The One and the Ninety-Nine

ewe aint one

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?

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.

A Little Yeast

solve through love

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?

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.

Poverty of Ideas

mockinsult.jpg

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?

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.

Beyond Tolerance

abolished law

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?

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.

Sunshine and Rain

Jun02 031

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 92; 149, Exodus 40:18-38, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12, Matthew 5:38-48


Turn the other cheek. When sued for your cloak, offer your coat too. If forced to go one mile, go a second one. Give to everyone who begs from you. Loan to anyone who asks. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. In these teachings, Jesus is telling his followers, I know you know the minimum legal requirements, and that’s fine, but actually loving involves so much more

Who actually does these things – all or any of them – all the time?

Would it be unfair to say “Nobody?”

We spend a lot of effort justifying why we don’t  do them, and throw around words like “enable” and “systemic” and “accountability.” We make our giving conditional on the perceived worthiness of the recipients. In the same passage Jesus tells us God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” If God is not doling out sunshine and rain based on merit, maybe we aren’t as qualified to make those distinctions as we’d like to believe. Resenting that our generosity is “wasted” on someone says more about our ego and need for control than it does about their worthiness.

Of course we should steward our resources wisely when battling systemic poverty and need, but that is not in opposition to the individual acts that Jesus promotes. Loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, and parting with our money are not just about helping other people: they are about perfecting the state of our hearts. Love is sacrificial. If our every act of generosity involves an intake evaluation and a cost-benefit analysis, we’re simply swapping one set of rules for another, creating divides between the clean and unclean. Since we are as dependent on God for our own gifts as we are for the sun and rain, should we really be acting as if we know better than God who does or does not deserve them? Love is humble. Jesus says so.

Ironically, selfless love has selfish benefits. As we learn to love unconditionally, we better understand just how much God loves us – worthy or not.

Comfort: You have God’s love, regardless.

Challenge: God expects you to love others, regardless.

Prayer: Loving God, may my love for others reflect your love for them also. Amen.

Discussion: Is your generosity ever tinged with resentment?

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.

Between Love and Hate

1460302740659.jpg

Today’s readings (click below to open in new window/tab):
Psalms 93; 150, Exodus 18:1-12, 1 John 2:7-17, Mark 16:9-20


One Sunday after church, my little brother began telling our dog Buffy that he hated her. Buffy was his best friend – what could have happened? When our mother asked why, he said the priest told us to love God and hate the things of this world. Imagine his relief when Mom reassured him it was perfectly OK to love the dog.

If, like my younger brother, we want to take scripture seriously, how are we to deal with texts like 1 John which tell us to love only God and hate the world?

When these passages were written, people thought Christ was returning any minute. All their focus was meant to be on that event. We’ve since realized we need to live in this world a bit longer; hating it is more difficult when you’re in it your whole life.

Are we really to hate it? After all, the Psalms glorify creation, and Christ instructed us to love our neighbors. He also told one young man to abandon all he owned. There’s a lot to sort through to figure out what we’re supposed to be loving and hating.

Maybe the lowest common denominator is this: love God above all else, with a love that makes all other affections seem insignificant – perhaps hateful? – by comparison. We love the beauty of creation because it glorifies God. We love other people because they are first beloved by God. We recognize anything we possess is a gift from God and valuable only in proportion to how we use it to glorify him. This perspective shifts our affection from the things themselves, and directs our love and gratitude where it truly belongs.

As we navigate the world and try to be “in it but not of it,” we find things to love because we are created to love. Specifically, we are created to love God and the things God loves. We will also find things worth hating, such as injustice and oppression. At all times, our benchmark should be love of God, and we can trust God will love the rest for us and through us.

Comfort: Loving God with all your heart, mind, and soul puts everything in perspective.

Challenge:  This week, abandon one thing that distracts you from your faith.

Prayer: God of love and mercy, thank you for the blessings and gifts of this world. Help me to remember they are reflections of your glory, so all my love may be directed toward you. Amen.

Discussion: What things might you “love” too much?

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.

Rod and Staff

1459594711536.jpg

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 23; 149, Exodus 13:17-14:4, 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:10, Mark 12:18-27


Psalm 23 is arguably the most recognized psalm in the psalter. It chronicles the typical day in the life of a shepherd and flock, through danger and safely home again. The metaphor of Christians as sheep may seem less than flattering; author Russell Banks once observed sheep were only slightly more intelligent than lawn furniture. Critics of the faith have said it accurately describes mindless followers, but the metaphor is not so much about following as about the relationship binding a shepherd and his flock.

At the end of the day, a shepherd uses a rod to count and inspect each sheep for injuries, a practice known as passing “under the rod.” The rod can also be thrown in front of a sheep to startle it back on course. Although other images of rods, such as “spare the rod and spoil the child” and Proverbs 13:24 (“He who withholds his rod hates his son,
But he who loves him disciplines him diligently.”) are more about discipline, the audience of this psalm knew the rod was not used to strike, but to tend.

Impulsive pursuits may leave us stranded in a spiritual bramble. We get caught up following other sheep and find ourselves in unfamiliar or even hostile territory. We tangle ourselves in gossip at work or church. We feel pressure to overspend in order to keep up appearances with friends and neighbors. As a result, we feel lost, overwhelmed, or out of control. At these times, depending on our relationship to our shepherd can literally save us.

To Jesus’ contemporaries the rod and staff were symbols of loving authority. When he called himself the Good Shepherd, Jesus was telling his listeners, “I have your best interests at heart, and often that will require a course correction.” Are we challenged when trying to integrate the ideas of “love” and “authority” into a unified whole? Have we learned to picture the rod in Jesus’ hand as an instrument of punishment or nurture?

We may not be immediately comfortable accepting the humility necessary to admit we need shepherding, but eventually we realize it is a true blessing that our God does not send us alone into the wilderness. Following Christ will always lead us home.

Comfort: Christ seeks to rescue every sheep, no matter how lost.

Challenge: If possible, visit a meditation labyrinth (or use a finger labyrinth). As you move to the center, meditate on a problem that has you feeling lost. On the way out, ask God to lead you home, and give thanks for Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

Prayer: Merciful and loving God, always lead me home to you.

Discussion: How do you feel about being disciplined? How do you react to it?

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.

Stop! Collaborate and Listen.

1458394389372.jpg

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab / window):
Psalms 43; 149, Exodus 10:21-11:8, 2 Corinthians 4:13-18, Mark 10:46-52


Mark tells the story of Bartimaeus, a blind beggar who was sitting by the roadside when Jesus passed by on his way out of Jericho. When he realized it was Jesus, he began to cry out to him, but many people tried to silence him. Mark doesn’t identify these people who “sternly ordered him to be quiet,” but the implication is they were following Christ. The blind man’s persistence paid off when Jesus stopped to wait for him, then healed him saying: “Go; your faith has made you well.”

Have we ever been one of the silencers?

During Sunday worship as we follow Jesus down the road from the first hymn to the eventual benediction and dismissal, we aren’t generally fond of interruptions. How would we react to a blind beggar shouting out in faith in the middle of that Sunday journey? To a crying baby and exhausted mother? To a grieving widower who sobs when the joyful song we sing reminds him of the wife he just lost? Annoyed or uncomfortable, we may say something directly or simply rely on the pressure of the group to impose silence on their obvious need. Either way, the message is clear: don’t interrupt.

Perhaps we justify our reacting by telling ourselves they should wait for a more appropriate moment to express their pain. Yet what moment could be more appropriate than a gathering of the followers of Jesus? In worship or in everyday life, following Jesus means stopping where he would stop. If we won’t respond to need and pain until a convenient break in the scheduled activities … we’ve marched Jesus right out of town.

We can’t run down every single side street searching for blind beggars, but we must be careful not to ignore or silence the needy along our path because we insist on maintaining an inflexible agenda. They are not in the way; they are the way. Worship is more than prayer and praise; it is any expression of love and gratitude for God and his creation. Sometimes an interruption is an opportunity to do our most meaningful worship.

Comfort: Jesus hears your cries, even when others seem to ignore or silence you.

Challenge: God’s plans aren’t always going to be your plans.

Prayers: God of Mercy, teach me to be merciful to those in need. Help me hear their cries as I trust you to hear my own. Let me respond with loving words and deeds. Amen.

Discussion:  Who do you think you have silenced, accidentally or intentionally?

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!

Love Never Ends

1457843031539.jpg

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab / window):
Psalms 43; 149, Exodus 2:23-3:15, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Mark 9:14-29


Today’s reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is frequently read at weddings because it beautifully describes the characteristics of love:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

This passage is actually not about romantic love at all, but about the type of love we as Christians are to practice at all times. It is the type of love Christ had for us, and which we are called to reflect into the world.

We are going to fail.

But Paul also assures us: “Love never ends.”

True Christian love is not a feeling we generate and maintain. We are not its source. Rather, this love comes from God and moves through us. It does not require us to feel affection. It does require us to treat others as Christ would have us do… even when we’d rather be doing anything else.

There is no patience without agitation. No peacemaking without strife. Kindness to our loved ones is no great virtue, but offering kindness when it doesn’t come easily – that is love. The love Paul describes does not require us to be emotionally perfected robots, but recognizes we are naturally irritable, resentful beings who can overcome our lesser impulses by relying on God.

The heart of love is humility. Not a humility which debases or degrades us, but one which trusts God more than our own feelings, intellect, and desires. A humility which bears and endures all things, because it is grounded in God’s love for us, as demonstrated by Jesus on the cross.

When our attempts to love are less than perfect, let’s remember there is always a chance to do better. Let’s be as patient and kind with ourselves as God is. Accepting God’s love is how we learn to love others.

Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Comfort: Love is always available for you to give and receive.

Challenge:  Find ways to love people you do not like.

Prayer: Gracious and merciful God, thank you for loving me and teaching me to love. May I follow Christ at all times, and follow his loving example. Amen.

Discussion: Does your ability to express Christian love depend on your feelings? When have you been able to express love in spite of your emotions?

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!

“Not the heart, but the stomach”

1457189838895

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window): 
Psalms 43; 149, Genesis 47:27-48:7, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Mark 7:1-23


Most of us identify the “self” with the brain or head. Our physical voice resonates inside our skull, so we assign that same voice to our mental life. Hearing our own recorded voice can be shocking; because it differs so greatly from what we expect, the experience can border on identity crisis. However, this sense of identity belonging to the head is not universal. Cultures have placed the self in the heart, the kidneys, and elsewhere. Helen Keller wrote of her pre-lingual existence: “If I had made a man, I should certainly have put the brain and soul in his finger-tips.”

What organs best describe our faith experience?

Do we rely on our gut? Instinct is a fine survival tool, but doesn’t always align with faith. The instinct to fit into our tribe is so strong that we can elevate tribal traditions to immutable laws and ostracize those who don’t follow along. For example, the Jewish people practiced ceremonial hand-washing before meals. It was not a religious law, but a human one. When the Pharisees and scribes accused the disciples of disrespecting tradition by not washing their hands, Jesus pointed out how the religious leaders truly disrespected God by rationalizing away his commands.

The Pharisees relied on brainpower to the detriment of their souls. They allowed some Jews to dodge financial support of their parents – part of God’s command to honor them – by pledging money or property to the temple, thereby making it unavailable for other use. This clever ploy – benefiting both the pledger and the temple – was within the letter of the law, but far from its spirit. The brain may love a faith full of loopholes, but Jesus doesn’t.

Jesus taught faith comes from the heart. Regarding Jewish dietary laws, he said everything that enters the body is destined for the sewer, so it can not defile us, but if our heart generates wickedness, we are defiled from within. Our physical hearts have tremendous influence on our brain function. Our spiritual hearts should similarly influence our minds and guts away from defilement toward true faith and love.

Comfort: Christ’s law is love.

Challenge: It can be easy to vilify the Pharisees and distance ourselves from them. Like us, they were products of their culture. Try reading today’s passage from Mark with some sympathy for the Pharisees and ask yourself what cultural traditions are more important to you than they need to be.

Prayer: Create in me a clean heart, O God. May my mind and will always be in your service. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever been surprised to learn something you thought had religious roots was only a local tradition?

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!