Words Matter

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Today’s reading:
Psalms 84; 150, Jeremiah 1:1-10, 1 Corinthians 3:11-23, Mark 3:31-4:9


Consider these words from the Lord to the young prophet Jeremiah:

Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.

Words, especially those inspired by (or attributed to) the Lord, are powerful. The right words can bring down nations and establish new ones. Jesus was crucified because Jewish leadership and the Roman empire both knew words are sparks that can ignite a revolution from seemingly nowhere; institutions that hide behind false words are tinder waiting to burn.

Healthy institutions welcome exchanges of words and ideas. Good ideas and true words do not need defending; they can withstand scrutiny and welcome constructive criticism. When governments and religions fear their people, they try to silence those people. Authoritarian governments and legalistic religions enforce silence through threats, imprisonment, and even death. Institutions which are less authoritarian (or wish us to believe they are not) may act more subtly yet still silence people through lies, legal action, and propaganda. The most malevolently skilled institutions get us to silence each other.

To the corrupt and fearful, the most truthful words are the most threatening. When Galileo persisted in advancing heliocentrism – the now undisputed theory that the earth revolves around the sun – the Catholic church put him under house arrest for the heresy of contradicting scripture. Under the Third Reich and the Cultural Revolution, artists and writers who expressed “unacceptable” ideas were arrested and executed. The words we hear – or are permitted to hear – shape our understanding of the world. Truth is often not in the best interest of the powerful, so they suppress it.

Don’t fear words and ideas. Don’t trust leaders who fear them. Instead, learn to listen critically so you can discern the good from the bad, the true from the false. If someone answers a question by saying you shouldn’t have asked it … ask again. Speak plainly and truthfully, and expect the same of others.

Jesus was the Word made flesh. All true words lead back to him.

Comfort: Truth is always from God.

Challenge: Not everything we think is true really is.

Prayer: God of truth, grant me the words to share your truth with others, and grant me ears to discern the good word from the bad. Amen.

Discussion: When is the last time someone spoke a truth that changed your worldview?

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Willful Ignorance

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 5; 147:1-11, Deuteronomy 9:13-21, Hebrews 3:12-19, John 2:23-3:15


In legal terms, “willful ignorance” describes an intention to remain unaware of facts to avoid prosecution for them (like not asking a friend why he suddenly has a Rolex to sell you). The term has expanded into more general use to describe anyone who refuses to learn something because they want to remain comfortable or blameless. As a defense it doesn’t hold up well in court, and as a choice it isn’t morally defensible.

When Jesus tried to explain being “born again” to the Pharisee Nicodemus, Nick kept claiming not to understand. Eventually Jesus grew exasperated and said: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?  Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.” It wasn’t a lack of testimony that vexed Jesus: it was a listener’s refusal to receive it.

In his letter to the Hebrews, Paul reminded them how their ancestors abandoned the God who led them out of Egypt and made an idol of a golden calf. When Moses didn’t return quickly enough for them from meeting the Lord on Mount Sinai, the people justified their actions by saying: “this Moses […], we do not know what has become of him.” Not “let us learn more” but “let us do what we already wanted to.” It only cost them forty years.

We practice willful ignorance when we stereotype. When we dismiss solid science. When we make excuses for unethical acts of a politician we happen to favor. Many harmful environmental and economic choices are made with willful ignorance so we can enjoy the present without being accountable for the future. We are susceptible whenever we don’t want to surrender the worldview we prefer.

Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” If we aren’t willing to make friends with the truth, what kind of friend could Jesus have in us? God and faith survive facts, even unpleasant ones. If we’re going to be convicted of something, let it be the truth.

Comfort: Facts are not the enemy of faith.

Challenge: If you don’t like the facts, it’s not the facts that have to change.

Prayer: God of Truth, open my eyes. Amen.

Discussion: What facts do you have trouble accepting?

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Whistle Blower

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 108; 150
, Isaiah 51:9-16, Hebrews 11:8-16, John 7:14-31


The term “whistle-blower” is in the news a lot these days. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as: “a person who informs on a person or organization engaged in an illicit activity.” How one feels about whistle-blowers and their activities can depend very much on which side of the event one falls. For example, whistle-blowers who expose health care fraud to the government can earn quite a bit of money depending on how much is exposed and recovered. On the other hand, government employees who become whistle-blowers are often subject to harassment and persecution the government prohibits in other entities. And then there are people who leak information for malicious reasons while trying to shelter under the cover of whistle-blower.

Among his many roles, Jesus was a sort of whistle-blower. He frequently and publicly exposed the hypocrisy of the religious leadership. In first century Palestine, the religious leadership was the equivalent of the local government, though they operated within the constraints of their Roman occupiers. Because their authority was grantedgbtly Rome, his disregard for such authority was also a direct affront to the empire. As is the case with many whistle-blowers, confronting his accusations would have led to confirming them. Unable to discredit Jeus on the facts, the authorities began retaliating against him through a whisper campaign among the Pharisees, who plotted to kill him.

Whistle-blowers are almost never the only people who know corruption is occurring. They are simply the first – and often only – people with the courage to bring it to light. If we are to follow Christ, we also need to call out corruption and injustice – in our churches, workplaces, homes, and governments – when we know about it. There will probably be consequences and retaliation, but an inauthentic relationship with God and one another is the much worse consequence of keeping silent.

Truth, even hard truth, is freeing. Deception requires increasing amounts of energy to maintain, and in the end leaves resources for little else. If telling the truth ostracizes us from one community, it joins us with the greater community of saints joined in the body of Christ.

Comfort: The truth sets your soul free.

Challenge: Speak truth to power.

Prayer: God of truth and love, give me the courage to be your witness. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever had the need or opportunity to come clean? How did it feel?

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Evangelize vs. Evange-lies

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 42; 146, Isaiah 40:25-31, Ephesians 1:15-23, Mark 1:14-28


Evangelists have an image problem.

For many people, both inside and outside the church, the word “evangelist” evokes revival tents packed with fake healings and snake oil salesmen. The world of televangelism, with its shiny suits, big hair, and pledge drives for private jets, hasn’t done them any favors. The stereotype of the modern evangelist doesn’t have much in common with John the Baptist and his camel hair tunic. For as long as we’ve had religion we’ve had people trying to make a buck off faith and fear. That’s not evangelism.

When Jesus recruited his disciples, he did so with an eye toward the future and the evangelizing they would be called to do. Even in his day, people were wary of the clergy. Jesus didn’t start his search among religious leaders: he chose fishermen. These fishermen – Peter, Andrew, James, and John – were men of the world, hard-working businessmen who could get dirty when necessary and be salesmen when needed. If they had good news to spread – news good enough to make them leave their old lives behind – people would listen.

We are all called to evangelize, to spread the good news of the Gospels. Few of us are called to do it from the pulpit. Members of the New Monastic movement do it by becoming part of inner city communities. Jay Bakker – son of infamous televangelists Jim and Tammy – started Revolution Church in a bar where many patrons had fewer addictions, tattoos, and piercings than he did. Some people spread the good news through volunteering to help the elderly prepare income tax statements and others take youth to rebuild after disasters.

Real evangelists exist everywhere; you can recognize them because it’s obvious they’ve dropped their nets to find new lives following Christ.

Saint Francis allegedly said: “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” Less famously he also said:  “If God can work through me, he can work through anyone.” Each of us is equipped to evangelize the moment we have a story to tell.  Whether we share it through words or actions, it is a recognizably true story. The truth eventually withstands all image problems.

Comfort: Thanks to God, you have important truths to share.

Challenge: Ask friends how they’ve seen you share the Gospel; their answers may surprise you.

Prayer: God of the Good News, I will spread your word through the gifts you have given me. Amen.

Discussion: What’s your preferred way to share your faith?

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Epiphanies

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 72; 148, Isaiah 52:7-10, Revelation 21:22-27, Matthew 12:14-21
Epiphany readings:
Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12


Happy Epiphany! Today is the last day of the Christmas season. Our traditional reading is about the Magi: wise men who – led by a prophecy and a star – traveled from far lands to honor the infant Christ with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Some people wait until today to add the Magi to complete their nativity scenes and continue to display it until February 2nd, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord.

If you haven’t yet listened to “We Three Kings” this season, today’s your day!

But the story of the Magi has a darker side. On their way to Bethlehem, the Magi visited King Herod to ask where the newborn King of the Jews might be found. Herod, jealous and fearful, met with the chief priests and scribes to learn all he could about the prophesied messiah, and tried to pump the Magi for information. He told them “when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” In truth, he was less interested in homage than homicide. The Magi, warned in a dream not to return to Herod, went home by another route.

In our daily readings, the same crowd– still fearful of Jesus and all he represents – is conspiring to destroy the adult Jesus. For a time he goes underground, but continues his ministry of healing and justice. Jesus always is who he says he is; his enemies (and some of them claim to serve him) are not.

What exactly does “epiphany” mean? It is a moment of insight or revelation. One of the most important epiphanies in this story is when the Magi realize Herod’s intent differs from his words. We would be wise to follow their example. Often those who govern – religiously or civilly – publicly promote one agenda but follow another. From slapping misleading titles on legislation, to unnecessarily “protecting” a powerful group in order to suppress another more vulnerable one, to rewriting history that judges them unfavorably, people tell us what they think we want to hear in order to lull us into going along with something else. In his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell called it doublethink, and it empowered tyranny.

Some epiphanies are spontaneous. Others are the product of critical thinking. As followers of Christ, let’s strive to be like the Magi and stay ready for both.

Comfort: Jesus is always who he claims to be.

Challenge: Maintain a healthy skepticism of those in power, especially those who tell you what you want to hear.

Prayer: God of truth and light, I will seek to follow you always! Amen.

Discussion: What’s the last epiphany you had?

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Don’t Shoot the Messenger

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 96; 147:12-20, Isaiah 12:1-6, Revelation 1:1-8, John 7:37-52


When we receive a message, we evaluate it from different angles. We consider the source, the delivery style, and the content. We may ask ourselves: Is the source reliable? Is the delivery sincere, sarcastic, or something else? Is the content believable? Because we are used to handling communications efficiently, we may also mistakenly assume we handle them competently. In most cases this may be true, but if we’re not paying attention we can be manipulated – or unwittingly manipulate the message ourselves.

In John 7 Jesus delivers a message meant for both the uneducated crowds and the highly educated Pharisees, to varying effects. The crowd loves him; the Pharisees want to find a reason to arrest him. At the very least they want to dismiss him because he comes from the backwater town of Galilee. When their fellow Pharisee Nicodemus points out that Jewish “law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing,” they suggest Nicodemus must be also be from Galilee to discredit him. While the Pharisees fume and fuss, they have no legitimate reason to reject the message other than “I don’t like it.”

How do we react to messages we don’t like? Does that reaction depend on the source? If we are told at work we have performed poorly, does our reaction depend on whether it comes from a co-worker, superior, or subordinate? Should it? Certainly we should be critical of messages we hear, but first we need to be willing to hear the content, regardless of the source. If our first response to a negative message or criticism is: “Who do you think you are?” … there’s a good chance we are unfairly negating a source to avoid unpleasant content. It is a human and understandable reaction, but leaving it unexamined diminishes our integrity.

This effect pervades all levels of society – families, businesses, government, religion, etc. Like Nicodemus, when faced with it we should challenge it. In a just society, valid content is considered fairly regardless of the source. Let’s welcome truth wherever it is found.

Comfort: Truth will serve you well.

Challenge: Pick a story in the news, and read different perspectives about it – particularly from sources you’re not prone to agree with. Do they reveal any truths?

Prayer: Loving God, help me to discern your truth amid all the noise. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever had to grudgingly agree with someone about information you didn’t like but was true?

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Doubt, Pray, Love

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 26; 30, Ecclesiastes 11:1-8, Galatians 5:16-24, Matthew 16:13-20


No matter how strong our faith, we eventually have a day – or perhaps an achingly long series of days – when God seems far away. We don’t talk about those days much. Rather, we feel pressure to put on a brave face. Expressions of doubt during a Bible study prompt our friends to offer arguments for belief which are probably more about their reassurance than ours. A minor breakdown during prayer time is viewed as unseemly and inappropriate, maybe even fodder for parking lot gossip.

Loss and weakness are fine to discuss if we’ve already overcome them, but no one likes to watch the sausage being made. A story of beating a gambling addiction? Testify! A confession about how your ongoing blackout drinking leads to promiscuity? Better save it for the 12-step meeting. We talk a good game about brokenness, vulnerability, and healing but we really want to skip right to the “after” photo because the “before” mugshot is too upsetting.

The Psalms tell a different story. Many of them describe how we can be simultaneously faithful and in a wretched state. The author of Psalm 130 is crying out to God from the depths of despair. He recognizes his own failings and shortcomings. He finds himself unable to do anything but wait for the Lord and hope for the best. He still puts his trust in God but he’s not putting up a brave front.

Questions, moments of weakness, and despair do not demonstrate a lack of faith. They are the times that tell us whether we had any faith in the first place. Like the psalmist, sometimes the best we can do is beg God to get us through the darkness while we hunker down and hang on until daylight.

A healthy faith community will offer a safe space to rail against injustice, struggles, and the seeming distance of God. It will face darkness head on but shine a light into it. Since communities are made of people, the responsibility of creating such space then falls on each of us. We can be ourselves when we allow others to do the same.

Comfort: God is big enough to love you through your anger and doubt.

Challenge: It can be difficult to navigate when to express our pain and when to keep it to ourselves. Read this piece on how not to say the wrong thing.

Prayer: Loving God, my source of strength and security, thank you for weathering my doubts and fears. I will trust you to see me through this and all days. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever found relief after sharing something you had been keeping to yourself?

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Compromised

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 65; 147:1-11, Ecclesiastes 3:1-15,Galatians 2:11-21, Matthew 14:1-12


Is there anyone among us who hasn’t at least once held their tongue or behaved, if not contrary, not quite in alignment with their beliefs to keep the peace? Maybe we didn’t want to ruin Thanksgiving dinner by responding to inappropriate comments from our racist cousin. Maybe we didn’t want to alienate a boss and agreed to a decision we knew was unethical. Maybe we grabbed a cigarette behind the elementary school with friends. Young or old, in large ways and small, peer pressure impacts all of us throughout our lives.

Though they had little else in common, Peter and Herod both found occasion to sacrifice their principles on the altar of appeasement.

In the years after Christ’s death, church leadership was up for grabs. Peter may have been Jesus’s rock, but many disciples considered James, the brother of Jesus, a more natural successor.  In his letter to the Galatians, Paul describes a confrontation with Peter, who “lived like a Gentile” and was not overly concerned with observing Jewish laws until the arrival of some representatives from James (Paul calls them the “circumcision faction”). Suddenly Peter put up a good Jewish front in an attempt to please James and preserve unity in the fragile young church. Paul did not feel the same need for deference – since it bowed to the exclusion of Gentiles from the faith – and accused Peter of betraying the spirit of Christ’s teaching.

King Herod didn’t make good decisions. Contrary to Jewish custom, he divorced his first wife to marry his sister-in-law. John the Baptist publicly spoke against this arrangement. At a drunken party, Herod foolishly promised his step-daughter anything she wanted. At her mother’s urging she asked for the head of John the Baptist. Herod didn’t want to kill John and feared the consequences, but he was more afraid of losing face with his guests.

Giving in or going with the flow may feel easier in the moment, but it doesn’t sit well with our consciences later. In some cases it backfires and delivers trouble on a silver platter. Even with the best intentions, we must be careful how we compromise. Turning the other cheek is not an excuse for being two faced.

Comfort: You don’t have to make everyone happy.

Challenge: When you are torn between speaking your mind and keeping the peace, ask yourself what will be sacrificed if you say or do nothing.

Prayer: Loving God, guide me at all times in the balance of being faithful to you and loving toward your children. Amen.

Discussion: Is there a situation where you regret not sticking to your principles because you didn’t want to cause trouble?

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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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The Truth about Crumbs and Dogs

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Genesis 49:1-28, 1 Corinthians 10:14-11:1, Mark 7:24-37


Not many people win an argument with Jesus. In Mark’s gospel there is only one example. She was both a Gentile and a woman, neither of which Mark’s audience would normally find persuasive. Yet she manages to change Jesus’ mind. When she asks him to rid her daughter of an unclean spirit, he tells her the food he offers should go to the children (of Israel) and not the dogs (a slur on her people). When she replies even the dogs get the children’s crumbs, her words stir him to help her daughter. What does it tell us that Jesus not only changed his mind, but was convinced to do so by someone considered a lowly outsider?

For one thing, it tells us we ought to be cautious about being overly sure of ourselves. If Jesus can change his mind, we can too. Closing our minds, especially when we are called to be merciful, betrays both the ministry of Jesus and what we ourselves are called to do. The moment we declare boundaries around the realm of God’s grace, we have placed our own wisdom above that of Christ.

It also tells us outsiders can be insightful critics. Individuals and communities often dismiss valid criticisms because they come from “outsiders” who couldn’t possibly understand, or perceive objective yet unflattering observations as attacks. Instead of absorbing facts and asking ourselves hard questions, we dig in our heels and counter-attack. And it doesn’t take much for us to tag someone as other: Christian communities do this both with non-Christians, and fellow believers who are in different denominations or understand scripture differently. Not so with Jesus. When an outsider presented a valid perspective, he responded not with defense or attack, but reconciliation and healing. That must be our model as well.

We don’t want to change our beliefs or practices like a reed swaying in the breeze of every opinion, but if continuing those beliefs and practices requires us to ignore or reject challenging truths … they were never very strong anyway. Weak faith shrinks by rejecting truth; strong faith expands by accepting it.

Comfort: Truth will only make your faith stronger.

Challenge: Consider how do you deal with challenges to your beliefs? Do you calmly consider other opinions, or do you immediately seek to dismiss or refute them?

Prayer: God, you alone know all truth. Help me to love the world as you have truly created it, and not as my limited human understanding has tried to define it. Amen.

Discussion: Some might argue Jesus already knew he was going to reconcile with the woman. If this is the case, why might he have at first denied her? Does it change our understanding of the lessons in the story?

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