Ordinary Blessings

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 108; 150, Job 38:1-11, 42:1-5, Revelation 19:4-16, John 1:29-34


Divine intervention. We are taught in Sunday School to believe it looks like great reward or great punishment defying the laws of nature – like the parting of the Red Sea or the walls crumbling around Jericho; like the resurrection of Lazarus or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the case of Job, divine intervention felt both like punishment and reward: God stripped everything he loved and valued from him, then restored his fortunes because he remained faithful. Behind the scenes, the motivations for divine intervention in Job’s life weren’t really about him at all.

We should call God’s involvement in the life of John the Baptist a blessing – after all, he had the privilege of preparing Israel for the arrival of Christ – but his reward for faithfulness was execution. When we hear examples like this, does it diminish our enthusiasm for a divine hands-on management style?

What if divine intervention wasn’t always quite so … obvious? It seems counter-intuitive that God would create a universe in need of constant tweaking, but might it be possible that interaction with God is built into the fabric of creation? That we go through each day touched by God in small ways we may or may not notice? Not that the Spirit is some cosmic personal assistant saving us a good parking space or sparing us from the same financial woes someone else is suffering (though there’s nothing wrong with expressing gratitude for these situations).  Every experience we have is an opportunity to connect with God, but we must choose to make that connection.

When we don’t get that parking space or pay raise, are we just as grateful? When we compare our lives to peers we consider more successful than ourselves (never a good idea, but inevitable), do we acknowledge the blessing of an ordinary life?

Maybe divine intervention doesn’t look like God altering the world for us, but God altering us for the world.

We can’t all be leaders and prophets. We can all be followers of Christ. Surrendering our lives to God makes us the very instruments of divine intervention. If we want to see God at work in the world, let’s look inside first.

Comfort: God is available to us always…

Challenge: … but insisting on our own way can make God seem distant.

Prayer: Holy God, thank you for being present in my life even when I don’t feel you. Amen.

Discussion: In what ways do you feel God has changed you to better serve the world?

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Casseroles and Compassion

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 143; 147:12-20, Ecclesiastes 3:16-4:3, Galatians 3:1-14, Matthew 14:13-21


When we study the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, we usually focus on the most obvious part – namely, fives loaves and two fishes feeding five thousand men plus women and children. It’s an important and miraculous story on its own, but since the Gospels have been broken into chapters, verses, and headings (absent from their original format) we often read a section without considering the context of what comes before or after.

The first sentence in Matthew’s version of this story – “now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself” – is more meaningful when we remember “this” was the beheading of John the Baptist. More than a prophet announcing the Messiah, John was (depending on which scriptures you read) Jesus’s cousin, teacher, and friend. He prepared the way of the Lord. John’s death was a signpost on the road to Calvary.

How eager would we be to learn thousands of people had followed us to the place where we sought to mourn in private? Many of us would have turned them away. Jesus though “had compassion for them and cured their sick.” Even after he was done – probably many hours later, as it was evening by then – he didn’t choose to turn them away.

John’s parents were probably dead already. Jesus was possibly his only family, and many people who sought Jesus on that day were undoubtedly John’s disciples. According to legend, John did not get a traditional burial, so this gathering may have been as close to a funeral as things got.  What happens after most funerals? Friends of the grieving family bring food and offer support. Note that Jesus did not distribute the food himself: he instructed the disciples to do it, as they would have traditionally done if visiting Jesus in his home after a loss. John may not have had a funeral, but the meal afterward was thousands strong and presided over by Christ … in the only home he had … among his followers.

In the face of death, Jesus responded with healing, nourishment, and generosity – and persuaded the crowd to do likewise.  Whether we grieve or support someone who does, Christ offers hope and new life in ways we can’t imagine until we live them.

Comfort: We never grieve alone.

Challenge: At times we may be called to be compassionate when we really want to be left alone. At those times, can we remember that service is sometimes a path to healing?

Prayer: God of compassion, be with me when I grieve, and help me support those who suffer loss. Amen.

Discussion: What (if any) parts of– funeral rituals do you find most comforting?

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Unhappy Medium

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, Proverbs 6:1-19, 1 John 5:1-12, Matthew 11:16-24


Let’s face it: personal standards can be pretty arbitrary. Consider safe driving speed. For many, a reckless driver is someone who passes us, and a timid driver is someone we pass. Unless our cruise control is set exactly to the current speed limit (itself often a relatively arbitrary standard), what basis do we have for this judgment?

Jesus faced similar artificial standards from religious leaders. They complained he was a drunkard and glutton who fraternized with sinners. When they confronted him about their concerns, Jesus reminded them that when John the Baptist fasted and abstained, they accused him of being possessed. You just can’t please some people.

“But wait,” you might say, “isn’t there such a thing as a happy medium?” Certainly there was some acceptable range for drink and dining that might have pleased his detractors, but they almost as certainly would not all have agreed on the upper and lower limits of that range. My happy medium is to the left of yours, and to the right of the next person’s. Whatever our rationale for a standard, there is always personal bias involved.

Supreme Court Justices who agree with our interpretation of the constitution are “impartial,” and those who don’t are “activists.” The same goes for scripture: those who aren’t literal about the sames passages we choose to take literally are “cherry picking” (and there’s no one who is literal about all of it). Even within a political party adopting one platform, or a denomination which follows a single creed, your mileage will vary from your neighbor’s. If Jesus announced his return standing in a bar and with a beer in hand, some Christians would cheer and others reject him. And if John the Baptist was… well, John the Baptist, he’d be too holy for some and not enough for others.

If there were only three people on Earth we’d have four religions, so let’s try to overcome the perverse urge to focus on meaningless differences.  Christians are one body; the least we can do is learn to share the road with each other to caravan behind Christ.

Comfort: You don’t have to please other people …

Challenge: … and they don’t have to please you.

Prayer: Lord I thank you for the beautiful diversity of your creation. Please help me to see all things first with love. Amen.

Discussion: Which of your standards have you had to adjust over the years? Which do you refuse to adjust?

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The Message Is The Same

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Exodus 19:16-25, Colossians 1:15-23, Matthew 3:13-17


There’s an old marketing belief that prospective customers need to hear your message seven times before they become interested in your product. Given the scene at Mount Sinai in the days preceding God’s arrival, God may have been a marketing major. As God descended the mountain hidden by a thick cloud, He told Moses to keep the people off the mountain, lest they be destroyed by the very sight of God. Moses seemed a little confused when he replied: “The people are not permitted to come up to Mount Sinai; for you yourself warned us, saying, ‘Set limits around the mountain and keep it holy.'” The gist of God’s response was: “OK. Go get your brother. And keep the people off the mountain.”

God’s warning wasn’t a threat; to the contrary, He was concerned with the welfare of the people. The destruction was not a consequence of His wrath, but His mere presence. If this scene had been written for a movie today it would surely foreshadow someone’s ill-conceived attempt to approach the mountain, but Exodus doesn’t mention anyone disobeying the warning.

When Jesus asked John the Baptist for baptism, John was reluctant because he felt unworthy, but he quickly consented. “And when Jesus had been baptized […] suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'” Quite the contrast to Sinai, isn’t it?

Hearing from God can be terrifying, or it can be exhilarating. It’s terrifying when we realize charging that mountain may mean, for our own good, utter destruction of life as we live it. But when we’ve submitted ourselves to God, as John the Baptist had, God’s voice is reassuring and life-giving. Our perception depends very much on whether we are open to receiving the message … but the message is the same either way. God is always calling us to new life. Are we being dragged uphill against our will, or are we enjoying the mountain view?

Comfort: God’s message is always one of love…

Challenge: … but we may need to do some work before we can hear it.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for always reaching out to me. I will do my best to answer your call willingly and enthusiastically. Amen.

Discussion: Do you feel God speaks to you? If so, how?

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Shifting Perspective

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 98; 146, Exodus 19:1-16, Colossians 1:1-14, Matthew 3:7-12


Many Christian seminaries require students to write a thesis demonstrating they have developed a consistent view of the nature of God and religious belief (systematic theology). This is an important part of preparing students for ordained ministry. Not too many people want to approach their minister with a pressing issue, only to hear: “Well I’ve never really thought about it…” Given the challenges of reading the Bible as a unified and consistent text, developing such a statement is a tall order.

In today’s scriptures we read about multiple understandings of God. In Exodus, God gives the nation of Israel three days to purify themselves for His arrival on Mount Sinai. He descends in a thick cloud and, under pain of death, permits neither man nor beast to approach the mountain while he remains. This God shows power and authority to a nation who doubts.

In Matthew, John the Baptist preparing the way for the coming Messiah. He speaks to the descendant priests of that same nation and tells them they have become like trees bearing rotten fruit and Jesus is on the way with an ax. This God shows his disappointment in a nation where the powerful exploit the weak.

In Corinthians, Paul congratulates the church and encourages them to keep bearing good fruit of the Spirit by holding fast to Christ. This God showers blessing and encouragement on a community of believers.

If we conclude the nature of God changes across time, theology is useless – God could be totally different tomorrow! Better perhaps to think our understanding of and expressions about God change with our personal and community evolution. God is constantly liberating us, and constantly correcting us (whether through supernatural intervention or natural consequences) when we misuse that liberation.

The average age of seminarians is creeping into the 30s and early 40s, an age where certainties from our 20s mature into more questions than answers. Our relationship with God is one we build throughout our lifetime – and beyond. As our vision of God ebbs and flows, we eventually realize God isn’t moving – our perspective changes because we are.

Comfort: God is constant and present to us wherever we may go.

Challenge:  Draw yourself a timeline of your ups and downs, and keep it handy for future updates.

Prayer: Immortal God, thank you for being present to me at all times. Please give me wisdom when I cast my own doubts and limitations on you.  Amen.

Discussion: How has your understanding of God changed over time? When has that been joyful, and when has that been painful?

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The Staircase

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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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Decrease to Increase

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Today’s readings (click below to open in a new tab/window):
Psalms 15; 147:1-11, Genesis 9:18-29, Hebrews 6:1-12, John 3:22-36


The ministry of John the Baptist was a big success. Business was so good he had customers lined up from Bethany to Aenon, where he moved because it had more water to let him do his job. He had his own disciples and irritated all the right authorities. Yet when Jesus arrived on the scene, John willingly gave it all up. John knew something we often forget: successful ministry is not determined by numbers or longevity, but by how well it advances the message and mission of Christ. When John’s followers began flocking to Jesus, John didn’t start planning how to win them back. Instead he said of Jesus: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Christian ministry is not a competition, but our competitive nature can sneak into it. Choir solos, sermons, fundraisers, offerings, praise hands, potluck contributions – sometimes we can’t help comparing these things, especially if we are good at them. If healthy competition pushes us to do our best work, the ministry may benefit. When we start thinking of our collaborators as rivals, we do a disservice to everyone, and undermine the community and the ministry. Whether an individual or church, we let our lights shine to illuminate the love of Christ, not to put a spotlight on ourselves. Even if we are the very best at something, sometimes we must intentionally step aside to let others play their parts. Being our best – not the best – is what matters.

Mature preachers will say praise and criticism are the same. In other words, they hear feedback, but do Christ’s work for the sake of the work, not the reaction. Praise does not swell their heads, and criticism does not defeat them. This ego-free attitude requires cultivation, but our work will be the better for it. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a compliment for a job well done, but if our focus moves from Jesus to acquiring compliments (or members, or money, or readers), our work suffers.

For others to increase, sometimes we must decrease. But if we do it to help Jesus increase, we rise along with him.

Comfort: The best ministries are collaborations; you don’t have to do everything yourself.

Challenge: Whenever you feel competitive with someone, ask yourself whether it is healthy or unhealthy.

Prayer: Gracious God, teach me to appreciate the diversity of the Body of Christ. Amen.

Discussion: Where do you find yourself competing when you could be cooperating?

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Love Better

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Readings: Psalms 24; 150, Amos 6:1-14, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12, Luke 1:57-68


Traditionally the theme of the second week of Advent is Love. Often “love” evokes warm feelings of family, friends, and romance. However, depending on a person’s life circumstances, those feelings may be mixed with longing, loneliness, hope, and other emotions.

Sorting out feelings about feelings? Well, love is complicated. Advent adds yet another wrinkle: love as the world falls apart.

The prophet Amos and the apostle Paul both share harsh words about the future. Amos tells the people of Israel they have offended God so mightily that He is “raising up against you a nation, O house of Israel, […] and they shall oppress you from Lebo-hamath to the Wadi Arabah.” Paul in his second letter to the church in Thessalonica tells them they who do not obey the Gospel “will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” While these passages definitely drive home the message that God desires righteousness, they don’t much describe a God who define Love as a gooey confection of simple affection.

Except in these examples, God’s anger exists because people are too focused on false righteousness and not enough on love. The people of Israel were making ritual sacrifices like clockwork, but ignoring and exploiting the poor. “Obeying the Gospel” wasn’t about rules but about loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. These prophets warned us separation from God occurs when we fail to love God and each other.

Throughout the Bible, God sends warning after warning about the consequences of failing to love. He sends us Jesus so we may be reconciled to him in love, and before that sends us John the Baptist to tell us Jesus is on the way. Love is complicated. Think about your own relationships where love has been broken: it’s rarely a sudden snap, but a slow dissolution with opportunities for one or both sides to repent. God begs us to love better.

Advent is a season for reflecting on how well we love God and each other. Before the world falls apart, God call us to love. Afterward, it is the only thing that saves us.

Comfort: God loves us even in anger.

Challenge: Work on a relationship where love has been broken.

Prayer: Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. (Psalm 25:4-5)

Discussion: How has your understanding of love changed over time?

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Ax to the Roots

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 47; 147:12-20, Daniel 2:31-49, 1 John 2:18-29, Luke 3:1-14


Considering how little effort he made to appease anyone, John the Baptist’s popularity was kind of surprising. He called the people who came to him for baptism a “brood of vipers.” He warned them to take no comfort in being descendants of Abraham (that is, of Jewish descent) since God could raise children to Abraham from the stones. He compared them to trees who were about to get the ax for bearing bad fruit.

Many people took God’s favor for granted because they were born into Judaism. They fell into the assumption that being (somewhat) observant Jews made up for a lot of other bad behavior. Are Christians much different today? It’s awfully easy to decide that if most Christians engage in certain behaviors, they must be acceptable. That sort of thinking is a dangerous trap. After all, Christians of the not-so-distant past (and some in the present) have used the Bible to justify slavery, domestic violence, bigotry, and war. These stances were not radical, but normal.

John told the people what repentance looked like: if you have a spare coat or meal, give it to someone who has none; don’t rip people off; don’t be greedy if you already have enough. As Christians we can look back in hindsight and wonder how these acts of decency weren’t obvious choices, but remember that it took nineteen centuries more for the western world to criminalize owning people and beating your wife. Just because lots of Christians do something doesn’t make it good and just.

In another one or two centuries, what things that today’s (somewhat) observant Christian does or tolerates will seem obviously unjust? Denying health care to people who don’t believe the same things we do? Finding new excuses to soothe our consciences when we turn away refugees who don’t look or sound like us? Being more upset by methods of protest than about the circumstances which make them necessary?

John called his followers to prepare the way of the Lord. He encouraged them to start by being honest with themselves. Let’s stop pinning our lack of mercy on Christ.

Comfort: God is more merciful than we would allow.

Challenge: Ask yourself what people are outside the limits of your mercy.

Prayer: Merciful God, teach me to discern my will from yours. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever knowingly distorted scripture to support your own biases?

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