Has your hour come?


Today’s readings:
Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Deuteronomy 8:1-20, Hebrews 2:11-18, John 2:1-12

In the lyrics to “Beautiful Boy” John Lennon famously wrote: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” (though he borrowed it from comic strip author Allen Saunders). It seems this may have been true even for Jesus.

The first miracle in John’s gospel is the transformation of water into wine at a wedding in Cana which Jesus attended with his mother. When Mary told him that the wine had run out, Jesus brushed her off: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” Undeterred, Mary instructed the waiters to do whatever Jesus told them. In short order, they had about 150 gallons of high-quality wine.

This is kind of an odd miracle for a public debut. It was at a relatively private affair with only a few witnesses. It doesn’t have the same life-changing impact as a healing, or the grandeur of feeding multitudes with a few leftovers. It doesn’t seem to have an agreed-upon theological interpretation. Given Mary’s expectations, it likely wasn’t even his first one.

Here’s what we do know: there was a need in front of him, and he met it. If we are to follow in his footsteps, maybe we don’t need to know much more. Many of us have plans and goals, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But if while we’re waiting for our hour to come we are so narrowly focused that we ignore the needs in front of us, whom exactly are we serving?

While we plan, let’s stay aware of the possibilities for service that at first blush may not seem to be of concern to us. Yes we all have demands on our time, but at the end of the day what will make that time matter? The lawn we need to mow won’t grow any taller during the five minutes it takes to check in with the ailing neighbor looking out her window. Our gesture does not need to be grand, nor our influence broad, to matter. Maybe we can’t all turn water into wine, but every one of us can turn time into love.

Comfort: Your small gifts can be enormous when given to someone else.

Challenge: Take regular pauses during your day to reflect on how you might serve someone in material or spiritual need.

Prayer: God of love, give me a servant’s heart. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever let your determination to reach a goal crowd out important things in your life?

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in-ef-fa-ble *
1. incapable of being expressed or described in words
2. not to be spoken because of its sacredness; unutterable

Applying words to God is a tricky business. Since God is infinite, any definition we construct is by definition insufficient. We write and speak about God, and around God, but the words we use are not God. Not surprisingly, some of the most powerful and revealing writing about God is not descriptive but poetic.

The psalmists and prophets were particularly gifted at painting their experience of God in vivid metaphors, some so strange as to be dreamlike. When discussing God as a saving force, Isaiah described a warrior with a breastplate of righteousness, a helmet of salvation, garments of vengeance, and a mantle of fury. God is infinitely more than a warrior, but for Isaiah this was an image that addressed the needs of the time. When we contrast that picture with Matthew’s picture of God as a mother hen gathering her chicks, it is apparent different metaphors for God serve different purposes.

One danger of metaphors is that we allow them to solidify into definitions. For example, God as “Father” is one of the most common metaphors, so common that many people take is as a firm definition. Many find this image strong and comforting, but to others who have not had good paternal experience it can be jarring, even alienating. While we should welcome the potential for growth that exists in grappling with challenging notions of God, when we insist on our own image of God is the sole defining one, we do a disservice to the God who is present for all people in all times and all places. Furthermore, we hamper our opportunity to experience God in ever richer ways by considering how God manifests to others.

The good news is that if no words are sufficient – all words are on the table. We may not be able to define God, but we can express our understanding of God in words and images that reflect our own experiences. We are not limited to existing, traditional terms that we find alienating or meaningless. To some people – people who feel the need to control the uncontrollable experience that is God – this notion is dangerous and heretical. But if our goal is truly to better understand God and not just to create a God in an image that is convenient for us, the work of doing so is holy.

Comfort: God can be present to us in many ways…

Challenge: … so we should stay alter to how God is present for other people.

Prayer: Ever-present God, though I may never succeed I strive to experience you as you are, not just as I would have you be.

Discussion: Are they any ideas of God you have abandoned or embraced?

* ineffable. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved January 08, 2013, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/ineffable

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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Stop! Collaborate and Listen.


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab / window):
Psalms 43; 149, Exodus 10:21-11:8, 2 Corinthians 4:13-18, Mark 10:46-52

Mark tells the story of Bartimaeus, a blind beggar who was sitting by the roadside when Jesus passed by on his way out of Jericho. When he realized it was Jesus, he began to cry out to him, but many people tried to silence him. Mark doesn’t identify these people who “sternly ordered him to be quiet,” but the implication is they were following Christ. The blind man’s persistence paid off when Jesus stopped to wait for him, then healed him saying: “Go; your faith has made you well.”

Have we ever been one of the silencers?

During Sunday worship as we follow Jesus down the road from the first hymn to the eventual benediction and dismissal, we aren’t generally fond of interruptions. How would we react to a blind beggar shouting out in faith in the middle of that Sunday journey? To a crying baby and exhausted mother? To a grieving widower who sobs when the joyful song we sing reminds him of the wife he just lost? Annoyed or uncomfortable, we may say something directly or simply rely on the pressure of the group to impose silence on their obvious need. Either way, the message is clear: don’t interrupt.

Perhaps we justify our reacting by telling ourselves they should wait for a more appropriate moment to express their pain. Yet what moment could be more appropriate than a gathering of the followers of Jesus? In worship or in everyday life, following Jesus means stopping where he would stop. If we won’t respond to need and pain until a convenient break in the scheduled activities … we’ve marched Jesus right out of town.

We can’t run down every single side street searching for blind beggars, but we must be careful not to ignore or silence the needy along our path because we insist on maintaining an inflexible agenda. They are not in the way; they are the way. Worship is more than prayer and praise; it is any expression of love and gratitude for God and his creation. Sometimes an interruption is an opportunity to do our most meaningful worship.

Comfort: Jesus hears your cries, even when others seem to ignore or silence you.

Challenge: God’s plans aren’t always going to be your plans.

Prayers: God of Mercy, teach me to be merciful to those in need. Help me hear their cries as I trust you to hear my own. Let me respond with loving words and deeds. Amen.

Discussion:  Who do you think you have silenced, accidentally or intentionally?

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Gimme Some Skin


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 22; 148, Genesis 40:1-23, Corinthians 3:16-23, Mark 2:13-22


It is our largest organ and one of our primary tools for interacting with the world. Through sensations like temperature, pressure and texture it tells us about our environment. Most of us recognize each other by the skin on our faces. Some of us mark it in ink to tell our stories. Others work against the story our skin tells, by hiding it under makeup, slathering it in moisturizers, bleaching it chemically, baking it under lamps, or cutting parts of it away. It is so essential to our identity that skin diseases and disfigurements can be socially crippling, whether through our own insecurities or the rejection of others.

We identify it with personality traits. We may be thick- or thin-skinned; things can “get under our skin”; we all want to be comfortable in our own skin; our attitudes may grow callused. It can reveal our inner state – sometimes to our dismay – through blushing, goosebumps and sweating. It is intimately connected to our physical and mental health: studies show that skin-to-skin contact reduces stress, promotes healing, and is vital for an infant’s emotional development.

Skin is so much more than a container. When Jesus says we can’t pour new wine into old wineskins (lest they split under pressure), his message isn’t just about storage methods or the need for religious institutions to be more flexible to contain larger truths. It’s about our need to redefine our spiritual identities so they can contain the new life God pours into us. Recreated in Christ, our new skin perceives the world in new ways. It is a new face to the world, who sees us differently in demeanor and action. The story our new skin tells does not need to be adorned or denied – it grows more beautiful with time. Our blemishes and imperfections remain part of our story, but they no longer hold us back, or allow others to; rather they become evidence of the transformative power of God’s love and forgiveness. Our inner and outer lives are in harmony.

Are we wearing our fresh skins? The new wine is ready …

Comfort: Your identity in Christ renews you from the inside out.

Challenge: In what ways are you spiritually inflexible? Ask yourself whether that’s due to conviction or obstinacy.

Prayer: God of renewal, prepare me to receive the new life you are waiting to pour into me. Amen.

Discussion: How do you feel about the skin you’ve been given? What role has it played in your identity?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 57; 145, 1 Kings 1:(1-4) 5-31, Acts 26:1-23, Mark 13:14-27

Succession planning, long a concern of dynastic governments, has been adopted by business as well. No matter how successful someone is, they can’t lead forever. Term limits, promotions, retirement – many factors drive the continual demand for new leadership. If an enterprise has a clear vision of its mission, succession planning is easier to tackle. If its mission is undefined or murky, finding solid candidates for future leadership roles can be especially challenging.

When King David grew old and frail, his son Adonijah began a popular campaign to be the next king. David didn’t know about it, but it angered his wife Bathsheba, who reminded him of his promise to make their son Solomon his successor. Did that promise mean anything, she demanded to know, or was Adonijah for all intents and purposes already king? David affirmed in front of witnesses that Solomon was his choice. Had Bathsheba not been on the ball, things could have gone very differently. David had not planned and it had almost slipped from his control.

Adonijah made the same common assumptions as many people in politics or business: it’s my turn, so I should be next. Succession planning isn’t just about bumping up the next obvious choice. The person who demands advancement most loudly isn’t necessarily the most qualified. Nor is seniority a qualification in and of itself. The choice needs to reflect the mission, or the mission itself may flounder. Less obvious choices may need time for coaching and preparation.

Paul was far from the obvious choice to spread the gospel of Christ, yet his persecution of Christians may have given him a singular insight into communicating with people who weren’t inclined – or were outright hostile – to hearing it.

The truth is plans only get us so far, but how we plan can make a big difference. Do our gifts align with our goals? Do our goals align with the gospel? When the right opportunities to serve God come along, will we be prepared to recognize and nurture them? We succeed not by imposing our own plans, but by preparing to embrace God’s plans.

Comfort: God desires only good for you.

Challenge: Try to stay out of the way of God delivering that good.

Prayer: Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. (Psalm 85:8)

Discussion: In what ways do you think you could plan better?

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