Telescope or Kaleidoscope?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 104; 150, Genesis 1:1-2:3, Ephesians 1:3-14, John 1:29-34


The first Biblical account of creation tells the story of God creating for six days and resting on the seventh. That story is immediately followed by a second one that differs in detail but still ends with the first human beings in a garden paradise. When we recall the stories, we often blur the lines between them, taking a six-day schedule from one, a borrowed rib from another. The Biblical creation accounts don’t stop with Genesis. Proverbs, Job, John, multiple Psalms – these and other passages provide widely varied accounts of how God went about creating the world. How is it they can be so different, yet part of a unified whole?

The Gospels are similar. Each tells the story of Jesus from a different viewpoint, so they are similar but not the same. Studies show that eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable, yet sometimes our legal system still depends on them. The more witnesses who can corroborate key details, the better. A telescope is accurate but limited by its singular field of vision; a kaleidoscope gives us many angles of the same view.

Let’s consider our own histories. When we and our siblings or friends reminisce about childhood, we don’t all recall it the same way. Ever listen to a married couple tell a story jointly? There is quite a bit of give and take, argument and correction as they navigate their way through the tale. Witnesses, friends, or partners, they are all working toward finding truths that can only be reconstructed by layering multiple perspectives and insights.

When we dive into the big questions – Who am I? Why am I here? What’s it all about? – no single story tells us all we need to know. The compilers of the Bible were not concerned that the creation stories “agree” because that’s not the point. Even the “conflict” between Genesis and science disappears when we consider facts and truth are not revealed in a single snapshot, but in multiple exposures over a long period of time. If we insist that only one story is factual, we’ll never know which ones are true.

Comfort: We don’t have to have all the answers.

Challenge: We have to keep asking the questions.

Prayer: God of Creation, help me to value your truth more than my own certainty. Amen.

Discussion: Every family has its own mythology. What’s one of your family’s most meaningful stories? If you don’t have a family, what makes a story meaningful to you?

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Spit, Mud, and Healing

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new window/tab):
Psalms 20; 145, Joshua 3:14-4:7, Ephesians 5:1-20, John 9:1-12, 35-38


All four gospels tell the story of Jesus healing a blind man on the Sabbath. The mechanics of it are simple: he spits on the ground, makes mud, and rubs it on the man’s eyes. Afterward the man rinses the mud off and can see. Mud and spittle were a common enough medical treatment in the Greco-Roman world of the period, so it’s very likely someone had tried this remedy before, maybe more than once. What was so different about Jesus? We could say “He was the magic son of God!” and be satisfied with that answer, but the story reveals more.

Jesus started from a different perspective than the people around him: they believed the man was blind because he had sinned, but Jesus told them that was not true. Instead, he saw an opportunity to reveal God’s glory by helping someone who hadn’t even asked for help.

How much dirt and spit have we wasted by pre-judging a situation? How could a different perspective help transform the most common, mundane elements in our lives into opportunities to reveal God’s love to the world? Residents of Cateura, Paraguay are a fine example. Their survival depends on harvesting recyclables from an enormous trash dump just outside one of the poorest slums in South America. But in this, they have found beauty: they have crafted a world-renowned children’s orchestra of instruments made from discarded articles pulled from the dump.

A blind beggar turned into a prophet. Broken pipes turned into flutes. The people and things in our lives that seem broken or useless transformed by the power of the Spirit into … what? We may not restore someone’s sight, but we can help restore hope, peace of mind, or the simple comfort of a hot meal and a warm bed. What if we have dirt or spittle (metaphorically speaking) but not both? Then we have an opportunity to combine our resources with another person’s, and the invitation for the working of the Spirit is doubled (or tripled, or…). Looking with Christ’s eyes, we see brokenness as only the first step toward wholeness.

Comfort: No matter how broken we may be, God can put us back together.

Challenge: What relationships or situations in your life have you written off as too broken to fix? Ask a friend or mentor how you might change your perspective on the situation to better resolve it.

Prayer: Gracious God, teach  me to see opportunities instead of problems. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever witnessed or experienced healing where others had written off any such possibility?

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Too Good to be False

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, 2 Kings 20:1-21, Acts 12:1-17, Luke 7:11-17


[H]e did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real;
he thought he was seeing a vision.
– Acts 12:9

Have you heard the one about the pious man trapped on his roof by a rising flood? The army, the navy and the marines all came by in boats and offered to rescue him, but he said he was waiting for the Lord to save him. Eventually the flood overwhelmed him. When he got to heaven, he asked God why his prayers went unanswered. God said “I sent you three different boats!”

Peter – Jesus named him “the rock” for a couple reasons – wasn’t much better. When an angel came to rescue him from prison, he thought it was a vision; luckily – having experienced visions before – he followed instructions anyway and was freed. When the prophet Isaiah told King Hezekiah the Lord would spare him from death for 15 years so he could lead his people out of bondage, the King wouldn’t believe him without any less a sign than the sun moving backwards.

Sometimes the Lord’s ways aren’t all that mysterious, and for some reason that seems to be a stumbling block to faith. We are called to be the hands and feet of Christ, but when those hands and feet aren’t pierced with nails or emitting a holy glow, we can struggle to recognize ourselves and others as the answers to prayer. How would it change your perspective on life to realize the answer to your prayer might not be divine intervention, but divinely-inspired human intervention? Or to realize that your action (or maybe just your presence) is the most miraculous thing someone could hope for? After all, the Spirit dwells in each and every one of us. Think on that for a moment…

We are wary of offers that sound too good to be true. A miracle around every corner sounds like one of those. Maybe the wonderful truth is miracles of hope, healing, reconciliation, generosity and comfort are as common as dirt … as long as we are willing to get our hands dirty.

Comfort: You are a miracle.

Challenge: Recognize the miracle in yourself and others.

Prayer:  Thank you Lord for the opportunity to be an answer to someone’s prayer. Amen.

Discussion: What is your general perspective on miracles?

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Collateral Mercy

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 147:12-20, 1 Kings 18:1-19, Philippians 2:12-30, Matthew 2:13-23


Many action and suspense movies have something in common which, when you think about it, is pretty disturbing. As they follow the hero or heroine from one dangerous situation to the next – be it natural disaster, shootout, or car chase – the body count of disposable and background characters climbs. As long as our main character (and perhaps a love interest rendered increasingly inappropriate by the mounting death toll) survives to the end, we’re meant to feel good has triumphed. Granted these movies are fictional, but doesn’t entertainment reflect our cultural priorities?

Of course this trope was well established long ago. When God inflicts three years of drought and famine on the land to punish King Ahab, the story focuses on the prophet Elijah and the one widow who survives to shelter him while countless unnamed people (who neither married Jezebel nor worshipped foreign idols) die miserably. And after the magi decided not to tell Herod where the infant Jesus was, “he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.” But Joseph has a dream to flee with his family to Egypt, so Jesus survives so … that ended well?

For the most part history remembers generals and not foot soldiers; sole survivors and not the unfortunate and numerous departed. You and I are probably going to die uncredited characters from central casting.

But the adult Jesus – the Jesus who ate with the drunks, the sinners, and the disreputable – had some good news for us extras: God loves us just as much as the featured players. Heck, he says it’s the least of us who will be first in the kingdom. The collateral damage and slaughtered innocents? God suffers along with every one of them. Does that make their suffering more fair? Not by human standards at least. But it does make it remarkable. Christ reveals (or possibly just reminds us of) a God whose mercy and compassion operate on both the largest and smallest of scales.

Whether we shape the fate of nations or barely survive day-to-day, God is with us.

Comfort: You and your suffering are not insignificant to God. 

Challenge: In entertainment and news, pay attention to who is affected but neglected.

Prayer: Lord, we thank you for loving the least of us as much as the greatest of us. Amen. 

Discussion: Most of the time do you feel like the hero/ine of your own story, or a player in someone else’s?

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Spearhead

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 130; 148, 1 Samuel 31:1-13, Acts 15:12-21, Mark 5:21-43


As 1 Samuel ends, King Saul – wounded by archers and surrounded by enemy soldiers – falls on his sword rather than let his enemy capture and torment him. Notably absent is any mention of Saul’s spear. For much of his story, Saul and his spear seem inseparable. When Israel’s blacksmiths are lost, only Saul and his son Jonathan have spears and swords. He holds it while he sits in his house, where multiple times he hurls it at David. Feeling betrayed by Jonathan, he hurls it at him too. He’s sitting under a tree holding it when he orders the murder of priests in Nob. The last we read of the spear, he’s sleeping next to it when David steals it away in the night, then returns it to prove (yet again) he means no harm.

There’s an old saying: when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Saul’s tool of choice was a spear, so every problem – real or imagined – looked like a target. Ironically, on the day Saul met David, the shepherd boy told Goliath: “the Lord does not deliver by sword or by spear” – a lesson he never learned. His preoccupation with David’s imagined treachery, and his insistence on solving the problem by running it through, undid Saul and nearly undid Israel.

We might not run around with spears, but we can become so focused on our own ideas that our view of the world narrows to a fine point good for little but stabbing at perceived enemies. When our dedication to a philosophy, a cause, a goal, or a relationship crosses the line from commitment to zealotry, we lose perspective. Those who don’t agree with us – or simply don’t share our enthusiasm – become targets instead of people. Principles are good; obsessions are dangerous.

Trying to view the world through the lens of a single creed, political party, social movement, or motivation pushes most of the world out of focus. God created the big picture. To love it all, we must get out of our own heads to see it all.


Additional Reading:
For thoughts on today’s passage from Mark, see Worthy and Go In Peace.

Comfort: You have something to learn from everyone, and they have something to learn from you.

Challenge: Meditate on how you may have pigeon-holed your thinking.

Prayer: Lord, I seek to love all your creation. Help me see it clearly. Amen.

Discussion: What do you think Saul might have done with his spear after David gave it back? Why?

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Removing Logs

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 47; 147:12-20, Jeremiah 31:1-14, Colossians 2:8-23, Luke 6:39-49


Point your index finger straight up. Keeping both eyes open, move your finger slowly toward one eye until it rests against your eyelashes. Notice what happens: even though you know it’s there, your brain compensates and most of your finger disappears from sight. To actually see it, you have to close the other eye or make some pretty marked adjustments to how you see things.

Now think of the proverbial logs in our eyes. At first they are irritating or distracting, but over time we adjust. We look past our self-involvement and call it common sense. Our judgmental log fades into a haze we like to call high expectations. Apathy blends into a background of alleged maturity. The log is more than a metaphor for our perception. Perception itself is a product of the brain, the physical tool we shape and re-shape with each choice and decision. Every time we ignore our own selfishness, for example, we are that much more likely to be selfish again. To adjust our behavior to the point where we are more concerned with our own logs than with our neighbor’s speck, we must make the (sometimes great) effort to intentionally refocus our mental and spiritual perception.

Why are we so preoccupied with our neighbor’s speck anyway? Partly because it distracts us from examining our own flaws too closely. But isn’t it also true that what we find most irritating about others is often what we don’t like about ourselves? Perhaps the speck we see is really a familiar log viewed through our own skewed perspective.

Once we honestly set about the task of learning to see clearly, we inevitably begin to think more clearly. When we think clearly, we develop the understanding and compassion Jesus wants us to have for ourselves and others. We can’t feel real compassion for others until we understand our own shortcomings and have compassion for ourselves. Though this doesn’t mean we can keep carrying our logs – Jesus does call us to remove them, after all. And isn’t it easier to find our way through the world once they’re gone?

Comfort: God is always ready to help us remove the logs.

Challenge: Be brave, and ask someone you trust to point out a few of the logs that might be weighing you down.

Prayer: Teach me, Lord, to see myself clearly. Amen.

Discussion: As you go through life, do you find you have more or fewer enemies?

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Fire of God

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 18:1-20; 147:12-20, Isaiah 9:18-10:4, 2 Peter 2:10b-16, Matthew 3:1-12


Fire is a prominent theme in today’s scriptures. It is equated with the coming of God twice in Psalm 18, twice in the Isaiah reading, and three times by John the Baptist in our passage from Matthew’s gospel. Fire is an apt metaphor: it terrifies us, yet sustains us; it destroys us, yet we exist because of flames ignited billions of years ago. Maybe you’ve heard someone compare fire to a living thing. While not technically true, fire is primal, unpredictable, and uncontrollable. Under some conditions, attempting to contain fire may cause more harm than good. Decades of fire prevention in the Southwest contributed to many of the raging firestorms appearing in our present day.

Isaiah’s people thought they had contained the fire of the Lord, that they had reduced it to meaningless rites and empty sacrifices; they were a people ignoring the smoldering coal in their midst, willfully ignorant of the inevitable destruction such negligence would bring upon them. When people shrugged off the warnings of John the Baptist because they considered being Jewish – children of Abraham – all the righteousness they needed, John told them the Lord could raise His people from stones and burn them like chaff separated from the wheat.

But fire also heals. It cleanses. It is absolutely essential to the reproductive cycle of some plants. Humans couldn’t live in many of the places we do without it.

God, like fire, is a force we simultaneously fear, respect, require, flee, draw near, and can’t safely touch. The gospel though, is a lit torch. We pass it to others when we see them shivering in the cold and dark. We gather around it in community. We share its flame so others may bear it where we do not go. In our darker moments, we forget why it was gifted to us and march with it against our enemies. We must always remember the torch we bear is a pale reflection of its source, and shun the pride that tells us we own or control it.

This Advent we wait for the spark in a dark, dark world.

Comfort: God is always larger than we can imagine, but never so large that we are small to God.

Challenge: Meditate on a candle, a campfire, or some other open flame. What do you see?

Prayer: All powerful Lord, I will seek Jesus as the light in the darkness. Amen.

Discussion: How does thinking of God as a fire make you feel?

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Stay Hungry

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 36; 147:12-20, Hosea 13:4-8, Acts 27:27-44, Luke 9:18-27


We complain when we’re cold, hungry, thirsty, tired, or in pain but no one ever complains: “I’m just too … satisfied.” Yet satisfaction – or perhaps more accurately self-satisfaction – led to the downfall of the nation of Israel.

Through the prophet Hosea, God shared these words with Israel: “When I fed them, they were satisfied; they were satisfied, and their heart was proud; therefore they forgot me.” In other words, God provided for them in their time of need. They were provided for so well, they started to take it for granted. Eventually, because they were without need, they forgot about God altogether.

It’s a common story, really. When we are in need or distress, we pray and demand to know: “why do I deserve this?” When God provides, and our bellies no longer ache from hunger or our hearts from sadness, it’s easy to forget where we started. We take it for granted. If part of God’s blessing required hard work from us, we may start to give ourselves a little more credit for our own success than is due – and judge others who haven’t made it as far. Sure, we say we know we owe everything to God, but do we really? When is the last time we had a well-stocked kitchen, a happy marriage, and a stretch of good health and asked: “Why do I deserve this?”

Maybe we should stay a little hungry. The spiritual discipline of fasting involves a physical hunger, an unavoidable pang we can use as a reminder to focus our attention toward God. Whether it reminds us of our own dependence, or of the needs of those who hunger not by choice, it teaches us humility and gratitude. Other disciplines – study, solitude, service, etc. – also lift us from a state of oblivious contentment and help us not to take God for granted.

Let’s sacrifice a meal, a lazy Saturday morning, or twenty dollars to a higher cause. It’s all right to feel a little deprived of the more worldly satisfaction they might have provided. That pang reminds us to focus on what’s important.

Comfort: Gratitude will improve your mood.

Challenge: Make time daily to thank God for what God has provided.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for all the  blessings in my life. All glory and honor is yours. Amen.

Discussion: What do you take for granted?

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Horse Sense

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 12; 146, Hosea 2:16-23, Acts 21:1-14, Luke 5:12-26


Horses’ eyes are positioned to give them a horizontal field of vision spanning nearly 350 degrees, but the trade-off is a lack of depth perception. Their optic nerves function fairly independently, and an object seen first from the right side will be perceived as a new object when seen from the left. Raising their heads to look forward improves visual acuity, but then the field is reduced to about 65 degrees. The same world, containing the same information, can be perceived very differently by a single animal, let alone a herd.

As Paul prepared to leave Caesarea and return to Jerusalem, the prophet Agabus warned him the Jews would capture him and turn him over to the Gentile authorities. Naturally his companions did not want him to go, but Paul was ready to be bound and even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus. God’s love was present both in Paul’s friends, who valued his life, and in Paul, who valued his mission over his personal safety. We can imagine the discussion was more heated and heartfelt than Acts describes.

People of good will in service to the Lord can see and understand that service very differently. At times, across and within faith communities, they may even seem to be working at cross purposes. Rather than insist on a single way, let’s consider the horse. We are limited in our perception of God and reality, yet that perception is all we have to work with. Each of us sees only a single slice. When we are focused on what’s in front of us, which may be exactly the right thing to do at the time, it’s difficult to maintain a wider view. When we try to take in the bigger picture, our comprehension will only ever go so deep. Only God knows the whole picture, and points us in the direction that is right for us.

Though we may not be in accord with each other’s point of view, like Paul and his friends we need only agree on one thing: the Lord’s will be done.

Comfort: Your slice of the plan doesn’t have to cover everything.

Challenge: Be open to the idea that God may be working in ways that will never make sense to you.

Prayer: God of Wisdom, grant me both clarity and humility. Amen.

Discussion: Do you have a favorite optical illusion?

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Under Construction

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 54; 146, Esther 5:1-14, Acts 18:12-28, Luke 3:15-22


Apollos was a Jewish man who followed the teachings of Jesus. Acts tells us: “He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus.” He must have learned about Jesus apart from Paul and the other Apostles because he knew about the baptism of John, but not about baptism in the Holy Spirit. When he began teaching in Ephesus, a couple named Priscilla and Aquila (whom Paul had made disciples) pulled him aside to “explain the Way of God to him more accurately.”

This story is a wonderful model for how we Christians can support each other in growing our faith. Priscilla and Aquila did not embarrass Apollos by calling him out publicly, or set themselves up in opposition. Apollos was willing to hear them out and learned from them. They simply informed him of things he didn’t know, and the church thrived.

Let us celebrate and embrace this spirit of gentle correction and willingness to learn. Throughout our faith lives, every one of us is both an Apollos and a Priscilla, a teacher who is at the same time a student. What if, instead of treating the church as an ancient, brittle construction we inhabit solely for the purpose of preserving it, we recognized it as still being built by the Holy Spirit continuing to live and move among us? If we are continuing to work on the project together, like the members of the early church, we feel freer to hear each other’s stories and look at the project from each other’s perspectives to understand the big picture. Christ remains our foundation, but we are a team of builders united in the clamor and mess of creating something, rather than tourists traveling the approved but lifeless path to ogle the crumbling relics we aren’t allowed to touch.

The church is a living body, and living bodies grow and mature. Let’s embrace that process of growth by remaining supportive of each other despite the inevitable growing pains.

Comfort: The faith doesn’t need us to defend it…

Challenge: … it needs us to live it.

Prayer: Eternal God, may the breath of life you have granted me add life to your church here on Earth. Amen.

Discussion: Has hearing someone else’s perspective changed how you understand your faith?

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