Float

Today’s readings:
Psalms 123; 146, Isaiah 44:9-20, Ephesians 4:17-32, Mark 3:19b-35


Stepping into faith is like walking with fists full of gold coins into a deep lake. The first few steps are invigorating – a refreshing dip for our weary soles. The sand may slip and shift beneath our feet, but if we feel unsteady the familiar shore is only a stumble away. As we go deeper, we feel more buoyant, lifted by a force far greater than ourselves.

But at a certain point, perhaps around the point the water becomes level with our hearts, we begin to notice the drag of those gold coins. And now we have to choose: settle for going no further, turn back in defeat, keep going and drown … or start getting rid of the gold.

Those gold coins have names engraved on them. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells us some of those names: theft, corruption, lust, falsehood, bitterness, wrath, slander, anger, malice. Maybe we’re having difficulty letting go of them; they seemed so valuable so useful! on the shore. We want to hold onto them in case these living waters won’t really support us, but it’s the holding on that makes us seem like we’re slipping under the waves.  Their illusion of safety ultimately leads to the deep, cold darkness.

Maybe we’re feeling foolish for not leaving them on the shore, or for forgetting our hands were not empty. The good news is, we can open our fists at any time. If we let these waters swallow our burdens, we will feel lighter. More free. Risen. Can we let go?

For an instant we let them drag us below the surface. We are suspended between two worlds – one that offers a familiar, inevitable death, and one that promises life if only we grab it … and nothing else. Each finger we uncurl, each coin we release, is a movement toward life. As the last coin slips between our fingers, we break the surface.

Hands free, we can spread our arms, lay back, and relax into the gentle surface of the lake and the certainty it will cradle us … and let the face of the sun shine upon us.

Comfort: The Living Waters of Christ will sustain  you.

Challenge: Grab a handful of coins. Name them for the things you need to let go in order to rest in Christ, and throw them in a lake or fountain.

Prayer: God of the Living Waters, let my spirit rest in you. Amen.

Discussion: What are some things you need to let go of?

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Only Tenants

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab / window):
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Lamentations 2:1-9, 2 Corinthians 1:23-2:11, Mark 12:1-11


The Parable of the Tenants is a difficult story, which forces us to confront our unwillingness to put God’s desires above our own. A landowner entrusts his vineyard to tenants while he travels abroad. After the harvest the landowner dispatches servants to collect his share, but the tenants greet the servants with violence that ranges from beatings to murder. Finally the landowner sends his son, and they kill him too.

In the common interpretation of this story the landowner is God, the tenants are the appointed religious leaders, the vineyard is Israel, the servants are prophets of the past, and the son is Jesus. The leaders hold the people captive and forget the true head of the vineyard is God. They destroy any and all who oppose their claim to power, even those sent by the true owner. The death of the son foretells the crucifixion.

Contrast this parable with the second chapter of 2 Corinthians. The Biblical narrative tells us Paul visited Corinth three times. The first visit was to establish the church. The second one – which he refers to in his letter as “the painful visit” – was to reprimand church leadership for acting immorally. One man seems to have been particularly troublesome. In this letter, Paul says he is not going to visit again at this time precisely because he feels his corrections had been too harsh and wants to avoid causing any more pain for the church or himself. He asks the Corinthians to forgive the troublesome man and punish him no longer.

When Paul realized his approach was not true to his mission … he gave it back to God. A more stubborn man might have dug in his heels and justified his actions, maybe even returned to Corinth to double down. Paul knew spreading the Gospel was more important than defending himself. Refusing to surrender his plot of land might have broken the Corinthian church. Whether our plot is a ministry, a family, or an actual vineyard, we are all only tenants tending it best we can until the time comes to give it back to God.

Comfort: You don’t have to tend the whole world…

Challenge: … but tend your plot well and surrender it timely.

Prayer: Generous and loving God, teach me to care for your world as you have called me to do, and grant me the humility to change and grow with your seasons. Amen.

Discussion: When does your urge to punish endanger your willingness to forgive?

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Unlocked

Old Key

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 135; 145, Isaiah 63:1-6, 1 Timothy 1:1-17, Mark 11:1-11


Paul had many words of advice for his young colleague Timothy, a budding evangelist carrying on Paul’s mission to spread the Gospel to the Gentiles. He warned Timothy to speak out against the heresies that were gaining popularity among the church at Ephesus.  One of these heresies was Gnosticism, or the belief that a few special people were privileged to learn secret knowledge about the true nature of God and Christ. Some people also obsessed over genealogies and myths because they believed these contained hidden messages and information.

We don’t really have Gnostic cults today, but there are still those who insist the Bible somehow contains secret knowledge that waits to be unlocked. We can read about alleged “Bible codes” which reveal ambiguous messages that can be found in any sufficiently long text, or special prayers that are cobbled together like magic spells to achieve specific results. Some churches even have levels of access that are supposedly revealed with spiritual maturity but seem directly related to the size of one’s donations.

These distractions from the true Gospel message have one thing in common: the illusion of control. For some people, knowing the secret codes gives them a sense of power over their own lives or the lives of others. In some cases, it even gives them a sense of  power over God, like having the PIN to a divine ATM.

One of the beauties of the Gospel is that it is free and accessible to all who would accept it. There is no monetary price of admission and no inner circle to penetrate. It is worth our lifelong study, and it is certainly to our benefit to seek wisdom from others who have studied it, but true bearers of the Gospel know it demands to be shared indiscriminately.

Some people – from conspiracy theorists to serious theologians – get so caught up in controlling the Gospel message that they forget to surrender to it. Of course we want to understand the Bible, but Jesus didn’t invite us to become Bible trivia experts; he invited us to follow him in loving one another.

Comfort: Jesus is eager to be revealed to you, not hiding in code.

Challenge: Don’t be seduced by the fads of faith.

Prayer: Thank you God for revealing yourself to us through Christ. Amen.

Discussion: What things do you try to control?

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Surrender

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 36; 147:12-20, Job 28:1-28, Acts 16:25-40, John 12:27-36a


For most people, surrender is a dirty word. Not just in war or sports, but in everyday life. Heaven forbid we not crush the gas pedal to pass and scowl at the driver who cut us off. We dare not end any argument, no matter how pointless or relationship-damaging, by simply withdrawing from it. Our business cannot simply succeed; it must out-perform or – better yet – eliminate its competition. We talk about loving our enemies, but we put it off until after we defeat them.

When an earthquake miraculously released Paul and Silas from unjust imprisonment, what would we have expected them to do? As their jailer was about to kill himself over his failure, they could have seized this opportunity to escape, but Paul cried out to stop him. Not exactly a move from the Jack Bauer playbook, is it? The jailer was so moved he fell at their feet, asked what he could do to be saved, and took them to his home, where Paul and Silas baptized his entire family.

Paul so loved his enemy (for who is your enemy if not your wrongful jailer?) he risked imprisonment and further beatings rather than see the man harm himself. Succumbing to Christ transformed Paul – who only months before had been hunting and jailing Christians – so drastically he was able to create converts by showing mercy in the face of injustice. Christ renewed Paul, who renewed the jailer, who renewed his family, and so on…

We all contain that same potential. To tap into it, we must surrender all that we are to Christ. We’re taught to never surrender, but there’s no getting around it. We surrender not from a position of weakness, but from a position of trust. What do we surrender? The grudge against the neighbor who always takes our parking space; the certainty we are the right kind of Christian; the status of socializing with the popular crowd; the fear of the different and the unknown.

Surrender is a lifelong process that doesn’t perfect us, but opens us to the possibilities available in God’s realm.

Comfort: God finds strength in our weakness.

Challenge: At the beginning of each week, select one thing – a grudge, a habit, a fear – to surrender to God.

Prayer: Compassionate God, thank you for the arms that hold me up. Amen.

Discussion: How does the idea of surrendering make you feel?

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Peace as Surrender

Today’s readings: Psalms 33; 146, Zechariah 2:1-13, Revelation 3:14-22, Matthew 24:32-44

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We are not generally fond of the term “surrender” unless it is preceded by “never.” Surrender implies loss, weakness, and cowardice. We lionize those who fight to the death rather than wave the white flag. Our concept of surrender is almost exclusively military, understood in terms of victory or defeat … and ignoble defeat at that.

Maybe that is why we struggle to surrender to God. When we end a prayer for a new job or a good health report with “if it’s God’s will” … doesn’t a small part of us hope God is taking the hint? Truly surrendering to God’s will is a terrifying prospect. One critique of Christians is that we show weakness of character by claiming everything is God’s will to dodge responsibility. Might it be closer to the truth to say we are good at paying lip service to God’s will, but not so good at actually accepting it? Can we really even claim to understand what “God’s will” means? In reality, it takes much courage to surrender ourselves to God; to do so is to risk total annihilation of our own identities.

Except it never seems to turn out that way. When we truly make the effort to surrender ourselves – or even one tiny problem – to God, we find our burdens lightened and our real selves rising to the surface. Does “the effort to surrender” sound like an oxymoron? Isn’t surrender the opposite of doing something? If you’ve tried it, you know it’s not just an effort but an ongoing effort. When we learn to surrender daily, we finally find peace.

Psalm 33 tells us great armies, superior strength, and the mightiest resources ultimately do not save us. Our victory – our peace – lies in trusting the Lord. It’s so easy to convince ourselves our own plans must be God’s plans, and then because we can’t tell the difference, our disappointment robs us of our peace. C.S. Lewis said of prayer: “It doesn’t change God – it changes me.” Let us pray with an attitude of surrender, and trust God to reveal to us our best and most peaceful selves.

Comfort: We can trust that God accepts our surrender with our best interests at heart.

Challenge: What is one problem you need to surrender to God? Put in the work to let it go.