Is God speaking your language?

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Today’s readings:
Morning Psalms 43; 149, Jeremiah 31:27-34, Romans 11:25-36, John 12:37-50


A United Church of Christ promotional campaign declares: “God is still speaking.” This message can be controversial, because many Christians who identify themselves as “Bible-believing” are not comfortable with the idea that the Bible is not the complete and solitary source of God’s truth. But what if God is not saying new things, but old things in new ways?

For many people, the King James Bible – deliberately written in language archaic even for its time – has relegated Biblical language to a time when “smite” and “begat” were common terms. Biblical imagery is full of references to ancient animal husbandry practices, arcane measurements, and cultures which no longer exist. But Biblical texts were written to be understood. The Hebrew texts were transmitted orally, which meant the language needed to be memorable and accessible. What good could a prophet do if his listeners couldn’t comprehend his words? Biblical authors used language and imagery appropriate to the time and setting to clarify, not obscure, and so should we.

When Jeremiah tells the Israelites they will once again plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria, he is telling people God restores them to wholeness. A more contemporary example of such restoration might be the end of apartheid and subsequent reconciliation in South Africa. When Paul wrote “out of Zion will come a Deliverer” he expected his audience would know what he meant without a study guide. When Jesus told his listeners “People don’t pick figs from thorn bushes” (Luke 6:44) he was speaking to people who actually picked figs. If he had been speaking in the modern Midwest United States, maybe he would have talked about blueberries and poison ivy.

The point is, God wants to be heard, in whatever ways we might be open to hearing. If we are really to see Christ in others, our vision can’t be limited to one translation. We can’t effectively speak Christ to others with words we wouldn’t use ourselves. We don’t want to study or create poor translations that betray the spirit of the Gospel just to be modern or politically correct, but we don’t want to reflexively reject the modern either. The living God speaks to us through living languages – and living people.

Comfort: God speaks to anyone willing to listen.

Challenge: Read a scripture translation you haven’t read before.

Prayer: God of freedom, thanks for the many ways you can be heard. Amen.

Discussion: What’s your favorite Bible translation and why?

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The Scent of Hope

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Today’s readings:
Morning Psalms 22; 148, Jeremiah 29:1 (2-3) 4-14, Romans 11:13-24, John 12:1–10


As Passover approached, Jesus and some of his disciples visited the home of Lazarus, the man he had raised from the dead. Mary, the sister of Lazarus, anointed Jesus’ feet with a pound of very expensive perfume, and dried them with her hair. Judas complained that the perfume could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor.  Jesus told him to let her be; the poor would always be with them, but he had only a short time left.

Jesus didn’t say, “I’m about to be crucified so I deserve some special treatment,” but defended Mary’s impulse to serve him. This wasn’t an impulse he indulged often. Only a few days later, he washed the feet of his disciples, despite their protests, to demonstrate servant leadership. He could have made the same point with Mary, but there was more going on.

Mary had purchased the perfume, which contained a fragrant herb called nard, for the purpose of anointing Jesus’ dead body. Perhaps she understood and accepted what was about to happen better than the disciples did.  But if it was for his corpse, why waste it on his feet?

Not long before, Jesus had instructed Mary and her sister Martha to open their brother’s tomb. Martha warned him there would be a stench, but instead Jesus called and Lazarus rose from the grave. It seems that at some point between the tomb and the visit, Mary understood what Jesus was about. If he had conquered death, what need was there to save the perfume?

Mary understood that the feeble efforts she might muster to make death more bearable – or for that matter to make life more bearable – were no longer necessary. In a very intimate manner, she showed how she understood that in Jesus there would never be the stench of corruption. Surrendering the perfume signaled that she had surrendered her own intentions to the fragrant hope found only through Jesus.

The scent of Mary’s hope filled her home. It can fill ours too. Let us deeply inhale that blessed scent as we surrender ourselves to our Savior.

Comfort: Our hope is greater than our own mortal plans; it is in Christ.

Challenge: Pray about what you have not yet surrendered.

Prayer: Merciful God, I surrender myself to Christ in all things. Amen.

Discussion: When do you feel closest to God?

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Everything new is old again.

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 84; 150, Jeremiah 9:23-24, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Mark 2:18-22


Today’s readings are about a faith-driven revolution in thought and attitude. The prophet Jeremiah spoke of love, justice, and righteousness working in opposition to wisdom, might, and wealth. He said those who boast about wringing success and power from the lives of those who suffer defy God. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote about God in Christ working through the foolish, the weak, and the despised to bring low those who “might boast in the presence of God.”

Who are these boasters? People who insist their power and wealth demonstrate how God has chosen them above others. They work to conserve the status quo not because it is just, but because it benefits them. After all, it’s easy to convince oneself the present order is just when examining that order too closely might undermine our comfortable position.

When Jesus reminded the Pharisees we can’t put unshrunk patches on old cloth, or new wine in old wineskins, he was telling them the old ways of doing and being couldn’t survive the new things God would do. The salvation story is not one of preservation; it is an epic of assumptions broken open to let in new truths and people. Salvation has a forward momentum.

So why does Christianity work so hard to stay in the past?

Tension has always existed between Christians who – like the Pharisees – are convinced the faith has nothing new to learn, and those who embrace the momentum. As a result, we have an uneven record of being on the right side of history regarding justice and inclusion. The Bible (or our current understanding of it) is not an excuse for closing our ears and minds to new and challenging things God might have to say and the people who say them.

Every revolution – industrial, political, theological – eventually becomes the calcified establishment and the corrupted empire. We forget that even conservative modern churches have evolved beyond what the earliest Christians would have accepted. The people suffering under the present circumstances are the foolish, weak, and despised whom God will use to bring the mighty low. If we use the past to justify their oppression and exploitation –particularly oppression and exploitation at the hands of the church – we ignore the future God reveals at our own peril.

Comfort: God is working in the world right now.

Challenge: Meditate on whether you cling to ideas because they are right, or because they are comfortable.

Prayer: Loving God, I will listen for your voice. Amen.

Discussion: Where do you find it challenging to balance tradition and justice?

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Present Imperfect

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 135; 145, Numbers 16:1-19, Romans 3:21-31, Matthew 19:13-22


The story of the rich young man is generally reduced to the beginning when the man asked how to be good, and the end when he left grieving because Jesus instructed him to sell all his many possessions and follow him. We commonly interpret this story to mean discipleship requires abandoning everything but Christ. This understanding is consistent with parables like the pearl of great price, but the middle of the story is the meat in the sandwich which provides more insight to sink our teeth into.

The man’s original question was: “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus responded: “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.” In other words: wrong question, buddy. Jesus followed with: “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” When the man asked which commandments (the full Mosaic law had hundreds), Jesus named a few common sense ones under the general category of “love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said he kept them all, yet asked what he still lacked.

Sense a theme? The man sought a formula for salvation. He persisted in insisting his salvation would be his own accomplishment. We are saved by grace and not deeds, but the rich young man couldn’t comprehend a system where he was not in control of his own destiny.

Jesus’s final words to the man begin with: “If you wish to be perfect …” Ouch! Now the man had a completely avoidable burden of perfection laid on him. No wonder he grieved!

What if the man had been satisfied with “Love your neighbor as yourself?” If he could have accepted there wasn’t a salvation equation, but instead unearned grace, Jesus could have stopped right there.

Like the rich young man, we struggle to let go of that one last possession: a need for control. We claim grace, but insist on formulaic rules that give us an illusion of power.

“If you wish to be perfect” is not an introduction to advice on attaining perfection, but an indictment of any belief that we can or need to be. Faith is not an excuse to sin, but life under the law leads to grief. Life under faith leads to grace.

Comfort: God doesn’t expect perfection.

Challenge: Neither should we.

Prayer: God of Mercy, thank you for the gift of unearned grace. Teach me to extend that love to others. Amen.

Discussion: What rules do you have trouble letting go?

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Hearts Of Stone

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Exodus 7:25-8:19, 2 Corinthians 3:7-18, Mark 10:17-31


In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul tells the people the law under Moses (which he calls the “ministry of death”) was chiseled in stone, while the ministry of the Spirit is written on their hearts. He also distinguishes them as the ministry of condemnation and the ministry of justification.  For people who were used to having all of God’s requirements written down in an agreed-upon format, this was an understandably difficult transition.

The New Testament wasn’t compiled until well after Paul’s death. When he preached about Christ, Paul wasn’t beholden to specific texts, a situation with both challenges and advantages. He had to constantly meditate on what the will of Christ might be, since he was the first person bringing this message to most of the people he encountered. On the other hand, not being bound by chapter and verse, he was free to speak the language of the heart, which created opportunities for mercy often unthinkable under the restrictions of pure law.

The New Testament is a collection of testimony and letters of advice and encouragement, not a basis for hard and fast laws, no matter how much some might like it to be. So how do we know what to do? The challenge of the ministry of justification is that we can’t actually read what is written on anyone else’s heart. Because it’s our nature to prefer defined expectations, we tend to assume it matches what is written on our own, and build our expectations for them on that basis. If we begin to judge people for not meeting our own self-imposed limits and rules, we are back to the ministry of condemnation, and the living words written on our hearts harden like stone tablets.

Our job is to understand what God has written on our own hearts, and live accordingly. Paul’s ministry of justification assumes the law is on our hearts, and encourages us to assume the same of others. Christ invites and trusts us to fulfill the law of love, and encourages us to allow others the freedom to do the same.

Comfort: The ministry of death has passed. Christ offers us new life.

Challenge: We are responsible for discerning, through our relationship with Christ, what is right and what is wrong.

Prayers: Merciful God, thank you for the ministry of life made possible through Jesus Christ. I pray for the wisdom and discernment to follow your will, not my own. Spare me from judgment as I spare my neighbor. Amen.

Discussion: What hard and fast rules do you cling to that may be more yours than God’s?

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Good News / Bad News

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 34; 146, Exodus 5:1-6:1, 1 Corinthians 14:20-40, Mark 9:42-50


We’ve all seen them: evangelists who go Full Brimstone attempting to convert non-believers. From the classic “If you’re wrong you’re going to hell!” to the modern “God Hates Fags” tactics deployed at military funerals and on cable, someone is always telling someone else why God is damning them to eternal suffering. Fear-based evangelism is notoriously ineffective except for fundraising from believers, but let’s give the benefit of the doubt to its practitioners and assume they are fumbling to share the core message of salvation through Christ. Then let’s meditate on some teachings of Paul and Jesus.

Paul advised the Corinthian that speaking in tongues impressed some believers, but to non-believers it was gibberish that at best said nothing and at worst confused or repelled them. He told those with the gift of prophecy to keep it reined in; believers and non-believers alike could be overwhelmed by more than two or three speakers at time. Zeal is admirable, but leading with the big guns doesn’t exactly tell people you come in peace.

Jesus told people it was better to cut off a hand or foot or to poke out an eye if those parts presented stumbling blocks to the little ones following him. This passage follows Christ’s rebuke of disciples who were unhappy to see strangers casting out demons in his name. Attacking their fledgling faith would have accomplished nothing, and may even have destroyed the good work they were doing.

Our convictions in Christ remain firm, but how we share them with others is important. When Jesus told the rich young man he would have to give up everything he owned to become a disciple … the rich young man walked away. If it doesn’t work for Jesus, it’s not going to work for us. The good news we have to share is not that hell is our default destination and we have the exclusive ticket out; the good news is God loves everyone enough to offer them eternal life. If that seems like a distinction without a difference, remember that famed dog- and horse-whisperers succeed because they teach by understanding their students, not forcing the students to understand them.

Comfort: There’s always another way to share the good news of our faith.

Challenge: Before sharing the Gospel, decide whether you’re trying to win souls or just win arguments.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for the good news of Jesus Christ! Give me the courage and wisdom to share your word effectively with those who need to hear it. Amen.

Discussion: Are you comfortable speaking about your faith? Is any discomfort you have about what you believe, or about what you think you need to say to share it?

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Technical Difficulties

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window): 
Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Genesis 42:29-38, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Mark 4:21-34


“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial.

Paul wrote these words to the Corinthian church because its members were twisting his message. They believed they were permitted to sin with abandon because Christ had paid the price to free them from the law, and Corinth was the place to sin big – think New Orleans during Mardi Gras, minus the restraint. Paul had painted himself into a bit of a theological corner; he couldn’t reprimand the people for breaking the law, but would be remiss to let them off on that technicality. So when the Corinthians claimed “all things are lawful” Paul countered with “not all things are beneficial.” If the driving force in our choices is not Christ, we are lost.

We face the same moral perils if we think of salvation in purely personal terms. Right belief does not excuse wrong behavior, even when that behavior is within the law. Throughout history, many legal but immoral things have been practiced by Christians: spousal abuse, genocide, child exploitation, Jim Crow, reparative therapy, etc. We may try to excuse terrible legalities by claiming they were a product of ignorance and era, but Christ’s teachings are timeless. For example, while neither Paul nor Jesus condemned slavery, both spoke against mistreating slaves, who were equally beloved children of God.

And there’s the key: salvation is not just about me, but about Christ’s love for everyone. I may be within my legal rights to exploit a vulnerable person or community. I may call it good business and pat myself on the back for my savvy. I may even sleep soundly in the blanket of my salvation … but have I served Christ as he has commanded me to? Have I willingly sacrificed my own wealth and comfort to serve those who have less than I do – even those I despise? Have I let civil law excuse vice and suppress virtue?

Christ did not have kind words for people who built their faith around legal technicalities. Let’s concentrate on what we can give, and not what we can get away with.

Comfort: Christ has freed us from the law so we can better love.

Challenge: The golden rule is “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” The platinum rule is “Do unto others as they’d have you do unto them.” Let’s follow the priceless rule: “Do unto others as Christ would have you do unto them.”

Prayers: God of grace, thank you for the priceless gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. Make me strong enough to live beyond the law, and to love as you have asked me. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever gotten away with something on a technicality? How did it feel?

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Not a Checklist

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 150, Jeremiah 6:9-15, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Mark 5:1-20


“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.

Paul wrote these words to the church in Corinth to address a heresy that taught our actions don’t matter because we have been redeemed by Christ. Some extremists claimed those who sinned the most boldly were holier because they were forgiven the most. Modern Christians are unlikely to adopt this twisted logic, but it was appealing in a city where prostitution was not just common but part of religious worship.

Paul went on to condemn fornication as the only sin committed against one’s own body. Christianity has embraced the anti-fornication message, though studies showing Christians are having only slightly less non-married sex than non-Christians raises the question whether we are good at separating the lawful from the beneficial.

We sure seem to like developing sets of rules for being a good Christian. We especially seem to like exploring how far we can bend them before they are technically broken. Yet it is very possible to do what is religiously “legal” and still be doing the wrong thing. This is one of the real challenges of the Christian life: whether we are obeying a rule, breaking it, or operating in an arena without rules, we are responsible for figuring out whether our choices are beneficial, or at least not harmful.

As we grow in faith, we should constantly challenge ourselves to think more and more with the mind of Christ. Paradoxically, this can leave us with more questions than answers – but the questions keep improving. Our concept of sin grows from a checklist of laws to an understanding of what damages our relationship with God. Some things are universally wrong, but what is perfectly harmless for others may be sinful for us, and vice versa. For example, depending on the person, video games can be a benign pastime, or a source of addiction; there’s no rule to determine that line.

We are never done growing closer to God. Don’t let the rules tell you otherwise.

Comfort: Jesus understands your struggles; lean on him.

Challenge: Be honest with yourself about when you’re bending the rules.

Prayer: Merciful God, forgive me my sins, and help me to sin no more. Amen.

Discussion: What are the signs you know you’re about to make a bad decision?

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Our Daily Apocalypse

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 93; 148, Isaiah 25:1-9, Revelation 1:19-20, John 7:53-8:11


Isaiah 25 looks toward the day when “God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth.” Today’s reading from Revelation introduces John’s vision of Christ’s victory over the evils in the world. Both are standard Christmastide readings, as we celebrate Christ’s arrival in the world. To which victory of the Lord do these readings refer?

Ancient people read scripture with a different sense of time and meaning than we might. For example, we read the Lord’s Prayer as the present-tense: “give us this day our daily bread.” In Greek, this prayer uses the aorist tense, a kind of “once and for all” tense signifying not just the present, but the unfolding future as well. While Isaiah’s vision was about the eventual restoration of a Jewish people exiled in Babylon, early Christians co-opted it to tell of the coming Messiah. This approach might seem odd to modern sensibilities, but for people of the time it was part of understanding that God’s plan of salvation unfolds in the past, present, and future.

Isaiah 25 is an early example of apocalyptic literature. Revelation is also apocalyptic literature. Typical of the genre, both blur the lines between the past and the future. Apocalyptic literature is not so concerned with historical accuracy or specific prophecy as with the idea of the cosmic story of salvation. Time is fluid in these writings because God is always revealed anew to us, and the world is always being remade.

Apocalyptic literature invites us to dwell in the mystery of God’s unfolding plan, better expressed through visions and dreams than facts. The events have already happened, yet are still to happen. This paradox offers confidence that change will come, because it has come. During the Civil War and Civil Rights eras, African-Americans and their allies found inspiration in apocalyptic themes, which assured God’s eventual deliverance. Though mysterious, these themes were comforting.

If we read Isaiah only for the past, or Revelation only for the future, we miss the message of what God is doing today.

For additional thoughts on today’s reading from John, see Thud!

Comfort: God’s plan is unfolding—and we are part of it.

Challenge: Watch the news for modern stories of God’s deliverance.

Prayer: O timeless Creator, thank you for your people’s dreams and visions. Amen.

Discussion: Are you able to see Christ’s work as both complete and continuing?

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Plea Bargain

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, Job 25:1-6, Job 27:1-6, Revelation 14:1-7, 13, Matthew 5:13-20


Plea bargaining is a common but controversial practice. On one hand, it increases efficiency in an overburdened criminal justice system, and results in convictions that otherwise might not happen. On the other, many people believe plea bargaining results in unfair sentencing, an erosion of constitutional rights, and coerced confessions of (sometimes innocent) people who are too frightened and/or poor to demand a fair trial with adequate representation. Plea bargaining is a balance between getting things done, and getting things right. It forces us to ask whether an increased conviction rate is worth a decrease in fairness – or the right measure at all.

Job’s friend Bildad wanted him to plea bargain with God. Essentially he said: “Everybody’s guilty of something. Just admit your wrongdoing and this will all go away.” Job, rightly convinced of his own innocence, wasn’t having it: “[M]y lips will not speak falsehood, and my tongue will not utter deceit. Far be it from me to say that you are right; until I die I will not put away my integrity from me.” In the end, Job is justified; he is badly abused, but his righteousness remains unblemished.

When Jesus said he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, he was preparing for the ultimate plea bargain. Guilty of nothing, he knowingly and willingly took our sin to the cross. Not just some of our sin – all of it. If we are willing to yoke our fate to his, to follow him through both destruction and glory, and to recognize our freedom is not of our own doing, the law no longer has power over us.

Very often God’s justice is an upside-down reflection of human justice. Rather than increasing the conviction rate, Christ’s sacrificial plea bargain reduced it to zero. Efficiency was measured not in condemnations, but in salvation. Unlike Job, we are all guilty of something. Let’s honor Christ’s sacrifice by admitting to every bit of it, by wringing out every drop of forgiveness and new life he offers. Let us beat our swords into plowshares, and prison bars into gates of welcome.

(for additional thoughts on today’s text from Matthew 5, see Lightly Salted)

Comfort: Jesus has already paid the price for your freedom.

Challenge: Forgiveness and freedom are meant to be passed along. Take some action to help address injustices in your own community.

Prayer: Lord of Heaven and Earth, I love you with all my heart, mind, and soul. Give me strength to love my neighbor as myself, and to love myself well. Amen.

Discussion: Watch this video on plea bargaining. What are your thoughts?

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