The Impotence of Power

Today’s readings:
Psalms 20; 147:1-1, Exodus 3:1-5, Hebrews 11:23-31, John 14:6-14


“By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.”

– Hebrews 11:24-25

Injustice demands reaction.

Do we pray about it? Discuss it with friends? Ignore it?

Or like Jesus and Moses, do we actively confront it?

Most approaches fall into one of two camps: working within the system, or working outside it. Depending upon the unjust “system” – which may be a government, church, business, or culture – our circumstances may determine which path is available to us. However, as a Hebrew adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter into the Egyptian ruling class, Moses had choices. He could have lamented but otherwise ignored injustice that didn’t affect him directly. He could have lived a comfortable “insider” life and used his influence with Pharaoh’s family to incrementally ease the injustice suffered by his people. Wisely, he chose to act as an outsider.

People in positions of power – boards, elected offices, etc. – often seek that power to change unjust systems. However, insiders can influence change only to the extent that those controlling the system will tolerate it. The more one works to change the system, the greater the risk of being ejected from it.

Even those uncorrupted by power frequently find themselves maneuvered into working to retain that power more than actually using it. The more they hold, the more reluctant they are to lose it. Can the rich and powerful promote justice? Only if it is more important to them than the wealth and power the possess. To truly use power to fight injustice, one must be willing to lose it completely.

What if we are on the outside? If we feel helpless because we lack institutional power, let’s look to Moses, Jesus, and the prophets as inspiration for the ability of outsiders to effect change. Having nothing freed them to say everything. Because they didn’t dedicate their resources to maintaining wealth and power, they could dedicate them to justice. Do our own attachments hinder our willingness to do justice?

Let’s remember, Moses had to descend from the mountain of power before he climbed the mountain of the Lord.

Comfort: You don’t have to be powerful to be full of power.

Challenge: List three ways you can influence the world around you.

Prayer: Merciful God, teach me to exercise power mercifully and for justice. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever solved a problem by giving up control?

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The Promise of History

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 130; 148, Numbers 20:1-13, Romans 5:12-21, Matthew 20:29-34


Despite leading the Israelites through the desert for forty years, Moses was forbidden by God to enter the Promised Land. Why? At Meribah the people had quarreled with Moses because they lacked sufficient food and water. The Lord had commanded Moses to speak to a rock, and waters would gush forth. Once before God had produced waters from this rock and had instructed Moses to strike it. This time, instead of speaking, Moses struck the rock with his staff twice, and seemingly took credit for the miracle.

Some people believe this direct disobedience caused God’s rebuke, though all things considered this seems like a pretty minor infraction. God is entitled to do whatever He wants, but He is not petty. Thirty-eight years earlier the Israelites had balked at God’s orders to enter the Promised Land, and instead sent spies ahead to make sure it was worth the effort. In His anger God decreed none of the current generation – including Moses – would enter the Promised Land. Their children would see it after their deaths.

Our sense of history can be short. When we experience a painful event – a revolution, a shooting, a divorce, a riot – we tend to look to recent circumstances to explain it. We find comfort in assigning blame to the easiest – and usually closest – targets, but we frequently do so hastily, lazily, and mistakenly. The roots of our troubles often run deep in time: generational poverty, unredressed discrimination, legacies of domestic abuse, complicated political histories, etc. Understanding the world is difficult work, but willful ignorance leads to yet more difficulty. Even if we can’t solve these problems in our lifetimes, we should reject quick-fixes and easy answers and provide thoughtful, faithful leadership to deliver the next generation into the Promised Land.

Comfort: The world is a complicated place. You don’t have to form quick opinions about it.

Challenge: Few answers are both easy and correct. Don’t settle.

Prayer: Eternal God, grant me wisdom and patience to be a steady, healing presence in a sometimes thoughtless, broken world. Amen.

Discussion: What opinions about the world have you had to revise based on more evidence or better understanding of history?

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Monkey Meat

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, Numbers 11:1-23, Romans 1:16-25, Matthew 17:22-27


“The Monkey’s Paw” is a short story about a mystical artifact (a mummified monkey paw) that has the power to grant three wishes. You are probably familiar with some of the numerous film, television, or other adaptations of this story. The paw twists the wisher’s intent to grant their desires in horrible and disturbing ways. One man wishes for a sum of money, and receives the exact amount as a settlement for his son’s accidental death – the ultimate “be careful what you wish for” moment.

After the Israelites had been wandering the desert for a while, many of them grew tired of eating the manna God provided. Manna was basically boiled into a cake, and people wanted meat. God – displeased with their lack of faith and gratitude – told them they would get meat “until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you.” While God is not malevolent like a Monkey’s Paw, there are still consequences for not wanting to work with the world as God has provided it to us.

Paul’s letter to the church in Rome addresses people who exchanged their understanding of God for something that was more to their liking. In a sense they wished for God to be different in a more worldly and decadent manner, then proceeded to act as if their wish had been granted. The consequences of dissolute living degraded their bodies, minds, and spirits.

As Christians we believe in resurrection and transformation. To many people that may seem like wishful thinking, but we trust that through Christ and the Holy Spirit, God transforms our hearts and our world. Though we must be careful not to get ahead of ourselves and confuse what we hope for with what God is doing. When our endeavors don’t go our way, we assume they have failed. When the Spirit moves through people we can’t bring ourselves to call righteous, we reject their words and efforts. But God creates evangelists from bounty hunters and prophets from murderers … and he doesn’t always clean them up to our satisfaction first.

We don’t change the world by following wishes, but by following Christ. If that’s too bland for our tastes, or not bland enough, we can wish for something different. But in the end, our own wishes taste loathsome when compared to the fruits of the Spirit.

Comfort: Resurrection, better than any wish, is unfolding all around you.

Challenge: When making plans, periodically and prayerfully check in to make sure you aren’t confusing your ideas for God’s.

Prayer: Thy will be done. Amen.

Discussion: Can you recall any experiences in your life when you wanted something and God wanted something better?

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Why Thee?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 63; 149, Numbers 3:1-13, Galatians 6:11-18, Matthew 17:1-13
Evening Psalms 125; 90


Psalm 90 – the only psalm attributed to Moses – is written from the perspective of someone trying to make sense of it all at the end of a long life. The psalmist doesn’t sugar coat life’s difficulties. He prays the good days might at least outnumber the bad, and acknowledges that the lucky get 80 years of toil and trouble. Yet he prays for God’s work and its meaning to be manifest in the community.

The wise do not wait until the end of their lives to contemplate the meaning of work and suffering, nor do they wait until suffering is upon them. It’s tempting to keep the suffering of others at a certain emotional distance because identifying with it too closely forces us to admit it could happen to us. Distance feels safe, but leaves us ill prepared when God does not exempt us from disease, infidelity, loss, or other tragedy. Suddenly what we saw as part of God’s plan for another person becomes a crisis of faith in our own lives.

If we spend time now asking “Why them?” and “How would you have me respond?” we are less likely to be spiritually devastated when it’s inevitably time to ask “Why me?”

The psalmist doesn’t offer concrete answers to his questions, but the context gives us some clues about where those answers may lie. The questions are universal, and he asks them not about anyone in particular, but about the community. The work is not the work of any one person, but of the community. The meaning of the work transcends any single life or generation. Despite all Moses did to lead the Israelites, he never set foot in the promised land. Any satisfaction Moses gained from his efforts came from the knowledge he had played his role in the greater plan.

When it’s our turn to suffer – and we’ll all have our turn – the question “Why me?” overwhelms us if we can’t see ourselves as but one part of the whole of creation. If we’ve lived a self-centered life divorced from the story of the community, meaning will be difficult to find. Like words chosen by a skillful poet, each of us is complete, important, and beloved by God, but part of a greater work.

Comfort: You are an important piece of your community, supported by and supporting all the other pieces.

Challenge: See above.

Prayer: Loving God, grant me the patience and wisdom to encounter suffering with a heart of mercy and solidarity. Amen.

Discussion: What types of suffering do you identify with? What types do you find difficult to deal with?

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Burn

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 93; 150, Exodus 3:1-12, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 10:17-24


Burnout is a reality of modern life. We can experience burnout at work, at church, and even with our family. When we become burned out, our motivation, dedication, and productivity all suffer. More than fatigue which saps our physical and emotional strength, burnout saps our spiritual strength. Exhaustion is the inability to go on; burnout is the unwillingness to.

In Exodus, Moses first encounters God when he notices a bush that is burning but is not consumed. From the flames, God speaks to Moses about how He plans to use this exiled Egyptian Jew to free the nation of Israel. In the decades that followed, Moses might have felt a lot like that bush. Igniting him to a higher purpose, the power and will of God infused him with a spiritual fire that led the people out of Egypt and through forty years in the desert, yet he was able to endure it all without being consumed. Sometimes an exhausted Moses might have wished for it all to be at an end, but God sustained him.

When we suspect we are beginning to burn out, it is time to reevaluate what we are doing. Is it really our job or family that is burning us out, or is it our attitude? If it’s the former, we can seek an external change. If it’s the latter, we must work on internal change. Either way, let’s consider one of the first things God said to Moses: “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” It’s not enough to simply stop what we’re doing. We need to find a way to make contact with the holy ground God would have us walk. We need to strip bare not just our feet, but our souls, emotions, fears, and desires until we hear God’s call again. Maybe he will start us on a new journey, or maybe he will fortify us for the next forty years.

Every place we stand is holy ground, if we are listening for the voice of God. Let us hear. Let us burn.

Comfort: When you are tired or unsure, bare yourself to God for renewal.

Challenge: Where in your life are you most subject to burnout? Work? School? Home? Pray about what you can do to transform your situation from an out of control wildfire to a burning bush.

Prayer: Ever loving God, grant me the wisdom to find the path you have laid out before me, and the strength to follow it faithfully. Amen.

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The Seat of Mercy

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 92; 149, Exodus 25:1-22, Colossians 3:1-17, Matthew 4:18-25


The LORD said to Moses: Tell the Israelites to take for me an offering; from all whose hearts prompt them to give you shall receive the offering for me.
– Exodus 25:1-2

The Ark of the Covenant was a container built to hold the tablets of the Ten Commandments, God’s first laws for Israel. Its golden cover, with grand cherubim sculpted into either end, was called the Mercy Seat. The Mercy Seat was where God was present in the center of his people, and where sacrifices were offered for atonement of the sins of the people. All the gold for the Ark, as well as materials for the tabernacle (portable temple) which housed it – other precious metals, fine fabrics, gems, leather, spices, etc. – were collected voluntarily from people whose hearts were moved to give. This was a special kind of generosity since the people of the nation of Israel had only the possessions they had taken with them when they fled Egypt, and were a wandering, exiled people without other resources or trading partners. Each contribution was a meaningful sacrifice. What a wonderful metaphor: God’s dwelling place is created by the generosity of the community.

The Ark was secured in the innermost part of the tabernacle, and later in the temple at Jersualem, called the Holy of Holies. Only high priests were permitted to be in the presence of the Ark, and each year on the Day of Atonement they would sprinkle sacrificial blood on the Mercy Seat. Flash Forward a few centuries and in the outermost part of the temple we would find the money-changers whose presence offended Jesus so much that he drove them out with a whip. What started with the generosity of the people had become a place for the powerful to exploit the poor.

Offering himself as the ultimate sacrifice, Christ fulfilled the law and made the Mercy Seat obsolete. His was the blood of the new covenant, shed for all. We are no longer separated from God by law, but redeemed to him by love. As Paul taught the Colossians, in Christ there is no male or female, Greek or Jew, slave or free … inside the Holy of Holies or outside; all are equal members of the Body of Christ. Together, through our generosity and love, we are tasked with building a holy place, more precious than gold, with this new covenant at its center.

Comfort: God dwells among us.

Challenge:  When you can, work toward reconciliation.

Prayer: Loving God, I thank you for the sacrifice of Jesus the Christ. Make me a worthy bearer of his covenant. Amen.

Discussion: What divisions do you observe among the body of Christ? Conservative or liberal? Catholic or Protestant? Others?

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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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Org Chart

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 145, Exodus 18:13-27, 1 Peter 5:1-14, Matthew (1:1-17) 3:1-6


Did you know Moses had to develop an organizational chart? He was spending morning to evening serving as judge for the people. His father-in-law, Jethro, realized this situation was unsustainable; Moses would soon be exhausted and the people would suffer for it. Jethro suggested he select trustworthy men to share the burden, so Moses appointed judges “over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens.” Does this system of lower and higher courts sound familiar? Only the most difficult cases floated up to Moses, a “supreme court” of one, which was probably fine since he reported directly to God.

Lawyers get blamed for our lawsuit-happy culture, but people have been seeking compensation for wrongs for millenia. The preamble to the Code of Hammurabi, the oldest known recorded set of laws pre-dating Moses by 300 years, states the Code was created in part “so that the strong should not harm the weak” and to “[bring] about the well-being of the oppressed.” Some of the penalties required under both Hammurabi and Moses might make that difficult to believe (adultery was punishable by death), but it’s important to remember both represented tremendous advances. “An eye for an eye” is a vast improvement over an essentially lawless culture practicing “the lives of your children for my eye.”

Whatever structure our legal system takes, people of faith must remember God’s justice does not begin with “what do people deserve?” but with “what do people need?” After all, the hungry steal less bread if there are fewer of them, and a person who has to leap twice as many hurdles to reach the same opportunity as someone else is half as likely to get there honestly. If we are to reflect God’s grace, unearned but freely given, we must found our sense of justice on mercy, not revenge. By the time punishment needs to be applied, the “justice” system has already failed.

Tens of people seeking God’s justice together soon form fifties. Then hundreds. Then thousands. While we look higher on the org chart and seek mercy, let’s be sure to look lower to see those who hopes for the same from us.

Comfort: God’s grace is freely given. Your job is to accept it, not earn it.

Challenge: Seriously consider where your ideas of justice diverge from the ideas Christ describes.

Prayer: Loving God, forgive me my sins as I forgive those who sin against me. Amen. 

Discussion: In what areas are you more concerned with the satisfaction of revenge or punishment than establishing a truly just society? What changes can you make in yourself and the world?

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Skin in the Game

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 92; 149, Exodus 17:1-16, 1 Peter 4:7-19, John 16:16-33


Though the nation of Amalek shared a lineage with the nation of Israel, they were bitter rivals. When Israel was encamped at Rephidim, Amalek attacked. While they fought, Moses stood on a hill and held his staff in the air. As long as he kept it raised Israel prevailed, but when he tired and let it drop Amalek prevailed. Growing weary, Moses sat on a stone and  his brother Aaron and companion Hur held his hand steady. The whole incident is a little strange, as it paints Moses almost as some sort of magician casting a spell over the battlefield. If God wanted Israel to claim victory, why not just destroy the Amalekites like He had the Egyptian army? We can learn some valuable lessons from this story.

First, it seems God wants us to have some skin in the game. He gives us our freedoms, but they are ours to defend. When enemies storm the camp, we can’t assume God will take care of it all like a superhero. Of course we depend on Him for our strength, but actual effort is required. For example, if our enemy is hunger, we might remember words attributed to Pope Francis: “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.”

Second, we have to be willing to receive and give help. Our leaders aren’t superheroes either. Aaron and Hur didn’t stand back and criticize Moses for failing to keep that staff aloft; they offered moral and literal support for as long as it was needed. They took turns because they were invested in the outcome, and leaders can’t do things alone. There was a measure of risk to getting involved: the people of Israel were fickle and quick to turn on their leaders, and if the battle had been lost Moses’s comrades would likely have paid a price. Like them, we need to shore up each other’s faith in difficult times, even when the outcome is uncertain.

Faith is not a miracle factory. It is a source of strength that grows stronger as we share it with others.

Comfort: Not only do you not have to carry every burden alone, it’s a sign of strength to share it.

Challenge: When you can, be part of a solution instead of an observer of problems.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for the community of believers who supports me in my journey. May I pass on the strength you share with me to others who need it too. Amen.

Discussion: In what areas of your life are you passively waiting for God or some earthly leader to solve a problem? What could you be doing to help with it right now?

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Give It A Rest

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 148, Exodus 16:23-36, 1 Peter 3:13-4:6, John 16:1-15


The first Sabbath (except maybe for the day God rested) occurred shortly after the Israelites fled Egypt. The people began to complain because they were thirsty, so God provided water. They complained because they were hungry, so God provided manna on the ground each morning. They complained because they weren’t eating meat, so God sent quail in the evenings. All that complaining was a lot of work. Moses told the people that on the sixth day of the week, God would provide twice as much food as normal so they could rest on the seventh day; no one was to go looking for food. Of course some people went looking, so God asked Moses: “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and instructions?”

We might cluck at the disobedient nature of the Israelites, but these were a people traumatized by centuries of oppression. They barely knew God and had not yet learned to trust Him again, so each step toward freedom seemed to be a step toward annihilation. Over the next forty years of wandering, the Sabbath became essential to their national and religious identity. For Jews a Sabbath is more than a day of rest – it is a day of holiness set apart from ordinary days. Christians have mostly lost that sense of Sabbath holiness. We may go to church, but we also prepare family dinners, mow the lawn, and crowd the mall. For many, Sunday is a day to accomplish tasks left undone earlier in the week. Businesses cater to our demand for convenient hours, but “convenience” has robbed us of any excuse to rest.

Paradoxically, preparing for a day of rest and holiness is hard work. It requires planning and little extra push just as we are hoping to wind down for the weekend. But what value might we find in actually observing a Sabbath? Is there anyone who couldn’t use more rest? Imagine how our lives might change if once a week we devoted an entire day to re-energizing our relationship to God and the world. Jesus observed the Sabbath. Maybe we should consider it.

Comfort: The Sabbath does not exist to deny people, but to replenish them.

Challenge: Create space in your life for a Sabbath.

Prayer: Merciful God, thank you for the gift of rest. Amen.

Discussion: What do you think would be most likely to distract you from a Sabbath? What benefits might you find?

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