Sunday, January 25, 2015

Never on a Sunday?

Today’s readings: Psalms 67; 150, Isaiah 47:1-15, Hebrews 10:19-31,  John 5:2-18

We all play by the rules. Maybe not the same rules, but generally speaking our behaviors fall into patterns that we apply consciously and subconsciously. Some rules are taught to us by our families, some by society, and some by simple observation. Most are created for good reasons, but over time circumstances change and the rationale for many rules—especially religious ones—grows distorted. Rules can become so integral to our identities that breaking them threatens our sense of self. We may find ourselves existing to serve the rules, rather than the other way around. Jesus performing healings on the Sabbath presented just such a threat to the Pharisees, whose identity depended on rules.

Since Sabbath healings – which were against the rules – appear in all four Gospels, we can assume the message of these stories is important. Rather than judge the Pharisees, let’s learn from their example. Our expectations of other people’s behavior are often based on the rules we’ve imposed on ourselves. We may become offended when such expectations are not met. When this happens, we choose how to react: we can dig in our heels, or we can examine the reason for our defensiveness. We needn't automatically assume we are wrong, but self-examination never hurt anyone. Like Jesus, we need to consider when rules are appropriate, and when they should be superseded by compassion, justice or love. In Christ we are a people of love, and not a people of law—even self-imposed law. Is the Sabbath made holier by offering mercy or withholding it?

But Christianity is not a free-for-all! Christ has expectations of his followers. Determining these expectations can be hard work, because “love your neighbor” is not nearly as explicit as a list of forbidden activities. Christ didn’t offer formulas for faith, but principles for relationships with God and neighbor. Our rule is love, and its accompanying expectations can change with each person we encounter.

Evening readings: Psalms 46; 93

Saturday, January 24, 2015

These Boots Were Made For Preachin'

Today’s readings: Psalms 56; 149, Isaiah 46:1-13, Ephesians 6:10-24, Mark 5:1-20

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul created one of the most popular extended metaphors in Christian literature: the armor of God. He writes about the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit. He mentions shoes, but is noticeably less specific about them: “put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace” (Eph 6:15).

What do we put on to make us ready to proclaim the gospel of peace? As a society we design and purchase shoes specific to a countless number of functions. Sneakers are now court shoes, cross-trainers, running shoes, walking shoes, and on and on. We buy shoes specific to occupations, seasons, and recreational choices (we’re especially looking at you, bowlers!). Perhaps we really don’t need so many kinds of shoes, but each makes its corresponding activity easier, safer, and/or more comfortable. That may be a good model for proclaiming the gospel.

Not everyone is open to hearing the good news in the same way. Some prefer an intellectual approach. Others respond to a more emotional testimony. And others learn more from observing our actions than listening to our words. There are probably as many ways people hear the gospel proclaimed as there are … styles of shoes. Our natural tendency is to proclaim the gospel in a way that fits us comfortably: “If I am touched by emotional stories, you must be, too!” Sharing the gospel with someone in a way that does not speak to them can be awkward and even painful. Just as we might check the weather before deciding on flip-flops or snow boots, we should take time to get to know someone rather than forcing an inappropriate style of witness on them.

We can each become a collector of “proclamation” footwear – it’s free, takes up no  space in our closets, and the more we have the more we can spread the good news!

Evening readings: Psalms 118; 111

Friday, January 23, 2015

Healthy Fear

Today's readings: Psalms 130; 148, Isaiah 45:18-25, Ephesians 6:1-9, Mark 4:35-41

What words describe your feelings about Jesus? Awe? Respect? Love? Gratitude? Comfort? How about… fear? The Bible uses the phrase “fear of God” or “fear of the Lord” to describe the proper reverence we owe God, but Jesus is generally portrayed as more immediate, more understanding, more human. His disciples found him sufficiently charismatic to leave behind jobs, homes and families and follow him far and wide. He persuaded people through love, not fear. But is there a fearful side to Jesus?

One day Jesus and the disciples were on a boat after a long day of preaching to large crowds when a storm rose. Jesus might have slept right through it, but the disciples were afraid and woke him. He “rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, 'Peace! Be still! ' Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.” (Mark 4:39) Afterward the disciples asked each other who this Jesus person was, that he commanded nature herself. We might assume such a display would be comforting, but when someone you think you understand turns out to be a different person entirely, it is unsettling. What expectations accompanied that awesome power?

Jesus changed from magnetic preacher to unknown quantity in a heartbeat. Some disciples must have doubted the safety of continuing to follow this powerful figure. When we study Jesus, do we settle for “Jesus 101” – the introductory course with a benign, almost chummy Jesus? Or do we go for the advanced study: a Jesus who can be frightening and demanding, but who offers a much richer life? Maybe we can synthesize the two: a Jesus who upends our expectations, but loves and supports us through the demands of the new life he offers. Remembering Jesus is more than a companion who walks and talks with us “in the garden” helps us realize the deep reality of who Christ is – and who we can become in him.

Evening readings: Psalms 32; 139

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Questions Worth Asking

Today's readings: Psalms 36; 147:12-20, Isaiah 45:5-17, Ephesians 5:15-33, Mark 4:21-34

Human beings like answers. It was true thousands of years ago in the time of the prophet Isaiah, it's true today, and it will be true thousands of years from now. Uncertainty vexes us. Sometimes we are more content to grasp at false answers than to have no answers at all. Yet sometimes the answer is simply ... there is no answer.

When the exiled nation of Israel cried out against God's seeming abandonment of them, Isaiah challenged their right to take God to task. He compared them to clay questioning the choices of the potter. The God of Israel declared he "made weal and created woe" (Is 45:7) as he saw fit, and human beings should not strive to comprehend why.

Like the ancient Israelites, we often want to know why God has allowed things

(more often bad than good) to happen to us. Some people's faith evaporates when something bad happens and the world stops making sense to them. "How can a loving God let bad things happen?" they wonder. That question can feel threatening to people of faith. An entire industry of apologetics, creationist "proofs," and theological musings has evolved to address that question. In the end, most of them are overly pat and largely unsatisfying.

Questioning is healthy, but some questions will remain unanswerable. Isaiah, Job, Proverbs: these scriptures and others advise us energy spent on unanswerable questions could be put to better use. If we can accept that God is good and bad things still happen, we can move on to address questions of a faith lived in the world as it really is: Whom shall we serve? How shall we love? Where is God leading us? Questions worth asking are worth living through.

Evening readings: Psalms 80; 27

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Seeds of Faith

Today's readings: Psalms 15; 147:1-11, Isaiah 44:24-45:7, Ephesians 5:1-14, Mark 4:1-20

Jesus frequently used parables to teach his followers. A parable is more than a story: it illustrates a deeper truth or lesson not easily expressed through more direct instruction. Most of the time Jesus tells a parable and leaves the interpretation to his audience. One benefit of not explaining too much is that people can approach the parable from different angles and identify with different characters.

For today's parable about the seeds, however, he unpacks the meaning of the parable (in a somewhat exasperated fashion) to his inner circle. The seeds are the Word, and the type of soil they land on represents the condition of the person receiving the Word. Only a few are standing on good soil where the seed can take root and produce fruit.

We can benefit from Jesus' explanation by making conscious decisions about what kind of ground we are preparing for the seed. On a path where the evils of the world can snatch the Word away? Retreat to a community that nurtures your faith. On rocky ground that won't secure you in times of trouble? Till the soil with prayer and study so you will be rooted in the storms. Caught in a thorny tangle of worldly concerns that chokes out the Word? Prune them back by simplifying your life to free up time and space to spend in the Word.

Of course making any of these moves from inhospitable soil to a place where we can grow deep roots takes a lot of time and effort. And once we're there, we can't lazily wait for a harvest: we still have to do the work of tending the seedlings. A living, growing faith requires care, but as it matures it becomes more self-sufficient. Are we doing what we can to make sure it gets a decent start?

Evening Psalms 48; 4

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Idols, Idols Everywhere

Today's readings: Psalms 123; 146, Isaiah 44:9-20, Ephesians 4:17-32, Mark 3:19b-35

The prophet Isaiah paints a very vivid picture of a man creating an idol. This man plants and nourishes a cedar. Half of it he uses as fuel for a fire he can use to roast meat and warm himself. The other half he carves into a god and worships. As far as Isaiah is concerned, he is worshipping the equivalent of the ashes left from his cook fire.

For some people, money is an idol, though it is no more than paper and stamped metal (and sometimes no more than a promise). For others it's a tribal affiliation, such as a political party whose platform is only as stable as it's electability. Still others idolize a denomination, the Bible, beauty, fame, or power. We may not call them idols, but they serve the same purpose and keep us from full relationship with the true God.

Even family can be an idol. When Jesus' family tries to call him away from the crowd gathered around him to hear his teachings, he declares: "Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother" (Mk 3:35). When we focus on immediate family to the exclusion of our greater family in God, we have created an idol. We need not reject our birth family, but we should be prepared to add to it.

What idols do we need to clear from our own lives? What draws focus and energy that belong to God? Perhaps it is a grudge we bear. Maybe it is an obsession with social status. It could be an addiction or a relationship or ... well, anything.

Anything we idolize is ultimately no more than ash destined to blow away on the wind. Only God is constant. We can appreciate the impermanent things of creation, but our love must be reserved for the eternal creator.

Evening readings: Psalms 30; 86

Monday, January 19, 2015

Healthy Body /Healthy Spirit

Today's readings: Psalms 135; 145, Isaiah 44:6-8, 21-23, Ephesians 4:1-16, Mark 3:7-19

When an injury occurs, overcompensating with another body part can cause further harm. For example, limping for an extended period can strain the good leg and the back and require additional treatment. Another example of the interconnectedness of our parts is the phenomenon of referred pain, which occurs when injury to one body part causes pain in a different one, such as a spinal injury causing arm pain, making proper diagnosis and treatment difficult.

In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul compares the structure of the body of Christ to the human body. He emphasizes the importance of each part, and the need for unity in a healthy body. For the body to grow in love, all parts must function properly. Sometimes, though, we may not be able to easily determine which part we're meant to be. What then?

Our "diagnostic test" is this: do our actions (or inactions) contribute to the spiritual unity of the body? If we cause other parts to falter or carry our burdens, we need to reexamine our role. However, any physical therapist knows pain in the cause of healing is sometimes unavoidable. When it occurs in the body of Christ, we must ask ourselves whether the pain is a price to pay for unity. If it is, the body will be stronger for enduring it; if not we must cease. When the body is brought back into balance, pain for all members of the body is minimized and the use of our gifts is maximized.

Like physical health, spiritual health is not founded on quick fixes. It is a mature approach to healthy, balanced decisions benefitting the body, not just ones satisfying our localized  whims and short-term comfort. We all depend on each other, and must provide and accept support accordingly.

Evening readings: Psalms 97; 112