Naming our Faith

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 102; 148, Isaiah 33:17-22, Revelation 22:6-11, 18-20, Luke 1:57-66


Many cultures believe names – and knowledge of names – contain power. In some cultures a person has two names: one for public use, and a private, secret name known to a few or maybe only the one who bestowed it. In other cultures, a person acquires a new name upon completion of a rite of passage into adulthood. Within our communities, we are concerned with protecting “our good name.”

As Christians we don’t revere names as magical, but we do recognize the importance of identity. Christenings and confirmations are powerful examples.

In today’s reading from Luke, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth follows the instructions of an angel and names her son “John” (or more accurately the Hebrew Yôḥanan meaning “God is gracious”). Doing so defies the Jewish tradition of naming the child for a family member. People are so upset about this break in tradition that they demand a response from the child’s mute father Zechariah … but he stuns them when he confirms his wife’s choice by agreeing with her – in writing. This act frees him from years of silence that began because he didn’t believe the angel who prophesied John’s birth to him.

This act of naming – like John the Baptist himself – signifies a change in tradition. It shatters expectations. John defines his own wild, confusing, holy identity as the herald of the messiah.

As Christians, we too are in the business of defying society to forge identities in Christ.

That statement may seem dramatic in a predominantly Christian country like the U.S., but cultural Christianity and life in Christ are separate issues. Jesus fish magnets, Christian radio stations, and Christian dating websites are a sign that in some ways Christianity has become identified more with a consumer brand than a faith identity. Some Christians avoid calling themselves “Christian” not because they are ashamed of Christ, but because of negative associations with scandal and hypocrisy.

Even within the Christian community, we struggle against our own deeply ingrained traditions and expectations to seek the true heart of Christ, and are met with resistance and outright hostility from fellow Christians. When we have the courage to defy expectation and define our own names, our new voices – like Zechariah’s voice – can claim the name “Christian” for positive, meaningful, grace-filled ways.

Comfort: God does not name you as the world names you.

Challenge: With a small group, read and discuss The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne.

Prayer: God of Peace, name me as your servant. Amen.

Discussion: What does your name mean to you?

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Flip The Mattress

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 122; 145, Isaiah 1:10-20, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Luke 20:1-8


As a mattress ages, it slowly loses its ability to properly support us. Even as it grows less and less physically comfortable, it grows familiar – more emotionally comfortable – so we work with what we’ve got. And while we learn to avoid low spots and bad springs, we wake up a little less refreshed every morning. Eventually, we arrange ourselves to fit the mattress when it’s supposed to be the other way around. Very often we wait until we are physically pained before going to the trouble of getting a new one.

Religion has something in common with a mattress: the very act of inhabiting it, distorts it. During Advent we read from the book of Isaiah because it calls God’s people to look at how they twisted their religion until it no longer supported their once vibrant, living faith. The sacrifices they once made to honor God became an abomination, because the people managed to follow the rules without showing compassion and mercy to the least among them. Over time, the people contorted themselves to rest on the comfortable parts of the law and avoid the harder demands of mercy, all the while failing to realize how seriously they were damaging the backbone of their faith.

According to Isaiah, the Jewish people were driven into Babylonian exile, despite ample warnings, because God withdrew his favor. During Advent, which is a time of looking both backward and forward, the words of Isaiah should prompt us to reevaluate how we live out our own faith. Are we relying exclusively on rules and ritual? These are not bad things, but alone they do not meet God’s expectations for us to seek justice and rescue the oppressed. It doesn’t take long for us to settle into a routine and forget why we adopted it in the first place. Does our faith practice refresh us to live in love, or does it only equip us to sleepwalk through life?

We can settle for a slowly dilapidating mattress, we can flip it over a little to see if that does the trick, or we can invest in reinvigorating it entirely. Faith doesn’t need to be reinvented, but every so often it does need to be refreshed. We are, after all, a resurrection people.

Comfort: In the end, renewal is more refreshing than it is inconvenient.

Challenge: This Advent season, look at how you might renew your faith practices. Consider participating in a Reverse Advent Calendar.

Prayer: God of all that is, may I never forget you are the reason for all I do. Amen.

Discussion: What are some habits or practices (religious or otherwise) you have abandoned or reworked because they no longer served a purpose?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll  have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Reset

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 93; 150, Leviticus 25:1-17, James 1:2-8, 16-18, Luke 12:13-21


If you know anything about agriculture, you probably know “fallow” earth is ground that has not been seeded for at least one growing season, for the purpose of letting the land recover moisture and reduce disease. In Leviticus, God commands the Jews to observe a Sabbath for the land, leaving it fallow one year of every seven.

God also commanded a Jubilee observation every fiftieth year. During this Jubilee year, debts were forgiven, property was restored, and slaves were returned to their families. The nation did not sow or reap, but lived off what the land produced on its own.

Every seven days a Sabbath. Every seven years a fallow year. Every seven times seven years a Jubilee. God’s command for rest was echoed and magnified in this pattern.

Fallow years have mostly been replaced by crop rotation. For varied theological and cultural reasons, the Jubilee year does not have a modern equivalent, even among the Jewish people. That sense of extended rest and replenishment has been all but lost.  While some professions such as ministry and academia allow for extended sabbaticals at regular intervals, and such periods are a relief from regular work, they often carry expectations of a different sort of productivity.

Inspired by Leviticus, the Roman Catholic church has developed a tradition of 25-year Jubilee celebrations for forgiveness of sins and also the punishment due to sin. These Jubilees bring many people into reconciliation with the church.

Perhaps an advantage to not following the Jubilee schedule of Leviticus is the freedom to schedule our own. Keeping track of the financial, personal, and/or spiritual debts owed to us may be exhausting, so maybe we should consider scheduling one to begin soon. If it seems unfair to simply forgive such debt, ask whether holding onto it really serves your relationship with God or your neighbor. A Jubilee relieves us of the burden of having to work ourselves up to a state of forgiveness by giving our egos permission to unclench. God has given us an opportunity to “reset” our lives; let’s find a season to be fallow and forgiving.

Comfort: It’s ok to rest. God desires it for us.

Challenge: Forgive someone a spiritual or financial debt. Try to think of it as also relieving a burden from yourself.

Prayer: God of renewal, thank you for the new life offered to me through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Discussion: Where in your life do you most need a reset? How could you arrange for that to happen?

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Gimme Some Skin

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 22; 148, Genesis 40:1-23, Corinthians 3:16-23, Mark 2:13-22


Skin.

It is our largest organ and one of our primary tools for interacting with the world. Through sensations like temperature, pressure and texture it tells us about our environment. Most of us recognize each other by the skin on our faces. Some of us mark it in ink to tell our stories. Others work against the story our skin tells, by hiding it under makeup, slathering it in moisturizers, bleaching it chemically, baking it under lamps, or cutting parts of it away. It is so essential to our identity that skin diseases and disfigurements can be socially crippling, whether through our own insecurities or the rejection of others.

We identify it with personality traits. We may be thick- or thin-skinned; things can “get under our skin”; we all want to be comfortable in our own skin; our attitudes may grow callused. It can reveal our inner state – sometimes to our dismay – through blushing, goosebumps and sweating. It is intimately connected to our physical and mental health: studies show that skin-to-skin contact reduces stress, promotes healing, and is vital for an infant’s emotional development.

Skin is so much more than a container. When Jesus says we can’t pour new wine into old wineskins (lest they split under pressure), his message isn’t just about storage methods or the need for religious institutions to be more flexible to contain larger truths. It’s about our need to redefine our spiritual identities so they can contain the new life God pours into us. Recreated in Christ, our new skin perceives the world in new ways. It is a new face to the world, who sees us differently in demeanor and action. The story our new skin tells does not need to be adorned or denied – it grows more beautiful with time. Our blemishes and imperfections remain part of our story, but they no longer hold us back, or allow others to; rather they become evidence of the transformative power of God’s love and forgiveness. Our inner and outer lives are in harmony.

Are we wearing our fresh skins? The new wine is ready …

Comfort: Your identity in Christ renews you from the inside out.

Challenge: In what ways are you spiritually inflexible? Ask yourself whether that’s due to conviction or obstinacy.

Prayer: God of renewal, prepare me to receive the new life you are waiting to pour into me. Amen.

Discussion: How do you feel about the skin you’ve been given? What role has it played in your identity?

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Born Again Identity

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Today’s readings (click to open in a new window):
Psalms 135; 145, Genesis 8:6-22, Hebrews 4:14-5:6, John 2:23-3:15


“Born again Christian.” It’s a phrase we’ve all heard, but it can mean many different things depending on our religious background (or lack thereof). It has its origins in Today’s reading from John, when Jesus tells the sympathetic Pharisee Nicodemus: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again” (John 3:3). The Greek wording could also mean “born from above.” The idea of a second birth is confusing to Nicodemus, and Jesus doesn’t really clarify it. For many Christians, this one ambiguous phrase found in only one gospel has become an extremely subjective litmus test for “authentic” Christianity.

The gospels use several images to describe the new life that comes from a relationship with Jesus. Why is this one definitive for so many people? Maybe because it implies the reality of a a complete do-over. Human beings are helpless at birth and depend on their parents for everything. When we surrender ourselves to Jesus, we re-learn how to live and depend totally on God’s grace to carry us through that process. Throughout our lives we find new reasons and new ways to surrender. Our rebirth is not a one-time event occurring at the moment of conversion or baptism, but a constant spiritual renewal.

There is beauty in the image of rebirth, but also a danger of exclusion. Lifelong Christians may never have had a distinct moment of  rebirth, so insisting someone must be “born again” can quickly turn to judgment. It is God’s job – not ours – to judge whether someone is sufficiently Christian.

Whether or not being “born again” is part of our theological vocabulary, renewal is part of life in Christ. Just as the birth of an infant can be simultaneously joyous and scary, so can the changes in our new lives. At times we will need to celebrate, at other times we will need support, and sometimes we will need both. Fellow believers may need the same from us. Our new lives are meant to be shared, so let us be present for each other in all the ways we can.

Comfort: In Christ our life is made new every day.

Challenge: If you don’t have a “born again” story listen to someone who does. If you do have such a story, listen to how someone born into the church experiences their faith.

Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for giving me a fresh start every day. Amen.

Discussion: What do you mean when you say “born again?” If it’s not part of your faith vocabulary, what do you think when you hear it?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!

Mumford & Sons – The Cave

As we enter Lent and think about renewing our hearts and spirits, we can be open to inspiration from all kinds of sources. Mumford & Sons decline to identify their work as specifically Christian, but this song about grappling with our faults is inspiring.