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

Compromised

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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Faith in the Familiar

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 34; 146, Genesis 45:1-15, 1 Corinthians 7:32-40, Mark 6:1-13


Can you imagine any of your childhood friends becoming the Messiah? Neither could the people of Jesus’ hometown. When we have known someone since before they were toilet-trained, or have endured their adolescent moodiness, or have witnessed other personal (all too humanizing!) traits, our ability to see her or him as truly extraordinary can evaporate. Executive washrooms are exclusive for a reason. Familiarity may not always breed contempt, but it doesn’t often promote reverence.

When Jesus tried to teach in Nazareth, people took offense at his attempt. They asked: “Isn’t he just that carpenter? You know, Mary’s kid?” Their unbelief amazed him, and limited his abilities. Like a nightmarish high school reunion, his peers’ preconceptions negated all he had become. We may judge in hindsight, but how would we react if the neighbor kid started telling us we needed to rethink our concept of God?

Though none of our neighbors, children, siblings, parents, or friends are likely to be the second coming of Christ, the reaction of the people of Nazareth serves as a warning. We don’t always want to hear challenging truths from someone we know well. We may brush off legitimate criticism from friends by reminding ourselves (and them) of their own faults. We might ignore good advice from Dad because “he always worries too much.” After watching our children make mistakes we warned them about, we may have trouble learning to see them as capable adults. Companies often bring in consultants to point out obvious truths not because consultants are smarter, but because strangers lack the baggage we use to discredit our peers when we don’t like what they have to say.

What damage do we cause our relationships when, even unknowingly, we dismiss people because they are familiar? Maybe we’re not preventing them from performing miracles, but how much might they accomplish if shown a little faith? One way to try seeing the face of Christ in everyone is to define them by their potential, and not by their shortcomings. Sometimes they may let us down, but how we can rejoice when they lift us up!

Comfort: No matter how other people see you, God sees you as He created you to be.

Challenge: Be discerning, but don’t fall into the trap of cynicism.

Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for giving me space to grow. Please help me to live into the potential you have created for me. Please help me support and foster the potential of others. May we develop all our talents to serve God and neighbor. Amen.

Discussion: Is there anyone in your life – children, parents, friends, etc. – you are seeing through outdated eyes? How can you change that?

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Good for the Soul

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 32, Daniel 9:3-10, Hebrews 2:10-18, John 12:44-50


Alcoholics Anonymous teaches us: “You are only as sick as your secrets.” The author of Psalm 32 knew this well. He wrote of his formerly deceitful spirit:

While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

Today we might describe a secret as eating away at us or causing us to lose sleep. The longer we convince ourselves to keep our sins secret, the larger the role they play in our lives, yet somehow we convince ourselves an admission of guilt would be worse than the physical and psychological destruction we inflict upon ourselves. We fear the consequences of revealing our truths – often for good reason – but until we face them, we will not know peace. We want relief from our pain, but we turn to the bad medicine of substance abuse, anger, self-righteousness, or self-harm rather than swallow the bitter yet effective pill of confession.

Whether it is a one-on-one sacrament as observed by Roman Catholics and Lutherans or a community prayer and assurance of pardon during other Protestant liturgies, most Christian denominations practice some form of confession and absolution. Corporate confession is a valuable reminder of our ongoing need to evaluate and improve our behaviors and attitudes, but it is rarely a catalyst for deep change. Individual confession – to a priest, pastor, counselor, friend, or support group – forces us to confront truths in a personally meaningful way. Sometimes we have to admit them to others before we can really believe them. God’s forgiveness is always available to us, but first we must recognize what it is we need forgiveness for.

Guilt is a great weight. We can shift its useless burden from shoulder to shoulder, desperately growing weaker while trying to convince others we are strong … or we can confess our weakness. God’s forgiveness is not about shaming our weakness or balancing the load, but about teaching us to drop it entirely.  Each secret we speak is a weight we no longer carry.

Comfort: God’s forgiveness is always available, because He is more interested in loving us than damning us.

Challenge: Unburden yourself a little this week. Pick a sin or secret that troubles you and confess it to a trusted friend, minister, or counselor.

Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Discussion: Has anyone confessed a secret to you? How did it make you feel?

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Systems Check

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, Proverbs 30:1-4, 24-33, Philippians 3:1-11, John 18:28-38


When the Jewish leaders arrested Jesus and took him to the Roman governor Pilate, “they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover.” Let that sink in for a moment… They found ritual uncleanliness unacceptable, but framing a prophet because he might actually be speaking on behalf of God was fine. Jesus was right to compare them to tombs whitewashed on the outside and rotten on the inside.

Under Roman occupation, Jewish leaders had no authority to execute anyone but they didn’t let this technicality discourage them. By saying Jesus claimed to be a king, they made him a rival of Caesar and therefore backed Pilate into a political corner. Jesus was advocating throwing off the Roman yoke for the Kingdom of God, but that didn’t suit their purpose so they twisted the truth to fabricate evidence against him. The tactic could be ripped from today’s headlines: self-righteous group misrepresents the facts to serve some narrowly defined greater good. Pilate asked Jesus “What is truth?” and we’ve been fudging the answer ever since.

Who are the villains in this piece? Should we point to scheming Pharisees, oppressive Romans, treacherous Judas, or fair-weather crowds? The truth is, everyone was guilty. The systems in place allowed corrupt leaders to act with impunity, communities to shift blame upward, and individuals to convince themselves they had no choice when they didn’t want to consider real but difficult options. In other words, business as usual.

In what Christ-betraying systems do we knowingly or unknowingly participate? How do we help perpetuate poverty, discrimination, violence, human trafficking, and other evils? If we knew the child sold into slavery to provide us cheap sneakers was Christ, would our cries for justice be louder and our choices different? We need to examine these questions when we make purchases, accept employment, and wield – or fail to wield – privilege and influence. Choosing God’s justice often requires choosing inconvenience, discomfort, and expense.  In God’s system, where the last are first, what does it mean to look out for number one? It means working toward justice for countless others.

Comfort: Every step you take toward justice is a step toward Christ.

Challenge: Lent starts tomorrow. This year give up apathy.

Prayer: Forgive me, Lord, for not wanting to know what I do.

Discussion: Have you ever made different choices after learning “how the sausage was made?”

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Telescope or Kaleidoscope?

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 104; 150, Genesis 1:1-2:3, Ephesians 1:3-14, John 1:29-34


The first Biblical account of creation tells the story of God creating for six days and resting on the seventh. That story is immediately followed by a second one that differs in detail but still ends with the first human beings in a garden paradise. When we recall the stories, we often blur the lines between them, taking a six-day schedule from one, a borrowed rib from another. The Biblical creation accounts don’t stop with Genesis. Proverbs, Job, John, multiple Psalms – these and other passages provide widely varied accounts of how God went about creating the world. How is it they can be so different, yet part of a unified whole?

The Gospels are similar. Each tells the story of Jesus from a different viewpoint, so they are similar but not the same. Studies show that eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable, yet sometimes our legal system still depends on them. The more witnesses who can corroborate key details, the better. A telescope is accurate but limited by its singular field of vision; a kaleidoscope gives us many angles of the same view.

Let’s consider our own histories. When we and our siblings or friends reminisce about childhood, we don’t all recall it the same way. Ever listen to a married couple tell a story jointly? There is quite a bit of give and take, argument and correction as they navigate their way through the tale. Witnesses, friends, or partners, they are all working toward finding truths that can only be reconstructed by layering multiple perspectives and insights.

When we dive into the big questions – Who am I? Why am I here? What’s it all about? – no single story tells us all we need to know. The compilers of the Bible were not concerned that the creation stories “agree” because that’s not the point. Even the “conflict” between Genesis and science disappears when we consider facts and truth are not revealed in a single snapshot, but in multiple exposures over a long period of time. If we insist that only one story is factual, we’ll never know which ones are true.

Comfort: We don’t have to have all the answers.

Challenge: We have to keep asking the questions.

Prayer: God of Creation, help me to value your truth more than my own certainty. Amen.

Discussion: Every family has its own mythology. What’s one of your family’s most meaningful stories? If you don’t have a family, what makes a story meaningful to you?

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Rewriting History

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 62; 145, Joel 3:1-2, 9-17, 1 Peter 1:1-12, Matthew 19:1-12


You’ve probably heard the phrase “History is written by the victors.” It means the winners of a conflict are generally the ones who get to define history by putting their spin on it. The winning side remembers and records its heroism and bravery, but downplays or outright ignores its own moral failings and shortcomings. History books may be biased, but history itself doesn’t change – and there are often people who remember what the winners would rather forget.

Evolving attitudes towards Columbus Day and Thanksgiving are relatively recent examples of how the parts of history we celebrate never quite bury the parts we’d rather forget. Indigenous peoples of the Americas have been working for years to raise awareness about the horrible price they paid for the European colonial dream. Every culture which subdues another portrays itself in a favorable light; nobody wants to be the villain of their own story.

This type of revisionism is not limited to military history. Without in-depth study, the history of the church can also be murky to us, and what we consider fundamental may be a more recent development than we’d like to admit. For example, when the Pharisees challenged Jesus on the legitimacy of divorce, Jesus responded with a more conservative answer than they expected, saying anyone who divorced and remarried committed adultery. When they argued Moses himself set up the conditions for divorce, he said, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” In this case divorce was the “winner” and people seemed to have conveniently forgotten it was not always so.

The church of today is very different than the church of a thousand years ago, which was very different from the church a thousand years before that. Even the church’s more fundamentalist branches, which style themselves as a return to the basics of Biblical faith and teaching, are a relatively modern phenomenon which approaches scripture and church community very differently than did earlier Christians. As the current “winners” of history, we are compelled to justify our present by reinterpreting the past. The danger in this is feeling the need to deny the truth when it returns to haunt us.

As important as tradition and doctrine are to understanding our faith, it’s just as important to understand the reasons behind them. Sometimes, like the Pharisees’ take on divorce, they are justifications for our failures. Not every change to how we understand faith and scripture – not every tradition we reevaluate – is a step away from “authentic” Christianity. Some of them may be a step back toward it. Those who define the church today are history’s winners. If the first really would be last, it might be a good idea to listen to the buried and forgotten truths we need to hear from the losers.

Comfort: Truth is a promise, not a threat.

Challenge: Do some research on how the Bible came to be.

Prayer: For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken.  (Psalm 62:1-2)

Discussion: Have you ever learned something you thought you knew about history wasn’t correct?

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Step Into The Light

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 143; 147:12-20, Nehemiah 9:1-15 (16-25), Revelation 21:22-22:5, Matthew 18:1-9


Revelation is a complicated book. Some people read it quite literally, others symbolically, and still others as a mixture of both. Whatever your take, the following passage paints a beautiful picture of eternal life.

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day — and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

In this world, shadows and darkness hide a great deal of evil. The shadows may be literal like those providing cover for thieves in the night or muggers in a dark alley, or they may be more figurative like secret meetings in boardrooms and halls of power. They can even be psychological and cultural, like the lies we tell and the cover we provide to ignore and excuse exploitation of all kinds of people.

In God’s presence, none of these shadows exist.

In this world we will never know the absolute light of eternity, but we have a choice between reflecting the light or the darkness. We are complicated mix of both, and we can’t always tell the difference in ourselves or others. One of the most important criteria in making that distinction is truth – even when it contradicts what we’d rather say or believe. If we feel it’s our job to pad God’s resume by overstating claims about our faith and church or by ignoring and denying inconvenient information, we aren’t letting the light shine through us. Covering something up – be it scandal, doubt, failure, or mistake – only casts a deserved shadow on our reputation. Being truthful about who we are doesn’t diminish God; it demonstrates how much we need God.

Anyone who’s left a movie theater mid-afternoon knows stepping from the darkness into the light can be a painful transition. Yet we eventually must leave behind the pleasant fictions and enter reality. The highest reality, illuminated by love and truth and mercy and righteousness, strips away all shadows. Let’s do our best to step through its always-open gates with nothing to hide.

For thoughts on today’s reading from Matthew, see Faith Like a Child, Speechless, or Hands, Eyes, and Butterflies.

Comfort: Truth is the light which drives out darkness.

Challenge: Inventory the words and behaviors you keep secret, and ask yourself whether they should be revealed or discarded.

Prayer: Return, O my soul, to your rest, for the LORD has dealt bountifully with you. (Psalm 116:7)

Discussion: Twelve-step programs have a saying: “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” What do you think that means?

Join the discussion! If you enjoyed this post, feel free to join an extended discussion as part of the C+C Facebook group. You’ll be notified of new posts through FB, and have the opportunity to share your thoughts with some lovely people. Or feel free to comment here on WordPress, or even re-blog – the more the merrier!