Made to be Broken

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Jeremiah 16:(1-9) 10-21, Romans 7:1-12, John 6:1-15


You’ve probably heard the saying “Rules were made to be broken.” The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, phrased it a little differently: “if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” It seems like wonderful news that the law, fulfilled in Christ, no longer condemns us. Isn’t that the kind of freedom we desire?

One might think so, yet we seem eager to impose new laws. Over the years Christians have forbidden everything from dancing to haircuts. We’ve twisted religion to enforce cultural traditions as though they were divine rules. Why do this? Maybe because it’s so much easier to understand and navigate a system of laws rather than a commandment to love.

But this isn’t the only reason it’s harder to accept living under grace than living under the law. Accepting grace means accepting a God of unconditional love. That means God is willing to forgive people we’d rather He didn’t: ex-spouses, people who’ve wronged us, terrorists, etc. In the story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet wanted God to withhold forgiveness so badly that God had to deliver him to his enemies in Nineveh via the belly of a giant fish. There’s a little Jonah in all of us. Knowing God will forgive people we can’t (or won’t) rubs us the wrong way, so we return to the law even if God hasn’t.

It’s not like we’re any easier on ourselves. If we were eager to believe we could be unconditionally loved and forgiven, therapists would go out of business. The world teaches us we must prove ourselves in order to be valued. Jesus tells us we are already valued, and asks us to live lives that prove it. Sometimes we have to untie a lifetime of spiritual and psychological knots before are free to believe that. But once we are able to embrace it, we want it for others as well.

Maybe rules were made to be broken, but we were not. God desires wholeness for each of us. Christ teaches us how to mend our souls – to sand down the jagged edges and mend the cracks – by tending to each other’s brokenness. When the law is love, the penalty is more love.

Comfort: God’s love is unconditional.

Challenge: If you can’t bring yourself to forgive someone, at least pray for them.

Prayer: Gracious and Merciful God, I am humbled by and grateful for your love. Amen.

Discussion: Do you really believe God loves you unconditionally? Why or why not?

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Here’s your sign.

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 84; 150, Jeremiah 14:1-9 (10-16) 17-22, Galatians 4:21-5:1, Mark 8:11-21


For Jesus, signs were a double-edged sword. They demonstrated his authenticity, his power, and his priorities. However, for some people, the signs themselves became more important than his message. When the Pharisees asked him for a sign to test him, “he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, ‘Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.’”

Just a little while later, when he tried to make a point about the influence of the Pharisees and Herod by comparing it to the contaminating properties of yeast, the disciples fixated on literal bread. Jesus asked why they were still talking about bread – had they forgotten all about how he fed not one but two multitudes with few resources but plenty of faith?

Aggravating circumstances often accompany his miracles: before he wants to reveal himself his mother goads him into changing water into wine at a wedding; the disciples are shocked he can feed a multitude with a few loaves and fishes … the second time; his closest friends doubt him even as he raises Lazarus from the dead; Peter begins to sink beneath the waves when he doubts the Christ who helps him walk across the water. Christ hopes for faith that doesn’t depend on miracles, yet sometimes he resigns himself to the “necessary evil” of providing a sign.

Many of us have hoped for signs. Who couldn’t use a little reassurance now and then? For some of us they provide a kick start to spiritual experience. But the real measure of faith is what we do in the absence of signs. How pleasing must it have been for Christ when peopled followed him not because of what he could do for them, but because of who he was and what he taught?

The second time the disciples presented him with loaves and fishes, he commanded them to feed the crowd themselves, and they were successful. Faith is not just believing in what Christ can do for us, but in trusting that he will accomplish miraculous things through us.

Comfort: God is with us regardless of whether we see signs.

Challenge: The next time you want to ask for a sign, try instead to pray for faithful discernment.

Prayer: Lord of all things, I will trust you always. Amen.

Discussion: How do you feel about signs?

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Looking for Loaves in All the Wrong Places

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Today’s readings (click below to open in a new tab/window):
Psalms 122; 149, Genesis 18:1-16, Hebrews 10:26-39, John 6:16-27


Carbs are the enemy of faith.

After miraculously feeding five thousand people with only five barley loaves and two fish, Jesus and his disciples waited until evening and moved across the Sea of Galilee from Tiberias to Capernaum. By morning the crowds had found them. Jesus declared to them: “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” The people craved the bread, yet didn’t understand the root of their hunger.

If we have poor eating habits, we often aren’t able to distinguish between cravings and hunger. We know we want something and turn to sugary, fatty foods for a quick fix. They are tasty and relieve our immediate needs, but only for a short time. The more we try to satisfy our hunger with carbs and fat, the more we crave, and in the long run we feel worse. Dieting often fails because instead of making a true lifestyle change as nutritionists advise, we turn to short-term solutions which focus on weight instead of health. When our goals are met, we drop our vigilance and unhealthy habits creep back in. It’s not entirely unlike a cycle where we berate ourselves for our sinfulness and try to overcome it through own strength rather than Christ’s, only to find ourselves in the same place when we can’t resist the cravings.

What’s the nutritional content of our faith? The prosperity gospel teaches us if we say the right prayers or tithe the right amount, we will be rewarded with material goods. Some churches are all about the entertainment value of a worship service because they value high attendance over deep experience. Designed for high volume and low quality, these are more business model than ministry – fifty million served, but not called to serve. Christ calls us to a lifestyle change. He doesn’t tell us what we want to hear or what makes us feel good; he tells us about the food of eternal life. Jesus’s lean meats and broccoli may not sound as much fun as hot fudge Sundays, but he’s saving our lives.

Comfort: The more faithfully we follow Christ, the less we crave the things that don’t feed our spirits.

Challenge: Clean your spiritual cupboard; meditate on discarding teachings that prey on your cravings and filling yourself with those that satisfy eternally.

Prayer: Lord, I will rely on your strength rather than my own. Amen.

Discussion: What do you crave that you know isn’t good for you?

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All Good Gifts

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Today’s readings (click to open in new window):
Psalms 96; 146, 2 Samuel 23:13-17b, 2 John 1:1-13, John 2:1-11

In the Gospel of John, Jesus performs his first miracle (John calls them “signs”) at a wedding in the town of Cana. At his mother’s urging,  he reluctantly turns water into wine because the wedding has run out. The chief steward of the reception, upon tasting the wine that was formerly water, tells the bridegroom: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” This tells us a lot about the nature of generosity and giving.

It tells us God’s gifts are top quality – always! When a prayer isn’t answered how we want or expect, or when God calls us to do something difficult or unpleasant, the problem is not with the gift. When we feel like asking “Is this really what you meant to give me, Lord?” the problem may lie in our perception. Not that every hardship is a gift in disguise; God certainly doesn’t give us cancer or domestic violence. But if we approach life as though the Spirit is nudging us toward wholeness, invaluable life lessons and spiritual riches abound. When someone gifts us with lessons – music, tennis, foreign language – the gift is only valuable after we have put the work in.

What about gifts we give? Do we hold back the good wine? While we can’t give beyond our means, we shouldn’t cheap out because we are giving to charity. We’ve all heard: “They should be grateful to get anything at all” and we’ve all seen 10 year old cans of cocktail onions on food drive collection tables. The point is not to judge the giving of others, but to be faithful about our own. We don’t know when someone is giving despite their own need, and we should be wise about stewarding our funds, but when we are giving in Christ’s name let’s keep in mind that in God’s eyes the recipients are no more or less deserving than we are. The good wine – or at least the best wine we can afford to share – is for everyone.

Comfort: God’s gifts to us are never lacking.

Challenge: For one week, set aside a food bank donation (in cash or kind) equivalent to your own lunches. At the end of the week, note whether the donation came out of your excess, or whether you had to scale back a little to give an equal amount. If your present circumstances don’t permit for donations, try splitting your leisure time evenly between your own activities and helping others.

Prayer: Lord, teach me to be generous, and to give with a loving heart. Amen.

Discussion: We can have complex feelings around gift-giving, especially when they feel obligatory, such as during the holidays. How do you feel about gift giving?

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Red Skies

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 36; 147:12-20, Nehemiah 6:1-19, Revelation 19:1-10, Matthew 16:1-12


“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.
Red sky at morning, sailors take warning.”

There’s some truth behind this ancient maritime folklore. The red appearance of the sky – really the underside of clouds – has to do with several factors including the wavelengths of light, the amount of condensation and particles in the air, and weather patterns generally moving from west to east. However, long before we knew the scientific reasons, people spent centuries observing this pattern and using those observations to fairly reliably make predictions about their world.

This observation goes back thousands of years, predating Christ. He mentions it to the Pharisees and Sadducees when they ask him for a sign: “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.”

The only sign he is willing to offer them is the sign of Jonah (another famous seafaring reference), who after three days in the darkness of the belly of a great fish emerged to call the people of Nineveh to repentance. This is a bit of role reversal however. Jonah vigorously resisted God’s call to be a prophet while Jesus was obedient unto death, and the Ninevites were quick to repent while the Pharisees and Sadducees looked for ways to betray Jesus.

Do we ever ask for signs because we don’t want to face what’s obviously before us? As a species we are less swayed by truth than we are by emotion, and we can become very emotionally invested in a sign (or lack thereof). As a matter of fact, when faced with facts we don’t like we are more likely to dig in our heels than change our minds, and grasp at any straw supporting our position. Is it ever more obvious than when debate about political and social issues rapidly abandons facts for emotional and tribal attacks? And what gets really tricky is we’re all convinced we’re the ones being reasonable. The Pharisees and Sadducees thought they were protecting their fellow Jews by squashing what appeared to them a seditious movement.

When presented with new information, let’s try to be more repentant Ninevite and less inflexible Pharisee. If we spend too much effort searching the sky for those rare signs, we may just miss all the evidence right in front of us.

Comfort: The world is full of the wonder of God’s glory.

Challenge: Let’s look for it where it is, instead of trying to force it to be where we are looking.

Prayer: I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. (Psalm 27:13)

Discussion: Are there any subjects that make you defensive?

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Out of Thin Air

Today’s readings: Psalms 93; 147:1-11, 1 Kings 17:17-24, 3 John 1-15, John 4:46-54

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Why do miracles happen? American Christianity often portrays them as rewards for diligent prayer and great faith. The Gospel of John tells a different story. Jesus performed seven miracles – John called them “signs”- before he was crucified. The second was the healing of a royal official’s son. The official met Jesus in Cana, about 25 miles southwest from where his son lay dying in Capernaum, and asked Jesus to save him. While Jesus did heal the official’s son, his initial response seems almost perturbed: “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” Jesus was coerced by his mother into the first sign at the wedding in Cana, grumbled about the second, and things didn’t improve much for the next five.  When he raised Lazarus, he wept over his friends’ lack of faith. According to John, signs were performed for the unfaithful.

For some people, faith in God rests on miracles. Jesus, on the other hand, treated miracles as necessary disturbances to the natural order used to persuade people.  God’s presence is not extraordinary, but an ongoing relationship during ordinary life. Like air, it is a life-sustaining presence constantly surrounding us and within us. We don’t normally think about air unless we can’t breathe. John’s Jesus delivers miracles like he’s performing spiritual CPR on those who can no longer inhale God’s presence on their own.

Isn’t it better not to need it in the first place? Like air or water, our spiritual environment can become polluted. Sometimes we trash it ourselves, and sometimes we are downwind from the spiritually toxic. When our faith feels choked off, it may be time to start cleaning up and preventing more damage. This could be a slow process: anger, hate, greed, fear, and poisons like them take time to remove. They are dangerous and unpleasant to handle, but with God’s help handle them we must. The alternative is spiritual suffocation.

Still prefer to wait on a miracle? Neither miracles nor CPR are a permanent fix: if our habits don’t change, our old problems will return. God is always present; live clean and breathe deep.

Comfort: God is as close as the air we breathe.

Challenge: Take an inventory of what’s polluting your spiritual environment.