Who sinned?


Today’s readings:
Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Jeremiah 24:1-10, Romans 9:19-33, John 9:1-17

As he [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

It is no surprise (to modern readers of the Gospel anyway) that Jesus restored the man’s sight. So instead, let’s focus on the disciples’ assumption that the man’s condition must have been a punishment for someone’s sin. Jesus quickly relieves them of this notion, but it’s part of a theology that persists. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism: if we can blame someone’s misfortune on their mistakes, we worry less it might happen to us. Unfortunately, we seem to extend that line of thinking in additional directions. While today we are less likely to blame the physically disabled for their condition, we are relatively quick to blame the poor, the mentally ill, refugees, and other groups for theirs. Some circumstances are certainly a result of poor choices, but we like a convenient excuse for responding with non-demanding judgment rather than with compassion insisting on action.

“But wait,” you may be thinking, “didn’t Jesus say the man was born blind for a purpose?” Yes … and no. What does it mean for God’s work to be revealed through the needy? Not that they’ve been capriciously selected for suffering so God can show off. If the work of God’s children is to love God and one another, then the greater the need we meet, the greater the revelation of God’s glorious work.

Christ’s message to the healthy and wealthy is not: “be kind to the needy.” The message is: “You are the needy.” Indifference, selfishness, and judgment erode the spirit every bit as much as poverty, illness, and oppression erode the flesh. And the remedy for poverty of the spirit is identifying with poverty of the flesh so closely that any unbound wound is felt as our own. Apart, we are a meaningless tangle of misery. Together, each of us is a knot reinforcing a tapestry woven from mercy.

Comfort: We are blessed with a purpose that unites us with each other.

Challenge: When we know someone who suffers, let us try to understand how we are related to both their suffering and their well-being.

Prayer: God of all creation, teach me to love all your children. Amen.

Discussion: How do you understand the relationship between sin and suffering?

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Your Best Self


Today’s readings:
Psalms 84; 150, Jeremiah 23:16-32, 1 Corinthians 9:19-27, Mark 8:31-9:1

There’s a type of message that seems to pop up frequently in social media. It generally says: “Take me as I am or watch me as I go.” Intended as a phrase of self-empowerment, it may be exactly that for people who’ve suffered rejection for something beyond their control. However, when it’s used to deflect criticism, dismiss self-reflection, or justify one’s own needlessly abrasive behavior … it’s the message of a child. Mature people remain open to change and growth. They also realize other people’s feelings do actually matter.

But it’s a balancing act. Considering other people’s feelings doesn’t mean betraying our own values. Cursing like a sailor at a church bake sale (or proselytizing at an explicitly secular event) is merely offensive, not principled; on the other hand defending free speech may require us to offend some people. Being authentic doesn’t mean expressing every thought that comes into our heads regardless of circumstance. We all learn to moderate ourselves around our bosses so we don’t lose our jobs; we should have the same respect for people who don’t hold power over us.

The Apostle Paul was too devoted to his mission to simply make controversial proclamations and end with: “Take me or leave me.” Rather, he developed relationships by empathizing with – and perhaps more importantly building relationships with – those he wanted to reach. As he wrote to the church in Corinth, to the Jews he became as a Jew, to the weak he became weak, to those under the law he became as one under the law. He never sacrificed his core message, but customized his delivery for the sake of the Gospel. Paul knew relationships supersede religion. We don’t persuade by judging; we persuade by engaging.

Our lives are more fulfilling when we find ways to point our core values and true selves toward service. If we have a big mouth, we can speak for the voiceless. If we are flamboyant, we can draw focus where it will do good. If we have a dark sense of humor, we can bridge the gap between suffering and ignorance. Don’t ever be ashamed of your story and truth, but remember you share space with other equally deserving stories and truths.

Comfort: It’s good to be yourself.

Challenge: It’s not so good to use “being yourself” as an excuse to be hurtful to others.

Prayer: Lord, I know you have created me for service. Help me to let let my gifts shine in ways that honor you and the creation you love. Amen.

Discussion: Do you ever struggle to balance being authentic with being loving?

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Relationship Status: It’s Complicated


Today’s readings:
Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Jeremiah 4:9-10, 19-28, Romans 2:12-24, John 5:19-29

Emotions can be knotty experiences. Rarely are they tidy, discrete, easily identified conditions that we can distill to the smiley and frowny emojis punctuating our text messages. Usually emotions are interdependent and tangled and deep and as hard to unearth as ancient tree roots.

Anger may be the most complicated of all, because it is almost always a secondary emotion that develops as a defense against fear or pain. Anger, while not inherently bad, can be destructive in our relationships firstly because most of us are not skilled at identifying its true root, and secondly because we are not comfortable cracking the shell of anger to expose the soft underbelly of “weaker” emotions it protects. Divorces, for example, are so bitter partly because it takes a lot of anger to mask a lot of pain.

When Jeremiah describes God’s anger at Israel, he compares their relationship to unfaithful lovers or ungrateful children. The imagery communicates the anguish underlying God’s wrath. The Israelites have pained him in terrible ways. Damage in this relationship is deeper than a breach of contract between business partners, or resentment between master and servant.  God is not imposing a calculated transactional penalty like an employer docking wages or a bank revoking credit. He is mourning a broken relationship and its inevitable consequences.

Jeremiah’s call for repentance raises anger among the people. Their anger is a defense around their shame. Their shame comes from knowing they are not in right relationship with God. We repeat this pattern many times, in many relationships, with many people. Repentance means accepting we have been wrong at a level so fundamental we must change our way of thinking, and that is a fearful thing to do. If we respond to that fear with anger – by hardening our hearts – we have little chance of repenting.

To be in right relationship with other people, including ourselves, we must first be in right relationship with God. To be in right relationship with God, we must risk being vulnerable. That crack of vulnerability is all God needs to flood our hearts and transform our souls

Comfort: All your emotions are allowed.

Challenge: Don’t be afraid to explore emotions that make you feel vulnerable.

Prayer: Loving God, give me the courage and wisdom to know myself. Amen.

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

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Keepin’ It Real


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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Breaking Barriers


Today’s readings:
Psalms 97; 147:12-20, Isaiah 41:17-29, Ephesians 2:11-22, Mark 2:1-12

What do you get when you cross an argument about circumcision with a paralyzed man lowered through a hole in the roof? You get today’s scripture readings from Ephesians and Mark.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul addressed the reconciliation of Jewish (circumcised) and Gentile (uncircumcised) Christians. This was a major controversy within the early church, because Jews considered circumcision a sacred and necessary sign of their covenant with the Lord.  They weren’t yet convinced non-Jews could even be Christians, let alone disregard centuries-old tradition, but Paul taught them about the new life that unites all people who followed Christ.

In Mark, a paralyzed man had friends who wanted him to encounter Christ. They couldn’t get through the crowd surrounding the house where Jesus stayed, so they broke through the roof and lowered the man on a mat. Moved by their faith, Jesus told the paralyzed man his sins were forgiven. When the scribes questioned by what right he forgave sins, Jesus also healed the man of his paralysis as a demonstration of his divine authority (though one suspects the healing was on its way all the while).

And when we cross these stories, we see a consistent theme of how faith in Christ removes barriers between people. Paul said of Christ, “in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Because of faith, the paralyzed man’s friends broke through a physical barrier, and Christ broke through a religious barrier.

Religion can be the source of a lot of barriers. Jesus, the Apostles, and Paul spent decades tearing down the false barriers religion created between God’s children, but we’ve spent centuries building replacements. We try to wall God inside our creeds, denominations, and dogma. We convince ourselves it’s because we want to preserve something – our version of the circumcision, perhaps? – but in the end we use them to reinforce a tribal mindset declaring who is inside and who is outside.

Relationships – at least the kind Christ calls us to – are a lot messier than religion: they refuse to be defined by walls. All those stones Jesus discourages us from throwing? Let’s use them to build bridges instead of barriers.

Comfort: Christ is breaking barriers for us right now.

Challenge: Meditate on your beliefs. Which ones are walls, and which ones are bridges?

Prayer: God of all creation, let me build no obstacles where you would not have them. Amen.

Discussion: When have you found yourself excluded on “religious” grounds?

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Overcoming the Limits of Empathy


Bumper Sticker Wisdom

A few days ago while sitting in traffic I saw a bumper sticker that gave me pause. It read: “There’s only one race: the human race.” On most days I probably would have read it and nodded in agreement with its message of solidarity, but my audiobook had just ended and I was alone with my thoughts.

The basic sentiment was true enough, but does its oversimplification contribute anything substantial to our social discourse? More than once when I’ve engaged in conversations about racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism or other systemic ills, some well-meaning soul or other has offered up a comment like: “We’ve all been picked on or bullied for our looks, or intelligence, or weight, or something. We need to acknowledge everyone’s pain and love each other for who we are.” And again, on the surface that is true enough, but it’s a conversation-stopper. Specific forms of discrimination have specific causes, specific effects, and specific solutions. Not every unkind word or instance of bullying has its roots in systematic oppression; sometimes people, individually and in groups, are just mean. An inability or unwillingness to see the difference is not enlightenment, it’s self-indulgence.

Woke or dreaming?

Have you ever heard someone say, “I don’t see race?” It’s almost always intended to be supportive of racial equality (though most of the time I cynically suspect it’s begging the rest of us to notice how woke the speaker is), but in practice it erases the experiences of people of other races. You or I may claim not to see someone’s race, but that person doesn’t have the convenience of forgetting about it; they have to live with the 24/7 reality of all the people who do see their race and treat them differently because of it. Truly seeing someone means acknowledging hardships they experience but we don’t, not pretending we’ve all had the same hardships and opportunities simply dressed up in different clothes.

Another example of erasing someone’s experience is woven throughout some men’s reaction to the #metoo movement. Right away we saw responses like “not all men” or “men are sexually assaulted too.” Both true, and neither is helpful to the situation being addressed. The first dismisses women’s experiences in favor of comforting men who can’t separate their defensiveness from the actual problem, and the second derails the conversation away from behavior that has become largely normalized and tolerated by equating it with behavior that for the most part is already unacceptable.

The Worst Offense is a Bad Defense

In a culture where we are encouraged to empathize with others, we need to recognize the boundary between empathizing with someone’s story … and trying to make it our own story. When someone tells us their story, we don’t need to figure out how to relate to it, we need to listen. By all means develop a strong practice of empathy – but also recognize its limits.

As uncomfortable as we might be with discrimination, when someone tells us it has happened to them, let’s suppress any initial instinct to discredit that claim (“oh that happens to white people too” or “maybe you’re being overly sensitive”). Of course we can and should think critically about the situation and information, but here’s an example where empathy applies: how do you feel when someone tries to tell you your interpretation of your lived experience is wrong? So how should people feel when you do it to them? Other people understand their own experiences as well as you and I understand ours, so let’s stop trying to tell them (and ourselves) otherwise.

We don’t necessarily launch these reactions from a negative place. Perhaps our intention is to be impartial. Or maybe our intention is to learn. Or to be an ally. Or something else that seems positive to us. The hard truth is, in interpersonal relationships, especially those entangled in the realities of discrimination, intentions might not matter. We feel like they should, but if the practical result of our reaction is that someone feels further alienated and tells us so, does it cause us any harm to consider how we might be wrong? If a conversation that starts with someone’s experience of discrimination ends in a discussion of our hurt feelings about their reaction – that is, if we need comfort because someone else has spoken about being oppressed – the empathy train has gone off the rails. And we have to own that.

The Bigger Story

Not every story has to be about or even relatable to our own story to merit compassion.

I’ve learned this the hard way, because I’ve been guilty of some flavor of pretty much everything I’ve mentioned. The one thing I’m wise enough to know is that no matter how “woke” I think I am now, there’s always more to learn, and that’s done by listening, not by explaining and defending.

As Christians, we are obligated to listen and to be compassionate because every human being is part of Christ’s story. Isn’t that what it means to see the face of Christ in everyone we meet? And isn’t that idea so much bigger and better than our own tiny story?

Let’s find commonality where we can. And where we can’t find commonality, let’s find Christ.

Traditional Relationships


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, 2 Samuel 14:1-20, Acts 21:1-14, Mark 10:1-16

Time after time, Jesus taught his followers love, mercy, and justice supersede any technically correct but unjust applications of the law. He ate with “unclean” sinners (Mark 2). He violated Sabbath law to heal (Mark 3 and elsewhere) and declared the Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around. He declared all foods “clean” (Mark 7).  He criticized religious leaders for their hypocrisy (chapter all-of-them). Many felt like he was tossing out the rulebook. Until the Pharisees asked about divorce.

Suddenly Jesus was proposing stricter standards, saying Moses permitted divorce only because his people were stubborn and those who remarried committed adultery. Does this seem like an unexpected turn? Not if we understand that Jesus also calls us to integrity. At the time, a man could divorce his wife regardless of her wishes. After that he owed her nothing, and she could easily find herself begging in the street. Consigning someone to such a fate because someone else caught your eye was the opposite of merciful and just.

While modern divorce does not generally result in such extreme circumstances, it is always unfortunate. Society expects (insists?) divorcing parties to be antagonistic, or even vindictive. Yet as we do in all situations, we have the choice to act with integrity. For ourselves and our children, we should do our best to remember the other person is a beloved child of God, whom we once professed to love as well.

Integrity requires us to approach every potential relationship with respect. People don’t exist just to fulfill our temporary whims, needs, and desires. Before entering relationships, we are wise to be self-aware and transparent about how willing we are to commit. Half-hearted attempts to keep a marriage or friendship alive can be devastating to someone giving it their all and expecting we are doing the same.

Relationships of all kinds can strain and break, but as members of the body of Christ we remain united at some level. Even when we can’t stand each other – maybe especially then – the route of mercy and justice leads us home to wholeness.

Additional Reading:
For more thoughts on today’s reading from Mark, see Flip.
For reflection on today’s passage from Acts, see Horse Sense.

Comfort: You deserve to have healthy relationships. 

Challenge: Be wise about your commitments to people; mean what you say and say what you mean.

Prayer: How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! Teach me O LORD to make peace in my home. Amen. (based on Psalm 133:1)

Discussion: Some of us have many relationships of some depth, and others have a few relationships of great depth. Both are fine as long as we are honest about them. Which option are you prone to?

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But what has God done for me lately?

language of friendship

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 57; 145, 1 Samuel 10:17-27, Acts 7:44-8:1a, Luke 22:52-62

New relationships are exciting. We learn new things. We feel new things. We expect new things. But as a relationship matures, we realize we can’t depend on things being constantly new. Deep relationships are based on established expectations. If we are wise, we confide more in someone we’ve grown to trust over time than in our most recent acquaintance. Unfortunately, we can become almost addicted to the excitement of new relationships because they raise immediately gratifying emotions. In the worst cases, we never learn to value depth over novelty.

In today’s reading from Acts, Stephen finishes telling his Hebrew audience the history of their people and how inconstant has been their faithfulness to God, the cycle of loving God when they are being delivered, and neglecting – or even turning away from – God after their memory of God’s deliverance begins to fade. In our passage from Judges, Saul has been selected as king because the people, in opposition to God’s wishes, want a king to be more like the idolatrous nations around them.

In what ways can we be like the ancient Hebrews? When people first find their faith, or have a faith-renewing experience, it’s like the beginning of a new relationship. They are wrapped up in feelings. They see God everywhere. They can be practically giddy. But novelty eventually fades. If the relationship ages without maturing, they need new experiences – like new “signs” – of God’s love and presence. An immature relationship demands constant reassurance because it values feeling over faith.

What a mature relationship with God may lack in flash, it makes up in substance. Like lifelong friends who are content simply to be in each other’s presence, our relationship with God may be punctuated with long periods of silence. We shouldn’t confuse this silence with absence or boredom. Like a fallow field, it may seem dormant, but below the surface its very structure is constantly renewed. While the steady maintenance of a good relationship, especially when it seems “dull,” may not produce the high of something new, an enduring relationship built on faith and trust is infinitely more rewarding.

Additional Reading:
For more about Stephen, traditionally considered the first Christian martyr, see Stephen The Leader or Sax and Violence.

Comfort: In times of God’s silence, we still build our relationship.

Challenge: This week, devote 10 minutes a day to silent meditation.

Prayer: God of renewal, I seek a mature and confident relationship with you.

Discussion: Think about your enduring relationships. What do they have in common?

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Point of No Return


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 92; 149, Jeremiah 31:23-25, Colossians 3:12-17, Luke 7:18-28 (29-30) 31-35

[Note: this post is about relationships and forgiveness, but it is not intended to address physically or emotionally abusive relationships. If you are or suspect you are in an abusive relationship, please seek support, safety, and counseling.]

When a relationship sours, it isn’t uncommon for one or both parties to be able to do no right in the eyes of the other. Good behavior – say, a spouse who starts showing more kindness – can be met with suspicion, or dismissed as “too little, too late.” Eventually a relationship can pass the point of no return where people are more invested in being right than in reconciling. Such relationship implosions aren’t limited to individuals. History is full of national, political, and religious feuds that long outlast the actual sins and become matters of stubborn pride; we continue to disagree or take offense not over what is done, but who does it. Once we sufficiently vilify the other side, we feel justified in no longer asking what role we played in the decline of the relationship.

Had the Pharisees reached the point of no return in their relationship with God? John and Jesus were hardly the first to tell them God desired mercy over sacrifice. It seemed that no matter who God sent to warn them, they could find a reason to dismiss the warning. Jesus told them:

John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’

Fortunately, Jesus specializes in retrieving those who have seemingly passed the point of no return. Blindness? Sight restored. Lifelong illness? Cured. Death? Overcome.

Broken relationship? Forgiveness.

Oh … that’s a little tougher. That requires us to do something more than show up and let Jesus do his thing. Perhaps that’s because we didn’t cause our physical ailments, but we did contribute to the failure of the relationship. Maybe not equally, maybe not much, but forgiveness isn’t about the size of the offense; it’s about the peace in our heart. When we heed Christ’s words, we realize the point of no return is the limit of our willingness to forgive. He’ll bring us back, as long as we’re willing.

Comfort: Through Christ, you are capable of forgiving more than you realize.

Challenge: Reflect on a relationship you blame someone else for breaking. Consider the ways you contributed, and whether you need to forgive them or yourself.

Prayer:  Forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Amen.

Discussion: Do you think of yourself as good or bad at relationships?

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We should be committed!


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 54; 146, Ruth 1:15-22, 2 Corinthians 1:12-22, Matthew 5:13-20

If today’s passage from Ruth sounds familiar, you may have heard it during a wedding ceremony. Ruth’s pledge of fidelity to Naomi is so moving, many select this scripture to reflect the commitment intended in marriage. The relationship between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law is very different from that between spouses, yet this scripture touches on something common to both.

Ruth has no legal or cultural obligations to her mother-in-law. Why would she choose not only to stay with the destitute Naomi, but to promise “Where you die, I will die?” In any relationship, there are three parties: the first person, the second person, and the relationship itself. Ruth, like a spouse would, commits herself not only to Naomi, but to the relationship between them. This may seem like a subtle distinction, but a relationship has needs distinct from the needs of either party. Absent an effort by both parties to meet those needs, the relationship will not survive. We all know couples who love each other but can’t make the relationship work, or friends who, despite best intentions, drift away over time. We describe such people as “growing apart,” but these words frequently mask an inability or unwillingness to nurture a relationship.

We can only commit to other people – whether through a marriage, a friendship, a faith community, etc. – when we recognize and honor that a relationship exists to serve not only our individual needs, but a greater purpose. When we don’t, we hold commitments lightly and break them easily. But when we do, we grow into the challenges and joys that are part of surrendering to something greater than ourselves. Sometimes this looks like foolishness to the world, but we know better in our hearts.

Through his letters to the church at Corinth (and other places) Paul is constantly telling the faithful their role in God’s larger realm transcends individual desires. A large part of Christ’s message is about being in right – and true – relationship with each other. Making a commitment to Christ means recognizing the needs of relationship do not extinguish but transform the desires of the individual.

Comfort: Being part of something larger helps us grow as people.

Challenge: Meditate on your relationships. Which require more or deeper commitment?

Prayer: Loving God, teach me to fill the space between me and other people with love. Amen.

Discussion: What are the common needs of platonic and romantic relationships?

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