Body(building) of Christ

off the couch

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Isaiah 4:2-6, Ephesians 4:1-16, Matthew 8:28-34

One of Paul’s favorite descriptions of the Church is a body with Christ at its head. In his letter to the Ephesians, he explains how all the gifts of the community work together, just as all the parts of the body work together. He also says the Body of Christ needs to grow into maturity and unity. This growth requires exercise.

Why do we exercise our bodies? Is it just to look good, or is it to keep ourselves fit to accomplish more important tasks? Smart bodybuilders never sacrifice fitness for appearance. Lazy bodybuilders – and churches – do. It’s nice to show off our muscles – be they big biceps or beautiful buildings – but we should never prize them above the overall health of the body. Like healthy bodybuilders, healthy churches achieve results through hard work and good choices; shortcuts result in unsustainable outcomes and dangerous consequences. A body that serves no purpose but to promote itself is not a healthy one.

Bodybuilders are acutely aware of proper proportion. It is easy to focus efforts on areas that respond quickly, don’t tire us, or attract attention. Doing so exclusively, however, leaves key areas neglected. The boring parts are just as important. A church can have a dynamic and popular worship experience, but if it sucks away the energy that could go into mission, the body is out of balance. For bodybuilders such imbalance doesn’t just lose them tournaments, it increases their risk of injury. If the efforts of our Christian body are imbalanced, in the long run we hurt ourselves.

Prevention is the best way to manage injury and illness, but even the most diligent of us may get sick. When that happens, the worst thing to do is ignore it. Far too many people avoid the doctor because of embarrassment or fear. The body of Christ has the same tendencies. We often choose to protect our reputation rather than admit to real problems. Such behavior can be fatal. But it doesn’t have to be. Let’s be sure to take care of the Body in all the right ways!

Comfort: Flex the spiritual muscle you’ve been given – it’s important to the health of the body!

Challenge: Sometimes we think the things that are important to us need to be important to everyone. Try to understand what other people bring to the table that you can’t.What gifts might you undervalue or belittle?

Prayer: God of all good gifts, teach me to make choices to promote the health of the Body. Amen.

Discussion: What gifts – whether yours or someone else’s – might you undervalue or belittle?

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Not Against Us


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab / window):
Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Exodus 4:10-20 (21-26) 27-31, 1 Corinthians 14:1-19, Mark 9:30-41

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. claimed the most segregated hour in America was 11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning. Our chosen church communities tend to resemble us racially, politically, and economically. It’s comfortable and easy to be with people “like us” and erect tall walls on a foundation of small differences. However, comfortable and easy are not Christian virtues. Today’s readings contain lessons about being in community with people different from ourselves.

In Exodus 4, Moses meets his brother Aaron. Together they deliver the Lord’s message to the Hebrews. Moses was raised Egyptian, spent forty years living as a Midianite, and was slow of speech (possibly due to a speech impediment). Aaron was of the priestly Levite class of Hebrews and quite eloquent. Together they represented an effective marriage of substance and style.

In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul addresses the importance of the spiritual gifts of prophecy, speaking in tongues, and interpretation. While emphasizing the need for prophecy (defined not so much as making predictions but as speaking words of encouragement, rebuke, and consolation from God), he also asks the question: what good is speaking in tongues if no one understands? Without interpretation, a person gifted with tongues does not build up the community, and without something to interpret, a person so gifted doesn’t bring much to the table.

When the disciples complained about people who were casting out demons in Jesus’s name, yet were not following them, Jesus told them: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” He knew the common goal of spreading the good news overrode petty differences.

Insisting on our specific way merely protects our egos when other gifts and perspectives make us feel insecure about our own. When we build or join a community, do we seek those whose strengths and weaknesses complement our own? If a church wants to tackle poverty, but is mostly a lot of rich people deciding what’s best for “the poor” without knowing or even asking them, how effective can it be? A team of co-workers who all share the same perspective rarely create innovative solutions. Our diversity was not created to be a source of jealousy or conflict, but to help us help each other.

Comfort: Your weaknesses are an opportunity to appreciate someone else’s strengths.

Challenge: Make a point of attending a church service or social event with people you normally don’t interact with.

Prayer: Thank you, Creator God, for the great diversity of life. Teach me to appreciate the beauty in the abundant shapes and thoughts of your world. I praise your holy vision and creativity. Amen.

Discussion: In what areas of your life do you seek like company? Are these areas where it might make sense to diversify your community?

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Who Gives Speech to Mortals?


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab / window):
Psalms 84; 150, Exodus 3:16-4:12, Romans 12:1-21, John 8:46-59

When God appeared to Moses from a burning bush and asked him to confront Pharaoh about freeing the Israelites, Moses was understandably hesitant. After all, the Egyptian king already wanted him dead, and Moses had spent the last forty years as a humble shepherd. How could he effectively present himself as God’s messenger? He wanted assurance the Egyptians would believe him.

To convince Moses that Pharaoh would listen, God commanded him to throw his staff to the ground. It became a serpent, and then a staff again when Moses grabbed it by the tail. The Lord then commanded Moses to tuck his hand inside his robe. When he drew it out again, it was white with leprosy. At God’s command he repeated the actions, and it was healed. Armed with these signs and more, Moses still resisted, insisting he was slow of speech and tongue. God, seeming almost exasperated by the this point, replied: “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.”

Let’s consider for a moment the assurances God gave Moses. He didn’t arm Moses with magical amulets or enchanted weapons. Instead he said: show them your staff; show them your hands. God was telling Moses: “You are already equipped to do my work. Trust me.”

We often feel unwilling and ill equipped to do what God asks. Excuses come fast and easily. We lack finances. We lack time. We lack talent. But who gives us talent? Who makes us smart or senseless, rich or poor? When we answer the Lord’s call, he will equip us. This isn’t to say things will be easy. Moses experienced many trials both before and after his people left Egypt, and never entered the promised land himself, but God equipped him each step of the way.

Our gifts may seem completely ordinary until we trust God to use them, but when we do … who knows what miracles may happen and souls may be freed?

Comfort: You have been created with everything you need.

Challenge: Meditate on what you have to offer, no matter how small, that God could use.

Prayer: God of Creation, thank you for the many gifts you have given me. Teach me to see myself as you do: a child with limitless potential inspired by your love. Amen.

Discussion: What excuses do you use to avoid what’s asked of you?

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My Own Worst Enemy


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 22; 148, Exodus 2:1-22, 1 Corinthians 12:27-13:3, Mark 9:2-13

Identity is a funny thing. We think of it as an internally generated sense of self, but in large part it is externally imposed upon us. The world’s opinion of us does not change who we are, but it does change who we are allowed to be. Take Moses, for example. As a male Hebrew infant, he was considered a potential enemy and targeted for death by the king of Egypt. When the king’s daughter pulled him from the river where his mother had set him afloat in a basket, he became part of the royal household. Scripture doesn’t say how or when he learned he was Hebrew, but by adulthood he was sympathetic to the plight of his people. After he killed an Egyptian taskmaster for beating a Hebrew, his position in Pharaoh’s house no longer mattered, and the king wanted him dead again.

Moses fled to Midian, where he met his wife Zipporah. Upon their first meeting she assumed he was Egyptian. His accent and clothes told the world he was one thing. Inside he was another … but what exactly? Never a Hebrew slave under the Egyptian whip, never a fully privileged Egyptian, always conflicted. How long was it – if ever – before he felt like a Midianite? Moses had to do the hard work of being an authentic person with no real example to follow.

To some degree, outside expectations limit us all. Culture, economic status, and other forces categorize us without regard to our true selves and needs. It’s easy to internalize those expectations and never challenge them, but there’s more power in growing from the inside out. Able to see both Hebrew and Egyptian culture up close but with an outsider’s critical eye, Moses was uniquely qualified for the service God would soon call him to. Unable to conform to any labels, he was able to transcend all of them.

Your life experiences – especially those that don’t meet expectations – prepare you for a unique role. Moses was the key God turned to free the Hebrews. What blessings are locked behind a door only you can open?

Comfort: Your differences are a gift to the world.

Challenge: When you feel like an outsider, find a constructive way to use that perspective.

Prayer: God of creation, thank you for the good and bad times that have shaped me. Help me to understand my gifts so I may use them in service to your kingdom. Amen.

Discussion: Have you suppressed any of your natural traits and tendencies to fit in better with a group?

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No Excuses


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Genesis 46:1-7, 28-34, 1 Corinthians 9:1-15, Mark 6:30-46

In what ways are we humans responsible to each other? This question produces heated debates about public policy for everything from healthcare to school lunches to seat belt laws to immigration. While one side cries “nanny state” and the other cries “class warfare” both seem less interested in compassion than in domination. People of faith can not look to secular leaders – even Christian ones – for answers about how to respond to God’s call to compassion. Fortunately, we have Christ as our guide.

When Jesus led his disciples to what he hoped would be a place of rest, and instead found a great crowd already waiting, he didn’t complain or look for a different place. Rather, “he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” Compassion drove him even when he sought rest. Does our own compassion take precedence over our immediate fears and desires, or is it a slave to budgets, calendars, and convenience? It is tempting to make excuses when compassion asks for more than we want to give, especially to strangers. Compassion can be inconvenient, and may make demands of us when we are tired, hungry, or poor ourselves.

When the disciples asked Jesus to send that same crowd into town so they could find dinner, his response was: “You give them something to eat.” The disciples’ first reaction was to claim they couldn’t afford food for everyone. How often have we answered the call to compassion with similar excuses? Yet Jesus only asked them to give what was at hand, which turned out to be more than enough. He didn’t ask them to evaluate who was truly deserving, or to run a stewardship campaign to determine what resources were available. He trusted that God would use the gifts of the people to provide what was needed.

We can try to instill fairness, wisdom and compassion into secular society and government, but in the end Jesus is telling each of us: “you feed them” (or clothe them, or heal them, or help them). Will we respond with compassion or an excuse?

Comfort: The gifts you already possess are enough to make an important difference to someone.

Challenge: Of course you can’t be all things to all people at all times, but also try not to let yourself off the hook by dismissing what you have to offer.

Prayer: Gracious God, thank you for the gifts you have entrusted to me. Please bless me with the strength and will to use them in your service. Amen.

Discussion: In what ways are you stingy with your compassion? What excuses do you make for not using your gifts?

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Rocks, Thunder, and Dough

Your hands

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Genesis 41:46-57, 1 Corinthians 4:8-20 (21), Mark 3:7-19a

Our faith assures us that God knows us intimately inside and out. Psalm 119 declares: “Your hands have made and fashioned me.” All through our lives God actively shapes and reshapes us body, mind and soul. All who encountered Jesus were changed, usually spiritually, sometimes physically — and occasionally by name. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say Jesus revealed their true selves.

When Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter (“the rock”), he predicted Peter would be the rock upon which the church was founded.  But Jesus was not without a sense of humor. Being rock-like also implies stubbornness, and Peter had that quality in abundance. At the beginning of his journey with Jesus, Peter was not particularly self-aware, but over time  Christ transformed Peter’s character flaws into some of his greatest strengths. What other than faithfully applied stubbornness could have seen the Christian church through its early stages?

Then we have the disciples (and brothers) James and John, or as Jesus called them, “The Sons of Thunder.” They were outspoken and quick to action. These traits didn’t always pay off as intended, but once the brothers learned to temper them  with wisdom, they became central to Jesus’s mission both before and after his resurrection.

Paul is another example of repurposed character. As Saul he zealously persecuted Christians, but after his conversion he was even more dedicated to  spreading the Gospel. Such single-mindedness is not within most people’s grasp, but it equipped Paul especially well for his calling.

What character traits would you change about yourself? Is it possible God built them into you for a reason, and what really needs to change is how you understand and use them? Justice is often fueled by anger, and success by stubbornness (masquerading as “persistence”). God did not create you to be someone you’re not. When we feel convicted to change something about ourselves, it’s worth asking Christ how he might reshape that thing toward a better use. Raw dough is inedible but has the same ingredients as delicious bread. Sometimes we only need to bake a while longer to rise to our potential.

Comfort: God knows and loves you, for he created you just as you are.

Challenge: Make a list of what characteristics trouble you. Pray about how you can look at them differently to serve God.

Prayer: God of creation, thank you for making me in your image. Help me to understand what that means for my life. Help me to shape my gifts to best serve your Kingdom. Help me appreciate the gifts you have given others. Give me ears to hear the new name you have for me. Amen.

Discussion: What about yourself have you had to learn to love (or are still learning to)?

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Invitation: The Bow Lady

Every December, for about the last ten years, some friends and I spend a Saturday volunteering at a Christmas “store” run by a local church for families in need. Parents, grandparents, and guardians can select gifts for children and pick up a Christmas dinner while children do crafts and pick out gifts in another part of the building. Most volunteers are either wrappers or personal shoppers guiding the adults. Since I’m not comfortable starting conversations with strangers, and because I worked in a luggage and gift shop for years, I try to stick to the wrapping.
The first year there, I met The Bow Lady.

She was wrapping at the same table I was, but most of her efforts were concentrated on selecting exactly the right bow to go with the paper. Now every hour each table had to wrap dozens of presents that came in all shapes and sizes – from decks of cards to bicycles. The donated gift wrap was a mishmash of colors, styles, and quality and the bows tended not to stick very securely, if at all. Bows were not most volunteer’s highest priority. Sometimes, knowing they were going to fall off anyway, we just tossed a bunch into the bag to apply at home.

But The Bow Lady wanted exactly the right bow on every gift. Not just the ones she was wrapping, but on mine and everyone else’s as well. At one point she removed the bow from a gift I had just wrapped, and replaced it with one she thought looked better.

“Please don’t do that,” I said, feeling miffed.

She didn’t, but she kept making suggestions and nudging bows toward us before moving on to another table.

Over the years, The Bow Lady has remained consistent in her quest for the optimal bow for every gift. She never seems to stay at any table for too long. She doesn’t seem attached to any of the other little groups from the many churches and organizations who volunteer. I suspect she’s associated with the home congregation, but I’m not sure.

All I know is, she’s there every year insisting you could be better about your bow choices.

She hasn’t changed. But this year – about nine years too late – I have.

It occurred to me, I am somebody’s Bow Lady. I undoubtedly have habits and behaviors of which I am unaware that have irked people for years. Sadly there are also behaviors of which I am perfectly aware that seem baked into my fruitcake; they are unappealing, but I am as yet powerless to change them. Those are the ones causing that little bit of shame; a sense of not belonging. I don’t know whether The Bow Lady is aware of how her behaviors can annoy others, but it can’t be easy not having a table to call home.

All I know how to do is show up and be me, and The Bow Lady knows how to show up and be herself. And she has shown up. Faithfully. For ten years. It took me this long to realize the ministry of the Christmas store – like every ministry really – is about more than its stated mission. We can’t compartmentalize how we show Christ’s love to others. The Bow Lady is not an obstacle or quirk to performing the ministry, because every ministry falls under The Ministry. I need to love her better.

And please don’t get the idea I think it’s only me ministering to her. She has, for ten years, patiently asked me to be more thoughtful about gifts I am wrapping under the banner of Christ. Okay that one time it was not so patient, but never once has she been unkind. She is ministering to me also.

We are all showing up as ourselves, discontent but powerless against our own quirks and flaws, hoping to be accepted, and not as loving as we could be.

But there is a table we can call home. It’s Christ’s table. The gifts prepared for us on this table are perfect and timeless. Christ knows us – warts and bows and all – and welcomes us. And he asks us to welcome each other. Warts and bows and all.

If we can do at Christ’s table, we can learn to do it a little better everywhere. Every ministry is just part of The Ministry.

I hope The Bow Lady is there next December. I think Jesus would like it if I invited her to our table.

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

No Small Gifts


Today’s readings:  Psalms 48; 149, 1 Kings 19:1-8, Ephesians 4:1-16, John 6:1-14

The story of Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes appears in all four Gospels, and in the book of Matthew he repeats the miracle a second time. Christians and non-Christians alike understand references to this story. Some theologians interpret the miracle as Jesus magically increasing the supply of bread and fish, while others claim the real miracle is that Jesus inspired people to share with each other what they’d been hoarding.

A pivotal figure in this story is Andrew, the brother of Peter. When Jesus asks where they might buy food to feed the thousands of people gathered around him, the disciple Phillip says they couldn’t buy enough food with six months wages. Andrew, on the other hand, points out that a boy in the crowd has five loaves and two fishes but asks what good they would be among so many people. Why would Andrew have bothered to point out such a measly offering?

It seems that on some level, Andrew trusted Jesus to make do with what was available. On his own he would have never expected what he had to be enough, yet in the end he and the other disciples collected twelve baskets of leftovers.

How often do we feel like Andrew, looking at a seemingly overwhelming problem and wondering if our meager talents and resources could possibly help? In the face of need throughout the world, our ability to draw, bake, shingle a roof, or lend an ear might seem like a raindrop falling on a forest fire … but we should trust God to make do with what we bring to the table – because we bring the gifts he gave us. When hungry people are fed or cold people are clothed, does it matter whether it was supernatural or sharing and division of labor? No, because God’s grace drives the results.

Jesus sends us, equipped just as we are, to feed the multitude. Instead of saying: “This is all I have to offer…” perhaps we could pray: “Thank you Lord for blessing this small gift so that it may accomplish great things in your name.”

Comfort: Even when your gifts seem small to you, God can make great use of them.

Challenge: What talents have you been holding back because you think they’re not good enough? Find a way to put them into service for your community.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for giving me the gifts that are right for me best serve you. Amen.

Discussion: What do you think your gifts are?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll  have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!


All Good Gifts


Today’s readings (click to open in new window):
Psalms 96; 146, 2 Samuel 23:13-17b, 2 John 1:1-13, John 2:1-11

In the Gospel of John, Jesus performs his first miracle (John calls them “signs”) at a wedding in the town of Cana. At his mother’s urging,  he reluctantly turns water into wine because the wedding has run out. The chief steward of the reception, upon tasting the wine that was formerly water, tells the bridegroom: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” This tells us a lot about the nature of generosity and giving.

It tells us God’s gifts are top quality – always! When a prayer isn’t answered how we want or expect, or when God calls us to do something difficult or unpleasant, the problem is not with the gift. When we feel like asking “Is this really what you meant to give me, Lord?” the problem may lie in our perception. Not that every hardship is a gift in disguise; God certainly doesn’t give us cancer or domestic violence. But if we approach life as though the Spirit is nudging us toward wholeness, invaluable life lessons and spiritual riches abound. When someone gifts us with lessons – music, tennis, foreign language – the gift is only valuable after we have put the work in.

What about gifts we give? Do we hold back the good wine? While we can’t give beyond our means, we shouldn’t cheap out because we are giving to charity. We’ve all heard: “They should be grateful to get anything at all” and we’ve all seen 10 year old cans of cocktail onions on food drive collection tables. The point is not to judge the giving of others, but to be faithful about our own. We don’t know when someone is giving despite their own need, and we should be wise about stewarding our funds, but when we are giving in Christ’s name let’s keep in mind that in God’s eyes the recipients are no more or less deserving than we are. The good wine – or at least the best wine we can afford to share – is for everyone.

Comfort: God’s gifts to us are never lacking.

Challenge: For one week, set aside a food bank donation (in cash or kind) equivalent to your own lunches. At the end of the week, note whether the donation came out of your excess, or whether you had to scale back a little to give an equal amount. If your present circumstances don’t permit for donations, try splitting your leisure time evenly between your own activities and helping others.

Prayer: Lord, teach me to be generous, and to give with a loving heart. Amen.

Discussion: We can have complex feelings around gift-giving, especially when they feel obligatory, such as during the holidays. How do you feel about gift giving?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll  have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Uncommon Good


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 147:12-20, 2 Kings 23:4-25, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, Matthew 9:18-26

President Theodore Roosevelt is credited with saying “Comparison is the thief of joy.” The Apostle Paul spent a good chunk of time assuring members of the early church that they need not compare their spiritual gifts: each one – wisdom, prophecy, healing, tongues, etc. – had its own important role to play. He wanted them to understand “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

“Common good.” That’s a phrase that’s become loaded. Though it was a principle of the earliest Christian communities, today it’s as likely to be associated with socialism. And like socialism, common good is a slippery term which not everyone can agree on. Perhaps there’s no real incentive to find agreement; the common good often demands the personal not-as-good.

But all those spiritual gifts Paul lists (and some he doesn’t) have something in common: they are useless until we employ them in service to someone else. Healing, wisdom, and prophecy aren’t too impressive if no one benefits from them. For that matter neither are generosity, empathy, and patience. It seems the common good is inherent in the activities of the Spirit.

Christianity is a full contact sport. If we are not willing to encounter people – via whatever gifts we’ve been given – in spirit, mind, and body how can we possibly be servants to all? We say we are blessed by things like talents, resources, and relationships, and while we may legitimately benefit from them ourselves, they are meaningless until we use them to bless someone else.

Maybe you don’t feel like you have blessings to share. If so, could that be because you’re unfavorably comparing what you have to offer with other people’s gifts? If we can’t seem to find our gifts, maybe instead of looking inward at what we lack or sideways at what someone else has, we should look outward to see what other people need. If we want to feel the charge of the Spirit moving through us, we might have to establish contact with someone else to complete that circuit. Only by getting to know people do we learn what good needs to be done.

Comfort: You have something someone needs.

Challenge: Be open about your needs so that others might feel more comfortable letting you know about theirs.

Prayer:  I bless the LORD who gives me counsel; I keep the LORD always before me. (from Psalm 16)

Discussion: Have you ever assumed you knew what someone needed and later learned you were wrong?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!