Expectation Management

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window): 
Psalms 84; 150, Reading Genesis 48:8-22, Romans 8:11-25, John 6:27-40


How often does life unfold the way we expect? It’s a question without a truly quantifiable answer, but one suspects: far less than we’d like.

Jacob was a very old man when he met his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh. The lives of Jacob and his family, particularly his son Joseph, were full of twists and turns, deception and separation. Many of these familial wounds were self-inflicted, such as when Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery and faked his death. They didn’t like his predictions that one day he – the youngest – would rule over them, and ironically their actions set him on a convoluted path to power over not only themselves but all of Egypt.

When Joseph presented his two sons to Jacob for a blessing, the surprises continued. Joseph had positioned them so the older boy, Manasseh, was at Jacob’s right hand, traditionally the hand of greater blessing reserved for the oldest son. Jacob crossed his hands and – despite Joseph’s protests – instead gave the greater blessing to Ephraim, who was destined to father a “multitude of nations.”

Hard to believe the prophetic Joseph didn’t see it coming. After all, he was the youngest when his brothers betrayed him. And Jacob was a younger son who’d stolen the blessing of his older brother by deceiving his blind father. Down the line, Jacob’s great-great-grandson Moses survived to lead the Israelites back out of Egypt and slavery because of deception surrounding his birth. The nation of Israel survived and thrived because God isn’t limited by human expectation.

Christ upended expectations as a messiah of peaceful submission rather than bloody revolt. He taught us God loves and forgives all the “wrong” people. Could it be that the thing standing between us and the fully realized kingdom of God is our own expectations? Perhaps God waits to meet us around those twists and turns we fear and avoid. Those apparent flaws we condemn in ourselves and others could be keys to grace. Some days the map of faith is nothing but detours. When we stop placing expectations on God, we learn to expect God everywhere.

Comfort: You don’t have to know God’s plan.

Challenge: You just have to be open to it.

Prayer: God of creation, I seek to meet you where you are, and not where I would demand you be. Give me eyes to see and ears to hear your presence wherever you would have me encounter you. Thank you for the wonder of life, and its countless unexpected blessings. Amen.

Discussion: What expectations are frustrating you right now? Are they necessary expectations? Is anything but ego making you hold onto them? If you let go of them, would your life be better?

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The Great Author

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 150, Genesis 41:14-45, Romans 6:3-14, John 5:19-24


Joseph was a pivotal figure in the history of Israel. His brothers – angered by their father Jacob’s preferential treatment and by Joseph’s visions predicting his rise to power over them – sold Joseph into slavery and told Jacob he was dead. Though Joseph was respected by his master and made head of the household, the master’s wife framed him for assault and he was jailed. After years of imprisonment – where his talents  again put him in an unlikely position of leadership – Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams landed him a role as Pharaoh’s chief adviser. When a famine fell over Egypt and the surrounding lands, Joseph’s foresight kept the people from starving and he was able to save his long-estranged family by welcoming them into Egypt.

The story of Joseph is full of ironic turns.

The beautiful coat his father gives him to express love becomes falsified evidence of Joseph’s death.  When he refuses the advances of his master’s wife, Joseph’s integrity lands him in jail. Dreaming causes his family to cast him out, but eventually allows him to save them – and ultimately all of Israel. After his death, the Isralites fall out of favor with the Egyptians and become slaves, setting the stage for Moses and the Exodus.

Ferdinand Sabino said: “Everything will be fine in the end; if it’s not fine, it’s not the end.” Joseph’s story has a slightly different message: there is no end. What works against us today may work for us tomorrow. Yesterday’s triumph may be next year’s tragedy … and the following year’s triumph again. We never know how things will work out, and the end of our individual story is not the end of the greater story. Tying it all together is the presence of God inviting dreamers and kings, slaves and kidnappers to open themselves up to possibility and move the story of God’s kingdom forward. Whatever your situation is today, it will eventually change. Like Joseph, we do best in good times and bad when we hold tight to our faith while we wait for whatever unfolds in the Great Author’s next chapter.

Comfort: Change is inevitable, but God’s love is constant.

Challenge: God’s love is constant, but change is inevitable.

Prayer: Loving God, I will trust you always to see me through hardships and joys. May I be open to playing my part well in the endless story of your love and your kingdom. Amen.

Discussion: What have been some of the unexpected twists in your part of the great story?

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Reading the Room

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new window/tab):
Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Genesis 37:1-11, 1 Corinthians 1:1-19, Mark 1:1-13


Have you heard the expression “read the the room?” It refers to someone’s ability to gauge an audience’s mood and response. Comedians learn to read a room because every crowd responds differently. Executives read a room to determine the level of support for a proposal. Comedians can change the content of the message to please an audience, but a good leader with an important message can adjust only the style, never the meaning.

Jacob and his son Joseph were not skilled at reading a room.

Jacob’s obvious favoritism toward Joseph left his other eleven sons bitter. When he gave Joseph a special robe with long sleeves, it might as well have had a target embroidered on the back. At the age of seventeen Joseph began having prophetic dreams. In these dreams, his brothers – represented by sheaves of wheat or stars – bowed down to him. Whether he was simply oblivious to his brothers’ scorn, or wanted to spite them because of it, sharing his dreams made them more jealous than ever and they began to plot against him.

As Christians, we will be called to say unpopular things. We can adjust our style (even Paul adapted to local audiences) but we don’t have the option of altering the core message, because it originates with Christ. We want his message about God’s love and justice to be taken seriously and understood clearly.Therefore we should think before we speak, and try to anticipate how we will be perceived. Dressing our message in flamboyant, self-important language and attitude will cause people to react favorably or unfavorably more because of the style than the content. Giving the impression that we believe we are somehow superior to our listeners will give them an excuse stop listening. We want to be confident but not cocky; we are the trusted bearers of the message, not its source. A little humility goes a long way.

Humility will not always prevent others from criticizing, demeaning, or persecuting us for sharing the Gospel. In the end we want to be the best ambassadors for Christ we can be, regardless of the cost.

Comfort: You can have confidence in the Gospel.

Challenge: Work on striking a balance between knowing your audience and remaining true to your message.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for the Gospel message of love and justice. Lend me strength and wisdom to share it with others. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever changed your message because it was unpopular? What were the consequences?

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Recycled

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 147:12-20, Genesis 27:30-45, Romans 12:9-21, John 8:21-32


When Esau discovered his brother Jacob had tricked their father into giving him the blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau, he was overcome with rage. This “blessing” was not a religious one, but a method of passing on rights to the land and possessions of a patriarch to his heir. The lands, wealth, and armies that Esau was sure he would inherit instead would go to the younger brother who had plagued him all his life. Esau would get the leftovers and move to a foreign land. Jacob would continue the line that would lead from Abraham to Jesus.

History unfolds in unexpected, often unwelcome ways. We might expect Jesus would come from a long line of noble, respectable, gracious ancestors. While they included royalty and priests, his family tree was shaky from the roots up. Abraham lied and tried to do an end run around God’s plan for him, fathering the Ishmaelites in the process. Isaac, like his father Abraham, lied about his relationship to his wife in order to secure business arrangements. Jacob stole his brother’s inheritance and lived in hiding for years. His son Judah sold his own brother into slavery and impregnated a woman he thought was a prostitute. And on, and on, and on …

The history of Jesus’ ancestors isn’t just a little suspect – it’s out-and-out tawdry.  From one perspective it could undermine his authority and credibility; people are judged by their families all the time. But from another point of view, it could be considered encouraging or even liberating. If God could work through families like these, imagine the potential in boring old us? So many of us waste that potential because we are waiting to feel worthy. We talk about what we could or will do if and when we were better, more organized, more stable, healthier, or “holier” people. We look at others who do the things we wish we could do and assume they are smarter, better connected, and generally “have it together.” After considering where Jesus came from … still think so?

God meets us where we are, warts and all, and offers to lead us beyond where we hoped to be. When we spend more time trusting God and less time doubting that we could be useful to God, no part of us is wasted, no talent unused. Our creator pulls us from the trash heap and turns us into something beautiful. No one is ever “ready” for that.

Comfort: God doesn’t throw anyone away.

Challenge: For one week, up your recycling game. Is it something you can stick with?

Prayer: Thank you God for loving me beyond my comprehension. Amen.

Discussion: What’s something you’ve found a new use for that someone else might have thrown away?

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Sleight of Hand

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, Genesis 27:1-29, Romans 12:1-8, John 8:12-20


Sometimes the Bible reads like a soap opera. In Genesis 27, Rebekah convinces her son Jacob to wear goat skin on his neck and hands to fool his blind father into thinking he is his older, hairier twin brother Esau. He does this to secure his father Isaac’s blessing, which will mean he inherits leadership of his clan. Isaac does indeed (and improbably) grant his blessing to the “wrong” son, in an apparently irrevocable act. When the real Esau demands things be made right, all Isaac has left to offer is a meager consolation prize of a blessing that basically promises Esau the things Jacob didn’t already get.

To our modern sensibilities, developed in a culture of upward mobility, it seems unfair that deception is rewarded thusly. In Jacob’s time, though, people couldn’t earn authority based on merit; authority was inherited or taken by force. If Jacob (or his mother on his behalf) wanted equal opportunity without resorting to outright violence, he had no other choices but to scheme his way to it.

Many cultures have a “trickster” figure: Loki in Norse mythology; Raven in Native American lore; Anansi in West African folk tales. Jacob is a similar figure who outwits his brother multiple times, and even outwrestles an angel physically and mentally. Trickster figures, despite having questionable ethics, often bring benefits to mankind despite the will of the gods. This is where Jacob differs: God had already chosen him to continue Isaac’s lineage, and the tricks seem to support that.

For the most part we want and expect people to play by the rules. Deception rubs us the wrong way and leads to chaos. But what if the rules are not the same for everyone (as they almost never are, especially the unspoken ones)? The Bible has many stories of oppressed people who use the methods available to them to overcome. Deception is not a virtuous act, but sometimes it takes a trickster to turn oppression around. Someone who, say, subverts Roman and Jewish expectations and leads us to eternal life by sacrificing his own. The difference between a hero and a villain often depends on who writes the history book.

Comfort: God’s will eventually plays out.

Challenge: It may not play out in ways we like.

Prayer: Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge. Amen. (Psalm 16:1)

Discussion: “The ends justifies the means” is a sentiment which can cut both ways. Do you think questionable means are ever justified?

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From Fear to Faith

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 145, Genesis 25:19-34, Hebrews 13:1-16, John 7:37-52


Delayed gratification.

It’s not something that comes naturally to most of us. As a matter of fact, it’s often the opposite of our nature. We spend our lives in bodies that are convinced death lies around every corner. Because our bodies don’t know when food might be available again, they tell us to store energy by overeating now. Because they don’t know whether pain and discomfort will stop, they demand relief in the form of drinks and pills. Because they are desperate to reproduce they talk us into mistaking lust for love and connection.

Bodies can feel like temples to the gods of despair, where we sacrifice the future to survive the present.

Esau and Jacob were the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah. “When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents.” (Gen 25:27) One day Esau returned famished from the field, and demanded Jacob share his food. Jacob instead offered to sell it to his brother – in exchange for Esau’s birthright as the older son. Esau, caught up in his body’s hunger, agreed. “Thus Esau despised his birthright.” (v 34)

How often do we – like Esau – sell ourselves short to satisfy an immediate longing?

And yet … Christ’s promise of eternal life helps us to rise above the limitations of our mortal bodies. Perhaps part of being born again is reclaiming the birthright we have despised through sin. When we the hungry know the assurance of the bread of life and the living water, we are no longer driven by fear, but by love. Our bodies, gifts from God, become instruments of service rather than masters of need.

To become servants in the image of Christ, we have to learn to put the needs of others before our own desires – to take that which was once first to us and make it last. Our longings may still tempt us, but we can choose better when not gripped by fear. We can be cooperative instead of competitive. Our temptations can help us develop empathy for those who still fear, for we were once in their place and it was humble love, not force or intimidation or arrogance, that saved us.

Delaying gratification for the purpose of retaining our birthright will always be a struggle, but that struggle is where we can identify in some small way with Christ crucified. It is where we learn to be more than bodies and find the fulfillment of being part of The Body. It is where perfect love casts out fear “So we can say with confidence ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’” (Heb 13:6)

Comfort: God’s love will deliver us from fear.

Challenge: Ask yourself what temptations you find hardest to resist, then ask what need is still not being met by giving in to them.

Prayer: In you O Lord I seek refuge and peace. Amen.

Discussion: What fears drive your behavior?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!