Endurance Training


Today’s readings:
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Jeremiah 8:4-7, 18-9:6, Romans 5:1-11, John 8:12-20

And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…
– Romans 5:3-4

I did not put you here to suffer. I did not put you here to whine.
I put you here to love another and to get out and have a good time.
– The Rainmakers, “Let My People Go-Go”

Suffering, while an inevitable part of the Christian journey, is never meant to be the destination. We are assured that, through the glory of God, all suffering can be transformed for good. We don’t need to seek pointless suffering just for the sake of enduring it, but when we need to exercise self-discipline or find suffering inescapable, we can turn that suffering over to God. But let’s not for a minute assume this is a passive process which requires nothing of us but curling up into a cocoon of self-pity and waiting for divine metamorphosis. It takes intention.

The steps in this process all require conscious choices on our part. Endurance training is something we take for granted in athletics, but not as often in other parts of life. Can we teach ourselves to view suffering as a form of spiritual training which develops our spiritual muscles? What about character? We romanticize the idea of sports building character, but not every top athlete is an upstanding citizen. Our spiritual training needs to be tempered with humility and mercy, a desire to serve rather than conquer.

The best coaches – and their best players – embrace being part of a greater story. It’s that type of character – the type that recognizes our greatest glory does not begin and end with our personal achievements and failures – which opens us up to hope. Hope is only present when we can see the big picture, the picture that tells the story of God’s kingdom becoming reality.

Athletes build endurance through difficulty. Butterflies nearly die before leaving the cocoon. Neither of them are victims of suffering; they use it to transform themselves into something miraculous.

Comfort: Suffering is not inflicted on us by God…

Challenge: … but God can help us through it.

Prayer: God of holy mystery, I trust you above anything. Amen.

Discussion: How have you dealt with suffering?

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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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Joy and Fear


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Exodus 12:40-51, 1 Corinthians (15:29) 30-41, Matthew 28:1-16

When Mary Magdalene and the other Mary visited the tomb of Jesus on that first Easter morning, they found the tomb empty and the stone rolled away. A young man robed in white greeted them by saying “Do not be afraid!” He explained Jesus had risen and gone ahead to Galilee. Matthew tells us they left the tomb filled with fear and joy. They were overjoyed when Jesus met them on their way to find the other disciples and deliver the angel’s message. He greeted them and also said “Do not be afraid.”

Many of our most joyous life experiences also include a degree of fear.

Cold feet before marriage. The impending birth of a child. Graduating school and entering the adult world. Such events contain within them the promise of renewed life and hopes, but also an element of the unknown. The two Marys and the other disciples were overjoyed their messiah was alive, but his resurrection also created a change in their entire worldview and set them on a path of faith no one had ever trod before.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia and first woman president of an African nation, wrote in her memoirs: “If your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough.” The power of the resurrection allows us to have enormous dreams, so if we aren’t a little afraid, we may not be embracing all things made possible through Christ.

Not often, one suspects. But that reassurance can prevent fear from paralyzing us. When the risen Christ tells us not to be afraid, he’s not a drill sergeant yelling “Suck it up, buttercup!” because we have to tough it out on our own. He is telling us we don’t need to be afraid because he is with us. Beyond death. Always.

Like the two Marys rushing down the road to spread the good news, joy and fear travel hand in hand. We have a word for that: Hope.

Comfort: Christ is with us always, ready to transform our fear to joy.

Challenge: Do something that scares you, but be sure to invite Christ to do it with you.

Prayer: God of Hope, give me strength in my fear, and hear my words of praise for you in my joy. In you all things are possible. Amen.

Discussion: How does fear hold you back?

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Rocks, Thunder, and Dough

Your hands

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Genesis 41:46-57, 1 Corinthians 4:8-20 (21), Mark 3:7-19a

Our faith assures us that God knows us intimately inside and out. Psalm 119 declares: “Your hands have made and fashioned me.” All through our lives God actively shapes and reshapes us body, mind and soul. All who encountered Jesus were changed, usually spiritually, sometimes physically — and occasionally by name. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say Jesus revealed their true selves.

When Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter (“the rock”), he predicted Peter would be the rock upon which the church was founded.  But Jesus was not without a sense of humor. Being rock-like also implies stubbornness, and Peter had that quality in abundance. At the beginning of his journey with Jesus, Peter was not particularly self-aware, but over time  Christ transformed Peter’s character flaws into some of his greatest strengths. What other than faithfully applied stubbornness could have seen the Christian church through its early stages?

Then we have the disciples (and brothers) James and John, or as Jesus called them, “The Sons of Thunder.” They were outspoken and quick to action. These traits didn’t always pay off as intended, but once the brothers learned to temper them  with wisdom, they became central to Jesus’s mission both before and after his resurrection.

Paul is another example of repurposed character. As Saul he zealously persecuted Christians, but after his conversion he was even more dedicated to  spreading the Gospel. Such single-mindedness is not within most people’s grasp, but it equipped Paul especially well for his calling.

What character traits would you change about yourself? Is it possible God built them into you for a reason, and what really needs to change is how you understand and use them? Justice is often fueled by anger, and success by stubbornness (masquerading as “persistence”). God did not create you to be someone you’re not. When we feel convicted to change something about ourselves, it’s worth asking Christ how he might reshape that thing toward a better use. Raw dough is inedible but has the same ingredients as delicious bread. Sometimes we only need to bake a while longer to rise to our potential.

Comfort: God knows and loves you, for he created you just as you are.

Challenge: Make a list of what characteristics trouble you. Pray about how you can look at them differently to serve God.

Prayer: God of creation, thank you for making me in your image. Help me to understand what that means for my life. Help me to shape my gifts to best serve your Kingdom. Help me appreciate the gifts you have given others. Give me ears to hear the new name you have for me. Amen.

Discussion: What about yourself have you had to learn to love (or are still learning to)?

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Hands, Eyes, and Butterflies


Today’s readings (click to open in new window):
Psalms 2; 145, Isaiah 49:13-23, Isaiah 54:1-13, Matthew 18:1-14

If your hand caused you to sin, would you be able to cut it off, as Jesus suggests in today’s passage from Matthew? Would you be able to pluck out your own eye to avoid damnation? More importantly, does Jesus actually expect us to do these things? Certainly not. If we heard of someone who mutilated himself for religious reasons, we would consider that person to be deeply disturbed, and rightly so. Most of us are not physically capable of such acts. What then might Jesus mean to tell us with such harsh imagery?

Hyperbole and extreme examples are teaching methods common to Jesus’ time. He didn’t intend to create a flock of one-handed, half-blind followers, but he does want us to understand true commitment means cutting out the parts of our lives that undermine or overshadow our relationship with God. Becoming part of God’s kingdom is a transformational act, and like butterflies emerging from cocoons, we must leave behind all that would hold us back.

As caterpillars metamorphose into butterflies, their bodies break down into imaginal cells – undifferentiated and similar to stem cells – and reform into something entirely new. When we truly embrace faith, or feel the call to a deeper level of it, our spirits need to undergo a similar process. All we have to work with are our original materials, but surrendered to God’s hands they can be repurposed and reborn. We won’t welcome every change, and some will even be painful, but we must be willing to rigorously examine the difference between who we are and who we are meant to become, and abandon the parts that either don’t fit or can’t be re-shaped.

God loves and accepts us whether we are in the caterpillar or butterfly stage, but God’s hope is that we fulfill our potential. One advantage we have over butterflies is our ability to metamorphose again and again, throughout our whole lives, each time getting closer to becoming our best selves. We don’t need to lose our eyes or hands, but we may need to remake them into tools of love and grace.

Comfort: God loves us when we try, when we fail, and when we succeed.

Challenge: Metamorphosis requires both time and energy. Assess the gap between who you are and who you believe God wants you to be, and set aside the time and energy necessary to create that change.

Prayer: God of life and change, teach me to be the person you created me to be. Amen.

Discussion: What are some of the most important positive changes you’ve made over your lifetime?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 98; 146, Deuteronomy 8:11-20 (or Deuteronomy 18:15-22), James 1:16-27, Luke 11:1-13

“Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”

What sobering words from James. Don’t we all have the capacity to work up a righteous (or self-righteous) anger? Shouldn’t evil and injustice make us angry?

Though wrath is reserved for the Lord, anger is an inescapable part of the human condition. We may spend a lifetime trying to master it – or trying to make sure it doesn’t master us – but on some level we cling to the belief that anger gets things done. Maybe we need to ask if they are the right things.

Anger is the beast that rips the wings off the better angels of our natures; the saboteur that dismantles our mechanisms of compassion and reason just when we need them most. Anger is the self-devouring fear we experience when forced to face the truth of one power we all lack: the power to undo. We get angry because something has happened, something we would have prevented if we could go back. When we are angry about what may happen in the future, it’s because we can’t change an event in the past. If that event is of our own making and anger turns inward, we find ourselves caught in a barbed net that draws tighter the more we struggle.

But Christ … Christ redefines the past. Christ transforms the cross – the murderous embodiment of the anger of an entire corrupt empire – into a sign of new life. Christ tames the beast, foils the saboteur. Submitted to Christ, anger is resurrected and refocused as a drive for justice, an energy for radical love, a passion for mercy, a courage for truth. Our anger does not produce God’s righteousness, but God’s righteousness can produce amazing things from an anger we are willing to turn over.

In the heat of the moment, anger may be unavoidable, even necessary for survival, but the most necessary armor will eventually suffocate us. Know when to peel it off, when to seek the breath of life, when to beat the sword into a plowshare. What we cannot undo, Christ will not leave undone.

Comfort: Your anger does not have to define you.

Challenge: Read some articles or books on managing anger.

Prayer: God of peace, take my anger and resurrect it as love. Amen.

Discussion: How do you usually deal with being angry? Shouting? Silence? Violence? How do you feel about it?

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Trial by Fire


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 92; 149, Daniel 3:19-30, 1 John 3:11-18, Luke 4:1-13

“Nebuchadnezzar was so filled with rage […] that his face was distorted.”
– Daniel 3:19

“You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”
– Bruce Banner, aka The Incredible Hulk

Anger can transform us until we are almost unrecognizable. When Daniel’s friends defied King Nebuchadnezzar’s command to worship a statue, his rage affected his physical appearance. It can also suddenly and drastically alter our personalities and turn simple disagreements into longstanding feuds and inconsiderate highway maneuvers into deadly confrontations.

Anger often masks fear or sadness. Though Nebuchadnezzar had no obvious reason to be afraid, like every king he realized authority ultimately rests on the people’s willingness to accept it. Open acts of defiance threaten power. In our own lives anger can be a defense against the fear of losing a relationship, security (physical or otherwise), status within our group, or a sense of control. Where fear looks forward, sadness looks backward. When the grief of a loss which has already occurred threatens to overwhelm us, or when we feel forced to suppress it, it can come out as anger, frequently misdirected and over a long period of time.

Nebuchadnezzar threw Daniel’s friends into a furnace hot enough to kill the men who forced them inside, but his anger dissipated into astonishment when they, with the help of an angel, survived and emerged unharmed. Overcome with fear of the Lord, he decreed that none should blaspheme against God, and promoted the friends.

While we won’t face an actual furnace, we may have to endure a metaphorical trial by fire to love someone through their anger. We don’t have to tolerate outright abuse, but understanding where anger comes from can help us handle it differently. For example, if a co-worker’s anger catches us off guard, our reflex is probably to respond in kind, but it’s more productive to let them see Christ at work in us. We may never know what’s going on inside the person, because everyone has pain we don’t get to see. Responding to anger with love and faith may be the witness that helps someone see the promise beyond their pain.

Comfort: It’s permissible to express your fear and grief.

Challenge: Eventually you have to express your fear and grief.

Prayer: God of Love, teach me healthy ways to deal with my emotions. Amen.

Discussion: What makes you angry? Can you relate that to a fear or a sadness?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 130; 148, Joel 2:28-3:8, James 1:16-27, Luke 16:1-9

Self-portraits used to involve some effort and maybe a little skill, and lot of both to take a good one. Digital cameras removed the time and expense of film processing, and the front-facing phone camera unleashed a torrent of tourists reducing the splendor of the Grand Canyon to a background for a selfie. Armed with the delete button and a battalion of photo retouching apps, we can take shot after shot and adjust them to craft just the right image to present to the world. Staged spontaneity.

James had strong opinions about appearance versus reality:

If any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing.

Some people think the Book of James pushes a theology of acts over grace. For James they are inseparable because acts are the evidence that Christ dwells within us. We can talk about our faith all day long, but talk is shallow as a mirror, and creates a similar illusion of depth. When our hearts are truly committed to Christ, our actions follow, and we can’t help living out that commitment. It’s the difference between taking dozens of pictures to capture the perfect moment for public consumption, and actually living the countless imperfect moments that make a life.

Prayers and songs and scriptures are important – they are our Christian family portraits. Revisiting them should do more than remind us where we came from; it should inspire us to carry on the family legacy of doing peace and justice – “inspire” in the sense of “breathe life into” our words of faith. If we don’t direct that breath toward the real world where Christ calls us to cares for the widows and orphans, the alien and the outcast, friends and enemies, all we really do is fog the mirror.

Comfort: A heart transformed by Christ results in a transformed life.

Challenge: Seriously look at how you spend your time, and ask yourself if it reflect the faith you want to have.

Prayer: Thank you Lord for lives resurrected in Christ. Amen.

Discussion: What areas of your life need less talk and more action?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 15; 147:1-11, Job 42:1-17, Acts 16:16-24, John 12:20-26

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
– John 12:24

Jesus shares this image of a seed dying to bear fruit as a metaphor for his own impending death, and the faith community that will grow from it. Just as an apple seed contains all the genetic material to create a fully-formed apple tree from water, soil and light, Jesus contains everything the world needs to be transformed into the limbs of the body of Christ. Both the seed and Jesus sacrifice themselves to turn potential into reality, and both remain fully present in the fruit they bear.

Like all good parables, this one contains multiple levels of meaning. Each of us needs to “die to ourselves” to release the potential God has placed in us. What does it mean to “die to ourselves?” Like a seed, we have to shed any shell that keeps us from fully surrendering to God’s transformational process. Our shells may grow from pride, greed, fear, selfishness, or anything that inhibits the Spirit. Until that shell crumbles, neither we nor the world will see any real fruit.

How do we discard our shells? The same way any seed does: a little dirt, a little water, and a little light. We have to dig in and dirty our hands by helping the poor, the sick, and anyone Christ commands us to serve. Through the waters of baptism – a ritual symbolizing death and resurrection – we surrender ourselves to God and agree to trust his understanding above our own. We allow the light of Christ, his message of love and faith, to penetrate our hearts until it burns away all resistance. Faith lives that are never exposed to these elements are like seeds that never leave the packet: we see the picture of what they’re supposed to become, but never taste the real thing.

The world hungers for God. Let’s do everything we can to feed it by nurturing the seeds within us to fruition.

Comfort: To die to the self is not to perish, but to be reborn in Christ..

Challenge: Are you getting enough dirt, water and light? Examine how you engage the world, trust God, and embody Christ’s light.

Prayer: Compassionate God, thank you for the potential in each of us. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever gotten into a debate that generated a lot of heat and little or no light?

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Invitation: Come as You Are


Most of our experience with communion is in a fairly formal setting. The priest or worship leader takes us through a familiar ritual. The bread is dedicated specifically to the purpose of communion. Depending on your tradition and beliefs, it may or may not be considered sacred but, knowing what it symbolizes, we all treat it with reverence and respect. As far as reenactments of Jesus’s last supper go, it’s pretty inaccurate.

The Gospel of Matthew tells us: “While they were eating, Jesus took bread…” No one processed into the room with consecrated wafers or a loaf with a slit in the bottom to make it easier to break. There may have been unleavened bread on the table for a traditional Passover meal, but otherwise it was unremarkable. Jesus used bread that was already present — and possibly half-eaten. The cup was just a cup. The gathered disciples would have washed it up after the meal with all the other cups and by the next morning probably couldn’t remember which one it had been.

Then there’s Judas. In all four Gospels, Jesus is aware his betrayer is at the table. He doesn’t identify Judas by name. He doesn’t exclude Judas from the meal. Instead Jesus shows him the same love and offers him the same blessing as everyone present.

The last supper — or first Eucharist — was made of the ordinary: the half-eaten, backwash-tainted, treacherous things and people at hand. It was sacred not because of the sanctity of the elements, but because Christ’s transformational presence makes the ordinary sacred. Your participation in communion does not require your perfection; it requires humble recognition of your deeply flawed nature. That’s the door through which Christ’s broken body and shed blood enter and transform you. And nobody can shut it but you.

If Christ welcomed even Judas at the first Eucharist, what possible reason could there be for anyone to be excluded? Who can say: “I get to determine who is worthy of the grace Christ gives freely?” We don’t get to decide that about other people, and other people don’t get to decide that about us. We don’t even get to decide it for ourselves. Communion isn’t about the perfect loaf of bread for the perfect people. It’s about Christ turning leftovers into a banquet that feeds the world.

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.