Rejoice Always

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Jeremiah 17:5-10, 14-17 (18), Philippians 4:1-13, John 12:27-36


Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Paul shares these words in the concluding paragraphs of his letter to the church at Philippi. He also exhorts them to rejoice, to be known for their gentleness, and to attain peace by making their requests known to God through prayer and supplication.

Notice that the keys to peace are found in our relationship with God and in how we engage our hearts and minds. Is this what the church seems to focus on today, or do we spend a lot of time worrying about what other “sinners” – Christian or not – are doing wrong? Certainly throughout his letters Paul offers advice on how to deal with church members who are damaging the community through sin or conflict, but these are exceptions – extreme examples. And in the case of non-Christians, Paul tells us to mind our own business. If we find ourselves preoccupied with (or worse yet, eagerly anticipating) how and when to condemn people or (lovingly?) kick them to the curb, maybe it’s time for some serious self-examination.

Lifelong self-examination is a vital component of following Christ. God doesn’t ask us to examine anyone else’s heart, because we can’t know it. The primary question on our minds should not be “Are other people following Christ?” Rather we should be asking “Am I still following Christ?” All else – evangelism, charity, loving rebuke of our fellow Christians – follow from this, and ranges from hollow to dangerous if we always assume the answer is “yes” without engaging in regular, humble reflection.

Paul asked Euodia and Syntyche, two feuding Philippian women, “to be of the same mind in the Lord.” His next words were “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Being of the same mind doesn’t mean being in perfect agreement. It becomes much easier to do when we each agree to focus on the one heart we can know, the one spirit we can convince to rejoice.

Comfort: The Lord is near.

Challenge: For a week or two, keep a diary documenting whether you spend your time thinking about the things Paul recommends, or about negative things. Meditate on what part your own thinking plays in your feelings of peace.

Prayer: Teach me, O Lord, to set my heart on what is good and right. Amen.

Discussion: What are some of your pet peeves, and what do they say about you?

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Decorate Your Own Cookie

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 65; 147:1-11, 1 Kings 3:1-15, Acts 27:9-26, Mark 14:1-11


One of the most powerful scenes in The Wizard of Oz takes place after Dorothy and her companions have destroyed the Wicked Witch of the West only to discover Oz is not so great and is terrible in all the wrong ways. He has no power to grant them what they asked for (courage, brains, and a heart) but in one of his few authentic moments he teaches them an important truth: they carried these things within them all along.

The Lord visited King Solomon in a dream and instructed him to ask for whatever he wanted. After words of gratitude and praise for all the Lord had done, Solomon asked for “a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.” The Lord , pleased with this request, assured Solomon it would be so.

Solomon could have asked for riches, or long life, or military victory. In an Oz-like twist, his choice revealed the seeds of wisdom already planted in him. Unlike the fraudulent Oz, the Lord did have the power to grant Solomon’s request – in fact, it appears it was granted long before Solomon asked.

We can waste a lot of time longing for gifts we don’t possess, and failing to recognize the value of those we do. Whether a trait is a gift or a flaw may depend largely on how we use it. Solomon could have used his wisdom to scheme, but he chose to use it to serve his – and the Lord’s – people. When Paul refocused his single-mindedness from persecuting Christians to evangelizing Christ, he was unmatched.

Certainly we need to grow and learn all our lives, but twisting ourselves into a shape not meant for us perhaps isn’t the best approach. Once the cookie has been baked, you can’t force it back into a cutter – even the original one. When decorating that cookie, one person will see a flaw to cover up where another sees the opportunity for an unconventional feature. Instead of wasting time lamenting the gifts we haven’t been given, let’s direct and grow the ones we have.


Additional Reading:
For thoughts on today’s reading from Acts, see Crash Course.

Comfort: You have gifts that matter, because God gave them to you. 

Challenge: Appreciate and use the gifts you have. It’s the only way to grow them.

Prayer: Thank you, God of creation, for making me as I am. I will honor you by making the best of it. Amen. 

Discussion: How do you feel when people acknowledge your talents?

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Human Kindness, Overflowing

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 123; 146, 1 Samuel 25:1-22, Acts 14:1-18, Mark 4:21-34


David and his six hundred men camped in the wilderness outside Carmel, near the property of a wealthy man named Nabal. David sent men to tell Nabal that unlike some of the more dangerous characters roaming the wilderness they had harmed neither his shepherds nor his flock but protected them; therefore, would he spare them whatever food he could? Nabal, cranky and suspicious of runaway servants, declined. David returned with four hundred armed men, ready to kill all the males of the household.

Allowing that a refusal of hospitality was a much stronger insult in David’s culture, and that the text is clearly biased against Nabal … in this situation David is not a nice guy. Essentially he tells his troops, “Hey, boys! This guy who didn’t actually ask for our protection now refuses to compensate us for it so we’re going to slaughter his household.”

Today we call that sort of extortion a “protection racket.”

Ever heard of Nice Guy Syndrome? Simplified (maybe overly so), it’s the idea that some men who see themselves as nice believe this obliges women – especially women they’ve supported through relationships with men who are “not nice” – to consider them romantically. Less a virtue and more an objectifying strategy.

No matter how kind you are, no one (regardless of gender) owes you a date. Or a job. Or a meal. Or even gratitude. We appreciate these things. Being only human, we feel the sting of their absence. But if we feel it too keenly – if it punctures and deflates our impulse to be kind – perhaps what we value is not kindness itself, but the ego stroke of being perceived as kind.

True kindness is an expression of gratitude for God’s limitless love for us. It reflects God’s patience with our own imperfections and ingratitude. If we love only those who love us back, we do not love: we negotiate. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, love does not insist on its own way – including being returned “appropriately.” A kindness freely given is a gift to both souls, a balm which never runs dry.

Comfort: Your kindnesses, even unacknowledged, matter.

Challenge: Once a week, make a point of being kind to someone you don’t like, or who doesn’t like you.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for the many kindnesses you show me daily. Amen.

Discussion: David is an example of a flawed but basically good person. How do you deal with it when your heroes or loved ones fall short of your expectations?

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People are People

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 145, Daniel 4:19-27, 1 John 3:19-4:6, Luke 4:14-30


Sometimes all it takes to be a prophet is an understanding of human nature and a keen sense of irony. When Jesus began preaching in his home town of Nazareth, he knew the people in the synagogue would want the same signs he performed earlier in Capernaum. Mark’s gospel tells us the people had so little faith Jesus was able to do very little. In today’s reading from Luke, Jesus tells them “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” Five verses later, they are shoving him toward a cliff.

They could have tried to be more accepting, if only to prove him wrong, right? But that’s not human nature. How many teenagers, when asked if they’ve been drinking, counter with, “If you’re going to keep accusing me I might as well!” How many spouses caught in infidelity blame the insecurities of their husband or wife? We don’t enjoy someone telling us we’re wrong, especially when we know they’re right, so we lash out at the messenger. We drink and blame our parents. Cheat and blame our spouses. Lack faith and blame our savior.

Jesus saw it coming, and so should we. Across time and geography certain truths about human nature persist. We tend to think we are more self-aware than other people, but in reality – not so much. When we’re not busy convincing ourselves we are better than we are, we may be looking at other cultures and communities as “noble savages” who are somehow exempt from the less desirable traits of humanity. Or worse, we may look at whole groups of people as more capable of corruption than we could ever be. As clichéd as it might sound, people are people.

The good news is we can be better. First, we must abandon the mindset that we are exempt from basic human nature. Second, we must honestly examine ourselves as an outsider (Jesus, maybe?) might see us. Finally, we must consciously decide to act in ways consistent with our faith, even if that action goes against our nature. Let’s step back from the cliff before it’s too late.

Comfort: God knows our nature – and our potential.

Challenge: Pray about the things that you do despite knowing better.

Prayer: God of strength, I seek your nature before my own. Amen.

Discussion: What about human nature still manages to surprise you?

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