My Love is Your Love

donotbefar

Today’s readings:
Psalms 22; 148, Jeremiah 5:1-9, Romans 2:25-3:18, John 5:30-47


My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.

These opening verses from Psalm 22 don’t inspire many feel-good sermons, yet they contain the essence of faith. The psalmist who wrote these words had a very realistic view of the world. He saw that evildoers often have the upper hand, and that the faithful suffer unfairly. He felt like a worm, like prey hunted by lions and trampled by oxen. Yet in his pain and despair, he continued to cry out to God. He continued to believe God would ultimately deliver him, as so many before him had been delivered.

The psalmist, despite his misfortune and persecution, refused to believe God was anything but just.

Many people believe personal wealth and comfort are signs of God’s favor, and that poverty and illness are signs of disfavor. If this was the case, why is it that God always seemed to be sending prophets to defend the widow and orphan against the abuses of the wealthy? Why is it the hypocrisy of the powerful elicits God’s wrath? The psalmist endures his troubles by trusting that God will ultimately prevail; his current status is not the barometer of a capricious creator’s mood swings, but of the corruption of the society around him.

When we cry for justice, do we think of it as something to be delivered to us or something delivered through us? It can be either or both, but if our cry for justice ends when our own bellies are filled while others remain empty, what we’re seeking isn’t justice. The psalmist’s hope for himself is inseparable from his hope for his community. He prays to belong to a kingdom that expects is citizens to feed the poor rather than despise them.

When we believe God is just, we behave justly. If we want to be the recipients of God’s justice; we must also be the instruments of it.

Comfort: God is always the source of justice.

Challenge: When you feel you are the victim of injustice, ask yourself how you are also part of changing that.

Prayer: God of justice, I seek your way for myself and my neighbor. Amen.

Discussion: What do you think is the relationship between sin and suffering?

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Willful Ignorance

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Deuteronomy 9:13-21, Hebrews 3:12-19, John 2:23-3:15


In legal terms, “willful ignorance” describes an intention to remain unaware of facts to avoid prosecution for them (like not asking a friend why he suddenly has a Rolex to sell you). The term has expanded into more general use to describe anyone who refuses to learn something because they want to remain comfortable or blameless. As a defense it doesn’t hold up well in court, and as a choice it isn’t morally defensible.

When Jesus tried to explain being “born again” to the Pharisee Nicodemus, Nick kept claiming not to understand. Eventually Jesus grew exasperated and said: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?  Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.” It wasn’t a lack of testimony that vexed Jesus: it was a listener’s refusal to receive it.

In his letter to the Hebrews, Paul reminded them how their ancestors abandoned the God who led them out of Egypt and made an idol of a golden calf. When Moses didn’t return quickly enough for them from meeting the Lord on Mount Sinai, the people justified their actions by saying: “this Moses […], we do not know what has become of him.” Not “let us learn more” but “let us do what we already wanted to.” It only cost them forty years.

We practice willful ignorance when we stereotype. When we dismiss solid science. When we make excuses for unethical acts of a politician we happen to favor. Many harmful environmental and economic choices are made with willful ignorance so we can enjoy the present without being accountable for the future. We are susceptible whenever we don’t want to surrender the worldview we prefer.

Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” If we aren’t willing to make friends with the truth, what kind of friend could Jesus have in us? God and faith survive facts, even unpleasant ones. If we’re going to be convicted of something, let it be the truth.

Comfort: Facts are not the enemy of faith.

Challenge: If you don’t like the facts, it’s not the facts that have to change.

Prayer: God of Truth, open my eyes. Amen.

Discussion: What facts do you have trouble accepting?

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So. Much. Bread.

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 96; 147:1-11, Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Galatians 4:21-31, Mark 8:11-26


If we experienced an event – not once but twice – where a few loaves and fishes miraculously fed a multitude, would it have a lasting impact on us?

Today’s Gospel reading takes place after that second feeding of the multitudes, yet the disciples don’t seem quite able to process the meaning of what has happened. Does their thick-headedness frustrate us? Certainly Jesus felt frustrated as his time on earth grew shorter and his need to teach them more urgent. When they later mistake Jesus’s metaphor of yeast for yet another bread shortage, he responds:

“Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and fail to see? Do you have ears and fail to hear? And do you not remember? […] Do you not yet understand?”

In other words, “What are you not getting about all this bread?!”

While the disciples were amazed both times the loaves and fishes multiplied, they failed to internalize the accompanying lesson: God’s abundance frees us for concerns beyond bread. It seems the impact of miracles on our faith and spiritual maturity is fleeting at best. This is an easy lesson to forget, because so many “ministries” promise a life full of miracles if we pray, repent, or donate enough. So much so, that when we don’t experience logic-defying miracles in our lives, we think something is wrong. Signs and wonders, or more accurately the lack of them, become an impediment to faith.

Who can say with authority why, when, or if miracles happen? They don’t define our faith – if they did, wouldn’t miracles alone have been sufficient for the disciples? Rather, Gospel miracles illustrate what life is like in God’s kingdom.

Apart from the odd cursed fig tree, Jesus’s miracles are about healing, abundance, and wholeness. We don’t have to be able to cure by laying on hands to contribute to this kingdom. When we forgive others, nurture the sick and feed the hungry, or embrace the alienated, we build God’s kingdom. When we live in Christ, each of us is a miracle waiting to bless the world.

Comfort: Our God is abundant in love and grace.

Challenge: God’s abundance can be expressed through our generosity; ask yourself where you might be more generous.

Prayer: Thank you God for filling me with the Bread of Life and satisfying me with Living Waters. Amen.

Discussion: Sadly, many people are genuinely in need of bread and clean water. How would you speak with them about God’s abundance?

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Whom do you trust?

godalone

Today’s readings:
Psalms 62; 145, Isaiah 51:17-23, Galatians 4:1-11, Mark 7:24-37


Trust is at the core of faith. Whom (or what) we trust reveals where our true faith lies. We can say and believe we trust God, but when pressed, do we turn to God… or to something else? Under trying circumstances, do we grow more generous in response to the increased needs of others, or do we cling more tightly to what we have? Do we trust our savior or our financial advisor? Psalm 62 warns us not to trust in increased riches, but we often place practicality above generosity.

Jesus himself accepted advice that living a life of abundance means not hoarding resources, especially spiritual ones. When a Syrophoenician woman asked him to heal her demon-possessed daughter, he responded by saying it wasn’t fair to throw the children’s food to the dogs. The children were the Jewish people, and the dogs – an insulting term in his culture – were the Gentiles. When the woman reminded him even the dogs got crumbs that fell on the floor, he relented and healed her daughter.

In that moment, Jesus displayed trust in a God abundant enough to transcend his mission among the Jews. Do we trust God’s abundance enough to be open to those who are strangers or even foes to us, or does a narrow vision of our mission limit what God can accomplish through us?

Sometimes we need to undergo some self-examination to understand where we place our trust. Paul reminds the Galatians that a person who trusts in anything other than God, such as the Law or superstition, becomes enslaved to that thing. Today we may cling to the law instead of love, or make idols of creeds or ideas. We may define ourselves by our looks, popularity, intelligence, wealth or any number of things which are impermanent at best, rather than by our relationship with God. If we lost any of these – or all of them! – tomorrow, we would still have God.

What things are we enslaved to; that is, what unworthy things divert our trust from God? Let’s trust God now, so we have nothing to regret later.

Comfort: When everyone and everything are gone, God remains.

Challenge: Meditate on what you really trust. When you begin to fear or worry, remind yourself to trust God.

Prayer: God of abundance, I place my trust in You. Amen.

Discussion: When have you been disappointed by something you thought you could rely on?

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Riding out the Storms

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 88; 148, Isaiah 50:1-11, Galatians 3:15-22, Mark 6:47-56


The Gospels contain a few different versions of stories about Jesus walking on water. In today’s reading from Mark, he begins striding across the Sea of Galilee when he notices the disciples in their boat are struggling against the waves. He came towards them to reassure them, but the shortest sentence in this story may be the most revealing: “He intended to pass them by.”

Jesus climbed into their boat only after they grew afraid because they thought he was a ghost. Until that point, it seemed he expected they would be capable of fending  for themselves. Only a few minutes away from his presence, and they lost courage and – it seems – the ability to recognize him. When we are struggling and afraid, it’s easy to lose our clear line of sight toward Christ and imagine all manner of horrors are approaching.

In those times, we need to remind ourselves and each other God has not abandoned us. What if – like Jesus walking past the disciples in the boat – God has more faith in our ability to weather the storms than we do? Our strength derives from the knowledge (if not necessarily the feeling) God is always with us, but he does not literally need to be in the same boat. Could it be possible that when God is moving in a direction we don’t expect, particularly one that is diverging from us, we might fail to recognize the movement as His?

Jesus was teaching his disciples more than how to follow him: he was teaching them to lead others to him. He left them (and us) the Holy Spirit, but he also left them with the reassurance he believed they were capable of feeding his sheep (John 21:15-17). It took a lot of stormy moments – culminating in the crucifixion – for the disciples to understand this lesson. If we are to be witnesses for the good news, we must not despair every time the boat rocks. During the worst storms, even if we are to drown, God walks the waters to lift us out.

Comfort: God is with us. Always.

Challenge: Try to live into the spirit of Courage which God has given us.

Prayer: God, I trust that even when you see far away, you are closer than I can imagine. Amen.

Discussion: Are you a worrier? If so, what about?

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Fertile Ground

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 15; 147:1-11, Isaiah 44:24-45:7, Ephesians 5:1-14, Mark 4:1-20


In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus tells the story of a man who scatters seed across several types of ground. Only one type is good soil where the seed may find purchase and bloom. The seed, Jesus explains to the disciples, is the Word and the different types of ground represent the hearts and convictions of those who hear it.

As Christians, we believe we are the good soil where God’s word takes root and “bears good fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” That may very well be true, but it may also be true that God hasn’t yet sown all the word He has for us. Does any serious farmer reap one successful harvest then stop tending the plot? Of course not. There’s a lot of work that goes into preparing for the next one. Are we still fertile ground for the new things God might do, or have we borne all the fruit we care to?

Good soil requires a lot of care. It needs to be tilled regularly. It needs water. It needs fertilizer. It needs to be weeded so its nutrients aren’t needlessly depleted. Sometimes it needs to lie fallow for a season to be restored to health.

In other words, good soil is no accident. We may have gotten lucky once – or perhaps more accurately, been the beneficiaries of God’s grace – by being born or reborn into the faith, but are we putting in the necessary work to prepare for the time when God would scatter new seed our way?

The insights resulting from prayer and study help us keep our faith freshly turned over. Worship and praise feed and water our souls. Self-examination and confession reveal the weeds we’ve let overrun our hearts and habits. Being open to new information helps us understand how we best function in a changing environment. And rest – the kind of rest that occurs only when we finally turn our worries over to God – gives us the strength we need to be fruitful during the more inhospitable seasons of life.

When we do this work, we are better prepared to receive and nurture whatever God throws our way: a new mission, a new journey, a new understanding. They can sink their roots deep into our hearts, and grow to their potential. The sower is generous with the seed; let’s give it somewhere to land.

Comfort: God is always doing something new.

Challenge: Select a spiritual discipline, such as fasting or prayer, and stick to it for a month. Note any changes and growth it promotes in you faith life.

Prayer: God of new life, I will do my best to be ready to receive your Word. Amen.

Discussion: When have you felt God pulling or pushing you to grow in a new direction?

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Float

Today’s readings:
Psalms 123; 146, Isaiah 44:9-20, Ephesians 4:17-32, Mark 3:19b-35


Stepping into faith is like walking with fists full of gold coins into a deep lake. The first few steps are invigorating – a refreshing dip for our weary soles. The sand may slip and shift beneath our feet, but if we feel unsteady the familiar shore is only a stumble away. As we go deeper, we feel more buoyant, lifted by a force far greater than ourselves.

But at a certain point, perhaps around the point the water becomes level with our hearts, we begin to notice the drag of those gold coins. And now we have to choose: settle for going no further, turn back in defeat, keep going and drown … or start getting rid of the gold.

Those gold coins have names engraved on them. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells us some of those names: theft, corruption, lust, falsehood, bitterness, wrath, slander, anger, malice. Maybe we’re having difficulty letting go of them; they seemed so valuable so useful! on the shore. We want to hold onto them in case these living waters won’t really support us, but it’s the holding on that makes us seem like we’re slipping under the waves.  Their illusion of safety ultimately leads to the deep, cold darkness.

Maybe we’re feeling foolish for not leaving them on the shore, or for forgetting our hands were not empty. The good news is, we can open our fists at any time. If we let these waters swallow our burdens, we will feel lighter. More free. Risen. Can we let go?

For an instant we let them drag us below the surface. We are suspended between two worlds – one that offers a familiar, inevitable death, and one that promises life if only we grab it … and nothing else. Each finger we uncurl, each coin we release, is a movement toward life. As the last coin slips between our fingers, we break the surface.

Hands free, we can spread our arms, lay back, and relax into the gentle surface of the lake and the certainty it will cradle us … and let the face of the sun shine upon us.

Comfort: The Living Waters of Christ will sustain  you.

Challenge: Grab a handful of coins. Name them for the things you need to let go in order to rest in Christ, and throw them in a lake or fountain.

Prayer: God of the Living Waters, let my spirit rest in you. Amen.

Discussion: What are some things you need to let go of?

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Spit It Out

Spit

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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Reasonable Faith

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 48; 145,g Genesis 12:1-7, Hebrews 11:1-12, John 6:35-42, 48-51


 “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

– Hebrews 11:1

“Faith” is a loaded term. We can’t quite agree on its meaning, at least not like we can agree on the definitions of “waffle” or “goldfish.” Even when we use it in the sense of “Christian faith” or “Muslim faith” we can disagree on the very foundations of those phrases. Instead we tend to pack it with our own assumptions and experiences, often so much so that conversation about it may become practically impossible.

As long as we have it, is there any pressing need to define “faith?” Perhaps not in a manner that we would use to persuade someone, but there is benefit to at least giving it some thought. Otherwise we run the risk of letting others define it for us, possibly to the point of undermining it. Seminary is all about the foundations of faith yet pushes quite a few people from blind faith to no faith. One reason is because they’ve allowed others to define their faith in terms of Biblical literalism, unexamined mythologies, or other beliefs that simply refute reality. When those beliefs are challenged, faith in them crumbles.

Critics of religious faith have used Hebrews 11:1 (“the conviction of things not seen”) to portray Christians as deniers of fact and believers in fairy tales. These are not the qualities and essence of faith. Faith is a surrender, not of reason, but of the need to build a sense of purpose on nothing but what we can prove. Even the scientific method requires faith that the laws of the universe are, on some level, reliable and predictable. Human beings can’t function without faith in something.

Does your faith hinge on something that could be disproved? Then it is not faith. Does it require you to deny reality? Then it is not faith. Does it provide you with the assurance that – no matter what evidence you must accept, nor hardship you must endure – your life and all lives have meaning as part of a greater reality beyond immediate comprehension? Then it is faith. But don’t take my word for it.

Comfort: Faith is both personal and universal, something to treasure and something to share.

Challenge: Don’t be afraid of things that challenge your faith, but use them as opportunities to grow it.

Prayer: God of infinite imagination, teach me to see the deep truths of your amazing world. Amen.

Discussion: What challenges your faith?

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Quantum Leap of Faith

Today’s readings:
Psalms 98; 146; Genesis 17:1-12a, 15-16; Colossians 2:6-12; John 16:23b-30


Birthdays. Anniversaries. New Years.

Certain annual events just seem to invite us to simultaneously reflect on the past and dream about the future. Other unexpected, less celebratory events such as the death of a parent or the loss of a job, may trigger similar feelings for us. Anticipated or not, these times leave us in a sort of “in-between” state when we are not necessarily in motion but contemplating where have been and where we are going. They can be fertile times for resolutions, plans and convictions – some which will stick, and some which won’t.

While periods of planning and intention often serve a purpose, sometimes we settle for intentions rather than actual change. If we are really going to grow as people, eventually we need to stop planning … and start changing.

Other than the TV show, what do you think of when you hear the phrase “quantum leap?” Many people think it means a large change, but it’s actually a term from physics that means an immediate change from one state to another with no intermediate phases – no “in-between” time. The phrase also describes a phenomenon in thought where we jump from Point A (perhaps a problem we are trying to solve) to Point B (its solution) without discernible steps and connections.

Spiritual growth can occur like a quantum leap. When Abram accepts God’s promise to become the father of the future nation of Israel, he is immediately transformed into Abraham. Paul tells the Colossians that when they were baptised they were raised from death along with Christ – a change in state if there ever was one. The psalmist tells us “The Lord sets the prisoners free” and “opens the eyes of the blind.”

Abram to Abraham. Dead to living. Imprisoned to free. Quantum leaps.

There’s nothing wrong with making plans, but often when we are called to act in faith, plans mean very little. Abraham’s wife (who leapt from Sarai to Sarah) planned to grow old and die childless, and laughed when God told her otherwise. We all should be careful not to let our plans become impediments to our faith.

The psalmist warns us not to place our trust in mortal plans that perish but in God alone. It may be wise to look before leaping, but if we can’t … maybe God is calling us to make a quantum leap of faith from blindness to sight.

Comfort: With God’s strength, you can keep moving forward in ways that may surprise you.

Challenge: Pick something you’ve been planning to change, and actually do it.

Prayer: Wise and Loving God, I will trust in your ways.

Discussion: Can you remember any times you had an unexpected shift in attitude, belief, or habits?

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