Dream of Wheat

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 34; 146, Jeremiah 15:10-21, Philippians 3:15-21, John 12:20-26


Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

The above words from Christ should be intimidating, even to devout Christians. When push comes to shove, most of us would rather not have to literally lose our lives to live our faith. We’d probably prefer not to lose anything else either – why would we? – but Christ calls us to do so. Very few face actual martyrdom, but all of us are called to die to ourselves. Short of actual death, what does that sacrifice look like?

In dying to ourselves, we release the death-grip we’ve had on the stalk because we’re afraid of hitting the ground. We sacrifice our own interests to embrace what God desires, not what we desire. Our essential self – the self that God created us to be – must surrender to holy and fertile soil to germinate into its full potential.

Does letting go sound like a scary proposition? When the grain of wheat falls into the earth, it is doing what it was created to do: bear abundant fruit. Specifically it provides more wheat. No one expects an olive tree or a grape vine to sprout from the wheat. The Apostle Paul – arguably the greatest example of conversion and repentance in scripture – remained himself even after he committed wholeheartedly to Christ. Paul’s intelligence, devotion, and ferocity weren’t destroyed; they were redirected and multiplied. Whatever your gifts are, God gave them to you to be used for His glory. Dying to ourselves means following the Christ who points those gifts in the direction of worship, mercy, service, and love.

A dream of material success, while not wrong in and of itself, does not lift us to spiritual satisfaction. Better to let the gravity of faith pull us toward God, where our dreams are redirected away from avoiding a solitary death toward embracing eternal life.

Comfort: Dying to self is rising to life.

Challenge: Ask yourself what gifts you are letting die on the stalk.

Prayer: Holy and Living God, I offer all that I am and I have to you. Amen.

Discussion: What gifts are you hoarding out of fear?

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Give It Up

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Daily readings:
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Jonah 3:1-4:11, Hebrews 12:1-14, Luke 18:9-14

Ash Wednesday readings:
Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 51:1-17, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21


“What are you giving up for Lent?”

Every year this is a hot topic among the Sunday School crowd. Many children (and some adults) give up candy or other treats. Lately the social media “fast” has been gaining popularity as people log out for forty days.

Other people, rather than (or in addition to) giving something up, add an activity they find meaningful. Some set aside extra time for prayer or other devotional pursuits.  Fans of efficiency might piggyback personal improvements they’ve been wanting to make, such as diet or exercise, onto the season.

Whether we’re subtracting or adding, Lent centers on discipline and sacrifice as a means of spiritual enrichment. However, it’s easy to let the means – skipping a chocolate bar or committing a daily charitable act – become the end. The purpose of Lenten activities is to prepare for Holy Week and Easter, when we re-commit ourselves to the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. Psalm 51 tells us: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart.”

Regarding sacrifice and fasting, Jesus tells us in the Gospel of Matthew: “whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting […] put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret.”

It’s not so much what we give up, but how we do it. Lent is not goal-oriented; we aren’t meant to be “new and improved” at the end of it. Lent is an opportunity for sacrificial excavation – for clearing space in our lives meant to be re-occupied not by a sense of accomplishment but by the presence of Christ.

What are you giving up for Lent?

It may taste like chocolate or spend like a dollar, but it’s whatever takes up room where Christ could be. Ego. Pride. Self-righteousness. Anger. Fear. Greed. Christ emptied himself unto death for us. Let us sweep the ashes of death from our hearts to make room for the life he brings.

Comfort: Though it seems far, the day of the Lord is near.

Challenge: This Lenten season, make a meaningful sacrifice.

Prayer: Loving God, all that I have and all that I am is yours. Amen.

Discussion: What makes a sacrifice meaningful?

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Cracked

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 116; 147:12-20, Isaiah 54:1-10 (11-17), Galatians 5:1-15, Mark 8:27-9:1


It’s always darkest before the dawn. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. No pain, no gain. These and other clichés remind us most successes are preceded by a period of hard work, struggle, and failure. We usually hear these when someone is trying to offer us  comfort, or when we are doing the same for someone else. Unfortunately, they aren’t always helpful when we are in the thick of the darkness, the brokenness, or the pain.

As Jesus neared the end of his ministry, he spoke more bluntly with his disciples. He knew hard times were coming and he wanted them to be prepared. They had not been especially insightful when he taught through parables, so he told them in no uncertain terms he was going to suffer, be killed, and rise again.

The disciples didn’t welcome this news. Peter went so far as to pull him aside and rebuke him, prompting Jesus to utter his famous reply: “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus knew fulfillment of his mission would require great sacrifice, and Peter’s misguided attempt at redirection embodied all the temptation he had resisted from the beginning of his ministry.

Are we willing to face the work and struggle it takes to follow Jesus (or any worthwhile goal), or are we listening to the Peters in our lives who may mean well but misdirect us to an easier but ineffectual path? Maybe our own inner voice is our Peter, the Satan loudly rebuking us in one ear while our more angelic conscience whispers urgently in the other.

It’s always easier not to voice the unpopular opinion, not to deny ourselves something we desire, not to risk losing what we’ve worked so hard for. The easy way is indeed tempting, and on extremely lucky days it may be the right way, but those cliches are common because they are true: success – especially spiritual success – requires sacrifice. Sacrifice of ego, comfort, money, time … whatever it is that stands between us and God. We have to crack that shell before we can get to the gold.

Comfort: This too shall pass.

Challenge: We offer clichés when we don’t know what else to say. Sacrifice a little time to think about and prepare for what you might say the next time someone you know is experiencing a difficult time.

Prayer: Thank you God for giving me the strength to endure so I may be triumphant in you. Amen.

Discussion: What’s something you’ve worked hard to achieve?

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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?

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The One and the Ninety-Nine

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 147:12-20, Numbers 12:1-16, Romans 2:12-24, Matthew 18:10-20Psalms 97; 147:12-20, Numbers 12:1-16, Romans 2:12-24, Matthew 18:10-20


“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.”
– Mr. Spock, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

“The needs of the one … outweighed the needs of the many.”
– Captain Kirk, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Humankind has always struggled to balance individual need against the need of the greater community. The modern tool of choice is economic system: capitalism, socialism, communism, etc. Lying along a continuum from individualism to collectivism, these models have achieved various levels of success – if measured economically. Measured spiritually, all fall short because they are not ends, but means. How do we approach this struggle of knowing what and when to sacrifice?

Sacrificial living does not necessarily lead to a literal cross. In the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd leaves behind ninety-nine sheep to find one. Fine if you’re the one, but most of us are among the ninety-nine left on the mountain. Do we grumble about being temporarily inconvenienced and blame the one’s misfortune on its own failure to keep up? Are we willing to sacrifice a little convenience so the one may survive? Often our answer depends on whether we’ve chosen freely or been coerced … but the shepherd doesn’t bother to survey the sheep.

Sacrifice is valued mostly via lip service. We “sacrifice” trips to the movies or our usual pricy selection at Starbucks to keep our debt down or to save for our children’s college. Rarely outside the military are we asked to make true sacrifices in the sacred sense of giving without expecting anything in return. Or maybe the opportunities are abundant but we value merit over mercy. Does the shepherd seem concerned with whether he is giving the lost sheep “a hand up or a handout?” Are we prepared to make the real sacrifices necessary to save the lost in our society? Because in the end, the hands up demand more personal cost in time, money and comfort than do the handouts.

When it’s our turn to be the one sheep, how will we want the ninety-nine to respond? That’s what we should be prepared to sacrifice.

Comfort: No matter how lost you feel, Christ is searching for you.

Challenge: Remember that lost sheep started out part of the flock. They are family, so their burdens are our burdens.

Prayer: Merciful God, I trust you to find me when I am lost. Amen.

Discussion: When you’ve felt lost, how did you know God had found you again?

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Foundation

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 148, 1 Samuel 2:1-10, Ephesians 2:1-10, Matthew 7:22-27


In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, brothers Ivan and Aloysha engage in long and compelling arguments about the nature of God, faith, and the problem of evil. At one point Ivan asks his brother if, to create a utopia where humanity was eternally happy and at peace, he could justify torturing a blameless infant to death.

Of course Aloysha says no. In the context of the novel his answer has many meanings, but let us consider it in light of Christ’s parable in Matthew about the man who built his house on a foundation of stone, versus the man who built his house on a foundation of sand. Naturally the house built on sand crumbled, while the one on the stone foundation endured. The strong foundation results from following Christ’s teachings, the weak foundation from ignoring them.

Foundations matter. The ends do not always justify the means. When we build lives, families, churches, and communities our intentions mean nothing if our methods are corrupt. Houses built on sand and stone may appear equally grand for a short while, but eventually the underpinnings will be revealed. If we have sacrificed the least among us to build monuments, no matter how grand, they magnify not the Lord but our weakness.

Also in Matthew Christ said:

[M]any will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

History is full of innocents sacrificed in the name of religion. Many monuments but not a single utopia has sprung from their “unavenged tears” (to quote Dostoevsky). But the one innocent who sacrificed himself willingly ushered in the Kingdom of Heaven. That is our model for a foundation of stone: a willingness to sacrifice ourselves to serve the kingdom. According to psalmists and prophets, God measures us not by how many we have persecuted on His behalf but by the holy sacrifice we have made of our own lives.

Comfort: Christ was the sacrifice that assures us the Kingdom.

Challenge: If what you desire requires someone else to make a sacrifice you do not have to make, you are very likely desiring the wrong thing.

Prayer: God of strength, teach me to build on the firm foundation of Christ, that my efforts may be lasting testaments to your glory. Amen.

Discussion: What clubs, associations, teams, or other groups do you belong to? Have you ever let them persuade you to accept a questionable means to justify a desirable end?

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There is No Eye in Team Jesus

1461355487367[1]Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 148, Exodus 34:18-35, 1 Thessalonians 3:1-13, Matthew 5:27-37


One of the challenges of being an original disciple of Christ might have been figuring out when Jesus wanted to be taken literally, and when he was exaggerating to make a point. The book of Acts and the letters of Paul don’t tell any stories of one-handed, one-eyed evangelists, so they seem to have assumed the latter when he said: “if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” and “if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.”

Jesus was not advocating self-mutilation.

He was telling us to remove from our lives anything that leads us toward sin and away from God. His choice of imagery tells us this process may be painful, and that we may be called to separate ourselves from things we hold dear. If “it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell,” surely we can examine our own lives for obstacles we need to remove.

Maybe we need to free ourselves from an addiction. Or maybe our words are wicked with gossip. Is there a relationship we prioritize above our faith? Do we love the sound of jingling coins too much to give them away? Tongues, loins, ears … Jesus could have used any body parts to make his point that no matter how painful it seems in the short term, we must give up things – no matter how treasured or vital they seem – that hold us back from entering fully into the life he offers.

Christ isn’t condemning us for every errant thought or desire, which would be impossible to eliminate; rather he is asking us to be accountable for our own intentions, which we are quite capable of examining and controlling. Every bad habit and unhealthy behavior we lop off makes room for a more abundant life. When our spirits are unburdened, our hands, feet, and eyes – all our parts – are unlikely to betray us. As backwards as it may seem, sometimes we must cut parts away to find wholeness.

Comfort: Jesus doesn’t ask us to do the impossible …

Challenge: … but sometimes he asks us to do the difficult and unpleasant.

Prayer: Lord, take from me what you must, so you may give me what I need. Amen. 

Discussion: What have you prioritized above your relationship with God?

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Impractically Possible

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 47; 147:12-20, Exodus 16:10-22, 1 Peter 2:11-3:12, John 15:12-27


After his resurrection, Jesus commanded his apostles to carry on his mission of love for the world and one another.He unflinchingly told these newly appointed bearers of love how the world would receive them: people who hated him would hate them; authorities who persecuted him would persecute them. Imagine similar words coming from a corporate recruiter looking for top talent, or a politician trying to build grassroots support: follow me and you’ll be hated and persecuted! Why would anyone sign up?

In the case of the apostles, they were motivated by love. Their leader had laid down his life for them – for the whole world – and in doing so overcame death. He wasn’t asking them to do anything he hadn’t done. Experiencing such love straight from the source left them unable to deny that the mission was worth any risk. The eternal life that Jesus promises doesn’t begin after our deaths, but in the moment we realize the willingness to lay down our lives down for one another frees us to love as Jesus loves.

Except for John, all the apostles died as martyrs. Most of us will not be tested to this extreme, but there are other ways of laying down our lives than death. Taking the smallest slice of cake or dropping spare change into a charity bucket is good but not enough. Following Jesus makes impractical and dangerous demands that may  require us to risk our finances, reputations, and livelihoods. Love that requires us to take in strangers and to decline striking back in revenge seems positively scandalous. In a culture where Christians are the default authority, we will be at odds with fellow believers who would cling to the dominance of Christendom so blindly they cannot recognize when we are no longer the light revealing the corruption of the empire, but the empire itself casting long shadows of injustice. We value security above faith at our own spiritual peril.

Jesus does not prioritize the safety of our bank account, good name, or physical person. He does call us to sacrifice all these things in service to each other.

Comfort: In the long run the sacrifices we make to follow Jesus do not deny us of anything, but help him give us everything.

Challenge: Almost all of us have a point where our desire to be safe impedes our desire to be faithful. Discuss this with some fellow believers.

Prayer: Loving God, give me strength to follow in the steps of Christ. Amen.

Discussion: When does your faith inconvenience you? Does it ever put you in harm’s way?

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Go In Peace

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Genesis 44:18-34, 1 Corinthians 7:25-31, Mark 5:21-43


During pre-flight safety instructions, attendants tell us that in an emergency we should put on our own oxygen masks before helping others. As Christians we learn to put others before ourselves. We love to repeat stories like the one about Mother Theresa, who suffered deformed feet because she always picked for herself the worst shoes out of the donations. Some of us are taught to be ashamed of asking for prayers for ourselves. Are self-mutilation and shame really part of the “good news” of the gospel?

A crowd was following Jesus to the house of Jairus, whose daughter was ill. Along the way a woman who had suffered from hemorrhages for twelve years pushed her way forward to touch his cloak.  According to the religious voices of the time, her gender and affliction made her too unclean to touch him. When he asked who in the crowd had touched him, she bravely confessed. Someone less merciful could have demanded her punishment. Instead her faith healed her immediately, and Christ bade her “go in peace.”

Despite the interruption, Jesus was able to travel on and heal Jairus’s daughter. We need to stop treating grace as if: a) there’s a limited supply to be doled out to the most worthy, b) it’s for other people but not ourselves, and c) it’s for ourselves but not other people. If the woman had not acted on her own behalf, she might have spent the rest of her life miserable and shunned; instead she became a powerful witness for Christ.

Without doubt we are called to sacrifice our wealth, time, reputation, and even safety if it means staying true to our faith and loving our neighbor, but putting others before ourselves does not equal pointless humiliation or self-destruction. Christ brings healing, not damage; hope, not shame. If the shoes that fit you poorly could fit someone else well, your show of piety harms two people and helps no one. If you don’t put on your own mask first, you won’t be alive to help anyone else. It’s OK to push forward once in a while; Christ also wants you to “go in peace.”

Comfort: God loves you just as much as he loves everyone else.

Challenge: Learn to be fine with loving yourself as God loves you, and understand how this can be compatible with a life of service.

Prayer: God of grace, thank you for your steadfast love. I know I can serve you best when I accept all the love you have to offer me. Please help me understand how your love for me can help me love and serve my neighbor. Amen.

Discussion: Many people find this Mother Theresa story inspirational. What’s your take on it, especially if it’s different from the one in this post?

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Just Deserts and Just Desserts

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 43; 149, Ezekiel 39:21-29, Philippians 4:10-20, John 17:20-26


Have you heard the term “food desert?” A food desert is generally understood as an area – usually urban, usually economically distressed – where circumstances limit people’s access to affordable, nutritious food. Picture an inner city neighborhood loaded with overpriced convenience store snacks, but no groceries with fresh produce. Because the available food is junk, people living in food deserts are commonly both overweight and undernourished.

Paul had never heard of food deserts when he told the Philippians he had “learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need” (Phil 4:12).  He did recognize that we never have so much abundance that we don’t still need Jesus. We can grow fat on the riches of the world, but they will never give us true life. Yet even a small taste of the Bread of Life will leave us satisfied. Like Paul, we will “[learn] to be content with whatever [we] have” (v 11).

We’re all familiar with the practice of giving something up for Lent, a symbolic fast demonstrating our solidarity with Christ’s forty days in the desert. An equally important but less frequently observed tradition is almsgiving, or giving to people in need. Our Lenten sacrifice has more meaning when these practices go hand-in-hand. It’s not our business to judge anyone’s sacrifice, but there is a qualitative difference between giving up chocolate because it dovetails with weight loss goals, and giving up a daily five-dollar latte and donating the money to a food bank instead.

Our wilderness fast with Christ is a time of spiritual growth. The deeper we sink our roots into that desert, the more Living Water we will find.  Desert plants are biologically efficient and waste little energy on unnecessary processes, yet when resources allow they produce stunning blooms. Which of our resources could be put to better use in deserts both spiritual and nutritional? What sacrifices can we make so others might blossom in the love Christ calls us to share? Time and again the prophets remind us God loves mercy above sacrifice, but sometimes we must sow sacrifice to reap mercy.

Comfort: Like Paul, you can learn to be content under all circumstances.

Challenge: Learn more about food deserts and how you can help. What sacrifices of time and money might you be able to make to help people with little access to nutritional food?

Prayer: Gracious and merciful God, I thank you for all things you have given me. Help me understand which are mine to use, and which you have entrusted me to share with others in need. When my hunger for food is satisfied, may I feel even more strongly a hunger to share the Bread of Life with the world. Amen.

Discussion: On what do you spend a lot of time and energy which gives you little to no nourishment in return? Do you think it would be possible to reprioritize that time and energy?

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