Keepin’ It Real

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 65; 147:1-11, Isaiah 49:1-12, Galatians 2:11-21, Mark 6:13-29


Do you know anyone who doesn’t tolerate your nonsense? Most of us know at least one person – maybe a friend, a co-worker, or a rival – who won’t let us get away with anything. For Peter, the rock upon whom Jesus built his church, that person was the apostle Paul. (Before Paul it was Jesus, but those are other scriptures…)

Peter, Paul, and James the brother of Jesus were the leaders of the early church. All of them had different ideas about how to spread and live out the gospel, so while they were brothers in Christ, they were also caught up in a little game of power politics.

When Paul visited Peter (called Cephas in Aramaic), he found him socializing and eating with gentiles. Many Jewish Christians – including James! – would have found this behavior intolerable. After word came that James, who was not yet convinced anyone but Jews could be Christians, was going to visit, Peter and his followers quickly resumed their Jewish customs and rituals so as not to give James any political ammunition to use against them. Paul, who was very invested in spreading the Gospel to the gentiles, didn’t hesitate to call Peter out on his hypocrisy by saying: “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

We all need a friend (or frenemy?) like Paul to keep it real with us. A good friend knows when to offer a shoulder to cry on, and when to tell us the hard truth no one else will. In the workplace, a yes-man may be good for stroking the ego, but strong servant-leaders surround themselves with people who aren’t afraid to respectfully speak their minds when needed. Across the conference table or over a beer, the truth may sting a little (or a lot), but it’s often an inoculation against future mistakes.

Find that friend. Be that friend. The friend who shines light on the darkness not to expose or humiliate, but to clarify and disinfect. Christ was that kind of friend (and of course infinitely more), and as “little Christs” we can be too.

Comfort: You can be honest with your friends.

Challenge: Your friends can be honest with you.

Prayer: Thank you God for good friends, and please help me to be a friend like Christ. Amen.

Discussion: What’s a hard truth you had to hear from a friend?

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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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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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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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Learning from Fools

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 145, Numbers 9:15-23, 10:29-36, Romans 1:1-15, Matthew 17:14-21


After Israelites fled Egypt, the Lord instructed them to build a tabernacle (a tent or dwelling place) where he could reside with them. During the day the Lord appeared above the tabernacle as a pillar of clouds, and in the evenings he appeared as a pillar of fire. When the cloud moved, the people knew it was time to pack up the tabernacle and the rest of the encampment and follow it to the next destination.

The Lord knew it was important to be visible to the people of Israel all the time; they were frightened and fickle and needed reassurance of his constant presence. As God he owed them nothing, but as a creator loving his creatures, he chose to be present in ways they could understand.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he writes: “I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish.” Paul also understood the importance of tailoring his approach to the realities of a situation. In his case though, it was a two-way exchange. To share the gospel he adapted his style (but not his message) to reach his listeners, but he also understood the gospel more deeply as a result of listening to them. Admitting he owed something to fools took real humility.

How flexible are we when attempting to share the gospel? Is our approach more an agenda or an invitation? How about when we evaluate the quality of a worship service that doesn’t align with our preference in musical or pastoral style? Do we try to learn from the differences, or do we work on justifying our preconceptions? Are we at all willing to hear the wisdom of those we consider foolish?

Too often the church approaches evangelism like colonialism, where we play the “advanced” civilization forcing a particular vision on  ignorant barbarians. If Paul was flexible enough to learn from those he sought to teach, we should be too. Whether communicating inside the walls of the church, or taking the gospel to the streets, humility is the key to living the message.

Comfort: You don’t have to have all the answers to share the good news.

Challenge: Listen to some religious music that’s in a style you don’t especially like. Try to transcend the style to hear the message.

Prayer: God of the living gospel, I humbly seek to share Christ’s message of salvation, and to listen to the needs of your children. Amen.

Discussion: In what ways do you find it difficult to be flexible?

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Feedback Loop

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 148, Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:14, Galatians 5:25-6:10, Matthew 16:21-28


A few days ago we considered how we might be receptive to criticism. Today let’s flip that script and think about how we can most constructively give feedback.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote: “[I]f anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” He also said we are called to bear each other’s burdens. As a culture we seem to have grown increasingly comfortable with providing immediate feedback via social media, comment boards, and even in person to strangers. Unfortunately, we are less adept at the “gentleness” part. Name calling, snap judgments, and attention-grabbing vitriol fill our internet, television screens, newspaper pages, and radio waves.

These types of reactions aren’t really about the other person; they are about satisfying our own sense of righteousness.

There are times when firm reactions are called for. When Peter tried to discourage Christ from his journey to the cross, Jesus responded with: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” This may sound harsh, but he spoke with unmistakable intent because what Peter was tempting him to do was unmistakably in error.  He explained what needed to happen in order to reconcile his disciples to the necessary future.

A single incident or flaw almost never defines a person. Peter was still Jesus’s rock. We need to remember that so we don’t seek mercy for ourselves but punishment for others. Bearing each other’s burden includes making an effort at reconciliation. Character assassination is not part of that process. Can we imagine Jesus launching a Facebook dogpile designed to publicly humiliate Peter? Naming hurtful behaviors is necessary, creating more of them is not part of the reconciliation formula. That may not seem “fair” by worldly standards, but Jesus teaches forgiveness and self-sacrifice, not retaliation.

If we aren’t in a position to offer restoration, we aren’t in a position to offer rebuke. Perhaps we can better use that time pulling the logs from our own eyes.

Comfort: Compassion and rebuke can coexist.

Challenge: If you have social media accounts, try not expressing negative opinions for a week.

Prayer: God of restoration, help me bear the burdens of my community with the help of your Spirit. Amen.

Discussion: When have your received or offered constructive criticism?

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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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So You Had a Bad Day

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 62; 145, Ecclesiastes 7:1-14, Galatians 4:12-20, Matthew 15:21-28


This quote from Marilyn Monroe is all over social media: “If you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.” It’s frequently used out of context when someone wants to deflect criticism of  their own bad behavior. We don’t like someone telling us our behavior is bad, or even unhealthy. We might think other people need to hear criticism (again, reference social media for scathing comments about the scandal du jour) but when it’s leveled against us we call it “judging.” Since Jesus told us “judge not” we toss that out as a conversation stopper.

Except we take that out of context too: Jesus didn’t render us incapable of moral evaluation, but reminded us to be merciful to others because we want God to be merciful to us. We are allowed to call out injustice, and to be called out for committing it. While how we behave on our worst days isn’t the standard by which others should judge us, it’s also not above legitimate criticism.

When Paul wrote to the Galatians about the importance of including Gentiles in the Christian community, he reminded them they’d met him during some of his worst days, a period when he suffered from an unidentified ailment. The specifics are unknown, but it seems his condition was, at the very least, unpleasant. He wrote: “though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.” Was this because Paul told them: “If you can’t handle my worst you don’t deserve my best?” No. It was because even at his lowest points, Paul focused first on delivering the gospel message. His weakness was not a source of shame, nor an excuse for behaving badly, but evidence that Christ helps us endure all things.

No matter what, the world will find reasons to criticize us. We all have weak moments and bad days, so sometimes the world will be right to do so. How we handle criticism of our worst days tells people more about our character and our faith than a hundred of our best days.

Comfort: Your worst days are some of faith’s greatest opportunities.

Challenge: It can be tempting and easy to use stress as an excuse to be dismissive or abusive. Remember that your bad day does not give you latitude to ruin someone else’s.

Prayer: God of mercy, teach me to be merciful. Amen.

Discussion: Are you able to take constructive criticism?

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Compromised

Compromised

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 65; 147:1-11, Ecclesiastes 3:1-15,Galatians 2:11-21, Matthew 14:1-12


Is there anyone among us who hasn’t at least once held their tongue or behaved, if not contrary, not quite in alignment with their beliefs to keep the peace? Maybe we didn’t want to ruin Thanksgiving dinner by responding to inappropriate comments from our racist cousin. Maybe we didn’t want to alienate a boss and agreed to a decision we knew was unethical. Maybe we grabbed a cigarette behind the elementary school with friends. Young or old, in large ways and small, peer pressure impacts all of us throughout our lives.

Though they had little else in common, Peter and Herod both found occasion to sacrifice their principles on the altar of appeasement.

In the years after Christ’s death, church leadership was up for grabs. Peter may have been Jesus’s rock, but many disciples considered James, the brother of Jesus, a more natural successor.  In his letter to the Galatians, Paul describes a confrontation with Peter, who “lived like a Gentile” and was not overly concerned with observing Jewish laws until the arrival of some representatives from James (Paul calls them the “circumcision faction”). Suddenly Peter put up a good Jewish front in an attempt to please James and preserve unity in the fragile young church. Paul did not feel the same need for deference – since it bowed to the exclusion of Gentiles from the faith – and accused Peter of betraying the spirit of Christ’s teaching.

King Herod didn’t make good decisions. Contrary to Jewish custom, he divorced his first wife to marry his sister-in-law. John the Baptist publicly spoke against this arrangement. At a drunken party, Herod foolishly promised his step-daughter anything she wanted. At her mother’s urging she asked for the head of John the Baptist. Herod didn’t want to kill John and feared the consequences, but he was more afraid of losing face with his guests.

Giving in or going with the flow may feel easier in the moment, but it doesn’t sit well with our consciences later. In some cases it backfires and delivers trouble on a silver platter. Even with the best intentions, we must be careful how we compromise. Turning the other cheek is not an excuse for being two faced.

Comfort: You don’t have to make everyone happy.

Challenge: When you are torn between speaking your mind and keeping the peace, ask yourself what will be sacrificed if you say or do nothing.

Prayer: Loving God, guide me at all times in the balance of being faithful to you and loving toward your children. Amen.

Discussion: Is there a situation where you regret not sticking to your principles because you didn’t want to cause trouble?

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Moving Target

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 54; 146, Ecclesiastes 2:16-26, Galatians 1:18-2:10, Matthew 13:53-58


The church is an easy target. As a human institution making the bold claim to represent Christ on earth, we paint that target on our own backs. Internal squabbling, failure to live up to our own standards, and outright corruption opens us to criticism from, well, everyone.

Because we are human we are often hypocrites, and because we are Christian we are charged with combating religious hypocrisy. Unfortunately our historical response to criticism of that paradox has been to double down on our own righteousness, thereby making the target ever broader. Calls to return to vague “traditional values” may feel satisfying to internal hardliners, but for those who are outside the church looking in, it only reinforces their perception of hypocrisy.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t strive for Godly lives. Of course we should! But when we fail and are called out for it, our response should be to look inward as mature people of faith, not to lash outward like children shifting blame.

If we are introspective (rather than defensive) about the health of the body of Christ, we just might conclude the honest and humble response to criticism is admitting we have always fallen short of our ideals. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul addresses a church that is only twenty years old. Already there is infighting between Paul and Peter over Gentile inclusion. Rival (he calls them false) interpreters of scripture and doctrine have infiltrated Galatia. He has to refute claims that he lacks the endorsement of Peter, James and other Apostles. A mere two decades in, the church was providing much of the same fodder for criticism it does today.

Maybe the church should be a target. Our promise is not that we are righteous, but that we are forgiven. Honest criticism can be the swift kick in the back door we need to remind ourselves. We need to own the infighting, particularly around matters of justice. A homogenized church at peace with itself is stagnant; a church in conversation with itself – even heated conversation – is making room for the Spirit to be heard. Intentionally or not, the message we send is: “We are better.” Nobody believes that, nor should they. The story we need to tell is: “We don’t claim to be better, but God’s loving mercy redeems us.” When that is the story we also tell ourselves, it becomes true.

Comfort: Being honest about our failings is a testament to God’s love.

Challenge: When you hear criticism, of the church or otherwise, take time for introspection before defending yourself.

Prayer: God of forgiveness, teach me to tell the story of your love. Amen.

Discussion: What hypocrisies of the church bother you the most? Where do you find productive places to discuss your concerns?

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