Ego to Ashes

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Today’s readings (click below to open in a new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Amos 5:6-15, Hebrews 12:1-14, Reading Luke 18:9-14


Ash Wednesday is the day Christians around the world begin the annual Lenten pilgrimage. Most of us will travel more spiritually than physically, and hopefully in a direction taking us closer to God in Christ. Our modes of transportation vary: prayer, fasting, giving something up, taking something extra on – the possibilities are limitless. And like physical pilgrims, we may find we need to carefully select which belongings will travel well to a destination we may not know much about.

Today’s parable from Luke highlights one possession it might be better to leave behind: ego. When we read about the Pharisee who thanks God he is not the tax collector praying nearby, we aren’t surprised Jesus says the tax collector (who is humbly praying for mercy) is more justified before God. Most of us – even religious leaders – identify more with the character of the tax collector than the Pharisee. But should we? Is it truth or ego that tells us we are appropriately humble?

The moment we thank God we are not the Pharisee (or one of the people at that church), we are guilty of his sin: pride and judgment. In Jesus’ time, the message of beloved sinners was revolutionary. People needed to hear it. Twenty centuries on, as a faith community familiar with Jesus’s teachings, we need to be careful not to wear the tax collector’s humility as the latest fashion of outward righteousness. Letting go of the idea that we have the right ideas about God can be scary, because it erodes our comfortable, Christian identity.

As we prepare for our Lenten journey, let’s unpack the thick cloak of ego to make room for humble uncertainty. This type of uncertainty isn’t so much doubt as an intentional loosening of our preconceived notions of God and self, so we can be open to growth. If we cling too tightly to who we are, we are closed to who God would have us become.

Sometimes we are the Pharisee. Sometimes we are the tax collector. Most often we are a mix of both. God will help us find the balance.

Comfort: Our Lenten journey to the cross may be frightening, but the promise of resurrection is certain.

Challenge: What person or group do you possibly feel superior to? Pray for the humility to love them without judgment.

Prayer: Merciful God, give me a heart humble and open enough to know your glory.

Discussion: How are you observing Lent this year?

Systems Check

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, Proverbs 30:1-4, 24-33, Philippians 3:1-11, John 18:28-38


When the Jewish leaders arrested Jesus and took him to the Roman governor Pilate, “they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover.” Let that sink in for a moment… They found ritual uncleanliness unacceptable, but framing a prophet because he might actually be speaking on behalf of God was fine. Jesus was right to compare them to tombs whitewashed on the outside and rotten on the inside.

Under Roman occupation, Jewish leaders had no authority to execute anyone but they didn’t let this technicality discourage them. By saying Jesus claimed to be a king, they made him a rival of Caesar and therefore backed Pilate into a political corner. Jesus was advocating throwing off the Roman yoke for the Kingdom of God, but that didn’t suit their purpose so they twisted the truth to fabricate evidence against him. The tactic could be ripped from today’s headlines: self-righteous group misrepresents the facts to serve some narrowly defined greater good. Pilate asked Jesus “What is truth?” and we’ve been fudging the answer ever since.

Who are the villains in this piece? Should we point to scheming Pharisees, oppressive Romans, treacherous Judas, or fair-weather crowds? The truth is, everyone was guilty. The systems in place allowed corrupt leaders to act with impunity, communities to shift blame upward, and individuals to convince themselves they had no choice when they didn’t want to consider real but difficult options. In other words, business as usual.

In what Christ-betraying systems do we knowingly or unknowingly participate? How do we help perpetuate poverty, discrimination, violence, human trafficking, and other evils? If we knew the child sold into slavery to provide us cheap sneakers was Christ, would our cries for justice be louder and our choices different? We need to examine these questions when we make purchases, accept employment, and wield – or fail to wield – privilege and influence. Choosing God’s justice often requires choosing inconvenience, discomfort, and expense.  In God’s system, where the last are first, what does it mean to look out for number one? It means working toward justice for countless others.

Comfort: Every step you take toward justice is a step toward Christ.

Challenge: Lent starts tomorrow. This year give up apathy.

Prayer: Forgive me, Lord, for not wanting to know what I do.

Discussion: Have you ever made different choices after learning “how the sausage was made?”

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!

 

Fail to Succeed

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Today’s readings (click to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 145, Proverbs 27:1-6, 10-12, Philippians 2:1-13, John 18:15-18, 25-27


Bodybuilders know the secret to success is failure. A muscle grows bigger and stronger only when it is worked until it fails. They reach for more than they know they can do, because they know the reward will be a stronger body. Every successful workout teaches them the limit of their strength.

Most of us are not experts at judging our own limits, physical or spiritual. When pressed we overestimate or underestimate our abilities. Many people who have gone through a crisis with a parent or child have said: “I didn’t know I could do it until I had to!”

Peter didn’t understand his own limits. Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus predicted Peter would deny him three times. Of course Peter insisted he would never deny Jesus, but once the rubber hit the road Peter’s fear was greater than his faith. We can shake our heads at Peter, and insist just as hard as he did that we would not have been so faithless, but the truth is we don’t know. We have the advantage of knowing how it all turns out, but for Peter and the other disciples, Jesus’s death brought terror and confusion.

And yet … Jesus also predicted Peter would be the rock upon which he built his church. Jesus didn’t pick someone with a perfect faith, because that someone doesn’t exist. Later when Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection, he asked Peter three times: “Do you love me?” For each failure, Jesus offered an opportunity for redemption.

Attempting only what we know is possible is not faith, it is fear. To grow our faith, we must be willing to test its limits – to trust God to carry us through things we don’t think we can do. When things don’t work out, remember Peter.

God knows we will fail. He can use each of those failures to make us better: more humble, more compassionate, less judgmental. We may need some recovery time – bodybuilders typically wait 24-48 hours before working the same muscles again – but after we recover we know our faith is stronger than it was before.

Comfort: Failure is always an option. Through God, so is redemption.

Challenge: Pick something you’ve been afraid to try, and trust God to see you through it. Even if you fail at it, God will be with you to dust you off.

Prayer: Thank you, O Lord, for the challenges which strengthen me. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever been stronger than you thought you could be? If so, what or whom do you credit?

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Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

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Today’s readings (click to open in a new tab/window):
Psalms 139; 150, Malachi 4:1-6, 2 Corinthians 3:7-18, Luke 9:18-27


Is the concept of an all-knowing God intimidating or comforting? The author of Psalm 139 finds great comfort in the idea that God has been and always will be with him, from conception through death. He portrays God’s constant presence not as one of judgment, but one of personal investment. As God’s carefully wrought works of art, “fearfully and wonderfully made,” we are each of us His precious creation.

Artists frequently compare their own creations to children; how could we be less to God? Like all good parents, He does not coerce our love through threats, nor does He abandon us when we make mistakes. God has our best interests at heart; Jesus assures us no father, when his child asks for a fish, would hand him a snake. Good parents can be strict, but always with an eye toward guiding and challenging children to be their best selves.

Psalm 139 provides beautiful images of the relationship God intends to have with us: guide, artist, parent, creator. Jesus used similar metaphors to describe our relationship to God, and they can help us explore His unknowable yet always loving nature. Whether we are living in the light or the darkness, God desires an intimate connection with each of His children.

Focusing on  God’s presence in our lives, even when we don’t necessarily “feel” it, inspires us to rise to the opportunity of being our best selves. Without reducing God’s role in our lives merely to a supportive buddy or life coach, we can contemplate God’s presence as we devise plans, make decisions, and take actions. Pausing to reflect on how God might view an action before we commit to it can help us transcend fleeting impulses which may not serve us well. If such reflection nags our conscience or sense of guilt, they may be signposts pointing us to a better – if sometimes more difficult – path. God does not promote shame but does encourage us to have self-control. God’s presence is not a fist knocking us down, but a hand lifting us up. Let’s grab it and be the wonderful creations God intended.

Comfort: God is with us always, waiting to lift us ever higher.

Challenge: Before going to bed each night, reflect on which of the day’s actions glorified God, and which you might have done differently if you’d been keeping God in mind. Thank God for loving you enough to help you do better tomorrow.

Prayer: Thank you God for always calling me toward the right direction.

Discussion: Can you imagine yourself as a work of art? If not, why not? If so, what kind of art would you be?

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The Good Consultant

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 63; 149, Genesis 24:28-38, 49-51, Hebrews 12:12-29, John 7:14-36


As a profession, consultants have a mixed reputation. After consultants have provided expensive professional expertise, employees commonly respond (correctly) with: “They didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.” If this is the case, is the service valuable or not? It can be — if what the business really needed was confirmation, not innovation. It may not sound as poetic as The Good Shepherd, but Jesus was also The Good Consultant.

When Jesus had grown popular enough that Jewish authorities began plotting to kill him, he had two choices: go into hiding, or follow his calling. Despite the danger, he began preaching openly in the temple during Sukkot, one of the most important festivals of the year. People marveled that he, who had not been taught, could teach so wisely. Jesus responded by saying his teachings were not his own but those of God. He advised anyone who doubted his credentials to apply a simple litmus test: was he speaking for his own glory, or for the glory of God? “Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own.”

In this particular case he was preaching about their hypocrisy when it came to applying the Law of Moses, but he wasn’t providing any new information. Many prophets before him told the people of Israel their observation of the law was meaningless — even offensive — to God if they weren’t offering mercy and justice to the least among them. Like many enterprises, they were too busy performing day-to-day operations to step back and ask whether they were really fulfilling their mission in the best way. They knew the right things, but needed Jesus and other prophets / consultants to spur them to change direction.

In our spiritual lives as in our work lives, we need to recognize when established authorities are glorifying themselves and the status quo over the mission, and when outside voices are telling us what we already know to be true. The Good Consultant steers us away from hypocrisy and ego toward mercy and justice.

Comfort: When your conscience tells you to choose mercy over the wishes of authority, you should probably listen to it.

Challenge: Oftentimes following Jesus means defying “business as usual.” Make time to step back and measure your beliefs and actions against the teachings of Christ.

Prayer: God, I will do my best to listen to your voice above all others – including my own. Amen.

Discussion: When you ask your friends or colleagues for advice, how often do you already know what the right answer is?

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King Incognito

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 148, Genesis 24:1-27, Hebrews 12:3-11, John 7:1-13


Many cultures have folk tales about a king incognito, that is a king (or sometimes a prince or more unusually a queen) who disguises himself and roams his kingdom. The results of his secret adventure depend largely on whether he is a just king or an unjust one. For example, a just king may uncover plots against him and so prevent them from hatching. An unjust king may be discovered and suffer – even die – as a result. The tone of these stories generally reflect the people’s feelings about their current ruler.

Near the end of his ministry, Jesus arranged such an outing.

The Festival of Booths (Sukkot) was happening in Judea. He sent his disciples without him, saying: “I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.” After they departed, he went to the festival alone and disappeared into the crowd. In an era without cameras, not having a group of disciples around him was disguise enough. He was the talk of the festival, and many Jews were looking for him. Some said he was a good man, and others said he was deceiving the people.

Have you heard the phrase: “What someone thinks about you is none of your business?” Knowing what the people thought about him had no ultimate effect on Jesus’s mission. Can we imagine he was surprised to hear both good and bad news? Realistically, what else could we expect? In the verses that follow today’s reading from John, Jesus reveals himself to the crowd and begins preaching. His time had come, and in the end the king must reveal himself.

Other people’s opinions do not matter when we are carrying out the work of the Kingdom of God. While we remain open-minded and listen to what people tell us about their needs, we are to respond as Christ calls us to, whether it makes us popular or not. Some people may love us for it, some may hate us, and some of each may be fellow Christians. When we are following Christ, God’s is the only opinion that matters.

Comfort: You are accountable to no one but God.

Challenge: Do not let other people’s opinions and reactions inflate your ego or deflate your spirit.

Prayer: Breath of Life, help me to learn to rely only on you. Amen.

Discussion: Think about how other people’s opinions have influenced your behavior, for better or worse. What would you have done differently if you didn’t care?

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The Cloud

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 116; 147:12-20, Genesis 23:1-20, Hebrews 11:32-12:2, John 6:60-71


Pauls’s letter to the Hebrews describes the faith of many heroes of the Old Testament, including Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses and others. None of them were perfect, but by faith they did amazing things. They are examples and inspirations that endure. Paul describes them – and all the faithful departed – as a “great cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us always.

Over the years the cloud has only grown larger.

From the 20th century alone we might add names of heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr., Edith Stein, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Or minds like C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day. Still more are less well known, but influential in our lives. When we struggle we can look to their lives, works, and words for strength.

Yet during difficult times, many of us insist on toughing it out alone. We convince ourselves no one has experienced the pain, grief, loss, or doubt that we endure. We isolate ourselves because no one could possibly understand us, relate to our situation, or stand to be around us. The beauty of leaning on the cloud of witnesses is that they are beyond feeling burdened by us. And they have so much to teach us.

Feeling despair? Crack open The Dark Night of the Soul by Saint John of the Cross, and you’ll probably start to feel like an amateur. Not much of a reader? Listen to recordings of the Psalms – number 137 reveals anguish at its purest. We don’t seek out these works to wallow in misery like a jilted lover listening to break-up songs, but because they offer wisdom from others who have overcome similar trials. Otto von Bismarck wrote: “A fool learns from his mistakes, but a truly wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” We can also learn from their triumphs.

Despite our occasional insistence to the contrary, we are never alone. Those witnesses who have gone before us, and those who stand beside us today, are a mortal manifestation of the strength and hope that come from faith. No matter where we are in life, we can plug into The Cloud.

Comfort: The entire history of God’s people is available to support you.

Challenge: Next time you feel compelled to isolate yourself because you think others wouldn’t understand, get in touch with someone to share your story.

Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for the legacy of all who have come before me. Help me to be a worthy heir and addition to the great cloud of witnesses. Amen.

Discussion: In times of difficult, are you more likely to go it alone, or ask for assistance? What do you think that reveals about your attitude toward those who need help?

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!

God Will Provide the Lamb

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 147:1-11, Genesis 22:1-18, Hebrews 11:23-31, John 6:52-59


Abraham was one hundred and Sarah was ninety when Isaac, the son God promised them, was born. How must Abraham have felt when God asked him to offer his son as a sacrifice? Abraham neither objected to this request nor delayed in responding; he set out with Isaac the next morning for Moriah. This is the Abraham who laughed when God told him Sarah would conceive a child. The Abraham who took down kings to free his people. The Abraham who challenged God not once, not twice , but six times to spare the citizens of Sodom. Yet when asked to make a burnt offering of his son, he complied without argument. Why?

On the way, Isaac asked his father where the sacrificial lamb was. Abraham replied: “God himself will provide the lamb.” We might read this as an attempt to deceive Isaac, but we must remember this is the Abraham who spent many years arguing with God about what was possible, only to be proven wrong time after time. Obedient as he had become, could this Abraham have believed for a moment God would renege on the promise Isaac represented? Tradition tells us Abraham passed God’s test because he was willing to kill his son. Is it possible he passed the test because he trusted his God not to take his child? That he finally trusted God enough not to argue, but to risk being wrong? If so, “God himself will provide the lamb” sounds less like a comforting lie and more like a prayer of self-reassurance. In the end, God spared Isaac and did indeed provide a ram. Abraham’s descendants formed a great nation.

How often have we hesitated to commit ourselves totally to God because we fear what we may be asked to sacrifice? God is not a despot demanding sacrifices out of cruelty or insecurity, but until we trust him enough to risk the annihilation of submission we keep part of ourselves from him. Whatever our faith strips away from us needs to go. Whatever our faith has in store for us is greater than we can imagine.

Comfort: God is faithful, always.

Challenge: Read through today’s passage from Genesis a couple times. The first time imagine yourself in Abraham’s place. The second time, imagine you are Isaac hearing the story for the first time.

Prayer: Pray the Prayer of Dedication below, thinking about what it might cost you.

Lord Jesus, I give you my hands to do your work. I give you my feet to go your way. I give you my tongue to speak your words. I give you my mind that you may think in me. I give you my spirit that you may pray in me. Above all, I give you my heart that you may love in me your Father and all mankind. I give you my whole self that you may grow in me, so that it is you, Lord Jesus, who live and work and pray in me.

Discussion: What have you given up – voluntarily or involuntarily – only to discover something better was waiting?

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Hagar and the Horrible

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 12; 146, Genesis 21:1-21, Hebrews 11:13-22, John 6:41-51


Ever see those Christian t-shirts, bookmarks, or mugs declaring: “God won’t give you more than you can handle?” It’s a comforting thought — if we don’t think about it too long. However, if we are struggling with chronic pain, the loss of a child, or any number of devastating life events, this sentiment not only rings false, but raises a terrible theological question: “How could God give this to me?”

Abraham and Sarah had a servant named Hagar. God had promised them a child, but in their impatience they forced Hagar to conceive. After Sarah gave birth to Isaac she was jealous of Hagar’s son Ishmael, and told Abraham to banish them both. He sent them packing with some bread and a water skin. After much wandering, a thirsty and desperate Hagar placed Ishmael under the meager comfort of shady bush and waited for him to die.

God didn’t single out Hagar for suffering: Sarah and Abraham did. Abuse and oppression are never part of “God’s plan” for us. Neither are disease nor loss. God may use trials to strengthen us, but God does not heap hardship upon us just to test our endurance or faithfulness. Hardship finds us nevertheless.

Before her son could die, God led Hagar to a well. She and her son survived, and surely they were both influenced for the better or worse — or both — by this trauma. Eventually, as God promised, Ishmael’s descendants formed a mighty nation, alongside the descendants of Isaac. Of course Ishmael’s success did not justify the sufferings of Hagar, but it also meant she did not suffer in vain. What lesson might we learn from this story? Perhaps that no situation is so bleak God can’t help us through it somehow. A God who meets us at our breaking point is very different than a God who pushes us there.

Suffering can force us into a spiritual wilderness where we must rely on God to find our way. When we are in such a state of surrender, God’s mercies can redefine our suffering to have dignity and purpose. God will always offer you more grace than you can handle.

Comfort: Your suffering is not meaningless because God suffers with you.

Challenge: Be cautious about attributing God’s will to humanity’s weakness.

Prayer: Merciful and Loving God, I will trust in you and your grace at all times. Amen.

Discussion: What situations in your life are causing you pain, and how might God help you find a higher purpose for them?

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!

Strangers and Angels

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 62; 145, Genesis 19:1-17 (18-23) 24-29, Hebrews 11:1-12, John 6:27-40


God was determined to destroy the city of Sodom because its inhabitants were irredeemably wicked. Abraham’s nephew Lot was in Sodom, so Abraham bargained with God to spare it if even ten righteous people could be found there. When God sent his angels to the city, they stayed at Lot’s home. A mob containing every last man in Sodom demanded these strangers be surrendered to them, but Lot offered the mob his daughters instead. In the end, the angels helped Lot’s family escape Sodom, which was destroyed along with Gomorrah and two other cities.

The story is complicated because bronze age customs of hospitality meant protecting your guests even at the expense of your family’s safety. It’s complicated because prophets like Ezekiel clearly state the sins of Sodom were “pride, gluttony, and laziness, while the poor and needy suffered outside her door” (16:49), but many insist it was homosexuality. It’s complicated because we tend to think consequences are related only to the events immediately preceding them, when God had decided to destroy Sodom well before his angels were threatened by a violent mob bent on sexual assault.

When protests occur after a racially charged incident, do we reflect on whether the unrest is a result of not only that particular incident, but also of years of neglecting the needs of strangers? When we entertain calls to shut our borders to refugees – the very “least of these” – because of hypothetical dangers, can we point to the scripture where Jesus calls us to mercy … unless we feel threatened? When the average American consumes food and other resources at rates far exceeding the global average, why do we use words like exceptionalism and patriotism instead of gluttony and pride? Why do we point to the alleged sins of others instead of naming our own?

Sodom is complicated because Sodom is us.

Christ calls us to pick up our crosses and lay down our lives, not fold when we are afraid. Radical hospitality in our homes and communities can be scary, but when strangers and angels knock on our doors, it is Christ we welcome in.

Comfort: True hospitality can be intimidating, but God will see us through it.

Challenge:  Ask yourself what are the limits of your hospitality? Would Jesus ask more of you?

Prayer: Lord, help me to see even the least of my sisters and brothers as Christ in need. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever been aided by a stranger?

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!