Sweet Temptation

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Jeremiah 18:1-11, Romans 8:1-11, John 6:27-40


Have you ever tried to give up excess sugar? At first it’s an unpleasant mixture of headaches, cravings, and fatigue. After a while those symptoms fade, and you start to feel pretty normal – maybe better than normal, without all the highs and lows of unsteady blood sugar. Eventually candy and soda may become so unbearably sweet on the tongue that you wonder how you ever enjoyed them in the first place. Your appetite changes, and you are better off for it.

The Apostle Paul tried to teach members of the Christian church in Rome about changing their appetites. He knew many of them still had more of an appetite for the flesh then the Spirit. When he tells them “those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit,” he knows they aren’t excited to give up their earthly habits cold turkey. He also knows that by practicing a life in Christ (and enduring a few resulting headaches and cravings) they will wean themselves off a taste for sin. Maybe they’ll begin to wonder why it was ever so appealing.

Years before Paul wrote to the Roman church, Jesus spoke to the Jews about an appetite change. The Pharisees wanted a sign from him, like the manna they ate while wandering the desert after fleeing Egypt. For a time manna was necessary for survival, but it was limited. Manna, gathered in the mornings, would not keep overnight and rotted away before morning.

Instead he offered them himself as the Bread of Life: “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” To develop a taste for that bread, they would have to stop feasting on the law which they craved but could no longer sustain them.

To savor a better life, we must sometimes figure out which lesser appetites we have been feeding instead. Whatever sweet temptations we think we can’t live without, Jesus promises us something far better.

Comfort: God always has something better in store.

Challenge: Make a list of what appetites – social, physical, mental – you give too much priority. Then write down some goals and strategies for changing that.

Prayer: Abundant Lord, I wish to be filled with the Bread of Life. Amen.

Discussion: What’s your favorite food? Is it good for you?

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The Good We Want

Image result for quotes about willpower

Today’s readings:
Psalms 34; 146, Jeremiah 17:19-27, Romans 7:13-25, John 6:16-27


Willpower.

We’re prone to judging people, including ourselves, as morally weak or strong depending on whether we believe they have a little or a lot of it. We blame poor willpower for addictions, eating disorders, bad habits, cowardice, and any number of human failings. Recent studies, however, indicate that reliance on willpower alone to change behavior may actually set us up for further failure. To understand a behavior is more than understanding what we do, but why we do it.

The Apostle Paul was ahead of the research on this one. He freely admitted: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate […] I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” He described his mind as a slave to God, but his flesh as a slave to sin.

Repenting of a behavior is more complicated than declaring, “I am done.” It’s unfair to expect that of ourselves. We owe it to ourselves and to God to take the time to understand why we gossip (or cheat or lie or whatever it is we wish to change). Repentance starts with a decision, but we may need to find ways to reinforce that decision every day – perhaps every hour – for a long time. Prayer is the best start, but we shouldn’t be ashamed to employ all the tools necessary to be successful. Those tools may include everything from daily affirmations to professional counseling.

We may need to physically alter our environment; if so, let’s think of that as a sign not of our weakness, but of our dedication. We may need to leave behind friends who undermine or mock our efforts. Backsliding may be part of the process. Willpower tells us backsliding is failure; repentance tells us backsliding signals time for another change of direction away from the darkness and toward the light.

Viewed through eyes of grace, our imperfections are not barriers between us and the divine, but invitations to more fully understand ourselves and our God.

Comfort: God’s love is unconditional. Yes, that was yesterday’s comfort as well. Repeat as necessary.

Challenge: Read this short article on changing bad habits, and maybe seek out others.

Prayer: Holy and forgiving God, thank you for being by my side both when I fail and when I succeed. Amen.

Discussion: What’s the most difficult habit or behavior you’ve broken?

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Sorry, not sorry.

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Jeremiah 7:1-15, Romans 4:1-12, John 7:14-36


Have you ever tried to apologize by telling someone: “I love you?” Has anyone ever tried that with you? It’s a terrible way to end a dispute, because it resolves nothing. “I love you” is not an apology. It is not an admission of guilt. It is not a promise to change one’s ways. At best it is an attempt to appease someone by exploiting their emotional vulnerability in order to avoid conflict. “I love you” may precede or follow an apology; it does not replace it. Trying to do so is merely lip service.

The prophet Jeremiah addresses the Israelites about how they have been paying spiritual lip service to God. They have been profaning the Lord’s name and committing all kinds of crimes and sin, but on the Sabbath they enter the temple and proclaim “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” Like a lover who has had enough of hearing all the right words but observing all the wrong deeds, the Lord declares the words deceptive. They are not sincere enough to wipe clean the offenses of a people who utter faithful words to cover their bases, but live otherwise unfaithful lives.

Love, whether of God or of a person, requires sincerity. When we betray that relationship repeatedly, declarations of “I love you” or “This is the temple of the Lord” do nothing but undermine and cheapen the meaning of those words. They are like pretty paper wrapped around a gift of yesterday’s moldering trash. Eventually the contents leak through and the paper itself is fouled by contamination; the pretty words become an ugly stench. Only when we have demonstrably repented – when we no longer try to excuse our wrongdoing with hollow sentiment – can we expect the relationship to mend. Over time we have to rebuild the trust that our words reflect the state of our heart.

Actions really do speak louder than words. If the only proof of our love and devotion is a bouquet of desperate words which have already begun to stink, we must repent until words are unnecessary.

Comfort: God’s love for you does not change.

Challenge: When you apologize, mean it.

Prayer: My God, I am heartily sorry for all my sins. Amen.

Discussion: What is the worst or best apology you’ve received or given?

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Not For Prophet

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 34; 146, Jeremiah 2:1-13, 29-32, Romans 1:16-25, John 4:43-54


Popular culture, and even some corners of Christian culture, portray prophets as a breed of mysterious oracles revealing the future through puzzle-like symbols and coded language. Modern self-styled prophets are famous for predicting the end of the world, and infamous for batting zero while collecting millions. We lump this distorted image of prophets in with psychics, clairvoyants, and fortune tellers.

The Biblical prophet, however, was not on a road to popularity and wealth. Prophesying was dangerous work; some prophets paid with their lives for confronting a community that had lost its way to idols and injustice.

Prophets like Jeremiah used language and symbols that may need clarification today, but would have been familiar to their audience. Their ultimate goal was not to mystify and condemn, but to convict and save. The warning of a harsh future came with a promise: God loved his people too much to abandon them, and when once again the people learned to properly love him back there would be reconciliation. It was never about God leaving the people, but about the people leaving God.

Consider these words of the Lord delivered by Jeremiah:

          They have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns
that can hold no water.

These words were about more than disobedience; they addressed how the people brought ruin upon themselves. When we substitute our own values and plans for those God has given us, they will ultimately fail us. Like cracked cisterns, they may seem to hold water for a while, but eventually we will find them to be empty and we will be desperate for the real thing.

Jesus also referred to himself as the living water. His message echoed the messages of the prophets who preceded him, and he knew “a prophet has no honor in the prophet’s own country.” When a prophet tells us what we don’t want to hear, it’s not time to get defensive: it’s time to seek hope through repentance. Christ’s message of radical justice and inclusion was most difficult for those who believed they had a lock on God and religion. When listening for prophetic voices, humility serves us well.

Comfort: God would rather forgive us than condemn us.

Challenge: We have to seek forgiveness before it can be granted.

Prayer: Merciful God, I will listen for your authentic voice. Teach me to hear it. Amen.

Discussion: When have you benefited from hearing something you didn’t want to?

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Float

Today’s readings:
Psalms 123; 146, Isaiah 44:9-20, Ephesians 4:17-32, Mark 3:19b-35


Stepping into faith is like walking with fists full of gold coins into a deep lake. The first few steps are invigorating – a refreshing dip for our weary soles. The sand may slip and shift beneath our feet, but if we feel unsteady the familiar shore is only a stumble away. As we go deeper, we feel more buoyant, lifted by a force far greater than ourselves.

But at a certain point, perhaps around the point the water becomes level with our hearts, we begin to notice the drag of those gold coins. And now we have to choose: settle for going no further, turn back in defeat, keep going and drown … or start getting rid of the gold.

Those gold coins have names engraved on them. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells us some of those names: theft, corruption, lust, falsehood, bitterness, wrath, slander, anger, malice. Maybe we’re having difficulty letting go of them; they seemed so valuable so useful! on the shore. We want to hold onto them in case these living waters won’t really support us, but it’s the holding on that makes us seem like we’re slipping under the waves.  Their illusion of safety ultimately leads to the deep, cold darkness.

Maybe we’re feeling foolish for not leaving them on the shore, or for forgetting our hands were not empty. The good news is, we can open our fists at any time. If we let these waters swallow our burdens, we will feel lighter. More free. Risen. Can we let go?

For an instant we let them drag us below the surface. We are suspended between two worlds – one that offers a familiar, inevitable death, and one that promises life if only we grab it … and nothing else. Each finger we uncurl, each coin we release, is a movement toward life. As the last coin slips between our fingers, we break the surface.

Hands free, we can spread our arms, lay back, and relax into the gentle surface of the lake and the certainty it will cradle us … and let the face of the sun shine upon us.

Comfort: The Living Waters of Christ will sustain  you.

Challenge: Grab a handful of coins. Name them for the things you need to let go in order to rest in Christ, and throw them in a lake or fountain.

Prayer: God of the Living Waters, let my spirit rest in you. Amen.

Discussion: What are some things you need to let go of?

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Speechless

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, Numbers 11:24-33 (34-35), Romans 1:28-2:11, Matthew 18:1-9


“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Jesus followed up these words with his famous teaching of tearing out an eye or removing a hand if it causes us to stumble away from him. He doesn’t mention the tongue, but it seems logical if our tongue causes us to stumble, we should tear that out also. The tongue may be doubly dangerous, as it can cause others to stumble also.

When our tongues tell people the church hates them (even when we’ve convinced ourselves we’re acting in love), they may find it impossible to believe Christ loves them. Too often the church focuses on a particular subset of sins (usually sexual in nature) and targets the people who commit them until they feel driven from the rest of the community. Paul warns us in Romans that by casting judgment on others, while we ourselves remain sinful, we condemn ourselves. Effectively we say: “Your visible sin is too terrible to tolerate, but my personal sin (which flies under the local radar) is more acceptable.”

Don’t think that’s true? Well, the church hasn’t developed a conversion therapy industry around unrepentant greed, and we don’t distribute scarlet J’s for judgment. Yet the greedy and judgmental can feel perfectly safe in a church that creates a climate hostile toward gay people and unwed mothers.

We are all sinners working toward transformation through Christ. We don’t always agree on what is sinful; that has been true for the entire history of the church, but the church survives because we work it out together. Scripture directs us to hold one another accountable, but the gossip-monger is as accountable as the murderer.

Repentance is a journey we take together. If we oust everyone who doesn’t meet someone else’s standards, soon the church will be empty. Better to enter the kingdom speechless than to have talked one of God’s children out of salvation.

Comfort: God loves you.

Challenge: God loves everyone else, too.

Prayer: Loving God, make me an instrument of your peace. Amen.

Discussion: How has your understanding of sin evolved as your faith has matured?

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Lament

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Lamentation 1:1-2, 6-12, 2 Corinthians 1:1-7, Mark 11:12-25


The Book of Lamentations was written in response to the destruction of Jerusalem hundreds of years before Christ’s birth. We revisit it during Holy Week because its theme of spiritual self-destruction is timeless. The author(s) of Lamentations believed God allowed the ruin of his people and their land because they had abandoned God and sinned shamelessly. Exiled and oppressed, the Jewish people sought vainly for consolation and mourned their foolishness.

Our modern understanding of salvation and sin as personal episodes distances us from the experience of communal lamentation.

Every so often some televangelist blames a natural disaster on  the sin of a community, but they always seem to be disasters “over there” – in New Orleans, Haiti, or some other place the preacher doesn’t live, and they always seem to be sins the preacher doesn’t commit – or admit. But the biblical prophets tell us the sins which most angered God weren’t attributable to individuals, and the just weren’t spared the repercussions. Hypocrisy, mistreatment of widows, orphans, and the poor, and other injustices – these angered God. We can’t point to one person and blame them for the plight of widows and orphans, so it’s easy to blame “the system.” But what is the system if not the cumulative response or neglect of individuals?

Our choice is simple: Repent now or lament later. Do we really believe no spiritual implosion looms on the communal horizon when we let industrial toxins disproportionately poison the poor? Or when our justice system prioritizes revenge over rehabilitation? Or when the most popular religious voices are teaching us faith is a means to tap into God’s limitless ATM? When no one is accountable, everyone is responsible.

By the time Jesus starts flipping the tables in our temple, it will be too late. The system will implode. But beyond that horizon is the promise of resurrection. As God eventually returned a contrite nation to Jerusalem, Christ restores our contrite hearts to the kingdom. Jesus taught that when we pray, we should forgive so we can be forgiven. Let’s recognize what we as a community need to be forgiven for.

Comfort: Resurrection is always on the horizon.

Challenge: It’s tempting dismiss injustice as “that’s the way things are.” You can’t fight every injustice, but can you pledge some of your time, talent, or money to combating at least one that doesn’t impact you directly?

Prayer: God of Mercy, accept my sacrifice of a contrite heart. Open my eyes to the ways I carelessly or ignorantly neglect the least among us, for in your kingdom they are the greatest. Amen.

Discussion: How do you feel about salvation as a community experience?

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Sour Grapes

Turnthenandlive

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 22; 148, Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32, Philippians 4:1-9, John 17:9-19


It’s a prophet’s job to tell us what we don’t want to hear. The more righteous or justified we think we are, the less we’re going to want to hear it … but the more we need to. The prophet Ezekiel told the Israelites in exile that God was banishing a particular expression: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” In other words: stop blaming your past for your current problems.

The Israelites liked to blame their exile on the sins of the previous generation. Ezekiel told them to stop making excuses and get right with God. Like children who d on’t want to be responsible for themselves, they replied: “It’s not fair!” God brushed off their protests. Maybe their parents had made terrible mistakes, but now these children were all grown up and needed to control the one thing they could: their own behavior.

Some people undergo years of therapy to unlearn the toxic habits of an unhealthy past. Others with less traumatic experiences grow on their own. Understanding the root of our problems is only ever a starting point. Unfortunately, many people who identify the origin of their unhealthy behaviors use it as an excuse to justify the poor choices they continue to make in the present. According to Ezekiel, God’s not having it.

As we live through Lent, let’s be honest with ourselves and God about our own shortcomings. After all, there’s nothing about us God doesn’t already know. He loves us anyway, and too much to let us keep fooling ourselves. When He tells the Israelites: “Get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!” He could be talking to us. Sometimes our hearts and spirits are like homes cluttered with junk we’ve inherited. Because we fear loss we cling to it long after it’s useful (if it ever was) when we need to be clearing out the old to make room for the new, or maybe just for some light and air. We must repent of it to follow Christ. In the words of Ezekiel: “Turn, then, and live.”

Comfort: With Christ’s help, you can clean your spiritual house and let in the light of God.

Challenge: Clean out a closet. As you decide which things to discard, also think about what things from your past you are allowing to hold you back.

Prayer: Gracious and merciful God, show me how to turn and live. As I face the dark corners of my soul, fill them with your light and make them new. Teach me to set my sights not on where I regret having been, but on where you would have me go. Amen.

Discussion: What changes you have already made give you confidence about the making the changes you still need to face?

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Uprooted

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 148, Nehemiah 2:1-20, Revelation 6:12-7:4, Matthew 13:24-30


Jesus shared several parables about how, in the end, God will separate the good from the evil. He compared them to sheep and goats, good guests and bad guests, and – in today’s parable – wheat and weeds. A farmer sowed good seed in a field, but an enemy snuck in while everyone was asleep and sowed weeds among the wheat. When they started to sprout together, the field hands asked whether they should pull the weeds. The farmer told them not to, because they would uproot the good with the bad. They were to wait until the harvest, when they could be separated safely.

While this parable is primarily about the final judgment, it has other things to tell us as well.

We share the world with many people who don’t share our values. For that matter, we share it with many fellow Christians whose values don’t exactly align with ours. Because this is so, Christians are often tempted to turn our criticisms and judgments outward. Jesus had a parable for that too, one about pointing out the speck in a neighbor’s eye when there’s a log in our own. We are called to repentance … and we are called to invite others to repentance … but we are not called to force it on anyone. That’s between them and God. Jesus’s contemporaries were experts at condemning others for the most minor infractions of the law, yet had very little inclination to turn that criticism on themselves.

Yes scripture contains guidance on responding to those who sin, but arguably it is about those who sin against us, and specifically those who are fellow believers. When we become preoccupied with tearing out the sins we see in others, rather than focusing on changing our own flaws and hearts, the roots of our spirit never have the chance to grow deep. Without deep roots the fruit we bear will be puny, and make for a sorry witness. When we go after others, we damage ourselves.

When we do turn our attention toward others, be they weeds or wheat, perhaps our energy is best spent on tending the common ground by stripping away injustices that poison and enriching it with the mercy and love that feeds our souls. In the end we may not have the power to turn weeds into wheat, but we have a savior who turned water into wine and death into life. Let him decide what’s possible.

Comfort: You are not responsible for someone else’s repentance.

Challenge: You are responsible for letting them know it’s possible.

Prayer: O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob! (Psalm 84:8)

Discussion: How distracted do you let yourself get by other people’s lives?

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#notalllogs

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 12; 146, 2 Chronicles 29:1-3, 30:1 (2-9) 10-27, 1 Corinthians 7:32-40, Matthew 7:1-12


Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?

Jesus didn’t seem concerned with teaching us to identify flaws in other people – that job had too many people doing it already. Rather, Jesus invites you (and me) to repent and reflect, not to feel smug about telling others to do it. Yet somehow we manage to twist his words to point fingers and deflect criticism – Get the log out of your eye before you talk to me about my speck! – when confronted with our own failings. Repentance is something we embrace, not something we inflict.

While repentance is a personal pursuit, it has communal dimensions. Belonging to a specific community doesn’t make us responsible for the actions of every individual in the community, but … Paul’s letters are full of expectations that we hold our community – our body – accountable for its behavior. When one or a few people undermined the character of the Christian church, Paul didn’t accept “it wasn’t me” as an excuse to ignore the behavior.

In Paul’s case he was addressing a church, but community comes in many forms, sometimes with involuntary membership. Gender is an example of a community to which we belong but do not (generally) choose. While gender equality has made remarkable strides over the last century, there are still systemic injustices which need attention. When a topic like sexual harassment is broached, almost invariably some men respond with “not all men are like that.” It’s a defensive reaction meant to communicate, “Hey, I’m one of the good guys!” In reality, “not all men” derails the conversation; it prioritizes “my” comfort with being a man over problems women actually face. When the community has a plank in its left eye, what exactly is accomplished by pointing out how healthy the right one is?

Of course gender is just one example. Is it possible we are even more accountable for communities we join voluntarily? Not all Christians? Not all Democrats? Not all gun-owners? Not all police officers? Not all protesters? And none of these groups (and countless more) are mutually exclusive! The thread of our accountability runs through a series of knots where we’ve anchored ourselves to others.

Let us – individuals and communities – whittle away at those planks until they disappear. We might be surprised to discover how much we contribute to a problem and how much more we can contribute to a solution once we commit to seeing clearly.

Comfort: Community is a blessing.

Challenge: Let’s keep it that way.

Prayer: I will give to the LORD the thanks due to his righteousness, and sing praise to the name of the LORD, the Most High. (Psalm 7:17)

Discussion: Do you ever feel pressured to ignore problems of a group you belong to?

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