Discredit Check

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 34; 146, Jeremiah 25:8-17, Romans 10:1-13, John 9:18-41


After Jesus gave sight to a man who had been blind since birth, the Pharisees didn’t want to believe it happened. They called Jesus a sinner (because only sinners worked on the Sabbath) and claimed no sinner could have performed a miracle. They tried to deny the man had been born blind, but his parents, though too afraid to offer any explanations as to how he could see, testified he had indeed. They mocked and belittled him to try shaming him into recanting his story, but when he stuck to it they drove him out.

We don’t like it when the facts undermine our beliefs, so we’ll work very hard to discredit inconvenient truths.

Perhaps we want to believe the world has less bigotry than it does, so when we are confronted by it our first reaction is to explain it away, or to derail the conversation by attacking the messenger or the way the message is delivered. Many people will complain about a protest that turns violent or merely “disrespectful” without ever having complained about (or simply considered) the decades of injustices that precipitated it (and persist afterward).

Sometimes we dismiss someone’s story because it makes us uncomfortable: “oh no, our pastor wouldn’t do that” or “learn to take a joke” or “that’s just how men are.” We are gullible when we like a story and skeptical when we do not, but we should try to be inquisitive regardless.

Countless conflicts and injuries occur and reoccur because we are not willing to face facts we don’t like. Almost daily we can read news items about multiple people who had been silent (or silenced) coming forward to report a crime or injustice when one person is finally brave enough to speak up and another brave enough to listen.

Other people’s stories can be frightening because they contain the power to change our understanding of ourselves and our world. If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, doesn’t that include listening as we’d like to be listened to? Entering a difficult truth is like entering a dark room: it’s only scary until we turn on the Light.

Comfort: When you listen for someone’s truth, you help set them free.

Challenge: Whether you like or dislike a story, its most important element is the truth it contains.

Prayer: Lord of truth and light, teach me to be discerning and fair. Amen.

Discussion: How do you react when you feel like someone isn’t listening to you?

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Point of View

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 98; 150, Isaiah 62:6-7, 10-12, Hebrews 2:10-18, Matthew 1:18-25


Luke’s nativity story, which we read on Christmas, focuses on Mary, her faithful response to God, and her feelings about the birth of the Messiah. Now we read Matthew’s nativity story – a much shorter version which presents us mostly Joseph’s point of view. Reading both gives us a more complete picture of this story.

Luke says little about Joseph other than introducing him as Mary’s betrothed husband. He doesn’t mention Joseph’s internal struggles about the situation. Did Mary know about them? Matthew tells us that when Joseph learns Mary is pregnant, he decides to quietly divorce her. Under the law he would have been within his rights to punish her severely, but Matthew says Joseph is a righteous man with no desire to disgrace her. Perhaps Jesus remembered this bit of family lore when he stopped a crowd from stoning a woman caught in adultery.

An angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream, and explains the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Joseph stays married and raises the child as his own. This decision would have had repercussions long after it was made. People were just as skeptical of Virgin births and angelic dreams then as now. Gossip and whispers probably followed Joseph for a long time, though we don’t hear much more about him, except for how he keeps his young family safe.

Whatever your take on the virgin birth, this story can teach us a lot. We never really know how people arrive at decisions and situations. Our attempts to fill in the blanks are usually inaccurate at best, and judgmental at worst.

The person we think is a sucker for staying with a cheating spouse, or a young woman who got herself into trouble, or a hapless refugee family, has an entire backstory (or two, or twelve) that we don’t understand. They might not be raising the Messiah, but neither are we. Examining our own stories – the good and the bad – from different perspectives may just help us understand someone else’s story is not there for us to judge, but to hear. Joseph shows us righteousness is not always about seeking the fullest extent of punishment available under the law; it may just begin with taking time to learn the other person’s story.

Comfort: God knows your story.

Challenge: Think about someone you are prone to judge. How much of your judgment is based on what you know, and how much is supposition? Read this article on one school’s attempt to use restorative justice instead of defaulting to prescribed punishments.

Prayer: God of all stories, I will live my life for you alone. Amen.

Discussion: When have you found out your understanding of a situation was completely wrong?

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Love Story

Today’s readings:
Psalms 122; 145, Isaiah 5:8-17, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Luke 21:20-28


“The course of true love never did run smooth.”
– Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act I, Scene I

Every classic love story involves obstacles the lovers must overcome before finally reuniting. Whether it’s warring houses a la Romeo and Juliet, or Heath Ledger’s bad boy reputation in 10 Things I Hate About You (a modern take on The Taming of the Shrew), problems both tragic and comedic arise. The basic storyline has become cliched if not outright hackneyed, yet its appeal endures.

Maybe that’s because history’s ultimate love story, that between God and humanity, has repeated this pattern over and over. In this case though the obstacles are all one-sided. We repeatedly abandon God, but God never abandons us. It may feel that way when the fallout of our actions leaves us in an unGodly place – whether metaphorically or in the case of Isaiah’s exiled audience quite literally – but God never initiates the “breakup.”

If today’s readings about destruction were part of a dramatic plot structure, we’d be squarely in the middle of Act IV: the lovers who thought they were destined to be together forever have been torn apart by [insert plot point here]. Ironically the party who seems to hold all the cards – in this story, God – is actually the one helplessly wounded by the split. We are undone by our own pride and foolishness and must suffer terrible consequences we were warned to avoid. We know that in the end love triumphs in the person of Jesus Christ, but during Advent – and all the Advent-like seasons of our lives – we live into the uncertain waiting.

We are called to ever deeper levels of communion with God, and this season encourages us to examine the personal and communal obstacles we need to address before that can happen. As the cycle of obstacles continues, so does the cycle of reunion; at Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and at various points in our lives when we reach Act V, we are reunited with God. God has assured us this great story ends with great Love, so hang in there until the last act. Be sure to stick around until the credits roll!

Comfort: Your love story with God has a happy ending.

Challenge: Meditate on what obstacles  you may be creating  in your relationship with God.

Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for your unconditional love. I will do my best to return it every day. Amen.

Discussion: Are there any obstacles you have a habit of inserting into your relationships?

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You are the man!

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David and Nathan, Jacob Backer

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 84; 148, 2 Samuel 12:1-14, Acts 19:21-41, Mark 9:14-29


After David arranged for the death of his loyal soldier Uriah to steal Uriah’s wife, the prophet Nathan dropped by for a visit and told the story of a rich many with many flocks and herds, and a poor man with a single, dearly treasured ewe. The rich man does not want to slaughter any of his own sheep to feed an unexpected guest, so he takes the poor man’s ewe. An infuriated David, interpreting this story literally, declares, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die!”

Nathan responds, “You are the man!”

Now Nathan’s story isn’t long, but we aren’t far in before wondering at what point David is going to realize it’s a parable about himself. Yet somehow he needs to be bludgeoned with the obvious.

This event illustrates the folk wisdom that traits we dislike in other people are actually traits we dislike about ourselves. David doesn’t seem conscious of this, but wouldn’t a man after God’s heart have to know on some level how badly he’d messed up? Powerful stories hold a mirror up to our own experiences, so our reactions to them teach us a lot about ourselves.

In modern parlance “You are the man!” often has a more positive connotation. We say it when someone helps us out or impresses us. Is it possible that, just as we may subconsciously see our weaknesses in others and in stories, we may also unwittingly recognize some of our better qualities? Maybe the kick-butt sci-fi heroine fans the tiny spark of holy rebel inside us. Or perhaps we admire our friend who spends her Saturdays at the food bank because it reminds us of the generosity we are capable of.

Only a minuscule fraction of what happens in the world is actually about us, but it all has something to teach us. When we learn to recognize our commonalities, we are less likely to do things like … say … murder a friend to bed his wife. Or ignore those in need.

If someone tells you, “You are the man!” … which will it mean?


Additional Reading:
For thoughts on today’s reading from Acts, see Threats Both Foreign and Domestic.

Comfort: None of us are perfect; God loves and uses us anyway.

Challenge: Meditate on what your favorite books or movies might teach you about yourself.

Prayer: Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me. (Psalm 25:4-5)

Discussion: If the phrase was “You are the woman!” would you find that more, less, or equally relatable? Why?

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Stories of Survival

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 51; 148, 1 Samuel 21:1-15, Acts 13:13-25, Mark 3:7-19a


If you joined David in the middle of his story, you might not realize he was the hero. He lies to a priest about being on a special mission from the king to get him to hand over the holy bread normally reserved for temple rituals. Yes he was hungry, but was sacrilege his only option? Then he tricks the priest into giving him the very sword he took when he slew Goliath. When he feels he is in danger of being exposed, he pretends to be mad by committing vandalism and drooling all over himself. Over the next few chapters he’ll employ deception several times, until eventually to save his own skin he commits himself to the service of the enemies of Israel.

Because we know his story from the beginning, we are sympathetic to his reasons for lying, stealing, and deceiving in order to survive.

Are our attitudes as generous towards people we actually know?

The vast majority of people we meet are in the middle of their stories. It’s not always a flattering chapter. Like David, they may be doing what they believe they need to do to get by. When the little lies work for David, he starts to tell bigger ones. People return to the survival mechanisms that get results, and if they have had difficult lives, what they’ve learned may seem wrong or unthinkable. Our choices make sense to us because we know our own stories and motivations, but to someone else they may seem terrible.

If we haven’t had therapy we probably aren’t aware of our own survival mechanisms, yet we all have them. Even when we are aware, overcoming the unhealthy, ill-advised, or sinful ones can be difficult to impossible. While human beings rank these behaviors in a hierarchy of evil, whatever separates us from God is sin.

Our choices make sense to us because we know our own stories and motivations. When other people’s choices don’t make sense, we don’t have to accept them but we have better options than condemning. We can love until better choices seem like valid options.


Additional Reading:
Read more about today’s passage from Mark in Rocks, Thunder, and Dough.

Comfort: The story of your life isn’t defined by its worst chapter.

Challenge: When people disappoint or hurt you, try to understand what might disappoint or hurt them.

Prayer: Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. (Psalm 51:1)

Discussion: When have you been surprised to learn “the rest of the story?”

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And then … ?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 412 146, Hosea 7:8-16, Acts 23:12-24, Luke 7:1-17


One hallmark of a good storyteller is knowing the best times to begin and end the story. Start too soon and people tune out; start too late and the setup may confuse them. Ending at the right time leaves the reader satisfied, yet longing for more; ending later than needed dilutes the impact of the story. The author of Luke, who many scholars agree is also the author of Acts, certainly knows how to keep a story moving.

In Capernaum, Jesus encounters a Roman centurion whose beloved slave is ill. Jesus is amazed by the faith of the centurion, who needs no more reassurance than Jesus’s word that the man will be healed, and so he is. A little later in the town of Nain, Jesus feels compassion for a widow who is preparing to bury her only son. Jesus raises the young man back to life.

In Jerusalem, Paul’s nephew overhears a plot involving more than forty men who have sworn to neither eat nor drink until they have ambushed and killed Paul, who is currently in the custody of the Roman tribune. The tribune, who wishes to protect Paul because he is a Roman citizen, organizes hundreds of men to usher Paul safely to Caesarea.

These stories offer lots of action, and leave us wondering: “What next?”

Who was this slave, that he was so important to the centurion? How did the neighbors feel about living next door to the widow and her formerly dead son? When did those forty conspirators decide it was time to eat again?

We could shrug these questions off as unanswerable, but our speculation could teach us a lot about ourselves. They might reveal whether we are optimists or pessimists. Or whether we really think people can change. Maybe they could help us explore what we believe about how and when the divine intersects with the ordinary.

Biblical stories, like all great stories, are about more than the events described. If we open the gift of our imagination, they tell us – and help us discover for ourselves – deeper truths of the human condition.

Comfort: A good story lasts long after it ends.

Challenge: Pick one of today’s stories, or other stories from the Bible which have unanswered questions, and discuss the possible outcomes with friends.

Prayer: God of infinite imagination, teach me to see the deep truths of your amazing world. Amen.

Discussion: Is there a story – Biblical or otherwise – that leaves you wondering what happens next?

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(Don’t) Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 105; 147:12-20, Judges 14:1-19, Acts 6:15-7:16, John 4:27-42


What stories do you like to read or hear over and over again?

Storytelling is one of the most universal aspects of human experience. It serves many functions. Stories like those shared at wakes and funerals can comfort us. Family stories shape our personal identities. Cultural stories, like folk tales, myths, and legends help us make sense of the world in a way hard facts can’t. The author of Psalm 105 and the apostle Stephen both make use of the story of Israel, but to different ends.

The psalmist tells the story of Israel to reassure her people of God’s constant, loving presence. From God’s promise to Abraham that he would be a father of nations, through the arrival in and exodus from Egypt, to the arrival in the promised land, the central theme of the story – as the psalmist tells it – is God’s faithfulness to the people. Part of the joy of hearing a beloved story is anticipation of the familiar elements, and the psalmist certainly hits some well known crowd pleasers, like Joseph in Egypt and the ten plagues. A master storyteller, the psalmist does not make random choices, but carefully uses words and images to reinforce the theme of the story. By the end, listeners know they are a community of the Lord.

Stephen talks about the same events. However, because his intent is to build a case for Christ as the Messiah, he frames the events very differently. As the story unfolds we hear him describe Israel’s initial rejection of her major heroes – from Abraham to Joseph to Moses. He wants to convince the religious authorities they are making the same mistake with Christ. The different themes of the psalmist’s story and Stephen’s story clearly demonstrate the importance of not just the story, but the telling.

Stories tell us who we are by telling us who we’ve been, or who we believe we’ve been. We tell them to pass along our identities and cultures. Over time stories build on themselves and, their meanings can change. Each of us is shaped by and shapes the ongoing Christian story.

Comfort: A good story, like the ones in the Bible, never grows old.

Challenge: Read or listen to multiple sources of news, such as CNN, Fox, the BBC, and Al Jazeera. How does each tell the stories of the day differently?

Prayer: God of healing, thank you for the story of your love for us. Amen.

Discussion: What story do you like to hear or tell?

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