More Than A Feeling

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 33; 146, Isaiah 5:18-25, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28, Luke 21:29-38


Yesterday we looked at the relationship between God and humanity as a love story cycling from estrangement to reunion. Today’s reading from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians also addresses love, but more how to express the practical sort of love we are called to implement in our community. This type of love, also known as agape or charitable love, is not about affection, but about action. When Paul advises his audience not to repay evil with evil but to do kindness always, note he does not add “and you have to like each other while you do it.” One of the attributes of Christian love is that we strive do right by others no matter how we feel in the moment.

Our pop psychology culture emphasizes the preeminence of feelings. Reality shows and bad therapy model a brand of emotional purging that may be cathartic for us, but which may also leave many floundering in our emotional wake. Rising above our emotions may even earn us the title of “hypocrite.” We should be careful not to buy into the notion that our emotions define us or should define our actions. Good therapists and wise spiritual leaders teach us there is a deeper self that lies beneath our emotions. When Paul asks us to repay evil with kindness (and he asks us this because Jesus asked first), he is encouraging us to engage that deeper, truer self. The love of God that is the foundation of the deeper self may sometimes be experienced through emotions, but it precedes and follows any emotional expression, and it never promotes the self at the expense of others.

We act in love toward others because they are beloved of God, not because we are fond of them, or because charitable actions “feel” good. However, we can reap spiritual benefits from these actions, especially if our actions are loving when our gut is not. In a culture that encourages us to let feelings guide our choices, it’s easy to forget that our choices also mold our feelings. Acting in love transforms us into loving people who reflect the love of God. What more could we aspire to?

Comfort: You are stronger than a collection of feelings.

Challenge: Read some books or articles on managing emotions.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for giving me the ability to be better than I feel I am. Amen.

Discussion: What emotions do you have the most trouble controlling?

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Accounting 101

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 92; 149, Leviticus 23:23-44, 2 Thessalonians 3:1-18, Matthew 7:13-21


Near the end of his second letter to the church in Thessalonica, Paul addressed the complaint that some believers were not doing their fair share, but were idle busybodies: “Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.” He reminded the church of his earlier lesson: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” Remember that the early church lived in close community, pooling their resources and distributing them according to need. Any resources that went to support the idle among them could not be put to better use by helping the poor.

When we commit ourselves to Christ, we can’t just say we believe the right things and think our responsibility ends there.

We are responsible to the greater body, which is in turn responsible to Christ’s mission. If we grow lax, are we willing to be subject to Paul’s additional advice that other believers avoid us until we step it up? It sounds harsh, and is not a very politically correct sentiment, but sometimes consequences are necessary to drive change. Note that Paul does not say to force idlers from the community or to regard them as enemies, but to “warn them as believers.” A community depends on everyone doing their part.

It is important to remember that not all of us will be able to contribute equally in all ways, but all of our contributions should be equally valued for what they are. Just as it is in the workplace,  a call to accountability is not a punishment but a statement of trust. The flip side of this social contract is our willingness to be sensitive to what people can and can not do, and what resources they do or do not have. Would it make sense to ask the accountant to fix the furnace, or the facilities manager to keep the books? No, and we’d be setting them up to fail.  That sensitivity also applies to considering someone’s “fair share;” demanding what others can’t supply, or resenting them for not supplying it, does not serve Christ, only our own egos.

Do what you should. Lovingly hold accountable those who do not. Accept corrections as appropriate. These practices help build a health body that will bear healthy fruit.

Comfort: It’s OK – even desirable – to hold others accountable.

Challenge: It’s OK for others to hold you accountable.

Prayer: God of justice, teach me to do my fair share, to help others do theirs, to appreciate the gifts of others, and to honor their limitations. Amen.

Discussion: How do you determine whether someone is doing their fair share? Does that mean they must be doing an equal share?

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Gleaning Compassion

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Leviticus 19:1-18, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28, Matthew 6:19-24


Sometimes it can feel difficult to reconcile the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New Testament. Even if we consider Christ’s sacrifice a watershed event (the moment when we were freed from the law and its harsh demands), the God who wiped out entire nations to make room for the Israelites seems very far from the God of Christ who wants us to love our enemies. But even in the hundreds of laws laid out in Leviticus and Deuteronomy we see glimpses of Christ’s teachings.

Amid rules like being cast out for eating sacrificed food after three days, God commands his people not to harvest to the edge of their fields, and not to pick up the fallen crops and grapes. This is so the poor and alien among them – those whom Jesus might call “the least of these” – can find food. This practice, called gleaning, was a mandate to the nation. God tells his people to render justice impartially, without regard to poverty or wealth, foreshadowing Paul’s message that in Christ there is no slave or free. Perhaps most tellingly, God instructs them to “love your neighbor as yourself.” When most people use that phrase they’re thinking of the Gospels, not rule-laden Leviticus.

In 1 Thessalonians Paul advises: “test everything; hold fast to what is good.” When tackling difficult portions of the Old Testament, the standard against which we can test them is Christ’s message of love. Even though Christ tells us to refrain from judgment, we must be careful not to set the standard as “all is forgiven so anything goes.” The Old Testament, even the parts that seem barbaric by modern standards, contains many valuable lessons and we do ourselves a disservice if we dismiss or ignore them. At the very least, they help us understand how our perception of and relationship to God has evolved over the years.

Paul also tells them “to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.” From gleaners to Thessalonians, in every age God teaches us to love and care for all his children.

Comfort: God always loves us.

Challenge: Be open-minded about weakness, whether yours or another’s.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for allowing me to test all things. Teach me what is good, that I may hold fast to it. Amen.

Discussion: Are you patient with people you see as weak, idle, or fearful? What weaknesses do you have that you wish you could hide from others?

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Balancing Act

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 98; 146, Leviticus 16:20-34, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 6:7-15


Paul told the Thessalonians the Day of the Lord would arrive like a thief in the night or the pains of labor. Those living in darkness – that is, without the light of Christ – would be caught unawares in a false sense of security and suffer the consequences. Those living in the light would be prepared and rejoice. But how exactly is one to prepare? First century Christians expected Jesus to return any moment, and abandoned many earthly pursuits. As a couple thousand years passed, it became more apparent Christ’s return would be less … immediate.

Every century – maybe every decade – had its share of “prophets” declaring the end was nigh. So far they are batting triple zero. Even today some Christians believe Jesus is returning so soon it may be foolish to buy groceries a week in advance. Most of us are a little more skeptical. Should we be?

Living in anticipation of the Day of the Lord is a balancing act. On the one hand, experience says we probably have a way to go, and should steward our resources wisely. On the other hand, any one of us could meet Jesus tomorrow, if only individually. Does anyone want to have to explain why that never-touched rainy day fund was a better use of our money than charity would have been?

Perhaps that tension is useful. When we lose that sense of immediacy, it’s easy to slip into a comfortable routine which resembles resignation more than anticipation. If we’re so zealous that we focus only on “the end times,” we lose sight of doing the things Christ asked us to do – feed the hungry, visit the sick, etc. A while back there was a popular humorous but pointed bumper sticker: “Jesus is coming. Try to look busy.” Are we merely busy, or are we about the business of discipleship? If Jesus shows up today, would you be happy with where he finds you? If we live today as through Christ could show up tomorrow, and he doesn’t … let’s try not to be too disappointed we’ve made the world a little better.

Comfort: Whether Jesus returns tomorrow or in a thousand years, the Kingdom of God is at hand.

Challenge: Set aside some time to contemplate or discuss the balance between faith and works in world waiting for Christ’s return.

Prayer: Eternal God, thank you for the promise of the future, and the opportunity of the present. Amen.

Discussion: Where can you strike a better balance between what is practical and what is faithful?

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The Nitty Gritty

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Exodus 33:1-23, 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12, Matthew 5:17-20


In many ways, our culture teaches us to win at all costs. From underhanded but effective political tactics to reality television featuring treacherous alliances and double-crosses, we can easily find ourselves celebrating victory more than integrity. For Paul it was not so: he trusted the integrity of his message was itself enough to bring people to Christ. Yet even the church can succumb to a little bait and switch, exaggerating joys and minimizing challenges to get people in the doors.

When we try to make ourselves seem better than we are, ironically we undermine the Good News. “Sunday Best” doesn’t refer only to our attire – we bring our best attitudes, best behavior, and best versions of our lives. We often assume that everyone else’s “best” presentation of their lives is the whole truth when in reality they may be struggling as badly or worse than we are. Together we perpetuate the myth that Christians must be eternally cheerful and optimistic. The danger in all this window dressing is the subtle message that Jesus Club is meant for those who have it together, or who can get it together. Not only do we miss opportunities to support one another, we intimidate others from trying to join the body. Eventually the false front crumbles under the weight of our collective repression, and the world sees us as hypocrites.

What a relief it would be to share the gospel as Paul did! He admitted to being exhausted, mistreated, and quarrelsome. He bore his sufferings and flaws as a testament to Christ’s presence in his life. His message spoke to broken people who needed to know Christ … because he admitted he was broken and needed Christ. And not simply past-tense broken, but presently broken and constantly being saved. That friend undergoing an ugly divorce just might be more interested in hearing about how Jesus is with you as you battle depression than about the Jesus who blessed the congregation with the best bake sale turnout ever. When we stop showing people the Jesus we think they want to see, and show them the real Jesus in the trenches with us, the message is more than enough.

Comfort: God already knows your true self, so there’s no sense in hiding it from anyone else.

Challenge: Share your authentic self with your church family or faith community. In what ways does it help you, and in what ways does it help them?

Prayer: God of truth, I present my authentic self to you, knowing you are the answer to all my brokenness, and ask you to use it for your glory. Amen.

Discussion: In what ways does being honest about your life help you, and in what ways does it help others?

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Love Better

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Readings: Psalms 24; 150, Amos 6:1-14, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12, Luke 1:57-68


Traditionally the theme of the second week of Advent is Love. Often “love” evokes warm feelings of family, friends, and romance. However, depending on a person’s life circumstances, those feelings may be mixed with longing, loneliness, hope, and other emotions.

Sorting out feelings about feelings? Well, love is complicated. Advent adds yet another wrinkle: love as the world falls apart.

The prophet Amos and the apostle Paul both share harsh words about the future. Amos tells the people of Israel they have offended God so mightily that He is “raising up against you a nation, O house of Israel, […] and they shall oppress you from Lebo-hamath to the Wadi Arabah.” Paul in his second letter to the church in Thessalonica tells them they who do not obey the Gospel “will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” While these passages definitely drive home the message that God desires righteousness, they don’t much describe a God who define Love as a gooey confection of simple affection.

Except in these examples, God’s anger exists because people are too focused on false righteousness and not enough on love. The people of Israel were making ritual sacrifices like clockwork, but ignoring and exploiting the poor. “Obeying the Gospel” wasn’t about rules but about loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. These prophets warned us separation from God occurs when we fail to love God and each other.

Throughout the Bible, God sends warning after warning about the consequences of failing to love. He sends us Jesus so we may be reconciled to him in love, and before that sends us John the Baptist to tell us Jesus is on the way. Love is complicated. Think about your own relationships where love has been broken: it’s rarely a sudden snap, but a slow dissolution with opportunities for one or both sides to repent. God begs us to love better.

Advent is a season for reflecting on how well we love God and each other. Before the world falls apart, God call us to love. Afterward, it is the only thing that saves us.

Comfort: God loves us even in anger.

Challenge: Work on a relationship where love has been broken.

Prayer: Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. (Psalm 25:4-5)

Discussion: How has your understanding of love changed over time?

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