Spiritual Mentors


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 36; 147:12-20, Proverbs 21:30—22:6, 1 Timothy 4:1-16, Matthew 13:24-30

Have you ever had a mentor – a person who is purposeful about guiding your development? Mentors come in different flavors. Many businesses offer mentoring programs because it helps them promote and retain good talent, as well as foster a sense of the importance of passing along knowledge and experience. Social programs for youth, such as Big Sisters or Big Brothers, offer mentor programs to young people who lack positive adult role models. Some mentors, particularly those in artistic communities, may act in a less official capacity but still impart wisdom and raise the bar for young performers and artists through collaborative efforts.

Good mentors don’t try to create younger versions of themselves, or have preconceived notions of who you should be. They coach and guide you to explore the best path for you, provide honest feedback, and get you to hold yourself accountable for your progress. They do more listening than speaking.

Have you ever had a spiritual mentor? Paul filled this role for his young protege Timothy. He offered Timothy advice and encouragement. Perhaps more importantly he trusted him to act independently, and treated mistakes as opportunities for learning rather than reasons for punishment. Our record of their relationship is through Paul’s surviving letters, which of course reveal only one side of the conversation. If he was like other successful mentors, Paul wasn’t pontificating because he liked the sound of his own voice (or of his scratching pen); he was responding to Timothy’s questions and concerns. An effective mentoring relationship depends very much on what contributions the student brings to the relationship; it is not a monologue by the mentor but a conversation fueled by the student’s questions, enthusiasm, and curiosity.

Mentors themselves benefit from being mentored. There’s always someone we can learn from. It’s worth taking the time to invest in these relationships. Wherever we are on our spiritual journey, someone has already been through it. Their guiding hand can help us to navigate familiar territory, thereby freeing us to progress further and faster. The ultimate responsibility of mentors is to coach their students enough not to need them.

You could use a mentor. You could be a mentor. You could do both. A simple conversation gets the ball rolling.

Comfort: Seeking guidance is not a sign of weakness, but of maturity.

Challenge: When you are challenged in your faith or spiritual growth, don’t depend on only yourself to get through it.

Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for the wisdom of the collected Body of Christ. Teach me to listen to it, teach me to add to it. Amen.

Discussion: A mentor is generally not a direct superior or a parent. What are the advantages of picking someone who isn’t “in charge” of you?

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No Time Like The Present

honor and glory

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 135; 145, Proverbs 10:1-12, 1 Timothy 1:1-17, Matthew 12:22-32

Paul did not start out sympathetic to Christians. He was born to  Jewish parents with Roman citizenship, an unusual status. As a devout Jew he considered followers of Jesus a threat both to both the faith and to the relatively secure status of Jews under Roman occupation. For years he persecuted Christians, literally hunting them down and delivering men and women for imprisonment and execution. As he wrote to Timothy: “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.”

Yet he was the greatest evangelist in the history of the church.

Can you imagine the resistance Paul faced from other Christians as he began his ministry? He was the embodied scourge of Rome across the backs of those who followed Christ. Why would anyone believe him when he said he was reformed? When people claim to change their minds or begin to behave differently, we suspect insincerity and our suspicions are often confirmed. But Paul persevered despite his critics, who included such important Christian figures as Peter. The zeal which had once driven him as “a man of violence” had been redirected.

If God could reform a villain like Paul, the rest of us should have great hope indeed.

When we try to change for the better, people will inevitably bring up our pasts and question our credibility. We may be embarrassed when that happens, but like Paul we can use that opportunity to testify to God’s grace. Whether we’ve decided to improve in a small way, like declining to indulge in office gossip, or in a more significant way, like seeking reconciliation with an estranged family member, our past does not need to be a source of shame.

Rather, by humbly acknowledging our past sins – not excusing them  or getting “holier than thou” – we can speak a powerful truth about how God’s grace has transformed our present. Paul was humble, but not ashamed. Persistent, but not defensive. His faith eventually became undeniably obvious to all. Whatever your sin or past, God can do the same for you.

Comfort: God wants to free you from the prison of your past.

Challenge: Forgiving your own past is an important step in forgiving others.

Prayer: Merciful God, thank you for your gift of grace. May my life be a testimony to the power of your saving love. Amen.

Discussion: What parts of your own past have you not been able to forgive? Do you think you need to forgive yourself before you can believe God forgives you?

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Common Ground


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 98; 146, Leviticus 26:1-20, 1 Timothy 2:1-6, Matthew 13:18-23

Politically speaking, Christians are all over the map. Conservative, moderate, or progressive, we all believe the principles of our faith inform our decisions about how to vote. How can it be we vary so widely? The Southern Baptist Convention and the United Church of Christ read the same Bible, but arrive at very different conclusions about gay marriage. Jimmy Carter and Mike Huckabee are famously Christian, but agree on little when it comes to the moral implications of federal budget making. These organizations and people are passionate about their faith, but understand it in very different ways. How should we respond to such a polarizing environment?

If we are to find common ground, we need to start from the ground up, rather than the top down. For example, both conservative and progressive Christians should want to address poverty, since Christ tells us to take care of the poor and the sick. One side endorses a free market solution, while the other relies more heavily on social programs. Both approaches could benefit from insights of the other, but in the top-down scuffle to impose ideology on actual lives, the poor are treated more like turf than people. Whatever end of the spectrum we fall on, Christianity is not about winning, it is about serving, and the tribalism of politics make us lose sight of that.

The first letter to Timothy advises believers “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” When it comes to modern politics, “dignity” doesn’t exactly spring to mind. In a culture where winners say “respect the office” and losers claim “the officeholder is illegitimate,” the message remains revolutionary.

Even when a candidate we despise wins office, we should pray for them to be successful in serving the people well. Our actions in the public sphere should reflect a humility to serve, not the viciousness of campaign rhetoric. Christians have always disagreed. Our role is to model how to disagree with love.

Comfort: Standing up for your beliefs doesn’t have to mean alienating those who believe differently.

Challenge: Spend some time listening to or watching conservative or liberal radio or television – whichever one you tend not to agree with. Do so with an intent of discovering common ground.

Prayer: God of diversity, help me hear truth, even when it is spoken by those I am inclined to disagree with. Amen.

Discussion: Do you extend a fist or an handshake to those who disagree with  you?

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Sticks and Stones


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, Genesis 24:50-67, 2 Timothy 2:14-21, Mark 10:13-22

We all grew up hearing some variation on “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me.”

Turns out life is more complicated than childhood nursery rhymes.

Words are paradoxical things. While they are little more than scribbles or puffs of air we agree have certain meaning, they can actually contain immense power and create considerable harm. Laws and their consequences hinge on the order of words and the punctuation between them. Contracts can bind or fail based on a comma or its absence. Some words expressed too freely threaten the powers that be and become cause for censorship and prosecution.

Classes of people can be created simply because we impose upon them a word that describes a single one of their characteristics. Take for example the idea of people being “black” or “white.” We all started out the same color and became more varied through circumstances of time, climate, and genetics. Before we started to travel and become reacquainted with each other, we didn’t think of ourselves as white or black – we were just people. It’s such an inexact distinction that over time we had to invent yet more words (and legal categories) to describe people who didn’t fall neatly into one of those two categories. Yet those words – arbitrary and inaccurate as they are – have had a real and tremendous harm on the history and freedom of millions.

It seems the more we insist on parsing words, the less we agree on them. Take for example the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” It’s a simple statement in response to a documented and ongoing history of disproportionate violence against black people by authorities, yet many insist on reading something anti-white into it. We see an “only” at the beginning where there is none. We insist a “too” at the end would clear things up. We want to overwrite it with the essentially meaningless “All Lives Matter” because then we don’t have to face actual and specific problems.

In 2 Timothy, Paul advises the church to “avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening.” In other … words … getting caught up in semantics does no service to the church. Rather, it creates false divisions and distracts us from the central message of the Gospel. Schisms have occurred over such unnecessary distinctions. Scholars and theologians in their ivory towers may wage battles (both well intentioned and prideful) over such matters, but the rest of us could pretty comfortably stick with The Word of God – the Logos, the Christ – and loving God and loving our neighbors. Insisting on the “right” words – such as the Sinner’s Prayer to accept Jesus, or a specific Bible translation – alienates us both from each other and from unbelievers who look upon the petty squabbling (and therefore the faith) with justifiable skepticism.

Sticks and stones can break bones, but they can also build shelters. Are we using words to harm or heal? Are we twisting other people’s words to fit our own agendas and assumptions? When we speak, do people hear Jesus … or hear us trying to prove we hear Jesus (and forcing them to also)?

Let us pray for discernment about which words to embrace and which to let go, which to support and which to oppose. Let us be humble in wielding their power, as Christ calls the last to be first. Let our yes be yes, our no be no, and all our other words authentic and carefully considered.

Comfort: When words hurt, Christ is there to heal.

Challenge: Precise use of language is important for communication, but avoid nitpicking and dismissing people over semantics when you know their intent.

Prayer: God, may I be quick to listen and slow to speak. Amen.

Discussion: “Black Lives Matter” is often portrayed as an anti-authority movement because of a few sensationalized stories of people behaving radically under its banner. Early Christianity had the same reputation, and in later years after becoming the authority had a history of violence and oppression. How is any movement different from its best and worst examples?

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