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.). Unabridged. Retrieved January 08, 2013, from website:

Doubt, Pray, Love


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 26; 30, Ecclesiastes 11:1-8, Galatians 5:16-24, Matthew 16:13-20

No matter how strong our faith, we eventually have a day – or perhaps an achingly long series of days – when God seems far away. We don’t talk about those days much. Rather, we feel pressure to put on a brave face. Expressions of doubt during a Bible study prompt our friends to offer arguments for belief which are probably more about their reassurance than ours. A minor breakdown during prayer time is viewed as unseemly and inappropriate, maybe even fodder for parking lot gossip.

Loss and weakness are fine to discuss if we’ve already overcome them, but no one likes to watch the sausage being made. A story of beating a gambling addiction? Testify! A confession about how your ongoing blackout drinking leads to promiscuity? Better save it for the 12-step meeting. We talk a good game about brokenness, vulnerability, and healing but we really want to skip right to the “after” photo because the “before” mugshot is too upsetting.

The Psalms tell a different story. Many of them describe how we can be simultaneously faithful and in a wretched state. The author of Psalm 130 is crying out to God from the depths of despair. He recognizes his own failings and shortcomings. He finds himself unable to do anything but wait for the Lord and hope for the best. He still puts his trust in God but he’s not putting up a brave front.

Questions, moments of weakness, and despair do not demonstrate a lack of faith. They are the times that tell us whether we had any faith in the first place. Like the psalmist, sometimes the best we can do is beg God to get us through the darkness while we hunker down and hang on until daylight.

A healthy faith community will offer a safe space to rail against injustice, struggles, and the seeming distance of God. It will face darkness head on but shine a light into it. Since communities are made of people, the responsibility of creating such space then falls on each of us. We can be ourselves when we allow others to do the same.

Comfort: God is big enough to love you through your anger and doubt.

Challenge: It can be difficult to navigate when to express our pain and when to keep it to ourselves. Read this piece on how not to say the wrong thing.

Prayer: Loving God, my source of strength and security, thank you for weathering my doubts and fears. I will trust you to see me through this and all days. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever found relief after sharing something you had been keeping to yourself?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 36; 7, Ecclesiastes 8:14-9:10, Galatians 4:21-31, Matthew 15:9-39

Imagine you are going to ask your employer for a raise or a promotion. You’ve prepared a list of all the reasons you think you deserve it. Are you also prepared to hear your boss share any reasons she or he feels you don’t deserve it?

What about when we decide to offer unsolicited criticism to a friend or coworker? Are we ready for them to return the favor?

Real-life conversations are not like those in a movie or television episode where someone gets to say their piece without interruption and leave the scene with a dramatic exit. When we initiate a challenging or difficult conversation, we should be prepared to hear what the other party has to say. Sometimes that means things won’t turn out the way we want.

The author of Psalm 7 knew this. When asking the Lord to save him from his enemies, he must have been certain of his own blamelessness to say:

O LORD my God, if I have done this,
if there is wrong in my hands,
if I have repaid my ally with harm
or plundered my foe without cause,
then let the enemy pursue and overtake me,
trample my life to the ground,
and lay my soul in the dust.

Fortunately for those of us less confident in our own righteousness, Christ teaches us that we are not caught in a cycle of tit for tat – that God’s mercy isn’t contingent on our blamelessness, but on our own willingness to show mercy ourselves. Unlike asking for a raise, when we ask God for forgiveness, we don’t need to build a case for it so much as humbly acknowledge and repent of our wrongdoing. When we feel convicted of our sins and failings, the Spirit isn’t trying to beat us down into a place of guilt, but to lift us up to a place of renewal.

Eventually we all need to face difficult truths about ourselves. The difference between the world and God is that the world wants you to improve before it can love you, and God loves and forgives you so that you can improve.

Comfort: God loves us despite our flaws.

Challenge: Ask a trusted friend to suggest a way you could improve, then pray about it.

Prayer: Merciful and loving God, thank you for loving me where I am today, and loving me enough to lead me somewhere better tomorrow.

Discussion: What flaw do you struggle to change?

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Ordinary Blessings


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 108; 150, Job 38:1-11, 42:1-5, Revelation 19:4-16, John 1:29-34

Divine intervention. We are taught in Sunday School to believe it looks like great reward or great punishment defying the laws of nature – like the parting of the Red Sea or the walls crumbling around Jericho; like the resurrection of Lazarus or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the case of Job, divine intervention felt both like punishment and reward: God stripped everything he loved and valued from him, then restored his fortunes because he remained faithful. Behind the scenes, the motivations for divine intervention in Job’s life weren’t really about him at all.

We should call God’s involvement in the life of John the Baptist a blessing – after all, he had the privilege of preparing Israel for the arrival of Christ – but his reward for faithfulness was execution. When we hear examples like this, does it diminish our enthusiasm for a divine hands-on management style?

What if divine intervention wasn’t always quite so … obvious? It seems counter-intuitive that God would create a universe in need of constant tweaking, but might it be possible that interaction with God is built into the fabric of creation? That we go through each day touched by God in small ways we may or may not notice? Not that the Spirit is some cosmic personal assistant saving us a good parking space or sparing us from the same financial woes someone else is suffering (though there’s nothing wrong with expressing gratitude for these situations).  Every experience we have is an opportunity to connect with God, but we must choose to make that connection.

When we don’t get that parking space or pay raise, are we just as grateful? When we compare our lives to peers we consider more successful than ourselves (never a good idea, but inevitable), do we acknowledge the blessing of an ordinary life?

Maybe divine intervention doesn’t look like God altering the world for us, but God altering us for the world.

We can’t all be leaders and prophets. We can all be followers of Christ. Surrendering our lives to God makes us the very instruments of divine intervention. If we want to see God at work in the world, let’s look inside first.

Comfort: God is available to us always…

Challenge: … but insisting on our own way can make God seem distant.

Prayer: Holy God, thank you for being present in my life even when I don’t feel you. Amen.

Discussion: In what ways do you feel God has changed you to better serve the world?

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Washing Our Hands of Mercy


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 122; 149, Ecclesiastes 5:8-20, Galatians 3:23-4:11, Matthew 15:1-20

Christianity has existed for almost two thousand years. Over the centuries it has evolved in some ways into something Jesus might barely recognize. Or maybe it evolved into something he would find all too familiar: an institution whose highest priority is too often its own preservation;  an institution that claims a scriptural basis but predictably twists that scripture to justify human preferences and biases. If that criticism sounds harsh, consider today’s reading from Matthew.

The Pharisees and scribes criticized Jesus and his disciples for not performing the traditional hand-washing before meals. Jesus countered by condemning them for using man-made conventions to help people shelter their money through the temple when they didn’t want to “waste” it taking care of their aging parents. The letter of the law permitted this practice, but undermined the spirit of the commandment to “honor thy father and mother.” When the disciples later expressed concern he’d offended the Pharisees, he said:

Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions […] These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.

Twenty centuries have accumulated a lot of traditions which obscure the message of Christ. Many of them were intended to guide us, but often we have let them come to define us. Rules and practices specific to a time or culture are revered like commandments not because they honor God, but because they honor our self-righteousness.

“We take communion the proper way. We baptize the proper way. We say the proper Sinner’s Prayer. We don’t do X, Y and Z…” Jesus does not ask us only to avoid sin, he asks us to love proactively. What good is not taking the Lord’s name in vain if we don’t speak that same glorious name in love to others? How well do we serve God by condemning abortion but neglecting the hungry children of single mothers?

Law and ethics are separate fields of study partly because you can observe the first without having any concern for the second. Our duty as Christians is to love God and our neighbors. Often our disagreements about how to execute that duty are based more in traditions and biases than in love. When we are quick to discipline or enforce in God’s name, but slower to demonstrate mercy, we disrespect God’s character. As Psalm 103:8 tells us, “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.”

Let’s demonstrate our love for God – and by extension each other – with both our lips and our hearts.

Comfort: God’s love is bigger than our traditions.

Challenge: Sometimes to love, we must unlearn.

Prayer: Loving God, teach me the humility necessary to follow your will instead of human laws.

Discussion: Have you had to discard any traditions or customs to better follow your faith?

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Mustard Seeds


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 130; 148, Proverbs 23:19-21, 29—24:2, 1 Timothy 5:17-22 (23-25), Matthew 13:31-35

Have you ever heard someone say they love gardening because it brings them closer to nature? This is somewhat ironic, because manicured lawns and gardens are anything but natural. Nature is not tidy rows bent to human will; it is rambling and untamed. Gardeners fight nature with fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides to make sure desirable plants  thrive in an orderly fashion, and the plants they don’t value are removed or destroyed. Left to her own devices, nature would overrun most gardens and lawns with a beautiful and diverse ecosystem we call “weeds.”

When Jesus told the parable of the mustard seed – the tiny seed which grows into a great shrub to shelter birds – he wasn’t talking about mustard as a cultivated crop. In his culture, mustard was often a highly invasive plant species which was difficult to remove once it infested a field. Essentially, he was comparing his followers to a persistent nuisance – to weeds.

The Kingdom is all about the humble persistence of small acts of faith. As much as the world tries to insist its structures are the right way to do things, followers of Christ appear and reappear like weeds to defy its exclusionary boundaries. And try as we Christians might to impose order and uniformity through religion, visionaries and prophets spring up among us to remind us God’s vision can’t be contained within ours. In the parable of the mustard seed, it is the nuisance shrub which becomes a great sheltering tree for those needing a safe place to roost. Does that sound like the church today? Or are we busy balancing the soil pH for roses because dandelions are too common and don’t look as pretty?

Gardens aren’t bad. Genesis tells us humankind began in a garden. They can be beautiful, functional, and therapeutic. They can also be expensive, time-consuming, and exhausting. A worship service is like a garden – carefully selected blooms of song, prayer, and scripture to inspire and nourish us. But we can’t spend our entire lives inside church. The Kingdom grows in the wilderness, a sprawling tree for all who seek God’s shelter.

Comfort: Your life doesn’t have to be pretty to grow in the Kingdom.

Challenge: Regularly examine your expectations about church and faith, and ask yourself how God has defied them.

Prayer: God of the garden and the wilderness, I will worship you and spread your love in all places. Amen.

Discussion: What scares you about wandering in the (actual or metaphorical) wilderness?

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Just Because


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, Job 38:1-11; 42:1-6, Revelation 19:4-16, John 1:29-34

Some questions have no answers, or at least none we can understand. Job was a righteous man who’d been greatly blessed by God; he had a large family, lands and livestock, and good health. When Satan (not the devil we think of, but a member of God’s court known as The Accuser) claimed Job would lose faith if God revoked his favor, God took the bet. He killed Job’s family and livestock, struck him down with terrible disease, and left him a ruined man sitting on a dung heap.

Job’s friends tried to explain why these terrible things happened to him. Saying he must have sinned, they blamed Job for his own ills, but he knew he was innocent. Like well-meaning people at a funeral who tell bereaved family members “it’s part of God’s plan,” Job’s well-meaning friends didn’t manage to offer one comforting word. We all desperately want things to make sense, but sometimes they just don’t.

When Job finally gets to confront God, God’s response is pretty unsatisfying: “Where were you when I created the earth, the seas, and the heavens?” In other words: “know your place.” God doesn’t even feel obligated to disclose the wager. Sure God gives Job a new family and restores his fortunes, but can that ever make up for what was lost?

Is there any comfort to be found in this story? If we can let go of our need to explain everything, there is the comfort of a certain harsh wisdom. Sometimes disaster will rain down on you for no apparent reason. It won’t be your fault, and honestly there may not be a silver lining. Trying to assign it a purpose may leave you looking and feeling as ignorant as Job’s friends.

We. Don’t. Always. Get. To. Know.

However, we can know that in the midst of our worst times, and God is with us and rooting for us not to lose faith. If there’s a lesson to be learned, learn it. But don’t let your need to find one be more important than your need to trust God anyway.

Comfort: When bad things happen to you, sometimes it is the unknowable nature of the world, not a reason to believe you are being punished.

Challenge: When you can’t find meaning in tragedy, you may be called to make meaning from it.

Prayer: God, I will trust you always. Amen.

Discussion: What in your life doesn’t seem fair? If you stop insisting that it make sense, does that make it easier or more difficult to accept?

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Make Time for Miracles



Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 104; 149, Proverbs 8:22-36, 3 John 1-15, Matthew 12:15-21

So often our faith is tangled in doctrine, politics, and other distractions. We rely on it in (or find it lacking) in times of difficulty or sadness. The church emphasizes sin, sacrifice, and the cross. When we focus on the glory of resurrection, it is inevitably linked to the suffering that led up to it. These are all realities in our life, but they are not the only realities.

God called the creation good. We are loved enough to be saved. There is beauty all around us but most of our busy lives permit so little time to appreciate it and draw spiritual sustenance from it. Scriptures like Psalm 104 are important because they remind us the story of creation is not all about battling the forces of evil and repenting of our own wickedness; it is also about the marvels God has showered on this world.

When we have the opportunity, we need to take time to simply appreciate the wonders around us. When we are tired or hurting, it strengthens us to understand there is something glorious happening. The seasons themselves are cyclical miracles of rebirth, growth, maturation, and rest. Winter snows melting into spring rivers; summer harvest yielding to autumn abundance; no matter what time of year, we are in the middle of a miracle.

In addition to the seasons, the psalmist writes about the diversity of life, from birds to fish to cattle to trees to flowers. He writes about valleys with rushing rivers, majestic mountains, and lush fields. Day and night and everything they each reveal has a purpose. Between the tiniest creature creeping on the ground and the moon illuminating us from high above, the world is full of beauty that exists because God is good.

This goodness is not always foremost in our minds. When we experience disease, poverty, oppression, or any of a host of ills, it may seem far away, even impossible. Yet it exists alongside us at all times. Finding time to find the good may not solve our problems, but ignoring the good makes God seem all the more distant.

Comfort: You have permission to take time out from everything else to find beauty in the world.

Challenge: Each day this week, write down three beautiful things you have observed.

Prayer: God of Creation, thank you for the wonders all around me. Amen.

Discussion: In places of war or extreme poverty, beauty may seem absent entirely. Can it be found there?

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Praise the Lord!


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 93; 150, Exodus 28:1-4, 30-38, 1 John 2:18-29, Mark 6:30-44

Our relationship with God, like any relationship, can grow complicated and cluttered. Once in a while it is good to lay aside prayer requests, theology, and Bible study and focus on simple praise. Even prayers of thanks draw focus back to our own needs. We need to praise God for nothing other than being God. Such praise reminds us why we love God to begin with, and helps us settle firmly back into the foundations of our relationship.

If we can get to church and are inclined to do so, corporate praise and worship can move us even further outside ourselves. The atmosphere and music can kick-start the praise experience in a way we may not be able to accomplish alone. While we are just as close to God while at work or in front of the television, a good praise service can help us feel that closeness in more intense ways, and maybe help reset our attitude for the week.

If we don’t attend church, other resources are available. We can find praise music in almost any style we like. Actually sing – it’s the difference between praising and listening to someone else do it. If singing is not our thing, or if we want a more varied experience, the Psalms are rich with words of praise. Today’s selected Psalms are great examples (particularly 150 and 117). Becoming familiar with the Psalms is a great way to learn resources not just for praise, but for any type of prayer – the Psalms walk us through all conditions of life. If you aren’t yet familiar with the Psalms, the last five (146-150) are almost pure praise. They were written to be sung, so at least read them boldly aloud. Proclaim them!

If none of these suggestions meet your needs, find a manner of praise that works for you. Dance. Raise your hands and bow your head. Shout “Hallelujah”! The important thing to keep in mind is that the experience should be outwardly focused toward God and the glory of what God is and does. Praise plants us firmly, rights our perspective, and refreshes our souls.

Comfort: Praise is something you can do any time, any place.

Challenge: Is your praise time focused on who God is, or what God has done for you? The difference is subtle, but important.

Prayer: Lord of all Creation, I praise and bless your name. Your steadfast love endures forever. Amen!

Discussion: What is your favorite form of praise?

Evening Psalms: 136, 117

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The Message Is The Same


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Exodus 19:16-25, Colossians 1:15-23, Matthew 3:13-17

There’s an old marketing belief that prospective customers need to hear your message seven times before they become interested in your product. Given the scene at Mount Sinai in the days preceding God’s arrival, God may have been a marketing major. As God descended the mountain hidden by a thick cloud, He told Moses to keep the people off the mountain, lest they be destroyed by the very sight of God. Moses seemed a little confused when he replied: “The people are not permitted to come up to Mount Sinai; for you yourself warned us, saying, ‘Set limits around the mountain and keep it holy.'” The gist of God’s response was: “OK. Go get your brother. And keep the people off the mountain.”

God’s warning wasn’t a threat; to the contrary, He was concerned with the welfare of the people. The destruction was not a consequence of His wrath, but His mere presence. If this scene had been written for a movie today it would surely foreshadow someone’s ill-conceived attempt to approach the mountain, but Exodus doesn’t mention anyone disobeying the warning.

When Jesus asked John the Baptist for baptism, John was reluctant because he felt unworthy, but he quickly consented. “And when Jesus had been baptized […] suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'” Quite the contrast to Sinai, isn’t it?

Hearing from God can be terrifying, or it can be exhilarating. It’s terrifying when we realize charging that mountain may mean, for our own good, utter destruction of life as we live it. But when we’ve submitted ourselves to God, as John the Baptist had, God’s voice is reassuring and life-giving. Our perception depends very much on whether we are open to receiving the message … but the message is the same either way. God is always calling us to new life. Are we being dragged uphill against our will, or are we enjoying the mountain view?

Comfort: God’s message is always one of love…

Challenge: … but we may need to do some work before we can hear it.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for always reaching out to me. I will do my best to answer your call willingly and enthusiastically. Amen.

Discussion: Do you feel God speaks to you? If so, how?

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