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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Faith Like a Child

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 2; 147:1-11, Isaiah 49:13-23, Isaiah 54:1-13, Matthew 18:1-14


When his disciples asked Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” he called over a child and replied, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” 

What trappings of adulthood cause us to stumble? Pride? Possessions? Whatever they are, we need to cut them from our lives like the offending hand or eye Jesus warned us about.

What does it mean to be humble like a child? It means realizing we are completely dependent on God for our well-being. Everything we have – treasure, talents, even time – is a gift from God. It also means admitting we have little if any control of anything beyond our own behavior. Ego and guilt can easily convince us we are somehow responsible for fixing the world’s problems, when the truth is most of what we can do is clean up our own rooms. We shouldn’t use that as an excuse to duck responsibility, but as a guide to creating healthy perspectives. Insisting on our own way, when that way comes from the narrow understanding of our own experience, can create one of those “stumbling blocks” Jesus warned against. We are to welcome each other as children, because we are all the children of our Creator.

Maybe being child-like grants us a little license to be annoying. Most children go through a “Why?” stage, where every answer they receive is met with another round of “Why?” They are eager to understand the world, and don’t settle for the first answer they receive. We should be just as eager to pepper God with the tough questions as many times as we need to. Some of them will never be answered to our satisfaction, but what we learn by pursuing those answers is invaluable. Be wary of spiritual leaders who have simple answers but discourage tough questions.

Child-like faith isn’t about naivete or ignorance, but about realizing it is more important to be humble than to be in control.

To read other perspectives on this passage from Matthew see The One and the Ninety-Nine and Hands, Eyes, and Butterflies.

Comfort: You don’t have to control everything.

Challenge: Don’t try to control everything.

Prayer: Creator God, I am but a child before You. Thank you for all you do for me. Amen.

Discussion: What does child-like faith mean to you?

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Naming our Faith

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 102; 148, Isaiah 33:17-22, Revelation 22:6-11, 18-20, Luke 1:57-66


Many cultures believe names – and knowledge of names – contain power. In some cultures a person has two names: one for public use, and a private, secret name known to a few or maybe only the one who bestowed it. In other cultures, a person acquires a new name upon completion of a rite of passage into adulthood. Within our communities, we are concerned with protecting “our good name.”

As Christians we don’t revere names as magical, but we do recognize the importance of identity. Christenings and confirmations are powerful examples.

In today’s reading from Luke, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth follows the instructions of an angel and names her son “John” (or more accurately the Hebrew Yôḥanan meaning “God is gracious”). Doing so defies the Jewish tradition of naming the child for a family member. People are so upset about this break in tradition that they demand a response from the child’s mute father Zechariah … but he stuns them when he confirms his wife’s choice by agreeing with her – in writing. This act frees him from years of silence that began because he didn’t believe the angel who prophesied John’s birth to him.

This act of naming – like John the Baptist himself – signifies a change in tradition. It shatters expectations. John defines his own wild, confusing, holy identity as the herald of the messiah.

As Christians, we too are in the business of defying society to forge identities in Christ.

That statement may seem dramatic in a predominantly Christian country like the U.S., but cultural Christianity and life in Christ are separate issues. Jesus fish magnets, Christian radio stations, and Christian dating websites are a sign that in some ways Christianity has become identified more with a consumer brand than a faith identity. Some Christians avoid calling themselves “Christian” not because they are ashamed of Christ, but because of negative associations with scandal and hypocrisy.

Even within the Christian community, we struggle against our own deeply ingrained traditions and expectations to seek the true heart of Christ, and are met with resistance and outright hostility from fellow Christians. When we have the courage to defy expectation and define our own names, our new voices – like Zechariah’s voice – can claim the name “Christian” for positive, meaningful, grace-filled ways.

Comfort: God does not name you as the world names you.

Challenge: With a small group, read and discuss The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne.

Prayer: God of Peace, name me as your servant. Amen.

Discussion: What does your name mean to you?

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Engaged

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 50; 147:1-11, Isaiah 29:9-24, Revelation 21:9-21, Luke 1:26-38


Workplace engagement is an area of increased focus for many employers. Engaged employees take ownership of their jobs, feel like an integral part of a bigger team, and enjoy performing beyond minimum expectations. Disengaged employees are not necessarily bad employees, but usually perform below their potential because the job has ceased to matter to them. But engagement doesn’t create workaholics – to the contrary, work/life integration is an essential factor of it. Disengaged employees often don’t bother to complain; they simply withdraw and go through the motions. Employers can’t single-handedly create engagement; both parties must communicate about and work toward it.

Religion and faith can be similar. Isaiah explains the frustrations of the prophets by saying they may as well be handing over sealed, unreadable documents as shouting from the rooftops. The people are disengaged. Those who can read won’t make the effort to break the seal, and those who can’t read already have an excuse. Nobody in this picture is invested in doing more than they have to. Disengaged, they honor God with their lips, but their hearts are far from him.

Mary, by contrast, is as engaged as it gets. When the angel Gabriel tells her she will conceive a son, she asks how that is possible for a virgin. It’s not a defiant question, but an honest inquiry. Mary wants to communicate – to understand the big picture. When Gabriel explains it all, she replies: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” That’s not a passive “Whatever you say…” but a commitment to be faithful even in uncharted territories. Like engaged employees, the engaged faithful know there is always a new challenge approaching over the horizon, and they step up to meet it. Mary, a betrothed virgin, knows she will be facing many challenges, but is dedicated to the larger plan of salvation for her people.

Like Mary, we should not passively resign ourselves to an inescapable fate. Rather, we should wrestle with it, hammer it out with our own angels, and find our place in the scheme of things. Sincere (if questioning) lips are preferable to distant hearts merely punching a clock until it’s time to check out.

Comfort: An engaged faith unlocks your potential.

Challenge: Where in your life are you simply going through the motions? Is it something you need to abandon or to take more seriously?

Prayer: Creator God, I pray for a heart like Mary’s, true and strong. Amen.

Discussion: Have you had a job you just didn’t care about? If so, what did you do about it?

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Line by Line

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Today’s readings:

Psalms 33; 146, Isaiah 28:9-22, Revelation 20:11-21:8, Luke 1:5-25


Not everyone loves the Christmas story. After forty, fifty, or more years of listening to it, some people feel it has nothing new to say to them. There’s never a twist, and while it speaks to children, adults – especially those who have moved on to a contemplation of theology more sophisticated than The Baby Jesus – are dealing with weightier issues. Where you are on your own journey is your business, but if you’re at a point where the Christmas story is little more than nostalgic, maybe think about the words of Isaiah – or more specifically, his critics.

When Isaiah and other prophets warned religious leaders they had strayed from God’s teachings, the reply of many of them was essentially: “We get it. You repeat it over and over. But we’re not children; we’re experienced leaders. You have nothing to teach us.” Or as Isaiah put it:

Therefore the word of the LORD will be to them,

Precept upon precept, precept upon precept,

line upon line, line upon line,

here a little, there a little.

They were insulted by the repetition, but the truth was they had corrupted the Law by turning it into something so complicated and burdensome that the widows, orphans, ailing, and aliens it was meant to protect were now its victims.

There’s a lot of theology out there, and those of us  who enjoy studying it can bury ourselves in denominational nuance and doctrinal detail … but those things can distract us from actually living our faith. Theory is not more important than reality. Talking about grace is not the same as receiving it.

So when we hear the Christmas story, let’s focus on whether we’ve actually listened to the messages it has for us today:

Finding God in humble places.

Making room for desperate strangers.

Looking beyond social stigma.

Mourning children sacrificed to political expediency.

Trusting God to see us through.

If these are merely theory to us, and not daily practice, we have yet to really master the basics. So at Advent and soon Christmas, as the story unfolds before us again, we are blessed precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little, there a little.

Comfort: It’s OK to still be mastering the basics of faith; simple is not the same as easy.

Challenge: This holiday season, make time to read the Nativity story from Matthew or Luke.

Prayer: Glorious and merciful God, I humble myself before Your wisdom. Amen.

Discussion: This year, what will you have to learn from the story of Christmas?

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Two Point Perspective

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 122; 145, Isaiah 11:10-16, Revelation 20:1-10, John 5:30-47


According to Mosaic Law, a lone witness was not sufficient to condemn someone of wrongdoing. Though two witnesses might still seem like a low threshold, it discouraged false accusations unless one could find a co-conspirator. That might be difficult, since a person condemned of false witness would have to suffer whatever fate they intended for the wrongly accused.

Thus when Jesus found himself before Jewish officials who demanded he validate his claim to be the Son of God, he declined to testify on his own behalf, but presented two witnesses – of a sort. He claimed both his own miracles and the testimony of John the Baptist as witnesses to his status. Had this been a formal proceeding his reasoning may not have stood up in court, but for the time it allowed him to continue his ministry.

Part of the beauty of Christian community is sharing our stories of how Christ works in our lives. When we struggle with doubt, the stories of a couple faithful friends can bring us hope. And if not hope, a line pointing toward hope. In geometry, a line is defined by passing through two points. Along that line there are an infinite number of other points, but only two are necessary to make it known. Once that line of faith is established, we can keep following it for as long as we need to.

If you were called to witness on behalf of Christ, to help create that through-line for someone, could you find a second witness to support you? Together, you and the second person define a line pointing toward Christ. We can be part of countless lines. The more stories we hear, and the more times we share our own stories, the more lines of testimony we create. And the more directions those lines run, the greater chance someone has of seizing onto one.

Our testimony not only honors our God, but creates a vast, intertwined safety net of hope. Let us speak often and joyfully of the love of God. Let us pray we may provide a safe landing for those fallen into despair.

Comfort: Your story is important.

Challenge: Make a point of talking with fellow believers about your story.

Prayer: Infinite God, author of all stories, thank you for mine. Amen.

Discussion: How do you feel about sharing your faith story with friends?  With acquaintances? With strangers?

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Be Prepared

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 24; 150, Isaiah 13:1-13, Hebrews 12:18-29, John 3:22-30


As we reach the mid-way point in our season of Advent, today’s scripture readings appropriately focus on preparation.

Psalm 24, written a thousand years before Christ’s birth, uses the metaphor of a king returning victorious from battle to describe the Lord assuming his place among his people. Not written about Jesus specifically, this psalm sets the stage for the hoped-for Day of the Lord.

Isaiah also describes the Day of the Lord (prophetically speaking, there were several such days), but from a differing viewpoint. Rather than describing a glorious victory, Isaiah warned the Babylonians of the destruction awaiting them for turning away from God and oppressing God’s people.

The letter to the Hebrews, written after Christ’s death, warned its audience to listen for the word of God so they would be prepared for Christ’s return. Its author claims that on the Day of the Lord his voice will shake heaven and earth, and he will return like a “consuming fire” burning away unrighteousness.

Our passage from John is more gentle. It tells us how John the Baptist willingly stepped aside when Jesus – the one for whom he had been preparing the way – began his ministry in earnest. John was content to have played his role faithfully, and sought no further adulation. Unfortunately, retirement would not be kind to John; because he had angered too many powerful people by telling the truth, he would soon be executed.

As common-sense as “failing to plan is planning to fail” may sound, we also have to accept that events of our lives, community, and globe are frequently unpredictable. The Jews and Babylonians, despite prophecy, weren’t ready for what happened. The audience of Hebrews was preparing for Christ’s literal return, but had to keep going when that didn’t happen. Like John the Baptist, we must be content with having faithfully done our part. We can’t control whether the world responds accordingly. When the Day of the Lord seems distant and unrighteousness all too near, our best preparation occurs in our own hearts, where God provides us the faith and strength to face what we must.

Comfort: Relying on God is the best preparation …

Challenge: … but be ready for God to ask you to do some challenging things.

Prayer: Loving God, I have prepared for you a room in my heart; may you dwell within me always . Amen.

Discussion: Isaiah and Hebrews both mention mount Zion – Isaiah as a spot of military-like victory, and Hebrews as a place triumphant through grace and mercy. How do you think about these contrasting visions of the Day of the Lord?

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Continental Divide

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 102; 148, Isaiah 7:10-25, 2 Thessalonians 2:13-3:5, Luke 22:14-30


A continental divide is a geological boundary which, simply put, separates rivers and streams draining toward one body of water from those draining into another. For example, the North American Great Continental Divide roughly marks the border between rivers flowing east toward the Atlantic Ocean and rivers flowing west toward the Pacific Ocean. “Going with the flow” has a different meaning on each side of the divide. If you want to navigate waterways successfully, you need to know where the divide lies.

To successfully navigate a spiritual life upstream we might want to think of it as having a similar divide, but instead of East versus West, it’s more internal versus external. When facing the internal – that is, ourselves and the things we can control – we should try to be objective critics of our own attitudes and behaviors. We progress by identifying where and how we can change, and accepting God’s grace and mercy to help us work toward that change. When we are facing the external – that is, other people and the world beyond our control – we instead need to reflect God’s grace and mercy, and withhold judgment.

Upstream isn’t always the easiest path. Isn’t it more pleasant to let the current carry us downstream? It’s less work. We can go with the flow and let our natural inclinations to excuses ourselves and to condemn others carry us downstream. But that’s the wrong direction.

Even at the Last Supper, Christ’s followers tended toward the easier, backward route.

After Jesus revealed that the one who would betray him was at the table with the disciples, he didn’t name a name. Did any of them (other than his actual betrayer, Judas) focus inward and ask “Could it possibly be me? Why or why not?”  No, each immediately denied the possibility it could be him and started trying to figure where to point the finger. This curiosity is natural, but if Jesus didn’t identify Judas, why did the disciples seek the right to condemn him?

After only a short time, the conversation devolved into an argument over who among them was the greatest.  We don’t get details, but judging from Jesus’s reaction, it was a lot of self-promotion. Nobody was arguing “No, I’m nothing; you’re the greatest.” The external focus was on dominating others rather than elevating them.

Jesus offers us rivers of living water (John 7:38). We need to learn to navigate them with inward humility and outward mercy to carry our faith where it needs to be.

Comfort: You are both the recipient of grace, and its reflection in the world.

Challenge: Though it’s almost cliched, be the change you want to see in the world.

Prayer: God of grace and mercy, I rely on you for all things in my life, and will share all things from you in the lives of others. Amen.

Discussion: Do you have any tendency to impose your faith on others when you should be asking questions of yourself?

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