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Saturday, October 10

Today’s Readings: Job 20:1-29; Matthew 15:1-9; Psalm 22:1-15

There is a theological stream of thought that undergirds portions of the Hebrew Scriptures. That stream runs something like this: if you are good, God will bless/reward you; if you are bad, God will curse/punish you. On the surface, this sounds like a helpful way of thinking. When applied to real life, however, this way of thinking often gets exposed as being less than helpful.

I had my own run in with this theological train of thought in my first job out of college. I worked diligently to establish myself as a conscience, hard worker during my first three years on the job. During my fourth year on the job, however, a new person started work in the facility. At first, she seemed like a wonderfully supportive person. She volunteered to help when my workload was overwhelming, and she was eager to sit and brainstorm new solutions to long-existing problems. Over time, however, she revealed herself to be a very different person.

The duties she helped with became weapons that were later used against the co-workers she assisted. The ideas that she helped brainstorm later became presented as her own. I had never met a more manipulative, vindictive person in my life.

During the three years that we worked together, I kept expecting her to get exposed for the person she really was. It never happened. She was a large part of the reason I chose to leave a job I had once loved.

Adherents of the bless/reward or curse/punishment theology would say, “Craig, you didn’t wait long enough. Eventually her bad behavior would have been punished.” Perhaps. All I know is that such a way of thinking – a way of thinking articulated by Zophar in today’s reading from Job – isn’t satisfying on many levels.

My question for you to consider today is this. When life throws you a curveball, and the good old bless/reward or curse/punish way of thinking breaks down for you, how do you make sense of what is happening? Til next time…

Friday, October 9

Today’s Readings: Job 18:1-21; Hebrews 4:1-11; Psalm 22:1-15

I remember when computers were first coming in the consciousness of the mainstream public how people looked to the future and projected how easy our lives would be with them. People talked about how the hours contained in a regular work week would be slashed dramatically. Many of our household tasks, we were promised, would also be taken over by computers. All the time that we had spent working so industriously would now be converted to leisure time. Those projections sure sounded wonderful!!

Here we are a couple decades later, and that same technology the spoke of has increased – not decreased – the demands on our lives. Because of the way we are wired these days, people are making more and more demands of us 24/7. In light of this development, there is one thing that has proven to be more elusive than anything else: rest.

Today’s passage from Hebrews puts a wonderful spin on this notion of rest by suggesting that it’s not as elusive as we might think. It suggests that rest isn’t about having nothing to do; rest is about something else. “If we believe, though, we’ll experience that state of resting… The promise of ‘arrival’ and ‘rest’ is still there for God’s people.”

Today, as you struggle to meet the demands of your schedule, remember those words. As you claim them for yourself, perhaps you’ll find that the rest you seek is not as elusive as you might have first thought. Til next time…

Wednesday, October 7

Today’s Readings: Job 15:1-35; Matthew 5:27-36; Psalm 55:1-15

When I was active in the field of politics, I always found it interesting the way a candidate’s faith was treated. As I was most active in the field during the 1990’s, there were a couple expectations laid out for candidates.

Most candidates, for instance, were expected to publicly claim a faith (in Eastern Washington – where I lived at the time – the expectation was that that faith would be Christian) and they were expected to throw in an occasional reference to that faith (i.e. the President saying some version of “God bless America” in their State of the Union speech). As long as candidates did those sorts of things in public, they were considered electable. Most folks paid little attention to whether or not their positions reflected the faith they professed with their lips – but that would be fodder for another day.

Of course, that standard wouldn’t be good enough for Jesus. In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus is quoted as saying: “And don’t say anything you don’t mean… You only make things worse when you lay down a smoke screen of pious talk… You don’t make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace” (Matthew 5:35-36 from The Message).

Of course political candidates aren’t the only ones guilty of this practice. Many of us do that as well as Jesus pointed out when he talked about those who said “I’ll pray for you” and never do – or say “God be with you” and don’t mean it. Ouch!

Today, I would invite you to explore the ways you invoke (or don’t invoke) your faith in your everyday language. Do your references to your faith reflect what you really believe, or are you simply giving people what you think they want to hear? Til next time…

Tuesday, October 6

Today’s Readings: Job 11:1-20; 1 Corinthians 7:10-16; Psalm 55:1-15

I can certainly relate to the feelings the psalmist addressed in the culminating verses of today’s psalm – especially those words contained in verses 12-14. Those words reminded me of a friendship I had with a woman whom I’ll call Amy.

Amy was one of my teachers in high school. She was an amazingly well educated individual who had a passion for issues of justice. When she was a young person, for instance, Amy spent time as a civil rights advocate in Selma, Alabama in the 1960’s. I looked up to Amy a great deal, and was thrilled that we were able to maintain our friendship well after I graduated from high school.

Eight years after I graduated, however, I had a conversation with Amy that changed our friendship forever. In that conversation, I finally disclosed my sexual orientation. I didn’t think I had much to worry about since Amy had such a long history of respecting the worth of all people. Sadly, I found I was wrong. Amy never accepted my disclosure. In fact, it was the last conversation she and I ever had. Amy passed away nine years later.

As the years passed and I realized that Amy had completely cut me out of her life, I could have said the same words as the psalmist: “This isn’t the neighborhood bully mocking me – I could take that. This isn’t a foreign devil spitting invective – I could tune that out. It’s you!... [one of] my best friend[s]!” (Psalm 55:12-14 from The Message). I could never take my frustrations as far as the psalmist took his – for despite my disappoint, I would never want to go where the psalmist went in verse 15 (“haul my betrayers off to hell – let them experience the horror, let them feel every desolate detail of a damned life”).

So what about you? Have you had an experience where a close friend or ally betrayed you? If so, how did you handle it? Did you find yourself in the headspace of the psalmist, or did you take your frustrations in another direction? Til next time…

Monday, October 5

Today’s Readings: Job 8:1-22; 1 Corinthians 7:1-9; Psalm 55:1-15

Many of us have experienced pain of some sort because of theological statements others have made to us. For instance, we might have lost a loved one prematurely and heard someone at the memorial service say, “Well, I guess God needed so-and-so more than we did.” We might have unexpectedly lost a job we loved – only to hear someone say dismissively, “Don’t worry. When God closes one door, God opens another.” We may even have had a cherished relationship end without warning – and heard a well intentioned individual say, “Get over it. God must have had other plans for you.” In today’s reading from Job, we even heard Bildad say to Job after Job had endured the painful death of his children: “It’s plain that your children sinned against [God] – otherwise, why would God have punished them?” (Job 8:4 from The Message). It’s no wonder so many people who hear these sorts of statements experience feelings that drive them away from a spiritual life.

So how does one overcome such hurtful statements and return to a meaningful relationship with God?

I certainly can’t speak for everyone, but I can share an insight that helped me overcome such statement. The key moment for me was realizing there is a difference between God and those theologies we human beings formulate to think about God. When people use theological statements that are hurtful – those statements are not from God. They are simply attempts by finite human beings to make sense out of things that are far beyond their comprehension. Those human limitations are reflected in such statements and are the real source of the pain; not God.

Perhaps there is an old hurt that you are holding on to that is creating distance between you and God – a hurt born out of an insensitive remark someone in your life made in God’s name. If that’s the case, I would invite you to spend some time today in prayer/meditation as your work on letting go of that pain and opening yourself to long overdue healing. Til next time…

Sunday, October 4

Today's Reading: Mark 10:2-16

My sermon/reflection for the day...

The first job I had out of college was one where I taught English and Social Studies to offenders detained in the juvenile detention center back in Spokane, WA.

The job was a challenge for me on several levels – one of which was dealing with the way staff were expected to deal with the youth. You see at the time Spokane didn’t have an institution to process the most hardened of juvenile offenders. Consequently, every youth in the community that had committed an offense was housed together while their case was being processed. This meant you had those accused of simple misdemeanors sharing space with those accused of rape or murder. This meant the staff had to be incredibly careful about monitoring the interactions between youth. As a consequence, the rules that governed the youth were extremely strict. The kids were told, for instance, that they could not get out of their chairs unless they had permission from a staff member to do so.

I’ll never forget the day during my first year of teaching where the rigid rules of the institution bumped up against common sense. I was working with a young man in the back of the classroom when the fire alarm unexpectedly went off. Now most of the students in the school were able to intuitively interpret the rule they had learned about not getting out of one’s chair without permission in light of an emergency. So most of the students stood up, lined up single-file facing the exit, and waited for the next set of instructions. That is - all students but one: a young man whom I’ll call Shane.

As I hurried to usher the kids out of the classroom, I saw Shane out of the corner of my eye planted in his seat, smiling like a Cheshire Cat.

“Shane, why aren’t you in line?” I asked.

“Because I followed instructions. ‘Never to get out of your chair without permission, remember?’” he said, mockingly.

While Shane’s response was correct on a literal level – he was completely unaware of the deeper principle that undergirded the rules for the youth: the deeper principle being the safety of the youth came first.

All of the other students knew what that principle was, and acted accordingly. It was Shane’s rigidity –his desire to get a rise out of the staff – that set him apart.

So why am I talking about this?

Well, there are those folks in our Christian communities who hear Jesus’ words from today’s passage from Mark and receive the words much like the way Shane received his words of instruction. They look at the surface meaning of Jesus’ words and remain oblivious to the principles underlying those words.

So what principles might those be?
Well it depends on which piece of the passage you are looking at. When Jesus said, for instance, that when a person divorces his or her spouse to marry another they are committing adultery – he was speaking to an audience where marriages were understood primarily as transactions involving a primary party (a man) and his property (a woman). When Jesus those words about divorce in verses 10-12, he was attempting to inject two radical concepts in their definition of marriage: respect and balance.

Sadly, some have used Jesus’ words to force individuals to stay in disrespectful, unbalanced relationships because they - like Shane - missed the underlying point.

Similarly, folks have taken a surface reading of Jesus’ words in verse five – the part where Jesus is quoted as saying “God made male and female to be together” – and use it as a blanket condemnation for lesbian and gay persons - all the while ignoring the fact that those words were embedded in a 2,000 year old assumption that all people were drawn to partners of the opposite gender. In holding on to that ancient assumption, they miss Jesus deeper call: be true to yourself and open yourself to the possibility of finding the one who makes you whole. Those, I believe, are words we can ALL live by.

Sadly, by taking Jesus’ words out of their cultural context and completely ignoring their underlying principles, some have taken Jesus’ timeless words of love and turned them into weapons of destruction.

Friends, on this World Communion Sunday, I would encourage you to receive Jesus’ words for what they are: an honest and passionate attempt to bring all of us into right relationship with one another. For if the pressing issues of our day – issues such as global climate change and the global economic recession - have taught us anything, it’s that our relationships matter. Whether our commitment to living in right relationship is affirmed by the way we commit ourselves to our life-partner, or whether it is affirmed through our patterns of consumption that show our concern for generations to come from around the globe, may we heed Jesus’ call to embrace the integrity of ALL our relationships.