Startled by Peace


Daily readings:
Psalms 93; 150, Exodus 12:1-14, John 1:1-8, Isaiah 51:9-11, Luke 24:13-35, John 20:19-23

Easter readings:
Acts 10:34-43 Jeremiah 31:1-6, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Colossians 3:1-4, Acts 10:34-43, John 20:1-18, Gospel Matthew 28:1-10

Hallelujah! Christ is risen!

The tomb is empty, the cross undone. Where will we find him?

Mary Magdalene found Jesus just outside the tomb, though she mistook him for the gardener until he called her by name and she looked at his face. Cleopas and his companion found Jesus on the road to Emmaus, though for hours they thought he was a stranger. They recognized him once “he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” After he vanished, they went to tell the disciples all they had experienced. When Jesus just as quickly appeared to the Eleven and announced, “Peace be with you!” the disciples, believing they were seeing a ghost, were “startled and terrified” until he reassured them of his presence by showing them his hands and feet bearing the wounds of crucifixion.

It seems we find Christ when we look in the face of one we take for granted.

It seems we find Christ when we welcome and break bread with the stranger.

It seems we find Christ when we accept that the wounds he bore for us – even when we could not bear to stand by him – are not a cause for shame and fear, but a source of peace.

Is it Christ who startles us, or do we surprise ourselves when we discover he’s not trapped in the Bible, the church, or the places we look for him … but on the road and at the table beside us?  Like Mary, Cleopas, and the disciples, we won’t see him if we don’t expect him. Fortunately he calls to us, too.

When we hear our name called unexpectedly, conflicting reactions may arise. We can have glad anticipation that someone we want to see has found us, and we can simultaneously be anxious about why we have been singled out. When Christ calls to us from an unexpected place, he calls us to participate more fully in the body of the resurrection. That new life will look different from our old, maybe different enough to startle us, but it promises to be one of peace.

Comfort: Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

Challenge: Look for Jesus not just where you remember he was, but where he is and will be.

Prayer: Holy and Living God, I praise your name. Hallelujah!

Discussion: What startles you?

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Dream of Wheat


Today’s readings:
Psalms 34; 146, Jeremiah 15:10-21, Philippians 3:15-21, John 12:20-26

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

The above words from Christ should be intimidating, even to devout Christians. When push comes to shove, most of us would rather not have to literally lose our lives to live our faith. We’d probably prefer not to lose anything else either – why would we? – but Christ calls us to do so. Very few face actual martyrdom, but all of us are called to die to ourselves. Short of actual death, what does that sacrifice look like?

In dying to ourselves, we release the death-grip we’ve had on the stalk because we’re afraid of hitting the ground. We sacrifice our own interests to embrace what God desires, not what we desire. Our essential self – the self that God created us to be – must surrender to holy and fertile soil to germinate into its full potential.

Does letting go sound like a scary proposition? When the grain of wheat falls into the earth, it is doing what it was created to do: bear abundant fruit. Specifically it provides more wheat. No one expects an olive tree or a grape vine to sprout from the wheat. The Apostle Paul – arguably the greatest example of conversion and repentance in scripture – remained himself even after he committed wholeheartedly to Christ. Paul’s intelligence, devotion, and ferocity weren’t destroyed; they were redirected and multiplied. Whatever your gifts are, God gave them to you to be used for His glory. Dying to ourselves means following the Christ who points those gifts in the direction of worship, mercy, service, and love.

A dream of material success, while not wrong in and of itself, does not lift us to spiritual satisfaction. Better to let the gravity of faith pull us toward God, where our dreams are redirected away from avoiding a solitary death toward embracing eternal life.

Comfort: Dying to self is rising to life.

Challenge: Ask yourself what gifts you are letting die on the stalk.

Prayer: Holy and Living God, I offer all that I am and I have to you. Amen.

Discussion: What gifts are you hoarding out of fear?

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Ordinary Blessings


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


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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Whether to Wither


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Exodus 15:22-16:10, 1 Peter 2:1-10, John 15:1-11

A friend who is a lifelong gardener once said she was amused when people found peace in parables about sowing, tending and harvesting. Gardening, she said, is brutal. One is continually ripping living things from the ground to make room for other, more desirable living things. Foundering plants are removed to prevent the spread of rot and disease. As in today’s parable about the vine and branches, a gardener prunes away unproductive branches so they don’t drain resources from or contribute to the demise of healthy ones.

Sometimes parables like the vine are used to paint a picture of a God who’s waiting to damn us. It’s not difficult to take a story with actual burning in it as proof God is eagerly stoking the fires of hell for us right now. Preaching and teaching which use this fear of punishment to motivate us produce obedience that more resembles a hostage situation than worship. When Jesus says unfruitful branches will be trimmed and thrown into the fire, is he being a ruthless gardener and threatening us with eternal suffering?

Not quite. The difference between us and a withered branch on a grapevine is that we have a choice in whether we wither. Jesus knows the world is a hard place, a wild place overgrown with corruption and danger. He is not resigning us to the inferno, but extending an offer to shelter in his love, where our spirits can grow fruitful. Without the love of God, we are subject to everything that tries to choke out and nibble away at our spirits. Christ’s message about unhealthy branches is more lifeline than threat. He concludes by saying: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

God’s hope for us – and therefore Christ’s hope for us – is that we will know and flourish in his love. He wants us to know the natural consequences of ignoring or rejecting that love is a withering of the soul. Christ does not threaten us with death. He invites us to life.

Comfort: Christ provides nurturing shelter in a world overgrown with disorder.

Challenge: If you are a gardener, allow a small section of your garden to grow untended. If you are not a gardener, cultivate a small bed of flowers or herbs. What do you think you will learn?

Prayer: God of Life, thank you for tending my soul. I will seek shelter in your love. Amen.

Discussion: Do you relate to the images of a vine and branches? Why or why not?

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World Piece


In the cafeteria at work, there’s always a jigsaw puzzle in process on one of the tables. It’s there for anyone who wants to work on it. When one is finally complete it remains on display for a day or two, and then it’s time for the next.

I know – as a metaphor, the jigsaw puzzle has been played out. “We all have a unique role, life is a team effort, every piece is necessary, blah blah blah.”

What struck me recently wasn’t the metaphor of the puzzle itself, but of how we approach putting it together. Specifically, I was pulling together some pieces that looked like they would complete a tiger (they always seem to be “nature” puzzles with animals socializing in very unnatural harmony) when a co-worker commented, “We’re still working the edge pieces.”

That’s the most common approach, isn’t it? Finding the edge pieces, defining the shape of the thing. We like knowing the boundaries and limits in which we are expected to operate.

I believe that the human condition involves life breaking us into pieces and us putting them back together. Of course the number, shape, and size of the pieces vary by each person’s life experience. Most of us start reassembling ourselves by focusing on our borders – the exterior that assures people we know what shape we’re supposed to be. Doing so comforts us and comforts others. Maybe it comforts us in large part because it comforts others and reduces tension between us.

But not everyone is able to start with the borders.

Sometimes our box has been torn open so recklessly that pieces have been flung all over the place and we have to start with what we can find; years can be wasted burrowing under the couch cushions and clawing behind the dresser thinking we have to have all the pieces before we can start assembling any of them.

And sometimes there’s a moment of recognition and clarity – a chance to tame those tiger bits and reduce the chaos – that’s too good an opportunity to resist. Somebody is going to urge us to finish the border first (or even start working on it for us) because our progress doesn’t unfold like they want it to.  Yes it might be more socially acceptable to meet expectations, but better to fix what we can when we can than to ignore the tiger and lose the opportunity for who knows how long.

Of course this all assumes we know something about solving puzzles. Most of us cut our teeth on those four-piece jigsaws for toddlers. You know the kind – large, easy to handle pieces and simple pictures. Probably covered in drool. Our parents gift us with simple challenges so we can practice and work our way up to the hard stuff.

Not everyone is so lucky. Maybe no one ever taught you all the pieces were actually meant to be integrated into something bigger. Maybe they didn’t provide you (or accidentally or deliberately destroyed) a picture of what life should (or could) look like, so the outcome is a mystery. Maybe they were careless and some pieces are torn or damaged or lost or burned … and gone forever. Maybe you drew life’s short straw and your first puzzle is five thousand pieces all the same color with no edges; surely there are some puzzle enthusiasts who would love that, but most of us aren’t up to the challenge.

If we are unfortunate enough to start out with one of those really tough puzzles and no training, it may take a long while of handling those pieces one at a time before realizing they are incomplete parts of a greater whole – a whole we might not be able to begin to envision, let alone start putting a border around. To other people it might look like we’re sifting aimlessly through a pile they’re sure they could easily begin to solve. If they take the time to learn about the challenges of our particular puzzle, will they walk away? Fix it to their own satisfaction while leaving us still bewildered? Or do the hard work of helping us help ourselves?

So start with the edge pieces. Or the tiger. Or just by figuring out that a solution and strategy are possible. And for goodness sake don’t worry about puzzles that aren’t yours – whether to compare or to judge. Because once you get your puzzle together, you’ll discover it’s really just a single piece of an even larger puzzle. Whatever progress we make, there’s more to be made. It’s not only ourselves we’re rebuilding, it’s the entire broken world.

Peace by piece.

Jesus, Life of the Party

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 51; 148, Genesis 6:1-8, Hebrews 3:12-19, John 2:1-12

Christianity is serious business. The language of our faith uses words like sacrifice, atonement, sin, repentance, blood, and crucifixion with alarming regularity. We often speak of love as a demanding experience. We revere saints who deprived themselves of all earthly pleasures and martyrs who died in horrible ways. Suffering and death are undeniable parts of our collective story. If we are supposed to be willing to follow Christ to the cross, why do we ever sing songs like “I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy Down in My Heart?”

Despite the bloody reality of the cross and the traditional fire and brimstone sermons we have heard, suffering is not the default position of the Kingdom of God. Christ did not suffer and die just so we could continue suffering and dying. In the book of John, his first public sign is turning water into wine at a wedding banquet. That’s right: he made his public debut at a party, and performed a miracle so the party wouldn’t have to stop. It wasn’t just any party though – it was a celebration of life recognizing a joyous bond between two people, and the bond between each of them and God.

The Cana story does not appear in other Gospels, but in Matthew Jesus describes the Kingdom of God as a wedding banquet where outcasts feast. In this life suffering may be inevitable, but we don’t need to wear it like a uniform to be good Christians. To the contrary, Jesus had little regard for people who put their suffering on display as a show of piety. We are to confront head on the suffering of the world and help where we can, and to rely on God when we ourselves suffer, but we are never to be resigned to misery. While suffering is sometimes the cost of staying the course on the way to the feast, it is not God’s desire for us. The ultimate purpose of the crucifixion was eternal life. Jesus came to heal us, to teach us to forgive, and to celebrate with us. Let’s not forget to RSVP.

Comfort: God wants us to be joyful.

Challenge: Best as you can, don’t run away from people’s suffering; confront it with them without being consumed by it.

Prayer: Lord, lead me to those whom I can help, and open my hearts and hands to them. Amen.

Discussion: Suffering is part of life. Is there a way to make it useful?

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It Takes a Village to Raise a Lazarus


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 146, Jonah 2:2-9, Ephesians 6:10-20, John 11:17-27, 38-44
Eve of Epiphany Readings:
Isaiah 66:18-23, Romans 15:7-13 

Is  faith sufficient as an individual experience, or does it need to be shared among a community of believers? When Jesus returned to Bethany because his friend Lazarus had died, the grief of Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus, was certainly shared. Neither knew what to expect, but they shared faith in Jesus. They only knew that in their time of great grief, they needed to be with him. Even after he told them he was the resurrection and the life, the sisters didn’t imagine he would bring Lazarus back to them. When he asked the mourners to roll back the stone covering the tomb, Martha said four days had passed and there would be a stench. Yet moments later Jesus commanded Lazarus to walk out of the tomb, and he did.

Jesus was the source, but it was a community that made his final sign meaningful.
Mary and Martha, each with an imperfect but united faith, together believed that whatever Jesus thought fit to ask, God would deliver. At least a few mourners must have volunteered to move the stone, as it was large and heavy enough to cover the mouth of a cave. The gathered crowd  listened to Jesus loudly giving thanks to God for their benefit so they might believe. Finally, Lazarus arose and returned to his friends and family, restoring their community.

Experienced in isolation, faith may be a comfort to us but it’s of little use to the greater body of Christ. When a community shares its faith – when one person answers Christ’s call to dive into the stench and darkness of tombs like poverty and disease, and another person trusts God to provide even when a loved one is caught in the hopeless living death of addiction, and the rest of us are inspired by and act because of their belief, and therefore sisters and brothers we thought lost forever return to us – that community finds new life as no individual could.

Faith requires community to achieve its fullest expression. Our own imperfect faith is a gift because it reminds us to seek others.

Comfort: When you have faith you are never alone.

Challenge: Explore a faith community that is unfamiliar to you.  Perhaps a charity, or another congregation. If you can, spend some time helping them with their mission.

Prayer: Thank you God for easing my burden by making me only one member of a larger body in Christ. Amen.

Discussion: What do you find most rewarding about community? Most difficult?

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Big Rocks


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 63; 149, Nahum 3:8-19, Revelation 13:11-18, Luke 12:32-48

Dr. Stephen Covey tells a story about a professor trying to teach his students a life lesson. He puts some large rocks in a jar until no more will fit. Everyone agrees the jar looks full, but he pulls out some gravel and pours as much as he can to settle between the rocks. Everyone again agrees the jar looks full, so he pulls out some sand and pours it in to fill every last bit of space. The point of the story is not that you can always fit more in, but that you have to start with the big stuff.

Jesus beat Dr. Covey to the point by about two thousand years when he said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Faith is a big rock, but because we know God is always going to be there, it’s easy to think we can drop it into the jar of life at any time. While we delay, the less important things fill our lives like sand pouring into an hourglass. We say, “I will have time for mission projects after work settles down” or “I will give to charity after my car is paid off.” Except work never settles down, and there’s always another bill to pay, so before we know it the jar is topped off and the big rocks never make it in.

Most of us aren’t prepared for how busy and difficult life can get, and in the heat of the moment we mistake the urgent for the important. Intentions mean nothing if we don’t prioritize them. When there’s a discrepancy between what we say is important, and what we devote our time and resources to, we better examine the contents of our jar or the content of our heart. If good intentions pave the proverbial road to hell, it’s a road paved in sand and gravel.

It’s not too late. Christ has a fresh, new jar waiting for you. Let go of the sand that filled the old one, and let him show you where to find the big rocks.

Comfort: Being intentional about the big things, and the small things will fall in place.

Challenge: Do a time study of your week. Are you spending time where you think you are? Where you think you should be?

Prayer: Lord of Heaven and Earth, I will honor you with the first fruits of my time, my talents, and my treasure. Amen.

Discussion: Is there a story – Biblical or otherwise – that leaves you wondering what happens next?

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