Get To It


Today’s readings:
Psalms 98; 146, Isaiah 30:18-26, Acts 2:36-41 (42-47), John 14:15-31

The second chapter of Acts describes the Christian church in its earliest days:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.

These are a people who are delighted to be part of the same community. We can’t help but wonder if it presents a model the church in its current form needs to reclaim. But few of us are selling our possessions to help fellow believers or celebrating communion in our homes. We can rationalize why that’s impractical, but it wasn’t any more practical then.

So what happened?

Many things, but here’s a big one. These earliest church members emerged from a culture bogged down in rules. The rules themselves were not bad, but as people tend to do, the leaders had twisted them to maintain power and control. Loving one’s neighbor – and to some extent loving one’s God – had become secondary to technicalities. When Jesus freed them from the law, suddenly they were able to understand, “I don’t have to love my neighbor because it’s a rule complicated by yet more rules; I get to love my neighbor freely.” That spring of love was waiting to burst forth.

When it comes to loving our neighbors, enemies, or the outcast … do we feel like we have to or we get to? Today we often consider forgiveness a burden, but a people no longer bound to mandatory rejection found it freeing. Generosity, whether material or spiritual, is most exhilarating when it’s freely explored.

Let’s embrace that perspective. In a world that says to seek revenge, remember we get to forgive people. In a world that insists practicality is best, remember we get to love extravagantly.

We get to follow Christ. In a world that has largely forgotten, let us remember what a joy that is.

Comfort: You don’t have to. You get to.

Challenge: Pick something you feel like you have to do, such as go to work, clean the house, etc. Figure out a way to look at it as something you get to do.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for all the things I get to do in Christ. Amen.

Discussion: In what ways could you benefit from changing your perspective?

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Everything Old Is New Again


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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Point of View


Today’s readings:
Psalms 98; 150, Isaiah 62:6-7, 10-12, Hebrews 2:10-18, Matthew 1:18-25

Luke’s nativity story, which we read on Christmas, focuses on Mary, her faithful response to God, and her feelings about the birth of the Messiah. Now we read Matthew’s nativity story – a much shorter version which presents us mostly Joseph’s point of view. Reading both gives us a more complete picture of this story.

Luke says little about Joseph other than introducing him as Mary’s betrothed husband. He doesn’t mention Joseph’s internal struggles about the situation. Did Mary know about them? Matthew tells us that when Joseph learns Mary is pregnant, he decides to quietly divorce her. Under the law he would have been within his rights to punish her severely, but Matthew says Joseph is a righteous man with no desire to disgrace her. Perhaps Jesus remembered this bit of family lore when he stopped a crowd from stoning a woman caught in adultery.

An angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream, and explains the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Joseph stays married and raises the child as his own. This decision would have had repercussions long after it was made. People were just as skeptical of Virgin births and angelic dreams then as now. Gossip and whispers probably followed Joseph for a long time, though we don’t hear much more about him, except for how he keeps his young family safe.

Whatever your take on the virgin birth, this story can teach us a lot. We never really know how people arrive at decisions and situations. Our attempts to fill in the blanks are usually inaccurate at best, and judgmental at worst.

The person we think is a sucker for staying with a cheating spouse, or a young woman who got herself into trouble, or a hapless refugee family, has an entire backstory (or two, or twelve) that we don’t understand. They might not be raising the Messiah, but neither are we. Examining our own stories – the good and the bad – from different perspectives may just help us understand someone else’s story is not there for us to judge, but to hear. Joseph shows us righteousness is not always about seeking the fullest extent of punishment available under the law; it may just begin with taking time to learn the other person’s story.

Comfort: God knows your story.

Challenge: Think about someone you are prone to judge. How much of your judgment is based on what you know, and how much is supposition? Read this article on one school’s attempt to use restorative justice instead of defaulting to prescribed punishments.

Prayer: God of all stories, I will live my life for you alone. Amen.

Discussion: When have you found out your understanding of a situation was completely wrong?

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Heroes and Villains


Today’s readings:
Psalms 33; 146 , Isaiah 1:21-31 , 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12 , Luke 20:9-18

Have you ever seen those online quizzes with names like “Which Seven Dwarfs character are you?” or “What comic book figure are you?” Generally they ask silly questions (while secretly gathering marketing information) then reveal why you are most like Bashful or Batman. Although meaningless and generic, the results never seem to be especially surprising. Most of us have a pretty good idea of who we are.

Parables are a different story. We think we know which character represents us because we want to identify with the lost sheep or the repentant sinner, but maybe that’s because we know which characters are “supposed” to be admirable. Take the parable of the Wicked Tenants, for instance. An owner leased his vineyard while he was out of the country. When he sent a slave to collect his share of the harvest, the tenants beat the slave and sent him back. They did the same thing to the next two slaves he sent. Finally he sent his son, whom they killed. The owner would come to destroy the tenants, and give the vineyard to others. With (very) little analysis, we can conclude the owner is God, the wicked tenants are the religious leaders He entrusted with His people, the beaten slaves are the prophets, the slain son is Jesus, and the new inheritors of the vineyard are Christ’s followers. Easy, right?

Not so fast. We don’t always get to be the hero.

Twenty centuries later, it’s the Christian establishment’s turn to work the vineyard of the Western world, and the powerful – or at least those who like to think they own everything – don’t tend to fare well in parables. On the whole, the church isn’t kind to prophetic voices of dissent. We declare them apostate or stop carrying their DVDs in our bookstores. When they demand too much inclusiveness, we’d rather leave them spiritually bruised and empty-handed than consider we may have erred by trying to assume ownership of the grace that is only God’s to claim. Today we are the tenants running amok. Whom are we beating?

Advent is the perfect time to try viewing yourself from a different perspective. If it turns out you’re The Evil Queen or The Joker, with grace you just might be able to turn that around before Jesus gets here.

Comfort: There’s time to change your story.

Challenge: Ask yourself who might see you as the bad guy, and whether they have a point.

Prayer: Oh Lord, teach me to be humble and help me to be kind. Amen.

Discussion: What fictional character do you relate to, and why?

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All Is Vanity


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 57; 145, Ecclesiastes 2:1-15, Galatians 1:1-17, Matthew 13:44-52

Ecclesiastes is the story of a man seeking meaning in life.  The first chapter is titled “Everything is Meaningless” and the rest is about what you’d expect. The seeker does not find meaning in wisdom, pleasure, folly, toil, advancement, or riches. He concedes that wisdom is better than folly because your life will probably be more pleasant and longer. He advises readers to obey the king, keep their vows to God, make some friends, enjoy pleasure in moderation, remember God in youth, and (no kidding) diversify your portfolio.

The third chapter has a passage about everything in life happening in its proper time (which many of us remember best as the lyrics of the lovely Pete Seeger song “Turn! Turn! Turn!”), but the bottom line is no matter what we do we’re all going to die, so all our efforts are no more than vanity.

Fun stuff, right?

But there is wisdom here. The author of Ecclesiastes could also have written Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff … and it’s all small stuff (actually by Richard Carlson). We worry a lot about things that don’t matter in the long run. We convince ourselves we’re in control of far more than we are, then berate ourselves for not doing a better job. We waste emotional energy comparing ourselves to others when the competition and its rewards are completely imaginary. We want life to make sense, so we tell ourselves stories to make it seem so, and when reality collides with our stories we lose faith.

Good things happen. Bad things happen. In the final analysis … maybe there is no final analysis. At least not by human standards.

Faith means trusting that no matter what is going on, God is present and constant throughout. Let’s try to remember that when it feels like things are falling apart personally, nationally, or globally. Jesus tells us worry never added a single hour to anyone’s life … but it steals plenty. Do what you can today; there will be more to do tomorrow, and other people to do it. Do it with faith and love. Everything else is vanity.

Comfort: True meaning is found by recognizing that we live in the presence of God.

Challenge: For a week (if you can), keep a log of how you spend your time, and how what you’re doing makes you feel. Review it for a stark evaluation of where your vanities lie.

Prayer: God, I am with you. Teach me I need nothing else. Amen.

Discussion: What parts of life don’t make sense to you? How satisfied are you with the idea from Ecclesiastes that they don’t need to?

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Not So Obvious


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Leviticus 26:27-42, Ephesians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:41-46

Jesus certainly seemed to enjoy stumping the Pharisees. When he asked them whose son the Messiah was, they confidently answered “David.” But when asked them how David could call the Messiah “Lord” if he was also his son, they had no answer and were afraid to ask any more questions. What had been obvious to them moments before was no longer so. There’s a certain satisfaction in reading about Jesus puncturing the Pharisees’ balloon of smugness. Maybe that’s partly because at one time or another we’ve all been on the receiving end of something similar; we’ve probably also been on the giving end.

One of the words most likely to undermine effective communication is “obvious.” When something seems obvious to us, we treat it like an objective reality. If someone else can’t see or understand it, we question their powers of observation and / or comprehension. The truth is, we all bring different perspectives to life. Draftspersons create two-dimensional orthographic drawings and three-dimensional isometric drawings to illustrate the complete dimensions of an object. Without representation from all sides, otherwise “obvious” details are easy to miss. Consider a cylinder: from the end it looks like a circle, but from the side it looks like a rectangle. Both are equally true and equally incomplete. When we think something is obvious and someone else does not, it is not a reason for ridicule, but a signal that one or both of us could learn from an additional perspective.

Since we aren’t Jesus talking to the Pharisses, it’s probably better if we don’t get a reputation for providing withering responses to questions or different opinions. We might like to interpret that as people thinking we are clever, but it more likely means they think we are close-minded. You don’t have to shut down a co-worker, friend, or spouse too many times by arrogantly pointing out the “obvious” to them before the lines of communication collapse.

In any given situation, we may be seeing only the end of the cylinder. While it’s obviously a circle, insisting that’s the sole and obvious truth is a rejection of the glorious diversity God has created.

Comfort: Your truth adds to the sum of truth.

Challenge: Try to strike the word “obvious” from your conversations.

Prayer: Glorious Creator, open my mind to all the wonders of your creation. Show me the truths I can’t see from my perspective. Amen.

Discussion: When have you missed something which was obvious to someone else? And vice versa?

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Shifting Perspective


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 98; 146, Exodus 19:1-16, Colossians 1:1-14, Matthew 3:7-12

Many Christian seminaries require students to write a thesis demonstrating they have developed a consistent view of the nature of God and religious belief (systematic theology). This is an important part of preparing students for ordained ministry. Not too many people want to approach their minister with a pressing issue, only to hear: “Well I’ve never really thought about it…” Given the challenges of reading the Bible as a unified and consistent text, developing such a statement is a tall order.

In today’s scriptures we read about multiple understandings of God. In Exodus, God gives the nation of Israel three days to purify themselves for His arrival on Mount Sinai. He descends in a thick cloud and, under pain of death, permits neither man nor beast to approach the mountain while he remains. This God shows power and authority to a nation who doubts.

In Matthew, John the Baptist preparing the way for the coming Messiah. He speaks to the descendant priests of that same nation and tells them they have become like trees bearing rotten fruit and Jesus is on the way with an ax. This God shows his disappointment in a nation where the powerful exploit the weak.

In Corinthians, Paul congratulates the church and encourages them to keep bearing good fruit of the Spirit by holding fast to Christ. This God showers blessing and encouragement on a community of believers.

If we conclude the nature of God changes across time, theology is useless – God could be totally different tomorrow! Better perhaps to think our understanding of and expressions about God change with our personal and community evolution. God is constantly liberating us, and constantly correcting us (whether through supernatural intervention or natural consequences) when we misuse that liberation.

The average age of seminarians is creeping into the 30s and early 40s, an age where certainties from our 20s mature into more questions than answers. Our relationship with God is one we build throughout our lifetime – and beyond. As our vision of God ebbs and flows, we eventually realize God isn’t moving – our perspective changes because we are.

Comfort: God is constant and present to us wherever we may go.

Challenge:  Draw yourself a timeline of your ups and downs, and keep it handy for future updates.

Prayer: Immortal God, thank you for being present to me at all times. Please give me wisdom when I cast my own doubts and limitations on you.  Amen.

Discussion: How has your understanding of God changed over time? When has that been joyful, and when has that been painful?

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Between Love and Hate


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?

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My Own Worst Enemy


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 22; 148, Exodus 2:1-22, 1 Corinthians 12:27-13:3, Mark 9:2-13

Identity is a funny thing. We think of it as an internally generated sense of self, but in large part it is externally imposed upon us. The world’s opinion of us does not change who we are, but it does change who we are allowed to be. Take Moses, for example. As a male Hebrew infant, he was considered a potential enemy and targeted for death by the king of Egypt. When the king’s daughter pulled him from the river where his mother had set him afloat in a basket, he became part of the royal household. Scripture doesn’t say how or when he learned he was Hebrew, but by adulthood he was sympathetic to the plight of his people. After he killed an Egyptian taskmaster for beating a Hebrew, his position in Pharaoh’s house no longer mattered, and the king wanted him dead again.

Moses fled to Midian, where he met his wife Zipporah. Upon their first meeting she assumed he was Egyptian. His accent and clothes told the world he was one thing. Inside he was another … but what exactly? Never a Hebrew slave under the Egyptian whip, never a fully privileged Egyptian, always conflicted. How long was it – if ever – before he felt like a Midianite? Moses had to do the hard work of being an authentic person with no real example to follow.

To some degree, outside expectations limit us all. Culture, economic status, and other forces categorize us without regard to our true selves and needs. It’s easy to internalize those expectations and never challenge them, but there’s more power in growing from the inside out. Able to see both Hebrew and Egyptian culture up close but with an outsider’s critical eye, Moses was uniquely qualified for the service God would soon call him to. Unable to conform to any labels, he was able to transcend all of them.

Your life experiences – especially those that don’t meet expectations – prepare you for a unique role. Moses was the key God turned to free the Hebrews. What blessings are locked behind a door only you can open?

Comfort: Your differences are a gift to the world.

Challenge: When you feel like an outsider, find a constructive way to use that perspective.

Prayer: God of creation, thank you for the good and bad times that have shaped me. Help me to understand my gifts so I may use them in service to your kingdom. Amen.

Discussion: Have you suppressed any of your natural traits and tendencies to fit in better with a group?

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On The Dime



Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Exodus 1:6-22, 1 Corinthians 12:12-26, Mark 8:27-9:1

Have you ever heard the expression “life turns on a dime?” It refers to the way our fortunes can change with little to no warning. When a new king who did not know Joseph or Joseph’s family rose over Egypt, he did not look kindly on the Hebrews. This new king viewed them as a potential threat, should they decide to align with his enemies. To preempt any uprising, he put harsh taskmasters over them and turned them into a nation of slaves. He went so far as to tell the Hebrew midwives to kill any male children at birth. The midwives were clever, and said Hebrew women were strong and gave birth on their own before a midwife could arrive. In a generation, the Israelites went from famine to favor to fetters.

In what must have felt like a mid-stream change of course to the disciples, Jesus began to teach them he would have to undergo great suffering, die, and rise again to fulfill his mission as Messiah. After all the miraculous healing, multiplication of loaves and fishes, and adoration of the crowds, Peter couldn’t believe his ears. He tried to tell Jesus it didn’t need to be so, and Jesus famously responded: “Get behind me, Satan!”

Psychologists tell us change –– good or bad – is an enormous source of stress, and sudden change even more so. In truth, life is nothing but change. Our bodies are machines of change, transforming food and air into blood and thoughts. As we sleep, our planet moves around the sun and our sun turns with galaxies and we wake unimaginable distances from where we laid our head. Change is unceasing; only our awareness of it flickers.

At the center of it all is God. He is the fixed point on which all else pivots. No matter our fortune, no matter where in the universe we stand, Jesus is the north star of our faith, guiding us toward the loving creator at its heart. Whether we are showered with riches or stripped of dignity, focusing on the center keeps us from spinning out of control.

Comfort: Focusing on God keeps everything in perspective.

Challenge:  Talk with a friend about their perceptions of your ability to handle change.

Prayer: God of creation, you are my center and my focus. Thank you for your constant love. Teach me to keep your ways in focus. Amen.

Discussion: What changes do you find especially difficult? What makes you dig in your heels and say: “Enough!”

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