The Kingdom Come Near

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 98; 146, Ezekiel 7:10-15, 23b-27, Hebrews 6:13-20, Luke 10:1-17


Jesus dispatched seventy disciples to travel in pairs to spread his word. Because he instructed them to take nothing with them, they were essentially at the mercy of each town they visited, “like lambs in the midst of wolves.” In towns that welcomed them, they were to stay and cure the sick. If a town rejected them, they were to shake the dust from their sandals in protest. But when they left a town, they were to say the same thing: “The kingdom of God has come near.”

Whether people receive the Gospel is beyond our control. Our message of love does not waver. As we witness through evangelism, service, or some other means, we are not ultimately responsible for someone’s belief or disbelief. Certainly the seventy evangelists must have felt some frustration, but there was so much work to do among those willing to hear that they didn’t have time for fruitless labor. Sometimes we may be disappointed that someone chooses to reject Christ, but we should not let that rejection sully our spirits; we can shake it off like dust from a sandal.

We might be wise to carry that attitude into other aspects of life as well. Within our work environments, faith communities, and families we will always find dogged malcontents and chronic complainers. Because we want to be peacemakers, or maybe just to be nice, we risk devoting a disproportionate amount of energy trying to satisfy people who have no wish to be satisfied. Neither curing nor shaking, we waste time at the expense of people eager to bear good fruit. Frequently these people, who are not complainers, simply leave for greener pastures and we are left with the bitter.

Of course we want to settle differences, foster reconciliation, and refrain from rejecting anyone, but sometimes we need to accept that have been explicitly or passively rejected. There is so much good to do, some of it very hard work, that we want to steward our resources wisely. Christ loves everyone, as should we, but we are most effective where people let the kingdom come near.

Comfort: The better choice is sometimes the easier choice.

Challenge: Do an assessment of whether you are spending your energy effectively.

Prayer: Loving God, send me where I will be useful to you. Amen.

Discussion: How do you decide when to withdraw from conflict?

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Fire From Heaven

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 145, Ezekiel 4:1-17, Hebrews 6:1-12, Luke 9:51-62


When a Samaritan town refused to receive Jesus, the disciples James and John asked, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”  Luke says Jesus rebuked them. They simply moved on to the next town.

Could “rebuked” have been an understatement? After Jesus had taught them about peace, love, and reserving judgment for God, what made a consuming fire seem like a reasonable option?

James and John were just being human: even a little authority and power seems like it’s there to be used. Since Jesus isn’t physically present today to stay our hands, it’s good we can’t summon heavenly fire at will. Yet here in the west, particularly in the United States, many Christians seem to make a habit of wielding power. We take the commandment to make disciples of all nations and twist it into coercion. Never did Jesus force anyone to follow him – or even to respect him. Rather, he let some potential followers know they might not be ready. Have someone to bury soon? Want to finish up a few things? Maybe this isn’t for you yet. This was neither coercion nor rejection, but a free choice. Jesus moved on his way, and they moved on theirs.

So why do many Christians today find it difficult, when someone rejects Christ, to move on? We boycott (which may seem like moving on, but is decidedly aggressive), legislate against, picket, and ban people who don’t share our values, then wonder why our ranks dwindle. Such behavior doesn’t just fail to win people to Christ; it distorts the message of the Gospel into something repellent. Jesus warned us we’d be rejected, but now we have the numbers and influence to reject, condemn, and oppress … and too many times we choose to.

As we enter the week before Pentecost, let’s remember the last fire God sent from heaven was the Holy Spirit. Its flame rested visibly on each disciple’s head, and made it possible for all to understand them. Let’s choose our flame more wisely than James and John. Or move on.

Comfort: You aren’t bound by the law of rejection, but freed by the law of love.

Challenge: When fellow Christians speak in terms of rejection, speak up for love.

Prayer: Lord, light a fire in my heart to spread your good news to all. Amen.

Discussion: What’s a memorable example you know of Christians responding in love when they could have chosen rejection?

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Keep It Real

Christian Symbol

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 122; 149, Ruth 4:1-22, 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:10, Matthew 6:1-6


In television’s Game of Thrones, a tyrannical, tantrum-prone prince named Joffrey assumes the throne and becomes angry when his court doesn’t seem to take him seriously. In frustration he screams “I am the king!” His grandfather Tywin interrupts him with a now famous line: “Any man who must say ‘I am the king’ is no true king.”

Might we substitute “Christian” for “king?”

Jesus told his disciples to pray in private and give alms (donations to the poor) without drawing attention: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Flashy charity and public, wordy prayers were the habits of hypocrites.

We want to share the Gospel, but we must be careful not to blur the lines between evangelism and self-congratulations. The Good News is not that we have learned to condemn or avoid certain behaviors and people, or that we know who is going to heaven or hell. The Good News is not even that we live better lives. The Good News is that Jesus offers redemption to all who would accept it. If the message we’re spreading doesn’t express Christ’s love to Christians and non-Christians alike, we’re not evangelizing … we’re propagandizing.

Ever heard someone offer a compliment like: “So-and-so has money, but it’s ok because they don’t act like it?” That usually means the person is perceived as humble instead of snobby (or other negative traits fairly or unfairly associated with wealth). If someone said you were a Christian, but it was OK because you didn’t act like it, what would you think they meant? Probably they would mean you seemed humble and loving instead of self-righteous, condemning, or other negative associations we have fairly and unfairly earned. Would that be so bad?

Proclaiming ourselves Christians is not the same thing as proclaiming Christ. Of Christ we may and should speak boldly. Declaring ourselves his followers is and should be a humbling experience of being in service to others because we have been forgiven as much and more as anyone else.

Comfort: The evidence of your faith is written on your heart.

Challenge: Live so that people are drawn to the light that inspires you.

Prayer: I am the humble servant of Christ. Amen.

Discussion: If the word “Christian” didn’t exist, how would you explain your faith?

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These Boots Were Made For Preachin’

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 130; 148, Isaiah 45:18-25, Ephesians 6:1-9, Mark 4:35-41


In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul created one of the most popular extended metaphors in Christian literature: the armor of God. He writes about the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit. He also mentions shoes, but is noticeably less specific about them: “put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”

What do we put on to make us ready to proclaim the gospel of peace? As a society we design and purchase shoes specific to a countless number of functions. Sneakers are now court shoes, cross-trainers, running shoes, walking shoes, water socks, driving moccasins, and on and on. We buy shoes specific to occupations, seasons, and recreational choices (a tip of the hat to all you bowlers!). Perhaps we really don’t need so many kinds of shoes, but each makes its corresponding activity easier, safer, and more comfortable. That may be a good model for proclaiming the gospel.

Not everyone is open to hearing the good news in the same way, so we might want to think about stepping into their shoes. Some prefer an intellectual approach. Others respond to a more emotional testimony. And others learn more from observing our actions than listening to our words. There are probably as many ways people hear the gospel proclaimed as there are people … or styles of shoes. Our natural tendency is to proclaim the gospel in a way that fits us most comfortably: “If I am touched by emotional stories, you must be too!” Sharing the gospel with someone in a way that does not speak them can be awkward and even painful. Just as we might check the weather before deciding on flip-flops or snow boots, we should take time to get to know someone rather than forcing an inappropriate (and ineffective!) style of witness on them.

We can each become a collector of “proclamation” footwear – it’s free, takes up no space in our closets, and the more we have the more we can spread the good news!

Comfort: Your favorite style is a good fit for lots of other people…

Challenge: … but not for everyone.

Prayer: Thank you God for the diversity of creation; help me to understand people as they are, rather than expecting them to be like me. Amen.

Discussion: What’s your favorite style of Gospel shoes to wear?

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Scorched Earth

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 57; 145, Micah 2:1-13, Revelation 7:1-8, Luke 9:51-62


[A] village of the Samaritans […] did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
– Luke 9:52b-56

It didn’t take long for the disciples to become drunk with the power Jesus had given them. In their culture, refusal of hospitality was a much more offensive act than we would consider it today, but what about their experience with Jesus could have possibly led James and John to believe he would want an entire village utterly destroyed?

In hindsight the proposed Fireball of Vengeance was an over-reaction, but Christians still like to flirt with the possibility. Too often we approach Christianity like an imperial decree, and a reason to punish non-conformists. We want civil laws and corporate policies to reflect our Christian doctrines, and are willing to let the house (and the Senate) burn down before we will compromise to live peaceably with our non-Christian neighbors.

Codifying Christian values into law actually erodes faith by substituting fear of prosecution for voluntary submission to God. We should live out our Christian values (conservative, moderate, or liberal) regardless of civil law. Sometimes that costs us money, status, jobs, or even freedom, but Jesus warned us that would happen. We can’t bring an individual – let alone a nation – to Christ through victim-mentality legislation; we do so by offering a witness that shows how Christ has transformed our lives through grace and love, including love of our enemies (and not the punitive “for your own good” kind of love that demands nothing of us but everything of them).

Even in his confinement, Paul was an influential witness to Christ. In a nation that guarantees the greatest religion freedom in the world, let’s not be so ready to shackle ourselves to theocracy. A life lived in humble service to Christ and the least among us wins souls that religious scorched earth policies would destroy.

Comfort: You can live your faith regardless of what others believe and do.

Challenge: Treat your non-Christian neighbors (or Christian neighbors who believe differently than you do) as people who are also loved by Christ .

Prayer: Lord of Heaven and Earth, make me a bold and loving witness for Christ. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever excused your own less-than-Christian behavior because it was permitted under the law?

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Just one bite …

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 65; 147:1-11, Esther 6:1-14, Acts 19:1-10, Luke 4:1-13


Ever long for the day when your faith is so strong, temptation will never taunt you again? Spoiler alert: it will be a long wait. Even Jesus, when he spent forty days in the desert preparing for his ministry, felt the devil’s temptations to abandon his ministry for a life of worship and power.

Temptations can shame us. We think we are the only people tempted to think or act a certain way. Ironically we are especially reluctant to confess to those who could counsel us best, because we want to keep their respect. Instead we battle urges in silence and solitude, and the very thing we try to avoid – food, sex, gossip, drugs, alcohol – becomes the center of our attention because we have nowhere to banish it. Scriptures like Matthew 5:28 (“anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart”) convince us temptation has already condemned us.

When we speak openly to trusted counselors or support groups about our temptations we find that we are not alone. We also find speaking the truth unlocks the mental prison where we are trapped alone and wrestling with guilt. We learn scriptural words like “lust” and “covet” don’t refer to casual thoughts, but to ungoverned desire. We learn to check casual thoughts before they become ungoverned desire. Most importantly, we learn sunlight is the best disinfectant even for spiritual ailments.
When we pray “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” what are we really asking? To avoid all instances of temptation? Unrealistic. We are acknowledging temptation is part of life, and that we depend on God to help us cope. Tempted until the end of his ministry, Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that his burden might pass. The important lesson is that he submitted his will to God’s.

Don’t be discouraged – experiencing temptation doesn’t mean we’ve already lost the battle! Resisting temptation in small things helps us build strength in case serious temptations arise. Let’s follow the example of Jesus, and acknowledge our temptation, but choose to submit to God.

Comfort: God is greater than temptation; we just have to invite him in.

Challenge: If you struggle with temptation, find a place to talk about it.

Prayer: God of strength, deliver us from evil. Amen.

Discussion: How do you deal with temptation?

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Know When to Hold ‘Em

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 56; 149, Esther 2:5-8, 15-23, Acts 17:16-34, John 12:44-50


A young man asked me for advice about going on his first job interviews. He was going through his “emo” phase – hair grown out over his eyes, t-shirts with four-letter words, black nail polish. I suggested that for some  employers he’d need to adjust his look – hair out of the face, collared shirt, remove the polish. He replied: “If they don’t like me the way I am, it’s their loss.”

“Tell me how that pays,” I said, and explained people are rarely hired to be themselves; employers hire the parts that fill the role for the duration of the shift and want you to leave the rest at home. If they ask you to compromise your values, it’s not the right job for you; if they forbid t-shirts with rude gestures, make the concession. Self-expression is important, but not in all ways at all times.

Esther had a sort of involuntary job interview when she was taken with many women to the king’s palace so he could select a queen. She listened to the king’s eunuch, who “had charge of the women” and asked only what he advised. She also remembered her uncle Mordecai’s advice, and didn’t revealed her kindred or her people” who were Jewish exiles in Persia. The king chose Esther because he believed her beauty and temperament filled the role of queen.

Mordecai overheard a plot to kill the king, and Esther passed this information along, gaining favor for herself and her uncle. As Esther’s story unfolds, she wisely decides when to reveal herself, when to hold back, and how to gain the trust of the king.

Sharing the gospel is not unlike interviewing for a job, or courting a king – it’s not dishonest to exercise discretion. We don’t want to blurt out absolutely everything in a take-me-or-leave-me ultimatum. Trust and relationships take time. Bosses, spouses, and friends are more receptive to challenging ideas when they come from a trusted ally than from a stranger who claims to know better. People are not projects; to bring them to Christ, we must learn to love them first.

(For further thoughts on today’s reading from Acts 17, see The Unknown God.)

Comfort: You don’t have to win converts on the spot; take your time to get to know people, and Christ will shine through.

Challenge: Be deliberate about holding and freeing your tongue.

Prayer: Loving God, teach me when to speak and when to remain silent. Amen.

Discussion: Has your enthusiasm for a project ever backfired?

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Timing is Everything

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 147:1-11, Job 12:1, 14:1-22, Acts 12:18-25, John 8:47-59


One of the things people find annoying about Christians is that we just won’t shut up about it.

Years ago I was at a funeral for an infant. Such a tragically short life is difficult to eulogize, so it was no surprise the presiding pastor’s words were very general. What was surprising, at least to me, was how quickly he turned the service into an altar call. What exactly was he thinking? “You’re a captive, vulnerable audience focused on mortality … what better time to remind you about the dangers of hell!” Had this tactic ever paid off in a meaningful way? The approach felt less evangelistic than predatory.

We should always be willing to share the gospel, but we should be sensitive to when people are ready to receive it. After an angel freed Peter from Herod’s prison, he left Judea for Caesarea and stayed there. When the Jewish religious leaders were ready to stone Jesus because they did not want to believe his teachings, he hid and fled the temple. If the founder and the rock of the church know when to get out of Dodge, so should we.

Sharing our faith in a time and place where Christianity is not a new movement but the default expectation requires some discernment. To many non-Christians, and to many wounded faithful, we are perceived not as the new Apostles caring for the poor, but as the old hypocrites failing to embrace our own standards. Nobody in Rome 40 A.D. had been cut off in traffic by a van with a Jesus-fish sticker.

The message of Christ is always counter-cultural, even when Christianity is the culture. We don’t just have to share the Gospel, we have to contend with two thousand years of crusades, witch hunts, discrimination, and other baggage which have distorted it. To share our message of hope with people in their most vulnerable moments, we have to be vulnerable. To share it with people who are angry at Christianity, we have to first hear their complaints. We can best know when to speak by learning how to listen.

Comfort: You don’t have to evangelize every moment.

Challenge: It’s important to recognize the moments where you should.

Prayer: God of life, may my actions be a constant testimony, and may my words show people your love. Amen.

Discussion: What are your greatest challenges when sharing the Gospel?

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Raise the Roof

raise the roof

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 19; 150, Joshua 6:15-27, Acts 22:30-23:11, Mark 2:1-12


When people learned Jesus had returned home after several days away, a crowd gathered outside his home. It was so large that one man, whose friends had carried him there on a mat because he was paralyzed, couldn’t get near the door. Undeterred, they tore an opening in the roof and lowered him into the house. Jesus rewarded his faith first by forgiving his sins, then by healing his infirmity.

This healing was performed partly as a demonstration to those who questioned Jesus’s authority to forgive sins. The faith of the man helped Jesus further his ministry.

How hard would we work to get our friends to Jesus? Would we tear open a roof? Progressive Christians are generally uncomfortable with evangelizing; worrying about being “Bible-thumpers” creates a spirit of timidity until we are more likely to witness to a favorite new novel or sushi restaurant than push the Good Book and Bread of Life. There are other places to begin, though. Open a door to give them a place to stay. Open a window to freshen a sick room they can’t leave. And while doing so we can open our mouths to have a conversation about who inspires and strengthens us to live in grace.

Of course we shouldn’t try to force the unwilling to meet him. But we can lend a hand to lift up those who are paralyzed by fear, addiction, or guilt. When we suffer those same conditions ourselves, we may need to lean on the strength and faith of others to deliver us to Christ’s presence. Even when it seems impossible that we might reach him, there is a way to be found if we persevere.

When we break through whatever barriers are between us and Christ’s healing presence, we may be surprised to find what we really need is forgiveness — from God and from ourselves. Without a clean start, any other type of healing we experience will be incomplete. We are healed not just for our own sakes, but also to further Christ’s ongoing ministry by sharing our own witness of the good news.

Comfort: There are many ways to share the Gospel.

Challenge: Find one that is comfortable to you.

Prayer: Gracious and Loving God, help me find my voice so I may spread your Gospel. Amen.

Discussion: What is the most rewarding conversation you have had about faith?

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