Everything Old Is New Again

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 98; 149, Isaiah 26:1-6, 2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2, John 8:12-19


Scripture challenges us to look at our fellow human beings from a different perspective that is often counter-intuitive to the one we are used to. In John and 2 Corinthians, Jesus and Paul tell us we need to stop seeing the world “according to the flesh” and start looking at it according to the spirit. Many people have interpreted this use of “flesh” to mean our bodies are evil, and somehow at war with our spirits—a sort of dualism that pits us against ourselves. Rather, Jesus and Paul use “flesh” as a metaphor for those things in the world and in ourselves that separate us from God. Sometimes that may mean our physical desires, but the desires themselves serve a purpose; our job is to direct them properly. Scriptures similarly use the word “world”—but God created and loves the world, just as he created and loves our bodies.

When Jesus tells us to see things according to the Spirit, what might that mean? It means we aren’t to judge anyone. Even Jesus—who is qualified to judge—has chosen to judge no one. This is a paradox of our faith: those who should not judge do, and those who might be worthy to judge choose not to. Of course we should be discerning in our associations, circumstances, and behaviors but judgment is strictly God’s purview. Any time we judge someone, we are seeing with the flesh, and not the spirit.

Paul tells the Corinthians that when we free ourselves from a human point of view, we will see Christians as new creations. The lack of judgment of others, from others, and of ourselves frees us to be entirely new. Ironically, it is this lack of need to conform to (or impose) worldly righteousness that transforms us into Christ’s righteous ambassadors.

In Christ we find not a religion—defined by those who measure up and those who don’t—but relationships. Immersing ourselves in Christianity takes courage, the courage of pioneers entering the wilderness of humankind and blazing trails to true relationship with others. Our true north is love. Our path is not the same as anyone else’s. Our adventure takes us places we can’t yet see.

Comfort: Your faith does not have to look like anyone else’s.

Challenge: When you judge people, forgive them and yourself.

Prayer: God of infinite love, lead me through the wilderness of faith. Amen.

Discussion: Are you more likely to judge others or yourself?

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Love One Another

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 34; 147:1-11, Proverbs 8:22-30, 1 John 5:1-12, John 13:20-35


Though the Christmas season lasts through Epiphany (January 6), once the celebration of the Nativity is over, the lectionary readings don’t waste any time getting back to serious business. The day after Christmas we read about the first martyr, and today we read about the Last Supper and the betrayal of Judas. Do we long just a little for an emotional break, a few days to bask in the glory of Christ’s birth?

Except that’s the thing: there really is no break. No matter how strong our faith, life is a mixed bag.

Take the Last Supper, for example. Jesus knows Judas is about to betray him, and Judas knows it, too. But the Last Supper is also the origin of Communion, which unites us with Christians across time and place. And it also gives us these words from Christ:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Think for a moment what it means that this was a new commandment. What had the disciples been doing during all the preceding years they’d been following Jesus? Were they surprised he felt the need to say it out loud to them? Perhaps it’s a lot harder to do – and comes a lot less naturally to us – than we think.

What a gift that commandment is though. When we practice it, that love is a constant, steadying presence in the ups and downs of life. When we practice it, that love helps us celebrate with each other, mourn with each other, and support each other through difficult times. More than agreeing with one another or liking one another, loving one another with the sacrificial love of Christ is a conscious choice. Our obedience to that commandment – or our disobedience – tells people whether we are truly disciples or merely parrots of the Word.

Life in Christ, at least in our present world, will always be a mixed bag. No matter our state, let us choose to love and be loved. Jesus said so.

Comfort: Christ’s love is constant.

Challenge: Listen to They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love.

Prayer: Merciful God, source of all love, teach me to love your children as Christ loves me. Amen.

Discussion: Are you able to love someone you don’t like?

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Ambassadors in Chains

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 24; 150, Isaiah 11:1-9, Ephesians 6:10-20, John 3:16-21


Today we enter the fourth and final week of Advent. We look forward to celebrating the end our period of waiting. The date is on our calendars this and every year. And yet …

Does it feel like we live more in an ongoing Advent world than in a post-Christmas world? Yes, Christ has come and yes, we sing hymns of triumph but does the world seem like it’s been redeemed? Does it act like it?  God’s justice, while undeniable, seems to unfurl not so much from “glory to glory” as with “fits and starts.” The expansion of the Kingdom is a long, irregular process revealed in God’s time, which only on rare and happy occasions – perhaps we call them miracles – happens to coincide with our time. Yet Advent always concludes with Christmas.

When Paul wrote to the Ephesians from his imprisonment, he called himself as “an ambassador in chains.” Though he no longer considered himself under the Law, Paul still did not see himself as above the rules – the rules of decency, fairness, and love. The revolution he helped lead was one of peace and mercy. The body count was decidedly one-sided. While the powers-that-be were not constrained by love, Paul preached nothing but. Though playing by the rules – accepting our chains – puts us at a distinct disadvantage in the short term, the Kingdom for which we are also ambassadors demands a solid foundation. Force, coercion, and deceit are sand; even the Gospel crumbles when built upon them.

In our zeal to spread the Kingdom everywhere, Christianity has too often assumed the language and tactics of the empire we once confronted. We attempt to impose that which can’t even exist unless it is freely accepted. Winning people to Christ is not the same thing as using overwhelming force to make them act like “Christians.” Perhaps those chains exist because without them, we are dangerous to ourselves and others.

In many traditions, the fourth candle of the Advent wreath symbolizes love. Since Christ’s victory is already complete, we don’t need to worry about more victory. The best way to honor it is to share his love.

Comfort: Christ’s victory has already been won.

Challenge: Meditate on how you represent your faith to others. Is it an invitation or a demand?

Prayer: God of mercies, I seek to serve your Kingdom. Amen.

Discussion: Can you think of any modern examples of the church acting like the empire?

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What is Love Actually?

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 90; 149, Isaiah 8:1-15, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-18, Luke 22:31-38


As the second week of advent draws to a close, let’s reflect on its traditional theme of love. We throw the word “love” around a lot, and muddy its meaning in the process. A single word describes a range of feelings, actions and attitudes. “I love pizza.” “I love God.” “I love Blazing Saddles.” “I love making love.” More sophisticated users of language may choose different words to better express nuance, but for us common folk, love is love is love.

If you reflect on different types of love – romantic, divine, fraternal, charitable – what questions does it raise for you? Over time, how have your own experiences and studies changed your working definition of love? Do you experience love primarily as a feeling, an attitude, an action, some combination of the three, or something else entirely?

If we actively engage the world, our understanding of love evolves endlessly. Take marriage, for example. The intensity of feeling of a new love can’t sustain twenty, forty, or sixty years of marriage; as time passes, the landscape of the relationship changes. Self-help books that teach us our relationship will flounder unless we hold onto or rekindle that early passion have it all wrong. Stubborn insistence that love must look and feel the same five, ten, or thirty years down the road is deadly to a marriage. Movies, television, and books tell us a relationship that loses its youthful character is somehow lacking, but the opposite is often true: just as mature people gain depth, gravity, and patience … so do mature relationships.

Our love for God and people must be allowed to follow a similar path if it is to mature. Sometimes we need to let go of what we think love is before we can reach that next level of depth. That can be scary, or feel like a loss, especially if the letting go is forced on us. At the close of this second week of Advent, can we commit to bravely exploring a deeper understanding of love over the coming year? We might find God in the most surprising places!

Comfort: Love matures as you do.

Challenge: Try using words other than “love” – such as like, adore, admire, or enjoy – in your daily conversations.

Prayer: God of love, teach me to love. Amen.

Discussion: How has your understanding of love – romantic or otherwise – changed over time?

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More Than A Feeling

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 33; 146, Isaiah 5:18-25, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28, Luke 21:29-38


Yesterday we looked at the relationship between God and humanity as a love story cycling from estrangement to reunion. Today’s reading from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians also addresses love, but more how to express the practical sort of love we are called to implement in our community. This type of love, also known as agape or charitable love, is not about affection, but about action. When Paul advises his audience not to repay evil with evil but to do kindness always, note he does not add “and you have to like each other while you do it.” One of the attributes of Christian love is that we strive do right by others no matter how we feel in the moment.

Our pop psychology culture emphasizes the preeminence of feelings. Reality shows and bad therapy model a brand of emotional purging that may be cathartic for us, but which may also leave many floundering in our emotional wake. Rising above our emotions may even earn us the title of “hypocrite.” We should be careful not to buy into the notion that our emotions define us or should define our actions. Good therapists and wise spiritual leaders teach us there is a deeper self that lies beneath our emotions. When Paul asks us to repay evil with kindness (and he asks us this because Jesus asked first), he is encouraging us to engage that deeper, truer self. The love of God that is the foundation of the deeper self may sometimes be experienced through emotions, but it precedes and follows any emotional expression, and it never promotes the self at the expense of others.

We act in love toward others because they are beloved of God, not because we are fond of them, or because charitable actions “feel” good. However, we can reap spiritual benefits from these actions, especially if our actions are loving when our gut is not. In a culture that encourages us to let feelings guide our choices, it’s easy to forget that our choices also mold our feelings. Acting in love transforms us into loving people who reflect the love of God. What more could we aspire to?

Comfort: You are stronger than a collection of feelings.

Challenge: Read some books or articles on managing emotions.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for giving me the ability to be better than I feel I am. Amen.

Discussion: What emotions do you have the most trouble controlling?

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Blink and you’ll miss it.

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 24; 150, Isaiah 1:1-9, 2 Peter 3:1-10, Matthew 25:1-13


The world ended today. Did you notice? Probably not … if it wasn’t your world. But someone’s did. Someone’s divorce was final. Someone received a terminal diagnosis. Someone’s home was bombed to the ground with loved ones inside. The world ends every day.

We all long for a day when things will be just and fair and simply … better. We’ve never been patient about it either. Today’s letter from Peter dealt with both those who used the promise of Christ’s return for their own gain, and scoffers who said if it hadn’t happened yet it wasn’t going to – and only a few decades had passed since Christ was physically among them. Was the author’s response that to God “a thousand years are like one day” any more satisfying then than it is centuries later? It seems we are left to conclude that Jesus and those who claimed he would return are simply wrong. But if the world ends every day … maybe Jesus returns every day too.

Parables about the kingdom of heaven, like Matthew’s tale of the bridesmaids and the oil lamps, are never only about some future “rapture” or judgment; they also instruct us on what the kingdom is like right now. Unlike the foolish bridesmaids, we prepare for the groom’s return not just because we fear being excluded from the banquet, but because delays and midnight arrivals are par for the course. Jesus returns when someone accepts a 3 a.m. call from an abused spouse and offers a safe place to stay. Jesus returns when a Hospice volunteer sits with someone who is afraid. Jesus returns when combatants choose reconciliation over revenge. Our lamps must be filled with the oil of compassion and ready to light when the phone rings, the stranger cries, or the enemy uncurls a fist. Otherwise when Christ comes calling we – like the foolish bridesmaids – will be left in our own darkness, having missed the opportunity to join the groom and represent him to the world.

Today the world ended. Today Christ returned. If your lamp is full, you’ll get to see it all again tomorrow.

Comfort: Jesus returns every day.

Challenge: Look out for opportunities to show the Christ’s love to people in crisis.

Prayer: Loving and merciful God, I thank you for daily renewal. Amen.

Discussion: When have you felt like the world ended?

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The One and the Ninety-Nine

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 147:12-20, Numbers 12:1-16, Romans 2:12-24, Matthew 18:10-20Psalms 97; 147:12-20, Numbers 12:1-16, Romans 2:12-24, Matthew 18:10-20


“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.”
– Mr. Spock, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

“The needs of the one … outweighed the needs of the many.”
– Captain Kirk, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Humankind has always struggled to balance individual need against the need of the greater community. The modern tool of choice is economic system: capitalism, socialism, communism, etc. Lying along a continuum from individualism to collectivism, these models have achieved various levels of success – if measured economically. Measured spiritually, all fall short because they are not ends, but means. How do we approach this struggle of knowing what and when to sacrifice?

Sacrificial living does not necessarily lead to a literal cross. In the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd leaves behind ninety-nine sheep to find one. Fine if you’re the one, but most of us are among the ninety-nine left on the mountain. Do we grumble about being temporarily inconvenienced and blame the one’s misfortune on its own failure to keep up? Are we willing to sacrifice a little convenience so the one may survive? Often our answer depends on whether we’ve chosen freely or been coerced … but the shepherd doesn’t bother to survey the sheep.

Sacrifice is valued mostly via lip service. We “sacrifice” trips to the movies or our usual pricy selection at Starbucks to keep our debt down or to save for our children’s college. Rarely outside the military are we asked to make true sacrifices in the sacred sense of giving without expecting anything in return. Or maybe the opportunities are abundant but we value merit over mercy. Does the shepherd seem concerned with whether he is giving the lost sheep “a hand up or a handout?” Are we prepared to make the real sacrifices necessary to save the lost in our society? Because in the end, the hands up demand more personal cost in time, money and comfort than do the handouts.

When it’s our turn to be the one sheep, how will we want the ninety-nine to respond? That’s what we should be prepared to sacrifice.

Comfort: No matter how lost you feel, Christ is searching for you.

Challenge: Remember that lost sheep started out part of the flock. They are family, so their burdens are our burdens.

Prayer: Merciful God, I trust you to find me when I am lost. Amen.

Discussion: When you’ve felt lost, how did you know God had found you again?

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A Little Yeast

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 147:1-11, Ecclesiastes 9:11-18, Galatians 5:1-15, Matthew 16:1-12


Paul fought diligently to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. He argued with Peter and James that there was no need for Gentiles to observe Jewish laws, since Christ had fulfilled the law and freed us of its chains. Imagine his dismay when certain members of the church at Galatia –which he founded! – began teaching circumcision was a requirement.

Paul’s response may be summed up as: “You were fine when I left you – what happened?! If you require this one law for justification, you will effectively bind yourself to all of them, and Jesus’s sacrifice becomes meaningless for you. Stop listening to these bad apples; they are spoiling the bunch!” More specifically: “A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough.”

Jesus also compared bad teachings to yeast.  To appreciate the analogy, we must remember that during Passover Jews ate only unleavened (yeast-free) bread to commemorate their flight from Egypt; even a tiny bit of yeast could rapidly grow to contaminate the whole batch and  make it unusable. At first Jesus was irritated because the disciples thought his words about yeast were a rebuke because they forgot to bring the bread, so he explained exactly what yeast – the contaminated teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees – they needed to be wary of.

What varieties of yeast threaten our faith communities today? What elements which start out tiny can – if left unaddressed – spread to ruin the whole batch? They are numerous and extend beyond bad doctrine. Bullies become more bold when we fail to address them. Cliques can form almost undetected until they are exclusive enough to be hurtful. Apathy toward justice issues saps the sense of mission. Political litmus tests (spoken and unspoken) may start to send messages about who the “real” Christians are. Left unchallenged, expressions of bigotry taint the character of the congregation.

Ignoring a problem when it’s small so we can “keep the peace” only allows it to fester and spread. Peace is not the absence of conflict. It is the ability to resolve conflict through love. Let’s diligently pursue true peace before it becomes impossible to do so: once the bread is baked, the yeast can’t be removed.

Comfort: Conflict does not have to lead to division.

Challenge: When unhealthy behaviors threaten your community, speak up but speak up with love.

Prayer: Loving God, grant me the wisdom to know which battles to fight for the good of your gathered people. Amen.

Discussion: Are you helping spread any yeast by ignoring it?

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Poverty of Ideas

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 15; 147:1-11, Proverbs 17:1-20, 1 Timothy 3:1-16, Matthew 12:43-50


Americans have a schizophrenic attitude toward people living in poverty. On one hand we canonize Mother Theresa for her work with the poor, and missionaries who feed starving Ethiopian children. On the other, we tend to think less charitably of the poor at home, and frequently require them to justify their poverty because we can’t stand the idea that someone somewhere is taking advantage of the “system.” Among Christians and nonbelievers alike, the poor are too often vilified rather than loved, torn apart rather than restored.

Do we honestly believe poor people “over there” are somehow different from or more deserving than people sleeping under bridges in Chicago? Poverty is a product of injustice and bad luck. America may have more resources and opportunity than many nations, but we can’t ignore the social, political, and economic structures that intentionally or unintentionally conspire against the poor. Jesus may have pointed that out once or twice.

We all know examples of people who’ve risen above – maybe we’ve done it ourselves – but lifting oneself out of poverty, especially generational poverty, usually requires exceptional talent. Hard work alone does not guarantee success. Your able body, sound mind, ethnicity, gender, and looks are all matters of chance helping or hindering  you. People who possess socially favorable variations of these traits have the opportunity to earn more, but do they inherently deserve more?

We treat intelligence and strength – and the success they engender – as virtues, but they are not something we choose; they are unearned gifts God has entrusted to us. Aren’t they meant to serve more than our bank accounts? Whether comfortable or afflicted, we should all do our fair share, but Christ taught if we have two coats and our neighbor has none, we should give them one. How often do we instead grill them about why they are too irresponsible to have a coat?

Who among us dares volunteer to tell Jesus we know who is deserving and undeserving, and the poor but unexceptional just don’t make the cut? Yet we do that with our votes and checkbooks every day.

The problem of poverty is complex, but the solution is never to dismiss poor people as weak or lazy. Both Old and New Testament scriptures have very clear positions on loving the poor. Why look for so many reasons not to?

Comfort: Whatever your financial or social status, in God’s eyes and heart you are equal to all His children.

Challenge: Examine what biases, hidden or overt, you might have against the poor. How do you think Christ would respond?

Prayer: God of love, open my heart to those in need. Amen.

Discussion: In what ways do you think America effectively works to alleviate poverty? In what ways is it ineffective?

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Beyond Tolerance

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 92; 149, Numbers 11:16-17, 24-29, Ephesians 2:11-22, Matthew 7:28-8:4


Paul’s letter to the Ephesians addressed the concerns of a church whose members were divided over the issue of circumcision. Jews practiced circumcision as a sign of the sacred covenant between God and their people. Greeks did not practice it. The church had members of both cultures, but many Jews felt circumcision was a requirement to enter into the faith of a Jewish Jesus. Paul taught them both ways were acceptable, because through Christ they had been made into one humanity.

More than a lesson in tolerance, this is a lesson in the artificiality of boundaries.

One modern parallel is the current division between self-identified liberal and conservative Christians. Another is the structure of denominations. If Paul is right, being one body doesn’t mean “conservative and liberal Christians have equally valid viewpoints” or “Presbyterians are just as Christian as Catholics.” It means those divisions … simply … don’t … exist.

We want them to exist though. We like to be able to point to our “tribe” of like-minded individuals for support and affirmation. While we should certainly stand firm on our principles and beliefs, those principles and beliefs can’t be about creating division within the Body. Nor can they be about bending people to our will. When we let that happen, it’s not long until we think we’re qualified to decide who is “in” and who is “out” of the Body based on tribal affiliations rather than personal commitment to Christ.

Labels exist to divide us. They say, “I am this and you are not,” or “you are that and I am not.” What starts as an objective naming of qualities inevitably devolves into a dangerous, tribalistic mindset that declares: “We are worthy and you are not.” When our allegiance to a label takes priority over our allegiance to the Body (and just look at American politics to see how that plays out), we suffer from a kind of spiritual auto-immunity, attacking parts of our own Body and destroying its health.

Tolerating each other is not the same as loving each other. The first reinforces division, and the second helps to erase it.

Comfort: The existence of other people’s beliefs does not threaten yours.

Challenge: Be sure to recognize the difference between being persecuted for your beliefs, and not being allowed to persecute others for your beliefs.

Prayer: Loving God, help me to love my neighbor as your child, and to remember we are both equally beloved by you. Amen.

Discussion: What social boundaries have decreased or increased in importance for you?

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