Whom do you trust?

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 62; 145, Isaiah 51:17-23, Galatians 4:1-11, Mark 7:24-37


Trust is at the core of faith. Whom (or what) we trust reveals where our true faith lies. We can say and believe we trust God, but when pressed, do we turn to God… or to something else? Under trying circumstances, do we grow more generous in response to the increased needs of others, or do we cling more tightly to what we have? Do we trust our savior or our financial advisor? Psalm 62 warns us not to trust in increased riches, but we often place practicality above generosity.

Jesus himself accepted advice that living a life of abundance means not hoarding resources, especially spiritual ones. When a Syrophoenician woman asked him to heal her demon-possessed daughter, he responded by saying it wasn’t fair to throw the children’s food to the dogs. The children were the Jewish people, and the dogs – an insulting term in his culture – were the Gentiles. When the woman reminded him even the dogs got crumbs that fell on the floor, he relented and healed her daughter.

In that moment, Jesus displayed trust in a God abundant enough to transcend his mission among the Jews. Do we trust God’s abundance enough to be open to those who are strangers or even foes to us, or does a narrow vision of our mission limit what God can accomplish through us?

Sometimes we need to undergo some self-examination to understand where we place our trust. Paul reminds the Galatians that a person who trusts in anything other than God, such as the Law or superstition, becomes enslaved to that thing. Today we may cling to the law instead of love, or make idols of creeds or ideas. We may define ourselves by our looks, popularity, intelligence, wealth or any number of things which are impermanent at best, rather than by our relationship with God. If we lost any of these – or all of them! – tomorrow, we would still have God.

What things are we enslaved to; that is, what unworthy things divert our trust from God? Let’s trust God now, so we have nothing to regret later.

Comfort: When everyone and everything are gone, God remains.

Challenge: Meditate on what you really trust. When you begin to fear or worry, remind yourself to trust God.

Prayer: God of abundance, I place my trust in You. Amen.

Discussion: When have you been disappointed by something you thought you could rely on?

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Just Because

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 103; 150, Job 38:1-11; 42:1-6, Revelation 19:4-16, John 1:29-34


Some questions have no answers, or at least none we can understand. Job was a righteous man who’d been greatly blessed by God; he had a large family, lands and livestock, and good health. When Satan (not the devil we think of, but a member of God’s court known as The Accuser) claimed Job would lose faith if God revoked his favor, God took the bet. He killed Job’s family and livestock, struck him down with terrible disease, and left him a ruined man sitting on a dung heap.

Job’s friends tried to explain why these terrible things happened to him. Saying he must have sinned, they blamed Job for his own ills, but he knew he was innocent. Like well-meaning people at a funeral who tell bereaved family members “it’s part of God’s plan,” Job’s well-meaning friends didn’t manage to offer one comforting word. We all desperately want things to make sense, but sometimes they just don’t.

When Job finally gets to confront God, God’s response is pretty unsatisfying: “Where were you when I created the earth, the seas, and the heavens?” In other words: “know your place.” God doesn’t even feel obligated to disclose the wager. Sure God gives Job a new family and restores his fortunes, but can that ever make up for what was lost?

Is there any comfort to be found in this story? If we can let go of our need to explain everything, there is the comfort of a certain harsh wisdom. Sometimes disaster will rain down on you for no apparent reason. It won’t be your fault, and honestly there may not be a silver lining. Trying to assign it a purpose may leave you looking and feeling as ignorant as Job’s friends.

We. Don’t. Always. Get. To. Know.

However, we can know that in the midst of our worst times, and God is with us and rooting for us not to lose faith. If there’s a lesson to be learned, learn it. But don’t let your need to find one be more important than your need to trust God anyway.

Comfort: When bad things happen to you, sometimes it is the unknowable nature of the world, not a reason to believe you are being punished.

Challenge: When you can’t find meaning in tragedy, you may be called to make meaning from it.

Prayer: God, I will trust you always. Amen.

Discussion: What in your life doesn’t seem fair? If you stop insisting that it make sense, does that make it easier or more difficult to accept?

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Who Gives Speech to Mortals?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab / window):
Psalms 84; 150, Exodus 3:16-4:12, Romans 12:1-21, John 8:46-59


When God appeared to Moses from a burning bush and asked him to confront Pharaoh about freeing the Israelites, Moses was understandably hesitant. After all, the Egyptian king already wanted him dead, and Moses had spent the last forty years as a humble shepherd. How could he effectively present himself as God’s messenger? He wanted assurance the Egyptians would believe him.

To convince Moses that Pharaoh would listen, God commanded him to throw his staff to the ground. It became a serpent, and then a staff again when Moses grabbed it by the tail. The Lord then commanded Moses to tuck his hand inside his robe. When he drew it out again, it was white with leprosy. At God’s command he repeated the actions, and it was healed. Armed with these signs and more, Moses still resisted, insisting he was slow of speech and tongue. God, seeming almost exasperated by the this point, replied: “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.”

Let’s consider for a moment the assurances God gave Moses. He didn’t arm Moses with magical amulets or enchanted weapons. Instead he said: show them your staff; show them your hands. God was telling Moses: “You are already equipped to do my work. Trust me.”

We often feel unwilling and ill equipped to do what God asks. Excuses come fast and easily. We lack finances. We lack time. We lack talent. But who gives us talent? Who makes us smart or senseless, rich or poor? When we answer the Lord’s call, he will equip us. This isn’t to say things will be easy. Moses experienced many trials both before and after his people left Egypt, and never entered the promised land himself, but God equipped him each step of the way.

Our gifts may seem completely ordinary until we trust God to use them, but when we do … who knows what miracles may happen and souls may be freed?

Comfort: You have been created with everything you need.

Challenge: Meditate on what you have to offer, no matter how small, that God could use.

Prayer: God of Creation, thank you for the many gifts you have given me. Teach me to see myself as you do: a child with limitless potential inspired by your love. Amen.

Discussion: What excuses do you use to avoid what’s asked of you?

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Curveballs

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Genesis 50:15-26, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, Mark 8:11-26


Imagine you are Jesus. You’ve just miraculously fed four thousand people with no more than a few loaves and fishes. Not long before that you fed a greater crowd with fewer resources. Now you are in a boat with your disciples trying to use a parable about yeast to warn them about the pharisees and Herod. After a few minutes of pondering what you mean, they decide you are upset because … there is only one loaf of bread in the boat. If you were Jesus, would you have been a little frustrated that no one could seem to get past the lack of bread?

Are we wiser than the disciples? Do we treat every challenge like it’s the first one, or do we learn from our faith journey? No matter how many difficulties we’ve experienced, when new ones arise it can be hard to remember what we’ve survived. If God has seen us through illness, addiction, or betrayal are we able to trust He will see us through the newest crisis on the horizon? It’s not always easy, especially when we face the unfamiliar. Our first reaction is usually fear. But as the disciples eventually learned, trust in God can displace the fear. Trust may not completely eliminate the fear – we are only human! – but it changes our understanding of it. The trick is to remember that to God, this struggle is no worse than the ones that have come before.

Even the “best” lives are not free of challenges. As our faith matures, we begin to recognize huge challenges that didn’t register as important before. Issues of injustice, for example, become more obvious and less acceptable to us. If we can accept that life will never stop throwing us curveballs, that we have not failed because our lives aren’t perfected, maybe we can stop being surprised and devastated by them. If we are more in control of our reactions, we can surrender our troubles to God that much sooner. Some days we may ask how the bread could possibly be enough, but God is leading us to the bigger questions.

Comfort: You are not going through anything that God can’t see you through.

Challenge: When you are frightened by challenges, say prayers of thanks for all the situations God has already brought you through.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for being with me in all situations. Forgive me when my fear interrupts my faith. Teach me to trust in you always. Amen.

Discussion: What things upset or frighten you because you can’t control them? Are you able to turn them over to God?

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Fool Me

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 34; 146, Genesis 37:12-24, 1 Corinthians 1:20-31, Mark 1:14-28


We train our children not to trust strangers, especially ones promising treats. As adults we try to follow our own advice. We are skeptical of offers that sound “too good to be true.” Most of us don’t hitchhike or pick up hitchhikers. We lock up our homes, cars, and jewelry. Given the nature of the world, all these precautions are wise.

On the other hand, we still like our quick fixes and easy assurances. Proof lies in the bank accounts and hypocrisy of televangelists, politicians, snake oil salesmen, and home shopping gurus. Headline after headline reminds us we entrust them with far too much of our faith and money.

What then are we to make of fishermen who “immediately” dropped everything to follow Jesus, as Mark tells us, simply because he asked them to? In hindsight we support the decision, but what about anyone who abandoned her or his life today to follow someone promising to make them “day traders of men?” Do the words “cult” and “deprogram” come to mind? Were the first disciples wise people or lucky fools?

The difference between wisdom and foolishness is a tough call. Because God’s values are upside down compared to the world’s values, we are constantly called to evaluate our decisions, and sometimes to act in ways others would consider foolish. For example, how many of use are willing to decrease our standard of living – move into a smaller house, drive a cheaper car, or take a lower paying job – to spend more money or time on the poor? Very few, and they are often judged with humor at best and cynicism at worst. The world tells us this is foolishness, yet it is freedom.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul tells us God makes the foolish wise and the wise foolish. Let’s not get cocky about which side of that equation we land on. Determining whether a path is right or merely attractive can take serious discernment. We want to follow Jesus urgently, but we want to be sure the path we choose truly leads to him. Let’s choose our guides with Godly wisdom and worldly foolishness.

Comfort: Your choices are between you and God.

Challenge: “Foolishly” critique your own opinion on a controversial issue.

Prayer: God of wisdom, bless me with your foolishness.

Discussion: Have you ever felt like a fool for Christ? When and why?

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Recycled

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 147:12-20, Genesis 27:30-45, Romans 12:9-21, John 8:21-32


When Esau discovered his brother Jacob had tricked their father into giving him the blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau, he was overcome with rage. This “blessing” was not a religious one, but a method of passing on rights to the land and possessions of a patriarch to his heir. The lands, wealth, and armies that Esau was sure he would inherit instead would go to the younger brother who had plagued him all his life. Esau would get the leftovers and move to a foreign land. Jacob would continue the line that would lead from Abraham to Jesus.

History unfolds in unexpected, often unwelcome ways. We might expect Jesus would come from a long line of noble, respectable, gracious ancestors. While they included royalty and priests, his family tree was shaky from the roots up. Abraham lied and tried to do an end run around God’s plan for him, fathering the Ishmaelites in the process. Isaac, like his father Abraham, lied about his relationship to his wife in order to secure business arrangements. Jacob stole his brother’s inheritance and lived in hiding for years. His son Judah sold his own brother into slavery and impregnated a woman he thought was a prostitute. And on, and on, and on …

The history of Jesus’ ancestors isn’t just a little suspect – it’s out-and-out tawdry.  From one perspective it could undermine his authority and credibility; people are judged by their families all the time. But from another point of view, it could be considered encouraging or even liberating. If God could work through families like these, imagine the potential in boring old us? So many of us waste that potential because we are waiting to feel worthy. We talk about what we could or will do if and when we were better, more organized, more stable, healthier, or “holier” people. We look at others who do the things we wish we could do and assume they are smarter, better connected, and generally “have it together.” After considering where Jesus came from … still think so?

God meets us where we are, warts and all, and offers to lead us beyond where we hoped to be. When we spend more time trusting God and less time doubting that we could be useful to God, no part of us is wasted, no talent unused. Our creator pulls us from the trash heap and turns us into something beautiful. No one is ever “ready” for that.

Comfort: God doesn’t throw anyone away.

Challenge: For one week, up your recycling game. Is it something you can stick with?

Prayer: Thank you God for loving me beyond my comprehension. Amen.

Discussion: What’s something you’ve found a new use for that someone else might have thrown away?

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When life hands you Philemons…

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 122; 149, Ezra 4:7, 11-24, Philemon 1-25, Matthew 12:33-42


The Letter to Philemon is not only the shortest of Paul’s epistles, but the third-shortest book in the Bible.  It’s shorter than any of the devotional posts on this blog. It isn’t written to an entire congregation, but to a single person. It doesn’t contain grand theological arguments, but a simple request.

Though the underlying premise of the letter has been debated by some, we traditionally consider Philemon to be the owner of a runaway slave named Onesimus who befriended Paul during the period he was under house arrest in Rome. Paul convinced Onesimus to return to Philemon bearing this letter which asked Philemon to accept the slave as a brother in Christ. Paul, reflecting the character of Christ, was even willing to assume any debts Onesimus might owe that he might escape punishment.

Paul was asking both parties to do something incredibly challenging: to see each other not as cogs in the cultural machine, but as human beings deserving the dignity of any beloved child of God. Philemon had to overcome the  idea that, no matter what the law allowed, Onesimus was his equal in Christ. And Onesimus had to risk his continued freedom on the hope that Philemon was capable of what Paul was asking.

This situation encapsulates what seems to be a fundamental flaw in human nature: we are capable of dismissing entire categories of people as less than fully human. Slavery, which exists to this day, is predicated on this flaw. It’s not a liberal or conservative bias; consider the flurry of recent revelations of sexual harassment by media and other executives across the political spectrum. Communication on social media becomes more and more like reputational target practice. Examples abound.

This phenomenon has an unfortunately circular nature: because we can’t see everyone as human, we don’t believe they see us as human, which reinforces our negative assessment of them, which in turn reinforces their negative assessment of us, and so on…

Paul could have used his influence to strong-arm Philemon into complying with his wishes. While he wasn’t above using a little guilt (“I say nothing about your owing me even your own self”), he knew that trusting Philemon to grow in his own understanding of Christ’s love would make for a permanent change that pressure would not. It may seem unfair of Paul to impose on Onesimus to test this theory, but he was also free to obey Paul or not. Imagine the trust – in Paul, Philemon, and God – necessary to return.

When we are at odds  with people, we can seek victory or peace. One requires us to see others as losers – something physically, spiritually, or intellectually lesser than ourselves – and the other demands we see others as beloved equals. Which would Christ have us pursue?

Comfort: God isn’t worried about what other people think of you.

Challenge: Vulnerability is a risk we all must take.

Prayer: For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.” (Psalm 122:8)

Discussion: Are you more aware of your own tendencies to discriminate (we all have them!) or of how you suspect other people might discriminate against you?

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I Will Follow You (Wherever You May Go)

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 147:12-20, 2 Samuel 15:1-18, Acts 21:27-36, Mark 10:32-45


Jesus wanted the disciples to be prepared for what was to come. In very plain language he predicted his death three times, yet the disciples did not seem to understand. On the third occasion he said:

See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.

In the very next paragraph, “James and John […] said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’” They asked to sit at his right and left hands in paradise.  Jesus had to decline, but it seems gracious that he humored them at all considering what he’d told just them. One paragraph following the next doesn’t mean quite a bit of time couldn’t have elapsed between them, but asking favors after that seems a little … self-involved.

Yet we can all be self-involved. Our calling is to follow Christ and share him with others, but some of the most popular Christian books and preachers focus on the “name it and claim it” gospel which teaches what Jesus can do for us. Church is for worshipping our God, but we often choose one based more on how good it makes us feel than how it challenges us to grow in the radical love and humility Christ requests of his disciples.

We don’t find that “peace which passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) by praying for trouble-free lives, but by following Jesus wherever he leads, including enemy territory. And that “perfect love which casts out fear” (1 John 4:18)? It doesn’t sprout in hearts that play it safe; we first must face the fear of loving those we find unlovable.

Following Christ is its own reward. Step by step we are transformed and grow less concerned about what Christ can do for us, and more about how we can serve him.


Comfort: Following Christ transforms us. 

Challenge: Keep a journal about how following Christ changes you.

Prayer: Loving God, I set my face towards Christ. May my discipleship glorify your name. Amen.

Discussion: What’s the difference between a selfish prayer, and a prayer for yourself?

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Rising Above

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 56; 149, 1 Samuel 9:15-10:1, Acts 7:30-43, Luke 22:39-51


The author of Psalm 56 feels besieged from all directions. The psalmist – trampled, oppressed, and fought against all day long – cries out to God for strength and relief. In the face of those who stir up strife, plan evil, and lurk ominously, the psalmist continues to thank and praise the God who will provide delivery from death. Amid many trials, this author’s faith even finds cause for poetry:

You have kept count of my tossings;
put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your record?

While a literal bottle of tears is unlikely, the psalmist imagined a God so invested in our well-being as to count our sorrows drop by drop; to remember our restless nights as if recorded in a ledger waiting to be balanced. Though enemies are plentiful, the psalmist trusts in God and asks, “What can flesh do to me?”

Are we able to place that kind of trust in God?

We face a lot of threats from mere mortals. Some days we feel as besieged as the psalmist. Do we scheme and plan how to get the upper hand or, as Psalm 56 advises, perform our vows to God and offer thanksgiving because we trust God will deliver us? Plotting a comeuppance for the person who got “our” promotion or bringing up at yet another family holiday dinner that decades-old grudge against our sibling may just be at odds with a better change God has in store for us. Do we have to put up with being stepped on? Certainly not. But when Jesus told us to love our enemies, he didn’t qualify it with “after you get over it.”

So many times, while we toss and weep as we need to, we neglect church, prayer time, or other things because we aren’t in the “right” frame of mind. Yet God isn’t waiting for us to be “right” … God waits for us to be present. Like the psalmist we may have every reason to be upset and fearful. When that’s the case, let’s lean into faith like a kite leans into the wind.

Comfort: God is with us in times of sorrow, fear, and anger.

Challenge: Think about the last time you were upset. Did you turn to God or rely on your own plans? Ask yourself what that can that teach you about how to react in the future.

Prayer: O Most High, when I am afraid, I put my trust in you (Psalm 56:2b-3).

Discussion: What’s your first instinct when you are attacked?

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Information, Please

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Micah 7:7-15, Acts 3:1-10, John 15:1-11


In this age of identity theft, we are more protective of information than ever. Conversely, we are perplexed when we don’t get enough information ourselves. We suspect – with good reason – that news outlets, governments, businesses, and churches not only refuse to release vital information, but actively conceal it. Knowledge is power, and when we lack it we feel helpless. When it is stolen from us (though we still retain it) we feel violated. An information balance is a delicate thing.

As Jesus prepared his disciples for his death, he told them they were no longer servants but friends because “I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” A free flow of information transforms relationships. Members of a healthy community trust each other. When a person or group within the community purposely withholds something, even if it’s benign, they are telling all the other members they are of unequal status. It’s better to resist the thrill of being “in the know” or part of some perceived inner circle, since secrets are rarely kept for anyone else’s benefit. There is truly personal or inappropriate information, but we are considering the kind that knowingly creates an inequality of power. Whether in a church, social group, or neighborhood, boards and committees who adopt the “Vegas Rule” create a knowledge vacuum which people naturally try to fill, because it makes them feel less vulnerable, and therefore less fearful. Unfortunately their assumptions can have even worse unintended consequences. We must walk a tightrope balancing a respect for privacy on one side, and a healthy accountability on the other.

Disclosure can be difficult and uncomfortable. For Jesus that meant trusting his disciples not to flee when he told them he was going to die – very different from businesses who conceal layoff plans so employees will not leave inconveniently soon. For us it may mean letting go of a little power or social advantage, or risking criticism and hurt feelings. In the long run, a community is healthier for its honesty and transparency, and a healthier community promotes healthier members.

Comfort: Honesty begets honest.

Challenge: If you feel the need to keep something secret, take time to examine your motives.

Prayer: God of truth, give me strength to live honestly and openly. Amen.

Discussion: Are you ever tempted to keep secrets you shouldn’t?

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