King Incognito

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 148, Genesis 24:1-27, Hebrews 12:3-11, John 7:1-13


Many cultures have folk tales about a king incognito, that is a king (or sometimes a prince or more unusually a queen) who disguises himself and roams his kingdom. The results of his secret adventure depend largely on whether he is a just king or an unjust one. For example, a just king may uncover plots against him and so prevent them from hatching. An unjust king may be discovered and suffer – even die – as a result. The tone of these stories generally reflect the people’s feelings about their current ruler.

Near the end of his ministry, Jesus arranged such an outing.

The Festival of Booths (Sukkot) was happening in Judea. He sent his disciples without him, saying: “I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.” After they departed, he went to the festival alone and disappeared into the crowd. In an era without cameras, not having a group of disciples around him was disguise enough. He was the talk of the festival, and many Jews were looking for him. Some said he was a good man, and others said he was deceiving the people.

Have you heard the phrase: “What someone thinks about you is none of your business?” Knowing what the people thought about him had no ultimate effect on Jesus’s mission. Can we imagine he was surprised to hear both good and bad news? Realistically, what else could we expect? In the verses that follow today’s reading from John, Jesus reveals himself to the crowd and begins preaching. His time had come, and in the end the king must reveal himself.

Other people’s opinions do not matter when we are carrying out the work of the Kingdom of God. While we remain open-minded and listen to what people tell us about their needs, we are to respond as Christ calls us to, whether it makes us popular or not. Some people may love us for it, some may hate us, and some of each may be fellow Christians. When we are following Christ, God’s is the only opinion that matters.

Comfort: You are accountable to no one but God.

Challenge: Do not let other people’s opinions and reactions inflate your ego or deflate your spirit.

Prayer: Breath of Life, help me to learn to rely only on you. Amen.

Discussion: Think about how other people’s opinions have influenced your behavior, for better or worse. What would you have done differently if you didn’t care?

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The Cloud

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 116; 147:12-20, Genesis 23:1-20, Hebrews 11:32-12:2, John 6:60-71


Pauls’s letter to the Hebrews describes the faith of many heroes of the Old Testament, including Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses and others. None of them were perfect, but by faith they did amazing things. They are examples and inspirations that endure. Paul describes them – and all the faithful departed – as a “great cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us always.

Over the years the cloud has only grown larger.

From the 20th century alone we might add names of heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr., Edith Stein, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Or minds like C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day. Still more are less well known, but influential in our lives. When we struggle we can look to their lives, works, and words for strength.

Yet during difficult times, many of us insist on toughing it out alone. We convince ourselves no one has experienced the pain, grief, loss, or doubt that we endure. We isolate ourselves because no one could possibly understand us, relate to our situation, or stand to be around us. The beauty of leaning on the cloud of witnesses is that they are beyond feeling burdened by us. And they have so much to teach us.

Feeling despair? Crack open The Dark Night of the Soul by Saint John of the Cross, and you’ll probably start to feel like an amateur. Not much of a reader? Listen to recordings of the Psalms – number 137 reveals anguish at its purest. We don’t seek out these works to wallow in misery like a jilted lover listening to break-up songs, but because they offer wisdom from others who have overcome similar trials. Otto von Bismarck wrote: “A fool learns from his mistakes, but a truly wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” We can also learn from their triumphs.

Despite our occasional insistence to the contrary, we are never alone. Those witnesses who have gone before us, and those who stand beside us today, are a mortal manifestation of the strength and hope that come from faith. No matter where we are in life, we can plug into The Cloud.

Comfort: The entire history of God’s people is available to support you.

Challenge: Next time you feel compelled to isolate yourself because you think others wouldn’t understand, get in touch with someone to share your story.

Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for the legacy of all who have come before me. Help me to be a worthy heir and addition to the great cloud of witnesses. Amen.

Discussion: In times of difficult, are you more likely to go it alone, or ask for assistance? What do you think that reveals about your attitude toward those who need help?

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God Will Provide the Lamb

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 147:1-11, Genesis 22:1-18, Hebrews 11:23-31, John 6:52-59


Abraham was one hundred and Sarah was ninety when Isaac, the son God promised them, was born. How must Abraham have felt when God asked him to offer his son as a sacrifice? Abraham neither objected to this request nor delayed in responding; he set out with Isaac the next morning for Moriah. This is the Abraham who laughed when God told him Sarah would conceive a child. The Abraham who took down kings to free his people. The Abraham who challenged God not once, not twice , but six times to spare the citizens of Sodom. Yet when asked to make a burnt offering of his son, he complied without argument. Why?

On the way, Isaac asked his father where the sacrificial lamb was. Abraham replied: “God himself will provide the lamb.” We might read this as an attempt to deceive Isaac, but we must remember this is the Abraham who spent many years arguing with God about what was possible, only to be proven wrong time after time. Obedient as he had become, could this Abraham have believed for a moment God would renege on the promise Isaac represented? Tradition tells us Abraham passed God’s test because he was willing to kill his son. Is it possible he passed the test because he trusted his God not to take his child? That he finally trusted God enough not to argue, but to risk being wrong? If so, “God himself will provide the lamb” sounds less like a comforting lie and more like a prayer of self-reassurance. In the end, God spared Isaac and did indeed provide a ram. Abraham’s descendants formed a great nation.

How often have we hesitated to commit ourselves totally to God because we fear what we may be asked to sacrifice? God is not a despot demanding sacrifices out of cruelty or insecurity, but until we trust him enough to risk the annihilation of submission we keep part of ourselves from him. Whatever our faith strips away from us needs to go. Whatever our faith has in store for us is greater than we can imagine.

Comfort: God is faithful, always.

Challenge: Read through today’s passage from Genesis a couple times. The first time imagine yourself in Abraham’s place. The second time, imagine you are Isaac hearing the story for the first time.

Prayer: Pray the Prayer of Dedication below, thinking about what it might cost you.

Lord Jesus, I give you my hands to do your work. I give you my feet to go your way. I give you my tongue to speak your words. I give you my mind that you may think in me. I give you my spirit that you may pray in me. Above all, I give you my heart that you may love in me your Father and all mankind. I give you my whole self that you may grow in me, so that it is you, Lord Jesus, who live and work and pray in me.

Discussion: What have you given up – voluntarily or involuntarily – only to discover something better was waiting?

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Looking for Loaves in All the Wrong Places

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Today’s readings (click below to open in a new tab/window):
Psalms 122; 149, Genesis 18:1-16, Hebrews 10:26-39, John 6:16-27


Carbs are the enemy of faith.

After miraculously feeding five thousand people with only five barley loaves and two fish, Jesus and his disciples waited until evening and moved across the Sea of Galilee from Tiberias to Capernaum. By morning the crowds had found them. Jesus declared to them: “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” The people craved the bread, yet didn’t understand the root of their hunger.

If we have poor eating habits, we often aren’t able to distinguish between cravings and hunger. We know we want something and turn to sugary, fatty foods for a quick fix. They are tasty and relieve our immediate needs, but only for a short time. The more we try to satisfy our hunger with carbs and fat, the more we crave, and in the long run we feel worse. Dieting often fails because instead of making a true lifestyle change as nutritionists advise, we turn to short-term solutions which focus on weight instead of health. When our goals are met, we drop our vigilance and unhealthy habits creep back in. It’s not entirely unlike a cycle where we berate ourselves for our sinfulness and try to overcome it through own strength rather than Christ’s, only to find ourselves in the same place when we can’t resist the cravings.

What’s the nutritional content of our faith? The prosperity gospel teaches us if we say the right prayers or tithe the right amount, we will be rewarded with material goods. Some churches are all about the entertainment value of a worship service because they value high attendance over deep experience. Designed for high volume and low quality, these are more business model than ministry – fifty million served, but not called to serve. Christ calls us to a lifestyle change. He doesn’t tell us what we want to hear or what makes us feel good; he tells us about the food of eternal life. Jesus’s lean meats and broccoli may not sound as much fun as hot fudge Sundays, but he’s saving our lives.

Comfort: The more faithfully we follow Christ, the less we crave the things that don’t feed our spirits.

Challenge: Clean your spiritual cupboard; meditate on discarding teachings that prey on your cravings and filling yourself with those that satisfy eternally.

Prayer: Lord, I will rely on your strength rather than my own. Amen.

Discussion: What do you crave that you know isn’t good for you?

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Attitude of Abundance

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Today’s readings (click below to open in a new tab/window):
Psalms 88; 148, Genesis 17:15-27, Hebrews 10:11-25, John 6:1-15


Our culture promotes irony and cynicism. These can be useful and enlightening, but many times they simply mask an underlying state of fear. When push comes to shove, we tend to hoard the resources we have rather than trust them to God’s abundance. Even in faith communities simple optimism is often characterized as simple-mindedness.

God told Abraham and Sarah, at 100 and 90 years old respectively, they would conceive a child. Abraham laughed in disbelief. When their son was born, they did as God had instructed and named him Isaac, meaning “he laughs.” With God in the mix, irony became hope.

When thousands gathered at the Sea of Galilee to hear Jesus preach, he asked his disciple Philip where they could buy bread to feed everyone. We don’t know if Phillip laughed, but it’s easy to imagine a dismissive chuckle when he told Jesus they would need more than six months’ wages to buy enough food. And it seems likely there might have been some eye rolling when Andrew mentioned a boy with five loaves of bread and two fish. Yet from this tiny bit, upon Christ’s instructions, they managed to feed everyone with twelve baskets left over.

At first glance the common theme between these stories seem to be that God is most visibly present in the impossible. Unfortunately this idea pushes God outside our normal expectations into a realm where we can only experience his blessings through reality-warping events.

An important lesson in these stories is that God has created us not be starved by fear and doubt, but to feast on possibilities and faith. The approach we take affects the quality of our lives, and the lives of others. More than a simple “can-do” attitude, faith that God’s world is abundant opens us up to true generosity. If we stop worrying that what we have is not enough, we grow comfortable with being generous even in uncertain times. Individuals with this faith can have a positive impact, and communities that cultivate this attitude will find endless doors opening. Behind them is revealed God’s presence in our everyday lives.

The world teaches fear. An abundant faith – focusing not on scarcity and stinginess, but on hope and generosity – is countercultural and revolutionary. Live on the edge.

Comfort: You need less than you think you do. You can give more than you think you have.

Challenge: Embrace hope.

Prayer: Loving God, please help me to remember there is far more to your gifts in the world – seen and unseen – than I could ever comprehend. I will trust you. Amen.

Discussion: In what areas of your life – money, time, affection, etc. – do you take an approach of scarcity? How can you become more generous?

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Body of Work

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Today’s readings (click below to open in a new tab/window):
Psalms 143; 147:12-20, Genesis 16:15-17:14, Hebrews 10:1-10, John 5:30-47


Circumcision can be a divisive topic. Parents don’t always agree on whether it’s right for their sons. In some circles its medical benefits and risks are hotly debated. Many men –circumcised and not – find it a barbaric and abusive practice and actively work to abolish it. Others, such as those who incorporate it into tribal rites of passage, defend it just as vigorously.

When God made his covenant with Abraham, he required that all males of Abraham’s family and household – even slaves – be circumcised as a sign of that covenant. The practice was so important to the Jewish people that many early Christians thought Gentile men could call themselves followers of the Jewish Christ only if they were willing to be circumcised. Paul eventually declared Gentile fidelity to Christ a “circumcision of the heart” – that is, being bound to Christ through the Spirit, not the law.

Among Christians today decisions about circumcision are more about cultural and personal preferences than religious significance. Losing this requirement has expanded the idea of who belongs to God – Gentiles, women, and other groups can all be “marked” in their hearts without altering their bodies. It is symbolic of movement away from legalism toward grace. But in making the practice irrelevant to faith, have we also lost something else?

Circumcision was a constant, intimate reminder that a person had been dedicated to God. Does anything serve this purpose for Christians today? Physical sensations reinforce our experience of the world. From the immersion of baptism, to the bread of communion, to ashes on the forehead, to wedding rings on our fingers, we use physical means to express spiritual truths.

There is ancient wisdom in the spirituality of the body. Modern Christians dwell in a lot of mental space, often downplaying or even degrading the body. Each body is a work of art: God can sign it in many ways. Let’s be aware of how our bodies can help us connect to God through breath, music, dance, prayer, and even pain. Your body houses the spark of life God has granted you; furnish it with sacred intent.

Comfort: God loves you, body and soul. Always.

Challenge: If you are able to, try different body positions when you pray – kneeling, sitting, arms raised up, palms pressed together, head thrown back, face down on the floor – and notice how each affects your attitude of prayer.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for the gift of life. 

Discussion: How would you describe your relationship with your body?

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Breaking the Law

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Today’s readings (click below to open in a new tab/window):
Psalms 54; 146, Genesis 15:1-11, 17-21, Hebrews 9:1-14, John 5:1-18


The fourth commandment is “Remember to keep holy the Sabbath.” For most Christians Sunday is the Sabbath but after church is over it’s not much different than the rest of the week. We are free to go shopping, eat out, and do as we please. Therefore we may underestimate the enormity of Jesus’ decision to perform a healing miracle on the Sabbath. This wasn’t someone declining an opportunity to “take it easy” – it was an act of defiance punishable by death.

For observant Jews, the Sabbath is a day of rest and worship, beginning at sunset on Friday and ending with the appearance of the first three stars on Saturday evening. Sabbath is rich with traditions, prayers, obligations, and rules. One key Sabbath concept is that no work is to be done: even candles must be lit and food prepared in advance. Today it is a strictly religious tradition observed more closely by some Jews than others, but among Jesus’ contemporaries there was no distinction between religious and secular law.

What might have been important enough to Christ to merit this act of disobedience? Mercy.

Could he have waited to heal the ailing man? Possibly. People had walked past and over this lame man for decades. Jesus didn’t break rules just for the sake of breaking them: by choosing mercy over law on the Sabbath, he demonstrated that mercy is always God’s highest priority. No excuse – our own need to be “holy” or even the threat of punishment – justifies withholding it.

For all our claims to be a people freed of legalism, Christians have developed plenty of rules to stand between us and mercy. From baptisms to funerals and everything between, we have our own unclean persons, our own restricted privileges, and our own inviolable traditions. Conscience tells us when mercy is the right response, but fear of breaking the rules and being punished by our social group may keep us from exercising it. When the Spirit prompts us, let’s be brave enough to break a rule or two and touch that “untouchable” person with our hands, hearts, and words.

Comfort: The Lord wants us to love mercy – that means receiving as well as giving.

Challenge: Critically consider whether  rules you have set up for yourself get in th way of being merciful to others.

Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Discussion: What does our willingness (or unwillingness) to show mercy say about our relationship with Christ?

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Generosity and Grace

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Today’s readings (click to open in a new tab/window):
Psalms 67; 150, Genesis 13:2-18, Galatians 2:1-10, Mark 7:31-37


When Jesus healed people, he didn’t treat just their physical ailments; he also acknowledged them in a way that restored the dignity they had been denied. Charity and mercy should not be top-down experiences where the more fortunate look pitiably upon the less fortunate. They are more like the closing of a circuit through which grace flows and connects us all in the Spirit.

It’s easy to squeeze the grace out of our generosity. We insist on knowing who is worthy of it. We decide what is best for people without getting to know them. If it gets uncomfortable, we distance ourselves socially and emotionally from the people we are helping. Sometimes we dismiss the efforts of people who take a different approach than we do. Our focus can be too much on how charity makes us feel, rather than on the need we are meeting.

How Jesus healed a man of deafness and a speech impediment (a common combination, since it is difficult to mimic what we can’t hear) is a wonderful model for works we do in Christ’s name. First, he didn’t try to determine worth or blame, but accepted a person who came to him in faith. Next, instead of making a public show of his kindness, he took the man aside, thereby giving him a choice of whether to tell his own story. Then Jesus literally got his hands dirty and put them on the man in an intimate way, because sometimes love has to be messy. All the while Jesus was prayerful, but confident that God would guide him. He comprehensively addressed both the root of the problem (the man’s deafness) and the symptoms (his speech impediment). Finally, after word of his generosity spread, Jesus humbly gave the glory to God.

Grace-filled generosity does not insist on its own way, but responds to the needs of others. Unlike enabling, it empowers recipients to make their own decisions about what to do next. Once someone’s ability to hear (or eat or sleep warmly) is restored, they are free to speak the good news as they will.

Comfort: Sometimes we offer assistance, sometimes we receive it, and at all times we are worthy of dignity.

Challenge: Do some volunteer work that allows you to interact with the recipients of the work. Try to see them not as people who need something you have, but as people who are equally in need of God’s gifts as you are.

Prayer: Gracious and generous God, I will do my best to give as you would have me do, not as my fears and doubts would. Amen.

Discussion: When you give someone a gift, what expectations accompany it?

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Clashing Symbols

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Today’s readings (click to open in a new window):
Psalms 123; 146, Genesis 9:1-17, Hebrews 5:7-14, John 3:16-21


When the great flood ended, God made a covenant with Noah and his family never to drown the world again. He set his bow – the rainbow – in the sky to remind him of the covenant every time he gathered clouds. All who saw the rainbow were reminded of God’s promise not to destroy the world again.

Symbols are important to us. A simple image can evoke complex ideas, emotions, and memories. The most prominent Christian symbol is the cross. It reminds us of death and resurrection. It identifies fellow believers. It marks a spot where we can lay down our burdens. Like all effective symbols, it is easily recognized – two simple lines! – and is rich with meaning.

Corporations spend millions of dollars to develop recognizable logos that communicate the essence of their business and inspire loyalty. Who in America doesn’t immediately recognize the Golden Arches and what they stand for? We wear clothes with symbols to telegraph our status, cultural or counter-cultural affiliations, team loyalties, and peer groups. We exchange a lot of information in the shorthand of symbols.

How do we distinguish truly meaningful symbols from the visual noise bombarding us each day? Are religious symbols nothing more than a brand logo? Let’s consider the rainbow. It only appears in the rain, the very thing it is meant to protect us against. And what about the cross? It was an instrument of death, but it is now a symbol of new life. We revisit and ritualize these symbols because they are about transformation, and about movement from struggle to victory. The Nike swoosh can only aspire to such heights.

Let’s use our symbols wisely and appropriately. If the rainbow was in the sky 24/7, it wouldn’t be nearly as powerful. If we slap a Jesus fish or “John 3:16” on everything we own, its power to transport us to a deeper emotional or spiritual frame of mind is diluted, as is the message it sends to others. They are not like flags or team jerseys that define Team Jesus. The symbols of our faith should be like beacons inviting others home.

Comfort: The symbols of our faith can bring us comfort and help remind us of important things.

Challenge: Symbols can confuse or alienate people who don’t understand them. Be thoughtful about using them to welcome rather than to exclude.

Prayer: God of truth, help me to see beyond symbols to the truths behind them. Amen.

Discussion: What symbols are meaningful to you? Why?

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The Fine Line

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Today’s readings (click to open in a new window):
Psalms 19; 150, Genesis 7:1-10, 17-23, Ephesians 4:1-16, Mark 3:7-19


The line between faith an insanity can be hard to identify. When Noah heard the voice of God telling him to build an ark, he must have questioned which side of the line he was on. His neighbors, friends, and family – the ones who didn’t scoff at him outright – surely had questions as well. How must it have felt to explain the enormous construction project going on in his back yard? Following God’s orders very likely ruined his reputation as a stable individual. At least until the rains started.

Not everything God would have us do will make sense to the outside world – and maybe not even to ourselves. Showing generosity to people who haven’t earned it, granting mercy to those who have wronged us, taking in strangers – these things seem scandalous by worldly standards. When God “asks” us to do something – through intuition, conscience, or other means – are we strong enough to ignore the mocking, sometimes hostile voices discouraging us? We probably won’t be asked to accomplish something as huge as 1.5 million cubic feet of boat, but when we open ourselves to ridicule the burden may feel almost as enormous.

When Noah and his family closed the door of the ark, they had no idea how long they might be afloat or what their final fate might be. Following God often means the faith that we are doing the right thing must be sufficient to carry us through dark and confusing times. We want to be sure we are on the right side of that line between faithful and crazy, but we often don’t. When it comes to leaps of faith we can pray, discern, and hope … but we can never be 100% sure. If we turn out to be wrong, or if things just turn out differently than expected, listening to that voice the next time may be difficult.

Not every little whim is a calling from God, but sometimes we need to risk looking a little crazy. That’s OK. We may turn out to be the only one with the good sense to get out of the rain.

Comfort: Faith may ask crazy things of us, but God will see us through.

Challenge: Is anything you have left undone nagging at your conscience? If so, pray and meditate on what’s holding you back.

Prayer: All-knowing God, I will trust you even when I don’t understand you.

Discussion: What’s the most outlandish thing you’ve done on intuition? How did it work out?

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