Beyond “Plain Reading” — Readers’ Choice

Scripture Focus: Ephesians 5.21-25
21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. 
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.

Originally published on July 11, 2023, based on readings from Ephesians 5.

Readers’ Choice posts are selected by our readers:
Erin, Texas — Despite addressing this topic before, each year we need reaffirmation of the value of women in ministry. The debates were heightened over the summer when some churches were disfellowshipped for women pastors. Thank you for this encouragement! 

Brian, Washington D.C
. — Thank you for the gift of this reflection. The Word is the Word. And so many pastors jump past these verses and rush to a verse and declare that verse ends the conversation. Drives me nuts. The Bible can be blunt and direct and can also cause us to study and pray and think about what is in this holy text.

Reflection: Beyond “Plain Reading” — Readers’ Choice
By John Tillman

We often describe the Bible as a park in the midst of the city — a place of restoration and peace amidst the concrete-coated, steel-and-glass struggles of life.

Some Bible passages, however, are less like peaceful parks and more like battlegrounds. When passages have been weaponized and abused, how can we stop hearing them as weapons but as God’s word?

Today’s passage and other Pauline passages about women are such cases. One chapter of Confronting Christianity is “Doesn’t Christianity Denigrate Women?” In it, Rebecca McLaughlin mentions that Ephesians 5.22 repulsed her at first. It seemed hierarchical and prime for abuse.

One reason many think such passages are abusive is how some Christian voices interpret them. Using a “plain reading” they say Paul tells women to sit down. To shut up. To go home. Are they right?

We need to go beyond “plain reading” because the Bible is not plainly written. Peter points out that the difficulty of interpreting Paul leads to destruction. (2 Peter 3.15-17) Treating the Bible as clear-cut instructions which need no interpretation is foolish. Treating our interpretations as infallible is arrogant.

“Plain reading” conveniently lets us carry our prejudices and culture into scripture rather than reading the text in the context and culture of the writer. We better understand Paul’s words in the context of his actions. Are men to be lifted up and women to be pushed down? Did Paul intend that? Did Paul believe it? Did Paul enact it?

Paul’s treatment of women interprets his words about women. What women did in Paul’s ministry tells us how “submissive” women behave and what they do. Phoebe the deacon, Junia the apostle, Lydia the business owner and church founder, Priscilla the theological teacher…these are not rebels or heretics. They are women following Paul’s words, obeying his intent.

We need to read scripture humbly, contextually, and repeatedly. Don’t give up on passages that have been abused or argued over. The Bible has pearls of great price, treasures hidden in fields, and riches of wisdom to be mined. You’ll rarely strike gold with the first turn of a shovel or solve thorny theological problems with the first turn of a page. (Or 400 words of a devotional.)

We’ll find what Paul means by walking in the steps of Paul and of Jesus. With humility and patience, battlefields can once again become peaceful parks.

From John: To go more in depth on this issue and other challenging topics, I recommend McLaughlin’s book, Confronting Christianity. I am, through my church, helping lead a book club of atheists, agnostics, and deconstructed people discussing the book and it is an excellent place to start for those exploring challenging questions about Christianity.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Morning Psalm: The Sparrow has Found a Nest
…My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.
The sparrow has found her a house and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; by the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. — Psalm 84.1-2

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
1 Samuel 24 (Listen 3:36)
Revelation 4 (Listen 2:09)

Read more about None Excluded or Excused
For Paul, ministry was collaborative. Paul’s ministry team included all races, men and women, young people and elders, slaves and free, rich and poor.

Read more about No Asterisks
Deborah’s judgeship doesn’t deserve an asterisk…God did not “settle” for Deborah. He chose her.

Love One Another — Readers’ Choice

Scripture Focus: 1 Peter 3:8-9
8 Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. 9 Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. 

Originally published on November 9, 2022, based on readings from 1 Peter 3.

Readers’ Choice posts are selected by our readers:
Cheryl, South Dakota — Amen! And Amen!

Reflection: Love One Another — Readers’ Choice
By Erin Newton

If you took time to read all the verses that command God’s people to love one another and pursue peace, it would take quite a while. Love one another. (John 13.34-35) Show faithful love and compassion to one another. (Zechariah 7.9). Love one another deeply as brothers and sisters. (Romans 12.10). Let us consider one another in order to provoke love. (Hebrews 10.24) And on and on. Why the repetition? Wouldn’t one command have been enough?

People have always struggled in relationships. Families are broken. Friendships are strained. Neighbors are viewed as enemies. Since the breaking of peace in the Garden of Eden, humanity has been at odds with itself. This should not be so. This is the brokenness of our world.

After exhorting people in specific relationships, one last call to unity is given to the whole congregation. Peter reminds his church to seek what is good: Love. Sympathy. Compassion. Humility. Cautious words. Slowness to speak. Blessings to others.

We cannot blame our hatred, rudeness, malice, anger, or selfishness on ignorance. Too many commands have taught us to behave otherwise. Being a jerk is a conscious decision. We choose not to love someone. We choose not to speak kindly. We choose not to withhold insults.

For those who live in the United States, many will awaken to news of newly elected leaders. Some of the results will be for decisions or people we supported and others will not.

Over the last few years, culture has sunk into a climate of animosity. Our values and beliefs have turned us against one another. Sadly, it has seeped into our churches. Christians, united by the Holy Spirit, have turned against one another.

For our friends around the world, it will be another day with other concerns. No matter what the day brings, we still have the opportunity to choose our responses to one another.

Let us strive for something worthwhile. Let us strive for peace. If we are going to use up all our emotional energy targeting something, let it be with the energy of love and kindness. If we are going to be screaming, may it be words of life and encouragement. If we are going to focus our attention on someone for something they said, let us put our noses into our Bibles and read God’s words instead.

People will be watching us today and in the days to come. Be a worthy spectacle.

Divine Hours Prayer: A Reading
Jesus taught us, saying: Is a lamp brought in to be put under a tub or under the bed? Surely to be put on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, but it must be disclosed, nothing kept secret except to be brought to light. Anyone who has ears for listening should listen. — Mark 4.21-23

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
1 Samuel 23 (Listen 4:18)
Revelation 3 (Listen 3:53)

Read more about Confessing Hostility—Guided Prayer
Like rebellious, prodigal children, our hostility breaks fellowship with you and with our brothers and sisters.

Read The Bible With Us
Our Bible reading plan’s sustainable, two-year pace helps you find meaning without being overwhelmed. Join us.

Mistakes for Good? — Readers’ Choice

Scripture Focus: Genesis 48:17-19
17 When Joseph saw his father placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head he was displeased; so he took hold of his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. 18 Joseph said to him, “No, my father, this one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head.”
19 But his father refused and said, “I know, my son, I know. He too will become a people, and he too will become great. Nevertheless, his younger brother will be greater than he, and his descendants will become a group of nations.”

Originally published on February 15, 2023, based on readings from Genesis 48.

Readers’ Choice posts are selected by our readers:
Brian, Washington D.C. — Thanks for this reflection and your beautiful perspective. After years of thinking about what happened to the church where I worked…I have come to these conclusions: The Lord used the destruction of this congregation to scatter anointed lay people to other churches that needed fresh ideas and new gifts…And I learned about the grace of our Lord who loved the man who brought the damage. The Lord allowed him to learn and now he is a humble servant…And I learned about the grace of God for me, as I was filled with anger and judgment…God allowed me to see what He was doing so that I could gain wisdom and patience. God is good.

Reflection: Mistakes for Good? — Readers’ Choice
By Erin Newton

God can take something meant for evil and make it work for good. But what about mistakes? Can God take a human mistake and use it for good?

As Jacob lays on his deathbed, Joseph brings his two sons to see their dying grandfather. Jacob blesses the boys with promises given to his own sons. But the grandsons are blessed out of order! Ephraim, the younger, is given the elevated blessing, a firstborn’s portion. Manasseh, the oldest, is blessed as a second-born.

Jacob is blind, and Joseph assumes his crossed arms were an accident. Jacob continues by granting Ephraim the greater blessing.

Joseph only sees a mistake being made. (He even tries to jump in to correct his father.) He bases his assumptions on how things ought to be. He has done everything right, reconciled with his brothers, and visited his ailing father. This should be a straightforward situation; nothing can go wrong.

Like the story of Joseph’s enslavement and deportation to Egypt, God worked through situations that looked hopeless or bound for misery. We are accustomed to looking at tragedies and preaching to our hearts that God can work something good out of them. But what about things that look haphazard? What about the events that look like someone messed up? 

The text never really indicates if God divinely inspired Jacob to switch the blessing order or if a mistake was made that Jacob accepted. The blessing was done, and the results could not be changed.

How many times do we look at a situation and assume that someone has made a mistake? If it’s a small thing, we don’t give it a second thought. But what about the big mistakes—the doctor who missed a diagnosis, the airline that lost your luggage, the distracted driver that hit your car, or the cashier who overcharged you?

When these things happen, we fault the person for making a mistake. We think, “If only they had done it right, I wouldn’t be suffering right now!” We cling to an “if-only” faith.
Jesus was blamed for an “if-only” scenario. “If only you had been here, Lazarus would not have died” (John 11.32).

It is easier to blame someone for making a mistake rather than trusting God to work among errors. God works through perceived irregularities. Think of the “if-only” times in your life. Hear God say, “I know, son, I know.”

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Come and listen, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what he has done for me. — Psalm 66.14

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
1 Samuel 21-22 (Listen 6:35)
Revelation 2 (Listen 4:59)

Read more about Supporting Our Work
Our donors support ad-free content that brings biblical devotionals to inboxes across the world. Please consider joining them.

Read more about Becoming a Blessing
Our broken world seeks righteousness.
Bring it through us.
Our lost world seeks truth.
Speak it through us.

Urban Legends and Good Shepherds — Readers’ Choice

Scripture Focus: John 10.11-15
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.

Originally published on January 10, 2023, based on readings from John 10.

Readers’ Choice posts are selected by our readers:
Barbara, Tennessee — Wow, thank you, John! That is a terrible legend that I thought was legit animal husbandry! And it was taught to us by manipulative shepherds. Some of our adult children are still in need of the Lord for healing.

Brian, Washington D.C. — Thank you for this remarkable reflection. Such a good word for me today.

Jon, Hong Kong/TX — This is a nice piece. I think I may have been the one who told you it was Eddie Van Halen. At least, that was the story that I used to pass around as well.

Reflection: Urban Legends and Good Shepherds — Readers’ Choice
By John Tillman

In the 90s, listening to Phil Keaggy, I heard a story from a friend.

“Phil’s the world’s greatest guitarist. One night, on Johnny Carson, Jimi Hendrix was asked, ‘What’s it like to be the world’s greatest guitarist?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. Ask Phil Keaggy.’”

“So cool,” I thought at the time. I spread the tale often as I shared my love of Phil Keaggy.

Years later I heard another Keaggy fan begin the same story. I was shocked when, instead of Jimi Hendrix, it was Eddie Van Halen on the talk show. Every other detail was identical. My heart fell. I realized the stories weren’t true.

To put it kindly, they were urban legends. To be more direct, they were lies. Lies I had spread over and over. I felt sick and angry. My friends and I had been duped.

Worse than urban legends about guitarists are urban legends about God. Recently, I was reminded of an old “preacher story” about shepherds and lambs.

Supposedly, a shepherd would break a wandering lamb’s leg and carry it as the leg healed. By caring for the lamb and holding it close, it would bond with him and never wander again. This act of “tough love” allegedly explained how God wounds us to keep us close to him. Authoritative and abusive leaders have used this metaphor to justify “wounding” parishioners with “tough love” because they are “good shepherds.”

To put it kindly, this metaphor is a myth—a “rural legend” instead of an “urban” one. To be more direct, it is a lie. Nowhere in records of animal husbandry or the Bible is there a description of shepherds breaking the legs of sheep in this way. Worse than damaging our understanding of human shepherds, this story damages our understanding of Jesus, the true good shepherd.

Don’t be duped into thinking that Jesus treats his sheep in this way. Abusive “hired hands” may wound their sheep or leave them unprotected from the wolves. But Jesus, the good shepherd, rushes in to face the wolf.

Jesus doesn’t heal our wandering by breaking our legs. Jesus lays down his life for the sheep and by his stripes, we are healed. Jesus’ body is broken for his sheep, and by him we are whole.

You may have been wounded by a foolish or wicked shepherd. But you can still be healed by Jesus, the good shepherd.

Music: “Jesus Is The Great Shepherd” from Live From Lawrence, Kansas (November 1974) by Phil Keaggy and Paul Clark

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
O God, you have taught me since I was young, and to this day I tell of your wonderful works. — Psalm 71.17

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
1 Samuel 20 (Listen 6:3)
Revelation 1 (Listen 1:51)

Read more about Tendencies of Unfaithful Shepherds
May we, and our shepherds be more like Jesus. May we seek and support earthly shepherds like him.

Read The Bible With Us
It’s never too late to join our Bible reading plan. Immerse in the Bible with us at a sustainable, two-year pace.

Timbrels to Tears — Readers’ Choice

Scripture Focus: Judges 11.34-40
34 When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. 35 When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the LORD  that I cannot break.”

Originally published on July 28, 2023, based on readings from Judges 11.

Readers’ Choice posts are selected by our readers:
Erin, Texas — I appreciated the focus on the daughter’s faithfulness and how the community honored her despite her father’s hasty decision. It is a reminder of the goodness of God to look upon the vulnerable and those who are victims of others’ destructive decisions.

Reflection: Timbrels to Tears — Readers’ Choice
By Liz Daye
In a moment, everything changed. What was supposed to be a celebration, transformed into anguish. “Why?!” Jephthah lamented, tearing his clothes in grief. “My daughter, you have brought me disaster. You are the cause of my ruin!” Why did his daughter have to run out the front door and, in his words, ruin everything? He had crafted a plan, after all. If God granted him victory in battle, Jephthah vowed to offer the next thing that came out of his home as a sacrifice.

But who exited first? His only daughter.

Jephthah idolized the outcome of his victory. And I wonder what if instead of keeping his awful vow, Jephthah repented making it in the first place? Repentance framed by grace is an invitation that is always available. Jephthah missed it because of his own pride and fear. As I ponder Jephthah’s story, I can’t help but recall the times I have also attempted to negotiate with God for what I thought was a really good reason, whilst leaving God out of the conversation entirely.

Yet throughout Jephthah’s idolatrous plotting and failure to consider the possibility of her presence, God was noticeably silent. God never signed off on any of this mess. May this remind us that our faith is not a formula, nor is faithfulness a series of divine negotiations that we can manipulate to somehow land in our favor. What if faith is always an invitation towards humility and grace? 

And had Jephthah consulted God before making that vow, he would have remembered that God is in control, but not controlling. God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love;” love for Israel, for Jephthah, and for his daughter. And even after, repentance is always an option. Repentance is always available. Had repentance been present in this story, it bears wondering, how could it have altered the trajectory? But even here, we don’t have to wonder what God is like. Our heavenly Father would rather sacrifice himself than his children. In fact, that’s exactly what God did.

Like Miriam in the desert, Jephthah’s unnamed daughter was a timbrel towing prophetess. The daughters of Israel honored her legacy, rather than Jephthah’s. This annual remembrance points to a God who does not sign off on the sins we commit against one another, regardless of the skillfulness of our theological gymnastics. For God loves to lift the lowly.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Know this: The Lord himself is God; he himself has made us, and we are his; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture. — Psalm 100.2

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
1 Samuel 17 (Listen 8:59)
1 John 5 (Listen 3:00)

This Weekend’s Readings
1 Samuel 18 (Listen 4:30), 2 John (Listen 1:50)
1 Samuel 19 (Listen 3:43), 3 John (Listen 1:51)

Read more about Supporting Our Work
For less than a streaming subscription, you can support ad-free content that brings biblical devotionals to inboxes across the world. Please join our donors

Read more about Rulers with Borrowed Scepters
Jesus is the king we are waiting for—every other ruler is using a borrowed scepter.