The Good Consultant

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 63; 149, Genesis 24:28-38, 49-51, Hebrews 12:12-29, John 7:14-36


As a profession, consultants have a mixed reputation. After consultants have provided expensive professional expertise, employees commonly respond (correctly) with: “They didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.” If this is the case, is the service valuable or not? It can be — if what the business really needed was confirmation, not innovation. It may not sound as poetic as The Good Shepherd, but Jesus was also The Good Consultant.

When Jesus had grown popular enough that Jewish authorities began plotting to kill him, he had two choices: go into hiding, or follow his calling. Despite the danger, he began preaching openly in the temple during Sukkot, one of the most important festivals of the year. People marveled that he, who had not been taught, could teach so wisely. Jesus responded by saying his teachings were not his own but those of God. He advised anyone who doubted his credentials to apply a simple litmus test: was he speaking for his own glory, or for the glory of God? “Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own.”

In this particular case he was preaching about their hypocrisy when it came to applying the Law of Moses, but he wasn’t providing any new information. Many prophets before him told the people of Israel their observation of the law was meaningless — even offensive — to God if they weren’t offering mercy and justice to the least among them. Like many enterprises, they were too busy performing day-to-day operations to step back and ask whether they were really fulfilling their mission in the best way. They knew the right things, but needed Jesus and other prophets / consultants to spur them to change direction.

In our spiritual lives as in our work lives, we need to recognize when established authorities are glorifying themselves and the status quo over the mission, and when outside voices are telling us what we already know to be true. The Good Consultant steers us away from hypocrisy and ego toward mercy and justice.

Comfort: When your conscience tells you to choose mercy over the wishes of authority, you should probably listen to it.

Challenge: Oftentimes following Jesus means defying “business as usual.” Make time to step back and measure your beliefs and actions against the teachings of Christ.

Prayer: God, I will do my best to listen to your voice above all others – including my own. Amen.

Discussion: When you ask your friends or colleagues for advice, how often do you already know what the right answer is?

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Hope Authentically

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Readings: Psalms 50; 47, Amos 3:12-4:5, 2 Peter 3:1-10, Matthew 21:12-22


In the New International Version of the Bible, the word “hypocrite” (or some variant of it) appears roughly four dozen times. About half of those instances are attributed to Jesus as he chastised the self-righteous. Amos and other prophets condemn example after example of the hypocrisy of God’s people. They say God finds it so detestable that no quantity or quality of sacrifices can make up for it.

As we hope for the coming of the Kingdom, let’s do what we can to eliminate the hypocrisies in our own lives. We all have them; they’re virtually inescapable. Maybe we don’t feel we are capital-H hypocrites like those who troubled Jesus, but condemning them while ignoring our own failings is … well … hypocritical.

These behaviors are insidious, because often we justify our hypocrisy enough not to be bothered by it. Like when we rail against the sleazy tactics of the opposing political party, yet turn a blind eye toward less than honorable actions of our own side because they are doing it “for the right reason.” Or when we compromise our principles (“I believe in sustainability!”) because they might cost us money (“But fair trade coffee is a dollar more per pound!”). And when we claim to follow Christ, then find reasons to blame the poor, the alien, the imprisoned, the sick, and the sinful for their plight rather than love and serve them as we’ve been told.

The Kingdom we hope for is not one where everyone else changes and we get to bask in the satisfaction of how right we’ve been all along. To be good citizens of the Kingdom — now or in the future — we can’t assume we’ll be better people because the world will be a better place. That’s like saying: “I’ll learn to turn the other cheek when you cease to offend me.” To the contrary, the world will be a better place because we will be better people living into the fullness of Christ’s love.

It’s not easy to face our own hypocrisy, nor realistic to think we will eliminate it entirely, but the nearer we draw to Christ the more authentic we become.

Comfort: God loves us as we are, and because God loves us we can be better.

Challenge: Ask someone you trust to point out an area where you can be hypocritical.

Prayer: Hear a just cause, O LORD; attend to my cry; give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit. (Psalm 17:1)

Discussion: What hypocrisies have you discovered within yourself?

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Trickle Up Economics

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 122; 149, Nehemiah 7:73b-8:3, 5-18, Revelation 22:14-21, Matthew 18:21-35


A slave owed his king more than a half a million dollars. Because he could not settle the debt, the king was going to sell off  the man and his family to recover what he could. The slave pleaded for some more time, promising he could come up with the money. The king showed mercy. On his way out of the palace, the slave ran into a second slave who owed him about a hundred dollars. When the second slave pleaded for patience, the first slave had him thrown into prison. The king, angered the first slave couldn’t show mercy in turn, had him tortured until his debt was paid in full.

Swap out talents and denarii for dollars, and this summarizes a parable Jesus told about forgiveness. The message is that we have been given a tremendous amount by God, so we should be able to muster at least a fraction of that forgiveness in kind.

This parable also gets at the heart of an important reason we find forgiveness so difficult: we don’t see ourselves reflected in other people as often as we should, and when we do we are likely to condemn them for the traits we hate in ourselves.

Sadly there is no shortage of “family values” advocates caught up in scandal for engaging in behaviors they declare immoral and campaign to make illegal. There are also plenty of people identifying themselves as progressive who turn out to be closeted misogynists and racists. And for some reason, rather than humbly reach across the aisle to establish a dialogue about how we can love and work through the human condition together, we continue to point at specks and ignore planks … all the while trading in actual morals for a sense of moral superiority.

And if right now anyone is thinking about someone else who needs to hear this, instead of how they themselves might be lacking in empathy and extrapolation, respectfully they are missing the point.

All the time we spend declaring and condemning is time we don’t spend listening and understanding. Maybe we can honestly look at someone and say we wouldn’t commit that particular sin or mistake, but when it comes to what we’ve been forgiven, a dime is as good as a dollar. Jesus didn’t leave the casting of the first stone to “he who hasn’t committed adultery” but “he who is without sin.” He didn’t die for some, but for all.

A lack of forgiveness – which necessitates a willingness to see ourselves reflected in our fellows – is a rejection of the forgiveness we have received. It can be difficult to see humanity in others when we are scared, angry, or ashamed but those are the times we need to try the hardest. The king could have said “it was smart of you to try to collect so you could pay me back” but he valued paying mercy forward more. Ultimately all debts are settled through the Prince of Peace, so let’s be generous with ours.

Additional reading: For more thought’s on today’s passage from Matthew, see Love and Forgiveness and Seventy-Seven Times. For more on empathy and extrapolation, see Invitation: Extrapolation.

Comfort: Forgiveness has more reward than cost.

Challenge: Talk with someone you are having trouble forgiving. If you can’t yet bring yourself to forgive, try to just listen.

Prayer: Merciful and loving God, may gratitude for your forgiveness fill my heart until it overflows into the world. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever condemned someone for something you were also guilty of? If so, how do you feel about that now?

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No Exceptions

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, 1 Kings 16:23-34, Philippians 1:12-30, Mark 16:1-8 (9-20)


American humorist Sam Levenson once said, “You must learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t possibly live long enough to make them all yourself.” Ahab, king of Israel, could have benefited from this advice. Like his predecessors Omri, Jeroboam, and Solomon, he allowed himself to be seduced by the lure of foreign gods. He built altars and other places of worship to the god Baal in part to please his wife Jezebel. We can blame Jezebel for corrupting him, but Ahab had plenty of bad examples to learn from. The author of 1 Kings even says Ahab did these things “as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam.”

Ahab doubtlessly though he was different. We like to think we – both in the sense of our individual selves and in the sense of whatever tribe we identify with – are somehow exceptional.  We explain away our own shortcomings and failings by blaming our circumstances (or even painting them as virtues), and vilify other people for the exact same flaws by blaming their character. While this tendency may just seem like relatively harmless hypocrisy, it can become dangerous if we really start to believe we are not capable of doing terrible things.

American exceptionalism is no exception. When we look at world history and current global events full of ethnic strife, civil unrest, economic injustice, and other ills but insist “that could never happen here,” who are we trying to convince? Not long ago – as recently as the early twentieth century – a eugenics movement based on ethnicity and perceived intelligence was a real issue in the United States. As a result, forced sterilization was still legal in some states into the last decade, but most people have forgotten all about what was once a hot topic of conversation everywhere from church luncheons to bridge clubs. Convincing ourselves racism, authoritarianism, and theocracy are beasts which could never breach our shores only tempts us to explain away the footprints they’ve already left on the beach. Every human being is as fallen as every other one, and under the right circumstances we are capable of justifying terrible things.

Our broken nature can be a difficult thing to face, not simply because it’s unpleasant, but also because some religious leaders have inflicted psychological damage by wielding it clumsily and without mercy. Yet only by dying to ourselves through an admission of that brokenness can we overcome it by finding new life in Christ. Admitting we – in both the individual and corporate senses – are as subject to human nature as anyone else keeps us honest and gives us empathy. Following the risen Christ teaches us the limits of human nature are no match for the redemptive power of the resurrection.

Comfort: Christ’s love and lessons help us rise above our baser instincts. 

Challenge: Read It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis.

Prayer: God, I offer up my broken self, trusting you to make it whole. Amen. 

Discussion: Is it possible to love your tribe and still see its flaws?

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Reputation Matters

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 145, 1 Kings 13:1-10, Philippians 1:1-11, Mark 15:40-47


Sometime in our lives, most of us have had the unfortunate experience of having to send a meal back to the restaurant kitchen. Maybe it’s under- or over-cooked, or not prepared the way we asked, or just plain bad. There’s nothing wrong with expecting what you’ve paid for and letting a business know when you didn’t get it. An apology is the minimum expectation for good customer service. Many times, to show they value your patronage, the manager comps part or all of the meal, or offers a discount for your next visit. How they handle the complaint often determines whether a customer returns in the future.

Is it also possible the seriousness of your complaint might be weighed against your insistence on getting something for free? Complaint scams for free food are not unheard of. Would you consider refusing the compensation to drive your point home?

When the Lord sent a prophet to tell King Jeroboam to stop building temples to idols, Jeroboam wanted to thank the man for interceding on his behalf. Jeroboam invited the prophet to his home for a meal and a gift. The prophet said he had received these instructions from God: “You must not eat bread or drink water or return by the way you came.”

Accepting a meal or a gift, no matter how innocently, might have compromised the prophet’s integrity. In many businesses, especially non-profits, employees are advised to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Reputation has a real impact on how well we are trusted to conduct our personal and professional lives.

If we want to be taken seriously about our faith – especially by people who are looking for reasons to discredit us – we might also want to consider avoiding behavior that appears hypocritical or self-serving. That includes things like holding ourselves and our representatives to (minimally) the same standards as everyone else. For example, if we gleefully condemn and deride our political opponents for their perceived sins, yet make excuses or preach forgiveness when our political allies do as bad or worse, we can’t pretend our primary concern is justice. It also includes being involved in justice issues which don’t benefit us directly, or even cost us.

A reputation is far easier to keep than it is to restore. And when we claim to act on behalf of or as followers of Christ, it’s not just our own reputation on the line. Let’s be who we say we are.

Comfort: Christ shows us the way of integrity. 

Challenge: Try to be vigilant about your own hypocrisy and motives.

Prayer: God of Truth, help me live in the light. Amen. 

Discussion: Reputation can get tangled up with seeking worldly approval. How and why do we keep them separate?

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Usurpers

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 51; 148, 2 Samuel 15:19-37, Acts 21:37-22:16, Mark 10:46-52


Absalom’s seizure of his father David’s throne was what we might call a bloodless coup. In the nine years between the rape of Absalom’s sister Tamar by David’s other son Amnon (the event which effectively destroyed their relationship), their father-son dynamic went from estranged, to distant, to cool, and finally to enmity. Absalom used much of this time to win the favor of the people of Israel and quietly plot against his father, whom he knew would be reluctant to do him harm. By the time David and his court realized the inevitability of Absalom’s usurpation, they could do little more than  flee to the countryside.

Both small changes and veritable revolutions can catch us unawares – especially when we don’t want to believe they’re happening. Surely David, steeped as he was in a lifetime of political intrigue, should have seen the warning signs. Perhaps his desire to be reconciled with a son he loved clouded his judgment. That same fatherly love had caused him to stay the hand of judgment when Amnon did the unthinkable to Tamar.

None of us have a kingdom at stake, but we should always be alert for those who would usurp the Kingdom.   Who are these people? Politicians who pay lip service to Christianity to further unrelated – sometimes contrary – agendas. Religious leaders who for personal gain exploit our desire to be generous and charitable. Cultural figures who use their Christianity – conservative, liberal, or moderate – as a sword instead of a plowshare.

Absalom won the love of the people before dethroning their God-anointed king. Like the proverbial frog boiled so gradually it didn’t notice, they probably didn’t realize when or why they were in hot water. Our church, our community, and even our nation can shift around us if it does so by nearly imperceptible degrees which we find easy to ignore because of love and loyalty.

Our own well intended perceptions can be skewed by many factors. If Christ remains our benchmark – our plumb line – we will be able to spot intentions and actions which claim the gospel but do not square with it.


Additional Reading:
For thoughts on today’s reading from Mark, see Stop! Collaborate and Listen.

Comfort: Christ is our most reliable standard. 

Challenge: When you love or are loyal to something, don’t be afraid to be critical of it.

Prayer: Loving and righteous God, make your ways clear to me. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever been part of a community group whose character changed, or wasn’t who you thought they were?

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Removing Logs

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 47; 147:12-20, Jeremiah 31:1-14, Colossians 2:8-23, Luke 6:39-49


Point your index finger straight up. Keeping both eyes open, move your finger slowly toward one eye until it rests against your eyelashes. Notice what happens: even though you know it’s there, your brain compensates and most of your finger disappears from sight. To actually see it, you have to close the other eye or make some pretty marked adjustments to how you see things.

Now think of the proverbial logs in our eyes. At first they are irritating or distracting, but over time we adjust. We look past our self-involvement and call it common sense. Our judgmental log fades into a haze we like to call high expectations. Apathy blends into a background of alleged maturity. The log is more than a metaphor for our perception. Perception itself is a product of the brain, the physical tool we shape and re-shape with each choice and decision. Every time we ignore our own selfishness, for example, we are that much more likely to be selfish again. To adjust our behavior to the point where we are more concerned with our own logs than with our neighbor’s speck, we must make the (sometimes great) effort to intentionally refocus our mental and spiritual perception.

Why are we so preoccupied with our neighbor’s speck anyway? Partly because it distracts us from examining our own flaws too closely. But isn’t it also true that what we find most irritating about others is often what we don’t like about ourselves? Perhaps the speck we see is really a familiar log viewed through our own skewed perspective.

Once we honestly set about the task of learning to see clearly, we inevitably begin to think more clearly. When we think clearly, we develop the understanding and compassion Jesus wants us to have for ourselves and others. We can’t feel real compassion for others until we understand our own shortcomings and have compassion for ourselves. Though this doesn’t mean we can keep carrying our logs – Jesus does call us to remove them, after all. And isn’t it easier to find our way through the world once they’re gone?

Comfort: God is always ready to help us remove the logs.

Challenge: Be brave, and ask someone you trust to point out a few of the logs that might be weighing you down.

Prayer: Teach me, Lord, to see myself clearly. Amen.

Discussion: As you go through life, do you find you have more or fewer enemies?

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Keep It Real

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 122; 149, Ruth 4:1-22, 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:10, Matthew 6:1-6


In television’s Game of Thrones, a tyrannical, tantrum-prone prince named Joffrey assumes the throne and becomes angry when his court doesn’t seem to take him seriously. In frustration he screams “I am the king!” His grandfather Tywin interrupts him with a now famous line: “Any man who must say ‘I am the king’ is no true king.”

Might we substitute “Christian” for “king?”

Jesus told his disciples to pray in private and give alms (donations to the poor) without drawing attention: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Flashy charity and public, wordy prayers were the habits of hypocrites.

We want to share the Gospel, but we must be careful not to blur the lines between evangelism and self-congratulations. The Good News is not that we have learned to condemn or avoid certain behaviors and people, or that we know who is going to heaven or hell. The Good News is not even that we live better lives. The Good News is that Jesus offers redemption to all who would accept it. If the message we’re spreading doesn’t express Christ’s love to Christians and non-Christians alike, we’re not evangelizing … we’re propagandizing.

Ever heard someone offer a compliment like: “So-and-so has money, but it’s ok because they don’t act like it?” That usually means the person is perceived as humble instead of snobby (or other negative traits fairly or unfairly associated with wealth). If someone said you were a Christian, but it was OK because you didn’t act like it, what would you think they meant? Probably they would mean you seemed humble and loving instead of self-righteous, condemning, or other negative associations we have fairly and unfairly earned. Would that be so bad?

Proclaiming ourselves Christians is not the same thing as proclaiming Christ. Of Christ we may and should speak boldly. Declaring ourselves his followers is and should be a humbling experience of being in service to others because we have been forgiven as much and more as anyone else.

Comfort: The evidence of your faith is written on your heart.

Challenge: Live so that people are drawn to the light that inspires you.

Prayer: I am the humble servant of Christ. Amen.

Discussion: If the word “Christian” didn’t exist, how would you explain your faith?

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The Gospel Unleashed

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, Zephaniah 2:1-15, Revelation 16:1-11, Luke 13:10-17


A woman, who for eighteen years had been crippled by a spirit, came to Jesus in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Of course he healed her, and of course – as with all his Sabbath healings – the leaders of the synagogue were angry with him. They also scolded the woman for not coming on one of the six other days of the week when such activity was permissible. Jesus replied:

You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?

His opponents were shamed, and the crowd rejoiced.

Jesus nailed the hypocrisy. Enforcing laws against things you find sinful is easy when you aren’t affected by them. None of the synagogue leaders suffered a similar affliction, so it didn’t impact them a bit if she had to wait, but they would unlawfully untie a knot for a thirsty beast.

Still today many Christians demand civic laws against sins which don’t impact them. Unsurprisingly, they are less supportive of legislation enforcing Christ’s instructions like inviting the poor into our homes, giving away our second coats to those who have none, and doing good to those who wrong us. We want the government to prohibit gay marriage and abortion (though not all Christians agree on these issues) because we are a “Christian nation” … but when it comes to our money, the government has no business dictating the conscience of individuals. Now excuse me while I untie my ox.

If we need laws to behave, we are not faithful – we are fearful. When we prioritize rules over relationships, we have forgotten that at the end of each legalistic leash is a human being. If our witness for Christ is unpersuasive, the problem lies not in our government, or in our corrupted society, but in us. Let us live as Christ instructed, and the Gospel really will seem like good news.

Comfort: Faith exists regardless of circumstance.

Challenge: When watching or reading the news, be aware of people promoting a civic Christianity at the expense of Christ.

Prayer: Lord of the Gospel, perfect my witness to Christ until it shines like a beacon on a hill. Amen.

Discussion: What is a healthy level of overlap between our faith lives and civic lives?

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Mellow Harshed

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 63; 149, Judges 9:22-25, 50-57, Acts 4:32-5:11, John 2:13-25


Acts chronicles wonderful stories of the faith and courage of the early church … and then there’s the tale of Ananias and Sapphira. The earliest believers held their possessions in common. Barnabas, a recent convert, had just sold a field and gave all the money to the Apostles for them to distribute to the needy. Ananias and Sapphira were a married couple who also sold some property, but when they brought the money to the Apostles they secretly held some of it back. When Peter asked Ananias what possessed him to lie to the Holy Spirit, Ananias dropped dead on the spot. Three hours later Peter asked Sapphira if the property had sold for the amount donated. When she corroborated Ananias’ lie, Peter called her on it and she too dropped dead.

Seem harsh? Theologians have concocted a stew of reasons for the death of this couple, but it’s a bitter mix. Some claim they died for lying to the Holy Spirit. Others claim they died for introducing sin to the community of believers. Still others claim God needed to make an example of them to show hypocrisy was not acceptable among those who would be part of the church. Finally, by citing Peter’s claim that Ananias had let Satan fill his heart, some speculate the deception was the latest in a series of sins. Somehow they all conclude the lesson is that God is merciful, and only his grace spares us sinners from destruction … unless it doesn’t.

So what do we do with this? First, we note scripture doesn’t say God (or Peter) killed them: it says they dropped dead. Though it feels like judgment, that’s an important difference. Second, the story is not tied up in a neat moral bow like one of Aesop’s fables. But we can draw some lessons: grace is unearned but not guaranteed or to be taken for granted; hypocrisy is fatal, especially in churches; salvation is more than a feel-good promise – we must let it guide our actions.

God does not seek our understanding or approval. Christianity is always a humbling experience.

Comfort: God is always good, even if we don’t understand how.

Challenge: Create a list of your own  hypocrisies. Add new ones as they occur to you. Every day work toward eliminating one.

Prayer: God of Power and Glory, I am your humble servant. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever felt like you’ve gotten a raw deal from God?

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