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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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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Training Wheels

all things

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 88; 148, Ecclesiastes 5:1-7, Galatians 3:15-22, Matthew 14:22-36


After the feeding of the multitude, Jesus sent the disciples off in a boat, and retreated to a mountain to pray in solitude. A storm broke, and great waves pushed the disciples far from shore. In the morning they saw Jesus walking across the water toward them, but mistook him for a ghost. When Peter realized who was coming, he climbed out of the boat and started walking toward him. A strong wind frightened Peter and he began to sink. Jesus reached out to save him, and asked: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Who exactly was Peter doubting? Was it Jesus … or himself? Only a few hours earlier he and the other disciples had fed a crowd of thousands with little more than the makings of a few fish sandwiches. Jesus had blessed the food, but he told the disciples to do the feeding. From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was preparing the disciples to carry on his mission after he was gone. That meant teaching them to trust themselves to do the work. Of course all they accomplished was through Christ, but they would have to do the actual work; losing confidence when the winds turned against them would sink the mission entirely.

How many miles and hours do parents spend running behind bicycles once the training wheels have been taken off? Their steadying hands at first provide balance, then only the illusion of balance, and finally they let the child ride alone. The Law was like a set of training wheels – for a while it kept the people upright, but over time it outgrew its usefulness, and the people relied on it for the wrong reasons. During his ministry, Jesus was removing the training wheels and teaching his followers to find their balance.

Our growth follows a similar path. When we doubt we can count on him to reach out that steadying hand, but eventually we must act. Faith is not believing Jesus will do what we ask of him, but believing he has already prepared us for what he asks us to do.

Comfort: When our faith feels wobbly, Christ stands ready to steady us.

Challenge: It’s easy to confuse what we want with what God wants.

Prayer: Powerful and ever-loving God, grant me strength and faith to do the work you ask of me. Amen.

Discussion: Has doubt or fear been holding you back from something you feel called to do?

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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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Babel to Pentecost

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 104; 150, Deuteronomy 16:9-12, Acts 4:18-21, 23-33, John 4:19-26

Pentecost readings:
Genesis 11:1-9, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, , Acts2:1-21


Genesis tells us the first people of the earth built a city named Babel, and in that city built a tower which aspired to reach the heavens. God was displeased with this development, for he said mortals would soon be unstoppable, so he struck down the tower and confused the tongues of the people so they spoke different languages. Humanity was scattered across the earth. This story of Babel is often told as an introduction to the story of Pentecost.

On the day of Pentecost, which scripture tells us was ten days after the resurrected Christ ascended into heaven, the Holy Spirit in the form of tongues of flame descended upon the gathered disciples. The surrounding crowd came from many lands, and each person heard the disciples speaking in his or her native language. Some people assumed the excited crowd must have been drunk, even though it was only nine in the morning. Peter assured them no one was drunk, and this event was a sign of fulfillment of prophecy. The Holy Spirit (also called the Advocate or Paraclete) promised by Christ had begun to work among the people.

How telling that the Holy Spirit’s first gift to us was the ability to understand each other. In our largely monolingual culture we take that for granted, but in much of the world traveling from your home for a distance less than the breadth of Ohio can result in a language barrier. Yet even within our common language, we lack common understanding. Never take for granted that your frame of reference or your assumptions and inferences are the same as anyone else’s. The unspoken meaning of words like “love” and “family” and “God” can vary widely from person to person. We may share a common vocabulary, but communication – like jazz and poetry – is all about context.

We should continue to rely on the Spirit to help us understand each other, to teach us to listen before we speak. God’s kingdom does not require forced uniformity of speech and thought; it is a place where those once scattered by pride reunite in understanding.

Comfort: The Holy Spirit works among us to further the kingdom.

Challenge: Pray and work to free yourself from the biases and assumptions of your own language, experience, and culture. Understand how this is not a rejection of your heritage.

Prayer: Creator God, thank you for the gift of the Holy Spirit. May the Spirit guide and teach me to live and teach with the compassionate heart of Christ. Amen.

Discussion: What do you think when you hear someone speaking a language you can’t understand?

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Holy Friday

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 22; 148, Lamentations 3:1-9, 19-33, 1 Peter 1:10-20, John 13:36-38

Readings for Good Friday:
Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Psalm 22, Hebrews 10:16-25, John 18:1-19:42


If “Good Friday” seems like an odd name for a day commemorating a crucifixion, understand that good used to mean holy. All over the world, Christians re-enact Christ’s journey to Golgotha (also called Calvary) and his terrible execution. From congregations reading the passion together, to prayer groups walking the stations of the cross in troubled neighborhoods, to entire towns becoming Jerusalem for the day, Christians feel compelled to relive the story.

Because we know how the story turns out, we may find it easy to judge the crowds whose cheers turned to condemnation, or Peter, who – as Christ predicted – denied knowing him not not once, not twice, but three times. Certainly we would not have shouted “Crucify him!” We could never deny him … could we?

Let’s assume we could. Actually, let’s assume we have – because it’s true. None of us lives perfectly. That being the case, isn’t it comforting to know the person Jesus hand-picked to found the church was as flawed as we are? Maybe that’s why in passion stories most of us play the angry mob: to be reminded each of us is in need of forgiveness, and so don’t have the right to judge anyone. Christ later assured Peter he was still loved, but surely the knowledge of that moment of fear, weakness, and betrayal never left him. And almost as surely that memory helped forge the compassion and mercy for others that would have been necessary to speak for Christ.

When we feel like judging, let’s remember Peter – weak, frightened, impulsive, imperfect Peter. Then let’s remember Christ forgave him, as he forgives us, and calls us to forgive. It was the sin of the world that Christ forgave on that cross, including the sin of our own imperfect mercy and tarnished compassion.

From noon this day until Sunday morning, the disciples were without Christ. They thought the story was over, and despaired. This holy Friday and Saturday, let’s contemplate what it would mean to live without hope of forgiveness for ourselves and others. Today Christ hangs on the cross. We shouted “Crucify him!” Now we weep.

Comfort:

Challenge: Pray for forgiveness.

Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Discussion: What does Good Friday mean to you?

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Fail to Succeed

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Today’s readings (click to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 145, Proverbs 27:1-6, 10-12, Philippians 2:1-13, John 18:15-18, 25-27


Bodybuilders know the secret to success is failure. A muscle grows bigger and stronger only when it is worked until it fails. They reach for more than they know they can do, because they know the reward will be a stronger body. Every successful workout teaches them the limit of their strength.

Most of us are not experts at judging our own limits, physical or spiritual. When pressed we overestimate or underestimate our abilities. Many people who have gone through a crisis with a parent or child have said: “I didn’t know I could do it until I had to!”

Peter didn’t understand his own limits. Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus predicted Peter would deny him three times. Of course Peter insisted he would never deny Jesus, but once the rubber hit the road Peter’s fear was greater than his faith. We can shake our heads at Peter, and insist just as hard as he did that we would not have been so faithless, but the truth is we don’t know. We have the advantage of knowing how it all turns out, but for Peter and the other disciples, Jesus’s death brought terror and confusion.

And yet … Jesus also predicted Peter would be the rock upon which he built his church. Jesus didn’t pick someone with a perfect faith, because that someone doesn’t exist. Later when Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection, he asked Peter three times: “Do you love me?” For each failure, Jesus offered an opportunity for redemption.

Attempting only what we know is possible is not faith, it is fear. To grow our faith, we must be willing to test its limits – to trust God to carry us through things we don’t think we can do. When things don’t work out, remember Peter.

God knows we will fail. He can use each of those failures to make us better: more humble, more compassionate, less judgmental. We may need some recovery time – bodybuilders typically wait 24-48 hours before working the same muscles again – but after we recover we know our faith is stronger than it was before.

Comfort: Failure is always an option. Through God, so is redemption.

Challenge: Pick something you’ve been afraid to try, and trust God to see you through it. Even if you fail at it, God will be with you to dust you off.

Prayer: Thank you, O Lord, for the challenges which strengthen me. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever been stronger than you thought you could be? If so, what or whom do you credit?

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Hope Humbly

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Readings: Psalms 122; 145, Amos 2:6-16, 2 Peter 1:1-11, Matthew 21:1-11


What does it mean to wait for Christ? In one sense it means preparing our hearts and spirits for the promise of Christmas. Whether we all agree about the historical details of the nativity, we share a fairly common understanding about its message. In another sense, it means preparing ourselves for the return of Christ at some future time — and we have a lot less agreement about what that means. Some of us think of it as a literal embodiment of Revelation. Others are less certain of the details but envision a physical return. Still others think of it in metaphorical terms and don’t much separate the future Kingdom of Heaven from the present. Almost certainly none of us knows exactly, and Christ will continue to thwart expectations. It’s kind of his thing.

In Matthew 21, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem on a donkey. This gesture symbolized his defiance of both Roman authority and the expectations of the Jewish people. The Jews were expecting a warrior messiah, a political figure who would throw off the chains of Roman tyranny in bloodshed and battle. Instead, they got a man who refused earthly titles and allowed his persecutors to execute him. A donkey where they expected a stallion.

Jesus will throw over our expectations as well (if he hasn’t already). So how should we prepare? Maybe the best thing to do is carry on as if we don’t know exactly what to expect. Because we don’t.

The second letter of Peter advises us to cultivate the qualities describing a life in Christ, each quality laying a foundation for the next: goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual affection, and love. Without them  he says our vision of Christ is nearsighted and blind. Before we make the same mistake as Christ’s contemporaries and insist our understanding of the messiah must be the right one — or insist someone else’s must be the wrong one —let’s concentrate on working up the rungs of Peter’s ladder of virtues from goodness to love. Those rungs are held together between rails of humility and faith. As we hope for Christ’s return, let’s hold tightly to both.

Comfort: We can always grow while we wait to encounter Christ more fully.

Challenge: At the end of each day this week, reflect on where you might have better exercised humility.

Prayer: May God continue to bless us; let all the ends of the earth revere him. (Psalm 67:7)

Discussion: How do you think your understanding of Jesus might differ from someone else’s?

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