A Quiet Kind of Loud


Today’s readings:
Psalms 92; 149, Isaiah 25:1-9, Acts 4:13-21 (22-31), John 16:16-33

What might Peter and the disciples have meant when they prayed for God to help them “speak his word with all boldness?” The most obvious meaning of “bold” might be “courageous and daring” … a stance the disciples had struggled with in the past.

Bold can also mean “impudent.” Following Jesus required the disciples to buck convention, especially when religious authorities tried to maintain the oppressive status quo. No matter how truly a servant speaks, if the master doesn’t like the truth it can sound like insubordination.

Another definition is “beyond the limits of convention.” The disciples were asking Israel and eventually the Gentiles to turn their thinking upside down and embrace a paradoxical theology. If the first are last and the last become first… who exactly is on first?

While we are still called to speak God’s word boldly, we must also be humble. For many people, boldness means loudness, intimidation and arrogance. In our current culture many leaders choose to promote this attitude over setting examples to follow. Sheer volume can become the conversational equivalent of might making right. This is not the way to effectively spread God’s word. When someone yells or is overly forceful, the natural instinct of their target is usually either to retreat or to respond in kind. We can’t alienate someone and hope to communicate with them at the same time.

Companies with good customer service train their representatives to respond to angry customers by listening first, reflecting the customer’s feelings back to them, and then responding positively, firmly and calmly without ever raising their voices. This is bold in the sense that it goes against the natural impulses of the representative and redirects the customer. A good customer service agent defuses a tense situation and leaves the customer feeling satisfied – even when the customer is wrong.

We are not called simply to placate, but if we are to be servants to the world, our attitude must be one of service. We do not need anger and hostility to validate a just cause. A quiet truth, spoken boldly and persistently, overcomes the loudest empty noise.

If this approach smacks of “tone policing” – that is, telling someone their understandably emotional tone invalidates their otherwise reasonable argument – let’s try to remember that we are responsible for both listening and speaking with love … but we can’t control how anyone else speaks or listens. Sometimes we must choose between self-righteousness and effectiveness. Our truth remains firm, but our delivery method usually has to meet people where they are.

Comfort: Truth speaks louder than anything.

Challenge: The next time you need to make a point, don’t raise your voice; lower it.

Prayer: God of hope, teach me to be bold and humble. Amen.

Discussion: How do you react to boldness?

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Sordid Gains


Today’s readings:
Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Deuteronomy 7:6-11, Titus 1:1-16, John 1:29-34

Titus was a student of Paul who helped him evangelize on the island of Crete. After Paul left, he charged Titus with spreading the true Gospel among its people. This presented a challenge, because many Jews living in Crete wanted to stick with their laws and practices, such as dietary restrictions and mandated circumcision. Most of these people were understandably conflicted; for their whole lives they’d been taught to follow God in a very specific way, and now their devotion to Christ was not quite sufficient to convince them it was no longer necessary.

However, where some people experienced genuine struggle, others saw an opportunity to capitalize on that struggle. As Paul wrote, “they are upsetting whole families by teaching for sordid gain what it is not right to teach.” Much of the gain was financial, but influence and power were also up for grabs.

Paul cautioned Titus to appoint elders who exhibited self-control, humility, and trustworthiness. These qualities are important because they provide examples of spiritual commitment and maturity, but also because they are shared by people whose motivations are more likely to be genuine. Anyone put into a position of power – from the leaders of small congregations to the leaders of world powers – will be tempted to abuse that power. This tendency is indirectly enabled as their power grows and people become less willing to challenge them. That deference creates a void which is gradually filled by an inflated ego. Power corrupts not only by tempting us, but – once attained – by insulating us from factors that would normally keep us humble. Faith leaders must remain diligent to maintain a servant’s heart.

Leaders who have our best interests in mind will correct us, but not coerce us. They will explain, but not exploit. Appeal but not appease. We shouldn’t reject someone simply for having a ministry that has resulted in worldly success, but neither should we assume that success indicates they are good ministers. Are they helping us listen for God, or taking it upon themselves to speak for God? An insincere answer, supplied to maintain an illusion of wisdom, does far more damage than no answer.

We follow Christ. Anyone who encourages us to look to them before looking at Jesus is wandering in the dark.

Comfort: No one stands between you and God.

Challenge: Trust your instincts. Don’t be afraid to challenge leaders when you feel they have strayed, but also be open to correction yourself.

Prayer: Thank you Lord for being present to me always. Amen.

Discussion: In today’s reading from John, John the Baptist was willing to give up his very successful ministry when Jesus arrived on the scene. Have you ever held onto something – a job, a ministry, influence – because you felt threatened by someone else?

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Choose Your Own Adventure


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, Isaiah 41:1-16, Ephesians 2:1-10, Mark 1:29-45

According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’s ministry quickly took off in a big way. In Capernaum he healed many people and drove out many demons, and word of his power spread quickly. Soon the entire city was at his front door. (Or more precisely, the door of Simon and Andrew’s place where he was staying.)  As he traveled with his disciples to spread his message to the neighboring towns in Galilee, “A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’”  And Jesus, moved with pity, said, “I do choose. Be made clean!”

Did Jesus ever choose not to heal? Did he ever choose to turn anyone away?

Some people may say yes. They may point to the rich young ruler who went away heartbroken when Jesus told him to sell everything he had and give the money to the poor. They remind us of the many people who abandoned Jesus after he presented them with a particularly difficult teaching. And they trot out the man who wanted to bury his father but was told to “let the dead bury the dead.”

Except Jesus didn’t turn any of those people away. They walked away. They chose to walk away.

Some preachers warn we soften the harsher truths of discipleship when we say Jesus accepted everyone. Maybe that’s so, but that doesn’t mean we should start deciding for ourselves whom Christ would reject, because we don’t know. A primary controversy of his ministry was based on fraternizing with “unclean” people the “righteous” people shunned. Once we decide we’re in the camp of the righteous, our view is skewed. Saul counted himself righteous and literally hunted Christians before he became the apostle Paul who wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

Rather than worry about other people’s choices, let’s direct our energies towards modeling our own choices after Christ. Without compromising our values, we can always find ways to choose mercy. Choose forgiveness. Choose to give the benefit of the doubt. Choose generosity. Choose to recognize dignity. Choose humility. Choose love.

Even when these choices are unattractive or difficult, they are still ours to make. The cost of making the right choices is a burden we voluntarily bear ourselves, not one we should force onto others.

Comfort: Jesus does not reject you.

Challenge: But that doesn’t mean you can’t reject Jesus.

Prayer: Loving God, help me make choices that reflect your love and righteousness. Amen.

Discussion: Have you made choices that other people have had to pay for?

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Humble Piety

Today’s readings:
Psalms 46 or 47; 147:12-20, Isaiah 65:1-9, Revelation 3:1-6, John 6:1-4

The Gospels may be “The Good News,” but many of the things Jesus taught us – or perhaps more accurately re-taught us – were good and old. Centuries before Jesus reminded the people of his day that true obedience to God meant embodying a spirit of mercy and justice – rather than mercilessly following the letter of the law – Old Testament prophets had tried to deliver the same message. Isaiah told the exiled nation of Israel she had lost God’s favor because of her “holier than thou” attitude (not even paraphrasing – see Isaiah 65:5). Their burnt offerings, once a pleasing fragrance, became a stench in God’s nostrils as they substituted superficial piety for love and mercy.

Flash forward 800 years, and no one seemed to have learned anything. The occupying force may have changed from Babylon to Rome, but the Jewish people still needed to hear they were like whitewashed tomb: dressed up on the outside, but decaying inside. Flash forward another millennium or two and – no surprise – followers of Jesus need to hear we might be a little too focused on displays of piety and not enough on mercy. Who are the prophets of the message this time? Certainly many voices from within the church, but more telling are the voices of outsiders looking in. Surveys consistently reveal that non-Christians perceive Christians as hypocritical and judgmental. When non-believers are filling in for Isaiah and Jesus, it’s time to take note.

Misplaced piety seems to be a chronic condition of the faithful. And lest we begin to feel too superior for reigning in our own pious impulses … that’s a form of it also. The good (old) news is that prophets speak because there is always hope we will listen and change our ways. Sowing mercy and justice is challenging work. It’s much more comfortable to check off lists and to follow familiar rules than to listen to the voices telling us we need to reevaluate what we think God wants from us – especially when that might mean others will look down on us. When we feel challenged, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Rev 3:6).

Comfort: God’s message to us has remained constant.

Challenge: We have to do the work of properly understanding it.

Prayer: God of Grace, teach me to be merciful.

Discussion: We are all sometimes guilty of hypocrisy. What do you do when you find yourself acting like a hypocrite?

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Faith Like a Child


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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Line by Line


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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Continental Divide


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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Monkey Meat


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, Numbers 11:1-23, Romans 1:16-25, Matthew 17:22-27

“The Monkey’s Paw” is a short story about a mystical artifact (a mummified monkey paw) that has the power to grant three wishes. You are probably familiar with some of the numerous film, television, or other adaptations of this story. The paw twists the wisher’s intent to grant their desires in horrible and disturbing ways. One man wishes for a sum of money, and receives the exact amount as a settlement for his son’s accidental death – the ultimate “be careful what you wish for” moment.

After the Israelites had been wandering the desert for a while, many of them grew tired of eating the manna God provided. Manna was basically boiled into a cake, and people wanted meat. God – displeased with their lack of faith and gratitude – told them they would get meat “until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you.” While God is not malevolent like a Monkey’s Paw, there are still consequences for not wanting to work with the world as God has provided it to us.

Paul’s letter to the church in Rome addresses people who exchanged their understanding of God for something that was more to their liking. In a sense they wished for God to be different in a more worldly and decadent manner, then proceeded to act as if their wish had been granted. The consequences of dissolute living degraded their bodies, minds, and spirits.

As Christians we believe in resurrection and transformation. To many people that may seem like wishful thinking, but we trust that through Christ and the Holy Spirit, God transforms our hearts and our world. Though we must be careful not to get ahead of ourselves and confuse what we hope for with what God is doing. When our endeavors don’t go our way, we assume they have failed. When the Spirit moves through people we can’t bring ourselves to call righteous, we reject their words and efforts. But God creates evangelists from bounty hunters and prophets from murderers … and he doesn’t always clean them up to our satisfaction first.

We don’t change the world by following wishes, but by following Christ. If that’s too bland for our tastes, or not bland enough, we can wish for something different. But in the end, our own wishes taste loathsome when compared to the fruits of the Spirit.

Comfort: Resurrection, better than any wish, is unfolding all around you.

Challenge: When making plans, periodically and prayerfully check in to make sure you aren’t confusing your ideas for God’s.

Prayer: Thy will be done. Amen.

Discussion: Can you recall any experiences in your life when you wanted something and God wanted something better?

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Civil Disobedience


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 51; 148, Proverbs 8:1-21, 2 John 1-13, Matthew 12:1-14

The Gospels contain several examples of Christ breaking the Law to serve a greater good. In today’s reading from Matthew he hits the Pharisees with a double whammy. First, he and his hungry disciples pick heads of grain to eat while they are walking through a field, though the Law forbid harvesting on the Sabbath. Then Jesus heals a man with a withered hand (also work forbidden on the Sabbath) and justifies it by asking his critics if, had they only one sheep and it fell into a ditch on the Sabbath, would they lift it out?

As followers of Christ we understand God “desires mercy and not sacrifice” yet many civil and religious laws attempt to bind us to legalism over mercy. When are we called to civil disobedience – that is, disobeying the law out of Christian conscience? Without respect to their merit, some examples include conscientious objectors during wartime, refusal to sign marriage certificates for gay couples, and passing out food to homeless people despite local ordinances forbidding it. Further complicating the matter, Paul tells us in many scriptures to obey the civil authorities because they have been appointed by God.

What can we learn from Jesus’s examples of lawbreaking? Jesus breaks the law to show mercy to others – the sick, the hungry, and the outcast. He doesn’t do it to benefit himself, or to make a show of his piety. To the contrary, his actions compelled religious leaders to seek his destruction. Even when he cleansed the temple by driving out the money changers and livestock dealers, he was confronting a system that was technically legal but exploiting the disadvantaged. That’s the flip side of the coin: pretending our adherence to the law excuses our unmerciful behaviors.

We can’t opt out of society’s laws altogether – that’s simply anarchy – but when the law compels us to do something contrary to God’s desire for mercy, we must stand for God. Like Jesus we must be willing to suffer the consequences of obeying that higher law. And we must do it with the humility of a king whose only crown was thorns.

Comfort: You don’t have to fight every little aspect of society that doesn’t dovetail with your faith…

Challenge: …but you should be willing to stand up in the face of injustice.

Prayer: God of wisdom, teach me when to humbly respect authority, and when to humbly confront it. Amen.

Discussion: Have you broken the law – or the rules – to show mercy?

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Not So Obvious


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Leviticus 26:27-42, Ephesians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:41-46

Jesus certainly seemed to enjoy stumping the Pharisees. When he asked them whose son the Messiah was, they confidently answered “David.” But when asked them how David could call the Messiah “Lord” if he was also his son, they had no answer and were afraid to ask any more questions. What had been obvious to them moments before was no longer so. There’s a certain satisfaction in reading about Jesus puncturing the Pharisees’ balloon of smugness. Maybe that’s partly because at one time or another we’ve all been on the receiving end of something similar; we’ve probably also been on the giving end.

One of the words most likely to undermine effective communication is “obvious.” When something seems obvious to us, we treat it like an objective reality. If someone else can’t see or understand it, we question their powers of observation and / or comprehension. The truth is, we all bring different perspectives to life. Draftspersons create two-dimensional orthographic drawings and three-dimensional isometric drawings to illustrate the complete dimensions of an object. Without representation from all sides, otherwise “obvious” details are easy to miss. Consider a cylinder: from the end it looks like a circle, but from the side it looks like a rectangle. Both are equally true and equally incomplete. When we think something is obvious and someone else does not, it is not a reason for ridicule, but a signal that one or both of us could learn from an additional perspective.

Since we aren’t Jesus talking to the Pharisses, it’s probably better if we don’t get a reputation for providing withering responses to questions or different opinions. We might like to interpret that as people thinking we are clever, but it more likely means they think we are close-minded. You don’t have to shut down a co-worker, friend, or spouse too many times by arrogantly pointing out the “obvious” to them before the lines of communication collapse.

In any given situation, we may be seeing only the end of the cylinder. While it’s obviously a circle, insisting that’s the sole and obvious truth is a rejection of the glorious diversity God has created.

Comfort: Your truth adds to the sum of truth.

Challenge: Try to strike the word “obvious” from your conversations.

Prayer: Glorious Creator, open my mind to all the wonders of your creation. Show me the truths I can’t see from my perspective. Amen.

Discussion: When have you missed something which was obvious to someone else? And vice versa?

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