Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 65; 147:1-11, Ecclesiastes 3:1-15,Galatians 2:11-21, Matthew 14:1-12

Is there anyone among us who hasn’t at least once held their tongue or behaved, if not contrary, not quite in alignment with their beliefs to keep the peace? Maybe we didn’t want to ruin Thanksgiving dinner by responding to inappropriate comments from our racist cousin. Maybe we didn’t want to alienate a boss and agreed to a decision we knew was unethical. Maybe we grabbed a cigarette behind the elementary school with friends. Young or old, in large ways and small, peer pressure impacts all of us throughout our lives.

Though they had little else in common, Peter and Herod both found occasion to sacrifice their principles on the altar of appeasement.

In the years after Christ’s death, church leadership was up for grabs. Peter may have been Jesus’s rock, but many disciples considered James, the brother of Jesus, a more natural successor.  In his letter to the Galatians, Paul describes a confrontation with Peter, who “lived like a Gentile” and was not overly concerned with observing Jewish laws until the arrival of some representatives from James (Paul calls them the “circumcision faction”). Suddenly Peter put up a good Jewish front in an attempt to please James and preserve unity in the fragile young church. Paul did not feel the same need for deference – since it bowed to the exclusion of Gentiles from the faith – and accused Peter of betraying the spirit of Christ’s teaching.

King Herod didn’t make good decisions. Contrary to Jewish custom, he divorced his first wife to marry his sister-in-law. John the Baptist publicly spoke against this arrangement. At a drunken party, Herod foolishly promised his step-daughter anything she wanted. At her mother’s urging she asked for the head of John the Baptist. Herod didn’t want to kill John and feared the consequences, but he was more afraid of losing face with his guests.

Giving in or going with the flow may feel easier in the moment, but it doesn’t sit well with our consciences later. In some cases it backfires and delivers trouble on a silver platter. Even with the best intentions, we must be careful how we compromise. Turning the other cheek is not an excuse for being two faced.

Comfort: You don’t have to make everyone happy.

Challenge: When you are torn between speaking your mind and keeping the peace, ask yourself what will be sacrificed if you say or do nothing.

Prayer: Loving God, guide me at all times in the balance of being faithful to you and loving toward your children. Amen.

Discussion: Is there a situation where you regret not sticking to your principles because you didn’t want to cause trouble?

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The Staircase


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Genesis 45:16-28, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 6:13-29

The French have an expression: l’esprit d’escalier. Its translation is “staircase wit.” It describes that moment someone thinks of the perfect retort – but too late, such as when we’re out the door and down the stairs after a confrontation. If such a confrontation catches us unawares, we can easily find ourselves dumbfounded.

Herod, the ruler of Jerusalem, was a target of John the Baptist’s criticism because Herod had married his brother’s wife Herodias. Herod imprisoned John to silence him, but was afraid to have him killed because the people considered him righteous and holy. Shortly after, a drunk Herod had his step-daughter dance for his court. He was so pleased, he promised her anything she wanted. After a quick consultation with her mother, she demanded John’s head on a platter. Herod was stuck.

Afterward, Herod probably had a lot of staircase moments. Perhaps he wavered between wondering how he didn’t see it coming and how he could ever have anticipated it. What could he have done?

Evil, when it emerges, bewilders us. Maybe that’s why it so often seems to have the upper hand. It goes places and does things we could never dream of. Stunned, we look up from the bottom of the stairs and it is still laughing at us.  As followers of Christ, our loving response can seem inadequate and even pitiful. Though what else can we do but love? Friedrich Nietzsche, while not a man of faith, wisely said: “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster.” Our uncertainty and delay in responding to evil isn’t always a weakness; rather it is evidence we have not yet learned to think like monsters.

The beauty of stairs is that they travel both directions. We are not trapped at the bottom in a state of regret. Meeting evil with more evil is quick and easy. Instead, we need to gather our breath and wits before ascending to confront it again. With God and Christ on our side, we can afford to play the long game. In the end, no matter how slowly, God assures us love wins.

Comfort: Though evil in the world may seem overwhelming, goodness and justice persevere.

Challenge: Resist – or at least seriously evaluate – the urge to combat hate and violence with more hate and violence, even if it feels good or justified. Pay attention even to the language you use: does it approach conflict with an attitude of conquest or of reconciliation?

Prayer: Merciful God, please grant me strength and wisdom to confront evil where I find it. Bless me with the confidence to persevere when discouraged. Thank you for your faithfulness in all times and places. Amen.

Discussion: Jesus tells his disciples to be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” How do we learn to anticipate evil without damaging our souls?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, Hosea 5:8-6:6, 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, Matthew 14:1-12

Guilt makes us behave in strange ways. Take Herod, for example: as Jesus and his ministry became more prominent, Herod became convinced Jesus was really John the Baptist resurrected with supernatural powers. Earlier Herod had executed John (who had embarrassed the family by publicly criticizing a marriage scandal), but he didn’t really want to. He actually liked listening to John preach, but his wife (whom he’d taken from his brother) and her daughter forced his hand. Guilt and embarrassment about his marriage forced Herod into a rash decision to execute John, and the guilt of the execution made him paranoid about the world. Like many a guilty party, he was looking over his shoulder waiting for the shadow of his misdeeds to overtake him.

Guilt urges us to overcompensate, sometimes by becoming falsely generous and sometimes by attempting to turn the tables and project our wrongdoings onto the people who remind us of it. Politicians and preachers who rail about conservative family values and then get caught doing the very things they condemned aren’t just hypocritical, they are suffering the destructive side effects of guilt. Very often spouses who cheat handle their guilt by buying their partners extravagant gifts, making accusations against them to deflect attention from their own wrongdoing, or avoiding them. It’s the rare individual whose behavior remains unaffected by feelings of guilt, and those effects are corrosive and unhealthy.

Fortunately Christians know a healthy alternative to guilt: repentance. Repentance is not the same as penance (good deeds to make up for the bad) or mere remorse; when we repent, we turn in a different – and better! – spiritual direction. We may not be able to avoid the consequences of our past actions, but we no longer repeat or dwell in them. Where guilt keeps us chained to shame, repentance severs those bonds and frees us to move on. Our past, once a minefield of failings waiting to detonate in our present, no longer threatens our peace of mind.

John the Baptist called the world to repentance. We answer that call by accepting the grace God offers through Christ.

Comfort: If you suffer from guilt, there’s a better way.

Challenge: Take an inventory of your guilt. How could you trade it for repentance?

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for your mercies. May the compass of my heart always seek your true North. Amen.

Discussion: Do you think it’s possible to forgive yourself for something you think you might do again?

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