Roots and Branches

falling in

Today’s readings:
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Micah 7:7-15, Acts 3:1-10, John 15:1-11

One afternoon, Peter and John were walking to the temple to pray. At the gate known as the Beautiful Gate, they encountered a man who had been lame from birth. Every day people would lay this man at the entrance to the gate, where he would beg for alms (donations). When Peter and John asked the man to look at them, he expected they would give him something. Instead, they healed him in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. The man then “entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.”

The people who laid the man by the gate and the people who offered him alms were decent souls. They did what they could to help someone in need, but they never quite improved his situation. Peter and John, empowered by Jesus, finally addressed the root cause of his misfortune.

As the Body of Christ, are we content to treat symptoms, or do we want to find cures? Do we want to pass out sandwiches and blankets to the homeless, or do we want to tackle the injustices which create poverty? It’s really not an either/or situation.  Those alms at the Beautiful Gate kept our lame friend alive until someone came along to cure him.

The church has been a body of service since its foundation. Its earliest members pooled their resources to support each other, and also helped the needy in the larger community. What we – the many branches depending on Christ as our life-giving vine – can accomplish together is miraculous. The trick is to remember that worship, charity, justice, and sacrifice are not separate activities, but different names for same love of God. When we serve, we pray. When we show mercy, we praise. When we foster justice, we declare Christ.

Spreading the Gospel means more than telling people they need Jesus. It means doing our best to embody Christ in the world whether we are comforting a friend, building homes on a mission trip, or confronting a corrupt empire. May people always see Christ in us, and may we always see Christ in them.

Comfort: We all have a part to play in spreading the Gospel.

Challenge: Are you playing your part to its fullest?

Prayer: Gracious God, may my every act be one of praise for you. Amen.

Discussion: In what ways do you feel most comfortable sharing the Gospel? Least comfortable?

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Has your hour come?


Today’s readings:
Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Deuteronomy 8:1-20, Hebrews 2:11-18, John 2:1-12

In the lyrics to “Beautiful Boy” John Lennon famously wrote: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” (though he borrowed it from comic strip author Allen Saunders). It seems this may have been true even for Jesus.

The first miracle in John’s gospel is the transformation of water into wine at a wedding in Cana which Jesus attended with his mother. When Mary told him that the wine had run out, Jesus brushed her off: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” Undeterred, Mary instructed the waiters to do whatever Jesus told them. In short order, they had about 150 gallons of high-quality wine.

This is kind of an odd miracle for a public debut. It was at a relatively private affair with only a few witnesses. It doesn’t have the same life-changing impact as a healing, or the grandeur of feeding multitudes with a few leftovers. It doesn’t seem to have an agreed-upon theological interpretation. Given Mary’s expectations, it likely wasn’t even his first one.

Here’s what we do know: there was a need in front of him, and he met it. If we are to follow in his footsteps, maybe we don’t need to know much more. Many of us have plans and goals, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But if while we’re waiting for our hour to come we are so narrowly focused that we ignore the needs in front of us, whom exactly are we serving?

While we plan, let’s stay aware of the possibilities for service that at first blush may not seem to be of concern to us. Yes we all have demands on our time, but at the end of the day what will make that time matter? The lawn we need to mow won’t grow any taller during the five minutes it takes to check in with the ailing neighbor looking out her window. Our gesture does not need to be grand, nor our influence broad, to matter. Maybe we can’t all turn water into wine, but every one of us can turn time into love.

Comfort: Your small gifts can be enormous when given to someone else.

Challenge: Take regular pauses during your day to reflect on how you might serve someone in material or spiritual need.

Prayer: God of love, give me a servant’s heart. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever let your determination to reach a goal crowd out important things in your life?

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Servant Leaders

Today’s readings:
Psalms 46 or 47; 149; Isaiah 65:13-16; Revelation 3:7-13; John 6:15-27

What would you do if the public wanted to crown you king or queen? Would you embrace it? Would you run away? Jesus chose the latter. After he fed thousands of people with just a few loaves and fishes, they wanted to make him king – by force if necessary. He escaped to the mountain to be alone.

When God told Isaiah he was to be a prophet, Isaiah resisted. He declared to God all the ways he felt unworthy of being God’s voice. Many (most?) of the prophets chronicled in the Bible resisted God’s call. As far back as Moses, who tried to push the job off on his brother Aaron and blamed his speech impediment, the people God has chosen to lead have often shown reluctance.

When God knocks on the door, even to tell us we are fit to lead, we should be a little hesitant, maybe even fearful. The call is rarely easy. In his wisdom, God does not tend to choose leaders who are eager to embrace authority and power. Contrast this to our present-day system of secular leadership, where candidates spend millions of dollars telling you why they are unquestionably qualified for leadership, and their opponents barely deserve to participate in civil society. And religious leaders who seek power? We should always keep a critical eye on them.

Of course there are differences between people who seek power, and people who rise naturally to positions of leadership. For starters, the latter is much less common. The ability to acquire power is nothing like the ability to wield it wisely and justly. In hierarchical organizations, someone has to be at the top. The person who is the most eager, or eloquent, or assertive is not necessarily the best choice. The true sign of faithful leaders is not a desire to serve term of office but to serve the people who depend on them.

In God’s kingdom the last are first and the first are last. A true leader does not fear other leaders, but encourages them. A true leader does not control subjects, but empowers people. When we are called to leadership – by God, people, or circumstance – let us consider it humbly and prayerfully. When God calls us to lead, he calls us to serve.

Comfort: God equips those whom God calls to lead.

Challenge: Be discerning about who is a self-proclaimed leader, and who is actually qualified to lead.

Prayer: Merciful God, I will seek to follow the example of Christ, servant and Lord of all. Amen.

Discussion: Who are the leaders you trust?

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Sunday Schooled


Contemplating how much I still have to learn…

This past Sunday I went to a weekly church service for the first time in a long time. Several years ago I left a church in which I had been very active – board chair, elder, various other roles – for years. My departure was painful for me. There’s no need to rehash my reasons for leaving. When people ask me about why I don’t attend any more, I simply tell them it is no longer a good fit for me. My ego is not so big that I need my personal grievances to become theirs. Just because it’s not my community doesn’t mean I need to run it down to people who may need it to be theirs.


It was a tumultuous time for the congregation, and several other congregants also left during roughly the same period. For a few years afterward, I led a house church composed of other people who’d left, a few people who’d stayed, and some people who’d never been there. We interacted with other churches in the denomination and community, including the church most of us had left. Eventually the time for the house church ran its course, and it wound down and we dissolved it amicably. For me and others who attended, it was a time of grieving and healing – which, I believe, go hand in hand when we grieve well.

A friend who had attended both my former congregation and the house church invited me a few times to a church she had found. It was only a few years old. She liked the theology and the music. I checked out their web-site, and my first impression is that they are also involved in spreading the Gospel through service. That last bit is important to me; were I ever to consider “joining” a congregation again (I still think of myself as joined to the larger church as part of the Body of Christ), Gospel-centered service is in my top criteria.

I’ll check out a few more Sundays and other events to get a feel for the possible “fit” of this congregation. There’s another one that’s been piquing my interest lately, and I’ll want to visit it for a while also.  I’m in no hurry to make a decision, but a decision is inevitable.

The same friend has on numerous occasions reminded me of something I once said in a board meeting lo those many years ago: “I don’t know how to be a Christian without a community.”


Leadership positions are rewarding, but they can also be exhausting. This Sunday’s visit was the first time in almost ten years I had been in a worship service (this particular community called it a “gathering” in the apostolic tradition) where I wasn’t leading, facilitating in some way, or otherwise known to the congregation. Nobody was interrupting my worship experience by blurring the boundaries between “time to let you worship” and “time to complain about where Mrs. Smith set up the bake sale table.”

Except for my friend, I was completely anonymous. And I’m not sure how I felt about it.

I expected to feel relieved to experience the service in peace, but I also felt more than a little … let’s call it humbled, though it wasn’t quite so benign. These people were able to more than competently pull off an entire Sunday without needing anything from me. That was exactly what I thought I wanted to experience, but I was conflicted. What was going on?


Despite fantastic music and a terrific message, attending the Sunday gathering left me feeling … unsettled. All afternoon I reflected on why this might be so.

I’m not sure I figured it out, but a lot of old thoughts and emotions about my last church resurfaced. Whatever feelings of unease I brought into this new setting were undoubtedly related to my past experiences, but my problems with the old place couldn’t fairly be projected onto this new one.

So what to do? I needed to squarely face my own contributions to the prior experience, so as not to repeat them anywhere new.

Now I hadn’t acted with malice or carelessness. I really believe there’s nothing I need or needed to “confess” about my failings, yet there were some failings. And I think they’re pinned to leadership. More specifically, my suitability for the type of leadership I accepted.

I say “accepted” because it wasn’t anything I sought. In a small enough congregation, being reliable and competent and experiencing a few small successes is all that’s needed to get nominated to any number of positions.  And it’s flattering when people ask you to lead. If they ask enough times, you may even start to think you’re qualified.

But “accepted” is not passive. My initial hesitations were well-grounded, so I should have known enough to decline. Leadership comes in many flavors. Strategic leadership is not the same as project leadership. And if I’m honest with myself, I have some strong project leadership skills, but strategic leadership is not where I shine. There’s plenty of blame to go around when a congregation fractures, and I believe that’s the piece I need to own, the humble pie I need to swallow.

For a while I told myself I wouldn’t be sucked into leadership in any congregation I joined; that doing so was a sure road to dissatisfaction and stress.

It hadn’t occurred to me until now that maybe no one would ask. If that bruises my ego, Jesus and I need to walk it off.


Turns out experiencing a whole Sunday service that didn’t need me was humbling in a good way. It’s not necessarily comfortable, but it’s not the chafe of the ill-fitting strategic suit I’d mistakenly tried on.

Maybe, wherever I end up, they won’t need – or even ask! – me to lead anything. Undoubtedly there will be plenty of opportunities to serve. There will be times I’ll feel called to step up. And I’ll try to live out one of the best lessons I’ve picked up from mission trips: need is about the served, not the servant.

Ego is a tricky thing – especially when it disguises itself as service. The next leg of my faith journey seems to be a detour down Humble Highway.

Think I’ll take my time.


That Lived-In Feeling


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 108; 150; Jeremiah 44:15-30; Acts 18:24-19:7; Luke 10:25-37

What if cleanliness really isn’t next to Godliness?

Jesus once told a parable about an unclean spirit which had departed from a person and wandered aimlessly for a while, only to return and find its old abode as accommodating as  an empty house, all swept and orderly. Of course it moved back in, and brought friends with it so that the home – the person – was worse off than before.

Maybe the word we’re looking FOR isn’t cleanliness so much as … tidiness.

This parable can be read on different levels. One is the danger of believing that once we’ve solved a spiritual problem, we are out of danger. Relapses – addictive, behavioral, or otherwise – occur when we stop being vigilant. When we’ve created chaos in the life of ourselves or someone else, regaining order is an important step, but it’s the beginning, not the end. Order not put to a purpose is like an uninhabited house; it will fill up with something, so we better pay attention to what that something is or we end up with unwelcome guests. Think of the “dry drunk” home, where the shelves have been cleared of liquor bottles, but dysfunctions both new and ongoing fill the space.

On another level, it is about the hollowness of order in the institutional church. The religious leaders kept the house of the Lord tidy by enforcing the letter of the law, but neglected the spirit. Demons of apathy took up residence. A church that deals with our sinful nature by prioritizing orderliness above wholeness may glitter like a gem, yet it’s not welcoming to those who need it most but can’t meet its superficial standards. Its rituals and sacrifices are like a stench before the Lord, who asks us to take in the unwashed beggar, the wailing widow, and the unruly orphan – and that’s going to be untidy no matter how much plastic is on the furniture. Our kitchens will fill with dirty dishes. Shoes will pile up in the doorway. They are not the disruption, but the mission. Together we learn to find a home for all of it in God’s house.

A house is designed to be inhabited, otherwise it’s just a shrine to a life that was. Shrines contain history; we worship a God who is present and living.

Comfort: Some of that messiness in your life is actually holy.

Challenge: If you are prone to clutter, create a little more order. If you have a place for everything and everything in its place, commit those things to a purpose.

Prayer: For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken. (Psalm 62:1-2)

Discussion: What distinguishes a holy mess from mere clutter? Which are you prone to?

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Playing in the Key of U


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 123; 146, Jeremiah 36:27-37:2, 1 Corinthians 14:1-12, Matthew 10:16-23

A piano has eighty-eight keys. Anyone can walk up to one and bang on them until sound comes out. Fewer can skillfully combine them to play an actual song. And fewer still can create something entirely new from those same eighty-eight keys. The same eighty-eight keys can produce a jarring jangle or breathtaking beauty. A toddler can find great joy simply making noise. Most people could pluck out “Chopsticks” or “Heart and Soul.” Only a talented few can create a song that is not only recognizable as music, but can make us experiences the story and emotions they have to share.

Paul used musical instruments as a metaphor for how we use our gifts to benefit our faith community.

If they do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is being played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves; if in a tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said?

He was speaking specifically about the difference between speaking in tongues, which usually benefitted only the speaker because no one else understood the language, and prophesying, which provided “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” Isn’t the principle true of any undertaking though?

If we pursue a ministry which appeals to us but doesn’t speak to anyone else, is it a meaningless noise? If we complete a difficult task at work or home, but nobody else cared whether it got done, what is there to crow about? Of course it’s fine – even important – to take time to do some things for ourselves, but when it comes to how we relate to our community, we need to be speaking the same language … or at least hitting some mutually recognizable notes.

Consider one small example. Many Christmas toy drives specifically emphasize the need for toys for older children, especially boys. Yet donations are overwhelmingly toys intended for young children, weighted toward girls, because many donors prefer to shop for them. Now there’s nothing wrong with any specific donation, but when a symphony is written in D major and a bunch of musicians play in F minor because of personal preference, the right music doesn’t get made.

Faithful use of our gifts involves more than doing what we find personally rewarding. It asks us to learn the songs in other people’s hearts too.

Comfort: You are part of a great and blessed orchestra.

Challenge: At least once, take time to volunteer with a charity that doesn’t “speak” to you. Pay attention to why it is important to others.

Prayer:  Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. (Psalm 86:4)

Discussion: Is there anything you do because it is important to someone else?

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Uncommon Good


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 147:12-20, 2 Kings 23:4-25, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, Matthew 9:18-26

President Theodore Roosevelt is credited with saying “Comparison is the thief of joy.” The Apostle Paul spent a good chunk of time assuring members of the early church that they need not compare their spiritual gifts: each one – wisdom, prophecy, healing, tongues, etc. – had its own important role to play. He wanted them to understand “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

“Common good.” That’s a phrase that’s become loaded. Though it was a principle of the earliest Christian communities, today it’s as likely to be associated with socialism. And like socialism, common good is a slippery term which not everyone can agree on. Perhaps there’s no real incentive to find agreement; the common good often demands the personal not-as-good.

But all those spiritual gifts Paul lists (and some he doesn’t) have something in common: they are useless until we employ them in service to someone else. Healing, wisdom, and prophecy aren’t too impressive if no one benefits from them. For that matter neither are generosity, empathy, and patience. It seems the common good is inherent in the activities of the Spirit.

Christianity is a full contact sport. If we are not willing to encounter people – via whatever gifts we’ve been given – in spirit, mind, and body how can we possibly be servants to all? We say we are blessed by things like talents, resources, and relationships, and while we may legitimately benefit from them ourselves, they are meaningless until we use them to bless someone else.

Maybe you don’t feel like you have blessings to share. If so, could that be because you’re unfavorably comparing what you have to offer with other people’s gifts? If we can’t seem to find our gifts, maybe instead of looking inward at what we lack or sideways at what someone else has, we should look outward to see what other people need. If we want to feel the charge of the Spirit moving through us, we might have to establish contact with someone else to complete that circuit. Only by getting to know people do we learn what good needs to be done.

Comfort: You have something someone needs.

Challenge: Be open about your needs so that others might feel more comfortable letting you know about theirs.

Prayer:  I bless the LORD who gives me counsel; I keep the LORD always before me. (from Psalm 16)

Discussion: Have you ever assumed you knew what someone needed and later learned you were wrong?

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Good Luck, Bad Luck, Pot Luck


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11, 2 Kings 22:14-23:3, 1 Corinthians 11:23-34, Matthew 9:9-17

Today’s reading from 1 Corinthians is probably familiar to anyone who has celebrated communion in a Christian church. Paul’s recounting of Christ’s words over the bread and cup at the Last Supper are often called the Words of Institution, and are shared as a priest, minister, deacon, or elder breaks the bread.

In the early church, the symbolic or sacramental communion meal was frequently accompanied by a more literal meal, called an Agape Feast (that is, Love Feast). This meal was intended to be shared equally among everyone in attendance. Unfortunately the intent and practice of the meal soon parted ways. People who could bring the most ended up gorging themselves while others got little, and the wine flowed more freely than it should have. Paul reprimanded the church community at Corinth, reminding them of the purpose for these meals, and to keep their lustier appetites in check.

In modern churches, communion is usually a dignified event, but the tendency for some people to think they have more right to the community’s resources and decision-making because they bring more to the table can linger. In some congregations the currency of influence is literal cash, but it can also be seniority, sweat equity, piety, or other factors. When we have contributed much, we can struggle to remember what it means for the first to be last.

Matthew tells us of another meal where Jesus, much to the dismay of the Pharisees, deliberately sat and ate with tax collectors (Jewish people in the employ of their Roman oppressors) and sinners. Though he owed them no explanation, he said “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” Jesus extended compassion, grace, and mercy where the religious – the righteous – would not. At other times Jesus did eat with Pharisees, but unlike the tax collector crowd they needed to be reminded they too were sinners, just a different variety.

When we break bread with Jesus, regardless of the size of our contributions or self-righteousness, we are all equal. Our present fortunes, for good or ill, do not make us more or less beloved by God. We are called not to push our way to the head of the line for the largest portion, but to serve each other. As Paul advised the Corinthians, “when you come together to eat, wait for one another.” Through the waiting we learn grace is not for those who deserve it, but those who need it. And that’s all of us.

Comfort: Jesus calls  not to the righteous, but sinners.

Challenge: Volunteer at a soup kitchen, food bank, or other charity.

Prayer:  Our soul waits for the LORD; he is our help and shield. Our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name. (Psalm 33:20)

Discussion: Do we have to admit to being sinners before we can hear Christ’s call?

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I Will Follow You (Wherever You May Go)


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 147:12-20, 2 Samuel 15:1-18, Acts 21:27-36, Mark 10:32-45

Jesus wanted the disciples to be prepared for what was to come. In very plain language he predicted his death three times, yet the disciples did not seem to understand. On the third occasion he said:

See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.

In the very next paragraph, “James and John […] said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’” They asked to sit at his right and left hands in paradise.  Jesus had to decline, but it seems gracious that he humored them at all considering what he’d told just them. One paragraph following the next doesn’t mean quite a bit of time couldn’t have elapsed between them, but asking favors after that seems a little … self-involved.

Yet we can all be self-involved. Our calling is to follow Christ and share him with others, but some of the most popular Christian books and preachers focus on the “name it and claim it” gospel which teaches what Jesus can do for us. Church is for worshipping our God, but we often choose one based more on how good it makes us feel than how it challenges us to grow in the radical love and humility Christ requests of his disciples.

We don’t find that “peace which passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) by praying for trouble-free lives, but by following Jesus wherever he leads, including enemy territory. And that “perfect love which casts out fear” (1 John 4:18)? It doesn’t sprout in hearts that play it safe; we first must face the fear of loving those we find unlovable.

Following Christ is its own reward. Step by step we are transformed and grow less concerned about what Christ can do for us, and more about how we can serve him.

Comfort: Following Christ transforms us. 

Challenge: Keep a journal about how following Christ changes you.

Prayer: Loving God, I set my face towards Christ. May my discipleship glorify your name. Amen.

Discussion: What’s the difference between a selfish prayer, and a prayer for yourself?

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The Competition


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, 1 Samuel 19:1-18 (19-24), Acts 12:1-17, Mark 2:1-12

We are a competitive species. In business, politics, love, art, sports, entertainment – you name it! – we  love to rank and rate ourselves. Whether we want to have the number one sales in our region, achieve first chair in the cello section, or win the Super Bowl, our competition helps us thrive by showing us what is possible and inspiring us to do better.

Of course competition has its uglier side. When winning becomes more important than succeeding, we can be lured into underhanded tactics and unhealthy obsessions. If our self worth depends on being the best, it will be impossible to maintain. We can’t experience our present joy if on the way up all we see is someone in front of us, or if we once we get to the top we obsess over the person gaining on us.

Saul had what we might call an extremely unhealthy sense of competition. David’s great successes in winning both military victories and the hearts of the king’s family settled in the darker corners of Saul’s heart. The king began to see David less as an ally and more as a threat. His plots against David launched a vicious cycle as each backfired and the boy grew even more beloved. David’s achievements all brought glory and love to the house of Saul, but Saul only saw an opponent.

They say to be nice to people we meet on the way up, because we’ll meet them again on the way down. As Saul spiraled out of control and pursued David to kill him, he ran into a group of prophets and involuntarily began to prophesy with them. This recollects an almost identical incident when he was first called to be king. The earlier encounter raised his stature, and the later thwarted his purpose.

Competition is only half a coin. The other side is cooperation. Whatever we do, we do it not for our own glory but for God’s. Ultimately we are all on the same team, running the same race. If we win, it’s time to go back and help others cross the line.

Additional Reading:
Read more about Psalm 42 in God Will Wait and Deep Calls to Deep.
For additional readings from today’s passage from Mark, see Raise the Roof and Forgiveness First.
For more thoughts on today’s passage from Acts, see Timing is Everything.

Comfort: God wants you to be the best you, not the best everything.

Challenge: Make a list of things you wish you were better at. Meditate on whether being better at them also helps you serve God better.

Prayer: I will praise the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long (Psalm 146:2)

Discussion: Do you think of yourself as competitive? Why or why not?

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