Friday, September 4, 2015

Bad Thief, Good Thief

“Those crucified with him also heaped insults upon him.”                                                                                                 - Mark 15:32b
The gospels tell us that when Jesus was crucified, two bandits – sometimes called thieves but likely convicted as insurrectionists since crucifixion was reserved for enemies of the Roman state – hung on crosses to either side of him. In Luke's gospel one of them defends Jesus against the mocking of the crowd and the other bandit, but in Matthew and Mark they both join with the crowd.

Are we more inclined to prefer the version with the "good" thief? Which do we think is a more likely
scenario? Most of the time, most of us try to get through life the best we can. Some days – when our children are sick, our marriage is troubled, our job search is going poorly, our parents are ailing, our health is failing – that best doesn't look too good to other people. During those times we all could benefit from people cutting us a little slack. And very often during those times we need to remember (and sometimes fail) not to take our frustrations out on others. Though we aren't being crucified, own fears and frustrations can blind us to the struggles of those we think are behaving badly or worthy of scorn. The sad truth is we tend to lash out at others when we recognize our own failures in them.

None of us wants to be a bad thief, but before we can be the good thief we have to be honest about our own shortcomings. Once we find the strength that is present in true humility – not the kind that shames us but the kind that frees us – we are more compassionate with ourselves and others. Let's not wait until we come face-to-face with Jesus to find that humble strength. Today we can admit our burdens are sometimes more than we can bear with grace, and lay them at the foot of the cross. Without that weight, just maybe we can help lift someone else up too.

Evening readings: Psalms 25; 40

Thursday, September 3, 2015

More is Less, Less is More

Morning readings: Psalms 116; 147:12-20, 1 Kings 11:1-13, James 3:13-4:12, Mark 15:12-21

"To want what I have, to take what I’m given with grace...for this, I pray."
- from “For My Wedding” by Don Henley
Is it human nature to be dissatisfied with what we have? Some pop psychologists portray chronic dissatisfaction as a modern ailment, but nearly twenty centuries ago the Book of James chronicled it:
"Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts." (James 4:1-2)
The downfall of King Solomon, who was revered for decades as Israel's wisest king, was due to his desire for nearly countless wives from foreign lands; despite God's warnings, they eventually led him to worship strange gods and fall out of the Lord's favor (Kings 11:1-13).

Carp competing for food.
Perhaps we long for more material comforts, more lovers, or more power because we believe they will provide contentment. Maybe our desires are masked as virtues, and we become frustrated when we seek to find patience, wisdom, or kindness beyond our natural abilities. Whether we feel we lack possessions or attitude, whose standard are we trying to live up to? God has created and loves us just as we are. When we learn to accept that love and just be, our need to have and be more evaporates. Mysteriously that's also how we begin to learn to be more: more Christ-like, more content, more loving of ourselves and others.

Jesus expressed faith in our ability to rise above our acquisitive natures and seek that which is truly valuable. In parables about pearls of great price and hidden treasures, by asking rich young men to give up all they had, he revealed the truth of gaining everything by letting it all go.

Evening readings: Psalms 26; 130

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Broken Rudders

Morning readings: Psalms 96; 147:1-11, 1 Kings 9:24-10:13, James 3:1-12, Mark 15:1-11

The Book of James teaches the tongue is small but capable of great feats. James compares this smallest of organs to a tiny rudder guiding large ships through strong winds (Jam 3:4). For this reason he warns religious teaching is a perilous pursuit, as our tongues are difficult to tame and when used carelessly cause great misdirection and harm to ourselves and others. Teachers, James says, are held to a higher standard because a spring cannot produce both brackish and fresh waters (v 11).

The chief priests and other leaders appearing in Mark 15 would have served as teachers. When Pilate, who realized Jesus had been brought to him because these leaders were jealous (Mk 15:10), offered to free a prisoner, these leaders used their tongues to convince the people to instead free Barabbas. Historically Jesus and Barabbas would both have been guilt of insurrection and similar crimes, but according to Mark Barabbas was also a murderer. The chief priests used their powerful tongues to steer the crowd to free a killer instead of a messiah.

Even today many a preacher grows a flock by appealing to people's baser nature and focusing on the "enemies" of the church. In the Western world, authentic persecution of Christians is almost unheard of, and systematic persecution is non-existent. Yet some preachers insist on targeting a group (when one group is not politically viable for attack they will move on to the next) and claiming specific people are the enemy we need to fight, all the while twisting the message to seem like love.

We do have real enemies, but Jesus taught us to love them. He also taught us what to fight: poverty, injustice, oppression, and the planks in our own eyes. The best teachers and preachers do not spend their time closing ranks and vilifying others falsely. They know binding Christ's message to hate crucifies undeserving victims. They open our eyes to how Christ's love transforms us, and through us transforms the world.

Evening readings: Psalms 132; 134

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Faith Works

Morning readings: Psalms 12; 146, 1 Kings 8:65-9:9, James 2:14-26, Mark 14:66-72

Did you know the Book of James was considered suspect by many early Christians for almost 300 years? Or that Martin Luther wanted it out of the Bible? The center of the controversy is the ongoing debate over whether Christians achieve salvation through faith alone, or whether good works are necessary to attain (or maintain) salvation. In his letters, Paul wrote over and over again that faith alone is the key to the salvation God gives freely. James says faith without works is dead (James 2:17).

Could it be possible this argument misses the point entirely? After all, the gospels themselves seem to be far less concerned with this delineation between faith and works. John's gospel is the most specific about justification through faith, mentioning several times only those who believe will find eternal life. But throughout all the gospels, Jesus speaks about faith as it is expressed through action. This message is loud and clear at the end of Matthew 25: in these verses the Lord welcomes into the Kingdom those who clothed the naked, fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, invited in the stranger, and visited the imprisoned … and rejected those who did not. This passage makes it very clear works of mercy are integral – maybe inevitable – to a life of faith.

Works do not save us, but they are a thermometer indicating whether our faith is cold and dead or burning with the flame of the Spirit. If we are not inspired to the work of the Kingdom, we may want to consider that a sign our faith has been uttered from cool intellect rather than an impassioned heart. As James says: "Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?" (vv. 15-17). A faith that cares for nothing but our own personal salvation is a hollow and selfish thing, the good china we refuse to serve food on no matter how hungry our guests may be.

Evening readings: Psalms 36; 7

Monday, March 2, 2015

You Are What You Eat

We’ve all heard the phrase “You are what you eat.” The foods we take into our bodies determine our health, our energy levels, and even our moods. Many diseases are directly related to diet, and we can prevent, control, or cure them through careful eating habits. In her novel Like Water for Chocolate, author Laura Esquivel explores the idea that our emotions can permeate the food we prepare, altering the experience of the people who consume it.

Jesus once told his disciples, who were asking if he was hungry: “I have food to eat that you do not know about” (John 4:32). In their stubbornly literal manner, they assumed he was talking about physical food and wondered who brought it, so he further explained: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” (v 34).What a radical idea: that we can be nourished by giving, and not just by receiving.

Mission trips can be hard work. We may think of missionaries as people who travel and convert “pagans” on someone else’s dime, but modern missions tend to focus on service. From digging wells to repairing homes to facing down sex traffickers, today’s missionaries spread the Good News by showing how it’s transformed their hearts. Almost to a person, they will tell us the hard, sometimes brutal, work fills them with purpose and leaves them rejuvenated.

Doing God’s work feeds us. It strengthens and refreshes our spirits. Maybe we start doing it because we think it’s what’s required of us, but if we surrender to the joy that can be found in service, we will find our spiritual hunger is satisfied not by the result or the gratitude (which may not always be present), but by the act of service itself.

As Christians we gather around the communion table, which represents God’s ultimate work in the world through the person of Jesus Christ. How fitting we commemorate him in a meal that is both physical and spiritual. When we share the bread and cup, we remember blessings are multiplied when we use them to serve others.

Evening readings: Psalms 121; 6

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Fools for Wisdom

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

What does it mean to be wise? Unlike certain types of intelligence, wisdom is not something we can rate on a scale. Neither is it the same as knowledge, which we can acquire by the ton without finding an ounce of wisdom. The cliché that wisdom comes with experience certainly holds some truth, yet many people manage to experience decades without growing much wiser at all and some young people are what we call wise beyond their years. Though most of us would like to be wise, few of us would honestly describe ourselves as such.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul says calls the thoughts of the wise futile (Cor 3:20). He advises them: “Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise” (Cor 3:19). What could this contradictory message mean?

Worldly wisdom points toward wealth, power, security, and a legalistic kind of justice. God’s wisdom, expressed through the teachings of Christ, points toward humility, mercy, risk, and a kind of justice that is about serving those most in need. The worldly view is often more appealing, and the temptation to rationalize our own desires and prejudices is a strong one. When we interact with the world, particularly if we are called to lead in some way, we should humbly seek God’s will above our own. Our confidence is to be primarily in God, not in our own thoughts and desires. True wisdom does not seek to teach so much as to learn.

Acting out of God’s wisdom may make us look foolish to the world, but it also empowers us. When Jeremiah insisted he was too young to be a prophet, God told him: “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.” (Jer 1:7). Is there a sense of freedom in knowing we are not under pressure to be wise, but instead to be listening for and guided by God’s wisdom? After we listen we must still act with integrity, discernment, and accountability – as only a fool can do.

Evening readings: Psalms 42; 32