July 31, 2014 — kindness

Today’s Bible reading

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. Titus 3:3-7 

More thoughts for meditation

Sometimes you wonder if people even bother with the sections of the Bible that deal with the fruits of the Spirit, and specifically kindness. Avowed Christians are frequently seen in public angrily shouting at people outside abortion clinics or on the edge of gay pride parades. It hardly seems in keeping with the behavior Paul is endorsing above and in the rest of his letter to Titus. Paul doesn’t want to let us forget that we all needed and need saving and that we were and are all being treated kindly by God.

If you have a hard time understanding what Paul is driving at I think that’s a good thing. You’re probably not being a jerk to a lot of people. A helpful metaphor for what’s going on might be you as a child winning at anything. I think everyone goes through a phase where they aspire to the best at whatever task is occurring in the immediate vicinity, particularly if it’s a game being played by your peers. Winning feels great and children can easily get caught up in the moment, gloating and lording it over their playmates. It is irrelevant how many times they lost or how badly they may have felt when they lost.

Paul wants to correct two things in that scenario. The first is that you didn’t really win anything. Christ gave himself for you out of kindness. You didn’t really do anything to deserve it. The second is that you shouldn’t completely forget how bad it felt to be on the losing side. When you’re engaging with people who don’t know Jesus it doesn’t benefit you or them to treat them poorly. Everyone is served, including Jesus, when you are kind. Jesus is the Kindness of God

Suggestions for action

Pray: Jesus, humble me. Lead me to kind words and actions

Rewrite that Facebook post. Reconsider saying anything to your passionately atheist coworker. Spend the day considering what the kindest thing to do for a person might be. Keep in mind that being kind doesn’t require that you not speak the truth but let the truth be spoken in the spirit of love, both for God and for the person you are interacting with.

July 30, 2014 — faithful

Today’s Bible reading

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal Glory. Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself. 2 Timothy 2:8-13

More thoughts for meditation 

We tend to make our understanding of Jesus’ faithfulness contingent on a lot of things in America. We are the people who invented the Gospel of Prosperity so the rich could feel spiritually blessed by their material success. But faithfulness isn’t really something that is expressed in the best times. We find out what faith means and who among our friends and family are faithful when things grow difficult. Faithfulness implies some amount of perseverance.

The depth of Paul’s faith is on display in his second letter to Timothy. He has been abandoned by many and is currently being held as a prisoner. These would be reasonable circumstances for anyone to engage in some amount of self-pity. But Paul doesn’t allow himself to despair.  Even though he is being subjected to some pretty dire persecution and betrayal he insists on Jesus’ faithfulness, proclaiming that the word of God is not chained. Paul can probably say that because he knows that he is part of a much larger project than his own personal success or immediate happiness.  He is serving to build God’s Kingdom.

Holding on to Jesus’ faithfulness can be a struggle and we should find encouragement in Paul’s letter and in the example of many other of our forbearers in the faith. St. John of the Cross wrote a whole book about feeling separated from God called The Dark Night of the Soul. After her death it was found that Mother Theresa, in her diary, had lamented feeling distant from God at times. Life in this broken world will often leave us feeling isolated but the promise of God remains steadfast.  Even if you can’t rejoice, try to find solace in the faithfulness of Jesus. Jesus is faithful.

Suggestions for action 

Pray: Help me to persevere, Jesus. Let me remember your faithfulness.

It might be a good idea to spend some time counting your blessings. These can be for the sort of providence we typically think of like a home, family, and health, but those things are not always where we feel blessed. You might have dig for it. Think of your extended family in the Church or in your community. How have you been blessed by one of them? If you are really struggling it is worthy to sit with God in your affliction. You may need to cry out to him or seek the help of your brothers and sisters.

July 29, 2014 — merciful

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. 1 Timothy 1 12-15

More thoughts for meditation

I think it’s easy to get stuck considering ourselves little more than sinners. We get caught forever thinking about the ways we have failed Jesus. It isn’t necessarily wrong to imagine that he is eternally forgiving as we are eternally sinning, but if the only thing you do relative to Jesus is sin your missing out.  Jesus isn’t a father who was never really satisfied with how we completed a chore or a mother who never really left us alone to do anything and would provide continuous commentary on a missed steps and lack of attentiveness.  He is not our internalized voice of shame.

If Jesus was nothing more than a reminder of how we always screw up Paul is missing the point badly in his letter to Timothy. Though Paul declares himself to be the foremost sinner he also thanks Jesus for giving him strength and “appointing [him] to his service.” It doesn’t really sound like Paul is trapped by Jesus in a cycle of self-loathing and flagellation. Rather, Jesus has lifted Paul up. He has called out what was good and best in him and empowered him to use those traits to build the Kingdom of God. Not all of Paul was worth rejecting when God found him: Jesus had “judged him to be faithful” before calling him to serve.

Jesus is saving us from sin but in doing so he is also calling us to live a life full of purpose, love, and joy. Christ’s mercy shouldn’t be a source of shame. It should be a source of joy. Joy, after all, is really what transforms us. Jesus is merciful.

Suggestions for action 

Pray the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Try to be merciful today. Not because you are lord of all, but because it might be a good way to get in touch with what Jesus is doing with you. God has forgiven you so why not be as generous as you are able with your fellow sinners? If an act of mercy is to awkward, start out with being merciful in thought. Walking anywhere as crowded as Philly will provide you ample opportunity to silently judge others. Give the person standing on the stairs while talking on their phone a blessing. The guy who jumps the traffic light to turn left? Maybe don’t call him an idiot. If you can, actually forgive someone.

 

July 28, 2014 — comforter

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read 2 Thessalonians 3

Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our father, who loved us ad gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.

More thoughts for meditation

A nominally Catholic coworker of mine once recounted the story of her infant son’s baptism to me. It was enlightening.  She didn’t really talk about the significance of baptizing a child and the eternal consequences wrapped up in the act. She told me the more immediate story of shushing her husband who complained about the priest’s reference to original sin and how in this act, their son, was being saved from it. His contention was that the child was perfect and that the priest should probably stick to being a celibate weirdo who would forever be ignored by these two parents.

I only mention this because Jesus’ grace can be a hard thing to accept. It involves us first reckoning with our own brokenness and then realizing we need a savior. It’s hard to imagine anything worse than needing a savior. Just think about how embarrassed you were when someone helped you when you fell down in the street. Being in need is mortifying. So when we run up against Jesus the Savior, we are in need of some gentle encouragement.

It might sound funny that we need to be comforted when we are being given a great gift but the nature of this gift can be shattering. For reference material outside your own life, check out this scene from The Mission:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYNhTOdUzDc

Grace has been given, and there is joy, but sometimes we need to be carried into the joy. Jesus is the comforter.

Suggestions for action

Pray: Lord, comfort me in my brokenness. Help me accept your grace

Get in touch with your need for God. Try to find ways to let him lead you to those places in yourself that need to be saved or that you need to be saved from. What are the patterns of behavior you can’t escape? Let yourself be comforted by the knowledge that God, through grace, has forgiven you and is with you.

 

July 27, 2014 — triumphant

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not proceed those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.

More thoughts for meditation

I remember crying more than I thought I should when my Grandmother died. I was so sad. It was actually a pretty big surprise to me. I wasn’t especially close to her but I knew she loved me and had spent enough time with her to say I loved her. It would be difficult to be the type of Grandmother a grandchild didn’t at least like, I suppose. I was also surprised to hear myself tell someone not long afterward that I thought the reason I was so sad was because I felt, deep down, how wrong it was that we die. It was just cosmically wrong. Death was an inherent injustice.

The ache of people we have loved dying is something we learn to deal with. But I don’t think we, at least I don’t, really reckon with this sadness in the light of Christ’s triumphant return. When we get down to the nuts and bolts of the resurrection it is difficult. It’s easier to slink away from the sadness of death than to have old wounds opened up by the longing for the resurrection that is really at the center of mourning. It is hard to struggle to find hope.

Even if we manage to not think about death we often have a hard time hanging on to more mundane hopes than eternal life. I’ve talked to many friends who have a hard time hoping anyone will ever really love them, as a friend or as a spouse. Everyone is always one distasteful discovery away from abandoning each other. Isn’t that what Seinfeld was about? We often acclimate ourselves to situations we don’t like because the bad situation we are in is “all that could be hoped for.” We die to any number of hopes on a daily basis.

So when it comes to the big hopes, like Jesus returning with a booming voice to summon me back from the dead, it’s understandably difficult. But this is the promise he gives us: that there is life beyond death for those who put their hope in him. Christ is triumphant.

 Suggestions for action

Pray: Lord, be with me in my struggle. Help me persevere in hope.

Look for the things in your day that defeat you and steal your hope. What would the triumph of Jesus look like in those situations? What is it like to keep the image of Christ’s ultimate triumph in your imagination all day? Try to rest in the promise.

July 26, 2014 — preeminent

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read Colossians 1:15-23

And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.

More thoughts for meditation

The list of things we put before Jesus can be long and seem totally reasonable. We don’t want to offend someone by talking about what Jesus has done for us. We really don’t want our boss to know we’re a Christian because that would just make the job we hate awkward, too. Sometimes, we can’t even think of a reason that Jesus would be preeminent in our lives — we’re so wrapped up in just struggling to maintain that the things Jesus offers us seem far off, and the idea that he’s doing something right now seems impossible.

Letting first things be first can be a struggle. Just think of all the tools people come up with to organize their lives so that something doesn’t get missed. An obvious example of this is the urgent/important matrix.

http://i.imgur.com/OQap6wX.jpg

It might be a worthwhile exercise to invest some time in this tool in general so you can have a chance to breathe. It would probably only take you thirty seconds to figure out which one of the dozen or so things you want to do is actually worthy of your time. Beyond the secular self-help application offered by the matrix, it might also be helpful to assess where you put Jesus in it.

If many of us were honest with ourselves, he’d probably make into the important/not urgent category. But we could also use the matrix as a reminder. Just plop Jesus right in the upper right hand corner. You might find that seeing his name there will help you remember that the crises that can’t be ignored are also not going to crush you. At the very least, you should remember that Jesus has put himself in the middle of your life, especially the things that really matter to you.

Suggestions for action

Pray: Jesus, lead me through the storm. Lead me to peace.

Go ahead and actually try that matrix idea. If you think that’s too hokey because you heard about it in high school, spend some time doing a personal inventory of what you find important. Is Jesus preeminent? Is he more important than your job? Is he more important than your political identity? Is he more important than your sense of personal justice?

July 25, 2014 — servant

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!  Philippians 2:5-8

More thoughts for meditation

A friend of mine retweeted a quote the other day. It was “Each one of us continues to carry the heart of each we’ve ever been, at every stage along the way, and a chaos of everything good and rotten. And we have to carry this weight all alone, through each day that we live. We try to be as nice as we can to the people we love, but we alone support the weight of ourselves.” I think my friend thought it was inspiring. I found it crushing. It gave me some insight into how lonely they must feel sometimes.

It was a good thing I read Philippians not long after. The worm of that quote was chewing on my brain. Jesus offers us much more than the angst of being alone to carry the burden of ourselves. He comes along side us, accepts the rotten and the good, and offers us the opportunity to be freed from the rotten and to discover an even better good. He did not come so that we could remain lonely, bent under our burden. He came to bear the weight we can’t and to help us shoulder the load we must.

The forgiveness of our sins was something that we couldn’t accomplish on our own. Jesus did it for us out of love. Even before his death and resurrection, Jesus acted as a servant to his disciples, famously washing their feet. He also declared the “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” Instead of stoically hoisting our brokenness, we are called to release to Jesus what we cannot carry ourselves.

Suggestions for action

Pray: Jesus Christ my savior. May I humbly serve as you have.

Let the servant Jesus be an example to you. Be gentle with others who are struggling. Perhaps there is a way you can help empower someone to do something they didn’t think was possible. Maybe you need to give something up to Jesus to get something done? Do you need to forgive a friend so your relationship can bear fruit? Are you afraid of inviting people to cell because you think you’re alone when you ask? Let Jesus do the work you can’t.

July 24, 2014 — peace

Today’s Bible reading and an excerpt

Read Ephesians 2:11-18

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations.

More thoughts for meditation

There seem to be few things as hard to come by in this world as peace. Peace between countries, peace between ethnicities, or even peace within us is illusive. War, violence and discontent thrive all around us. How can I be at peace when someone is shot at the end of my block? How can I be at peace when bombs fall over Gaza? How can I be at peace when I need to find the best job possible? How can I be at peace when I have no idea how my child will receive a good education where I live? The answer to all of these questions is probably “It is going to be difficult.” The world is full of worries that are legitimate and call for our attention.

The Christians in Ephesus probably had many things to worry about just as we do today. So when we read Paul’s letter to them it is saying something that was just as radical then as it is now:  Jesus is with you in your strife. In all of the turmoil of our world and day Christ is beside us. Jesus is calling us not to despair at the violence around us but to remember that his peace persists and that it is not a passive peace. It is an active peace that moves us towards God’s justice and love and that moves God’s justice and love into His creation.

In Christ we are free to act without the boundaries that politics, economics, ethnicity, or the law put around us.  This is the peace of Christ: the knowledge that no wall separates us from God or one another any longer. Even when we worry, God is with us. Even when we feel threatened, God is with us. Christ is our peace.

Suggestions for action

Pray: God, meet me in my exasperation. Show me the path to peace

Spend some time finding peace in the middle of difficulty. Invite Jesus into a stressful situation, whether it is in the future or right now. Where do you need God to give you peace?

 

July 23, 2014 — emancipator

Today’s Bible reading and and excerpt

Read Galatians 3:23-29

 Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed.  So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith.  Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

More thoughts for meditation

Paul is worked up. The church in Galatia is being led astray by an unknown person who is seeking to subject it to the law of the flesh. Paul is not having it. He is not having it for reasons made clear in verses 23-29, though you would do well to read the whole book as if no chapters or verses broke it up. This is one long, hot, Spirit-filled argument about the freedom Christ has brought to the world.

That freedom is being threatened by people who insist that Christians follow the law of Moses as it was passed down to the Jews of 1st century Palestine. Specifically, followers of Jesus are being convinced they need to accept circumcision. Paul is incredulous for two reasons. The first is that it is not by acts, but by faith that Christians receive what is promised to them by Jesus. He states two or three times that being circumcised or uncircumcised doesn’t even matter. It is moot. Jesus has come, and through faith in him we are made heirs to God’s kingdom. The second reason is that followers of Jesus are now free and not subject to the law.

To live under the law is to live as a slave or as a small child. Paul goes back and forth between the comforting image of having a guardian and the more striking one of a person enthralled. Before Christ, Jews and the whole world lived in slavery to “the elementary principles of the world.” In Christ, through the Spirit, we receive a fuller understanding. We can live as people who have the law written on our hearts, acting as agents of goodness, not mere aspirants, engaging as fully grown heirs in God’s Kingdom.

An heir in a kingdom has responsibilities and the freedom to carry them out. Whereas before we lived under the law, we are now empowered through the Holy Spirit, as Paul wrote in 2nd Corinthians, to be coworkers with God in his reconciliation work. We are free agents of God’s love, called to express it to the world and to welcome in as many people as we can. We were restrained from harm under the law. In Jesus we are freed to express the love of God to the world. Jesus is the actual great emancipator.

Suggestions for action

Pray: Thank you, Lord. Soften slavery’s grip on me so I can exercise my freedom to love like you.

Today, as you read this, you are free. You are not constrained by what others think of you, by the train schedule, or the deadline that looms over you. Rest in that freedom and act out of it. Love your coworkers instead of seeing them as necessary parts of a project. Be patient with the person walking slowly in front of you. You are an agent of God’s love.

July 22, 2014 — reconciliation

Today’s Bible reading 

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17-19).

More thoughts for meditation

For Paul, Jesus was the literal reconciliation of God with all of humanity. This was the central truth of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection: we, as human beings, now had access to a relationship with God that was impossible under the old law. Through Jesus we became coworkers in God’s project, empowered by the Spirit to create the church and express God’s will to the world. The joy and affirmation of this are captured earlier in his letter when he writes that “all the promises of God find their Yes in [Jesus].”

Being reconciled to God is fundamentally about saying yes just as God, according to Paul, has said yes to us in Jesus. We are not rejected because of sin or weakness; we are welcomed just as we are into the process of being made new. Christ did not die so that God could count our trespasses against us, he died so that we could be welcomed into God’s work of reconciliation with the world.

Understanding this can be difficult for modern, American Christians who have grown up in the turn or burn theology that dominated the public image of Christianity for the past century. In many people’s conception of Christ, his primary role was simply to save people from going to Hell and giving them access to Heaven. Heaven, of course, not being anything like the Earth we live in. The problem with this thinking is that it doesn’t address what Paul is saying in the actual Bible at all.

Christ’s resurrection was about empowering humanity in the here and now. Whether the here was Palestine ruled by Rome, or the right now when Israel continues its ground invasion of Gaza. We are called by Christ into the ministry of reconciliation because he has reconciled us to God. Our personal salvation may come along with this, but it is hardly all that God has in mind for us.

Suggestions for action

Pray: God, make me an instrument of reconciliation. Today, help me spread your peace

Be reconciled to God, today. That doesn’t just mean be holy, or sanctified, or any other loaded term. Before all those other things are possible, be reconciled to being loved by Jesus and to spreading his gospel of reconciliation. Where are there two sides needlessly in conflict? Where is there real conflict that needs Jesus’ presence? Bring Christ into the center of the divide and let him do the work with you, as he has promised to do.