Mostly they preach to their respective choirs. They are the lukewarm brew spit out by Christ. Passionate Christians cling to neither of these labels (nor a moderate one) because they are too busy feeding the poor, praying for their enemies, spreading the Gospel, and visiting the sick and imprisoned to worry about any politics that don’t hinder those efforts. Dedicating oneself to these works is still considered radical in all quarters because it is an implicit indictment of anyone not doing them. Christianity is the opposite of a cultural affiliation or confirmation (even its own): it is a light and fire that burns such distractions away.

Comfort: If your faith is somewhat lackluster, you’re not alone.

Challenge: Jesus wants you to do something about it.

Prayer: God, fill me with the faith and desire to do your will.

Discussion: Do you feel like you’re answering your Christian call?

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Learning from Fools


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 145, Numbers 9:15-23, 10:29-36, Romans 1:1-15, Matthew 17:14-21

After Israelites fled Egypt, the Lord instructed them to build a tabernacle (a tent or dwelling place) where he could reside with them. During the day the Lord appeared above the tabernacle as a pillar of clouds, and in the evenings he appeared as a pillar of fire. When the cloud moved, the people knew it was time to pack up the tabernacle and the rest of the encampment and follow it to the next destination.

The Lord knew it was important to be visible to the people of Israel all the time; they were frightened and fickle and needed reassurance of his constant presence. As God he owed them nothing, but as a creator loving his creatures, he chose to be present in ways they could understand.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he writes: “I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.” Paul also understood the importance of tailoring his approach to the realities of a situation. In his case though, it was a two-way exchange. To share the gospel he adapted his style (but not his message) to reach his listeners, but he also understood the gospel more deeply as a result of listening to them. Admitting he owed something to fools took real humility.

How flexible are we when attempting to share the gospel? Is our approach more an agenda or an invitation? How about when we evaluate the quality of a worship service that doesn’t align with our preference in musical or pastoral style? Do we try to learn from the differences, or do we work on justifying our preconceptions? Are we at all willing to hear the wisdom of those we consider foolish?

Too often the church approaches evangelism like colonialism, where we play the “advanced” civilization forcing a particular vision on  ignorant barbarians. If Paul was flexible enough to learn from those he sought to teach, we should be too. Whether communicating inside the walls of the church, or taking the gospel to the streets, humility is the key to living the message.

Comfort: You don’t have to have all the answers to share the good news.

Challenge: Listen to some religious music that’s in a style you don’t especially like. Try to transcend the style to hear the message.

Prayer: God of the living gospel, I humbly seek to share Christ’s message of salvation, and to listen to the needs of your children. Amen.

Discussion: In what ways do you find it difficult to be flexible?

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Universal Precautions


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 148, Jeremiah 31:27-34, Ephesians 5:1-32, Matthew 9:9-17

“As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.” – Matthew 9:9

What does “tax collector” mean to you? In Capernaum where Jesus met Matthew, tax collectors were not exactly IRS agents. They were Jews who collaborated with the occupying forces of Rome to tax the Jewish people for the privilege of being oppressed. If you’re of a Libertarian bent you may not think that’s so different from the modern tax collector, but many Jews considered them traitors to the nation of Israel. The Pharisees lumped them into the same category as the other “sinners” Jesus frequently dined with and challenged the disciples about his choice of companions.

Jesus responded by saying: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. […] For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Paul warned the members of the Ephesian church not to associate with those who are disobedient to God. Paul named many kinds of disobedience – so many, in fact, that most of us have been guilty of at least one. Between Jesus dining and drinking with sinners, and Paul warning us to avoid them altogether, what example are we to follow?

When a physician or nurse tends to patients, s/he takes certain precautions to avoid infection. These universal precautions are applied equally whether a patient is obviously ill or not, because one never knows all the facts. Healers can do their work while avoiding contamination, but not while avoiding contact. Every sick patient deserves the dignity of being treated as a person, but boundaries are crucial. So it is with the gospel. We are called to share it with those who need its healing message. To do that, we need to go where they are. We need to share with them common human experiences such as meals, conversation, tears, and laughter. In no way are we permitted to treat them with less dignity than Christ would. We probably shouldn’t even think in terms of “them” as it only fosters dehumanizing division.

We can’t offer comfort to the sick without knowing them, or without recognizing it is only by grace – not our own superiority – that we ourselves have been healed. Faith is not a barrier to isolate us from them, but the protective gear that makes contact possible.

Comfort: No matter how sick you are, Jesus wants you to be well.

Challenge: Don’t shun anyone Jesus didn’t shun.

Prayer: Gracious and loving God, thank you for the healing presence of Christ, and for the opportunity to share it with others.  Amen. 

Discussion: When do you find yourself avoiding people instead of loving them?

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Lightly Salted


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 98; 146, Exodus 32:21-34, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 5:11-16

Has anyone born in America since 1920 not heard “This Little Light of Mine?” The lyrics are based on Christ’s words to his disciples: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” He tells them a shining city on a hill cannot be hidden, and a lamp hidden under a bushel is useless. He also tells them salt with no flavor has no purpose. Christ wants his followers to let the world see what God has done for and through us.

Progressive Christians can be tempted to put a dimmer switch on that lamp. We don’t want to be confused with “those” Christians who embarrass us (as though they aren’t part of the same body beloved by Christ), and find ourselves preaching only to the progressive choir – who don’t raise their voices too loudly either. We are more comfortable with sentiments like St. Francis’s “Preach the Gospel at all times; use words if you have to,” sometimes clinging to them so tightly any hint of good news is squeezed out. Some strong progressive voices like Sojourners and the United Church of Christ are reaching out to the larger culture, but by and large we are merely … polite.

Of course there is a balance. Light illuminates, but it also blinds. A sprinkling of salt enhances a dish, but an entire mouthful makes us ill. However we share Christ’s message, our intent should never be to overwhelm or obliterate, but to add love and faith to beautifully season what is already there. God has declared His creation good, so it’s not our job to point out what we believe to be everyone’s flaws, but rather to share with them the good news. We all need reminded of how beloved we are, because believing that can be almost impossible for some of us. Once that belief is solid, we shine from the inside out.

Don’t be afraid to let your light shine, because it will kindle the light in others. Don’t let your salt lose its flavor, because once others get a taste they’ll crave more.

Comfort: Your faith is worth showing people!

Challenge: Allow Christ’s light to shine through you into dark places without turning it on people like an interrogation lamp.

Prayer: God of love and light, thank you for all your good works. May others see them shine through me! Amen. 

Discussion: Are you ever tempted to “dim” your light? Or the reverse: blinding people with it? How might you change?

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Good News / Bad News


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 34; 146, Exodus 5:1-6:1, 1 Corinthians 14:20-40, Mark 9:42-50

We’ve all seen them: evangelists who go Full Brimstone attempting to convert non-believers. From the classic “If you’re wrong you’re going to hell!” to the modern “God Hates Fags” tactics deployed at military funerals and on cable, someone is always telling someone else why God is damning them to eternal suffering. Fear-based evangelism is notoriously ineffective except for fundraising from believers, but let’s give the benefit of the doubt to its practitioners and assume they are fumbling to share the core message of salvation through Christ. Then let’s meditate on some teachings of Paul and Jesus.

Paul advised the Corinthian that speaking in tongues impressed some believers, but to non-believers it was gibberish that at best said nothing and at worst confused or repelled them. He told those with the gift of prophecy to keep it reined in; believers and non-believers alike could be overwhelmed by more than two or three speakers at time. Zeal is admirable, but leading with the big guns doesn’t exactly tell people you come in peace.

Jesus told people it was better to cut off a hand or foot or to poke out an eye if those parts presented stumbling blocks to the little ones following him. This passage follows Christ’s rebuke of disciples who were unhappy to see strangers casting out demons in his name. Attacking their fledgling faith would have accomplished nothing, and may even have destroyed the good work they were doing.

Our convictions in Christ remain firm, but how we share them with others is important. When Jesus told the rich young man he would have to give up everything he owned to become a disciple … the rich young man walked away. If it doesn’t work for Jesus, it’s not going to work for us. The good news we have to share is not that hell is our default destination and we have the exclusive ticket out; the good news is God loves everyone enough to offer them eternal life. If that seems like a distinction without a difference, remember that famed dog- and horse-whisperers succeed because they teach by understanding their students, not forcing the students to understand them.

Comfort: There’s always another way to share the good news of our faith.

Challenge: Before sharing the Gospel, decide whether you’re trying to win souls or just win arguments.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for the good news of Jesus Christ! Give me the courage and wisdom to share your word effectively with those who need to hear it. Amen.

Discussion: Are you comfortable speaking about your faith? Is any discomfort you have about what you believe, or about what you think you need to say to share it?

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Investment Strategy


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 108; 150, Isaiah 19:19-25, Romans 15:5-13, Luke 19:11-27

Common wisdom in business says if an enterprise is standing still, it’s moving backward. This can refer to both innovation and revenue. A business that doesn’t keep up with current technologies and culture ceases to be competitive; even artisans producing boutique, traditional, hand-crafted products need to accept credit cards. A business which breaks even can’t invest in capital improvements necessary to stay competitive or to simply maintain its own aging assets.

Church, like government, isn’t a business but some of the same principles apply. Jesus told a parable about three slaves who were trusted with money by their master while he was away. One invested it and profited tenfold, another profited fivefold, and a third only buried his sum until his master returned. The master was displeased with the third who failed to do so much as put it in the bank to collect interest. This parable is about how we are to invest our own resources of time, treasure, and talent in growing God’s kingdom. A person or church who hoards them rather than risking them is not doing what Jesus says is pleasing to God.

Many Christian individuals and communities are content to take care of their own. Church growth is usually a goal, but it is too often measured only by how many people show up in the pews on Sundays. Since polling consistently shows overall church attendance is declining, any significant increase in the size of a congregation is more likely due to people changing churches than becoming new Christians. Attendance measures little more than the shift of a declining population. A church satisfied by the measures of its own congregation or – perhaps slightly more generously – in its specific denomination is effectively burying its talents in the back yard. If stewardship is defined in terms of the ability to keep the doors open (or to buy bigger doors), the church is moving backward.

Today’s passage from Romans describes a church which flourishes because it expands into territory which was unexpected and to some unacceptable: the Gentile world. The Jews were expecting a Messiah dedicated specifically to the Jewish people; taking him to the Gentiles verged on blasphemy for many of the original Jewish disciples. Yet Paul essentially built the church out of the unacceptable.

The prophet Isaiah talked about a future where Jews, Egyptians, and Assyrians worshipped the Lord together. To the Jews who had been persecuted, enslaved, and exiled by these nations this was equally unthinkable. Yet through Jeremiah God instructed the Jews to survive exile by promoting peace in the city of their captors until they were once again free.

The church does not grow – or fulfill her mission – by patting herself on the back about how holy she is. Yes in many ways we are directed to be a community apart from the world, but should that separation manifest itself in our physical and social separation or in our attitudes and values? Taking credit for poaching church members is like claiming to improve our cash flow by moving money from savings to checking.

The future of the church lies in the people we don’t currently appeal to – and who may not appeal to us. Real opportunities for investment are scary and may not pay off. We have to resist being tainted by the lure of the less savory elements of the world. But our master is not so fearful that we can’t risk what we value by taking it where it really has a chance of multiplying, and then we’ll know the reward of being trusted with more.

Comfort: Our Lord is invested in our future.

Challenge: Do something that scares you today.

Prayer: Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard, who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip.  (Psalm 66:8-9)

Discussion: Is there any group you think the church is neglecting today?

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Enforced Belief (And Other Myths)


Commissioning the Twelve Apostles depicted by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1481

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 135; 145, Jeremiah 36:11-26, 1 Corinthians (13:1-3) 13:4-13, Matthew 10:5-15

When Jesus sent out the Twelve to spread the Gospel to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he gave them several instructions. They were to accept no payment for any of the healing they did. They were to take not much more than the clothes on their backs, for the people should show them hospitality. When they reached a town or village, they were to select a worthy home to stay in, and “let [their] peace come upon it.” If the house turned out not to be worthy, they were to “let [their] peace return to [them].” And if any town or house would not welcome them, they were to shake its dust from their feet as they left it.

Note the absence of any type or coercion or retaliation. The fate of anyone who rejected the Gospel was ultimately between them and God. Of course the Twelve had no legal authority to enforce belief, but then again “enforced belief” is an oxymoron. Without the power of an empire behind them Jesus and his disciples were an all-volunteer movement. So how did Christianity become less about sacrificing and suffering for our beliefs and more about making others suffer for not agreeing to share them?

Jesus asks us to share the Gospel, but he doesn’t ask us to enforce it. When the Twelve met resistance, they simply withdrew the only thing they had to offer, which was the peace they knew. If someone doesn’t want to embrace the message, there’s not much we can do about it. Petty pressures like trying to wring a “Merry Christmas” out of a  cashier in a setting that is essentially a temple to commerce only reinforces the stereotype that Christians are intolerant. Do such actions seem like the love Paul describes in Corinthians – a love which is patient, kind, and does not insist on its own way? Real evangelizing begins with vulnerability.

A Christianity consumed with exerting the upper hand is far removed from the Beatitudes, the Apostles, and the greatest who seek to be least. Jesus said we are blessed when we are persecuted for his name’s sake, not when we persecute in his name. When emperors (and their admirers) claim to be wearing Christian clothes but are more interested in destroying perceived enemies than loving them, speaking the naked truth in humility may be the most powerful witnessing we can do.

Comfort: Jesus is a comfort to the afflicted…

Challenge: …and an affliction to the comfortable.

Prayer:  Rejoice in the LORD, O you righteous,
and give thanks to his holy name! (Psalm 97:12)

Discussion: Do you think there is such a thing as a Christian nation?

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Listen Like an Ambassador


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 15; 147:1-11, 1 Kings 22:1-28, 1 Corinthians 2:1-13, Matthew 4:18-25

War – whether it be physical or cultural – is a failure of diplomacy. Diplomats bridge the gap between cultures whose differences might otherwise seem irreconcilable except through violent conflict. No embassy is a one-person operation. Usually the ambassador is supported by a staff of cultural, legal, press, military, and other diplomatic attachés. If we are citizens of heaven traveling in a foreign land, we need to determine whether we are tourists or representatives of a higher authority. If we are public about our faith, we have chosen to serve as representatives. That thought should be intimidating, but it doesn’t need to be, if we are observant of those who have served successfully before us.

One of the most important diplomatic skills – arguably the most important – is the ability to listen. When Paul first visited the Corinthians, he did not pretend to have all the answers to their problems. Instead he “decided to know nothing among [them] except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” Paul knew that the mission of diplomacy is not to dominate and to impose, but to understand and relate. He didn’t even attempt to impress the Corinthians, but approached them “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.” This may not sound like an auspicious beginning, but in the end he delivered his message successfully and established the church in Corinth.

Paul succeeded because he lived his core mission with integrity. People perceived no difference between his words and his life. Because Paul’s message was one of salvation through redemption rather than perfection, his flaws did not undermine that message. As Christian “attachés,” we should find two important lessons here. First, we should never present ourselves as perfected or somehow better than non-Christians. Otherwise, the first time we cut someone off in traffic while sporting a Jesus-fish bumper sticker, our message becomes one of hypocrisy. Second, we need to be serious about living lives that reflect the Spirit within us. Again this doesn’t mean unattainable perfection, but a heart full of the love, peace, mercy, and humility of Christ. A humble example is worth more than a million lofty instructions.

Comfort: Perfection is the enemy of progress.

Challenge: Each day, reflect on how your example could be better.

Prayer: God of the journey, give me ears to hear and words of love.

Discussion: What is the difference between diplomacy and politics?

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