Eat Your Vegetables

DCF 1.0

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 145, Daniel 1:1-21, 1 John 1:1-10, John 17:1-11


The Babylonians routinely took captives from the lands they conquered and trained them for civil service in the empire. Daniel of Judah and his friends were captives of this sort. While they could serve the king without betraying their faith, they couldn’t eat food from his table because it had been sacrificed to foreign Gods. One of their jailors took pity on them and agreed to bring them nothing but vegetables and water – as long as they did not become obviously thinner and weaker than the other captives. Daniel and his friends flourished and outperformed their fellows.

It’s tempting to sacrifice our principles under duress. Unlike Daniel and friends, when layoffs start happening at work, or we are the victim of a crime, or we feel like the culture around us is pressuring us to change, we may not feel the same assurance that God will help us endure and thrive. Though faith is on our minds and lips, it may falter in our hearts. At those moments, it’s easy to say, “I know this is wrong, but I have to do it to survive.”

The Book of Daniel tells us Judah fell into captivity because it did not faithfully follow God. While God eventually restored Judah, it seems that, to God, surviving may be secondary to thriving. 1 John declares: “If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” Whether we are true to God, ourselves, and each other during hard times is an indicator of whether we will thrive spiritually when those hard times pass, or if they endure.

Accepting Christ is the moment we step into the light. Each step we take is a decision whether to stay in the light or stray from it. God’s love never falters, but whether we  thrive or merely survive is up to us.

Comfort: Staying true to God and yourself gives you inner peace.

Challenge: When times get tough, double down on your commitment to doing the right thing.

Prayer: Heavenly Creator, I will walk in your light and love. Amen.

Discussion: How do you feel when you have not lived up to your own principles?

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No-Win Scenario

nothing-right

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 33; 146, Isaiah 9:2-7, 2 Peter 1:12-21, Luke 22:54-69


They said, “If you are the Messiah, tell us.” He replied, “If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I question you, you will not answer.

When Jesus was arrested and brought before the Jewish authorities, they purposely put him in a no-win scenario. If he claimed to be the Messiah they would charge him with blasphemy and the Romans would charge him with sedition. Denying it would undermine his entire ministry. Keeping silent enabled them to impose whatever meaning best benefited them onto his silence. He responded simply by pointing these things out.

Have you been in a situation where there was no right answer?  Most of us have. Like Christ, we may find ourselves damned by both our words and our silence. Unlike Christ we almost never have to face consequences like crucifixion (and probably shouldn’t compare minor inconveniences to that event), but the very real consequences can result in professional, personal, and/or social damage. When facing a no-win situation, the best option is the one that maintains personal and spiritual integrity.

We are less likely to recognize when we are on the other side – when we have made up our minds that a person can do no right. Many a marriage or friendship struggles when one party or the other uses some grievance or infraction to dismiss all efforts, whether good or bad, from the other. Because we feel aggrieved, we feel justified. In a professional setting, a single mistake can kill an otherwise successful career, while less illustrious co-workers prosper because their mistakes haven’t been revealed. In politics, we can (and are encouraged to) dismiss everything the opposition party proposes simply because it came from “the other side.”

None of us wants to be defined by our mistakes, so we should not define others that way either. Individual and community relationships should, to the best of our abilities, mirror the divine forgiveness and redemption we find in Christ. Christ has not forgiven our sins and mistakes just so we can hold them against each other. We are a reconciling people; let’s act like it.

Comfort: God’s opinion of you is not swayed by the opinions of others.

Challenge: Is there anyone in your life you automatically dismiss, whether consciously or unconsciously? Seek to find common ground with that person.

Prayer: God of forgiveness, teach me to see others not through eyes of judgment but through eyes of love. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever found yourself in a no-win situation?

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Everyone’s a Critic

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 104; 149, Zephaniah 3:14-20, Revelation 18:1-14, Luke 14:1-11


First-century Galilee, like all other Jewish provinces, was under Roman rule. Many of its affairs were still handled locally by a succession of Jewish governors (tetrarchs) descended from Herod the Great, also commonly called Herod. Herod Antipas was the governor of the Galilean province, where Jesus was most active with his ministry.

When some Pharisees warned Jesus that Herod was looking to kill him, Jesus did not seem at all intimidated. He said: “It is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem […] the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” Jerusalem, in the neighboring Judean province, was the center of Jewish political, cultural, and religious life. As is the case with many seats of power, it was prone to silence its critics – sometimes violently.

Members of an institution, especially if they feel attacked, are likely to defend it against critics both internal and external. For many of us, the fear of flaws being exposed (if only to ourselves and our peers) outweighs the legitimacy of the criticism. The church is as susceptible to this behavior as other institutions; church history, from the Vatican to countless televangelists to local congregations, is full of cover-ups and scandals. While scandals damage the reputation of individuals, cover-ups erode or obliterate the credibility and moral authority of the church itself.

If we listen to our internal critics – those who call out hypocrisy, ethics violations, inconsistencies, and other problems – we can correct ourselves before the whiff of decay attracts external critics, who are more invested in our comeuppance than our survival. Silencing them leads to an eventual implosion and leaves us nothing but spiritual rubble.

Let’s listen to the voices that make us uncomfortable. Let’s do some soul-searching to figure out whether our defensiveness is triggered because we think they’re wrong – or because we secretly don’t want to admit they are right. That might sound scary, but it’s incredibly liberating to truly know yourself and your own heart. Institutions and reputations can be undone, but no critic can destroy an honest relationship with our loving God.

Comfort: Integrity only improves your relationship with God.

Challenge: When people criticize you or your group, try to understand where they are coming from, rather than immediately responding or defending.

Prayer: Lord of Truth, help me to face truths no matter how difficult they may be to accept, for I know truth will draw my heart closer to yours. Amen.

Discussion: What is some of the best criticism you have received?

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Truth Will Out

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 116; 147:12-20, Nahum 1:15-2:12, Revelation 12:7-17, Luke 11:53-12:12


The next time someone wonders what a first century messiah has to say to a twenty-first century audience, haul out this passage from Luke:

Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.

We live in an age when secrets are practically extinct. Social media accounts get hacked. Classified information gets leaked. Omnipresent cameras record us without our knowledge or consent. And any of this information can be distributed around the globe with the click of a Send key. Yet many of us go about our business as though privacy still exists.

Ever heard of the New York Times Rule? In a nutshell it says: don’t say, do, or write anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the newspaper. Not everything we prefer to keep private is shameful, but the NYT Rule can be a good benchmark for decision-making. More than any time in history, we should understand how quickly a whisper becomes a scream. Barely a day goes by without some celebrity, politician, or hapless schmuck getting caught in a scandal of exposed secrets.

ll of us have moments we’d rather not see in a headline, but the key to not crashing against the rocks of scandal is simple: integrity. If it seems too obvious, consider the endless parade of people exposed for hypocrisy and corruption. Now multiple that by a large number to understand how many people haven’t been caught (yet). In the two thousand years since Christ told us secrets would be uncovered, we don’t seem to have taken that message to heart.

Be the person you want people to think you are. And if you can’t be that person, don’t pretend to be what you’re not. Better to be a flawed witness to Christ’s love and forgiveness than a Pharisee who “clean[s] the outside of the cup […], but inside [is] full of greed and wickedness.”

Comfort: Integrity protects you from all kinds of trouble.

Challenge: In the evenings, reflect on your day. Ask yourself which parts you wouldn’t want to have exposed to the world, and how you can change for the better.

Prayer: Lord, help me to walk in my integrity and to trust You without wavering. Amen.

Discussion: What damage have you seen secrets cause?

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Truth and Consequences

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 104; 149, Job 38:1-17, Acts 15:22-35, John 11:45-54


For decades Judea was a fairly independent kingdom, but shortly after Jesus’s birth it fell directly under Roman administration. The Romans, aware of many Jews dissatisfied with the increasing restrictions, clamped down ruthlessly on any sign of insurrection. When a messianic, rabble-rousing Jesus grew yet more influential after raising Lazarus, the political climate had Jewish leaders worrying “the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”

We might be quick to judge the Pharisees (aren’t we always?), but the responsibility of protecting a nation against a threatening force strains ideals to the breaking point. Since the desires to keep people safe and to maintain personal power are not mutually exclusive, motivations become murky. This does not excuse the plot to kill Jesus, but it does put it into context. However, despite the Pharisee’s best efforts to appease both the Jews and the Romans, a Jewish revolt in 66 AD ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and her temple.

The Pharisees illustrate a valuable lesson: how we defend a thing can be as important – maybe more so – than the thing itself. If our methods to defend a family, institution, or nation fundamentally alter its character – for example, covering up a scandal to avoid exposure rather than practicing the integrity we preach – we are left with a diminished thing that may no longer even be worth defending. How hard do we have to search for churches that have undermined their own moral authority, democracies that respond to threats by restricting personal liberties, and businesses which trade ethics for the bottom line? Not far enough. And in almost all cases, leaders somehow justified to at least themselves and often their people that survival was worth the cost.

Yes, the world demands compromise, but Jesus teaches us to face the consequences of integrity. He tells us it’s better to show up to heaven missing eyes and hands rather than let them cause us to sin. That goes for wallets, titles, and flags as well. Jesus paid the ultimate price for our eternal life; don’t sell him short out of fear.

Comfort: Integrity costs us a lot because it’s worth it.

Challenge: See above.

Prayer: God of all humankind, may my decisions be a reflection of your love for me and all people. Amen.

Discussion: What are you willing to sacrifice for survival?

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Double Standards

monsters

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 122; 149, Judges 5:19-31, Acts 2:22-36, Matthew 28:11-20


Have you heard of Jael? She played a pivotal role in the book of Judges. Israel was battling the Canaanite army, whose captain was Sisera. When he realized his cause was lost, Sisera sought refuge at the home of Heber and Jael, Kenites who had no conflict with the Canaanites. Home alone, Jael offered Sisera milk, food, and a place to sleep. As he slept, Jael hammered a tent spike through his skull until it stuck in the ground. Jael’s deed is celebrated in The Song of Deborah, a judge of Israel who prophesied a woman would kill Sisera. Yet Jael remains a controversial figure: she violated the hospitality code of her culture by harming a guest in her home. Normally the Israelites would have judged this type of infraction quite negatively, but since it was to their benefit, they interpreted it as the will of God.

After Jesus had risen from the grave, the chief priests and elders offered a large bribe to Roman guards to say his body had been stolen while they slept. They further offered to run interference with the governor, should word of the missing body get back to him. These chiefs and elders were the supposed spiritual leaders of the Jewish people. Among the laws they represented was a prohibition on bearing false witness. To do so warranted punishment equal to whatever the wronged party would have suffered. Yet because they convinced themselves they were doing right, the hypocrisy did not matter to them.

Double standards are pernicious, especially when we believe our cause is just. It’s natural to overlook flaws in the people and institutions we favor, and exaggerate them in those we don’t. Doing so, however, undermines our integrity, our credibility, and ultimately the cause we serve. For people of integrity, good ends do not justify bad means. The righteous who resort to unrighteous tactics destroy the thing they hope to preserve. Consciously hold your friends, your enemies, and yourself to the same standards. Let us be less concerned with whether we “win” … and more with whether we witness to Christ.

Comfort: Losing is no shame if you lose with integrity.

Challenge: Over the next week, pay to attention to the double standards of your own views, especially around religion and politics.

Prayer: God of Justice, open my eyes to my own short sightedness. Amen.

Discussion: What double standards bother you the most?

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